The Panama Canal, completed in 1914, creates a borderland of North and South. The nation of Panamá was invented by it, a consequence of centuries of Spanish occupation and US imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The canal initiated a series of migrations and dislocations, including those of thousands of Afro-Caribbeans who came to Panamá to excavate and build. Its construction produced a public spectacle of empire —photography, cinema, journalistic accounts — punctuated by the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that celebrated its completion. The US occupied the Canal Zone, a 553-square-mile strip of land including and on either side of the canal, from 1903 to 1979, and the School of the Americas was founded in 1946. Looking at this dense site of coloniality, the decolonial aesthetic project of this essay is to evoke and elaborate an ancestrality, a form of decolonial thought, the “lived philosophies and collective memories that constantly reconstruct historical, cultural, and spiritual ties and energies and rearticulate feelings of belonging within everyday life” (Walsh 2005, 14). In conversation with the work of the artist Enrique Castro Ríos, my own video art, and a tracing of the canal’s digital archive, I build from the canal’s waters, with its transparencies and opacities, towards a polysemic ancestrality.
Enrique Castro Ríos
Screen shot of Memorias del Hijo del Viejo, 2004
Available on YouTube
As I watch his video on YouTube, the artist Enrique Castro Ríos tells me about his birthplace. It is also my birthplace. It is the Panama Canal. The video draws me in, with time for pauses and reflection during downloading, creating a digital space of interlocution in which I hear echoes of familiar stories. In these moments of stillness and reflection, it becomes clear that the stories of the Panama Canal are multiple, with many genealogies. Voices emerge from different time-spaces of the canal, hidden waters and forgotten sounds. This is a collective production.
Enrique Castro Ríos begins Memorias del Hijo del Viejo (2004), with water. This water carries a boat. The boat carries a cargo. It floats in the Panama Canal. The cargo is birth. The cargo is death. The waters of the canal support both.
América is the name of Enrique Castro Ríos’s mother.
America is also my mother.
We are both her children.
The videotape asks me, how might we rebirth the sign of our mother(s)? How might we reimagine this birthplace? How might we recreate our relationships to each other, sons and daughters of the canal?
“The Land Divided, The World United”: This phrase adorns the seal of the Panama Canal. This is whispered in our ears: the global transit of people, languages, cosmologies, and things; the colonial quests of the US and Europe; the extraction of gold from the Americas. The waters of the canal carry all of these histories, and something else. It is a birthplace for our bodies and our stories. There are multiple divisions and unexpected unities. We look. We listen. We sense the canal, feel its waters flowing over us. Our bodies are the land divided and the world united.
Ríos speaks in voice-over: “The waters of two oceans come together in the canal that has swayed my country’s history and the story of my parents. Does their story echo history or is it the other way around? My mother América. My father, Memo.”
These words float across the screen as he speaks these last phrases: [my latin America] . . . [my memories].
“But what are memories?” Ríos continues.
And again, across the screen: Just cargo [just cause] for the vessel of oblivion.
Now enters the image of a cargo ship, partial view. The edges of the frame are slowly filled to bursting with this immense load. The cargo exceeds the frame. This is a wide shot, but it is still not wide enough. We need something more, another technics, to see this. This would be a decolonial seeing.
A series of visual technologies birthed the canal. Three-point perspective, the panoramic painting, the lens, the stereoscopic photograph, and cinema emerge in tandem with the geopolitical and epistemological constructions that effect “America.” These technologies materialize it from the vanishing point of the constructed horizon. The horizon births the time-space of the “New World.” Without the horizon, there is no “unknown” and there is no “New World”:
The word “horizon” first occurred in scientific contexts and descriptions as part of a mathematical construction rather than as an objective fact. The concept itself was developed as part of an effort to explore previously unknown territories. The horizon is an important element in nautical reckoning of a ship’s position and thus in precise navigation; without the concept of the horizon the discovery of the New World would not have been possible (Oettermann 1997, 8).
