The Silver Women
How Black Women’s Labor Made the Panama Canal
by Joan Flores-Villalobos
The construction of the Panama Canal is typically viewed as a marvel of American ingenuity. What is less visible, and less understood, is the project’s dependence on the labor of Black migrant women. The Silver Women shifts the focus of this monumental endeavor to the West Indian women who travelled to Panama, inviting readers to place women’s intimate lives, choices, grief, and ambition at the center of the economic and geopolitical transformation created by the construction of the Panama Canal and U.S. imperial expansion.
Joan Flores-Villalobos argues that Black West Indian women made the canal construction possible by providing the indispensable everyday labor of social reproduction. West Indian women built a provisioning economy that fed, housed, and cared for the segregated Black West Indian labor force, in effect subsidizing the construction effort and the racial calculus that separated pay in silver for Black workers and gold for white Americans. But while also subject to racial discrimination and segregation, West Indian women mostly worked outside the umbrella of U.S. canal authorities. They did not hold contracts, had little access to official services and wages, and received pay in both silver and gold. From this position, they found ways to skirt, and at times subvert, the legal, moral, and economic parameters imperial authorities sought to impose on the migrant workforce. West Indian women developed important strategies of claims-making, kinship, community building, and market adaptation that helped them navigate the contradictions and violence of U.S. empire. In the meantime, these strategies of social reproduction nurtured further West Indian migrations, linking Panama to places like Harlem and Santiago de Cuba.
The Silver Women is thus a history of Black women’s labor of social reproduction as integral to U.S. imperial infrastructure, the global Caribbean diaspora, and women’s own survival.
"Flores-Villalobos shakes up the traditionally told history of the construction of the Panama Canal in this explorative historical analysis. The author contends that the creation of the Panama Canal would not have been possible without the labor of West Indian Black migrant women....Flores-Villalobos beautifully tells the story of these women and brings this important history to life using a vast array of archival sources."—Library Journal
"In this beautifully written book, Joan Flores-Villalobos places West Indian women at the very heart of the Panama Canal’s construction. They navigated tremendous contradictions, seen as essential to the project yet facing racist exclusion and marginalization by government officials. Their determination to secure moral and economic independence, Flores-Villalobos shows, profoundly shaped Panama, the Caribbean, and more broadly the history of the Americas. Along the way, The Silver Women illuminates in rich detail the critical role Caribbean women played in creating and sustaining the practices of diaspora."—Julie Greene, author of The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal
"The Silver Women is utterly original in its research and analysis. With enormous skill and sensitivity, Joan Flores-Villalobos invites us to understand the West Indian women who travelled to Panama as part of a much broader story: to place their intimate lives, choices, losses, grief, anger, and ambition at the center of the story of a region-wide economic and geopolitical transformation that kicked off ‘the American Century.’ Here we meet a diverse array of women and come to understand that history was made by them."—Lara Putnam, author of Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age
"Joan Flores-Villalobos moves deftly across a rich set of archival sources to uncover the complexities of West Indian women’s social reproduction in the Panama Canal Zone. The Silver Women exposes how Black women negotiated suspicion, hostility, and even criminalization, in the process of migrating to make a life for themselves and their kin. A necessary perspective on West Indian women’s efforts to sustain their communities while also resisting American imperialist control over their labor and personal lives."—Laurie R. Lambert, author of Comrade Sister: Caribbean Feminist Revisions of the Grenada Revolution