An evocative account of growing up in the Panama Canal Zone during the last years of U.S. control over the key waterway.
Deep in the Panamanian jungle, the Panama Canal Zone was a small slice of America, where U.S. workers employed in operating and maintaining the key isthmian waterway lived with their families. In 1970, about 45,000 “Zonians” lived amid a total Panamanian population of 1.5 million. Judy Haisten’s poignant memoir describes her experience growing up a Zonian between 1964 and 1977—the year President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty ending U.S. control over the canal. For Haisten, the Zone was a tropical paradise in which “[l]ife patterns...were planned, organized, and structured, while the jungle promised chaos, confusion, spontaneity.” With wry humor and vivid detail, she presents a series of Zonian-life vignettes, from dodging bats in the only movie theater in her town to chasing a stray parrot, staring down a crocodile and running away from a boa constrictor. Her prose is as steamy as the humid Panama climate: “Mealy water bugs” skim the surface of a pond where alligators breed, and “[f]oamy masses of frog eggs [float] close to the bank.” There are also visits to the primitive settlements of two indigenous tribes, including the half-naked Choco Indians. “I felt as if I had stepped into the pages of the National Geographic magazines we received at home in the mail,” Haisten recalls. The idyll ends abruptly with the canal treaty, under which the Zone, as a political entity, ceased to exist on Oct. 1, 1979. “America had lost a piece of herself,” Haisten laments, her dreams of raising her own children in the Zone dashed. But like the water bugs, the author skims the surface: Her focus on Zonian life is so tight that she doesn’t explore the palpable tension of the U.S. presence in Panama, which was established under a 1903 treaty that many Panamanians viewed as imperialistic. The host country is just “a welcome part of our lives,” while her encounters with Panamanians are limited to her family’s housekeeper, bus drivers and salesmen at an auto dealership she visits with her mother. She chastises President Carter for going back on his word to protect Zonians, but she fails to acknowledge that they always lived in Panama on borrowed time.
A colorful portrait of the rhythms and textures of Zonian life, with little investigation of the underlying politics.