Monday, November 26, 2012

Redemption Song

¡Hola mi Gente!
I usually post this around this time of year... it's a Thanksgiving tradition of sorts on this blog. Sometimes, when I think this too self-indulgent, or clichéd (I am a walking cliché, it seems), someone will send me a message usually beginning like so: “I read your blog and I never comment… ” (LOL!) and it never fails, someone will tell me that reading the following helped them, or they shared it with someone they thought it could help. So… here goes.

* * *

My life is my message

The cliché that life is stranger than fiction is true enough. I guess that is why they are clichés -- they are true, if nothing else. And believe me: my life has been pretty much “strange.”

Thanksgiving Day has its own personal meaning, as I am certain it does for everyone. Actually, Thanksgiving Day has layers of meaning. First, there is the “we’re thankful that no one forced us to completely assimilate to their culture and then celebrate by stealing our land and killing our people,” meaning, and we should never forget that...

On another level, people of Puerto Rican descent have traditionally taken US holidays and used them as opportunities to express our own cultural identity. For example, Puerto Ricans will eschew the traditional holiday fare of turkey and potatoes and substitute lechon and pasteles, Puerto Rican culinary staples. If we do cook turkey, we cook it pavo-chon-style -- a turkey prepared in a manner that makes it taste like lechon (pork suckling). Also, the holidays are always a chance to celebrate our music, our unique forms of dancing, and kinship ties. Therefore, Puerto Ricans subvert the traditional genocidal Thanksgiving and give it their own meaning. And as humans that’s what we do best, we create meaning.

Thanksgiving Day is also now primarily identified as a secular all-inclusive day of expressing appreciation for life and having gratitude for the things we need to live a happy and healthy life. As a Latino, the cultural values of extended family ties and Thanksgiving evoke childhood memories of large (and often hilariously insane) family get-togethers.

However, for me Thanksgiving holds its most significant meaning on a very personal level. You see, it was around this time twenty-two years ago that I experienced the first of a series of “spiritual awakenings” that would change my life. The exact date is November 26, 1990 and this significant date often happens to fall on or near Thanksgiving Day. Shortly before then, on a cold, drizzly November day, I was so overcome with despair that I considered and attempted suicide. It is actually a little funny: As I climbed over the rail on the Brooklyn Bridge’s pedestrian walk, I was so skinny from malnutrition and years of substance abuse that a strong wind knocked me on my ass. I saw this as the ultimate failure, not even being able to kill myself, which gives you an idea of my state of mind at the time.

I walked away from that only to opt for a more torturous suicide: the daily act of chasing that White Lady, Heroin. Ensnared by my warped thinking, I had this fear that I would botch up my own suicide and merely succeed in paralyzing myself, damning myself to chase drugs from the disadvantage of a wheelchair. I remember another addict who was in a wheelchair. I decided I would make someone else put myself out of my misery.

And though I speak lightly today of that time, I was extremely miserable. I do not believe in a God in the traditional Christian/ Judeo sense – an anthropomorphic omnipotent super being. Yet back then I would pray each night that some Higher Power would find it in its mercy to take my life me my sleep. Still, every day I awoke to my despair. I would always wake up sick and broke, but somehow manage to spend $300 by the end of the day, feeding a merciless heroin habit.

If you are wondering, in the end I fed my drug habit by ripping off drug-dealers, never a safe proposition. One day a victim of one of my swindles threatened me with a gun. I grabbed the gun by the barrel, put it to my forehead, and begged him to shoot. All I asked was that he made sure to kill me because, “You would be doing me a favor.”

This was in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded New York City street. I remember a crowd forming and people screaming; but what I remember most was thinking that this was my way out. “Do it,” I yelled. He pulled the trigger and…

Nothing happened.

I don’t know if the gun jammed or if it wasn’t loaded, but for whatever reason, the gun failed to discharge. My would-be assistant “suicider” freaked out, yanked the gun from my hands, and walked away, calling me crazy. I called at him, let him know he could get another chance. That’s how much I wanted to die...

I thought I could do nothing right.

That wasn’t the worst of it, my life continued to bottom out until November 26th, 1990 when I experienced an incident so traumatic it would change me and my world in an inexplicable way. Actually, most people would consider the events that transpired on that drizzly, dreary November day as a defeat. Very simply, after being released from prison for exactly fourteen days, I was re-arrested. It was also that last day of my active addiction -- the last day I took a drug.

I didn’t know it then but it was the beginning of a new life: a life that today is far from perfect, that has suffering, illness, death, and many challenges, but also an invincible of joy at its core. This is part of the reason I do the work that I do. I know even the worst of us have the potential to liberate ourselves from our own self-made prisons. And let me be clear: we’re all “doing time” in some way, we all wear shackles. We all enact patterns of behavior or carry the proverbial baggage.

