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NOO JORK: FROM AN ISLAND TO AN INNER CITY

    I STILL REMEMBER that first day. It was 1952 and Mama was proud to announce
we had finally arrived at our new island called The Bronx. We got off the economy
flight with splintered shopping bags and half-panicky, la familia walked out like
some rainbow. I was that skinny dark suit, purple shirt with thin black tie, red socks
with rings around the heels and always hungry for bubble gum drops. Tall, lanky
Carlos stood out the most since his rooster's pompadour made him look cocky. And
Ruben was the chubby jíbaro who loved reading Gene Autry and Roy Rogers comic
books, but never got used to wearing long-sleeve shirts 'cause it always fatigued him.

   I remember snow-skinned, shy Celia, hiding her smiles ever since a tooth ran out on
her. And little sister Miriam was the best Puerto Rican thumb-sucker in the airport.
Speaking of sucking-up-to, I never ate my bubble gum drops that day: my brother
Hector was the meanest vacuum cleaner from Rincon and he took them from me.
Ah, and Milagros: Mama. Have you ever seen such a proud and passionate rose with
indented cheekbones before? I will always see this miracle as a piece of wind, feeding
my thoughts with the wonders of when and why tree leaves fall in a child's past dream.
I dreamt of that day. When we reached the baggage terminal, Mama saw our luggage
murdered and sprawled all over the cold city floor; remembering that day like some
knife stabbing my memory. I was the first time I had ever seen a proud and passionate
rose, sighing while melting inside...SNOW.

   “Your first In-glish lesson,” said Mama, “is to learn how to say hamburger to make
sure you do not starve when asked what you want to eat. Forget about yellow rice
and beans with avocados. Think American. Our language and cultural spirit will not
be welcomed nor accepted. Meanwhile, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until
you learn more difficult words.” We learned a new word each day before school
started. “But Mama,” I asked, 'what if we forget to say hamburger? What then?”
After smacking some sense into me, she replied, “Say french fries! And if you still
forget your second lesson, say ketchup!” My brothers and sisters learned English by
reading the eyes of strangers while remaining humble. This determined if they were
friendly neighbors or cold-blooded assassins who smiled before crucifying you for
daring to embrace the American Dream. Oftentimes, we didn't know if these strangers
were smiling or simply grinding their teeth. But the message was clear: America was
private property. Hands off! We had to grow up fast – and in perfect English.

   As a ten-year old with silent eyes, timid yet pensive, I was seen as a foreigner and
called perro-Rican while laughed at by kids who invented bubble-gum racism. They
were highly offended by my beautiful, deep accent, cinnamon skin and very lively
tropical clothing. It was a time of great prosperity yet greater fear for this wave of
newcomers. Perhaps if my face and color was depicted in Norman Rockwell's
paintings of Americana, I would not have been a victim of educational oppression.
Instead, I was the funny-talker they loved to hate. Learning to speak In-glish while
acting American became an undeclared tug-of-war. If I chose not to think and act
like Dick and Jane, I was punished for speaking Spanish and sentenced to clean the
blackboard. Jose, can you see? The U.S. invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 and branded
me foreigner! It was pure murder.

   Coming to school was a daily public execution with poison pouring from their
eyes. Some actually aimed, cocked the mid-finger and shot dead-center through
my Spanish heart. But my dignity was bullet-proof. Shouts of Mira! Mira! Were
hard-nosed attempts to deface my self-esteem. It was a blatant conspiracy to make
me feel insignificant while treated like some nonentity called Other. In short, I
was an ego-alien projection. “But why? asked this ten-year old. Why? Didn't they
realize that I, like them, was E Pluribus Unum – one formed from many? Why
must English be used to dominate my thinking rather than to cultivate my mind
and creative potential. Why not English-plus! After all, the ABCs came hard,
often intimidating me. I felt as if all the I.Q. and reading tests were an outrageous
attempt to invade my Boricua national identity, if not to color me invisible. When
this did not work, I was straight-jacketed into some dull, characterless room that
was disguised as a workshop for the “slow learner” who was “culturally deprived.”
Naturally, I was the minority who was also intellectually disadvantaged. Which
came first – the label or the stigma?

   As the months faded into years, I was less the newcomer than a prisoner of the
New York City Board of Education, fighting to maintain my own integrity. I felt
English was some gigantic nuisance or adversary on a mission to sabotage my
Puerto Rican essence, blasting me with the Who, What, Where, When, Why and
How! I was entangled in a web of assimilation and acculturation. It left a lasting
impression on me. I was not allowed to speak my own language. I was instead,
pulled back, red-penciled in, or pushed aside and railroaded into classes where
learning was some dead-end dream. Frankly, the kind of education I received, I
would never give to a rock. When I wasn't making colorful pot-holders in home
economics classes, I was drawing perfectly beautiful square houses with sunshine
gushing out the skies as the romantic palm trees stood paralyzed near the seashore.
And if you were magnificent at mumbling, picking your nose, or losing your soul
during some English exam, you were the class genius or clown.

   Being left-handed didn't help either. I was often forced to write with my right hand,
if not ostracized for being my natural self. But it didn't work. I would not allow the
stuffed shirts nor The System to play football with my mind. I may have been “slow”
with my ABCs at first, but I was definitely not some Juan Bobo! No one was going
to belittle me. My pride was intolerable! Perhaps the fragrance, spice and flavor of
my Boricuaness was too deep-rooted.

