Zonians among us
by Silvio Sirias
Zonians. To be honest, before moving to Panama the thought of what happened to the Americans who once lived in the former Canal Zone—for several generations in some instances—had never crossed my mind. Shortly after my arrival, though, in fact, the first day that I reported to work at Florida State University-Panama, I literally came face to face with the question.
"I’m a Zonian,” Eric Holland, FSU-Panama’s Athletic Director said to me during our first conversation.
“What do you mean by Zonian?” I asked back then.
“I grew up in the Zone. Except for four years in the United States when I went away for college, I’ve lived my entire life in the Zone,” Eric responded patiently, well accustomed to ignorance such as mine.
Over the past year and a half I have developed quite a curiosity about the Canal Zone, in particular about it’s culture. Sometimes, when I’m waiting for a taxi in the heart of Balboa, near the former YMCA Building, I close my eyes and try to envision what the Zone must have been like forty years ago, when American colonists had control “in perpetuity” over the narrow ten-mile wide stretch of land that crosses the isthmus. My imagination invariably fails me; I see the buildings, like the campus of FSU-Panama, clearly, but in my mind’s eye the people are always missing. I simply cannot conceive of how things must have been. I now understand that this is not unusual. What I’ve learned over time is that a person “has to have been there” to be able to grasp the concept of life in the Zone.
On December 31, 1999, the United States turned the Canal over to Panama. This included all operations, jobs, and properties. As a result of the treaty, the vast majority of Zonians found themselves forced by straightforward economics to pack up their belongings and return to the States. This included many who had lived their entire lives in the Zone.
There were, however, some who stayed.
I met with a few students who attend FSU-Panama, and who also are considered Zonians, to discuss what the end of the American presence in the former Canal Zone has meant to them. In Room 310, looking out at both the Bridge of the Americas and the entrance to the Canal, I chatted with Eric Holland (who served as my advisor for this article), Stevie Bodden, Salvador Stabler, Olmedo Icaza, Angie Cruz-Segara, Krista Wiese, and Roy Dalton. Over slices of pepperoni pizza and cups of Pepsi “Blue,” they answered my questions.
When asked to define a Zonian, everyone agreed that a pure Zonian is “someone born before 1979,” the year the Carter-Torrijos Treaty was signed. With the exception of Eric, all the informants were born in the mid-1980’s.
“If we use that definition, then, that means that only Eric is a Zonian, the rest of you are not,” I state, worried that the students might be inadvertently excluding themselves from membership in this elite group.
“That’s right. We’re not Zonians. Our parents are Zonians, but we were born after the treaty. That makes us descendants of Zonians,” said Stevie Bodden, who from the onset emerges as the group’s primary spokesperson.
“Do you all agree with Stevie?” I ask.
Every single one of the young Zonians nods.
“But you all got to experience what life on the Zone was like, didn’t you?” I ask.
Once again, they all assent by nodding.
“Describe that life to me, then. I want to understand it,” I say.
The descendants of Zonians all jump in at once. What emerges is a picture of utopia, a perfect society of gainful, secure employment with housing and utilities provided free of charge; free, first rate medical and dental care; gardens and lawns that were immaculately kept by Panamanians gardeners contracted and paid for by the Canal Commission (which was previously known as the Panama Canal Company); excellent public schools; pristine swimming pools; perfectly manicured baseball, softball, and football fields; spotless basketball and tennis courts; an infinite array of clubs and activities for young and old; and an extremely tight-knit community where a family felt absolutely safe, being able to leave their doors open at all hours without fear of theft or harm.
“We thought the entire world was like that,” says Stevie. “There was never any reason for us to leave the Zone. In fact, I was thirteen years old the first time I visited Panama City. I was so shocked to see how big it was. The only time we left the Zone was to cross over the Bridge on our way to the interior. But we had everything we needed in the Zone. We did all our shopping in the PX and the Commissary, paying less for things than we would in the States. The Zone even had American fast food restaurants and several movie theaters. Therefore, going into Panama city was completely unnecessary.”
“Was it like that for all of you?” I ask, still stunned by the revelation that anyone could be happy while living enclosed in such a narrow strip of land.
Again, every single member of the group nodded their assent—with the exception of Salvador Stabler, who was born in Colón and adopted years later by a Zonian family. Salvador had experienced life on the outside prior to moving to the Zone, and at times during our conversation he felt on the margin of the true descendants of Zonians.