No, I am not a religious person. My personal view is that religion is for people who are afraid of hell and spirituality is for those who have already been there. I simply try to be the best person I can be on a daily basis and oftentimes I fall short of the mark. However, my intentions are usually good and my direction somewhat orderly -- I try to live a life centered on compassion, personal growth, self-actualization.

On that day, twenty-two years ago, I had no way of knowing of the possibility of life as it has manifested itself today. There is joy in my life today. It’s a joy independent of any person, place, or thing. I can be sad, happy, angry, disappointed, disgusted -- I can be experiencing any number of attachments -- but at the center, at the very core of me, there is an invincible joy greater than any drug-induced high I have ever experienced. And believe me, coming from me, that’s saying a lot.

On that day, sitting there in the midst of total failure and utter humiliation, I came undone. And that was a good thing, because in being obliterated I became open and willing. In emptying myself, I came to see that what I perceived as emptiness was in reality my innate potential as a human being.

I am genuinely grateful. This past year, as with all years, has been a challenging. I have experienced sadness, frustration, happiness, love, rejection (the full catastrophe!). I could easily surmise, if I were so disposed, that my life, that life itself, sucks. But that’s a coward’s lie. Life is a gift -- probably the most precious of gifts. My life today is like a redemption song -- a song of freedom. And at the very least there is nothing worse (or better) than that fateful day twenty-two years ago. Today I woke up and I am, and I am… here... and for that I am most grateful.

May you all have as much to be thankful for.

My name is Eddie and I am in recovery from civilization…

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving with the Rosarios

¡Hola mi Gente!
Thanksgiving, for very personal reasons, is one of my favorite times of the year. I love ritual of breaking bread together and honoring gratitude -- giving thanks. I’ve heard it said that gratitude negates sadness and that’s been my experience.
But I love Thanksgiving most of all because all the great childhood memories. The following is based on true events…
* * *

El Pavo (The Turkey)

[Note: an animal was harmed in the making of this post]

It really was too much -- embarrassing to the nth degree. Everybody on that 60 Wilson Bus was staring at us and the best my uncle could do was laugh that fuckin infectious, jolly laugh of his. He thought it was hilarious and, sensing my embarrassment, it made him laugh harder, causing the other passengers to stare more intently. 

There it was again, a movement from the cause of my embarrassment. You see, in Puerto Rican neighborhoods, it wasn’t uncommon to purchase live poultry from el vivero -- a marketplace selling live animals. Usually that entailed picking or asking for a particular chicken and the proprietor would take it out of its cage, go to the back and prepare it for you. 

But this was the day before Thanksgiving and my mother had insisted I accompany my uncle to the nearest vivero to buy a live turkey. At the time we were living in a then mostly African American Brooklyn neighborhood on East New York Avenue (right across the street from the back entrance of the Pitkin Theater) and the nearest vivero was a bus ride away. My uncle Onofre, Tío Nofrín, was already in his cups though it was still early in the day, and he insisted in a live turkey to take home. This was unusual, I thought at the time, because normally we would tell el vivero to prepare the fowl for us. But my uncle insisted we take the fucker live, so el vivero put the turkey in a large paper grocery bag and off we went. No sooner than we sat down on the crowded bus, the turkey, perhaps sensing this wasn’t going to be his day, began making a fuss and engaged in repeated and often violent attempts to escape the paper bag. This in turn caused all the passengers to stare, which made my already slightly inebriated uncle to laugh out loud.

He obviously thought it was hilarious, the passengers were alarmed at the tipsy Puerto Rican with a live turkey in a large brown grocery bag, and I wanted to die. You see, part of growing up in a society that sees your culture as different or alien, is that there’s an internal tension between the very strong pull to assimilate (and not feel alienated) and the tug of cultural pride. I was raised to be a proud of my Puerto Rican roots, but I decided that I drew the line at live turkeys on the 60 Wilson bus.
My uncle Nofrín, already a happy-type person sober, became even happier the more he drank. And the happier he got, the more he laughed. He had this patented outburst, “Ayyyy Coo-Coo,”  an idiomatic expression that didn’t mean anything except that it usually followed a punch line to a joke/ prank or when something outlandish happened. For example, if grandma fell on her butt in front of everyone, you can be sure Tio Nofrín would follow-up that catastrophe with a hearty, “¡Ayyyy Coo-Coo!” and start cracking up. So here I was with Tio Nofrín, wrestling with a live turkey on a crowded New York city bus laughing his ass off and yelling out, “Ayyyy CooCoo!” every time the turkey attempted to break free of the paper grocery bag. Embarrassing.

