Tone .Are

Letters To Our Puerto Rican Youth, in NYC (-1- The Struggle to be One -1-)

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2010 at 5:20 am

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A couple of years back I was working at a summer baseball camp in Chelsea. The job payed good money and I got to do something I loved, something as apart of who I am, as rice and beans is. It was an opportunity to reconnect with a life I had left behind upon graduating from high school. It was an opportunity to work alongside former college and semi-professional ball players, as I was the only one on staff hired without that level of experience. And it was an opportunity to coach young people growing up with a life far different from the one I streamed up, moving from one apartment to the next, in the half dozen places I would come to call my home in my younger years. Baseball, and youth; Youth, and Baseball. Baseball… Youth… Baseball.

A memorable summer it did turn out to be.

Everyday I felt blessed to be going to work. I had agreed to take on some extra responsibilities, and so I would show up early to sweep and mop, tidy up and restock the bathroom with toiletries, and prepare the batting cages for another day of baseball. We, the coaching staff, would then greet participants and line up behind the camp’s manager as he made his daily speech before going off to stretch, warm up, practice, and PLAY BALL! I don’t know who had more fun: the 8-12 year olds actually playing the game, or me, watching after them, before returning to the facility with a little more picking up to do.
Inside of my dusty clap for the young girl who was going home to piano and french lessons; behind my instructing hands guiding the young boy about to spend a weekend in his parents’ Hamptons retreat; was the little boy from Brooklyn drowning street commotion out my window with the thousand swings per day, my own coach encouraged me to push… perfecting my grip under the threat of my mother’s wrath should that bat have released from my hands, towards a lamp we could not afford to replace. I genuinely LOVED my work!

But my most memorable moment of that summer was not when the staff staged our own Olympics, and I beat out the other coaches in a contest to determine who had the finest arm!
The most memorable moment for me was not when I found myself introducing myself to the parent of a youngster with a familiar name, and inquiring into whether what i imagined might be true, was in fact affirmed as she asserted that I had indeed been training Dan Rather’s grandson.
Rather, the moment which always brings a smile to my lips from that summer, came when on break in the sweat of New York heat, a fellow Coach and the only other Latino on staff (a Dominican Brother), engaged me in a chat that I would’ve reacted to a lot differently in my teenage years on the diamond.

“What are you,” he asked “Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, or Boricua?”
And assuming he was testing my sense of self, I responded proudly: “Ptss.. I’m BORICUA!”

“No, you are NUYOrican,” he followed.

Yes I am Nuyorican. I do not just accept this matter-of-factly, I embrace it as wholeheartedly as I embrace that I am Boricua. From Boriken to New York City, I am my Puerto Rican people WHEREVER we go! Depending on the flavor of the month I might feel more Porta Rock-metro-Rican, or I might feel more petroglyph-jibaro-Rican. Our (NuyoRico’s) late Secretary of State Pedro Pietri declared it for all of us, to be so. If not for reading Pietri, leading me to read Hostos, I might have begun to fire off some cringing ignorance about platanos and incest, as I recall having reacted in similar conversations back in my day on the ol’ varsity team. Not only would it not have been worth it/right (Pietri clearing his throat reminded me that we were at work, and probably the least secure on the payroll if you get my drift), but It wouldn’t have made sense to me any longer. Eugenio Maria de Hostos lived and died to bring my people and his together; building the Dominican public school system, and requesting that his bones not be transported from his resting place there, to his native Puerto Rico, until the island is someday Independent, and Free!

“What about YOU?” I retorted playfully. “Dominicano, or Quisqueyano?”
He didn’t expect that i’d have any clue about distinctions of his own indigenous/national identity.
Together, we laughed.

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There has always been a safe space for Latinos to congregate and build with each other, in baseball. At one time, and to an extent even today, ethnic/racial solidarity, in relation to the game, was an unintended consequence of society being segregated. Today, we are actually seeing managers taking racial chemistry into consideration when putting a team together, totally cognizant as to whether their roster has or needs to build the support of a core group whom can receive their next Latino star, with the same language in the clubhouse and rhythm on the field. The ‘chocolate chip’ phenomenon Roberto Clemente struggled inside of during his early years, as a Brown man on a white squad, was history by the end of his career. It was ’72 and he had become something of the patriarch amongst a demographic populating the future of the sport.

