Black Estrangement • Vol. XLV NonfictionSeptember 6, 2023 |

Labor of Memory

Andrea Chung, ‘im hole ‘im cahner, 2008. Photo cut out, 24 × 17 in.

It wasn’t until my father was in his seventies, just a few years before he passed away, that I learned that his father, a Panama Canal tugboat captain, had once jumped from his boat to rescue someone from drowning in the ocean. Before this, the only stories I had heard about my grandfather were those my father would share, about how he and his brother would find their father at his hangout spot, a local bar, on payday to ask him for money; that their father would shout to the barkeeper, “Hey! Those are my sons. Let them in!” and he would give them money that he did not give their mother; that my father cobbled together how to be a father from his own there-but-not-always-there father. In these stories, my grandfather was rarely a hero.


My great-grandparents represented the first generations free to move on their own for the promise of opportunity. They crossed the Caribbean Sea from Barbados, Saint Lucia, Antigua, and Jamaica to work for the US-owned Panama Canal Company. The US government had secured land from the newly established country of Panama to build the Canal in 1903, after successfully supporting a group of Panamanian elites with military backing that won them independence from Colombia. The company contracted a predominantly Black West Indian labor force to build it. After the Canal’s completion in 1914 and for generations after, the success of the Canal project, and how it revolutionized global transportation of goods, would be touted as a feat of American engineering instead of an achievement made possible by the hard, and often fatal, labor of Black West Indian immigrants.

Between the early 1900s and the 1980s, three generations of my family worked for the Panama Canal: my great-grandfathers, my grandfathers and great-uncles, and, for a short period, my father. The company compensated them a fraction of what they paid non-Black workers. At sixteen, my paternal grandfather was listed in the 1930 Census as a Panama Canal Company employee, in the position of “Boy.” He would work there for several decades until he retired. Eventually, my parents left Panama, and as soon as they arrived in the US, they began working. I often did not know what they did for work, only where: factories, warehouses, cafeterias, apartment buildings, at home, or in the homes of other people. They worked hard for low wages that could not cover the rising costs of rent, bills, and day-to-day necessities. I worked every summer during high school to pay for school supplies and clothes for the coming year, so that my parents had fewer expenses to worry over. I worked two to three jobs while in college, even while receiving financial aid, to send money home. When I graduated without the immediate promise of a job, I felt like I had failed. I had worked since the age of fourteen, and the prospect of not working meant not being able to care for myself or my family. When I considered my family history, I wondered if labor was my inheritance.


In the PBS show Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Gates and his team of genealogists help celebrities fill the gaps in their family histories. After learning about the specific, extreme, overlooked, unknown, but always-extraordinary feats their ancestors performed, they see themselves anew. When Gates and his team feature African American celebrities, their search usually ends at the Atlantic Ocean. The show has yet to explore families like mine, with Black Caribbean lineages that extend into that ocean. And so, to uncover my roots, I must comb through archives and websites, seek historians, learn Spanish and French, or travel over three thousand miles to another country.

To obtain my maternal grandfather’s death certificate, the closest image I or my mother would have of her father, who moved from Panama to Costa Rica when she was a child, I needed only to repeat monthly online archival searches using multiple spellings of my grandfather’s name, find an entry of the date he died, learn that there were no available documents online, then wait in line for an hour at the civil registry in San José, all to be told that older records took weeks to find. After begging and explaining I was returning home and did not have weeks, I finally returned home with the certificate. My mother examined it in silence and tears. The document revealed that her father did not live much longer past the time he left their family. Later that night, she awoke to the smell of sulfur; my father would explain it as a visitation.


My search led me to a US archive of Panama Canal records. There, I found a short 1973 article about my paternal grandfather. He operated a tugboat that pulled large barges through the Canal. The article, “Tug Operator Is Cited for Saving Life,” recognized the award he received for saving one person from drowning and almost saving another. It was printed in the Panama Canal Spillway, a newspaper that featured stories about Canal workers in separate English- and Spanish-language issues. The English version included no visual representation of that tug operator, my grandfather. Only the Spanish version deemed his having saved someone’s life worthy of a photo. In fact, no photos of Black people, heroes or otherwise, appeared in the English version of the paper.

Front pages of newspapers Canal Spillway and Spillway del Canal de Panamá.
Front page of the Panama Canal Spillway, 1973. University of Florida, Smathers Library Archives.