But I need to back track just a little here because I’ve started this story at the wrong juncture. This particular Thanksgiving actually began with my sister, Darlene, winning a raffle at the local Catholic Church where we took our weekly catechism classes. The prize? She won a large truckload of groceries. We were so happy. The fact was that while I can’t say we starved, there were times that food was scarce. “Wish” sandwiches weren’t uncommon in the Rosario household and it was rare that we had enough capital to do food shopping for a whole week. My mother often had to scrape up dinner on a day-to-day basis. So the prospect of having a whole truckload of groceries was something my siblings and I saw as a good thing. 

My mother is a proud woman. Even as a child, I often marveled at how my mother could walk down the worst ghetto street and and still manage to appear regal. To borrow the South African phrase (used in the Paul Simon song), my mother walked as if she had diamonds on the soles of her shoes. She had a way of holding herself, an attitude, so natural it didn’t offend people. People just assumed she was entitled to that regal bearing.

She walked straight, with perfect posture, and her manner, though imposing, was unaffected, head held high, her perfectly sculpted nose, and those cheekbones to die for, adding a sublime beauty to that imperial pose. When she barked out an order, people listened and though she was in actuality a petite and small woman, she always seemed taller than her actual size. And while it was true we were poor, my mother would dress us in the best clothes -- clothes bought at a fraction of their price at used clothing stores and Salvation Army centers located in upscale neighborhoods. And she taught us to walk in that same way: to slouch in front of my mother was sacrilegious.

That's why, perhaps, when my mother saw all these groceries being carted into our third-floor tenement walk-up, she became enraged thinking it was charity. She managed to insult the priest and throw the delivery boys out before we could convince her that Darlene had won all that food in a raffle.

So what did my mother do? Did she squirrel away the food, making sure we would have groceries for, like, ever? No! First, she gave away two of the (three) Butterball Turkeys to neighbors in bad straits and then proceeded to call all of the tribe for a big, family Thanksgiving dinner.

And that’s when she charged my uncle and me to “go get a turkey from el vivero.” When we finally arrived with the live turkey, a great hue and cry ensued. First, my mother wanted to know what had gotten into my uncle that he would be crazy enough to bring a live turkey to her house. Her instructions were clear, she enunciated in tones usually reserved for intellects hovering at the idiot level. I feared she would task us with returning the damned thing, but then my grandmother insisted that she could “prepare” the turkey. After all, my grandmother reasoned, she had been raised in small Puerto Rican town, and slaughtering and preparing food wasn’t something foreign to her.

A quick, impromptu family meeting was held in order to decide how to go about preparing the turkey and soon a full-scale heated debate erupted which culminated in my grandmother rushing out, grabbing the turkey by the neck, and spinning it violently above her shoulder. According to my grandmother, this was a sure-fire way of killing the turkey, a technique apparently used for generations in Salinas, the town she was born and raised. 

Unfortunately for the turkey, this twisting only resulted in a wicked crook in its neck, which became immediately noticeable as soon as my grandmother let go and it started running wildly around the apartment seeking a way out of its predicament. I felt so bad I almost opened the door for it, but the turkey was doomed, and with his neck now at a right angle to its body, I doubt it would’ve been able to exploit an escape opportunity even if it recognized it. By now, half the family was in hot pursuit of our potential meal and the other, younger half was screaming traumatized. I'm sure some of my cousins still have nightmares of screaming turkeys with crooked necks. the only one who was clearly enjoying himself was Tío Nofrín who was yelling out “¡Ayyyy Coo-Coo!” as he joined in the chase for the wayward turkey.

Eventually, someone caught up to the turkey and it was then decided that the best, most merciful course of action would be to slit its throat, which my stepfather, Vincent did. But all this accomplished was that the turkey, resuming its valiant quest for life, ran praying great splotches of turkey blood everywhere. Eventually, the turkey was subdued and a large pot of water was set to boiling in order to plunge the turkey in for the removal of the feathers. No sooner than the turkey was plunged into the boiling water that it quickly jumped out and again made one last attempt at life. This time, everyone was traumatized, screaming in horror. Finally, my grandmother, upset that her fool-proof turkey killing technique was shown to be ineffective, grabbed the poor fellow, and with one last pull on its deformed neck, finished him off.

Suffice it to say the turkey no longer gave anyone trouble and before you knew it, it was de-feathered and prepared in the pavo-chon Puerto Rican style (a turkey that tastes like a lechon). Soon all the aunts, all high-strung, creative cooking geniuses, were busy preparing the dishes they were best known for (and getting on each other's last nerves in the process) and the rest of the family settled in for fun and games.

You have to understand that I come from a family of cheaters. For example, my grandmother, bless her soul, was a notorious card cheat. Mind you, she wasn’t a good or adept card cheat, in fact, she was quite bad at it. But a card cheat she was, and in our family cheating at games is actually allowed. People who marry into our family have a hard time understanding our ethics, but I assure you we have our moral standards, they're just difficult to describe.

