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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Centennial Celebration of Panama Canal Revives Memories by Alva James-Johnson

When word arrived in Jamaica that the United States planned to cut a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, Alvano White packed his bags and traveled to a new country to make some money.

But never did he think that Panama would become the place where he would work construction jobs until retirement, raise Spanish-speaking children and eventually die and be buried.

"Most people who came from the islands to build the canal only thought one thing," said White's son, Dave, who lives in Inverarry. "They were going to make some money and go back home. But it never happened."

Today, Panama celebrates its centennial, and no one is more excited than the White family. To them, the country's independence on Nov. 3, 1903, was a momentous event that changed their parents and grandparents' lives.

They see the centennial as an opportunity to celebrate their role in the construction of one of the greatest engineering achievements in the world.

"We're proud because we know that the canal was brought about with the blood, sweat and tears of our forefathers," said Dave White, who returned to Panama with his wife and daughter last week to participate in centennial festivities. "They made supreme sacrifices, some to the point of death, in construction of this engineering marvel."

The Panama Canal links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, saving ships the time and travel around South America. The country's independence from Colombia, which was key to the canal's construction, is a source of national pride for most Panamanians -- a diverse population of Indians, blacks, whites and people of mixed races -- as they reflect on a bloodless revolution that made their country an international transportation center.

Engineers had dreamed of building the canal for centuries before a French company tried in 1882 and failed. The United States saw a canal as beneficial to its national defense and embarked on a plan to pick up where the French left off.

Panama, at the time, was a province of Colombia.

When the United States couldn't get the South American country to cooperate with plans for the canal, it backed the Panamanians in their revolution against the country and gained control over the waters of the Western Hemisphere. In 1999, the United States transferred control of the canal to the Panamanian government, making it even more of a national treasure.

Rollin Jewett, 43, a former Fort Lauderdale resident who lives in Los Angeles, is the grandson of one of the leaders of the revolution and the country's first president, Manual Amador Guerrero. He and Debra Ables, who agreed to marry him on the shores of Miami Beach two years ago, left for Panama last week to get married in the country as part of the centennial celebration.

"I'm just very proud and thrilled to be related to such a man," Jewett said of his grandfather. "Apparently he was a great statesman, a great diplomat and a very courageous person for taking on the role that he took because it could have cost him his life."

Maida Watson, chairwoman of the modern language department at Florida International University and an expert in Panamanian literature, grew up in Panama City from 1946 to 1962 with her Panamanian mother and American father. She said the country's break from Colombia was always a source of national pride.

"It was Panama's chance to become a modern country and associated with world trade," she said. "By the time I grew up it was already a path between the seas and an international center."

But many of the people who helped make it so faced many challenges. More than 25,000 construction workers from English- and French-speaking Caribbean islands were recruited to dig what became known as "the big ditch." They worked under merciless sun in the steamyjungle, swatting away swarms of mosquitoes that carried malaria and yellow fever.

The laborers also faced the hazards of dynamite explosions and landslides. It's estimated that about 6,000 people were killed by the time the project was finished in 1914.

Alvano White arrived in 1904, and settled in the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone.

His daughter-in-law, Dorotea White, whose grandparents and parents also settled there, said it was like living in an "oasis in the desert, being that the American government took care of that area and it flourished better than other parts of the country."

In the Canal Zone where black workers lived, they earned lower wages and lived in shabbier quarters than their white counterparts.

"My father and the others received $25 a month from the U.S. government for retirement," Dave White said. "Inspectors came around to see how well off they were, and if they had a refrigerator or other modern facilities, they would cut down the pay. It created a bit of resentment."

Still, Panama became home to the families of the construction workers, and they formed a tight-knit community, with lodges, churches and other centers of activity. Many of the workers' descendants eventually benefited from the sacrifices that the black workers made.

In 1947, Dave White secured a job with the U.S. government's logistics department, where he retired in 1990 as a procurement contracting officer. In 1949, he married Dorotea, and they had four daughters.

"We feel strongly about Panama," Dave White said last week before leaving for the celebration. "Returning will be like a big reunion."

Alva James-Johnson is a staff writer for the Sun-Sentinel and can be reached at

Note: This article first appeared in The Sun-Sentinel

Copyright 2003, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.

Tuesday, November 4, 2003

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