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Proud to Be an American
First, let me tell you my family's story, just one Hispanic family among millions. Like the overwhelming majority of immigrants, Hispanic or otherwise, the Riveras of Puerto Rico worked hard, served our country in many different ways, and made enormous efforts to assimilate, despite the obstacle of prejudice.
My dad always wanted to fit into America, his “new” country. Well, technically the country wasn't new, because U.S. citizenship had been bestowed on him and all current and future Puerto Ricans by legislation called the Jones Act of 1917. The United States had been in possession of the lovely tropical island it had conquered and won from Spain for only twenty years, and Cruz Rivera was just two years old, the sixth of seventeen children born to Juan and Tomasa Rivera of Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
“How could you have so many children?” I remember asking my grandmother, a woman of enormous patience and good humor who wore her snow-white hair pulled back, contrasting dramatically with her angular, chocolate-colored face made leathery by the sun. “Times were different then,” she replied in fabulous understatement, referring to their modest agrarian lifestyle in the sugarcane and coffee economy that dominated the island in the days before the commonwealth. My grandfather helped manage one small operation, and each child became another income earner, cutting and stacking cane, watched over by a slightly older sibling.
With citizenship bestowed, the new Americans were free to roam and the Puerto Rican diaspora began, with island residents leaving their then largely rural society for the far-flung corners of the industrialized mainland United States. Most, like my dad, came to New York City.
When the now twenty-one-year-old Cruz arrived on board one of the New York and Porto Rico Steamship Company's “banana boats” in 1937, more than fifty thousand of his fellow islanders arrived here. The number had been higher, nearly double in the earlier decade, but the Great Depression had unleashed a torrent of bitter racism toward the newcomers, who, like the immigrants of today, were thought to be stealing jobs from “real” Americans. So thousands had gone home to the island. My dad and several of his siblings were determined to stay.
He met my mom, Lilly Friedman, at Stewart's Cafeteria on Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street. He was a counterman there; she was a pretty brunette from Jersey City who cleared dishes and waited tables. She is Jewish, he was Catholic, but he spoke English fluently, having learned as the valedictorian of his Bayamon high school. He proposed marriage, promised to convert to Judaism (which as a lay deacon of the church he never got around to doing). He had been on the mainland for only three years and was keen on assimilating, becoming even more American.
To that end, and to ease the angst of my mom's parents over their daughter marrying a man whose name, Cruz, translates into “Cross,” he adopted the name of Allen, becoming Allen C. Rivera when he married. “Why Allen?” I asked my mother. “When he came here he was ridiculed and put down. He was called Chico or Pancho and it really upset him. He just wanted to be an American. And he spoke English perfectly, with no accent at all, except when he was on the phone. So he never wanted to speak on the phone.” My parents went so far as to give my older sister, Irene, and me the last name Riviera, as in the French or Buick Riviera, to further disguise our roots. It was the only thing they ever did that I'm still mad at. No one was fooled. All it did was confuse our school records, and by the time my brother Wilfredo arrived from Puerto Rico and my sister Sharon and brother Craig were born, the artifice was dropped.
Dad and Mom worked hard and we moved from Orchard Street near the main thoroughfare of Houston Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to a small apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. It was a perfect neighborhood for our blended family. It was divided by Broadway, the teeming boulevard under the elevated subway that sliced through two radically different neighborhoods. One side of the street was nearly all Puerto Rican, the other was almost all Orthodox Jewish. The family joke was that we were the only ones who could cross the street with impunity. Then in 1944, Pop got drafted.
Like many Puerto Ricans during World War II, he served honorably in the army, restricted as many Hispanics were in those days of military segregation to kitchen duties. “He was stationed out in Sacramento,” Mom told me. “When his unit was being shipped out to Okinawa, the people running the Officers Club where he worked wouldn't let him go. They loved his spicy cooking. Otherwise the army food was so bland.”
After the war, Dad drove a New York City taxi until, with the benefits of the G.I. Bill, my parents were able to buy a modest home for $8,000 in a blue collar neighborhood in West Babylon, Long Island. With his own extended family, Wilfredo still lives in the old house our family bought in 1950.
