Levan Institute for the Humanities Book Chats—Joan Flores-Villalobos, The Silver Women: How Black Women’s Labor Made the Panama Canal 

A discussion of Joan Flores-Villalobos' new book, The Silver Women: How Black Women’s Labor Made the Panama Canal (University of Pennsylvania Press,  2023). The author will be joined in conversation by Sueann Caulfield (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) and Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof (Harvard University), moderated by Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (USC). Co-sponsored by the USC Center for Latinx and Latin American Studies and USC Van Hunnick History Department. 

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About the Book: 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 traveled 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.


About the Author: Joan Flores-Villalobos is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at USC. She received her Ph.D. in African Diaspora History from New York University in 2018. Her work focuses on histories of gender, race, and diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean. Her work has garnered support from the Ford Foundation, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, the American Association of University Women, and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, among others. At USC, Prof. Flores-Villalobos teaches courses on Afro-Latin America and the African Diaspora, U.S. empire, gender and migration, and the Caribbean.


Open to attendants outside of USC. An excerpt of the book will be made available to registered attendants. Registration before the event is required. 

This event is part of the Levan Institute for the Humanities' “Book Chats” series, conversations about new books published by USC scholars in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. To see more events in this series, including recordings of past events, visit https://dornsife.usc.edu/levan-institute/book-chats/.


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  • Rhacel Salazar Parrenas

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