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Carlos Russell

Oral history interview conducted by Morton Marks

August 10, 1988

Call number: 1989.004.11

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MARKS: The idea is that we're doing oral histories about the Panamanian community in Brooklyn and you're name was given to me by Wilfred Wason as being active in the Panamanian-West Indian community. So maybe we could start talking about your life in Panama and maybe your family background. Or your arrival in Brooklyn or wherever you want to start. Most people have started talking about their parents and the West Indian heritage in Panama.

RUSSELL: I think I will begin by attempting to explain the West Indian-Panamanian relationship in Panama from my perspective and perhaps move that to the United States. The reason for that is that in some measure my 1:00involvement is slightly different. As you may know, the West Indian involvement in Panama stems essentially to two phenomena. One, the construction of the railroad, and the other the Panama Canal.

MARKS: The railroad preceded the canal?

RUSSELL: Yes, in 1855. There are a number of people who forget that. Obviously, also the Black community in Panama is not solely West Indian. Prior to the West Indian migration to Panama they were what we call "costeños," sons of the Africans that live on the Coast and so-forth, which is essentially a different culture. They mixed with the Indians, the indigenous Native Americans in the 2:00Caribbean and in the islands and in Panama and in Latin America, period. The best way to get to know them is last names. My name is Carlos Enrique Russell. Russell is different. If I was a costeño more than likely my name would be Carlos Enrique Sanchez or Rodriguez. The Spanish surname would be the kicker. My maternal grandfather came in the early 19-19s, a little after the Canal was built, I think, but he was from Barbados. My maternal grandmother was from Jamaica. Now, that again is another unusual reality because there was a time when people from the different islands; Barbados, Jamaica, Granada, wherever, 3:00never intermarried. They were essentially very chauvinistic, very culturally insular, especially between Jamaicans and Barbadians. Jamaicans at that time perceived themselves as big islands and the Barbadians small islands, and the Barbadians perceived themselves as more literate than the Jamaicans, and such. So there was that kind of competition, confrontation, what have you. Nonetheless, I guess love conquered and my grandmother and my grandfather on my mother's side got together. My father's side is a little bit more complicated because I'm not so sure where my, either my grandfather or my grandma on that side came from. I understand, however, that they are from one of the French 4:00islands, Guadeloupe, Martinique or even perhaps St. Vincent. Those are possibilities. I'm not clear as to that reality. My father never shared that with me. I don't know why. Nonetheless, I knew that he spoke Patois, French Patois, yeah, French Patois. Creole, let's call it that. I have a problem calling it Patois because Patois is a derogatory term.

MARKS: Like broken.

RUSSELL: Like broken, yes, and that generally reflects--in my mind at least--an oppressive use of the term, a derogatory, because the language, the English language as spoken by Americans could be considered Patois of British English.

MARKS: Sometimes when I say Creole to Caribbeans they don't know what I mean. I always call it Creole. They say, "You mean bad English or broken English?" Right.

RUSSELL: Exactly. So I am beginning, not beginning to but I've moved away from 5:00that. In early days we called it Patois because the language that was used. Take Haiti, for instance, part of the problem that we see, they say Creole versus French speaking and that tends to reflect the political and social consciousness of the people, who they emulate, who they imitate, what-have-you. There may be a movement or there is a movement in Haiti, as you know, for Creole to become the official language.

MARKS: I think after Duvalier--

RUSSELL: So that's why I said "Patois" and corrected it. As you will note, I'm very much involved in politics and so-forth. Now I say that, in Panama the key in the building of the railroads many of the workers, the skilled workers were Jamaicans, but the railroad failed in the first--under de Lesseps and the rest. Too many people died.


MARKS: The French were in there, too.

RUSSELL: Yes. They were building a sea level canal. Yellow fever and malaria killed a lot. I'm sorry I'm confusing, see, that's a difficulty. Malaria and yellow fever killed a lot, however, the French were building a sea level canal. The railroad was built by the United States. You see? It was built because the American businessmen wanted to get from the east coast to the west coast of the United States because the indigenous Americans were destroying the shipment. They discovered gold in California and in order to get it so it was an easier way to come from New York by boat to Panama across the isthmus and then back up to California. In 1849 is when I think Sutter discovered gold and the Gold Rush was on. So that was the easiest way. It was longer, costly in terms of money but 7:00it was safer.

MARKS: Otherwise they had to go all the way around the Cape.

RUSSELL: Or go across or around, that's why. Panama has always been central for a canal.

MARKS: This was in the 1850s, the railroad?

RUSSELL: Yes, 1855 it was over, it was built, finalized, if my memory is correct. 1855. In addition, as I said, Panama has always been a center for travel. I don't think we need to get into that. The conquerors of South America, Panama was used as a jumping off. The first idea of a canal, in the 15th century was Panama. So that's the key thing about Panama. The Jamaicans then were the key workers on that railroad, earlier, and too many died. Jamaica said "no" when the United States wanted to build a canal in 19--let's say 1903, 1904.

MARKS: The French had recruited in Jamaica? They had recruited or--?

RUSSELL: Yes. The French had tried. The French had failed before; de Lessep 8:00fails. Chicanery, poor planning. The French company was not done well. They failed. The United States then, as a means of building that canal because they also tried to think about it in terms of Nicaragua. In fact, much of what is happening today goes straight back to 1903. The independence of Panama is tied in directly to the building of the canal in so far that after the French canal failed, Bruno Varila, was part of de Lessep's team, was left in Panama to try to recoup as much money as he could for the company.

MARKS: Had they started? Was there some construction done that the U.S. built on?

RUSSELL: Well, you see, the key thing was that Colombia had the right. Panama was still a part of Colombia and Colombia held the rights over the whole, over what was built and the United States tried to get that, and Colombia-- There was a Hay-Herán Treaty and the Hay-Herán Treaty was not-- Well, the Secretary of 9:00State for the United States was Hay and Herán was from Colombia. The Colombian Senate did not approve of it. Once they did not approve of it then Teddy Roosevelt got real mad and he said, called them all kind of names, jack rabbits and whatever. But there has always been a need or desire in the people of Panama to be free from Colombia. They had done it seven, eight times if my memory is correct. Because after Panama got its independence from Spain in 1821 she joined automatically what was called the Gran Colombia, which was a coalition--I'm looking for a better word than coalition. It was five or six countries, which was Venezuala, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and I'm blocking on, blocking the fifth. With the dissolution of that, Panama remained part of Colombia. So when the United States wants to build the canal in Panama, she then has to make a 10:00relationship with Colombia. This failing, the revolutionaries agree with a deal with the United States to the extent that the railroad, again, plays a very important role. When the "Panamanian revolutionaries"--and I put that in quote purposely--called for independence, the railroad doesn't work and the railroad is the only way you can get from one side of the isthmus to the other where the fighting was held. The railroad was in the hands of the United States, so definitely this was in cahoots. Aside from that, there were two or three gunboats in the bay which were then supporting the Panamanian revolutionaries. The next day, word was there was a treaty signed in New York which then ceded all of the rights of the canal to the United States, to that 500 square miles. 11:00So again, when we're dealing with the struggle in 1988 you can find back to 1903, 1904 to the extent that San Bruno Varila in Nicaragua, there, tried to build a canal in Nicaragua, but he passed a stamp and the stamp had the volcanic explosions so they said, "No, no. We don't want to build it there." They were afraid. So, exactly. Now we're talking about the possibility of the U.S. having a "better relationship" with the Contras if they were to win in Nicaragua which would then give them the opportunity of building a new canal since Panama is supposed to have control of the canal after the Torrijos-Carter Treaty in 1999. So again, it's all part and parcel of that same reality.

MARKS: I didn't see the film "Walker," but I know, that goes back to the 1840s, right?

RUSSELL: Right. Walker was the United States mercenary who attempted to control and conquest Nicaragua. He finally was caught and killed ultimately. The 12:00involvement of U.S. in Nicaragua-Central America is historic. There are no two ways about that. But all of this is to say that when we talk about building the canal, now, the Jamaicans have said, no, they wouldn't send their most technical people and the laborers came from Barbados. Barbados was a staging ground. Okay? While Barbados was a port of exit, people from all of the other islands used Barbados so when they came to build they were from everywhere.

MARKS: But they were called "Bajians."

RUSSELL: They were called Bajians just because they came from Barbados.

MARKS: They could have been from St. Lucia, Trinidad.

RUSSELL: --Grenada, St. Vincent or wherever. In fact, the irony is that over the years part of the racism that existed and ingrained--imagines still exists in Panama that everyone was Black was called a "jamaicano", which is a Jamaican. That was it; this was an attempt to put down. My family then represented that 13:00diasporan reality in Panama. Now--

MARKS: But the common language, let's say, if people were coming in speaking Creole, people would adopt English Creole? It's hard to say whether

RUSSELL: It depends, you see, because English is Jamaican, English is Barbados. But then on the other side my grandmother was French, a [unintelligible]. So I don't know. I know that the language that was spoken in my house was English. Now, you also have to understand another reality is that on the shores where they built the canal there were cities that evolved and these were under the jurisdiction of the United States government. Gatún, Gamboa, Nuevo Imperador, Pedro Miguel; a whole host of cities that appeared as they were building the canal, and later some to be destroyed and some to disappear and their remnants in the bush. Gatún, Frijoles, quite a number.