All of this is to say that in our work places, at the party, spread about the beach, wherever our people are, there is a harmonious undercurrent that works itself out in our respective performance. Such energy shows itself in the intimacy of our exclusive conversations, in the cache developed between us for outsiders invited into the uniqueness of our space, in body language, and actions from our respective upbringings, which hold universal significance for us. It gives us home, it makes us our own, and with that comes the combination of responsibility and dignity befitting of a complete investment of self. Here in America, all peoples (Black, White, Muslim, Jewish, Women, Men, Gay, Straight), can attest to experiencing their culture’s particular construct of this communication. We each choose to either embrace or reject it, depending on how we interpret it will effect us.
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Back in my Senior season at Fort Hamilton, I was one of I think four Boricuas on the team. There were about the same amount of Dominican players, but there was a synergy amongst them that we the Puerto Rican players did not have. We were a scattered four, each with his own clique, if we weren’t riding dolo (I for example, was ‘a loner’). They, were Brothers. In the lunch room, on the train, up the avenue, at the gym; you saw one, you saw two three and four somewhere around. If you really looked around, you noticed it wasn’t just them four. Cheering them outside of the gate during a game, tagging on to the back of a wave of upper classmen gathering to cut just before the bell began class, packing a caravan of cars circling the block for parking the night of a dance; they were a community within the school, and unlike us, whom for the most part might have known OF each other, each and every Dominicano it seemed, related to one another in rather tight camaraderie. And if THAT sounds hyperbolic for you, try to process how the best player in the city that year was Rudy Lugo (whom would eventually make it all the way to the major leagues). Rudy went to Xaverian, which was a private school rival. I had never met him, until my back up (Right Field) brought him to visit our practice one day… We all came and surrounded this brother, he was a MONSTER. Wasn’t a matter of association by network of the elite, because if it were, I, the starting Right Fielder would’ve known him 🙂 It’s just that the Brother came through with his peoples. He was Dominican, he had a l o t of peoples!

Shamefully, I was ‘lost’ back then; perdido. And I didn’t look upon this as a positive reality for our Primo.Latino’s. They have no type of individuality! I thought, deadpan in my own experience of ‘individuality’. It hadn’t yet snapped for me that the essence of family, which configured itself between WHOMEVER came to join from amongst them, might have been the source of the travel agencies, hair salons, grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses that began decorating our Sunset Park neighborhood when Boricuas were down to a Pentecostal church and a funeral home!

Until this day I still fight my draw towards isolation. I’ve learned enough to know that we are stronger together, Boricuas building amongst Boricuas.. inside of Boricuas building amongst Latinos… and Latinos and African Americans keeping strong links and building a greater future together. But i’m still fighting the colonized mentality.

Here I was, now coaching, at Pier 40 on Houston street, along the West Side High Way, on a roof-top artificial turf set-up. A mercenary with the leather and the wood, lending my Latino secret to 150 little white children before Dora the Explorer came along and gave every white American kid a Brown friend. Passing the side of my eye over at the only other Brown person within eye sight. And if any of us were going to have community that felt like our exchange, sharing ancestral code in the privacy of our own love, we were peeking over at it.
Unfortunately though,
for the rest of the season, it wouldn’t feel that way again.

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Up until that summer it had been seven years since i spoke within breath of a pro ballplayer, and boy was I within breath of a pro ballplayer! Old San Juan, 1999, on vacation with my Grandmother, when by the pigeon-busy fountain the plaza by El Morro, I recognized a tall dark man in a white suit to be Orlando Cepeda! Man was I geeked, what do you know, if it wasn’t my lucky day, I NEEDED to meet him! Upon shaking his hand my Grandmother was swift in interceding to greet him on my behalf. From what I understood, she informed him that I myself played baseball, and was bound for St. John’s. Probably assuming I was on board to play for the Johnnies, he took it from there, pitching me a few animated word-strings, with which I attempted to catch up, nodding the same spacey stare I had throughout my life, whenever confronted with Spanish. Recognizing that I was another one of those Boricuas who didn’t know Spanish and didn’t know how to tell him, he turned towards my Grandmother, told her off, and walked away shaking his head.

Years had to pass through my system before I was ready to accept what I began to cool down enough to understand. He was a proud Puerto Rican man from a generation in which he traveled to cities which wouldn’t allow him in the same hotel as others; he was a proud Puerto Rican man surviving the U.S. governments attempts to acculturate his people, coerce them to abandon their language along with other facets of their identity. My frustration was valid, for years I had faced the same rejection from elders whom discovered I did not speak the language; you reject a child you either motivate them to take over the world, or, you set a bully called shame before a future it’s hard not to avoid. But, I no longer resent the man, and I’ve since prepared myself enough to at least make a request, in Spanish, that they work with me as it might take a little time for me to understand and respond.