We’re also a family comedians and pranksters and if you happen to commit a gaffe, or do something particularly embarrassing, you will forever be associated with that action/ event. For example, one friend of the family had the tenacity to stick her finger into some food an aunt was preparing and she was quickly chastised with a whack to the head with a large metal ladle. From then on she was known as La Lambia -- the greedy or starved one. I have an aunt who’s predisposed to exaggeration -- actually she’s compulsive liar -- and part of “family fun” was asking her questions about events we all would know she would exaggerate and then make fun of her for her exaggerations. One part of the family, my mother’s sister’s brood, were known for their bad tempers and were called the “Pissed Offs.” Another part of the clan was called the “Mini Munchkins” because they were all short. 

Individuals were similarly named. For example, I was affectionately known as mal tiempo, literally meaning bad time, but was a label normally used to describe natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. My sister, Darlene, was called La Princesa because of her pretentious airs. Also, if you were an unfortunate victim of an accident, that too was fodder for humor. One cousin, who accidentally shot himself in the foot, was ragged on for years. Even something as mundane as taking a shower or taking a shit during family get-togethers was fraught with danger, as a cousin would invariably rush in with a Polaroid camera to snap a picture or a brother or mother would dump a pail of iced water on an unsuspecting bather.

So, fun and games in my family was in actuality an excuse to engage in all manner boundary trespassing, psychological torment, cheating, hysterical and inappropriate demonstrations of affection and anger, and ridiculing. And you know what? It was hilarious! As long as you weren’t the butt of the joke, of course. And every year, there would be a different theme and a different butt of the "holiday joke."

So here it was Thanksgiving Eve and the music was blaring, the home was warm with all the cooking, fogging the windows, and you could smell all the great food being prepared. Family members were all engaged in the joyful activities of family holidays when the men decided they would all venture on a “Boy’s Night Out” outing, much to the expressed dissatisfaction of the women. One of my earliest lessons as a young boy was that one should never anger the women on my mother’s side of the family, for they are a ferocious group of females. In any case, the men went out and they took me along with them because they wanted to school me in the ways of men. Going out, for the men, meant going somewhere where there was liquor, loose women, and illegal gambling. Apparently, being man meant being able to hold your liquor, no matter how much of it you imbibed, and demonstrating your virility by flirting with/ picking up women my mother would kill for even thinking of looking at me.

And this particular night, the night before Thanksgiving, there was a lot of gambling going on. At first, my stepfather, Vincent, was making a killing, and while sober, Vincent was a model of stability, inebriated, he lost all self-control. Instead of quitting while he was ahead, he instead lost all his winnings and his paycheck to boot. This I knew was bad news, but Vincent was beyond listening to my appeals for sanity. Eventually, he convinced my uncles to lend him money and in that way help him win his money back, and he went on another winning streak, only to commit the same error, managing to lose the money loaned by my uncles.

It was 5 AM in the morning before the men began to sober up and come to the realization that they would eventually have to go back home to a group of assuredly angry women waiting for them. So they came up with the following plan: they decided it was best for me to go upstairs first in order to scope out the situation. No sooner that I walked into the apartment that I realized things were worse than even I expected. Most of the women were sitting at the kitchen table silently seething, waiting for the men to return. You could actually see the waves of anger coming off of their bodies, distorting the air like heat waves. 

I went back downstairs and dutifully gave my status report and most of the men were balking at going upstairs, thinking (quite wisely), that discretion is the better part of valor. But Vincent, who seemed to not have sobered, guffawed, got out of the car, and with a swagger told everyone else he would show everyone who wore the pants in his home and proceeded upstairs. I followed, honestly fearing the worst.

There was this long flight of stairs that reached up to a small foyer-like area to our apartment, and it was here where my mother confronted a clearly incoherent and drunk Vincent. Somehow she surmised he was gambling, had lost his money, and was drunk, and she became so incensed, she pushed him out of anger. Vincent, still drunk from the huge amount of rum he had imbibed, didn’t stand a chance and he went down that long flight of stairs landing in a way that no human body should land, his neck now at an angle eerily similar to the turkey’s neck the day before.

I turned to my mother, said, “You killed him.”
My mother, “I did not!”
Me, “Ma, I saw you push him. Look at him I think his neck is broken.”
My mother, “Don’t you say that! I didn’t push him, he was so drunk, he fell on his own!”
Me, “No he didn’t mom, you pushed him!”

At this point an aunt, the compulsive liar, who up until now had been asleep, appeared out of nowhere and said, “I saw everything and Lydia didn’t push him, he fell!”