MARKS: They were worker cities or just--?

RUSSELL: Yes. They were the centers, where the workers were. As the years passed and the construction was finished, we had major cities where the workers lived, but there you had the most oppressive and repressive division of racism you could find. There was gold and silver. Silver was for the Black. West Indian gold was for the White workers. Ten cents a day or ten cents an hour, if my memory is correct, they were paid. They used the Louisiana law as a means rather than the traditional U.S., and the Louisiana law at that time--if my memory is correct and I keep saying that because this is being done by memory--was based 15:00on the Napoleonic codes and their approach to justice is more in terms of codes rather than precedent, which is the British system.

MARKS: Why did they choose Louisiana, because people were coming--?

RUSSELL: I wish I knew. I have no way, but I know that that was it. I would argue that perhaps that was the closest U.S. Court. Exactly, that was the closest in terms of--

MARKS: Put's a whole other different law system into--It's now officially called the Zone, what we're talking about. This was established once they got in there and started.

RUSSELL: --circuit. The Canal Zone at that time. Once it was Canal Zone. Yes. You see, the treaty ceded to the U.S. 500 square miles as if the United States was sovereign and the first part they said, "in perpetuity." Again, that was the giveaway because Bruno Varila wanted--That has been the strife all over the years because the canal divides the country totally in two. You can't get from one side of the country to the other without crossing what was then the Canal Zone and is now is called the Area. Language plays a very important part in all 16:00of this. So now people lived in the Canal Zone. There were gold commissaries, silver commissaries. In fact, people were paid in gold and some were paid in silver. Then later they were paid in coupons; in commissary book coupons. That's another reality.

MARKS: So it was enforced at every level, the separation?

RUSSELL: At every single level. In fact, there are stories of a water fountain. A little old lady came and it said "gold" and "silver" and she went and she drank from the gold and the policeman stopped her and said, "Don't you see?" She said, "Yes. I just want to know what gold water tastes like." So those are exactly what happened in--

MARKS: Yes, like the Deep South, or pre-Rosa Parks.

RUSSELL: --Mississippi, happened there. Exactly. So when people say to people from Panama that, "You are foreigners and you don't understand what happened in the South," they're wrong. We went through that. The United States carried with it across the sea the same oppressive, the same arrogance, the same sense of 17:00dominance that it controlled the world politically. Now, there are two different cultures within Panama, proper. Panama, in some instances, was not as developed literally in terms of what was happening in the Canal Zone. Panama was like most Latin American countries in the early years. So the people that had a lot of expertise and a lot of technical know-how were the people that came from the islands, okay, and there was a conflict, in--

MARKS: They were technically advanced and more skilled.

RUSSELL: --terms of both. Yes, the traditional conflict, yeah. I did not live in the Canal Zone. That's why this all began, very long. I went only to second grade, I think, and I also participated in what we called private schools. See, part of the West Indian culture that was very key was that education is always a big thing and we started very young. There were schools like Mrs. Rand's School, 18:00Hector Carmen Colón/Céspedes Burke. There were a number of people that had schools and they would teach you under the--See, the homes were built on pillars, columns, exactly. So under they would have classes, under the cellar and that's where many people went to school. I can say my memory tells me that I went to school after second grade back into Panama. So I do not share as an integral part the West Indian-Canal Zonian trait.

MARKS: Those schools were self-organized by the West Indians?

RUSSELL: They had, a school system, first of all, that the government, the U.S. government, developed. Okay? My mother and some of the other people that you will interview--

MARKS: I think Pat Ettrick went through that.

RUSSELL: I don't remember, but she may have. I'm surprised if she did.

MARKS: She was in and out of different kinds of schools.

RUSSELL: But I'm not so sure. My memory tells me--but I can be wrong--because I 19:00remember her living in the outskirts of the city. What I'm suggesting is that the school system was different and also that part of the conflict was in the early days, and is still carried on today, that many of the people that lived on the Canal Zone had a greater allegiance to the United States and not to Panama, proper. Those of us who grew up in Panama have a greater allegiance to Panama than to the United States. Now, the monies that were paid to workers were much, much different. Still, much of the, much of the movements that ultimately affected Panama began in the Canal Zone. For instance, the labor movement, the real syndicate movement had its strongest and the first strike appeared on the Canal Zone. The CIO and so-forth. Born in the Zone, then filters into Panama 20:00proper. William Preston Stout, people of his kind and--his last name is White--was very, very instrumental in this kind of a struggle.

MARKS: So the American labor movement came down and then it sort of passed into--

RUSSELL: So it filters over. Yes, yes. In fact the--Mr. Wason would be key in that because he was a member of the group. In fact, at that time the United States was calling all the workers communists. When Paul Robeson came to Panama the same thing. In fact, baseball on the Canal Zone and then Panama, was the same, same connotation.

MARKS: The thing that I--I don't mean to digress, but the American left has disappeared but when you see these old news reels it was so powerful. It just got wiped out and the Cold War put the finishing touches on the--

RUSSELL: The American left played a very important role, not only in Latin and 21:00Central America, but right here in Brooklyn. Right where we are sitting, in this, this area, the American Progressive party had a candidate who should have been the first Black Assembly person. But then they ran three. There was one from the Republican, one from the Democrat, and one from the--It didn't work. So it was split.

MARKS: This was back in the '30s?

RUSSELL: Back in the '30s. Many of the leadership--If you look at the leadership of Black Brooklyn, many emerged from the American Progressive party. So it's always been. Because it evolved around labor; around the relationship between worker and management and the aspirations for a better life.

MARKS: And a lot of immigrants were coming with a socialist consciousness or anarchist. That's why the wanted the Italians, well, anyway--

RUSSELL: Exactly. You see, we cannot, but that's--part of the same thing. The 22:00Democratic Party ultimately took over much of what the left has been saying. In fact, in this, 1988 the struggle between the center and the left. Jackson, again a Black person, representing the far left within the Democratic Party. It's like 180 degrees and the Whites now are more center and Dukakis more emulating the Republicans, you see, without recognizing that.

MARKS: It's an interesting strategy, really.

RUSSELL: Yes, that's the key. I don't know whether it will work or not, I don't know whether it should work or not, but that's what it is. That's descriptive. Hopefully not perjorative. Now, back to Panama. So in those early years I lived in Panama City, proper. My mother and my father were divorced. I lived in Panama, but I would travel to Coln so I knew both sides.

MARKS: Colón was mostly West Indian?

RUSSELL: The irony is that Colón was considered to be the second city and the 23:00second city was primarily West Indian. In fact, any Spanish person there spoke English and Spanish.

MARKS: But it was not a new city which became settled by West Indians?

RUSSELL: You heard them speaking English, but they were speak-- No. See, when the Canal was finished they wanted to call what is now Colón, Aspinwal. Colón has a very important history because when the United States tried to supress--Let's call it an insurrection, a man by the name of Prestan was a Colón West Indian who fought them because he felt they were destroying the city. It is said that the United States burnt Colón down and blamed Prestan. Prestan was hung ultimately. It's a travesty because there are those of the old school that 24:00believe that he had said before he died that every 20 years there would be a fire in Colón and it did happen every 20 years. Those were some of the things that were said. Again, as I said, I'm talking to you from memory. I'm not going though any documents. What then happens is that I go to school in Panama proper. I don't go to Canal Zone school so my involvement is with Panama. In 1955 I graduate from the National Institute in Panama, but even though I'm going to school in Panama I am dealing with West Indians still, who live in Panama.

MARKS: Your schooling's in Spanish?

RUSSELL: In Spanish, of course, but in my home they speak English. I go to an Episcopal Church for a time and what they speak at that time is English. I go to Youth Fellowship. I participate in the English speaking side of Panama. There is 25:00still a very strong racist traits in Panama proper. For instance, the guy who died yesterday, Arnulfo Arias, he in 1941 when he was president had a constitution that said that Blacks were undesirable people, Blacks and Asians. The irony is that in 1984 he set off war and still, I don't know how people deal with it, that reality. The contrary is that General Noriega today says that Panama is a Black country, and you see that when you go now. In fact, I'll make the point now before I forget it. I was in Panama three months ago and I remember stopping to look. Two incidents that taught me the total change in the physiognomy, in the psychological thrust and in the sense of nationalism that 26:00has seemingly altered very much that negative racial approach. At the Institute when we left school one could put people in categories. You could say, "Here are the West Indians, here are the Cholos, here are the Chinese."

MARKS: Cholos were sort of like Mestizos?

RUSSELL: Yes, Cholos, yeah but, Mestizos, but they're really from the interior of the country.

MARKS: Like "guajiros".

RUSSELL: Exactly, correcto. Okay, alright, esta bien. Lo jíbaro [unintelligible]

MARKS: My wife is Cuban that's why I know this. Like, sort of, like country--right.

