Frontiers of Exclusion, Frontiers of Rebellion: The Rise and Fall of Zonian-Panamanian Social Relations, 1914–64

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM
Columbia Hall 3 (Washington Hilton)
Michael E. Donoghue, Marquette University
The seedbed of the 1964 Panama Riots were the troubled social and cultural relations between the Zonians (U.S. civilian inhabitants of the Canal Zone) and the Panamanian populations of Panama City and Colón. This paper will trace the decline of social and cultural associations between these two peoples.  The boom town years of World War II when Panama’s GDP tripled in five years strengthened ties.  Yet the war also planted the seeds of future animosities, giving rise to nationalistic Panamanian middle and working classes destined to be enemies of the Zone.  World War II also witnessed a high number of violent crimes committed against ordinary Panamanian citizens by the burgeoning U.S. garrison and Zonian opportunists.  

        The postwar era marked a key demographic shift in the Panamanian population.  Thousands of Panamanians flooded into the capital and Colón in search of jobs only to be frustrated by the Zone’s exclusionary policies.  Fearful of rising urban crime and satiated by a new wave of housing and service center construction, many Zonians opted to “stay home” in the comfortable Zone rather than journey into “barbarous Panama.”   The introduction of television and air conditioning into the enclave accentuated this trend.  Meanwhile Cold War security concerns, petty crime, and nationalist protest influenced the eventual U.S. “fencing off” of the Zone.  Of more profound import as contacts declined, Zonians and Panamanians developed increasingly hostile stereotypes of one another.  Zonians generally interacted with two small slivers of the Panamanian population – well-to-do Panamanians who sent their children to school in the Zone and sought business connections there and a local servant class that serviced the comfortable lifestyle of the Zonians.  U.S. chauvinism and cultural indifference combined with Panamanian revulsion over increasing Americanization and lack of economic benefits from the enclave provided the tinder for the firestorm of 1964.

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