“We had the best of both worlds: the discipline and order of US society, and for those of us who chose to venture out of the Zone, the relaxed lifestyle and standards of Latin America,” adds Eric Holland.
“What is it that you miss the most about life in the Zone?” I ask the group.
“Our friends who left,” everyone answers almost in unison. “Life became boring around here without them,” adds Olmedo Icaza.
Expanding on what they missed the most, the “Post-Zonians” compile a long list of activities such as cheerleading, sport leagues, track and field competitions, alligator hunting in Gamboa, and so on.
“It makes me a little resentful when I start to think about all the fun things I had taken away from me,” adds Angie Cruz-Segara. The group suddenly becomes silent, apparently pondering on their loss.
“Apart from having a way to support themselves, why did your families choose to remain in Panama?” I ask, cutting through their thoughts.
Their responses indicate three primary reasons their families chose to stay. First among them is that their parents do not like living in the States. Then, every one in the group, with the exception of Roy Dalton, is of mixed-heritage; that is, one of their parents has Panamanian root. And, finally, their families genuinely love Panama.
“Would you say that Zonian culture has died?” I ask.
Definitely not, according to the group. “The former Zone really comes to life again during the Christmas vacations and the US summers. That’s when tons of Zonians who now live in the States come back to visit. They miss Panama and feel the need to return. We have wonderful reunions during these times,” says Stevie.
“Zonian culture is also alive in the States. Zonians are so close-knit that many decided to form ‘Zonian’ communities in places like Florida and Alabama,” adds Eric Holland.
Regarding how they and their families first coped with the big change following the turnover of the Canal, they all expressed that initially there was a great sense of loss in their households—especially after the sudden, massive exodus of friends. However, all of them state that this has obligated them and their families to make Panamanian friends. “The turnover of the Canal also forced us to begin going into Panama City to shop for everything. I’ve learned to enjoy that,” Krista Wiese adds. And while these newfound friendships and discoveries have been a pleasant surprise, compared to glory days of the Zone, life is much quieter.
“How did you fit into Panamanian society prior to the turnover?” I ask.
“We didn’t,” answers Stevie. “We seldom left the Zone. When we did venture out into the city, like to eat at a restaurant or go to a movie, we always went in large groups.
“To be honest, I didn’t start making Panamanian friends until after I returned from college,” adds Eric. “Before that, it never occurred to me to have Panamanians on my list of friends.”
“How do you fit into Panamanian society today?” I ask.
“We don’t really fit in,” answers Angie. “And it’s tougher for the girls—Panamanian men accept us, but the Panamanian women don’t want us around. Plus, many Panamanians tend to judge us through the stereotypes they have of Americans, and not as individuals.”
“The funny thing is that we don’t fit in when we go to the States either. My relatives over there see me as something strange, more Panamanian than American. I guess we don’t really fit in anywhere except in the former Zone,” adds Stevie as the others nod in agreement.
“People in the States seem cold, while here it’s all abrazos y besos,” says Roy.
“When I visit the States I am sad to see that people there don’t realize what a wonderful place Panama is. They think we live in primitive conditions,” adds Angie.
“I find that young people in the U.S. don’t even know much about their own state, let alone the rest of the world. Their ignorance depresses me,” says Stevie.
“Yeah, when I’ve visited the States kids have asked me if we skate on the Canal when it freezes over,” adds Salvador.
At this point I proceed to ask each one where they envision themselves in the future. Eric and Stevie are adamant that they will remain in Panama. Angie and Krista don’t know if their future lies here, but they are certain that they will live somewhere in Latin America rather than in the States. Roy and Salvador want to live in the U.S. for a while, but eventually they plan on returning to Panama. Olmedo is the only one who says that his future is in the States.
“Are you sad the days of the Canal Zone have ended?” I ask as my final question.
“No. But then, we were always aware that those days were coming to an end. What I do feel is grateful for having experienced a taste of what Zonian life was like. It must have been absolutely wonderful before the Treaty was signed,” Angie answers.
And Stevie, in concluding our conversation that afternoon, adds: “We got to experience three times the things people in the States experience in their lifetime. You can’t beat that. Plus, we’ll always have those great memories that will allow us think of the Zone as a magical place.”*
* This article appeared in a slightly different version in The Panama News. The author wishes to thank its editor, Eric Jackson, for allowing The Pananole News this reprint.
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