Interview with Melva Lowe De Goodin

INTERVIEWER: Where were you born and what was it like during that time?

Goodin: I was born in what was known as the Panama Canal Zone, the sector of the Canal Zone that was designated for the West Indian immigrants. I was born in a town that was called Red Tank that no longer exists. It’s not very far from Pedro Miguel locks. But I grew up in another town known as La Boca, which exists now, but exists with a different configuration, so to speak. At the time when I grew up, it was one of the communities for the Panamanian West Indian workers and we lived there until about 1955 or ‘56, then we moved to another Canal Zone town called Paraíso where I completed my Junior High and High School.

INTERVIEWER: What was it like growing up in the Canal Zone?

Goodin: There was a library available in the Paraíso Community right close to the school. I was very fond of books. I remember always going to the library on a Friday and coming out with about 4, 5 books and spending my weekend reading. That was the time before TV so that was my entertainment. So I think that the fact that I grew up with books and reading was my entertainment for me. And the fact that the library was right there in the school premises within walking distance. That was a big help for me. That was my fondest memories.

INTERVIEWER: So tell me what was your favorite book?

Goodin: I remember reading the Nancy Drew stories. I just read all of these short stories. And as I grew older, I started getting the romantic stories. My father was a big fan of the Ebony Magazine. So we always looked forward… At that time it had a bigger format, a different format. And we always looked forward to him bringing home Ebony Magazine. We always looked forward to him bringing home the Star Herald and the Panama Tribune. We fought over who would read it first. It was fun for us to follow what appeared in the newspaper and the comic strips and some of the publications that he brought home.

INTERVIEWER: Who were some of your best friends and what were they like?

Goodin: Another thing I liked about the town where I grew up, in Paraíso particularly was there was a tennis court and a swimming pool on the premises. So I learned to swim in High School and I started playing tennis from when I was about 12 years old. Some of my friends were people that I played tennis with also. I was also into music at the time. My mother sent me to play piano lessons; I studied with Judith Seward for many years. I then I went to the conservatory of Panama. Then once we got into High School, I started to play the violin. Played in the school orchestra or band or however you call it. Those were some of the pleasant experiences that I had. And of course we had the little Methodist Church on the Hill. That was a very important part of my formation because my mother and father both insisted that we grow up in the church. We were Methodists and the Church contributed a lot to my formation in terms of enabling me to develop leadership qualities. When I was in my teens, mid teens, 16, 17, I had formed a girls friendly group with younger girls in the church and we had programs that consisted of music and dancing and poetry readings and that sort of things. So that was a part of my early training for leadership.

INTERVIEWER: What music and poetry do you remember you all being interested in?

Goodin: It depends where we were. If we were in church we were dealing with the Methodist Hymn Book, which comes out of Great Britian, via the Caribbean and so the traditional hymns that Methodist people sing. That’s the type of music we dealt with in Church. Once I started playing music in school, we dealt with more classical music.

But at home, I remember my father always liked Spirituals. He liked Black American music. So he always had Spirituals, Mahalia Jackson, those types of music playing. He also liked a lot of Calypso. My father also danced Quadrille too. And so he collected a lot of the Quadrille music as well so we heard a lot of that music at home too. So I would say we had quite a variety of music where we grew up. But at home is where we’d hear the popular music. Except on Sundays. Because in our home, we always played religious music on Sundays.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me about your parents and grandparents, what are/were they like?

Goodin: My parents were both born in Panama. But their parents were born in Jamaica (as was the tradition when their parents came to Panama). The social services, health care, education were not very available, not very well provided for. So many of the men preferred that their wives take the children back to Jamaica for schooling, because the schools there were not that many schools in Panama or in the terminal cities in Panama or Colon and it was a fight to get in. And sometimes these schools did not want to accept English-speaking people. So many of the WI workers at the time, once their children get to school age they’d send them back o the islands. And that’s how my parents went back to Jamaica for schooling.

My mother’s story’s somewhat sad because her mother came to Panama and she had 3 children for Richard Wilson. So Richard said well go back and get the children in school and I’ll follow you back 6 months later. Well, Richard never went back to Jamaica. He stayed in Panama and had another family. I think he didn’t provide for the three girls he had with Aida Blanche Winter Wilson. So Aida had to go out to work in home, and she had to find families to place my mother and my Aunts. That had been very painful for my mother. I think she cried for it until she died which was not very long ago. She has had those painful memories.

