Vorágine – Adina Cazacu-De Luca

“How many times have you taken a shortcut through a neighbor’s backyard? The U.S. created a 51-mile shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through a distant neighbor’s ‘backyard’ and called it the Panama Canal. Of course, the U.S. got permission from Panama first, back in 1904.”1

What’s the real harm of using the wrong words?

Permission; noun. To provoke a rebellion and coerce a newly developed nation without negotiating power or representation into an agreement. An agreement that lasts “for perpetuity.”

In his speech to Congress in 1906, President Roosevelt defended American construction of the Panama Canal. “From time to time various publications have been made, and from time to time in the future various similar publications doubtless will be made, purporting to give an account of jobbery, or immorality, or inefficiency, or misery, as obtaining on the isthmus. I have carefully examined into each of these accusations which seemed worthy of attention. In every instance the accusations have proved to be without foundation in any shape or form.”

American construction; misunderstanding. Of the 50,000 laborers, about 6,000 were white Americans working as administrators and engineers. They lived in communities with free housing and material comforts. The others were black laborers from Barbados. They lived in segregated barracks. Barracks; see slum with 70 sardines per 15 ounce can. 

“I repeat that the work on the isthmus has been done and is being done admirably,” Roosevelt proclaimed. “The mistakes are extraordinarily few, and these few have been of practically no consequence.”

There is a difference between choosing the wrong word and telling a lie.

Mistake; understatement. The Americans weren’t the first to try and build a canal in the motherland (see female anthropomorphizing of male conquests). The French came, died, and left. Vini, morivi, vici, as they say. Death; see malaria2, of which 20,000 died before the French withdrew. They didn’t have a place for the flesh (see earth) they stole from her, so the rainy season filled in their attempts at breaking her skin with landslides and floods. 

When driving through a neighborhood with interlocking trees arched over a road far from the canal zone, a mother recalls the word vorágine. 

“It’s like a jungle that consumes you. The opposite of deforestation. Powerful. Moving. Voracious. Maybe you would translate it as voracious.” Vorágine; noun. According to WordReference, “vortex.”

5,000 of the $0.10/hour laborers died in the vortex created by their American good neighbor. In 1906, 80% of the workforce was hospitalized with malaria. Hospitalized is a strong word. Colonel Totten, project leader of building the Panama Railroad, described the hospitals in the area as “some ugly white washed buildings” with “the pale-faced sailor and the melancholy convalescent negro, sitting smoking their pipes on the steps” near “some outlying huts with half naked negresses and pot-bellied children sunning themselves in front, rupt with decaying matter and black rotten roots of trees.” 

The Head of the Army Corps of Engineers proposed malaria solutions such as removing uncovered containers of water, screening houses, and building new hospitals.

“Unfortunately, few in Washington wanted to spend money on such things.”

Why us?

In a Lewis and Clark equivalent expedition to Panama in the 1850s, the Lewis equivalent noted that “no human being could realistically perform strenuous work in severe jungle conditions.” Human being; ignore native population.

An article from Harpers’ Magazine in 1855 explained the demographics of the region. Out of three million inhabitants, those of “pure European descent”––where “wealth, intelligence, and enterprise” could be found––did not exceed one hundred thousand. The rest were “poor and ignorant aboriginals and mixed races, in a state of scarcely semi-civilization.” Semi-civilized; adjective. Potential worker. See available, exploitable, other.

Roosevelt addressed canal workers in a 1906 visit, “You here who are doing your work well in bringing to completion this great enterprise are standing exactly as a soldier of the few great wars of the world’s history.” 

The semi-civilized were not doing their work well. Why would they? The poem by José Alemán goes, 

“But, dear reader, I tell you, 

with my great frankness, 

of someone I will witness 

who finds his good end by 

throwing himself into the canal”

Local laborers suspicious of Americans’ power-grabbing ambitions did not prove to be the most enthusiastic workers, earning them a reputation as lazy and irresponsible.”

Lazy; see antonyms: hardworking, earnest, American.

“U.S. citizens were used sparingly in Panama because they were both disease-prone and demanded higher wages.”

What constitutes payback for conquest?

In a report filed to Congress on the building of the railroad, Colonel Totten allegedly “shared the dangers and the sufferings of the builders.” Perhaps Totten too had felt his hands blister over. Not from scalding metal in the tropics, but rather from a land scorched with a voracious rage. Perhaps the American official overseeing his canal workers (see neo-plantation) felt the earth tremble and heard voices shriek. Not from dynamite accidents, but rather the unfathomable future. Future; idea: see reclamation, improbable, vorágine. 


1 Quotations in italics compiled from various “.gov” websites intended for middle school education.

2 Malaria; noun. Nature’s defense against colonization.


Adina Cazacu-De Luca is a senior in high school from St. Louis, Missouri. She writes mostly creative nonfiction, and her work has been featured before in the National Scholastic Writing Award Online Galleries. She’s the editor-in-chief of her school’s literary journal, and enjoys playing the piano, reading, and watching documentaries in her free time. In the future, she hopes to pursue epidemiology.