Before I could continue several of her sisters and my grandmother came out and all stated, though not one of them had witnessed anything, that Vincent had fallen of his own accord and they all gave me this look that clearly indicated it was dangerous to persist in this line of reasoning.

By this time I realized the whole conversation was a moot point and went downstairs to check on Vincent. I was certain he broke his neck, but no sooner that I called his name that he opened his eyes, smiled at me, and managed to get up. I guess it’s true that God loves children and drunks because to this day, I don’t know how he survived that fall. 

Then I felt rather than saw something fly over my shoulder and land with a loud crash. My mother, in her anger, had thrown the turkey, which had been slowly roasting in a low-heated oven for several hours, down the stairs and it crashed, pan and all, and broke into several large greasy chunks of turkey parts.

Thanksgiving, which had begun on such a high note, had now been ruined and we didn’t even have a turkey. My mother and her sisters quickly dressed and left the house, the rest of the men probably getting similar treatment outside.

My sisters, and some of my younger cousins, immediately gathered and started a choir of wailing and crying because Thanksgiving had devolved into a dysfunctional madness and the turkey had now died yet again. And I was so upset with Vincent that I told him he was responsible for all the  crying and for the ruination of Thanksgiving dinner. Upon hearing this, Vincent seemed to sober up a little, pulled himself up, said, “I’ll fix this,” and began picking up the pieces of the turkey.

I was beyond shocked, “How the hell are you going to fix this, Vincent, the turkey is gone!”

“You’ll see,” he mumbled as I left to go outside for a walk, unable to take it anymore.

When I came back, Vincent and my sisters were busy trying to sew the turkey back together again and it was so funny, I had to laugh and we all started laughing. I mean, this turkey was all discombobulated, legs akimbo, stitched all together like some monstrosity made up in a horror story. And true to form, we christened the turkey, “Frankenstein’s Turkey,” and one of my sisters would chuckle and say, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” and we would all laugh.

And when the rest of the family finally came back, my mother saw us all laughing, took one look at the turkey, and she started cracking up. I mean, it was impossible to look at this thing and not laugh. And that’s how we spent that Thanksgiving, eating a horribly tortured and reconstructed turkey.

Happy Holidays…

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beyond the One Drop Rule (or: Between Black and White)

Hola Everybody,
Just in case you didn’t know, November is National Puerto Rican Heritage Month. In addition, you’re probably not aware that in the last election, Puerto Ricans voted for statehood. Well, actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that (a plurality didn’t vote for statehood, for example), but I won’t get into that right now. In the meantime, I offer the following in the hopes that you find it useful.

-Naaaahhh... You ain't no Porta Reecan.
-I keep telling you: The boy is a Black man with an accent.
-- Wille Perdomo (for Piri Thomas), Nigger-Reecan Blues

Growing up, I had a friend we nicknamed, “Shadow.” Shadow was a Golden Gloves champion, a Puerto Rican whose dark skin earned him the moniker. He was dark, but not as black as another childhood friend we used to call “Blue.” Blue was an African American, a cocolo, as Puerto Ricans sometimes refer to African Americans (and, yes, it was a pejorative). 

The thing with Shadow was that, though he was dark-skinned, he had a sister who was very light-skinned -- light-skinned as in “white” not “Creole,” or “high yellow.” In fact, they looked as if they came from different families. I have blue eyes and I am light-skinned and growing up, I was often mistaken for being white. Shadow and I used to hang out and we would be supportive of each other (as in “watching each other’s backs”) because we identified as Puerto Ricans. 

Blacks and whites would often get very confused around us Puerto Ricans because we would refuse to identify as either black or white. I am not white, in the sense that I identify with whiteness as it is constructed in the U.S. Shadow didn’t identify as black as it is defined in the U.S. What we were -- what we identified as first -- was Puerto Ricans.

This caused many problems for Puerto Ricans. At home, we were treated equally regardless of our skin color: there was no “white Puerto Rican” vs. a “black Puerto Rican,” we were brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. We were familia, and skin color wasn’t a determining factor for accessing love or whatever benefits our families could provide. 

The same, however, wasn’t true when we were exposed the social institutions. At school, we were often separated. For example, though my darker-skinned cousin at home was just as smart as I was, he was often placed in less advanced classes than I was. And though I was never taught to identify as white (and I still don’t), I learned very quickly that I was given preferential treatment because of my Eurocentric features. We all learned this early on in our lives. In some cases, it served to makes us cling more closely together, in other instances it was a source of conflict, pain and, grief.

We were also pressured by our peers to identify according to the dominant racial paradigm. The worst insult you could pay me was to call me white. Not because I had anything against whites, but because by identifying me solely by the color of my skin, you were robbing me of my autonomy, my choice to define myself, and my choice to maintain and honor my cultural heritage. More insulting was the pressure to stop us from speaking Spanish. I remember getting in deep trouble once when I responded to one teacher asking, “Can’t you speak English?!!” by saying, “Fuck you, is that English enough for you?”

