In Panama, the `Zonian' spirit

Sun Journal

Canal: Residents of `America in the tropics' wonder what will happen to their strip of civilization when U.S. control ends Dec. 31.

May 08, 1999|By Juanita Darling | Juanita Darling,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BALBOA, Panama -- Their culture began disappearing 20 years ago, and by the end of this year it will be completely gone. No one even considered trying to save it.

Theirs was a tiny civilization of fewer than a million people that existed on a narrow strip of land for a few generations, not quite spanning the 20th century.

In fact, it was in many ways the ultimate expression of what has been called the American Century: a bit of Americana tucked into the tropics that, perhaps appropriately, will be erased with barely a trace Dec. 31 when Panama takes over the canal from the United States.

All that will remain will be the annual reunion party, a few World Wide Web sites and the rich memories of the people who call themselves Zonians, the inhabitants of the old Panama Canal Zone.

Extending five miles along each side of the waterway, the zone was the absolute company town, a U.S. territory that housed the people who ran and protected the canal.

For Panamanians, it became a slash that divided their country, a visible reminder of U.S. domination. The zone was officially eliminated in 1979, two years after then-Presidents Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos signed a treaty promising that Washington would gradually turn over control of the canal to Panama over two decades.

That's when the diaspora began: Retired electrician Robert Christenson moved to Texas and Scott Foster, a fourth-generation Zonian, to California. Dave Furlong joined the military and ended up in Guam. Some Zonians tried to re-create their community in Orlando, Fla., the site of the annual reunion that draws 100 or more expatriates.

A few, like childhood friends Peggy Acker and Kay Hamilton, stayed in Panama to teach on the military bases that are all that is left of the zone. This month, when the last class graduates from Balboa High School, the teachers will be transferred to bases far from Panama.

"Even though we may no longer be here, the spirit is being kept alive," says Acker. "Even just the word `Zonian.' All of us growing up down here were such a close-knit, extended family. That is the spirit."

Over the decades, Zonians developed their own culture, a mixture of Panama and Americana.

George C. Zidbeck, grandson of a machinist who arrived in Panama in 1907 to help build the canal, recalls a childhood of saying the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning and playing "tree tag" in the jungle in the afternoon. The banyan trees in his neighborhood grew so thick that children could jump from branch to branch, not touching the ground for hours.

Roads literally melted in the Panama heat. In addition to cats and dogs, favored pets included sloths, parrots and monkeys.

Life here moved to a calypso beat, and even Zonians who barely spoke Spanish took pride in their salsa dancing moves.

Patricia Egger, whose grandparents moved to Panama when her parents were children, discovered subtle divisions when she went away to college in 1963.

"Everybody in Panama had pierced ears," common in Latin culture, she says. But at the University of Arkansas, "I was told that nice girls didn't pierce their ears." She had to wear clip earrings to be accepted.

Going barefoot and feeling safe are common threads in Zonian memory. Theirs was a well-ordered society, like some Greek city-state where troublemakers were banished.

"We were raised [thinking], `Don't get into trouble, because your dad could lose his job and we would get shipped out,' " Egger says.

Luke Lambert, now in his 60s, knows that was no idle threat. When he was 16, he argued with a canal zone police officer. "He hit me with a stick, and I hit him back," he recalls. "They deported me from the canal zone," allowing his father to keep his job only on the condition that Lambert leave home.

Assimilating into Panama proper was no easy task for the third-generation Zonian, who had attended canal zone schools and spoke little Spanish. Even after he was accepted back into the canal zone family, Lambert made sure that his own eight sons learned Spanish.

Zonians are reluctant to discuss some aspects of their society. Particularly delicate is "the enormous discrepancy between black and white society along the same jungle corridor," as it was termed by David McCullough, author of "Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal."

What McCullough calls a "rigid caste society" began with the canal's construction. Unskilled West Indian laborers -- recruited mainly from Barbados, Martinique and Guadeloupe -- were paid in Panamanian silver balboas. Skilled Americans were paid in gold-backed U.S. dollars.

The "gold" and "silver" standards persisted throughout the zone's existence, largely because they were nominally based on citizenship, not race. Americans lived in gold towns, with their own schools and playgrounds, and were eligible for better-paying jobs. Heavy labor was for the West Indians workers' descendants, who lived in silver towns.

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