My Love Affair with Panama

A Pictorial Memoir by

Hindi Diamond

Writers Publishing CooperativeWarner, N.H.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmittedin any form by means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopyingand recording, or by any information storage or retrieval, without writtenpermission from the publisher, except for brief passages quoted by a reviewer in a newspaper or magazine.


Writers Publishing CooperativeP.O. Box 114, Warner, N.H.

First edition

ISBN 1-930149-32-8

Cover art by Mark DiamondBook design by Brad Marion

Printed in the United States of America


To my extraordinary children, Linda, Steve and Mark who have been the inspiration and joy of my life and to my grandchildren, Crescent, Maya, Samantha and Lon who have made it all worthwhile.

And to my adopted homeland of Panama and the wonderful people I grew to love, and consider my extended family.

With a special thanks to Markfor designing the cover and for scanning all the photos in the book.


It's not every boy that gets to write a tribute to his mother while she's still alive. Usually, it's after the fact, so I consider myself lucky.

Aside from being a great mother, as I know my brother and sister will agree, Hindi Diamond is also a great reporter. The adventures of her twenty-five years as a journalist in Panama City, Panama are reflected in this book.

In the Panama City of the 1950s, there were virtually no women periodistas, and probably no other American women journalists when she first started as a cub reporter at the old Panama-America daily.

Hindi broke new ground by forging ahead with joy and dedication to her work, to her writing. I think she had an "innocence" back then (and even today, fifty years later) which always got her through. That, as well as her innate sense of survival. And her nose for a good story.

In GRINGA: MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH PANAMA, Hindi tells of her love in a way that only someone who has spent their formative years in a place can do it justice. Her reporting on the people and the place is entertaining and historically enlightening. Panama, with all its joy, humor, sorrow and pathos, was her home and her great love, and the writing in this book paints that picture.

In another sense, Hindi and Panama both grew up at the same time. Sometime in the early 1960s, a book came out called "The Ugly American," and the phrase became, unfortunately, all too common worldwide.

I'm happy to tell you that there were and are some "Beautiful Americans"—expatriates who become adopted daughters and sons of their new countries and cultures. They contribute to, and appreciate their new homelands in unique ways.

Obviously, Hindi Diamond is one of these "Beautiful Americans." This book will show you that. And I'm not just saying this because she's my mother.

Steve Diamond Santa Barbara, California May 30, 2005


Don't Drink the Water…of the Chagres

an a young transplanted New York teenager find happiness in a

hot and humid tropical country? I certainly didn't think so when I landed in Panama in 1941, with my kid sister Suki, and my parents, Saul and Esther Altman, young pioneers ready to start a new life in a strange land.

My first introduction, coming off the Grace Line ship, Santa Helena, to an unknown and very foreign country, was to stop for a drink of water at a fountain on the Balboa pier, the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, where the boat docked. Three workers bolted over to me quickly to hold me back and prevent me from drinking, pointing ominously to the sign overhead that read: Silver. I assumed this meant it was some kind of magical fountain that spouted silver. I was a stranger here. Who knew what their customs were?

When they steered me over to the adjoining fountain that was marked Gold, and nodded their approval, I was really puzzled. What kind of country was this Panama?

I had heard that immigrants came to America looking for streets paved with gold, but here, could it be that fountains spouted gold?

I learned later that people who worked for the Panama Canal Company, were rated according to their color. White people were on the Gold payroll and Silver was the term applied to payment for blacks and all other non-white minorities.

Years later, this system was outlawed, but back in 1941 it was still in effect.

What attracted Americans in those pre- and post-World War II days to flock to a ten-mile strip of territory run by the United States and surrounded on all sides by overgrown jungle?

The Canal Zone was smack in the heart of a foreign country infested with mosquitoes and malaria, where the weather consisted of a nine-month daily downpour of tropical showers interspersed with an arid three-month dry season.

Many came seeking adventure, which they found. Most came for good jobs that were not readily available in their hometowns in the south, mid-west or northern parts of the United States. Many patriotic men enlisted in the Armed Forces, and after the war, decided to stay on as civilians, taking U.S. government jobs, often marrying native women and adapting easily to the leisurely, languid way of life typical of the tropics.

There was also a sense of accomplishment. Those involved in running the Panama Canal, were infected with a spirit of camaraderie found only in those few breath-taking projects requiring a complete unity of purpose, an espirit de corps often unknown in large business corporations. The Panama Canal, sometimes called the Eighth Wonder of the World, was such a project.

When I left Panama for the first time, a little old lady wrapped in a shawl to ward off the chill of the air-conditioned plane seated next to me asked if I was returning to the "States."