RUSSELL: The country dumpling that comes to town. [unintelligible] So it's a different reality now. Today when you look you can't make that distinction. In other words, by virtue of the intermarriage, the changing in terms of style 27:00because in the early days West Indians dressed differently, combed their hair differently and now you can't. You can't even see it.

MARKS: This is in the space of 30 years. That's amazing.

RUSSELL: Yes. I was in the hotel and this girl was speaking perfect Spanish with almost no problem at all and I said, "She's a costena," in my head, costena. When she hung up she called another number and said, "Granny, take care of the babee." It was a switch. She was bilingual. This is what I sense. At Brooklyn College where I teach sometimes they come now and they're name is Brathwaite or Green and they need English as a second language. That is a contradiction. It's because they lost the language. Part of that was a reaction to the racism in the 28:00country because if you spoke English you were looked down upon.

MARKS: Was the word "chombo?" That's a pejorative term?

RUSSELL: That's "nigger." That changed, like in today in the U.S. when you say "nigger." That's like "nigger" if you positivize it, but--Over there it's chombita, it's negative. If you remember Felipe Luciano, a Puerto Rican poet, has a poem called "Jíbaro," pretty nigger, which talks about the same thing. Again, the racist approach permeates the region. When I left Panama, I came 29:00here. I went to Chicago. I left because there was nothing for me to do.

MARKS: This is in the '50s? This in about--?

RUSSELL: 1955. Many of the Panamanians that I knew, Black Panamanians, from the Canal Zone joined the army in the Korean War and preferred--This is strange--to take the risk of dying to come to the United States. In fact, I would argue that during those years, in spite of the struggle against the Canal, psychologically most Panamanians, whether they were in the Zone or from the country proper, identified with the values of the United States in terms of democracy, in terms of justice. This was the country that everybody assumed where the streets were paved with gold and all you had to do was go work. "Send me your tired, your poor." That was the kind of élan that existed and people saw coming here.


MARKS: The Canal Zone was like a mini U.S., with PX's.

RUSSELL: Exactly. Yes. Living in the Canal Zone, for Whites and Americans in the Canal Zone, that was perhaps a socialistic life they had. Really. They didn't pay rent. They had money from being abroad. They had workers to clean their gardens.

MARKS: Sort of like the East Germans in Cuba, something like--[laughter]. Compounds.

RUSSELL: But it's worse. They had everything. In fact, that is one of the reasons that they did not want the Carter-Torrijos Treaty to be signed because they lost all of their privileges. One of the many reasons. Now, coming back to the United States, I lived in Chicago. Over there we got involved with the Panamanian and the Black community. My head has always been diasporan in terms of being involved primarily in the Black movement. It was not until much later that I began to get involved in Panama politics per se.


MARKS: When you say Panamanians, you mean Panamanian West Indians who had been in Chicago, or all kinds of Panamanians?

RUSSELL: Panamanian West Indians.

MARKS: They started coming way back?

RUSSELL: The Panamanians have always been coming, you see, but one doesn't know how or when. I don't, but you see them.

MARKS: But it seems to go back.

RUSSELL: Goes back, back. Oh, yes. Remember Panama Brown became world champion. I just mention his name because he became international, but there are a whole lot of Panamanians in Harlem. Another Panamanian-West Indian lived and many of them were Garveyites. In Chicago I found a number, but always the reason for leaving was for education and a better job. We came here because we spoke English. Spanish; if we had thought about it, like what happened later, many went to Spain, and much later many went to Russia. When scholarships were given by the Patrice Lamumba Friendship University and since 1968 when they left for 32:00education, but the thrust was primarily for education.

MARKS: So there has been a left, if you don't mind my asking, in Panama. Is that related to, I mean, were these people in the left or was it because it was just a good opportunity to--

RUSSELL: Because they--I would say this. I think it's a combination of both. I would say that they didn't go because they were left per se. Let me put it this way. In 1968 when Omar Torrijos overthrows the oligarchy. Some people just sit and, they're not oligarchy, well let's call them the aristocrats, the landowners, the people that control the country, the rabiblancos. The people who control every single institution, who bought every single election, who got rich off of foreign politics and who installed themselves as the leadership of the country. When Torrijos takes over you have a genuine revolution in the sense 33:00that the power changes. It's the cholo who becomes the leadership now, and he is so open in a sense that he then brings in a whole lot of Blacks into the thing. So, the power shifts from the rabiblanco to a populist approach.

MARKS: The rabiblanco was basically like a few families.

RUSSELL: Yes. It was a control by families. "The New York Times" had an article a few weeks ago when this thing in Panama started in which they talk about the family feud. Now, if you look today you'd find that the President that the United States recognizes, Del Valle, is a relative of the man who is financing the "revolution." They're all blood related in that way. So, what really is happening is that they are attempting to regain control. '68 is key because '68, 34:00what Torrijos does is take the political power and the governmental power and allows the rich to retain economic power. He does not destroy that. So he sets it up. So now they change the structure and for the first time people can go anywhere to school paid for by the government. Institute, make new institutions. [unintelligible] So now they give scholarships, and to show that you are different, you send them in to China, to Russia. Sure, so a lot of the--This is my wife Jackie. [Interview interrupted.] I'm saying it is essential because the government is open that that happens, but there is left because the revolution 35:00is supported by the left in the country, also, but it is not the dominant. It's an element within. El Partido de Pueblo, and you have the socialists, all coming together. In fact, many of the changes in terms of housing, in terms of labor for the first time carry with it what you may want to call narrowly left, but it is the voice of that time, the '60s. So our people have to be very clear because it is not just left, it is a voice of the times.

MARKS: '68 was a hot year everywhere. Frantz, I was in [unintelligible] then.

RUSSELL: Exactly, '68, '69 and '70. Forget it. We're talking about Fidel is in power. Che is still alive. Frantz Fanon--There you go. So then what was happening is that the relationship between worker and management, the relationship between landlord and tenant, new approaches in health, all of this takes in, so to just say it's the left is not necessarily accurate. It's true.


MARKS: It was something more massive. It was also a cultural revolution.

RUSSELL: Exactly. An international cultural revolution where values are placed on a different pedestal and people are beginning to look for new ways of doing things. Panama reflects that, and we have in the Ministries of Justice and Ministries of Finance young people who are coming back now with these new ideas and they are changing to the extent that we even have a few Blacks now coming into power in terms of minister; Minister of Justice, Minister of Finance. These are people that we know.

MARKS: They were Costeheños or West Indians?

RUSSELL: They were both. Okay, we have Orville Goodin, who is now today Minister of Finance, I'm sorry, used to live in Brooklyn and used to live on Ocean Avenue. After we had the first national conference of Panamanians in the Poconos he decided that he wanted to go to Panama and we arranged that. I was the key 37:00organizer for that. In fact, I would say that once we got involved in making the switch from concentrating on the Black in the United States to Panama, then a number of other things began to happen. Because we started--when I say "we," Carlos and others--but the "Bahiano" which is the first Black newspaper, Panamanian newspaper here. In fact, Walter Livingston, myself, George Priestly, Aguilla Jimenez and a few others started that newspaper. It was in English and Spanish. We started also the first real cultural activity. When I was dean of the School of Contemporary Studies we used that. It was Patricia Ettrick, Tenorio Ruiz, and Marjory George, and a number of others, we started that and we 38:00did that and we began to galvanize and deal for the first time with the West Indian Panamanian sense here, at home and abroad.

MARKS: What specifically were you promoting culturally? What sorts of things?

RUSSELL: Well, first and foremost we decided it was time to get together and begin to recognize that we have to support each other. We have to begin to get involved in politics here, begin to get involved in politics at home, begin to support our own communities. In other words, we had seen where other communities had been supportive of each other, and we had not. For whatever reason, it seemed that Panamanians had melted into their own, into the woodworks and could not be identified.

MARKS: Kept a low profile.

RUSSELL: Yes, a low profile. We began to change that.

MARKS: The community here is gigantic.

RUSSELL: It is; it is.

MARKS: It's sixty--Sixty-thousand is a low estimate.

RUSSELL: It's a low estimate.

MARKS: So it must be like sixty to a hundred.

RUSSELL: And you have to understand also that we live in--while you talk about Brooklyn, we live in different places. There is a story which is in the old days 39:00was relatively true. Two Panamanians get on a plane and they would talk all the way on the plane and when they get off--at that time it was called Idlewild, JFK if you want to call it now--the "Spanish-speaking" one had moved to Queens and the other one had come to Brooklyn. That's by virtue of where your roots were or where you would feel more comfortable.

MARKS: So they were in with the Colombians and Ecuadorians?

RUSSELL: Exactly, and you still find that. You'll find that "those who identify more with Spanish speaking are to be found in Manhattan or the Bronx" and those who would have more of the West Indian would find more in Brooklyn.

MARKS: Like living in Crown Heights or in the west--

RUSSELL: Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy. And then if you got a little bit more affluent you moved to the island.

MARKS: But maybe to a Black middle class suburb.

RUSSELL: Well, yes, but even so, disappear, disappear.

MARKS: Just into the woodwork.