INTERVIEWER: Did your friends or other people in the community have similar painful experiences because of the separation….?

Goodin: I’m sure [my friends or other people in the community have similar painful experiences because of] separation of their families… people going and coming. Some of them stayed here. And some of the men went back. And some of the women came. So there were mixed experiences. Which is why in the book I wrote from Barbados to Panama are some of the hardships that many of our West Indian immigrants faced once they immigrated to Panama. That it wasn’t all the Colon man with the gold buckle and everything was fine. They suffered from diseases, accidents, and the break up of the family was one of the very painful effects of this migration.

My father also went back. I think his father died young so we don’t know much about his father. But his mother was here, but once he came back from Jamaica he started to take care of his mother. He was almost a mama’s boy. He took good care of his mother.

INTERVIEWER: And what was school like? How and who were your teachers…What things do you remember about your time as a school child?

Goodin: I attended the Panama Canal Company schools. I remembered attending school in La Boca, primary school and high school in Paraíso. I had very productive experiences. Most of my teachers were WI Panamanian teachers. They spoiled me because I was always very interested in learning. I was always active so they nurtured me. They helped to prepare me to go on to college.

INTERVIEWER: So what are you favorite foods and how did you come to like them so much?

Goodin: I grew up eating mostly the kind of Panamanian West Indian cuisine that’s very popular now. Rice and what we call gungu peas. What is known in Panama as arroz con gandu. Coconut rice. Rice with coconut and red peas which I like even better. My mother always made red pea stew with the pig tail and the beef. My mother was also very good at making dumplings. My mother was also very good at making ackee and codfish. She does it with bacon and green banana real Jamaican style and I love that.

As I grew older I learned to eat other kinds of WI foods even though we never ate them at home as much like Saus. I don’t think saus comes out of Jamaica. But I learned it from other members of the community. We didn’t eat cucu and fried fish in our house. I never really developed a taste for Mondongo, tripe. But my mother-in-law loves it. Oxtail, when I was growing up I never ate oxtail. But mostly it’s the WI, WI Panamanian cuisine that I love.

INTERVIEWER: Have you ever heard of Louise Bennett, and what sort of thoughts come to mind when you hear that name?

Goodin: I always think of my mother. Because Louise and my mother were classmates. My mother always talked about when they were in school, how it easy it was for Louise to make a jingle or make a poem using the Jamaican vernacular language. As I grew older and started collecting her poems. When we were young there was one thing that my mother and father tried to maintain our contact with the island Jamaica. We made one trip in 1956 as a whole family we went on a boat. We traveled by boat, the whole family, to Jamaica and we stayed there for 6 months. I had an Aunt who lived in JA who was a schoolteacher. So when we arrived she put us in school and made sure we attended many of the cultural events. So we would attend when Louise was reading sometimes. We sometimes went to the pantomime that they had back then. We really got a good sense of Jamaican culture and a good appreciation for Jamaican culture and for some of its artists and Louise Bennett was one. I always admired her skill with words and just how humorous she could be. I also remember in Jamaica enjoying reading Leandro, a little comic caricature at the time. They’d always come out with things that were current and social critique, but in a very humorous way using the Jamaican vernacular language. And I admire Louise Bennett for her skill in brining that forward and demanding the respect for it. It pleases me now that when she performed I think in Toronto there were so many people who went to see her. People appreciate it I have videos, books, tape recordings of her work. She has been a person that’s very close to us culturally.

INTERVIEWER: Have you ever heard of the Mighty Sparrow and what role did he play?

Goodin: Oh, yes, my father always had the mighty sparrow records. I don’t think we dealt with tapes at that time. 78 45 records especially. Whatever new from the mighty Sparrow, my dad would get it and we’d be singing it. Again we grew up with Calypso from the Mighty Sparrow.

[Interviewer asks if she can recall any songs/lines to his songs, Melva can’t remember any specifically mentions the generally story behind one song in particular.]

INTERVIEWER: So how would you classify yourself in terms of identity? Does it vary in different circumstances?

