Off Assignment: Letter To A Stranger



I was in the crowd near the steps of the administration building the day the Panama Canal was handed back to the Panamanians. December 31, 1999. Just minutes before the countdown clock ticked off its final seconds, I watched protestors march toward the building, dragging an American soldier burning in effigy. From a distance, it was hard to decipher what they were yelling. A large hand-painted banner reading “Yanqui Go Home” pulled the garbled chanting into focus. Yankee go home. The phrase was repeated over and over, in spite of the fact that, by then, most Zonians—Americans who resided in the Canal Zone—had already packed up and left. My brother-in-law, who is Afro-Panamanian and a Canal engineer, had asked me to stay close, not to wander away as I was prone to do. Then he dropped his hat onto my head, hiding my red hair, minimizing my otherness.

With no warning, as if to cool things down, a tropical rainstorm cracked open the sky, unleashing buckets of water. The crowd soaked up the cool wetness, shouting in unison—Cinco, cuatro, tres, dos, uno. Tears and raindrops streamed down faces as people watched their country’s flag assume its rightful place atop the historic Administration building. Hundreds of balloons were released. With that, the divisive story of the US-run Canal Zone also came to an end. This American colony-of-sorts, which had occupied hundreds of miles of prime Panamanian territory since Teddy Roosevelt “took” it from Colombia in 1904, was American no more.

“The Canal wall rose behind you, fifty feet into the air. Standing against it, you were a miniature, a tiny giant, powerful enough to reshape the waterway connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific—the path between the seas.”

In the decades that followed, my relationship with the country evolved. Intellectual curiosity gave way to a deeper intimacy. America was reframed as América, pushing the boundaries of my limited perspective. There had been speculation that Panama would fail at running the canal once the US pulled out. National pride stood strong against low expectations. Not only did things continue to run smoothly, but in 2007, a major expansion was approved. Close to 6 billion dollars was allocated to accommodate a growing number of oversized ships no longer built to Panamax standards—specific dimensions required to move through the Canal. I had once taken a partial transit on a tugboat and watched in awe as this small vessel accompanied a large ship and helped position it for safe entry into the canal’s narrow locks. A few years later, the expansion underway, I was introduced to a senior canal official who granted me access to this massive construction project in progress.

That’s where I spotted you—inside of this Modern Wonder of the World. It didn’t seem like you were on a break. It seemed more like a moment of meditation. Dozens of workers were drilling, excavating, dragging cable, pouring concrete—they were building a city that would soon be submerged. You stood apart, alone, hardhat in hand. The Canal wall rose behind you, fifty feet into the air, if not more. Standing against it, you were a miniature, a tiny giant, powerful enough to reshape the waterway connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific—the path between the seas.

I was transfixed by your stance. In you, I saw a statue that deserved to be crafted. Neither in stone nor in clay, had anyone honored the original canal workers—the ones that looked like you, black workers known as Diggers. My husband’s grandfather was a Digger, originally from the West Indies, as many Diggers were. He was on the “silver roll”—which refers to how workers of color were paid. White canal workers were paid in gold. Were you the grandson of a Digger? Were you being paid fairly now?

The van I was in, filled with mucky mucks and VIP’s, traversed the dry canal basin. A monotone expanse of grey rock was broken up by pops of color: green cranes, bright yellow safety vests, fluorescent orange cones. The expansion project was already besieged by rumors of corruption, assertions that mistakes were being made—concrete wasn’t being poured correctly, danger lay ahead. Our guides, representatives of the Panama Canal Authority, assured us that wasn’t the case. By their accounts, things were on track. I asked if anyone had been killed yet, knowing the original Canal construction was linked to thousands of deaths, disproportionately black. “Six people,” I was told. “Impressive,” someone said before changing the subject.

A distant relative of the historic Canal figure, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla of France, was sitting next to me in the van. He was proud of this blood connection and found every opportunity to make sure we all knew it. 20,000 people died when the French tried but failed to build the Canal, but of course my seatmate never mentioned that. Nor did he share how Bunau-Varilla helped the US manipulate Panama’s split from Colombia to further their agenda. I thought about challenging his questionable narrative but decided to avoid conversation, pressing my face against the glass instead. I could still hear his stories. He shared them with anyone who would listen. A man seated just across the aisle seemed spellbound. Or, perhaps, he was just being polite and had nowhere to turn.

When the van rolled to a stop, there you were, a few feet away, framed within my window. Our eyes met. I wanted to get out, but it wasn’t allowed. I wanted to hear you tell the story of the work being done, of your history with the Canal, of your family ties. I also needed you to know that I was family of sorts. I wasn’t like the other van passengers, in spite of my whiteness, in spite of my North American, USA-ness. But I had to remind myself, those were my needs. They weren’t yours. You were expanding a canal, creating a passageway wide enough for millions of ships and stories to move through.

(Published in Off Assignment, 8/2/18)