RUSSELL: Disappear. I would say that we did a number of things. The first--There 40:00have been a number of organizations here prior to this involvement. There were the Istmeños, La Sociedad de Panamanos Profesionales, but they were more socially. The Panamanian profesionales combined the social with business, but very few took political positions or took anything that would argue or place them in jeopardy because many were reluctant to offend the United States. I would say forget modesty, I would say honestly that I became one of the first to challenge that position in terms of saying that we can say whatever we want to say if we are right and we just take a position. Many cowered, but that's what 41:00we did. We still kept that position. Over the years, I have worked with a number of groups. I don't know how to say this. I published a book, "Miss Anna's Son Remembers," which perhaps is the first book of Panamanian-West Indian poems outside of Panama. I'll give you a copy later. We then worked with the newspaper. We had an oral history conference here. We helped to form what was called the Panamanian-West Indian Heritage Association, which you'll meet Anesta and Fred and so-forth.

MARKS: The Dedicators?

RUSSELL: The Dedicators is different because the Dedicators comes as an extension of something from Panama which they had there. They came here. Mrs. Samuel founded that. That has been in existence for almost 30 years or more.

MARKS: Doesn't Wilfred have something that was started in Panama that was 42:00continued here?

RUSSELL: Yes. [unintelligible] or something like that. I don't remember exactly. Again, there were organizations in Panama, given the social strata, also reflected the West Indians there. They were not an integral part. We could never join the Club Leones. The Lions Club was racist. That's why we never join the Lions Club today, because in Panama only the rich and the white could go to the Lions Club. Now, these folks because the Lions Club finally opened its doors, everybody moving and jumping. I've got problems with that, you know.

MARKS: The racist history.

RUSSELL: Because that--Sure, the racist history of that. I don't need the Lions Club to tell me that I must do good work. That's what I say. There are a number of Panamanians involved in the Lions Club and they travel here and do this, but they could have done it, in my judgment, as in any other group. Form a new group. Call it the Kangaroos if you want to, but what they've done without understanding is give credence to Lionism, as it meant something. Maybe they say 43:00they found God, I guess, so what can I tell you. That's where they are.

MARKS: But most of the West Indian associations were essentially social.

RUSSELL: In the early days, they were essentially social. I would even argue that many even today are reluctant to take a political stance. The younger ones are not. We are called, honestly, we are called today. My feeling is that many of the younger ones who are coming are leaving, coming from roads, are not into politics per se. They're coming like the young people of the United States today, get caught in drugs and get caught in all of that. There are too many young people getting killed. I don't think they have that sense of commitment to country, but more commitment to self. It's like a counter revolution from the '60s to the '80s and '90s.

MARKS: It's sort of the Reagan revolution, the counter revolution.


RUSSELL: Exactly. That's my sense. When we were coming, our attempt was to better ourselves through education and to gain power in that sense here. Forget that. The key is "How much money do I have? How many chains can I get?" There's not that much different. I hope there is a change, but that's my sense.

MARKS: The designer clothes.

RUSSELL: Designer--Sure, of course. That's the way it is. That's not to say that's for everyone. Don't get me wrong. But I'm saying that is the sense. That seems to be. There are a number of people that are doing exceptionally well. Again, there were Blacks here, West Indians who came. Bobby Reed, who was a jockey. Roberto "Bobby" Reed is a medical doctor who is the chief administrator in one of the major hospitals in Manhattan. Anesta Samuel would know his name and know where to find him. Dr. Robertson, who is head of the dentists' alumni at New York University, NYU, is also from Panama. Ironically, Denny Farrell who 45:00ran for mayor is part Panamanian, part Jamaican.

MARKS: Is that right?


MARKS: Edward Griffith, who is Assemblyman from East New York is of Panamanian background. In fact, he lived on the Canal Zone. I'm trying to remember. Leroy Bryce-Laporte. There are a whole number of people. Dr. Stuart, that you know of, who was a Senator; State Senator in the New York legislature. All a part of that generation. Those people that wanted to get involved. I'm not so sure that the same thing is happening today. I put that clearly "I'm not so sure." I don't sense it. So we find ourselves that for the first time now there are some questions of how does this fit with the total Latin America structure now. Well, 46:00I would say that some of the younger Panamanians, I would say anywhere between the ages of 21 and 30, 35, who are politically active would be involved with the Latin American community politically. They would be involved with the support of the Sandinistas, the support of the International Revolution because they are sons and daughters of the '60s. Who came from Lumumba, or came from Friendship or whatever and these are some of the fruits, the international thing. However, I'm not so certain that it's true for the total thing. What will also happen, I think, is that many of the sons that are coming up today have forgotten their West Indian heritage and they don't want to deal with it. I would argue that in 47:00the next ten years when my generation dies off, forget it.

MARKS: No more West Indian.

RUSSELL: Not to that extent, unless there is a concerted effort to do it.

MARKS: Would they move into the Hispanic community or into the American?

RUSSELL: Well, yes. You see, when you go to Panama now the lines are not as clear anymore. The lines are not--You can't make the distinction as you once could.

MARKS: But has West Indian culture moved into general Panamanian culture?

RUSSELL: Let me give you an example; Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church is an example. When I was coming up the priest used to speak in English. The bishop would speak in English. Now he speaks in Spanish. I'm not being pejorative, I'm being descriptive. I'm saying--

MARKS: In what is essentially an English Church.

RUSSELL: So it's not there anymore. Father Hayes has his services in Spanish. Father Josiah has his in Spanish-- [Interview interrupted.]


RUSSELL: --the corrosion of the institutions is indicative of the change that's going to happen. My theory is that Panama does not have--People argue about Panamanian nationalism, and I'm suggesting that we have not finalized what Panamanian nationalism is yet. It's a thing in flux. It's structure, it's moving, it's in transition and all of the parts are going to have to get together soon and it's moving that way. But right now, we're struggling in terms of past traditions, social class, race and also in power. Noriega has done a good job in way and that nobody can deny. He's the first person that said in a real sense that Panama is a Black country.

MARKS: Is Noriega considered a cholo? Sort of like cholo, mulatto.


RUSSELL: He's a combination. He says he's a "negrito." A combination. There is a number of [unintelligible]. He has Black parents, but he looks like a cholo. The real cholo was Torrijos, the hair. The texture of the hair is very much indicative of where the genes come from, where the chromosomes. But to say it and to live it is where it is. So you are finding that that transition, that it does not carry the same total negative weight that it used to, but it still exists. To argue that it doesn't exist, no, no. So I'm saying, it's nationalism in flux.

MARKS: I don't know if you want to talk about it, but what is, where is Noriega? What is the story, I mean, the U.S.-Noriega relationship, what does that represent?

RUSSELL: We can deal with that. I have no problem at all. I just mentioned that in terms of the race, color, and the position. Where are we? Where do you want 50:00to go?

MARKS: Well, I'd like to know about some of the cultural dynamics in Brooklyn. Is there a--What is the status--? For example, we were talking about doing the Hispanic community, I know there is a Panamanian community. Then I found out, when I spoke to Bryce Laporte he said, "You have to have a Panamanian West Indian and you have to have a Hispanic Panamanian." So, I'm wondering. It's sort of a paradox that it's both Panama, and I'm wondering, what is it [unintelligible]. Basically, this is really about Brooklyn.

RUSSELL: It was partly the same racism. This Canales that you're talking about, he comes here much later. He doesn't know anything, in my judgment, about the dynamics in Brooklyn of Panamanians. He comes later. He's into culture, but by virtue of his traditions he got sucked in very quickly into the tradition that 51:00uses beautiful phrases like democracy and so-forth, which the United States uses in killing everybody at this point. So he would be in that line. He would be what they call anti-Noriguesta. But the question is not about Noriega. They lack the mentality to understand that the struggle in Panama--I don't care whether Torrijos was alive, the problem would still be there and very few of them have done, in my judgment, any study of political institutions, how they come about and get away from the notion of words and understand deeds and understand overt action, and understand that ultimately the political action that countries do attempt are gaining power for a cadre of people who lead that country and all the other folks can argue what they want about voting, whatever, that's not democracy. They've been voting in Panama from time in memorial and we in Panama know that on a given election morning all you needed was some dollars, some beer 52:00and you would tell who the next candidate. Plus, we were the expert in stuffing the ballot. We called them "paquetazo." So the possible only president that anybody remotely says got there legally or democratically was Chiari, Roberto Chiari, okay. That's the only one that I can think of and even that is in question. So when folks argue about democracy and voting, that's a lot of nonsense, in a sense I mean. It sounds good. It's a desirable thing, but there's no one that says that the process of voting automatically means that democracy is served. We had democracy for a number of years in Panama and we only had, to the best of my knowledge, two deputies who were Black. Fernando Bradley and Cragwell, and they were not even deputados. They were "suplentes," a second. So what are we talking about? And he would come from that class that wants to 53:00continue power and then he would have [unintelligible] and other folks who would have difficulty with who they are, so they would then identify with the oppressed. It's like the Germans. There's an old saying. Bruno Bettelheim talks about concentration camps where they have some Jews that served as, they would stuff the other Jews in, in the ovens, okay, and believe that they had power because they are doing that, without recognizing that they were going to end up in the oven just like anybody else.