 It was the same for the darker-skinned Puerto Ricans, they also would come under immense pressure to identify as black. Therefore, if there was some sort of conflict, and Shadow chose to stick with me (and I with him) we were ostracized for being “sellouts” or “nigger lovers.” Truth be told, most of the time, we didn’t really give a fuck, but it bothered all of us at some deeper level. Or perhaps we were all experiencing what some sociologists call perceptual dissonance: A tension within the field of awareness of the characteristics that constitute one’s self. Whatever the case, it wasn't until we all read Piri Thomas' semi-biographical account of growing up Puerto Rican in New York, Down These Mean Streets, that we found an outlet to discuss and internalize these issues.

I still hear complaints from my African American brothers and sisters, who become frustrated when Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean Latin@s insist they are not black. For African Americans, our resolve toward cultural identification amounts to a denial of our blackness, and to a degree, it is, but I don’t think that sentiment captures the the full story. When Shadow (who would eventually identify as an African American) used to say he wasn’t black, he wasn’t denying his blackness, he was attempting to assert his own identity, his culture, his Latinidad, his Puerto Ricanness. It’s the same with me when I correct people about my assumed “whiteness.” We were saying we were Puerto Rican.

To be sure, there is racism in the Caribbean; to say otherwise is, in my estimation, a racist. However, how Puerto Ricans and other Latin@s define, talk about, and conceptualize race is very different from the way it is constructed and mediated in the United States. I believe Latin@s have something to offer to the profoundly dysfunctional racial dialog (or lack thereof) in the U.S.

Let me start with a rather controversial issue. In the 2000 census, the residents of the island of Puerto Rico (effectively a colony of the USA), claimed itself to be 81% percent white. This is in stark contrast to Mainland Puerto Ricans in the United States, where only 46% identified as white (as an aside, when I was last incarcerated, I identified as black). This finding caused a shitload of controversy with people from all over the ideological map making claims ranging from it being proof of Puerto Ricans' denial of their African heritage, to countless other assumptions. What also was not lost was the fact that Puerto Rico was whiter than the U.S., where 75% identified as white. And of course, part of the reason for this is that some Puerto Ricans feel a need to dis-identify from American blacks – a marginalized group unjustly burdened with stereotypes. This is a hard truth, but it isn’t the full truth. I think we need to contextualize these numbers properly. Culture and context, my friends, is everything.

First, let’s take note that there is a racial ambivalence in Puerto Rico that doesn’t exist in America. In Puerto Rico, racial identification is less important than cultural identification. This is why I can identify as black, but if you looked at me from an American perspective, you would find that silly (which goes to show, on the other hand, that the full breadth and scope of black physical expression is seriously skewed in this society). One study showed that some dark-skinned Puerto Ricans will identify as “white” while some light-skinned Puerto Ricans will identify as “black.” We just don’t think of race in the same way Americans do and we are, strictly speaking, a demographer’s nightmare. In the U.S., the opposite is true: racial identification largely, determines cultural identification. Therefore, as I have demonstrated earlier, when asked the all-too divisive question, “What are you?” Puerto Ricans of all colors and ancestry usually answer, “Puerto Rican.” In contrast, most New Yorkers will likely answer, black or white (or maybe even Jewish or “of Italian descent”). I am not saying that Puerto Ricans feel no racial identification, but rather that cultural identification is more important.

Another important factor is that Puerto Ricans’ perceptions of race are based more on phenotypic and social definitions of what is a person than on genotypic knowledge about an individual. Put simply, physical and social appearance, instead of biological classification, is used to define race. In the U.S., the legal definition of white meant that the biological offspring of a mixed race union would be considered black (i.e., the “one drop” rule). In that way, the children of a white slave owner and a black slave would still be considered slaves. This legal definition did not exist in Puerto Rico (and other Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands). The progeny of slave and master were considered free.

For Puerto Ricans, a white appearing offspring of an interracial couple could be considered white. On the other hand, an obviously dark-skinned person may not be considered as black (as defined by Americans), especially if there are other mitigating factors, class being a prime consideration.

Another aspect of racial classification for Puerto Ricans is that racial categories are based on a mixture of skin color, class, facial features, and the texture of hair. This is quite different to the mostly color-based, white, black, yellow, and brown U.S. racial paradigm. This makes for a fuller spectrum of racial perspectives for Puerto Ricans. For us, there are blanco/as (the equivalent of U.S. whites); indio/as (the equivalent to the U.S. conception of East Indians -- dark-skinned and straight-haired); moreno/as are dark-skinned with a variety of features -- black and white; negro/as are black as conceptualized in the U.S. Interestingly, this latter term is also used as a term of endearment, equivalent to the English “honey” or “sweetie” and having no racial connotation. It was not uncommon to hear my parents, both of whom were light-skinned with blue eyes, affectionately call each other, “negrito/a.” Finally, there is the term, trigueño/a, I often use, which can be applied to what is considered brunettes in the U.S. or to negro/as who have high social status. For me, trigueño/a is a racial catch-all term. It can be applied to both white-looking and black-looking Puerto Ricans.

