Book Review: Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone

We’re excited to present this guest post by Gregory Lella, a PhD student in the History department at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. His main research interest is internal law enforcement and incarceration within the U.S. military, particularly in enclaves, bases, and facilities located outside of the United States. He is interested in how the military’s parallel culture and legal system functioned in the context of the carceral state.

Donoghue, Michael. Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014.

Michael Donoghue’s Borderland on the Isthmus is an ambitious attempt to chronicle the social history of the Panama Canal Zone using the lens of borderlands history. Focusing on the years between 1903 and 1999, Donoghue produces a study of identity, culture, race, gender, and sexuality that accomplishes many of its objectives but in some moments falls short of its challenging goals.


Donoghue studies the Canal Zone as a noncontiguous borderland—or a borderland geographically disconnected from a larger imperial entity—and he structures his chapters thematically rather than chronologically, with each focusing on a different group of people or the complications of a particular identity. Though this decision results sometimes in confusion for the reader—several subheadings and broad jumps between different topics can be disorienting—his analyses of race relations in the Panama Canal Zone and the relations between civilians (Zonians) and the military are insightful. When it comes to analyzing gender relations in and around this borderland, however, Donoghue places far more emphasis on the history of sex and prostitution than gender relations on the whole. The book’s tendency to focus on spectacular and shocking stories centering on sex—for instance, the first chapter’s opening anecdote about American GIs being fellated through a border fence by Panamanian prostitutes—only works if the author successfully uses these stories to illustrate a larger, deeper argument. Some of the book’s stories are loosely connected by theme but the reader is left wishing at times that the author made stronger, more coherent arguments to follow.

In his introduction, Donoghue argues that the Panama Canal Zone borderland is unique when compared to other U.S. military enclaves and colonial possessions. This is a fascinating and tantalizing idea that leaves the reader begging for more information but there is almost no follow-up discussion. Beyond occasional references to Puerto Rico, mostly for the purpose of explicating the identities of U.S. soldiers of Puerto Rican descent, there is almost no comparison of Panama to these other places to which Donoghue gestures. This is a missed opportunity to enrich and broaden his study and contribute something larger to comparative borderlands history as a field.

Borderlands on the Isthmus is a valuable and important intervention in the historiography of the Panama Canal Zone. It provides a social history with an emphasis on race relations that merits further exploration of this area by scholars, and helps us to see how the genre of military history can be diversified and reenergized by scholarship that examines military entities in borderland locales.

Categories: Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone

  1. Pingback: Story of cities #16: how the US-run Canal Zone divided Panama for a century - The Guardian - Go Story

  2. Charles Pekor

    I was a young (18-20) U.S, Army enlisted man during 1962-1963 living at Fort Kobbe in the Panama Canal Zone. I was too young to appreciate it at the time, but in retrospect it was a fascinating place to have experienced. Particularly the totally America chunk of the Canal Zone where the civilian Americans lived, and the base housing for officer and NCO housing. It was an upscale American suburb incapsulated beside and between a Central-South American jungle and urban city. As a clerk-typist who was taking classes at the American University “extension program” I saw some real extremes of human existence living side by side with each other.

  3. Charles B. Pekor Jr

    I understand that in this era (2022) the US has pulled out most of our military presence in Panama. Apparently Panama has become a fairly desirable retirement spot for some Americans.

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