MARKS: Right. The Germans used them to--as the go-betweens.

RUSSELL: Exactly. The same kind of mentality, they are willing. These are folks that would never, never challenge the United States and genuflect. Well, we can't do that. I appreciate the advantages and the opportunities that are offered, but I'm not going to be stupid to believe that Ronald Reagan is the son of God. I read too much. I see too much. I understand it too much. participate 54:00in it too much. I've seen what's been done. That's the only way, what it is. That's why I said to you '68 is key. '68 is a revolution in Panama that alters the political structure. Torrijos establishes a new form of government in which the military plays a very important role. But, he can keep it because he's charismatic. He's just in many ways and there're things that people do for him because he is-- There are some people that have charisma, put it that way. So the institutions work. With his death, Noriega does not have his charisma, but between Torrijos and Noriega there are a number of other people. Ruben Darío Paredes, who is Black, but he's the first one that identifies more with the Whites in the sense that he begins now to give back the victories that Torrijos had won. Undoing the revolution, in that sense. So when you ask him he's 55:00identified now with those who they call the "civilista de oposición."

MARKS: What year is this? This is '87, is this?

RUSSELL: He was supposed to run for president in the '84 election, okay, '84 election. He had a problem internally because a lot of folks there did not support--well. He had a problem with the military, for one, internally. Two, he has a problem also because the popular movement sectors recognized that he was given back gains that they had. It's like today's language in the labor movement again. A lot of the managers are saying you have to give back. They say, "No, they don't want to do that." "Well, you can't do it." So they give 'em back. Now, what happened is that all of the folks in '84 saw that the United States wanted, by virtue of the international debt foreign policy money thing, wanted 56:00to have someone in power who could be their person. The person that the United States elected was Nicolas Ardito Barletta. Barletta was a protégée of George Schultz, who was with the international bank. He knew Torrijos but he was a technocrat, had no political savvy.

MARKS: Panama is crucial as a banking center, right? All the servicing.

RUSSELL: It was. Panama was the Switzerland of Central America. The whole thing.

MARKS: This goes back, right? This is not something new.

RUSSELL: '68. The infra structure was created since '68. There are so many banks in Panama.

MARKS: Whenever I see a shot of Panama City, it's like downtown Miami.

RUSSELL: More than that, downtown Miami could not, no-- Any bank in the world had a spot in Panama City. Some of it was money laundered, I guess, but 57:00whatever. They were there and they are there. But the key was that in '84 the United States wanted Barletta and the military agreed to have Barletta and they formed what was called UNADE, the Democratic National Union of three major parties. That was the Liberal Party, the PRD, which was the party that was supposed to have been the vehicle through which Torrijos could have become elected president and change from the military style government into the other one. Because we've had a general who was elected before, Jose Antonio Ramon Cantera was elected popularly. In fact, very few people disagree that he was not elected legitimately. He was well liked. He was killed. He was assassinated. But--The U.S. also accused him of drugs, too, and they accused his wife of 58:00drugs, too. That's a long-standing story. I'm not saying it's true. I'm not saying it is not true. I'm just saying they were allegations. But the struggle there is not about that. When Barletta could not deal with the internal political problems of Panama, he began also to give back. He began also to do a lot of the things that the people in the public did not want. Even the opposition called his presidency fraudulent. What I'm talking about opposition, the guy who was presently financing the opposition, a guy by the name of Gabriel Luis Galindo was Ardito Barletta's campaign manager in the '84 election. That's who he was. Now he's on the other side. I guess he saw the light. His own 59:00interests. He's the guy that brought the Shah of Iran to Panama.

MARKS: He saw the--And put him on that island.

RUSSELL: Tortola. On his villa, on his place. So he is a rich person, made a lot of money. When we're talking about that in Panama you have to take it out about the personality and understand that it's really a struggle for power and a struggle for retaining the fundamental changes that many Panamanians want to see happen. We don't get caught in our democracy because I don't know what that really means anymore. In Nicaragua, under Somoza there are elections, and Somoza won every year. In Guatemala, the same thing. So, what are they saying? It really doesn't matter. And with the fact that in 1999 is when we are supposed to get the canal back and the United States does not really want that because the bases, is part of its international geopolitical strategy. In the Malvinas Islands, in a struggle between Argentina and Britain, the United States used the 60:00island of Galeta, which is right in front of Colón as a center of communication.

MARKS: Is that right?

RUSSELL: Sure. It's still there. You see, Panama was used to train most of the Green Berets, most of the counter-insurgency. The school is still there in Panama. Panama has been an integral part of that relationship with the United States and training. So in fact, that's why we clearly say if there was an attempt by the United States to attack Panama militarily, sure, United States would win, but there would be a whole lot of dead bodies coming back here. The body count would be so high because Panamanians have trained Americans to fight in the jungles. Not only that, they are good. You don't want to mess with them just like that. I'm not saying they would win, but believe me it would be a heavy cost. So what I'm trying to suggest is that where we are going as a people here in Brooklyn, we're still a people in search of identity in my judgment. We 61:00identify cerebrally with the country. We send money home. We travel.

MARKS: There's a lot of visiting?

RUSSELL: Sure. My two sons are there right now. They go every year. My daughters would go. Every summer you go there; three, four, five, six days you go for. When, I gave a speech once when one of the presidents spoke here [unintelligible] and we pointed out that if every Panamanian here--we said we had about a hundred-and-fifty-thousand in the area--if one-tenth of them sent ten dollars a month--

MARKS: That would change the--

RUSSELL: No, but they do. A great part of the economy in Panama is supported by funds that come from here.

MARKS: And it's a one-to-one. The dollar is the exchange.

RUSSELL: One-for-one.

MARKS: So it's a one-to-one. It's pumping it right in to the--


RUSSELL: It's invisible money into the economy. It's taken Panama a long time to acknowledge that, but they're beginning to acknowledge that by talking about the possibility of having Panamanians abroad vote, which is not true in the past. You see, we can't vote in Panama. We'd have to go to Panama to vote.

MARKS: But Colombians can vote. I think Colombians can.

RUSSELL: Yes, because they have special relationships. Colombians can go to their Consulate and Dominicans can do the same thing.

MARKS: Because I know that they have campaigns in Queens, the Colombians.

RUSSELL: Of course. We have been arguing for that. I don't know whether or not that will happen, but that's where we are. I don't know what you--

MARKS: Pat Ettrick talked about the conference in the Poconos and what you were trying to do then and what happened to that movement to form a kind of front of Panamanians.

RUSSELL: Yes. Well, we attempted to form a National Conference of Panamanians and the objective there was to begin to deal socially, politically, and economically with Panamanians in the United States. My agenda has always been to have an impact of what happens in Panama. I believed then, as I believe 63:00now--it's slightly changed--that if we had been successful--what is happening--the United States attack on Panama would not have been as devastating as it is now. We have people here in the United States in all types of positions with all types of education. If we had developed a relationship at home and abroad, we would infuse that help to continue the development of Panama because in the process Panama has developed its own cadre of intellectuals and scientists and so-forth. So rather than having a "brain drain," we would have a brain infusion. Because from here we have been, we have been, when I say "fortunate--"

MARKS: So this has been a great place of advancement--

RUSSELL: In terms of personal growth. In terms of academic skill. In terms of scientific skill. In terms of what have you. I would be a liar if we did not say that there [unintelligible] advantages here. You would not be talking with me as 64:00an example. So one has to accept that. But the objective there was primarily to move to organize Panamanians to begin to infuse a sense of commitment there and here. You see, I believe also that you are going to be here you have to participate. You have to participate politically. You have to love it politically. You have to--as we used to say in the '60s--you live in the belly of the beast. What're you going to do, just think? No, and those are things that we have--

MARKS: Did there come out of the Panamanian-West Indian Heritage, did it come out of that?

RUSSELL: The Panamanian-West Indian Heritage, indirectly. Most of them, if not all, were part of it. You see, there was a man by the name of George Westerman who was a key person in terms of helping Panamanians to come from Panama to the 65:00United States and who was a teacher, a principal, an athlete. We had an affair for him and there were some folks who decided that they didn't want to have the study of the life of the Panamanian die, so they developed this thing called the Association for the Study of Panamanian West Indian History and from there grew the other thing. People like Bob Beecher, who is dead, was a key person of that. John Evans, Wilfred Wason, Samuels--Henry Samuels. These were the people that were key. We worked with them also in terms of pushing things.

MARKS: What kinds of things do you sponsor? Do you sponsor cultural--?

RUSSELL: There were conferences. There were ceremonies in which we honored the elders. We have done, published books. We have--


MARKS: Like some of the literature from the early days?

RUSSELL: Yes. In fact, when you speak with Miss Samuels ask them to give you some of the journals that we did. There are a number of them. We have honored all the athletes and all the mothers, again, keeping alive the spirit and passing the torch. That's what we have done in that area. Now, for instance, we have a group that I belong to. It's called the Committee for Nonintervention in Panama. Our role there is again to help Panamanians to understand what the political structure is all about, to help Americans understand what the struggle is about and to take positions to say that Panama is a sovereign country and the United States should not be interfering in internal politics of the country.