I will finish this already too-long post by emphasizing the importance of the contrast between a multiracial, multiethnic society versus a homogenous society. While in the U.S., racial/ ethnic minorities have been segregated, the same doesn’t hold true for Puerto Rico. In this way, blacks in Puerto Rico were not a distinguishable ethnic group. This is not to say that blacks are evenly distributed throughout the social spectrum. Race and class still intersect in ways that serve to marginalize, but they intersect in ways vastly different from the way they intersect in the U.S. But in terms of housing, institutional treatment, political rights, government policy, and cultural identification, Puerto Ricans of all colors are not different. In addition, Puerto Ricans on the Island of any skin color do not perceive race as an issue. In stark contrast to mainland Puerto Ricans, who identified deeply with black power politics, Island Puerto Ricans, perhaps because they haven’t been confronted with U.S. racism, do not identify as much.

In a very real sense, Latin@s in general, and Puerto Ricans in particular, have approximated the largely unrealized ideal of the Melting Pot. One manifestation of Puerto Ricans’ racial perspectives is that there isn’t the same taboo on racial intermarriage that exists in the U.S. Puerto Ricans have intermarried and continue to intermarry at a higher rate than the U.S. In addition, the emphasis on strong extended family ties makes the world of most Puerto Rican children one that is inhabited by people of many different colors and these colors are not associated with a racial caste system. This intermingled rainbow of colors taken for granted by Puerto Ricans is foreign to most children in the U.S.

I leave it here for now.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Friday, November 2, 2012

Blackout Specials

¡Hola! Everybody...
Here's hoping that everyone is safe and that those impacted by the storm have found some measure of comfort.

The following relates the story of what we did when I was growing up and the lights went out.
* * *

Blackout Specials in the Glow of Botanica Candles

Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that to go on living I have to tell stories, that stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.
-- Dorothy Allison