The horizon is the line between the now, the here, and the spatial and temporal beyond. The conceptual and material manifestation of the lens is inscribed with this chrono- and geopolitics. The fixed perspective analogues the episteme. The colonial lens situates the subject as center, as “being,” in relation to a vanishing point, “nonbeing” (Maldonado-Torres, 2004). The lens, both mother and child of the visualities of coloniality, carries within its very logic the memory of its primary voyage across the sea, a search for the place beyond that completes the frame. There are other vanishing points that eventuate “America,” and eventually “Latin America”: Africa and Asia (Mignolo, 2005 & 2000). The cosmologies of the people of the Americas, and colonized people across the globe, are covered over in a movement of epistemic and geopolitical colonization, co-productions of alterity. This movement works in multiple directions and effects a series of displacements and disruptions of people and knowledges. The lens, photography, and cinema become part of this assemblage of technologies. At the canal, alongside the fixed time of the railways and the regular demarcations of the railroad ties, the sprocket holes of the cinematic apparatus fixes these movements, to deaden time: “This city of the beyond is the City of Dead Time” (Virilio 1983, 6).
But Enrique Castro Ríos suggests an other time, an other canal —disorderly time-spaces and excess movements — as he looks through the lens, and loses the horizon to cargo. This boat and its cargo are seen from both memory and the future, through an abyss. It is all cargo. This is all we can see. It is all here and now, and always has been. The boxes of red, blue, and gold are massive and mute. Their angles allude to the flat, silent harmonies and geometries of the assemblages of technology that have imagined and constructed the canal, the multiple perfections of its modernity. In Ríos’s composition, these squares are unmoored, floating across the screen as they explode its parameters. They follow an inexorable logic of movement. They are pregnant. Their colors spill. They lose their shape against the cut of the frame. Their determined mobility works against the logic of this center.
Ríos’s lens enables and remembers multiple fragments. It carries the contradiction of its limits, infused with the multiplicities of its encounters. It not only has two sides, and two points of entry. It has been made porous by the memories of all who have seen through it, traveled through it. This seeing beyond the horizon moves in multiple directions, not only out towards conquered lands. Infinite disconnections and reconnections occur, rather than the cinematic production of a “motionless and continuous whole” (Baudry 1981, 45). The lens is dislodged and made infinitely mobile, with each placement a relocation and delocation of a decolonial subject.
Ríos asks: “I wonder, does my story echo history? Or is it the other way around?”
I ask, “What is this cargo? What is this inheritance that the boat brings?”
To further understand this, I turn to Édouard Glissant, who tells of the boat, and of the “womb abyss,” as a birthplace of the Caribbean:
What is terrifying partakes of the abyss, three times linked to the unknown. First, the time you fell into the belly of the boat. For, in your poetic vision, a boat has no belly; a boat does not swallow up, does not devour; a boat is steered by open skies. Yet, the belly of this boat dissolves you, precipitates you into a nonworld from which you cry out. This boat is a womb, a womb abyss. It generates the clamor of your protests; it also produces all the coming unanimity. Although you are alone in this suffering, you share in the unknown with others whom you have yet to know. This boat is your womb, a matrix, and yet it expels you. This boat: pregnant with as many dead as living under sentence of death (1997, 6).
This is the middle passage. The womb abyss is a living time-space that is a body-archive. It is the unknown that we share, the “nonworld” that is our world.
My video, La Zona del Canal/Canal Zone (1994), also considers what is known of the unknown waters of the canal and its cargos: displacements, migrations, wars. My mother speaks to me in it. I put a lens between us. A microphone is positioned. Granddaughter of the Guaymi, dressed in a beautiful white silk shirt, she addresses me in a tongue she has made her own: Spanish. This is not an easy telling. There is much that she tells, and much that she cannot tell. This incompleteness is necessary. This is not a story; this is a passage. In my film, I call this section “matriz” (womb). This womb is not a place of comfort. It is neither beginning nor end. My mother is my horizon, my center, a passage. I look through the lens. Her light gathers and focuses itself on the lens and reverses itself back out to my retina. The horizon is not an end point beyond which we must travel. It is a transient mark. The horizon is right in front of us. This precipitates an endless series of passages, many tales and songs.