Goodin: I suppose at my age, it can’t vary too much. [LAUGHS]. I am a Panamanian West Indian, racially black, culturally mixed. Because I acknowledge the Caribbean influences, the European influences, the African, and the Latino influences because of living in Panama and the Spanish environment in which I am. Culturally, I know I’m mixed. Racially, I know I’m mixed as well. But I think I project more of an African racial image, so I identify racially as African. But culturally, I say I’m black, Latina…uh Caribbean, uh and that’s how I… . In Panama sometimes they call us Panameños afro antillanos which is Panamanians of Afro Caribbean descent. The strongest influences in me are the racial ones. You know, my African past. African in the very broad sense including Africans in the Diaspora Caribbean. Since I spent so much time in the United States and among African Americans there, I identified pretty strongly with the African Americans when I was in the United States. The African dimension is very important in my life.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think are the general perceptions of blacks in Panamanian society?

Goodin: It depends on which group. I don’t think there’s just one perception. I think there’s a variety of perceptions. Black is just now, I think in Panamanian society we are learning to appreciate Black and not always have it be identified with what is negative. That is a struggle that those of us in SAMAAP, this is a struggle that we have had over the past 25, 26 years of the existence of the group. We have wanted Panamanians to realize the subtle or not so subtle ways of discriminating or just projecting black people in the society. That we’re not all lazy, uneducated, we’re not all poor. We need to be respected.

I know 25 years ago, I drove a Peugot and the police would stop me and ask me whose car it was. And now that I drive a brand new Honda they no longer stop and ask me. They assume that it’s mine. That has changed b/c they have seen so many black people owning cars. 25, 30 years ago, there was that perception by the law that if I was driving a nice car that it had to be stolen or borrowed from somebody. Because blacks were not identified as being rich.

We still have a lot of work to do in terms of removing some of the stereotypes, stereotypes where we use terms like ‘negrear’ to mean to exclude. We need to stop doing that because it reinforces some of the negative stereotypes associated with blacks.

INTERVIEWER: And what do you think the perceptions of English speakers in Panama whether black or white?

Goodin: You know language very often is used politically. That happens in the US in all over the world. When we have political entities that are formed out of the conglomeration of people, there has to be one language that serves as a lingua franca and then that language empowers the people who speak it. In the early years of Panama, because of the building of the Canal, the presence of the Americans, the presence of so many English speaking Caribbeans because of the Canal. English started becoming very pervasive in the society. And this scared the leaders of Panama. Because in our 1904 Constitution, there wasn’t anything that said we had an official language. But I think that the fact that English was then becoming such a pervasive language in the society, by the time they wrote the next constitution in 1941 or several laws in between then we acquired an official language of Spanish and then it was emphasized that Spanish was the official language.

And during those early years there was a lot of discriminatory treatment towards my parents and grandparents and those who spoke English to the point where several generations of West Indians Panamanians who have grown up not speaking English because their parents wanted them to be integrated in society and didn’t want them to suffer any discriminatory treatment. So they spoke to them in English only and they developed very negative attitudes towards English. During the time when we were trying to get control of the Canal there was an anti American campaign going on. An off-shoot of the campaign was those people who speak English were looked not very favorably. So then again you get a generation of people who shied away from speaking English just so that they would fit in politically and integrate to the society.

Goodin: Now that we have control of the Canal now everybody’s seeing the need for English. And we have the unfortunate thing that those of us of Afro Caribbean descent who had parents or grandparent who spoke English many of those people didn’t give their grandchildren or great grands the language and those people now are at a disadvantage now at getting jobs and doing well in school. And so you know, we keep getting the short end of the stick so to speak. Because at one time we were so eager to fit in that we shied away from using our mother tongue. And then once we grew up then we saw that oh its important to know English.

Carlos Russell writes a poem “Quien soy?” He says “Dizque Arias, habla ingles. Yo no. My name is Jones. Yo no hablo ingles.” So that’s the kind of confusion that has existed. Now that did not affect those of us who grew up in the Canal Zone communities because most of us spoke English in those communities. And we did suffer discriminatory treatment because our Spanish wasn’t as good. And they laughed at us and made fun of us. And we felt somewhat ashamed at speaking Spanish because of that. There are all these different identity crises that we go through.