On Long Island, Dad got the job that helped him ease us into the upper working or lower middle class, supervising the largely Puerto Rican kitchen staff of the cafeteria concession of the Republic Aviation Corporation in the town of Farmingdale. Now defunct, it was where they built the F-84 Thunderjets used in the Korean War and later the F-105 Thunderchiefs that saw service in Vietnam.
During the booming postwar economy of the 1940s and early 1950s, the Puerto Rican population in the States recovered dramatically, skyrocketing to well over a half million, still mostly living in New York. Puerto Ricans were on the traditional immigrant track to assimilation. But as the community grew, because of factors largely out of its control, so did economic and social tensions. While many people had been gainfully employed in the expanding postwar economy—women mainly in the garment industry, men like my father in hotel and restaurant kitchens—the accelerating shift of manufacturing jobs out of the inner cities displaced and impoverished many Puerto Rican and other immigrant families.
Ironically, an equal but opposite phenomenon was unfolding back on the island. There a government program called Operation Bootstrap was moving agrarian families off farms and sugar plantation and into cities, where they were lured by jobs in newly subsidized industries. While there are obviously widespread and sometimes spectacular exceptions, in some ways the inner-city segment of both communities never recovered, many falling into a trap of welfare dependency, broken families, and drug and alcohol abuse.
Still, despite income levels lower than those in the States (median family income for 2006 was measured at $20,045 in Puerto Rico while the lowest state was Mississippi at $42,805), and an economy far too dependant on public jobs, there is enormous pride of place. We call our band of brothers and sisters Boricua, which derives from Boriken, the pre-Columbian, Taino Indian name for the island. Visited by Christopher Columbus during his second New World voyage in 1493, the lush, mountainous, and now crowded little island's heart is her capital, major port, and the oldest city under the U.S. flag, San Juan. On its modern outskirts, there is the usual collection of tourist hotels lining the beautiful Atlantic beaches, although curiously lacking are the kind of supercasinos that are remaking cities like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The heart of the old city, though, is unmatched by those synthetic meccas. It is a charming, 465-year-old neighborhood within the old walled section built to withstand invasion. There, with cobblestone streets, elegant government buildings, and hundreds of carefully restored sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Spanish colonial structures surrounded by La Fortaleza and other massive fortifications, the best of life under Old Spain is easily conjured.
Too much of the rest of the island has fallen under the plows of random development, urban poverty, and grinding, often chaotic traffic, although lovely pockets remain. As an expression of solidarity with the land of my father and his father for generations out of memory, several years ago I bought an undeveloped mangrove island off the south coast we use for vacations and enormous family reunions. A mile-square jewel located three miles off the modest coastal village of Salinas, I intend gifting it to the people of the commonwealth as a park, and to be buried there.
What is fascinating, given the island's profound social problems, is how satisfied Puerto Ricans seem with their lot in life. We invented irrational exuberance. To prove that thesis, just watch one Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. It is billed as the world's largest, with as many as half a million marchers watched by 2 million of their closest friends. The colorful pageant is a giant demonstration of pride in community. I've marched in at least two dozen going back to 1971, and was once honored as Gran Mariscal, the grand marshal. It was one of my dad's proudest days, even though a torrential downpour that drenched Fifth Avenue interrupted the procession midway.
While we certainly have our share of strivers and success stories, curiously we are among the least envious, most inherently happy people on the planet, content to make a living, make love, and debate politics. Without bragging or being condescending, there is an openness and innocence about Puerto Ricans that in all my world travels I have found unmatched. Strangely, in my experience it is Afghans who come closest to our extraordinary willingness to welcome strangers and our perhaps disproportionate hometown pride of place. Italians and Lebanese also come close. One Puerto Rican's success is every Puerto Rican's success. Again, if you don't believe me, watch the parade just one time and see how it seems to be a gigantic family gathering. When the young and old, men and women cheer Jennifer Lopez or Ricky Martin, they do it without an ounce of insincerity or envy, only pride.
If our only ambition for education and achievement matched our compassion and ability to love. In his book, The Governor's Suits, my longtime friend and confidant Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, an island-born and -trained psychiatrist, believes that part of the reason for our community's tranquility is that as the world's oldest continuous colony, claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus on November 19, 1493, and invaded by the United States on July 25, 1898, someone has always been in charge of us. As a child prospers emotionally in the absence of anxiety and responsibility, our centuries-long colonial status has meant less stress for us. The big bad world wolf is not our problem. But we have sacrificed self-determination and drive for tranquility, the assurance that Uncle Sam will always take care of us.
