CHAPTER #2: “SPIC & SPANGLISH in the Bronx…”
Graffiti, broken glass, heroin needles and the smell of urine is everywhere in
this urban jungle my tribe is claiming as their American dream. In reality,
our low-income housing Projects are amongst the most dangerous ghettos
in New York City in 1964. There I am, in the back bedroom of our first floor
apartment as another scary night in the Bronx begins.
I am three years old and trying to fall asleep in this room I’m sharing
with my younger sister and two cousins. It’s dark outside our window and
the shades are up. I look out the window and there is a man – a peeping
Juan – staring at me.
I scream! Suddenly, lights are urgently flickered on by one of my “Titi”
aunts. She yells for her macho brothers. Seconds later, Uncle Batman and
Uncle Robin are lunging past me, flying out of the window to go kill the bad
guy. Th is is my very first memory of my childhood spent in the ‘hood.
While that mythical movie, “West Side Story,” does it’s best to portray
how tough our Puerto Rican lives were, even that version glosses over
just how bad it was for my grandparents when they arrived in 1943. There
weren’t any ESL classes or telephone options like, “for Spanish, press #2,”
when they relocated from Aguada, Puerto Rico to “nu-jork-ciddy.”
My mother and her six younger siblings got their asses kicked and
suffered through the humiliation of eviction, as they sat on the street curb
for all their neighbors to see. Aft er my grandfather abandoned his wife and
kids, Abuela Juana had no choice but to move into public housing – the
Projects – in the South Bronx.
Every day there seemed like another day at the firehouse, with one
emergency after another and no time to breathe in between. I remember
the fights, the knives, the blood, the pedophiles and the unrelenting fear.
By the time I was six years old, I’d seen and heard more violence than any
Like that time when my babysitter took me over to her house and we
walked in just as her dad was chasing his wife with a butcher knife. As she
threw me under a desk to protect me, I remember almost shitting my pants
and to this day, I am still nervous around knives.
I spent my days with Abuela Juana, watching her cook our Puerto Rican
cuisine with the smell of arroz con pollo, platinos or pasteles waft ing through
our apartment. My mom and her brothers and sisters were constantly coming
and going and smoking and cursing and always making too much noise at
The day time was always quieter, as Abuela Juana and I would get
on our hands and knees together to wax the floors because she believed
in keeping a clean casa. Other days, the highlight of our day would be
standing on the welfare line while we waited for our rations of peanut
butter and five-pound blocks of American cheese. There were always the
candles to light at church, while she was teaching me to pray to God. She
also taught me to help my community, to be polite and prudish and to
always be superstitious.
Abuela Juana got more nervous as night time approached and so I would
too. If we weren’t watching the evening news to scan the list of Americans
killed in Vietnam so we’d know if my Uncle Batman was dead, you might
find us huddled together in our building’s stinky staircase when we’d seen
or heard something scary after she’d asked me to call the police.
When I was around five, I remember her asking me to call 9-1-1 instead
of her because she said my English was better than hers. “Help us, por favor!”
I said to the NYPD on the phone. “We heard screaming and gunshots. Please
hurry! We’re scared…”