MARKS: Do you work with local political organizations? Have you joined up with local stru--

RUSSELL: Me? Sure! I'm the founder of Black Solidarity Day. In 1969 I started Black Solidarity Day. I was Al Vann's campaign manager when he ran for Assembly, 67:00okay, the first time, and won. I ran Reverend Jones' political campaign when he ran for Borough President. I was a consultant to Dr. King when he had the Poor People's March. I interviewed Malcolm X. I was the associate editor of the "Liberator" magazine. I've been the editor of the "Amsterdam News," Brooklyn section. I've traveled all of Africa in that vein. I've been very much involved politically.

MARKS: Do you have special relationships with other Caribbean groups? Do you?

RUSSELL: I know them all. Personally, I know them all because I've been involved. I've been an activist. What else can I tell you? That's about-- I've written plays, "Papa Shoe and Monkey Shine," that ran for-- I'm on the board of 68:00the Billie Holiday Theater. I was one of the key persons that started the Family Help. I'm a board member there. I did a play called "Nat" about Nat Turner. I was the dean of School of Contemporary Studies at Brooklyn College. I started that school from scratch. I've been the direction of SEEK at Brooklyn College and chairman of the department for years.

MARKS: What department are you in now?

RUSSELL: In the Department of Educational Services, the one started in. I left in '72 to become the dean and I'm back there again. I've taught literature at Brooklyn. I've taught politics, African and local. Those are things I've done. And I continue to be involved because it's part of what I call my diaspora world view. I just finished a new play called "Ode to Panama," which I intend to produce in the fall. It was supposed to be produced this summer but I got 69:00involved in the political thing.

MARKS: I don't know if you know Professor Sanchez Korrol at Brooklyn College. She's a Puerto Rican historian.

RUSSELL: What's her name?

MARKS: Sanchez Korrol. Yes.

RUSSELL: Maria Sanchez. I know Maria. She's the chairman of the department. I know Maria.

MARKS: Is she? She's on one of our committees. I asked--This is Virginia Sanchez Korrol.

RUSSELL: Maria Sanchez, short red hair? I know her many years. I know her, too, definitely.

MARKS: I remember asking her, I was wondering how to place Panamanian West Indians and she said that the students at Brooklyn College clearly identify themselves as Hispanic. Is this the direction that the younger generation is taking, let's say, do you think, or is it--?

RUSSELL: I am saying that many will. I would argue that. I don't think it will go back to West Indian. I think it's going more Hispanic because they perceive that as the desirable because to be West Indian at that time was undesirable, alright.

MARKS: So it's merging into a--

RUSSELL: Well, unless there is something done to alter it or to say that there 70:00should be a pluralistic approach. Mine is pluralistic, you see. I don't want to give up that reality. Yesterday when you go to Panama, the "native" would want to eat rice and peas and coconut and would like the West Indian food, but the best way--I guess--is that it's a psychological struggle in which the forces, the powerful forces determine where the people go. It's like here in the United States when power suggested that if you are Black you had to straighten your hair because good hair was straight hair, and light skin. "For cleaner, lighter complexion use Posner," and everybody tended to move with that. With the movement in the '60s in Black Power, the names--In Panama I would argue that I was one of the first persons to begin to deal with the racial thing because my best friends in Panama said there was no race problem in Panama. That we were introducing to Panama a race conscious-- What we had a problem with was class. 71:00It took them ten, fifteen years to finally recognize that it is class and race, but race plays a very important role. Now, the younger generation, devoid of the pressures of the involvement, by definition, would move with the streams that argue that they are Hispanic. But then you say, "Are you Hispanic? Are you Latin? What's it all about?" I argue that we have to be very careful. They would say that la made patria is Spanish. How can someone who oppresses you and kills the Indians be your madre patria? Your madre does not strangle you.

MARKS: I've been to Spain. There is not a shred that I can feel of Caribbean anything. Like, if you go to Madrid, musically forget it. There's not a taste, a hint of anything "new world."

RUSSELL: See, we have allowed European values to dominate us and we have lost the sense of what that value that would emerge in Hispano America or Caribbean 72:00America. That's what I'm talking about must emerge. I think that we have to get rid psychologically of the European domination. Frantz Fanon talks about it. Aimee Cesaire talks about it. We have to begin to regain that sense of what it is. So when you say they are going to be Hispanics, if you mean become Hispanics and become New Europeans, then that's a sad day.

MARKS: I don't. You know what I mean.

RUSSELL: I understand you, but what I'm saying is if, if that is what would occur. Let me rephrase it. If what is intended is that European thing, then that's not Hispanic to me.

MARKS: I don't mean that at all, by "Hispanic." I don't like the term "Hispanic," anyway. But I mean sort of Hispanic Afro Caribbean.

RUSSELL: How do we deal with it? We talk--I was telling Jackie the other day. She was reading a book. It's called "A View from Coyoba," which is written by Peter Abrams. For the first time, she began to understand that the Spaniards 73:00eliminated the Arawaks, the Tainos. Totally, and the only one that's still--was the Caribs and the Caribs, because they were afraid of the Caribs, and thought they were cannibals. Though you can still find pockets of the Caribs in Honduras and Dominica and things like that. People have to understand that. How am I going to say "mi madre patria", when I know what they did?

MARKS: This is interesting because the theme of this is "Hispanic" culture, singular, in Brooklyn, which to me is absurd. I see in the press Hispanic can mean Chicano from LA. We have a member, whom I won't mention, of our board who was suggesting we do decorated cars, like the stereotype. I just looked at her and I cancelled it after she was out. There's a stereotype--I think my whole purpose in this exhibit is to show, for example, we have everything from a Cuban Yoruba artist to quadrilles. The range of what is called Hispanic--and that's what I want to show in the exhibit. The dynamic is there in Panama.


RUSSELL: You find everything in Panama. For instance, in Panama we learn to dance the quadrille.

MARKS: What's incredible to--I'm interviewing Sylvia Fisher, the Cotillion Society. I've seen them in East New York. They're doing caledonias. This blew my mind. I'll tell you about it after this, but there's going to be a program of dance at the Museum of Natural History.

RUSSELL: Jackie used to be the director of the New Muse on Bedford and she used to have the Panamanians using the place to do the quadrille. It's all dying out because of the--

MARKS: I think Pat told me quadrille is dying out in Panama. It's a fossil. It's like Brooklyn is preserving an old form.

RUSSELL: Exactly, because the same phenomenon of Hispanization is swamping everything and they're losing the beauty of what we had by virtue of saying you want to become something else. Now everybody wants to dance the tamborito and the cumbia, and they fail to understand that when you listen to the cumbia you hear the African drums. [unintelligible] I was in Uganda one year and these 75:00people came over singing for us and beating the drums, and immediately I went back to Panama. I said, "Wait a minute."

MARKS: It's like the Cubans in Angola. They're jamming in Angolan villages.

RUSSELL: But it's, it's--People forget that. Or that--

MARKS: It's the geopolitics and the return to Africa.

RUSSELL: There we go. No, I agree. For Fidel to send soldiers to fight Angola was not unusual because it was after-- Let me see if I can remember correctly. Most of the warriors that fought against the Spanish in Cuba were from Angola and sent back to that island. I'm blocking the name. Right in front of the coast of Angola. [unintelligible]

MARKS: Cape Verde.

RUSSELL: Cape Verde. They sent them back there because they were the warriors and they fought. So it was like a bridge. We have allowed, yeah, to destroy us. So when you ask me, "What am I?" or some Jamaican would say, "Are you West 76:00Indian?" I say, "What are you talking about?" There's no purity. It's not pure anymore. It's a tapestry, the culture.

MARKS: Like in the Dominican Republic you have the north, Samana. You have people sent back from Philadelphia repatriated there. They were doing Anglican hymns from the 18th century or from Nevis. To me, my discovery is that Afro-America, the thing is, it's like any other culture. You have multilingualism. You have many groups. You have regions.

RUSSELL: You just said about the Anglican, well, in Uganda these people sang acapella, a hymn. I played it here. If I can find the tape, I'll play it for you and let you hear it.

MARKS: That you remember? In the Dominican Republic, somebody in 1980, when Princess Di got married they recognized these anthems from Samana. They were brought in the 18th century. It's like me looking at East New York at these Caledonias. I'm seeing a piece of England transported to Barbados and Jamaica, 77:00then into Panama, and into Brooklyn.

RUSSELL: Oh, I can dance it. I can dance the quadrille. Yes, come on. In fact, the other people forget as that here on the coast of the Carolinas, South, the Geechees, if you hear them speak, they sound like Caribbeans. But, no, you see in Barbados when the big planters got rid of the small planters, the small planters left and came to South Carolina and the coast with their slaves and everybody. So what do they eat? Rice? It's the whole same thing.

MARKS: And rice is probably, it's an African--the Bahamas were settled by Loyalists, fleeing.