When I nodded yes, she said: "Nah, you'll have to come back," she gave me a knowing chuckle, and a mischievous wink. "Once you drink from the waters of the Chagres, you will have to return. It’s an old Indian legend."

And her prophecy came true. Once I returned, and I did drink from the waters of the Chagres and I did return, I remained in Panama over 20 years. This then, is the story of those years, and my ongoing love affair with the country and its people.

Hindi Diamond Boca Raton, Florida June 1, 2005

Panama, here I come... heading there on the Grace Line ship Santa Helena.


Running a Canal:
Life in the "Golden Ghetto"

n those years, from 1940 to 1965, the United States was still

considered to be the Great Benefactor, the Benevolent Protector and the Good Provider by the people of Panama. The odious tag of "Big Brother" (and who loves Big Brother?) was not yet coined.

Running a Canal meant not only sending ships through it, but also running the schools, hospitals, administration, railroad, post offices, courts, and the commissaries, that all needed goods and services produced mainly in Panama. And Panama provided—happily. It also meant extra jobs for thousands of Panamanians who would have remained living in sub-standard conditions, if Uncle Sam did not lend a substantial helping hand.

American-working families that were lured to the tropics, found the Canal Zone to be a haven of security. Government workers were well paid, assigned comfortable low-cost housing, free schooling for their children, free or cheap medical care in the world-renowned Gorgas Hospital, a focal point of all disease control research for Latin America.

Also, thanks to the tropical climate, workers and their families reveled in year-round sports. Servicemen stationed there, even for a short two-year tour of duty, dubbed the Canal Zone "The Playground of the World."

Occasionally, they complained that there was no television, but this too, was remedied when the Armed Forces set up their own television station, and arranged with Hollywood producers to bring in top U.S. TV shows like I LOVE LUCY, and the popular MILTON BERLE COMEDY HOUR, on the condition that the station promised not to include any commercial advertisements.

Under normal circumstances, this would have been hailed as a definite bonus, but strangely enough, in those days and in that place, it was not. The advent of TV in the Canal Zone, without commercials, brought loud protests from the resident Americans. While the rest of America groaned about having to watch annoying commercials interrupting their programs, this group of Zonians as they named themselves, wanted to see them.

When interviewed about this phenomenon, one worker felt it was very logical. "We feel so cut off from the continental United States, thousands of miles away from our original homes, that we're curious and anxious to see what new products are being sold now in the supermarkets up there. We can't get them here, so naturally, we want to know what new things are on the market" he added. Made sense.

THE CANAL ZONE BORDER: Ancon, Canal Zone, on the left, Panama City, on the right side of this street: Fourth of July Avenue.

That insular feeling of being cut off from the "real" America, manifested itself in so many ways, that the Canal Zone government decided to grant their employees one month's leave with pay each year, plus round-trip boat tickets at rock-bottom cost so they could return to their former hometowns in the United states to recapture some of that "good old Americana" taste that they felt they were being deprived of, living in the tropics.

Seeing snow for the first time was an exhilarating experience for many youngsters born in the Canal Zone far away from the temperate climes their parents knew. It brought thrills mixed with the trauma of worrying about buying, or borrowing winter clothes, items not usually stocked in the Canal Zone commissaries where they shopped, and available only from friends or neighbors who had brought them down from their visits up north.

Canal Zone schools began with kindergarten, progressed through high school and then, on to a small two-year junior college. But anyone seeking a higher education, had to leave to attend a four-year college in the United States.

This often caused a tremendous social gap for the young girls between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, whose high school boyfriends, perhaps a year or two older, left the Isthmus for the United States, to attend colleges there. Many girls chose an alternative to college, by going to work for the government in the Canal Zone, and eventually, settling down to the same lifestyle enjoyed by their parents. Second and third-generation Zonians sometimes lived and worked side by side, near their parents or husbands, and would have remained there forever if the government had not enforced the restriction that thirty days after retirement, they had to leave. Working in the Zone meant a loss of privacy to those accustomed to closed-door apartment dwellings in large cities, where neighbors barely had a nodding acquaintance with each other. One worker remarked: "It's like living in a golden ghetto, because we all know, almost to the penny— the salary and CAF grade (Civil Service rating) of our neighbors."

It also meant restrictions on their personal lives. They could never

Chatting with soldiers on my beat.

COVERING MY "BEAT": Interviewing prominent labor leaders Rufus Lovelady and Margaret Rennie for the latest developments on the Zone labor front in their efforts to get Americans working in the Canal Zone a 25% differential, which they eventually did win.

own their own homes, because all the property in the Canal Zone belonged to the United States government, until it was given back to Panama at the turn of the century. They could never vote, except by absentee ballot, and they could never go on strike against the U.S. Government.