Trinh T. Minh-ha writes, “The world’s earliest archives or libraries are the memories of women” (1992, 36).
Condensations of memories are carried by my mother’s song. History is given to us in the echoes of thick melodies such as these. Melancholia emerges. Enrique Castro Ríos hears it. This music emerges from the canal and its tributaries, becomes our collective inheritance. It sustains a profound interval, an abyss, the time-space of the Canal.
“America.” [my latin America] “Memo.” [my memories].
What is this inheritance that is the abyss?
“This experience of the abyss can now be said to be the best element of exchange”
(Glissant 1997, 8).
Dalida María Benfield
Installation view, Hotel/Panama, 2010
Video installation, Estéticas Decoloniales exhibition
Espacio Parqueadero, Bogotá, Colombia, 2010
The abyss of the digital archive bears the traces of many bodies. Fragments, inconsistencies, and incompletions — this is what I find of the canal’s genealogies online, in a process through which I now compose another series of videos, Hotel/Panama (2010-present).
I find a woman’s voice, refracted through layers of transcription. What I know, I know because she tells me. September 23, 1906, 107 years ago, Charles Odle, aged 19, dies. I learn this from my computer screen. I imagine that it was initially handwritten in a ledger. Much later, these words were typed into a computer, digitized between 1979 and 1991 for the Index to the Gorgas Hospital Mortuary Death Records, 1906-1991, US National Archives and Records Administration. I read it now. My eyes come to rest upon this name, amongst all the others, and I am learning it for the first time.
You, Mary, his mother, have shared it with me. You are listed on the record as “RESPONSIBLE PERSON.” I think you know how he died. You were there, at least at the moment that someone with a ledger asked for your son’s name. The record doesn’t list the cause of death. I think it’s why you may have wanted his name to be properly recorded. Your name is there also: “MARY ODLE-MOTHER.” And his: “ODLE, CHARLES.” Charles’ nationality is listed as “BARBARDIAN.” His “STATUS” is “EMPLOYEE,” employed by “BUILDING CONST.” He died at “CUL/HOS/CZ” (Culebra Hospital in the Canal Zone). His remains were laid to rest at ” GRAVE NO. 191″ in “CUL/CEM” (Culebra Cemetery). “RACE”-“BLACK.”
Is Charles still there? The cemetery may have been washed away, when the Culebra Cut was completed and the waters flowed through. There are many of these graveyards, of the “Silver People,” tended to only by those families who remember. I would have to go myself and look for it. Perhaps my cousin, Jorge, would accompany me on this journey, since he knows the canal well, from the rigging of the 500-foot-high ships he scales to link the boats to the trains that pull them through the Culebra Cut. When my cousin lived in El Chorrillo, just beside the Bridge of the Americas, we would often walk together to the top of Cerro Ancón to look at the canal and the sea. El Chorrillo was bombed in 1989. But he returns, daily, to the canal. My cousin is a link from land to sea.
The big hospital was there, in Ancon. Perhaps Charles Odle was injured at the Culebra Cut, then taken to Ancon. It would have been a lengthy distance. The Ancon Hospital (later named the Gorgas Hospital) was in the middle of the American settlement of administrators, engineers, regiments, and other employees, far from the center of the digging. Those workers, with their cut, formed another horizon. They are posed in films, photographs, and stereoscopic images, often far in the distance, tiny specks. Their bodies become a reference point for both the immensity of the canal and the immortality of the “White Americans.” The figures of the workers participate in another phase, another movement of the ongoing project of horizon construction, continuing the voyages of discovery. This spatial depth requires a foreground and background. It requires a center. It requires central characters and minor ones, core and periphery.
