The Panama Canal's untold history—from the Panamanian point of view. Sleuth and scholar Marixa Lasso recounts how the canal’s American builders displaced 40,000 residents and erased entire towns in the guise of bringing modernity to the tropics.
The Panama Canal set a new course for the modern development of Central America. Cutting a convenient path from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, it hastened the currents of trade and migration that were already reshaping the Western hemisphere. Yet the waterway was built at considerable cost to a way of life that had characterized the region for centuries. In Erased, Marixa Lasso recovers the history of the Panamanian cities and towns that once formed the backbone of the republic.
Drawing on vast and previously untapped archival sources and personal recollections, Lasso describes the canal’s displacement of peasants, homeowners, and shop owners, and chronicles the destruction of a centuries-old commercial culture and environment. On completion of the canal, the United States engineered a tropical idyll to replace the lost cities and towns—a space miraculously cleansed of poverty, unemployment, and people—which served as a convenient backdrop to the manicured suburbs built exclusively for Americans. By restoring the sounds, sights, and stories of a world wiped clean by U.S. commerce and political ambition, Lasso compellingly pushes back against a triumphalist narrative that erases the contribution of Latin America to its own history.
Erased is the most splendid of ghost stories. Tracing the hidden history of the depopulated ‘lost towns’ of the Canal Zone, Marixa Lasso reveals a traumatic transformation of the landscape as important in its impact as the construction of the Panama Canal. The result is a powerful and dramatic tale of lost histories that illuminates our understanding of Panama and its relationship to the United States.
Erased shows how the construction of the Panama Canal hid forced depopulation behind the artificial transformation of the landscape, building segregated urban centers on the myth of a pristine tropical landscape. The book challenges narratives of industrialization and urban change that have for too long neglected the history and the places of the people who built the basic infrastructure of modernity.
Commandeering rafts, steamboats, or railroads, countless isthmian black settlers for centuries had brought the Caribbean and the South Sea together. In the 1910s, the Canal Zone turned these modern black urbanites into unwelcome refugees. Their towns disappeared under water or tropical vegetation. The Canal also wiped out the memory of vibrant black republican institutions, the foundational vanguard of global political modernity. This book expertly dissects the myth of Western Civilization, namely, how a unified capitalist world became two imaginary ones: an entrepreneurial, law-abiding, technically advanced white Canal Zone, on the one hand, and a violent, pardo, primitive tropical banana republic, on the other. Eye-opening.
Stimulating…Erased is in effect a justification of Latin America in the face of northern cultural and economic domination.
More than a history of how the U.S. reduced Panama’s most populous and developed stretch of territory to tropical wilderness. It is an account of the rhetorical erasure of Panamanian civilization and modernity and the long-lasting political consequences this erasure had for the region…Helps readers reimagine the role of Panama in its own history.
- 2020, Winner of the William M. LeoGrande Prize
- 2020, Winner of the Friedrich Katz Prize
- 352 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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