Though they were denied citizenship by both the US and Panama, my great-grandparents lived in the segregated worker communities created and governed by the US in Panama and were documented in the 1930 and 1940 US Censuses. The 1930 Census displays their “Mother Tongue (Or Native Language)” as English, which would have been better described as Creole English. The Spanish version of the article provides more details of my grandfather’s heroics, all written in the language that was neither his first nor that of his father from Antigua, nor of his mother from Saint Lucia or his son, my father, born in the Canal Zone and held back a grade because he did not speak Spanish. Which version did my grandfather show to his parents—the English they would have been familiar with or the Spanish that showcased their son, a hero, receiving his reward?

I often wonder what other stories exist about my family that reveal their lives beyond labor. If more stories about my grandfather had been carried forward, for instance, how differently would my father have perceived his father or himself? When I showed my father the article, he shared a photo that he once took in front of the only monument built by the US in Panama, to commemorate the Canal’s construction. The monument, a tall slab of white marble pitched in a pool, imitating the ocean, bears the name of one man for a project that took the labor and lives of many. “There is no monument in Panama for the workers,” my father lamented. My search for my family history leads me to understand a different story of the Panama Canal, one that centers their contributions and those of other workers. The Canal exists because of them; it is a monument to their labor.

My late father, wearing a shirt bearing a photo of his late brother, both sons and grandsons of Panama Canal workers.


In her May Day series, artist Andrea Chung reenvisions the toil and labor of post-emancipation Jamaican workers. Chung utilized photos that were once part of a Jamaican advertisement campaign to assure tourists that the island was a paradise, safe for them to visit and spend money. The photos showed Black laborers posed in the fields, docile and nonthreatening. In her version, Chung cuts the laborers out, giving them the vacation they deserved.

When I viewed this series in person, it reminded me of my search. It evoked memory and history, how stories and images of Black people too often prove incomplete, with whole figures, pieces, experiences cut out. I attempt to put memory back in place, put family, relatives, back in place, in history, in the void of large-scale monuments or small-scale recordkeeping. I cut out each snapshot of the past I can find, enlightened by some new information I did not have before, while again and again facing a wall that pushes me to accept that I may never recollect all the images that make up who and where I come from. Yet I feel called to remember, to make my own judgments on this side of history, to put the forgotten or hidden image back in place.


Tina Campt, author of Listening to Images, describes looking at images to see the “ways in which black people have been erased and overseen for centuries . . . [and instead] perceive their . . . possibility to inhabit a future as unbounded black subjects.” I compare the newspaper photo with a photo of my grandfather and his eldest brother. In the former, the ocean in which my grandfather saved someone’s life is at a distance, out of frame. In the family photo, the ocean is steps away, my grandfather, full of swagger, standing over it, as if in possession of everything behind and before him. Like the memories my father shared of his father, each image is not the only nor the last one I have to hold onto.

Photo of two men shaking hands
Detail, the Panama Canal Spillway, 1973.
Black and white poto of two men posing on a boat's deck
My grandfather and great-uncle. Family archive.

History has maintained the version of the story that minimizes the contributions of workers like my relatives, their day-to-day accomplishments and heroics. Neither the schools my parents attended in Panama nor the schools I attended in the US taught us how essential Black Caribbean workers were to the Panama Canal project. Through the search for my roots, I’ve become editor and memory keeper. This is my true labor, the labor of memory—to find the portraits that honor my relatives and their labor and reject any silence that the archive, or its missing pieces, would have me inherit. As a descendant of people who did not receive proper compensation or credit for their labor, I look to the past to make space and build the world that they deserved. It is a futuristic labor, imagining all that is ours and should have been theirs.

Photo of Jenise Miller
Jenise Miller is a poet, writer, and urban planner from Compton, California. Her work explores art, archives, place, and intersectional history. She is a recent California Arts Council Individual Artist Fellow and PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow, as well as a Tin House and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) workshop alumna. She created the KCET Artbound series “Compton: Arts and Archives” and coordinates the Compton Arts Oral History Project. She is a Pushcart-nominated poet, and her writing is featured in her poetry chapbook, The Blvd (Blurb, 2019), as well as the Acentos Review, Boom California, the Los Angeles Review of Books, High Country News, and the forthcoming anthology Writing the Golden State: The New Literary Terrain of California. Find her work at | Tw/IG: @jenisepalante

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