RUSSELL: My sense is that people like to channel and need facile names because it is easier, but in truth it is not that easy. When they talk about Hispanic, I say, "Come to Panama. If you want culture, the French culture, I can take you to 78:00Panama where they speak French."

MARKS: Which is left over from the--The French is left over from?

RUSSELL: The Dutch. Guadeloupe, and the canal, from the building of the canal and from the railroad, I'm sorry, the canal. They have it. When my mother got married to my stepfather, his ex-wife's mother was Hayott, and they used to call my mother Duda. All she used to do was speak French. That's all she was, and she wore the turban. She was from Martinique and all her kids, Jackie, Love, Immanuel, are French in terms of Creole.

MARKS: If I were to--I haven't asked anybody this yet, but when I think about doing the Panamanian section of the exhibit, what do you think would be representative to show the range? I would have to show everything.


RUSSELL: If you could show the range.

MARKS: I would have to show, in a sense, the pure West Indian that's being preserved, right? Let's say the Quadrille Society.

RUSSELL: You could show the quadrille, but you know something? Most of these folks would be ashamed of the quadrille. They would be. But tell them: The cumbia, because this is a new thing, and the tamborito, that everybody wants to do. The dress is pretty. But I would say that what I try to do now is whenever we have an affair we want to have the quadrille and the cumbia to retain that thing because we don't want them to die. Yeah.

MARKS: You want them side by side.

RUSSELL: Let's say, you open the program with the quadrille, you close it with a tamborito.

MARKS: I'm putting together this program for the Museum of Natural History in November and I was told that it's the first time that the two Panamanian groups are going to be side by side. I wanted to open with a quadrille and then it's going to go into cumbia.

RUSSELL: Which groups are you working with?

MARKS: It's Sylvia Fisher, the square dance, the Cotillion, and with Geno Canales.


RUSSELL: See, with Geno you have the other group. Geno's not the only group.

MARKS: But this woman who lives in--I've heard of a woman.

RUSSELL: Hilda Diaz.

MARKS: Yes, she's the one I heard about. She's in Manhattan.

RUSSELL: Geno Canales and then there's Panama Soberana. Geno, because he's in Brooklyn, has usurped that, but he's new. He's new and his only claim to fame is that he danced with Pepita Escobar. In great measure, in great measure, the people that set the tone for keeping the tamborito alive is the Panamanian Hilda Diaz and Panama Soberana.

MARKS: Is Soberana aquí, here in Brooklyn?

RUSSELL: No, all in Manhattan. What we tried to do was to pull them all together and to have a national thing in the city right here. Again, there are too many internal political things.

MARKS: Do those groups, do they do any of the West Indian things?

RUSSELL: No. No, no.

MARKS: They don't? It has not passed the other way.

RUSSELL: Exactly, you see. Because that's chombo, that's máquino, and they 81:00don't want to do that. The truth is that then [unintelligible], that's tamborito.

MARKS: Which part--Do you use Sylvia Fisher's group?

RUSSELL: There's only one that I--There were two, but that's the only one that has remained. The other one was Ruben, I'm forgetting, but he moved back to Panama.

MARKS: I spoke to a man, Edmond King.


MARKS: He put me onto Sylvia Fisher.

RUSSELL: Yeah, I know--Yes, because he was part of the same group.

MARKS: But I had this incredible sense when I was watching it that I was seeing this--

RUSSELL: He's a dancer. He's the one. He is the King, sure. In fact, the place was on Kingston between St. John and Lincoln Place where they had the place for quite a while.

MARKS: So to have the quadrille at a social function is a political statement, would you say?

RUSSELL: It's a political statement for the West Indian Panamanians.

MARKS: Right, for the West Indians. They are insisting on retaining that.

RUSSELL: Those that are doing that, still, but I'm saying the younger ones. I would argue that there are not many young people that know how to do it anymore.

MARKS: Right, or won't do it.

RUSSELL: Or won't do it.

MARKS: Or it's something they did when they were growing up.


RUSSELL: I did it over 50 years ago, that's Pat and myself. We used to dance in the field.

MARKS: I haven't interviewed Sylvia, but I suspect-- I don't know how political she is.

RUSSELL: I would not believe she understands the political--

MARKS: I don't think so, but it's very interesting that they're doing it to preserve it, but yet it can take on this other political--

RUSSELL: Of course. But, you see, I guess that's the reality of many things. When you do something, it can have a political meaning, but that does not mean that you know that it has a political meaning at the time that you're doing it.

MARKS: Right. My background is in anthropology and folklore and I'm more and more convinced that ideology is, folklore is ideology. People might not know it, but what gets performed, when it gets performed, you make a statement just by getting up and dancing a certain dance or singing a certain style.

RUSSELL: Because it's reflective of what you believe.

MARKS: To do it--I can know from certain people from the Dominican Republic if they're singing in a style, I know their politics. Or Puerto Rico. It tells you its--


RUSSELL: Sure. Because there are certain parts of a country whose political perceptions are interwoven with their cultural behavior. Now, if you went to Panama and you went with the high class, they would never dance quadrille and very few would dance the tamborito.

MARKS: What would they dance? Contra dance?

RUSSELL: They would dance one of the vals, vals peruanos. Sure.

MARKS: Sort of a Latinized waltz, salon.

RUSSELL: It would be sanitized salon thing. Only those who want to demonstrate or show that they are still with the people would get down and do the other, or they would sit back and watch the tamborito and clap.

MARKS: Well, I've seen internal tourism in Latin America. Like Dominicans going into these confradias to watch Dominican folklore, but as foreigners essentially.


RUSSELL: So they would not do it themselves. They may have their daughter, if she's--dance a ballet, a French ballet. That's fine.

MARKS: Is there a national policy? What are they promoting, in terms of populism?

RUSSELL: I think that presently Panama has changed, Panama--my judgment again-- is projecting a more nationalistic perspective. The politics is interwoven now. You will see the tamborito. You will see [unintelligible]. Panama has always been a very nationalistic country. Poets--The poems reflect a popular culture and a desire for control of country.

MARKS: Since the days of Colombia. Since the days of Gran Colombia.

RUSSELL: Yes, always. That always has been. [unintelligible] I don't remember. 85:00The term is that if you see that destiny puts cowardice in the hearts of the Panamanians, the flag should come down converted in fire and kill them for not being strong enough to stand up. It's always been a nationalistic place. You have in fact, "Chimbombo," which talks about this Negro that was playing the drum and this woman was dancing and she went away with a White boy. The first--In fact, Sylvester Tenorio Ruiz in '71 once said that it was the first time in poetry in Panama that he remembers that a Black man killed a White man for messing with his woman and got away with it. But that's the poem. That is 86:00considered one of the best Panamanian poems. It's not called--No, it's called "Incidente de Cumbia."

MARKS: Sort of like Nicolas Guillen, an Afro-Panamanian feeling.

RUSSELL: We know it as "Chimbombo." Yeah. Well, Nicolas Guillen is perhaps, in my judgment, is much more political and much more African, using the rhythm and the words and meaning and so-forth. "You have to be careful," he sings it. That's the key. There's a lot of marriage to that, I would argue.

MARKS: Could I ask you about costeno culture in Panama?

RUSSELL: Costeno culture is also doing the same thing, but in Colón you find now that you have a lot of African. They're Congo.

MARKS: Were there palenques?

RUSSELL: Congos and palenques, there you go. You would find that they have, 87:00especially on the coast, they have a lot of the African things with them still.

MARKS: These really were palenques? They still bear the name? These were cimarrones and--

RUSSELL: Yes, of course, palenques and cimarrones. When you say that now with palenques and cimarrones, were the escaped slaves that went into the hills and kept their own--

MARKS: And formed their own--the culture is still different, right?

RUSSELL: --communities. It's different, but it's only different when they are by themselves.

MARKS: Otherwise they pass. So in Jamaica there are maroon communities where--

RUSSELL: Sure, again. Did you read "View from Coyoba" by--?


RUSSELL: You'd like that. Read it.

MARKS: I had a friend who did work in maroon communities in Jamaica.

RUSSELL: He talks about the beginning of the first maroon communities, but he talks as a part of a novel. He's not talking about it as a community, per se, but it plays a very important role in terms of understanding what you're saying because then the behavior is different--

MARKS: So essentially costenos are descendants of the maroons?


RUSSELL: Part of them are, I'm sure, because when Balboa came to Panama there was a strong maroon community.

MARKS: This is going back to 15-something?

RUSSELL: 1516 or something.

MARKS: Almost 500 years.

RUSSELL: Of course, it's still--

MARKS: In Colombia, too, there are all palenque.

RUSSELL: In Panama the Vasco Nunez de Balboa and Sir Francis Drake were helped a great deal by the cimarrones and the maroons.

MARKS: This is 15--This is amazing. They were rebelling? And Los Congos--I know this--

RUSSELL: Sure. They always have been.

MARKS: --guy named Smith at Indiana University, he's done a dissertation on Los Congos.

RUSSELL: What's his name, his first name?