Ancon Hospital is where we would find, on perhaps the very same day that Charles Odle dies, General William Gorgas, Chief Sanitary Officer of the Isthmian Commission. His record is also digitized, a vast archive. We know that if he were in the hospital, he would be walking through the wards, administering to the sick “White Americans.” William, or “Willie,” as he is called by his mother, knows why Charles is dead, although he probably would not know Charles’s name, or Mary’s name.
In a letter to Charles Adams that I read on my computer screen, in a window layered on top of Charles Odle’s entry in the mortuary records, Gorgas compares “Americans,” “whites” of other “nationalities,” and “negroes.” “Americans” have the lowest morbidity. “Whites” of other “nationalities,” slightly more than “Americans.” “Negroes,” the highest. Of the “negroes,” he observes the following: “But for one reason and another they have not the stamina that the whites have and suffer in all directions more than do the whites” (3).
Woman re-enacts Panama-Pacific International Exposition spectatorship, amongst current spectators
Dalida María Benfield
Still, Hotel/Panamá, 2010
Does this explain the death of “EUDOSIA MARTINEZ,” “4MO,” “BLACK,” “PANAMANIAN,” on “JAN 02 10”? She is in “GRAVE NO. 192.” Her father, Guillermo, puts her name in the ledger. I also read her name in the US National Archives. The death of the “negroes,” for Gorgas, is further proof that “white man could flourish in the tropics,” as he argues to the American Medical Association in 1909.
Amongst the many details I sift, I read a handwritten letter from Gorgas to his mother. In it he writes of the ghosts of the French: “The moonlight and the royal palms and the great pacific are outside as quiet as the grave, and in the shadows of my room I can hear the rustle of the ghosts, along the edges of the light cast by my lamp, of the dozens of gallant French engineers who gave of their lives in their gallant fight down here” (Gorgas, 1905). I see these ghosts, and others, too, who Gorgas cannot see. They form our ancestrality. The intermittances and intervals of the digital archive index the ancestrality of the canal.
In 1946, the Canal Zone is repurposed as a strategic military base.
It’s another set of wars, and another role for “Latin America.” The US Marines have already occupied Nicaragua. There’s much work to be done, and many lessons of the canal to taught to military leaders. An administration building is converted to a new institution. It’s called the “School of the Americas.” The School of the Americas trains such groups as the “Atlacatl Battalion,” a “Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion,” that is responsible for “Operación Rescate.” “Operación Rescate” results in the massacre of more than 500 men, women, and children in the village of El Mozote, El Salvador, on December 10, 1981 (Betancur et al., 1993).
The curriculum of this School of the Americas, echoing other stories, would be familiar to Bartolomé de las Casas. In A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, he remarks on the paralyzing melancholy of the “Indians” who are dispossessed, enslaved, resettled, or massacred. He gives this account of the conquest of Panamá:
It was in 1514 that a governor (Pedro Arias de Avila) landed on the Mainland. This man, who descended on the region like the wrath of God, was the cruelest of tyrants, totally devoid as he was of any feelings of mercy or even of common sense. (1542/2004, 31).
The School of the Americas is now a resort hotel.
Dalida María Benfield
Installation view. Hotel/Panama, 2010
Video installation, Decolonial Aesthetics exhibition
Fredric Jameson Gallery, Duke University, 2011
In the closing of his video, Enrique Castro Ríos records the devastation of Panama City, a city built by the Spanish conquistadors that has been ruined again and again. During Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama by the United States in 1989, large parts of it were again destroyed.
Ríos records a testimony, a mother’s voice: “George Bush, may your children never suffer what my daughter is suffering, who no longer wants to live, may your generation never suffer what our generation will. Ask God for this and ask God to forgive you for all the grief you have caused us here.”
In this testimony, in Spanish, the speaker uses the term, “ojalá.”
This means “may God grant, may God give, may God have mercy,” and emerges from the Arabic.
We find another passage here. Another cut, another wound.
This is a story of now, of Enrique Castro Ríos’s [latin] América, of his father, Memo, but also of the world, and another set of wars, another set of memories.
The hope of the mother persists.
“This is why we stay with poetry” (Glissant 1997, 7).