That's when they came to register their complaints to me, at the English daily newspaper The Panama American, published in Panama City, which was not under the jurisdiction of the American government. Often, they shared their information with my promise of preserving their anonymity. No names please.

I was the spokeswoman for these people, and never revealed my source.

As the only reporter whose "beat" was covering the Panama Canal government, its courts, administration, military bases and the waterfront, my obligation was to report the news, unbiased, not siding with either the Panamanians or the Americans.

The Canal administration had more than the biblical Ten Commandments. Employees could not paint their walls, other than the approved, standardized color.

They could not build onto their houses, nor could they make any major changes inside their living quarters. When they left or retired, they had to turn over the quarters in the exact pristine condition as when they moved in. Thirty days after retirement, they had to move out of the Canal Zone. Those who retired, after the required number of years of service, either left the country for good, or because of personal reasons, decided to stay. They moved across the border into the city of Panama, where their cost of living doubled almost immediately. Those who complained bitterly discovered the small towns nestled in the interior of Panama and settled there where living expenses were considerably lower than in the big city. Often, Panamanian women they married chose to return to their hometown villages where many had extended families that welcomed them with open arms.

Marriage to a gringo was considered good luck.

However, in the burgeoning Jewish-American community, marriages with soldiers stationed in the Canal Zone were common. One of these, hitting close to home, was when my sister, Suki, married her childhood sweetheart in the Beneficencia, an Ashkenazi synagogue.

A FESTIVE WEDDING : Soldier Mort Lewin and bride Suki Altman marry at the Beneficencia. Note Panamanian flag on stage. That’s my smiling father and grandmother next to the bride.

There were three distinct Jewish communities, the Sephardic group, the Ashkenazis and the Dutch/Spanish congregation, the oldest one whose ancestors came by boat from the Caribbean islands when they were almost wiped out from fierce hurricanes. Each group had their own synagogues, and it was only years later that the youth began to mix in the Alberto Einstein Institute, a newly established Jewish school that my father helped establish, that soon chalked up top academic grades, so much so that the President of Panama sent his children there.

At one time, during the boomtown years, the Canal Zone civilian work force consisted of 25,000 people, not counting the military forces scattered throughout six or seven army, navy and air force bases. But that was in its hey-day. After the Panama-US Treaty was signed in 1977, when Jimmy Carter was the American president, Panamanians were being trained to take over jobs previously reserved for American citizens only. They replaced the engineers, mule operators who drove the mules so called to the livelier nightspots in the Republic of Panama for dining, dancing, boozing and whatever. 

The strikingly beautiful lady who was the featured entertainer of the show, shocked observers when she came on stage half-naked while the other half was disguised as a hairy beast trying to rape her. She became a star-studded attraction known all over the world, and piqued the curiosity of

Air raid drill with school children. military, civilian and the First Beauty Queen of CARNAVALITO adjusts TEMPLEQUES of new Queen.

visiting tourist population alike, swelling Mamie's coffers. Her nightclub made Mamie a rich woman, and eventually she went back to New Orleans, her birthplace. Jade, on the other hand, married an Air Force colonel and settled down to a luxurious life in Panama's interior. Occasionally, she would emerge from retirement for an interview recalling her by-gone days of glory.

Fun time for Zonians meant going downtown to wander Panama through the streets, shops and partake of typical Panamanian food at sidewalk café restaurants.

The local GI's frequented the city's lively cabarets, like Mamie's, reeking of "B-Girls," cheap pickups and one-night stand motels. The famous Blue Grotto (Gruta Azul) quickly became a "must-see" attraction to world-weary travelers, as well as to the local male population. Its fame gained steadily over the years since it was a "drive-through" whorehouse, where customers could drive their cars incognito, no questions asked, pay through a drive-in window, and leave whenever they pleased. It was probably one of the first such drive-through establishments in the hemisphere: a forerunner, or style-setter for the many that followed throughout Latin America.

By contrast, in the staid Canal Zone territory, Army and Navy Officers' Clubs encompassed the extent of their night life, where only "eligible" or high-ranking civilians were invited by their military friends, and the Non-Commissioned Officers' Clubs on the military posts were restricted to serve only NCO rank officers. Because booze was plentiful and cheap, the best Scotch available went for $2.00 a bottle, no tax.