Now there’s the American brand of English versus the Caribbean brand that our grandparents spoke. And I can tell that many of the younger people didn’t want to speak English because they didn’t want to speak like their grandparents and be laughed at by the other members of society. And since maybe they didn’t have the money to go to private schools and acquire that American English. So they preferred just to speak Spanish. I remember when my nieces and nephews were young, my mother kept speaking to them in English and they would always answer in Spanish. They always did it. I think it was good that she kept speaking to them in English. I think that language was recorded mentally because once they went to a bilingual school the English just came. So even if they…what happens is that many of our parents and grandparents they give in and just speak to them in Spanish.

INTERVIEWER: Are you married? How did you meet your husband?

Goodin: There’s a Jamaican saying, What is fi you, can be un fi you. So it just seems his mother’s words were prophetic….

INTERVIEWER: Do you have children? Tell me about them.

Goodin: [I have] one son Kwaminah, 35 years old.

INTERVIEWER: Does he speak English? Why do you think this is? Have you ever spoken to him about his language choice?

Goodin: English has been his first language. He picked up Spanish second from TV and going to school in Panama. But we, Orville and I, always spoke to him in English. Our home language is in English. And my mother and father lived close to us most of the time and so they communicated with him in English. His first language is English. He’s also equally strong in Spanish. So he’s quite bilingual. One thing I noticed about him, living in Florida he identifies… I remember when I lived in United States, which was 30 some years ago; I mostly identified African American most of the time. And probably things have changed. Although he identifies Afro-Caribbean he also identifies strongly Latino.

INTERVIEWER: So what specific message do you like to communicate to the other generations whether it’s the younger generations or the older generations?

Goodin: I’d like to communicate [to the other generations whether it’s the younger generations or the older generations] that we should be proud of who we are. But I suppose it’s easier said than done. I think we have to know a little bit about ourselves to be proud about who we are. It’s a struggle that you and a number of people like myself are involved in. You know pulling out our history whether in an oral form or a written form so that our younger people will get a little bit about our heritage and to be proud of who we are. I think it’s also important for us to never lose sight of the value of education. I think many of our forefathers placed a greater store on education than some of the younger families that I see today that has been I think one of the keys to our successors’ survival. The older generation, the parents of the younger generation to place a higher value on education and a higher value on …

I also believe in strong families and strong communities. I believe working within community groups to develop networks so that we can be helpful to each other. No man is an island. If we’re gonna achieve we have to bond together. And we have to get to a certain level of achievement. So I would like to stimulate that level of cohesiveness in our community.

[Interviewer asks about her age, education, profession. Melva’s answers are listed at the beginning of this interview:

D.OB. April 1945
Highest Degree Earned MA, University of Wisconsin in English Literature
Profession: English Professor at University of Panama, previously person who developed the English curriculum at FS. Teaching people the language and how to appreciate literature. “I have been trying to encourage people in our communities to produce written works.”

Address: “Right now I live in the outskirts, Chanis, which is part of Parque Lefevre Corregimiento of Panama City.”]

INTERVIEWER: Anything you would like to speak on that you feel I’ve left out?

Goodin: [The] founding of SAMAAP which is my pet organization. It came out of a need that I felt to pay tribute to the work our ancestors have done to make our country what it is. And we felt that if we don’t toot our own horns, no one will toot our horns for us. So when the museum was founded, and we saw that there wasn’t enough funds to keep it going, we realized that if we didn’t do something as a community to raise funds to keep it going it would die and we wouldn’t have a national tribute our forefathers have done in building the Canal and building the railroad and so many other projects here in Panama. So once the director of the museum worked with us in starting our group and it was established in 1981. And I’m really very proud to see that it has maintained a leadership role in the black community in Panama. We meet every single week and we have our Gran Feria Afro Antillano. This is our 26th year. What is unique about this group I think is that many of the founding members have continued to work within the group. That is we don’t have a new president move in and the old one moves out. No we all stay there and we continue to work. So that has been very rewarding to me. It’s been a lot of hard work, but I’ve also learned a lot of things in working with that organization.

INTERVIEWER: Any other projects in which you have been involved with would you care to speak about?

Goodin: I’ve also been the founder, first president of the Panama chapter of teachers of English to speakers of other languages which is an international organization for people who teach English as a second or foreign language. Panama did not have a formal chapter. After 1986 after having attended several international conferences and seeing all these countries especially countries in Central America represented. And again I’m very happy to say that this group has been a very strong group. A convention in the month of September. I’m quite satisfied with those associations. Most of the presidents of that organization are people of Afro-Caribbean descent, Panamanian West Indians.

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