Imperial sunset: Race, identity, and gender in the Panama Canal Zone, 1939--1979

Date of Completion

January 2006


History, Latin American|History, United States|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies




In 1903, the United States established the Panama Canal Zone as a colonial enclave on the isthmus of Panama. U.S. inhabitants in the Zone fashioned a racial, national, and gendered hierarchy that led to numerous conflicts and accommodations with the neighboring Republic of Panama. A combination of social, demographic, and political changes that arose from the Second World War brought increased protest and challenges against the Canal Zone's hegemony. Imperial Sunset explores the intersections of race, national identity, and gender at the heart of Panama's day-to-day encounters with the U.S. Canal Zone and its inhabitants. The Canal Zone operated as a cultural and colonial borderland, a state within a state, hindering Panama's aspirations for national sovereignty and development. Extraterritoriality in the Zone and the chauvinism of its U.S. residents especially angered Panamanians. But the enclave also diffused U.S. culture and received Panamanian influences as it projected an appeal to those willing to collaborate - and sanctions to those who resisted its sway. ^ With the foundation of the Canal Zone the United States planted the social and racial structure of a small town in the American South to a Catholic Latin American country. The enclave subordinated and segregated a West Indian labor force that Zonian authorities used to divide and dominate the majority Latin Panamanian population. The establishment of the Zone led to a large U.S. military presence and the regulation of a Panamanian sex industry that clashed with both Panamanian and Zonian sensibilities. In the postwar era, the strains of these everyday conflicts and alliances exacerbated the larger U.S.-Panamanian relationship to the point where Washington moved to give up the enclave and end the hypocrisy of a Jim Crow colony operated by the leader of the "free" world. ^