And Zonians had their bingo games, church socials, square dancing, and clubs for every occasion. There were garden clubs, women's clubs, men’s clubs, PTA's, charitable, fraternal and social clubs to please every palate: typical small-town living with all the accoutrements. And then there was Carnival Time … . Clad in their national costumes, groups were brought into the Hotel El Panamã for special shows to entertain visiting tourists. Native bands accompanied the dancers whose dancing skill and youthful enthusiasm never failed to enchant audiences.

Panamanians said that their two passions in life were politics and Carnival. Festive Carnival-time was a much-awaited event. All work stopped for the three days of rampant unrestricted celebration. Groups of eight, ten or twelve friends worked feverishly for months preparing their colorful Comparsa costumes and could hardly wait to show off their elaborate concoctions, and the streets of Panama became a public ballroom, with each group vying to outdo the others and win the coveted Best Costume Awards.

Beautiful girls in gauzy and flamboyant dresses graced flower-bedecked floats that swept through the city streets, much like Macy's famous Christmas parade, but with grander fanfare and loud music blaring, throwing the city under a magic spell.

The unrestricted merriment of the three-day orgies ended with a mock "Bury the Sardine" ceremony, carried out in jest, but ritualized

Carnival Time also brought celebrities like Andrew Heiskell, Publisher of TIME magazine (right) next to his beautiful wife, actress Madeline Carroll, while Dr. Harmodio Arias, ex-President of Panama and publisher of THE PANAMANIAN AMERICAN and reporter Hindi greeted them on their arrival in Panama.

nevertheless, followed by a week-long period of Lent, abstinence from anything joyous, to absolve their sins of Carnival.

International businessmen, those who had traveled to Panama before, knew about the "closed season" on business during Carnival time, and avoided those dates like the plague.

Unless, of course, they wanted to partake in the festivities and forsake business dealings for three days … which many did. Hotel guests, the grouchy ones, complained it was impossible to sleep in the El Panamã Hotel because of the ear-splitting music, but revelers never toned down until the last mambo was danced and the last rum and Coke was downed. Another unusual custom was that husbands, with full permission of their wives, were allowed to carouse by themselves and enjoy the festivities as single men...

Comparsas of all sizes, shapes and distinct costumes paraded through the streets of Panama. All classes of society joined in to celebrate this yearly three-day unabashed street party, and the effects of the heavy carousing, dancing, and drinking showed up for the entire week after Carnival in slacking off of employees' work habits in the city.

At the other end of the spectrum of what Panamanians took seriously, was their politics. Panama's political history is probably unequalled in the world.

Which country can count three—three—presidents in one day? It happened on October 9, 1941, when the then-President, Arnulfo Arias, whose Arias family equaled the Kennedys in stature and power, left for a brief visit to Cuba. His Vice-President, Emesto Jaen Guardia assumed the office of the Presidency

Arnulfo Arias was President of Panama three times for two hours and 40 minutes—probably another world record-breaker for shortest term in office for any president. Then, the second Vice-President, Ricardo Adolfo de la Guardia, took over the same day, October 9th, until Amulfo Arias, the duly elected President, returned to the country before midnight. Why the triple play?

It is an unwritten custom in Panama to occasionally permit a vice-president to become president for a day, or even a few hours, when the elected top-ranking official leaves the country, even for a short time, thus insuring that the second-in-command will, later in life, enjoy the pensions and privileges that accrue to a president without actually having been

Well-known American artist Al Sprague, former Canal Zone art professor, captures the essence of the native pollera-clad dancer.

Arnulfo Arias was President of Panama three times. Courtesy of EPASA

elected to the office. This same President, Arnulfo Arias, who lived for many years in exile in Miami Beach, having been deposed from the Presidency twice, came back after a seventeen-year political hiatus, to be elected by popular demand for a third time on October 1, 1968. The popularity, of the Arnulfista Party, named after him, had no equal. On his third term in office, while he was attending a cocktail party in the Canal Zone, just eleven days after he was elected, a military junta quietly, and without bloodshed, took over the government and sent him packing into exile once again.

While in Miami, and living with his young wife, Mireya Moscoso, he shared his political acumen with her and almost three decades after his death, she became one of the first women in the hemisphere to be duly elected President of her country, following in her late husband's footsteps.

Although Zonians often chuckled at what they considered the bizarre antics of Panamanian politicos, they chalked it up to Banana Republic craziness. Arnulfo's brother, Dr. Harmodio Arias, was frequently at odds, politically, with his flamboyant, but popular brother. A tiny man, with a chiseled strong face, Dr. Arias ruled an empire which included rambling plantations in the interior where he raised cattle; a flourishing English-language radio Station called HOG, extremely popular with the GIs; and was the publisher of one of the most influential and widely-read English-language dailies in the hemisphere, The Panama American, considered the Bible of the Canal Zone workers. In addition, he ran the busiest and most profitable law firm in the city, specializing in admiralty cases. Through his efforts, Panama developed the third largest admiralty fleet in the world— on paper. He was also President of Panama in 1936, a close friend of President Roosevelt whom he often visited in the White House, and earned for himself the title of The Father of the Treaty because the revisions he instituted benefitted Panama by drastically increasing the revenues received by them from the Canal operation.