Come, gather closely, I am going to tell you a story – my story. Actually, it is only part of my story and this is no ordinary story but a story about story. So gather yourself, breathe softly… come listen, read…lean into this space, and be ready to receive the gift of story… an invitation…
It’s nighttime and the only glow in the room comes from the glass-encased candles bought from the corner “Botanica” -- storefront shops found in Puerto Rican neighborhoods that sell herbs and “magic.” Variously colored candle wax poured into long glass receptacles with images of the saints and the Virgin Mary inscribed on the glass and promising anything from good luck to financial success. Though it is dark and cold, we, my two sisters and I, sit in rapt attention before the figure of my father, who is in the process of telling us a story. Our mother is somewhere in the darkness preparing the “Blackout Specials” we have come to love so much. However, the real star tonight is the story. For it is the story we crave tonight. It is story time in the Rosario household and this is sacred space.
How many of us have experienced the relief and serenity after expressing our pain and sharing the burden of a sorrow with another? Life is too difficult, the day is too long, to carry our grief alone or keep our joys to ourselves. How many of us have spent long periods in solitary loneliness? Then, like anyone who has been alone and finally gets a chance to speak, we have so much to say to one another.
I come from a long line of storytellers (no smart remarks! LOL) and I believe firmly in the power of the story to change, to educate, to bring us to wholeness. I believe this because it is in the telling of the story that we find healing. It is the basic unit of human communication, this telling of stories. Since the dawn of time, we have gathered together to tell each other stories -- to share experiences, to ward off the darkness.
Tonight, my father is really into it and he’s telling us the story of “how the solar system was named.” He starts with Mercury, mentioning that it’s my planet, me being a Gemini, and tells the story of Mercury. He moves on to Venus and tells that story, and so on. They are his stories to be sure: part science, part classical Greek myth, sprinkled with Puerto Rican folklore, but it’s a great story and we laugh and giggle, and hold our breaths in anticipation.
There’s a television in the room, but it is turned off and no one cares, tonight is a “Blackout Special” called by our parents. In fact there are no lights on, all electricity has ceased to exist for us as we sit around the kitchen table, drinking the “Blackout Specials” (scoops of vanilla ice cream floating in orange soda). Tonight everything has been set aside. Beyond our the ramshackle tenement building we live in, modern life can be heard to be happening, but here at our humble kitchen table, we are into the story.
When we share our pain, fear, or the unmanageable aspects of our lives, we open up to the possibility of being more honest with ourselves. However, some people will tell only parts of their stories because they are looking only for validation. This is not the kind of sharing I am talking about. That kind of sharing is evident in the raunchy talk shows where fragmented people, suffering from lack of boundaries, go up in front of a national audience and humiliate themselves.
And we watch and pass judgment…
No, the kind of sharing I am speaking to happens within a truly respectful and spiritual meeting and includes our questions and the incomplete thoughts in our stories as well as the thoughts that are fully formed. The kind of sharing I am talking about is the kind when you tell on yourself for the purpose of creating positive change, not to stay stuck in pain.
“Blackout Specials” was where I first learned the importance of the story. It became a family tradition, one we passed down to our own children and hope will pass it on to theirs. My father was a consummate storyteller. He could gather all the children on our Lower East Side block on a mid-summer's day and have us sit fully engaged for what seemed like hours. As children, we loved those stories because as children we know intuitively that stories are who we are. It is the basic unit of our only human instinct: language. And as developing persons, we yearn story in the same way we yearn sustenance.
I remember when I first went back to school, in my late thirties, I was afraid of many things. Mostly I was afraid of making a fool of myself, and I felt out of place and awkward because I was much older than the other students. Because of this, I would not go to certain places at the university, one of them being the cafeteria. One day, as part of psych class assignment, I shared about this fear.
It so happens that one girl, who was overweight, was moved to share about her same fear of going to the cafeteria because she was afraid that people would look at her and judge her for being overweight. And as she shared, she began to cry. Then, one after another, other students began to share about their own fears. Others offered support and before we knew it, we became this story circle of sacred sharing. Eventually we all came to the same conclusions: that we were not alone in our fears (that it wasn't something that was “wrong” with us), and that if we looked closely at our fears, they were sometimes a wee bit funny and irrational at some level.
We all went to the cafeteria together and laughed about it.
That’s the kind of sharing I am talking about. Of course, some things need to be kept more private and shared only with those we trust deeply. Nevertheless, sharing is important because it is in the telling and the unburdening that we find true healing.
Eventually, we would call our own “Blackout Specials.” The only rules were that everyone had to tell a story and everyone had to respect each other’s story. When the speaker of the story had the floor, no one could interrupt. The story could be anything: a joke, a story of a found object, an event, whatever. The important part was that we had a way to share; that we could sit and listen to each other, in sacred space -- telling our stories to one another. The Blackout Specials make up some of the most memorable times of my youth. It is where I was allowed to sit in awe and wonder and learned that I too had a story. That my story was as important anyone else's story and that I had to tell that story somehow.
Since the dawn of time when our ancestors huddled around the fire to ward off the cold and darkness, we have told stories. Unfortunately, today the ones telling the stories -- the TV news and talk shows, Reality TV, the movies -- don't really give a fuck about respect or wholeness. We need to take back our stories and tell them to each other and pass them on to our children so that we will not lose this precious gift. As we talk, we unburden ourselves and learn from each other about closeness and vulnerability and what it means to be a human being.
Many years later, I’m walking down the street with my own son who was nine-years-old at the time. He too loved stories and when I would pick him up from school, we had a game we played. The game was that we had to tell the story of something new we learned that day. My son would run out of school and I will always remember the anticipation in his eyes as he would ask, “Well, Pops! What did you learn to day?!!” and I would share my story and he would share his.
In the year my father passed away, we requested that he lead a Blackout Special on Christmas Eve. My father was very sick at the time, but there we were, all the brothers and sisters with all his grandchildren, now all veterans of Blackout Specials themselves. We all took out turns, telling our stories. My son told the story of a scarf he and I found -- he created a history for that scarf. We each sat and listened in the warm glow of Botanica candles.
Then came my father, the legendary storyteller -- the creator of the Blackout Special himself -- in all his glory, in the rarest of forms telling the greatest story ever. It’s is a moment we all will never forget.
And the “story of the story”? It wasn’t until many years later, when we became old enough to understand, that we realized how “Blackout Specials” came to be. You see, it was a matter of necessity. We were poor and sometimes my parents had to decide which bill to pay and sometimes the electric bill would go unpaid so that they could buy groceries. So my parents, in order to lessen our sadness, came up with the idea of the “Blackout Special.” On top of everything else, this taught us the most valuable lesson of lighting the candle instead of cursing the darkness. My parents put the power of the story in my heart.
May you be able to tell your story always…
* * *
And so it is with us here in the blogosphere: we tell our stories. Our stories of love and heartbreak, of our wishes and hopes. We tell of our gardens, of our victories and defeats, and in that way, we connect somehow in this world going so quickly into madness. We have no time to tell our stories anymore so we come here and cast our lines and we weave a web of stories.
And we listen, read, and tell…


[un]Common Sense