My first professional hero, role model, and mentor, Herman Badillo, the first Puerto Rican congressman, is even more pessimistic about our community's current plight. Badillo blames our persistent social problems and relative lack of success on an addiction to entitlements and preferential public programs, like bilingual education and open admission to public colleges, programs he not only benefited from, but, until leaving the Democratic Party and becoming a late-in-life Republican, also championed. “We act as if our New York neighborhoods were part of Puerto Rico,” Herman told me in an interview. “We haven't taken advantage of the assets we have available to us here, like the City University. We're becoming part of a permanent underclass.”
Widely criticized by current community leaders like the fiery congressman Jose Serrano and former Bronx borough president and losing mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer, Badillo has written a scathing but not entirely mistaken commentary on our current situation entitled, One Nation, One Standard: An Ex-Liberal on How Hispanics Can Succeed Just Like Other Immigrant Groups. In the book, Badillo points to the relative success of our cousins from the nearby Dominican Republic (DR). They didn't have the same advantages we did when they got here. The DR was suppressed for years by a series of brutal dictators, principally Rafael Trujillo, who ruled with an iron hand from 1930 until he was assassinated in 1961. The island nation, which is next door to Puerto Rico and separated only by the sixty-mile-wide Mona Passage, is now free and unfettered. Unlike Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens all, many Dominicans came to America as visitors or trespassers with no advantages, but with immigrant vigor. They are now turning vast swaths of New York City into upwardly mobile enclaves. Once a ghetto, Washington Heights is a thriving Manhattan neighborhood heading straight into the middle class thanks to its hardworking residents, largely from the DR and Mexico. Unmistakably Latino, the Heights are a vastly more stable, safe, and prosperous neighborhood than they were just twenty years ago.
I respect Herman and Guillermo tremendously, but I see the root of our problem in our ambiguous status. Puerto Rico is neither an independent country nor a state of the union. We get many of the benefits nationhood or statehood would bring, but not the responsibility or respect. Our island is a stepchild in the family of nations, charming, ebullient, and attractive, but a stepchild nevertheless. And until that status is resolved with independence or, my preference, statehood, the stubborn social problems will persist as they have for more than half a century. The stepchild needs to grow up and become an equal member of the American family. To mix metaphors, Puerto Rico has to pick a lane.
When the Ozzie and Harriet ideal was sweeping the nation in the Eisenhower days, hard times in the inner city intensified residential and racial segregation, crime and unemployment increased, public schools spiraled downward. I have an image of my dad coming home from work in the afternoon and scouring the crime stories in our hometown newspapers, Newsday and the Long Island Press, hoping that the perpetrator of some particularly vicious act was not a Puerto Rican or other Latino for fear that the dirty deed would only make our efforts at assimilation more difficult.
My father's response to the growing discrimination and backlash against the community was to align our family with the Anglo mainstream, becoming suburban “us” to the inner-city barrio's “them.” His fear of being racially stereotyped and his malignant communal shame at any dreadful or embarrassing act committed by any Hispanic is something I can never forget. As a young adult, it was what caused me to reject his cautious assimilation and adopt a flamboyant ethnic identity, growing a moustache I haven't shaved in forty years, habitually wearing a Che Guevara-like purple beret, permanently becoming Geraldo (don't call me Gerry unless you want a fight), and throwing my lot in with grassroots East Harlem radical group called the Young Lords.
Actually, I forced myself upon them. I graduated from Brooklyn Law School, interned at a community legal services office in the heart of Harlem at 116th Street and Eight Avenue, and then became the cochairman of an activist group of minority lawyers we called the Black and Brown Lawyers Caucus. In August 1969, I gained radical credibility when our group literally seized Donald Rumsfeld. The future two-time secretary of defense was then head of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). We all worked for Federal Legal Services, which was part of the OEO so Rumsfeld was our ultimate boss. As part of a larger movement to protest Nixon administration policies toward the poor (which included us), we invaded and occupied Rumsfeld's Washington office, holding him captive until we were all arrested. Hosting an inaugural gala for the wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. in January 2004, I recounted the story for the secretary and a group of generals. I got big laughs.
