BOOK BONUS from “NEWYORICANGIRL…Surviving my Spanglish Life”

27 Sep


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

child should.


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…”

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