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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The Panama Canal redrew the world’s map. A novel explores the lives it changed.

Cristina Henriquez in Chicago on Feb. 14, 2024. In her new novel, “The Great Divide,” Cristina Henríquez tells the story of the forgotten lives behind the construction of the engineering marvel that cut a path between continents. (Lawrence Agyei/The New York Times)

By Celia McGee

As far back as Cristina Henríquez can remember, there has always been the Panama Canal. She visited it every summer on family trips. Later it became standard fare she studied in high school: the engineering feat connecting two oceans, a formative adventure in American expansionism, an early notch on Teddy Roosevelt’s belt.

The questions, however, didn’t occur to her until she was older: Whose lives, and deaths, lay behind a project so massive it redefined countries and redrew the world’s map?

“I grew up going to the canal, but I didn’t know what I was seeing,” Henríquez said. “I understood that it was the most salient association most people have with Panama, but I wanted to go inside it, in a different way.”

Her new novel “The Great Divide,” shifts the focus to those uprooted, displaced and also enticed by the shipload with advertisements like the one she found to open the book, out March 5. “2-year contract,” it reads. And, “Free lodging and medical care.” “Work in paradise!”

That there was work was true. That it would be paradise was not, at least not for those who hacked, blasted, shoveled, dredged and carved 51 miles through mud, rock, jungle, cyclic violence, the miasma of deadly insect-borne disease and a piece of the Continental Divide.

Henríquez lives outside of Chicago, but on a recent visit to New York she stood, head craned back, in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall at the American Museum of Natural History. She was scanning “The Building of the Panama Canal,” a monumental mural painted in the 1930s and an official version of the past, bursting with allegory, symbolism and clusters of historical figures. It celebrates the deal Roosevelt’s government struck with a newly independent Republic of Panama in 1903: In exchange for $10 million and an annual payment of $250,000, the United States won the right to establish the Canal Zone, a sovereign territory that stretched 5-miles-wide on either bank.

“It’s amazing how it tells history,” Henríquez said. “But what interested me was the humanity.”

Henríquez has spent much of her career placing figures where before there were none. Thanks to her father’s roots in Panama, her fiction — starting with her 2006 debut collection “Come Together, Fall Apart”— has inflected American writing with stories set there, as well as telling those of immigrants hoping for a bid at the American dream.

Her last novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans,” published in 2014, centered on an urban Delaware apartment building where a Panamanian family (and the trials of immigration) play a vital part. Her 2009 novel, “The World in Half,” about a young American who goes in search of the Panamanian father she’s never met, continued the theme of dividedness that runs through her work as inexorably as the geographical similes she uses for the shifting tectonic plates of human relationships.

Communications are severed, voices left unheard, understanding breaks down — between parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and lovers, and above all, wary Americans and hopeful newcomers, those rich in resources and those robbed of them. This positions her, said critic Oscar Villalon, in the company of such authors as Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz and Francisco Goldman, “who write about places inextricably tied to American history, giving us a better understanding of what that history really is.”

But until “The Great Divide,” Henríquez hadn’t really tackled history any earlier than her memory could carry her.

The 1980s — and in particular the final days of Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega — darkened her writing with marauding military gangs known as Dignity Battalions and citizens forced to eat toothpaste rather than starve, as American warships readying to invade clouded the horizon.

“I remember how tense phone calls with my relatives in Panama were during the Noriega years,” she said. Her grandfather Pantaleón Henríquez Bernal had been a prominent figure in Panamanian politics, a journalist and a well-known writer whose short story collection “Cuentos de acá y de allá (Tales from Here and There)” became a staple of Panamanian fiction.

A young Henríquez was entranced by the room where her grandfather wrote on the second floor of a house overlooking Panama Bay, while downstairs her grandmother prepared food for anyone who might stop by. The locale inspired the opening scene of “The Great Divide.”

“I didn’t speak Spanish as a kid,” said Henríquez, who would finally study it in college, at Northwestern University. “So I was always watching. All that time just observing was part of why I became a writer. I would fill in the blanks for myself, which is what fiction writing is, isn’t it?”

But writing historical fiction meant more: delving into the fault lines of incident, tracing networks of railroads and mosquito types, learning the particulars of a fishing reel, a cooking skillet, a dance step or a new world order secretly bankrolled by Wall Street.

“The Great Divide” took Henríquez 10 years to complete. She read voluminously on the subject. A classic like David McCullough’s “The Path Between the Seas,” which includes the spectacular French failure that preceded the American venture, “is unmatched in its exploration of the historical and political forces that were at play,” she said. “But I was always looking for more.”

She never knew whom she would encounter along the way, but “Everyone,” she wrote in a notebook she kept close as she worked on the novel, “must have a heartbeat.”

A majority of the canal’s workforce was Afro-Caribbean, primarily recruited from Barbados and its decimated sugar cane economy. Henríquez started the novel, she said, with just two characters. Ada is a young Barbadian stowaway intent on earning money to send home to her ailing sister, and Omar is a fisherman’s son who takes a job on the canal in defiance of his father and their way of life.

From there Henríquez fanned out into an interconnected panorama she keeps rich in back stories — about Omar’s father adrift in regrets; a fishmonger’s wife facing the loss of her ancestral village; an unhappily married young American couple embedded in the effort to eradicate malaria; a gifted seer wrapped in magical realism; a Jamaican John Henry figure; and the white crew boss he squares off against.

The novel braids in events actual and imagined as earth is moved toward the final irony that the canal and its system of locks, ostensibly aimed at promoting peace among nations, was finished the same year as the outbreak of World War I.

Yet the novel remains at all times intensely personal, said Lan Samantha Chang, the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who taught Henríquez as a student there. “For very talented writers the exploration into their craft is more than learning technique,” Chang said. “It has to do with such questions as ‘Where do I come from? What is the nature of my background?’ Before she came to Iowa, the fiction Cristina wrote was primarily set in the U.S.”

That changed after Henríquez came across a used copy of Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” and its sketches of immigrant life in a secondhand bookstore. It awakened in her a Latina identity and encouraged her to interpret historical occurrences through her own fictional language and sense of place. (Noting the bond between the two writers, Jenna Bush Hager made “The Great Divide” and the 25th-anniversary edition of “The House on Mango Street” a joint pick for her March book club.)

Surprises kept toppling off history’s shelf. The most shocking, Henríquez said, was “how rigid and pervasive segregation was.” In a system that hewed most closely to the institutionalized racism of the American South, the Black labor force and its sprinkling of Latin American and Mediterranean laborers was strictly separated from the white world — paid in silver and known as “the silver people,” while white Americans and Europeans, or “the gold people,” were paid in gold.

There were separate commissaries, medical facilities, places of worship and housing: the “gold people” occupying higher ground in airy homes screened against the tropical climate’s ills, the “silver people” in shanties or abandoned rail cars. Lines drawn like this would reverberate for Henríquez’s modern-day immigrants, sometimes with deadly consequences.

This past summer Henríquez, with her family, took a boat the length of the canal for the first time. Long accustomed to viewing it from the visitor’s center at the Miraflores Locks, in Panama City, she was moved by the different perspective.

“On the boat you’re only inches away from the concrete on either side,” she said. “It’s incredible to know who poured it.”

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