But in the day, there was nothing funny about our commitment to radical social change. By 1968-69, the Young Lords were advocating community services, like free breakfast programs and testing for lead-paint poisoning for neighborhood children, campaigning for the independence of Puerto Rico, occupying a local hospital that was notorious for substandard care, confronting local police and other authority on the behalf of barrio residents, seeking common cause with similar civil rights and antiwar activists around the country in a grand, multiracial Rainbow Coalition, and idealizing a semi-socialist society. The Lords were led by a unique combination of college-educated activists and several street-smart, old-school leftist organizers. Some of the former are still active in public life, like the poet and commentator Felipe Luciano, the New York Daily News columnist and former head of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists Juan Gonzalez, and the WCBS correspondent Pablo Guzman. The Lords were the first homegrown—that is stateside—Puerto Rican activist group concerned with social issues like poverty and police brutality rather than focusing, as most PR groups did at the time, on the island's independence.
The Lords were getting press and not all of it was bad, staging protests, organizing confrontations with the local precincts, and dealing aggressively with the somewhat sympathetic administration of Major John V. Lindsay. At the time the group was being represented by several traditional young white lefties from the Lawyers Guild. That's when I forced myself upon them, rushing into their office, typical of the 1960's—a smoky, crowded, and poster-filled room in the shadows under the Park Avenue elevated train—and demanding that since I was the only Puerto Rican radical lawyer around who was their age, they were mine to represent. They were bemused—some still tell the story—but my offer/demand was accepted.
In May 1970, the Lords seized possession of the block-square building owned by the Spanish Methodist Church on 111th Street and Lexington Avenue in the impoverished, almost exclusively Puerto Rican “El Barrio” neighborhood. I was often their spokesman, and in that role was interviewed on the Today show. The church is still there, and though the neighborhood has somewhat gentrified, and like many in New York and elsewhere is much more Mexican than in the old days, it retains its rough ghetto edge. Well-maintained public housing faces rehabilitated tenements; larger markets sit side by side with the traditional bodegas, and there are combination grocery-department stores where you can still cash a check, buy a whole pig for roasting, and overpay for almost everything.
In nice weather there are scores of mostly poor people on the street; the cops watch the action up and down Lexington Avenue with an eye-in-the-sky crane on which an officer sits in a glass enclosed perch thirty or so feet up. On the streets below, the legend of the Young Lords is passed down from generation to generation. The seizure of the church almost forty years ago has become the stuff of local lore, one of those seminal events that everybody remembers and many claim to have participated in. Over the years, many strangers have come up to me to say that they were there, although like a Puerto Rican Mayflower, they couldn't possibly have all fit in.
On the air giving interviews during that crisis, my job was to explain the benevolent nature of the group's seemingly hostile act: that the Lords wanted to put the church complex to work for the community. The congregation, many of whom had prospered and moved out of the city, kept the buildings shuttered during the week, only using the sanctuary for Sunday services. The building takeover was not unusual for those turbulent times. The Kent State National Guard shootings had just taken place and the nation was frequently disrupted by antiwar demonstrations and plagued by urban unrest.
I was spotted on television by Al Primo, the founder of WABC's Eyewitness News, who was foraging for a news team that reflected the diverse community it served. The only other Puerto Rican on television at the time was a local CBS reporter named Gloria Rojas, and she recruited me into the business. Primo hooked me up with the legendary newsman Fred Friendly for a crash course at the Colombia University Graduate School of Journalism.
As my urgent ethnicity and radicalism simmered down during a four-decade-long public career, what remained was a reflex opposition to racial and ethnic stereotyping. That stance has frequently brought me into highly publicized, sometimes violent confrontation with hatemongers from the KKK to neo-Nazis and skinheads advocating white power and terrorizing minorities. There aren't many people in this country who have been called both a Spic and a dirty Jew in the same street brawl with neo-Nazis, as I had the pleasure of being in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1992.
Right now in America, the group being singled out for the most destructive negative emotion is Hispanic immigrants, both legal—families who have been in the country for generations—and illegal—people who may have crossed over the border yesterday. All this destructive hostility is the manifestation of what is now a national panic. Despite this hate, I can say that as a proud Puerto Rican, I am proud to be an American.