The Silver Women: How Black Women’s Labor Made the Panama Canal

The Silver Women: How Black Women’s Labor Made the Panama Canal, by Joan Flores-Villalobos, was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in January 2023. The author will give a virtual talk hosted by the Levan Institute for the Humanities at the University of Southern California on Monday, May 8, 2023, at 12:00pm (PT). To attend the virtual talk, please, register. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

Praise: Laurie R. Lambert (author of Comrade Sister: Caribbean Feminist Revisions of the Grenada Revolution) writes, “Joan Flores-Villalobos moves deftly across a rich set of archival sources to uncover the complexities of West Indian women’s social reproduction in the Panama Canal Zone. The Silver Women exposes how Black women negotiated suspicion, hostility, and even criminalization, in the process of migrating to make a life for themselves and their kin. A necessary perspective on West Indian women’s efforts to sustain their communities while also resisting American imperialist control over their labor and personal lives.”

Description: The construction of the Panama Canal is typically viewed as a marvel of American ingenuity. What is less visible, and less understood, is the project’s dependence on the labor of Black migrant women. The Silver Women shifts the focus of this monumental endeavor to the West Indian women who travelled to Panama, inviting readers to place women’s intimate lives, choices, grief, and ambition at the center of the economic and geopolitical transformation created by the construction of the Panama Canal and U.S. imperial expansion.

Joan Flores-Villalobos argues that Black West Indian women made the canal construction possible by providing the indispensable everyday labor of social reproduction. West Indian women built a provisioning economy that fed, housed, and cared for the segregated Black West Indian labor force, in effect subsidizing the construction effort and the racial calculus that separated pay in silver for Black workers and gold for white Americans. But while also subject to racial discrimination and segregation, West Indian women mostly worked outside the umbrella of U.S. canal authorities. They did not hold contracts, had little access to official services and wages, and received pay in both silver and gold. From this position, they found ways to skirt, and at times subvert, the legal, moral, and economic parameters imperial authorities sought to impose on the migrant workforce. West Indian women developed important strategies of claims-making, kinship, community building, and market adaptation that helped them navigate the contradictions and violence of U.S. empire. In the meantime, these strategies of social reproduction nurtured further West Indian migrations, linking Panama to places like Harlem and Santiago de Cuba.

The Silver Women is thus a history of Black women’s labor of social reproduction as integral to U.S. imperial infrastructure, the global Caribbean diaspora, and women’s own survival.

Joan Flores-Villalobos is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California.

The Silver Women: How Black Women’s Labor Made the Panama Canal
Joan Flores-Villalobos
University of Pennsylvania Press, January 2023
296 pages
ISBN 9781512823639 (hc)
For more information, see

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