MARKS: I forget his first name. I was supposed to be on some panel with him but I haven't seen the thing yet. But he's done the whole thing on Los Congos in Panama.

RUSSELL: It could be. It could be. I'm not an expert on that.

MARKS: That's a separate, that's another whole separate component.

RUSSELL: Well, the question you see--It would be interesting to deal with that. If you find someone from Colón. Oh, I know who will talk to you about that. There's a--her name is Julia Wilson. You don't have her name, no, you don't have 89:00her name. Carlos Wilson.

MARKS: Carlos gave me some other names. It's funny. I was sitting on the train with his record and someone was looking over my shoulder, a Panameño, so he gave me his name. Yes, he gave me these people to talk to also. That's his sister.

RUSSELL: This is Alonzo Wilson's sister. Daniel went to school with me. Carlos is the guy from California. He has two or three books, also. Julia just finished making a movie.

MARKS: Are there any costenos in Brooklyn?

RUSSELL: That's why I'm giving you Julia Wilson.

MARKS: Great. You know why? I like to get every side.

RUSSELL: I'm giving you Julia Wilson. I don't know if what I said makes any sense to you.

MARKS: It makes fantastic sense.

RUSSELL: And that's where you'll find a great number of them at this point.


MARKS: Great.

RUSSELL: That's it.

MARKS: Okay. Is there anything?

RUSSELL: You ask me what you want.

MARKS: I think we've covered a lot. I was going to ask you about the future of the community in Brooklyn but I don't know if we have time.

RUSSELL: I don't know. Alonso, I know Alonso plays a very important role. Again, part of the change is, there was a time when Alonso's music--he may not even have touched it--

MARKS: Windsor.

RUSSELL: That's his--The type of music that he plays; West Indian, Son Windsor, but it's his.

MARKS: Son Windsor by [unintelligible] That's the record he gave me.

RUSSELL: Which song? He only gave you one record but I'm talking about the impact and the music establishment was that everything during the period I was coming up reflected that.

MARKS: This was the '50s?

RUSSELL: '50s.

MARKS: This was the calypso?

RUSSELL: That was popular music.

MARKS: Like Latin calypso.


RUSSELL: Calypso was very much there, too. Now you don't hear that. [unintelligible]

MARKS: This is distinctly Panamanian, Panamanian calypso? That's swamped also.

RUSSELL: Everything is swamped. The music has changed.

MARKS: The old stuff is swamped and this sort of intermediate thing was swamped.

RUSSELL: It's not being created in that sense anymore.

MARKS: There was a Panamanian named Menique, but he was a straight salsero who sang in New York. It was like a straight salsa, or international--straight out.

RUSSELL: Sure. Or you talk, Basilio is international but you don't know it's straight out. But I'm saying Alonso's music was the one that was used and that at the heyday of West Indian influence in Panama. We participated in sports; baseball, boxing. The '50s and the '60s. We controlled the sports in the country itself. [unintelligible] When you see Mrs. Samuels ask them to give you the last 92:00book of the athletes that we did. Music.

MARKS: And this is what was coming into Brooklyn in the '50s.

RUSSELL: Exactly.

MARKS: Pat told me it was like a very tight group. Everybody ran together and this is the music that you would hear here.

RUSSELL: If you came--You wouldn't hear Spanish music proper.

MARKS: Right. You'd hear this Panamanian calypso.

RUSSELL: You would hear Alonso music. You would hear all the clubs' music. You would hear calypso. You who'd be good just to get a--

MARKS: Would there be straight out calypso, let's say, and Panamanian calypso? You'd be listening to both? It could be from--

RUSSELL: Sure, listen. Straight Panamanian calypso. "The other night I met up with a gentleman." Lord Cobra. But it was Panamanian. This guy who owns--

MARKS: I didn't want to get into it, but my main area is music. What I would like to show is how music reflects the dynamic because that's the place where

RUSSELL: You know, this guy here, if you really want to get the sense of a West Indian from another perspective; Walter Livingston.


MARKS: You know what's amazing? This is obvious, but everybody has another angle. Everybody has their take.

RUSSELL: No, but, you see, because we grew up in different communities. The bar is called Walterio's. I don't remember the number. Ask for Walter Livingston.

MARKS: Yes, I've heard of Walterio's, that's the place. When we do the photography part we're going to photograph the cantinas like Walterio's and La Villa. And that's rough?

RUSSELL: La Villa, La Villa is a basement.

MARKS: And I've heard of Michelle's Lounge.

RUSSELL: Michelle's, yeah. And you have Scorpio. I don't know many more, more. That's it.

MARKS: I just have one more thing. My feeling is that Panamanian West Indies, the main thrust of the organizations is social and your attempt was really political. As that has continued--But there are those who--still are essentially doing social--the majority--

RUSSELL: Political, yes. My approach is that in order to achieve political 94:00objectives one has to deal with where the people are and most of the people are still into social and doing good. So what one does is use the good approach to achieve a political end, and the political end as we see it is the development of the country.

MARKS: Pat told me that when you did the Poconos thing it was still in a sense disguised. I mean, it had a social feeling but it was essentially a political mobilization. Would you say that's true?

RUSSELL: It was no disguise. It was clear. We dealt with economics. We had all of the political leadership from Panama there.

MARKS: But it was organized as a social kind of conference?

RUSSELL: We have done a conference here, an oral history conference. Anything we do is reflective of that sense of who we are. I'll give you a couple of books on the members.


MARKS: So the Dedicators represents sort of an old fashioned kind of--

RUSSELL: It's not old fashioned. Old fashioned is pejorative, you see. What I'm saying is that the Dedicators is perhaps the oldest organization with one objective which is the giving of scholarships. They do fund-raising benefits, and they have given scholarships.

MARKS: To people in the community.

RUSSELL: In the community. In fact, I told you Roberto Reed, who's a doctor, he got a scholarship from them. Robertson, scholarship from them. So they have done good work.

MARKS: But this is rooted in the West Indian community.

RUSSELL: In the West Indian. The Altamiras, the Servidoras. It's, I guess, a religious thing. Do good works. Protestant ethic. If you have, you give.

MARKS: Tied into someone with upwardly mobility.

RUSSELL: We have been fortunate. Let's share our goodies with the rest.


MARKS: Which is probably why you did so well in the U.S. Because of the same ethic.

RUSSELL: Of course. Of course. All I'm simply saying is that there's nothing wrong with that. I view that as a positive, but I think that the work is more than that because if you do not get involved in the political thing, then the oppression continues--

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Carlos Russell

Dr. Carlos Russell was born in Panama. Dr. Russell grew up in the two Panamas, the West Indian and the Latino/a one. His parents were separated, so he lived in Panama City with his mother and would travel to the ''West Indian'' city of Colón to see his father. He studied at the National Institute in Panama and attended the Episcopal Church. In 1955 Dr. Russell left Panama and went to Chicago. There, Dr. Russell got involved in politics in the Panamanian-West Indian community and also in the Black American community. Later, after having spent a number of years in Brooklyn, he was instrumental in arranging the National Conference of Panamanians in the Poconos, and is a founder of ''El Bahiano,'' the first Panamanian-West Indian newspaper to be published in both English and Spanish. As a Dean of the School of Contemporary Studies at Brooklyn College, he along with others began to promote cultural activities and to participate more in Panamanian politics both here and in Panama. In 1988, he resided in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn.

In the interview, Dr. Carlos Russell recalls that he and his family were in the "diaspora'' of Panamanian-West Indians. His grandparents came from Barbados and Jamaica, and other relatives came from some of the French West Indies. He opines that in Panama many of the West Indians who spoke English in the past have now turned to Spanish because English speakers were looked down upon. In the seventies and eighties, however, things changed and some Panamanians of West Indian descent have been appointed to government positions. Dr. Russell thinks that most of the youngsters who come to the United States from Panama in 1988 are not as ambitious as his generation, and the few who are politically active identify more with Latin America than with the West Indies. This attitude is prevalent in Panama as well, where there is a major Latinization among the West Indian descended communities. Interview conducted by Morton Marks.

Brooklyn Historical Society initiated the Hispanic Communities Documentation Project in 1988. Over fifty interviews were conducted to document the experiences of Brooklyn residents who arrived from Puerto Rico, Panama, Ecuador, and several other Central and South American nations in the latter half of the twentieth century. This collection includes recordings and transcripts of interviews conducted between 1988 and 1989. The oral histories often contain descriptions of immigration, living arrangements, neighborhood demographics, discrimination, employment, community development, and political leadership. Also included are photographs and printed ephemera.


Russell, Carlos, Oral history interview conducted by Morton Marks, August 10, 1988, Hispanic Communities Documentation Project records and oral histories, 1989.004.11; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Brooklyn College
  • Noriega, Manuel
  • Russell, Carlos
  • Torrijos, Omar
  • Wason, Wilfred


  • Caribbean Americans
  • Education
  • Emigration and immigration
  • English as a second language
  • Immigrants
  • Panamanian Americans
  • Political participation
  • Race discrimination
  • West Indian Americans


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Panama


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Hispanic Communities Documentation Project records and oral histories