In the Zone: UnidosUS AfroLatinx Líderes Fellow Emily Gardin Ríos Advocates for Ed Policy Change with Inspiration from Her Father’s Activism Along the Panama Canal

This past year, UnidosUS launched its first-ever Afro-Latinx Líderes Avanzando Fellowship. The program is geared to first-generation students pursuing their undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral degrees and recent college graduates who identify as Afro-Latinx and are passionate about racial equity and making meaningful change in their campus community, workplace, and beyond. ProgressReport.co will be publishing profiles of the participants throughout the spring and summer.

Emily Gardin always knew she was different from the Latinx friends she grew up with in Waterbury, Connecticut. Even though she, too, had Latin American roots, she was the only one who was also Black.

“I didn’t feel included in those conversations about the Latinx side of me because I knew that there was more to my identity,” says Gardin.

AfroLatinx Líderes Avanzando Fellow Emily Gardin Rios, age 10, in her her birth country of Panama. Photo courtesy of Emily Gardin Rios.

Her Black and French lineages have deep ties to the history of the Panama Canal, a project that was initiated by France and completed by the United States but was largely built with the blood, sweat, and tears of West Indian laborers.

These personal and historical topics were central to Gardin’s coursework for her bachelor’s degree in African-American Studies and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. They are also topics she continues to dive into as a participant in UnidosUS’s first-ever Afro-Latinx Líderes Avanzando Fellowship.

Gardin is quick to point out that Latin American countries enslaved just as many if not more Africans as the United States during the Transatlantic Slave Trade and that, contrary to popular history, Black people have existed across the region for centuries. But the history of the Panama Canal represents an important segue between the era of formal slavery and other forms of hard labor and indentured servitude.

AfroLatinx Lideres Avanzando Fellow Emily Gardin Rios (third from left) poses with her mother, Dayanara Rios , her grandmother, Esther Aguilar, and her father, Andres Gardin. Photo courtesy of Emily Gardin Rios.

It’s a history her own father, an Afro-Panamanian of West Indian and French descent, speaks of often. He worked as a mechanic and heavy equipment operator on the canal in the 1990s, and he made sure Gardin made the connection to previous generations of canal workers.

The idea of forging a canal through the narrow land bridge separating what is now Colombia and Panama began in Spanish colonial times but officially got underway in the late 1880s thanks to advances in technology and engineering. Between 1859 and 1869, French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps led the design and execution of the Suez Canal, which created a water passage between Africa and Asia. In 1881, he got the backing of a French company to take a similar stab at a canal between Central and South America.

Armed mostly with pickaxes, the first laborers—mostly local Panamanians—struggled to carve through the region’s mountainous terrain and thick jungle, which was brewing with yellow fever. When masses of the first laborers began dying from the disease, the French contracted about 24,000 mostly Black workers from the British West Indies. By 1903, the French abandoned the project and turned it over to a new world superpower looking to exert influence in the region—the United States. The United States would go on to exercise jurisdictional rights over the canal until 1979 and operational rights until 1999. During the first several decades of the project, the United States ran a double economy, in which white laborers were paid in gold coins but Black laborers were paid in silver coins.

“The U.S. brought in the same system that was already in America, the Jim Crow system,” explains Gardin.

Years after that system officially ended, Gardin’s father was still seeing it play out. For example, people born in the Panama Canal Zone, which extended five miles on either side of the canal, were afforded American citizenship, but most of the zone’s workers of color resided just outside of it and could not afford the luxurious lifestyle within it. Frustrated with these discrepancies, Gardin’s father got involved in progressive worker movements and joined the staff of a radio station that helped to chronicle the labor violations, police brutality, protests, and riots of that era.

Finally, he decided to take advantage of the few benefits zone work had afforded him. Being close to such a major industrial project made it easier for him and Gardin’s mother to attend at least a few years of college and to obtain a U.S. visa, all of which could facilitate a new life in the United States. In 2001, Gardin’s father flew to a distant cousin in the Northeast with $100 in his pocket, got a job, and laid the groundwork for the family to follow.

“It’s just insane to me how he made it work,” says Gardin. “He had that cousin, and even though it was a distant cousin, it was still a connection, someone to rely on. A lot of people in his country didn’t have that.”

Hearing the stories of injustice that workers like her father faced along the Panama Canal and then learning about colonialism, slavery, and the United States’ economic and political reach across the industrialized world, gave Gardin pause.

“There was a power dynamic taking place,” she says, adding that she could see how that dynamic had also affected some of her other diverse friends in Waterbury. “I had friends who were from Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and I got to thinking about how we’re all being oppressed by the same systems.”

Emily Gardin Ríos, far left, poses with students at her alma mater, Emory University. Photo courtesy of Emily Gardin Rios.

Gardin’s studies at Emory University reaffirmed these concerns. They also gave her the initial tools she needed to carry on her father’s legacy of fighting for the victims of these old power systems. After graduating in African American & Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Gardin relocated to Warrenville, South Carolina, and began working for Purpose Possible, an Atlanta-based consulting firm that works with non-profit organizations seeking social services. In her role as a development coordinator and associate consultant, she helps the organization scout talent for various positions, placing a special emphasis on finding candidates who represent marginalized communities.

Participating in the Afro-Latinx Líderes Avanzando Fellowship has become a natural extension of this work and of the search for self, says Gardin. At a policy and advocacy level, she and one other fellow have been building out a policy brief on supporting mental health for Black and Latinx K-12 students that advocates advancing Bill S.2125, the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act. In February, they were able to hone their brief in a fellowship workshop in Miami, and in April, they presented it to members of Congress.

Emily Gardin Rios (third on right) and her AfroLatinx Lideres Avananzo Fellowship team present their draft policy memo on mental health for students at a fellowship conference in Miami. Photo by Jayme Gershen.

“I want to keep advocating and building coalitions to see an end to these oppressive systems,” she says. “It’s crazy that we might see an end to the world before we see an end to colonialism.”

But that doesn’t mean she’s giving up. Just as her father found solidarity in a distant cousin in the United States, Gardin is finding extended family among the participants of the Líderes Avanzando Fellowship. In fact, she says, just naming and acknowledging the Afro-Latinx community is an important form of resistance.

“The AfroLatinx existence is political, just like Black existence, Latinx existence, Indigenous existence. Our existence is already so revolutionary. We survived so much trauma and violence, so I think existing is already a form of awareness,” she says. “I want to keep existing, I want to keep doing the work, I want to continue being in community.”

-Author Julienne Gage is an UnidosUS senior web content contributor and the former editor of ProgressReport.co.

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