PUERTO RICANS (SPOKEN VERSION c. 1994)
It was 1948—the year after the big snow in New York, I was in the 4th grade… living in that part of Harlem strivers called “Washington Heights”—151st Street between Amsterdam & B’way.
New people moved into the apt bldg—big family—babies, school children our age, teenage married couples, two or three sets of elders… We’d see them gather at the mailbox—they always seem to be waiting for the mailman…the whole family came down sometimes. They didn’t speak much English. That didn’t strike us as very strange in New York. There was a Chinese family next door—several “Bengali’”s in the neighborhood—Bengali was what we called East Indians—to distinguish them from West Indians and American Indians—there were Polish butchers, Jewish delicatessen owners—it was New York— many languages, many cultures.
We didn’t see a lot of the NEW tenants—it was winter—they didn’t have winter clothes. That didn’t strike us as particularly strange either. Folks up from the south didn’t have winter coats—and folks from the Caribbean usually took two or three weeks to get a wardrobe together—They did have jewelry tho, we noticed—little girls had pierced ears and the women wore lots of jewelry and bright colored clothing.
So… we thought they were Gypsies. A new kind of Gypsy. The kind that intended to stay put for a while—so moved into an apt rather than a store front.
One of the boys was in my class—for about a minute. We didn’t even get a chance to hear him speak, say his name, tell us where he came from. They parked him on the bench in front of the principal’s office—next thing we heard he was in the CRMD class—the assumption being—you have No English/ /you have no I.Q. We were very curious abt that boy—Not because of where they put him—it seemed standard procedure to put people from down south back a grade and to assign remedial speech. What we found strange about the new boy and his family was—some of his relatives looked like Gypsies and some of his relatives looked just like us.//Who were these people?
When warmer weather came, they came outside and we got a closer look. Mothers would take the babies to the park at 151st and Amsterdam. The children our age would go with their aunts and uncles down to the playground on Riverside Drive. The older men would go down to the river and fish off the rocks.//In Spring the softball teams from the various neighborhoods would compete against each other in Central Park. My Dad played a whole lotta ball. He said one day, “Mannnnn those Spanish guys play. some. ball.”
Ohhh, so they Spanish. Quite naturally we children began speaking “Spanish” which of course nobody could understand—including us. It was the candy store man who explained that these New people came from Puerto Rico not Spain. We’d heard of that place in school— This was the 40s keep in mind—the era of Chiquita Banana and Good Neighbor Policy. They were eager to tell us about the “Spanish American War” and how Uncle Sam “saved” Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico from the bad guys. Not a word on the Cuban War for Independence or anything like that—just sunshine, Uncle Sam’s heroics, and Chiquita Banana.
I began hearing of Puerto Rico on Speakers Corner—famous place in Harlem—an outdoor forum—trade unionists, community organizers, different speakers would mount a soap box and address the crowd.//There was a case of police brutality involving a GI by the name of BELTRAN. One of the speakers was explaining that BELTRAN this guy from Puerto Rico had fought in World War II defending “democracy” and still in his US army uniform he’d been beaten up by the cops well…the crowd split—“Cops, those dirty dogs” and so forth//But others were confused “What’s a ‘foreign’ guy doing in the US army?” Others are yelling “And what the hell are they doing in New York—in Harlem!” Well, the speaker’s trying to explain about the formation of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party—this is 1948—and how Uncle Sam—to bust up this organizational effort on the island had relocated hundreds and hundreds of Puerto Ricans up to New York by army transport. “Yeahhhh, to take our jobs”//the crowd got ugly.
After that, I began paying attention—come to find there were a lotta Puerto Ricans living in Harlem, and had been since the 30s—mostly around 116th and Lenox Ave—West Indian grocers stocked products from the Caribbean—black bean coffee, guava, ginger root, yellow rice, coconut soda… which knocked me out. There were Pentecostal churches in that East Harlem area—the services conducted in Spanish—some of the Puerto Rican children my age wound up going to parochial Catholic schools (it was the best way to beat getting parked on the principals bench and being labeled mentally defective).
I remember being surprised to hear that Puerto Ricans had been in the Lincoln Brigades in the 30s—had gone to fight fascism in Spain in units of African-Americans, Cubans, Cuban-Americans, and European-Americans. I didn’t altogether know what “brigadista” was—a fighter for freedom—I learned all good stuff on Speakers Corner.
In the beauty parlors, barber shops, and the candy stores where I hung out, grown ups would be talking about the rough deal Puerto Ricans were getting from Landlords—overcharging them, not fixing things—Puerto Ricans got active in community tenant organizing// women who worked in the garment industry were pretty active too— sometimes hooking up with Black workers, sometimes white workers, sometimes with the Chinese, until they had enough numbers for an identifiable group—a lot of the men worked on the docks—hooked up with the Black longshoremen who really had to FIGHT for their jobs—they caught it from the bosses, white longshoreman, the mob- controlled union, the white-dominated workers unions... and of course, Anastasio and Murder, Inc was no joke all by itself.
In the 1950s—my teenage years—it was the BEAT that brought young people together—Afro-Cuban music—WE went to hear Dizzy Gillespie and Candido—THEY went to hear Dizzy and Candido. They went to hear Tito Puente. We went to hear Tito Puente. We’d mambo at the Palladium, Latin at Manhattan Center. At house parties you did calypso, mambo, and Bop Madison.//And on “dates” we’d go to the movies to see ourselves in flicks with such telling titles as BLACKBOARD JUNGLE & THE YOUNG SAVAGES
This was still the McCarthy period. The cops weren’t half as nuts about gang-turf graffiti as they were about political graffiti: “Freedom For the Puerto Rican Nationalist Five.” You’d see LIBERTAD on buildings, subway steps, the post office walls—then posters went up of Lolita Lebron, Oscar Collazo, Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores, Andres Figueroa Cordero…
For a minute there, mid 1950s, there was multicultural solidarity in community-based action groups in Harlem, Lower East Side, Bronx, South Jamaica fighting for tenant rights or fighting the deportation of West Indian labor organizers—solidarity was no small feat—there were a lot of orchestrated conflicts—“Go back where you came from” Turf wars between the gangs, the Bishops and the Chapmans, warring on the West Indian Community… until that community imported a group of Trinidadian stick fighters, broke that right up— But there were a lot of gang rumbles—in the neighborhood—out in Coney Island… occasionally the Stateside Blacks, West Indians, and Latino gangs would call a truce and team up against gangs like the Golden Guineas who came up from Brooklyn one time to throw their weight around Harlem—one time//But the real solidarity was among progressive grown-ups battling discrimination in housing, hospitals, employment, and in the unions. These coalitions didn’t last too long.//There was a serious crackdown—cops, landlords, bosses, the FBI, immigration, the draft board—everybody got into the act to bust up those coalitions/But then? That’s been the directive since Cortez and from Cortez through COINTELPRO and up to this minute— keep these people under siege—no coalitions.