He was also President for many years of the prestigious Inter-American Press Association in charge of regulating freedom of the press for the entire Hemisphere. He was my boss at the Panama American, a man to be respected and revered, a man who fervently believed in freedom of the press, and who practiced it. In the years I worked there as the Canal Zone reporter, I began to sense a growing feeling of unrest, a slight heightening of tensions between Panamanians and Americans, given impetus by the infiltration of Castro-ites from Cuba as well as by a growing national resentment from a group of student agitators propelled by a strong nationalistic fervor. They felt that Panama was not getting its fair share of the revenue of the Panama Canal operation, nor were they sharing in the high-paid US. Government jobs available to Americans only at that time. Their voices were growing stronger in demanding Sovereignty over land they considered and rightfully so, their very own.

Americans in the Canal Zone began to feel the impact of this resentment.

After the bitter rioting in 1958, the United States granted Panama "titular sovereignty," a pacifying gesture which inflamed Panamanians, and meant only that the flags of both countries could fly equally side by side, in the Canal Zone.

But this was only the tip of the iceberg. Basic resentments still remained unsolved. The United States had been coasting along, courting disaster for more than a quarter of a century of inadequate diplomacy and an incompetent, misinformed State Department that dictated policy. In the early years, they sent diplomats to Panama that did not even speak Spanish, a sign of disrespect, Panama thought, to their country. Later they remedied this oversight, and the entire tenure of U. S. ambassadors sent to represent the American government changed for the better.

Zonians, for the first time in five decades, since the Canal was built in 1914, became reluctant to leave the Canal Zone to go into Panama, except for that one necessity, the urge to purchase the perennial lottery ticket, a chance to win a fortune each week, if they bought the winning numbers.

A RIOT BEGINS : Canal Zone Police line up on the border facing Panamanian students.

This was a bonanza to which the entire population was drawn with the hopes that this exciting game might make them overnight millionaires.

Sometimes, Americans sent their maids into town on these errands, instead of exposing themselves to what they felt was fast becoming an explosive situation, with danger lurking on each street corner.

The move that signaled the final blow-up in the crowded capital city of Panama came in January 1964, when a group of frustrated Panamanian students attempted to march into the Canal Zone displaying their flag. When rumors spread that the flag had been desecrated by the menacing mob, spurred on by Castro-inspired agitators, disguised as 'students,' the Zone Police gathered in a counter-maneuver. Snipers began to attack the American corporate buildings nestled in strategic areas, along the border of Panama and the Canal Zone. The first building destroyed, was when they set fire and demolished the sleek Pan-American Airways office building across from the Tivoli Hotel, an old Canal Zone landmark.

The Canal Zone police, mustered at the border, were ordered to use tear gas to disperse the agitated protesters, but to no avail. Finally, the U.S. Army's emergency forces were called in, and the Panama-Canal Zone border was turned into a bloody battlefield where eighteen people were killed and dozens wounded.

Since that day, American employees in the Canal Zone felt they were living under the guns of uncertainty. Unsure of their future, unsure of their jobs, and unsure of what action, if any, they could take to protect themselves from what they felt was a hopeless situation.

Hordes decided to return to live in the United States and many chose to settle in Florida, in the area of Clearwater, and St. Petersburg, which they found bore many similarities to the Canal Zone, particularly, a favorable climate. They became a colony of US expatriates who formed a close organization, similar to an extended family, which they were, and they named it the Panama Canal Society. As the colony swelled in numbers, with more and more Americans reaching retirement age, they decided to hold yearly reunions, which they still do, in either the Orlando or Tampa areas, and each year meet with old neighbors, and co-workers to rehash their "glory days" when they shared their lives in the Canal Zone, and exult in the memories indelibly ingrained in their hearts as well as in the hearts of their children and grandchildren.

This piece of Americana will be lost in our history books as the last American packs up and leaves forever. The gag making the rounds, half facetiously and half with sadness was: "Will the last American to leave, please bring the Flag?"

To remedy this loss of identity, the Panama Canal Society also founded The Panama Canal Museum in Clearwater, Florida, where history buffs and others interested in knowing more about this lost generation will be able to visit and examine souvenirs and mementoes of those years…when the Canal was ours.