- Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal by Marixa Lasso
Panama, blessed as an isthmus, once served as the linchpin of the United States empire. During the construction of the Panama Canal, the U.S.-run Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) expelled over 60,000 people from Panamanian towns in the Canal Zone. On the heels of Progressive ideals at home, U.S. canal administrators created a zone of “desire” for white Americans and Europeans and one of “denial” for “tropical” Panamanians (9–10). Marixa Lasso is the first to unearth this captivating story. She reveals how the depopulation of the Zone is a story of political and ideological decisions, and not the result of any technical needs. In so doing, Lasso debunks the myth that these towns had to be flooded to build the canal, and instead, offers an account of how Americans erased Panamanian culture in order to “civilize” the isthmus (17).
Much as they viewed Cubans, Filipinos, or Hawaiians, canal officials saw Panamanians – and the scores of West Indian laborers used to build the waterway – as ignorant peoples unfit for self-government. Yet Lasso shows that those who called the Zone home before its Americanization were actually part of a modern society. By the mid-nineteenth century, Panamanians had taken advantage of their geography and built a sophisticated service industry for travellers on the isthmus. Certain pre-canal towns, notably Empire and Gorgona, were hubs for transportation networks that connected the oceans long before canal construction began. Panama’s people, as Lasso argues, developed a modern capitalist nation rife with vendors, artisans, engineers, farmers, and boatsmen. She uses their stories, and more, to reveal that Panama’s port cities and interior towns “had never been quaint or traditional” (21). As technology advanced, Panamanians adapted. The railroad brought increased traffic to the isthmus, and with it, locals learned new skills and enhanced their economy.
These Panamanian towns also embraced republicanism. Unlike those in the United States, Panamanians enjoyed equality before the law regardless of skin color. Many isthmian towns practiced a style of self-government that incorporated racial minorities as community leaders. White American observers denigrated Panama’s democracy, classifying their government as “a young republic in need of mentoring” and the locals as primitive natives doomed by their “tropical” environments (45, 68). Many Westerners considered Panama’s climate and people to be unsuitable for agriculture, opting instead to import U.S. foodstuffs. American travellers judged their counterparts with stereotypes that harped on the lack of technology in Panama’s towns. To remedy this “problem,” U.S. investors imported industrial goods and technology into Panamanian route towns. This influx of Western civilization, as U.S. officials described [End Page 174] it, excluded Latino and black workers – a racism that enabled white North Americans to “erase” Panamanians by flooding their towns and ignoring their modern society.
As the United States consolidated its control over the isthmus, Panamanians struggled to retain autonomy over ports and towns. They contended that their use of the isthmus for transportation and trade made them modern, but U.S. officials pushed back. North American doctors believed they had proven their mastery over the tropics by conquering yellow fever and malaria. The ICC saw their police force, segregated buildings, and municipal structure as models of American Progressivism. After years of “American” and “native” sections in the Zone, the ICC deemed locals unable to comply with U.S. sanitation regulations. For Zone officials, Panamanians were now undesirable “occupants.” The best available solution, as Lasso asserts, was to depopulate the Zone of non-whites. Officials did not mention depopulation as a practical necessity for the canal as they gave the depopulation order in 1912. The reasons for such were “deeply racial,” as Lasso concludes, and permitted North American whites to purport that they had transformed an ‘untouched’ Panama into a specimen of modernity (149).
Lasso uses letters, tax records, and diaries to bring in the silenced voices of the lost towns of the Canal Zone. In so doing, Lasso reveals the roles that...