Listen to Voices : Cecil Haynes

Cecil Haynes was born in Gatún in the Canal Zone in 1913. Haynes’ parents emigrated to Panama from Barbados; his father came first to find work, and then his mother came one year later. The Haynes family was very large; it eventually grew to include six children, and from a young age, Cecil was very helpful—he would often catch fish for his mother to cook and feed the family. Eventually, at the age of fourteen, he decided that he wanted to get a job to further help the family, so he went out into the Canal Zone to find work, and was hired as an office boy. Over the years, Haynes was promoted, and he retired as an inventory management specialist after working for more than seventy-one years on the Canal. Because of this long work history, he is recognized as one of the most famous of the Canal workers; he has received many awards, and has met several international leaders. He also gives many interviews, and when asked about the racism and discrimination West Indian Canal workers faced, he says that it was very hard, but it is important not to focus on those hardships alone, but to celebrate the hard work that many Afro-Antillanos put into the Canal—it is something to be proud of. Until his passing in 2012, Haynes still lived in Panama with his wife, Margarita, to whom he had been married for sixty-five years.


Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo

Interviewer Biography

Professor Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo is Associate Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, with secondary appointments and affiliations with the Department of Teaching and Learning, the Center for Latin American Studies, and the Program in African American and Diaspora Studies. She earned her Ph.D. from Duke University in 1999.


Professor Nwankwo's research has focused on encounters among African-American, Latin American, and West Indian peoples in the areas of culture, identity, and ideology with the goal of understanding the persistent barriers to progressive cross-group engagements. Her book, Black Cosmopolitanism (2005), is a comparative study of people of African descent in Cuba, the U.S., and the British West Indies in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. In it, she reveals that fear fostered by the revolution determined and has continued to determine the ways African-descended peoples in this hemisphere relate to each other, as well as to other American populations. The implications of this analysis attempts to understand whether relations between U.S. African Americans and recent immigrants to the U.S. are significant.

Professor Nwankwo has also provided new insight into U.S. African American-Latino/Latin American-Caribbean relations through articles that have appeared in journals such as American Literary History, Radical History Review, and Cuban Studies/Estudios Cubanos. Her other publications include African Routes, Caribbean Roots, Latino Lives-a special issue of theJournal of Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, Rhythms of the Afro-Atlantic World (edited with Mamadou Diouf) focused on music and dance, and Critical Approaches to Louise Bennett-a special issue of theJournal of West Indian Literature.

Interview Clip Transcript: 

Full Interview Transcript 

INTERVIEWER:        Good day Mr. Cecil Haynes.  We are absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to have you share your tremendous life history with us as part of the Voices from our America project.  As I said before, my name is Ifeoma Nwankwo and I am (speaks a few words of Spanish here) at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee and we really appreciate your participation.  You know that this project will surely benefit the community here in Panama and beyond now and the future.  The goal of the questionnaire as you know is to produce as detailed and coherent narrative of your story as possible.  All right and so in light of that, I encourage you to feel free to provide, not to worry about providing answers that are too long or too detailed.  We want, we want that.  Right so we want to get as much information as we possibly can.  I know that you’ve already signed the form where you said what you want us to say or not but if there’s anything that you say during the course of the interview that you don’t want us to use, just let me know and we can, we can cut it.


C. HAYNES               Well I’m extremely happy to know that your company or your uh, the company yes would be so considerate to recognize me and to appreciate the things that I have done in the past like the building, helping the building of the Panama Canal which is a wonder of the world and of the benefit of use to the entire world.  I’m extremely happy and proud to know that I will take, was able to be able to accomplish that.


INTERVIEWER:        And so are we.  So we start at the beginning.  So tell me about your, your birthplace and what was going on there when and as you were growing up.


C. HAYNES               Well would you like me to say more or less from when my parents got here and whatnot.  Well my father came to work for the Panama Canal as one of the employees that they were hiring from the West Indies from the island of Barbados.  And uh the reason why he came here because at that time things were very difficult throughout and in the West Indies it was really something that everybody knew and that they were all trying to find a means or a ways to improve the condition at that time.  And he took the opportunity of coming here and at the end, he was very proud and happy to know that he did come here when they realize not himself but many of the other came and realized what they helped to accomplish.  And they were proud of it.  But to be honest, they were never readdressed or given the consideration that they did truly deserve because without them the Canal could never have been a reality.  It required their labor and the ability of standing the, the conditions that was here, the work conditions and all that many people couldn’t do and as means of that, they really played an important part in the building, of building the Panama Canal.


INTERVIEWER:        What did your father do?


C. HAYNES   My father did, well they’re all laborers, came here as a laborer and worked his way through.  Then he did waiting in a professional form or manner I think they got until you know the work to the age of when they felt they had no more need for them, and they decided they would repatriate them back home to their countries.  And some of them did and some remained here and uh fortunately he was one that was able to stay here until he, he made a family.  He was married in the West Indies and he came here in the year 1904, and a year later my mother came to join him because the laborers and so it was here, they were, they, they wanted to be here but they were unhappy because the families were away and whatnot and the government decided that they would bring the families here to join them.  And this was done, and she came a year after the year that he was here.  And they, they had a family, a family with six of us (laughs), quite big.  And at that time, the living conditions weren’t very you know easy and whatnot and when I reached the age of 14, I decided I would try to see what I could do if possible to help my father get a job.  And I took on myself to go on out in the field and went to an office and when I went up to the office, the boss wanted to know what are you doing here, what you want.  I tell him I came to get a job, I’m looking for a job.  He said we don’t hire boys.  (laughs)  I said but I can do something.  I can probably suit the helper yeah to help myself.  Told me you sit over there for a while.  I sat there for a little while, and then he called me.  And he said we’re going to put you to work.  Here’s what you’re going to have to do, he said you see all those desks and people working here, they all working for me.  And their work have to come to me and I have to and, and, and I have to issue the work for them to go, and you’re going to be the one to take the work from us, from me to them and when it’s finished you bring it back to me.  At those times, we used um pencil, you know the ink that you dipped in, in pencils and he said all those wells that hold ink you have to keep them filled and you have to change the nibs in those pens almost every other day so that you know they’ll be able to write with it.  And all the pencils around, you’re going to have to sharpen the pencils on the desks, well to me that was absolutely nothing and then he said anything else that they probably might ask you to do, you have to do.  Well he hired me and he started me with a salary of $22.50 a month (laughs).  But in that time, they were paying the general labor when building the Canal was 10 cents, 10 cents for the general uh salary for…but those men were happy to get that because it was more than they were, more than they were getting although there was nothing to get in West Indies and even if there were, this was still more than they would be making there.  So they were happy to have it.  And they worked at that and built the Canal, and the Ca

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