In the 7 years since that encounter, most of the Latinos i’ve made acquaintance with have not been Puerto Rican. There’s no surprise there, as the population of what for decades was the dominant Spanish speaking group in the city, continues to dwindle to the greater settlement of Mexican and Dominican immigrants. Neither do I take the common reaction I’ve received from our Primo-Latinos, who learn of my handicap, as coincidence.
“Alot of Puerto Rican, I meet, say they don’t know Spanish,” they often reveal.

My family migrated to New York in the 1940’s. My Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother struggled to raise the five of their children who survived illnesses of poverty (a couple of her children died in my Great Grandmother’s arms). Although my Great Grandfather had gained a bit of notoriety as a professional boxer, in those days, a professional boxer needed a side job or two to make ends meet. And there was no work in El Fangito. So they took a one way flight to New York, which the colonial government in place to rule Puerto Rico for the U.S. had been encouraging of citizens, for two reasons: 1) It was in the interest of U.S. industrialists to transform the economy, so that it tailored towards the manufacturing of garments *the states were receiving enough sugar from the other islands, already*, and they didn’t need so large a workforce for that, meaning, alot of people out of work 2) Those out of work in Puerto Rico, might be able to suit industry looking for cheap labor in the states. So farms in Jersey, and factories in New York were happy to use us.

Before long my Great Grandmother was working a laundry mat and my Great Grandfather was sticking labels to cans at the Campbell soup factory in Brooklyn. And my Grandmother, was finally in school. She was 8 years old and had never been in a classroom. The reason being, back in Puerto Rico, the U.S. imposed colonial government had strangely instated an English only policy for some time (it was an attempt to force assimilation), and according to my Grandmother, she was denied entry because she failed to prove she already had some basic knowledge of English (so many children, so little schools, this was the standard a Puerto Rican had to meet on their own island).

To make a long story short, Grandma grew up, growing into a factory herself, having been educated on how to work for The Man. She earned enough to eat and together with my Grandpa, feed some children, who grew up, pacified in a Kingdom Hall when they were with her; and schooled on bars/ ‘loose women’ /and his time in the Korean War when they were with him. They in turn grew into a defected copy of the American Dream, and vowed that they’d throw it out before they ever watch it replay, in their own children. Figured their culture might be in the way of them breaking this poverty (hmm… what do the White folk have that we don’t have? Money! Soooo… what, DONT, the white folk have that we have??), and simply avoided the trouble of teaching my cousins, my siblings, and I, among other things Puerto Rican: Spanish.
They must have not foreseen all of the job opportunities I would lose to non-Latinos whom can speak the Spanish that my Latino self cannot, OR that I’d be required to learn it in high school, anyway.

All wit aside, there is something to be said about us being who we are. There is something to be said that will flick the sun on for humanity in the morning, there are thousands of blogs that can be written about the brilliance of our People, the vibrancy of our spirit. And there is something to be said, that will pull a dark room out of the light bulb, for, we aint coming round to play as often now, as we did between the times of Roberto Clemente and Roberto Alomar, in Baseball we are a dying breed. And I can talk about how Pennsylvania and Florida are pulling us away from New York, but there are statistics that tell a deeper tale than that. Something is pulling us apart from ourselves, and our head aint in the game because of it. Stick ball didn’t carry the day and I challenge you to name the last NuyoRican star in the bigs… It’s been awhile since I myself have put on a mitt, and it’s been awhile since I’ve found work. I wouldn’t feel so bad about neither had it been 150 of our brilliant young Puerto Ricn youth in my hands that summer… at least i’d be in the comfort of knowing they’re taking it to a better place.

A recent study on Puerto Rican youth in New York City opens up with the following:

“Theirs was the first Latino group to settle in New York City in large numbers. Most speak English, and they are United States citizens, entitled to the benefits and security that new immigrants can only dream of. But by many measures, young Puerto Ricans are faring far worse than the young Dominicans, Mexicans and other Latinos in New York, according to a report to be released on Monday by the Community Service Society of New York, a leading antipoverty group.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/29/nyregion/29puerto.html

Why is it that we have been here for so long, and we have such a low rate of graduation from high school and enrollment in college? such a legacy of crime and single parent households? such a high rate of poverty?
The article you will read is startling, but it doesn’t give context… it leaves us pointing fingers, so as to escape the real reasons. Because the real reason for our destruction, and the real solution for our salvation will not come to light if we do not learn about who we are, where we come from, and how to reclaim who we are and where we come from, so as to move forward in building a future from a whole and complete place. We must gather the pieces; sweep and mop the facility, clean and restock it’s bathrooms, chalk the baselines, plow the field and cut the grass. Set an open world of existence to play the game in. Learning to play our positions, together.

Because we are going nowhere going it alone…
And we are noONE, if we’re busy trying to be the most unLatino Latinos, while the world learns to be more Latino than we are…

I used to love Baseball.
Game On!

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