   I simply refused to give up my romantic accent. I was not going to be deprived
of my freedom of Self. While many fought back by joining street gangs like the
Purple Knights or Young Savages with switchblade tempers flashing out of their
back-pockets, I was reading the dictionary like bible study. Grandma Felipa and
Mama had taught me well. And what happened when I stood defiant and spoke
my native tongue? My teacher, Mrs. Schaefer, who I first experienced puppy-love,
held my hand down as she scratched it with her outrageous fingernails, waiting
for me to stop speaking Spanish when I did not understand her words. I was sent to
the dean, a mild-mannered hypocrite who rolled his newspaper tightly and with his
reliable night-stick on my head, he screamed “Speak English only! Spanish is bad
for you! Repeat: Speak English only! Again! Spanish is bad for you!”

   I was emotionally raped and left stranded in some corner of the world with a dunce
cap on my head; later forced to remain after school to write on three huge blackboards:
“Speak English. Spanish Is Bad For Me. I Will Not Speak It Again!” I came home
with a bilingual headache. The next morning, Mama was dragged into the dean's office
with my teacher and school principal pouring nasty syllables out of their mouths. They
lashed out and killed me with their eyebrows. Mama was confused and ashamed, as if
I had set the school on fire. When I tried to explain myself to her, she slapped me hard
across my face. I died crying inside. When I was ordered to return to class, the smirk
on the faces of my classmates disheartened me. I drowned in my silence. And I could
still remember Mama's slap across my face as if this happened yesterday.

   I knew then that the United States had declared war on my cultural heritage.
But I was no longer resentful of the English language. I knew then it was a
deliberate conspiracy to fear In-glish and as a result, succumb to invisibility.
Instead I chose to befriend English and to master the possibilities, but kept
my Spanish close to the heart. Still, it was a damn pity that one could not be
accepted nor admired for having the best of two worlds, two great languages
and cultures. I was determined to survive the American Dream machine with
its pressure to conform while you turned your back on your own identity.

   The time came when I “graduated” from elementary school, but I was not
sure if my 5&10-cent ribbon was an A+ or a passport into excommunication.
It taught me to be on guard and to develop crap-detecting antennas that gave
me greater resilience and will-power when someone shook your hand while
stabbing your back at the same time. I purposely chose not to return the hatred
and racism so easily spit upon me. And I recognized how the intellectual and
educational oppression with its grading and tracking system, also degraded me.

   I was determined to later embrace poetry as the greatest act of human liberation.
And to listen much closer, not merely to what was said, but how. I learned to
read eyes and peoples' expressions as if they were books of mirrors. Poetics
saved my life. I grew to respect the beauty in the power of the spoken or written
word. I slowly became The Searcher: learning that writing meant to seek and to
envision, and to discover not what you know, but how you think.

   When I became a high school teenager, though still off-the-wall with my second
hand clothes, leftover rice and bean sandwiches, and awkward rock n' roll rhythms,
I remained married to Spanish. Yet I escaped into the public libraries and met the
master poets and writers – Blake, Papa Hemingway, Browning, Langston Hughes,
Kerouac, Longfellow, and Willie Shake. I secretly met these great voices from eyeto-
mind and introduced them to the indelible imaginations of my other grassroots
compadrazgos (hommies), or guaitiaos: my “brothers of blood”- Cervantes, Dario,
Lorca, Vallejo, Neruda, de Hostos, Marti, Alonso, Llorens Torres and Pales Matos.
I read, observed, and absorbed. Reading and writing became my second skin, an
embodiment of words given life to create within fresh wind.

   In the meantime, I continued to search for my own roots while living the anonymous
hope of a poet of color who believed then and now that someday the U.S. will still
embrace me as part of its own national soul. During these transformational years, I
also discovered that books written about Latinos were mostly loony tune caricatures
of some Anglos' distorted vision of Puerto Ricans and other colorful people. I was
more aggressive as the hunter of my national and cultural heritage, determined to
create a spiritual and artistic balance in the present while getting a firm foot-hold on
my future. Thus the poet within emerged and evolved.

   Poetics became my vocation. Mi Pana. My confident. My badge of honor. My solidarity.
My weapon! The quest was not to determine what poetry Is, but rather, what it Could
Be
: a voice among many. As a Latino, I knew it was more important to define myself
than to allow others to label me with negative stereotypes such as Minority; when in fact,
I was (as poet Piri Thomas declared) “The Majority of One.” I was never an Other.
Ironically, I am now a “hot” majority minority while the majority of Latinos are written
off as illegal aliens of the new and improved social underclass.

   Unfortunately, the growing contributions made by Latinos in education, commerce,
government, in grassroots advocacy for health and human services, or in mass media, film
and arts entertainment to advance societal conditions for today's Others, is oftentimes left
ignored, unless some misguided soul with a black or brown face is criminalized or lynched
in the headlines. Latinos are still depicted as migrant or immigrant sponges and rejects of
the tainted American Dream; particularly by right-wing political maggots and false religious
prophets who blame the downfall of the federal budget on women,the elderly and misbegotten
children who need this kind of tongue-lashing like they need domestic violence, HIV Aids,
child abuse, or other societal ills less important than global warming or President Bush's
unlawful War in Iraq.

   Yet, our Puerto Rican history and cultural heritage reflect incredible strengthand veracity
as one in our unanimity of being. We will not disappear, then and now. We have been both
part (and apart) of the American impulse and browningof this great country before it became
America in 1776. And afterwards when it invaded Borinquen as part of its Manifest Destiny
in the name of prosperity, democracy and food-stamp colonialism as a perfumed colony in
1952.

   Like other new arrivals before us, we have also played a major role in its continual
redefinition,energy and emerging talent. The nagging issue of English Only will not defeat
Latinos who strongly believe in Spanish-Plus. America must understand that democratic
principles do not solely exist in the English language, and that the Hispanic heritage is
undeniably inseparable from our Puerto Rican roots.

©José Angel Figueroa

From: Journal of Educational Facilitation, Volume 2, Number 1, January 1996, pp. 9-13.

 

 

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