This is Puerto Rico
And this is my street, and it is also Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico with some Irish, & both throw badass parades.
But the streets, the feel, the beating heart of my community, is Puerto Rican.
And today that heart bleeds.
The very reason I chose this place – along with the incredible apartment – is because it is Puerto Rican.
I understand what that means. It means safety and family and humanity. It means everyone knows everyone. It means new faces – definitely including my white one – will be treated with a great deal of suspicion – at first.
But I understand the flip side of that. And I have learned that the surest investment in the whole universe is the investment into a community of what “Poppy” calls, simply, “the Spanish people.”
He is not speaking of people from Spain. It is not literal. But he is right when he broadens it in this way concerning me, because I spent close to my entire life in areas with high, high concentrations of Latinos. Southern California, Texas, New Mexico, and even Oklahoma City. (Although most people not from Oklahoma don’t automatically think of it as a place with a lot of Mexicans, but it is.)
But I have, after a lifetime of being a nomad, dug in. Very purposefully. Very deliberately. I have sunk my roots down into this soil, and the deeper those roots sink, the more I bloom.
THIS is my HOME
And that home, at its heart, is Puerto Rican.
Every morning a group congregates on the corner, speaking mostly Spanish. It is mostly men, mostly old, and I can say with certainty that I was more than mostly not welcome.
Not that I ever let that stop me.
Behind that parking sign is a fairly decent sized – hell, I don’t know what it’s called – it’s not really a stoop, but it is a totally covered space with plenty of room to sit (I cut off most of it in the photo) and it’s hard to tell from the picture, but it is raised to a perfect height for sitting. When the weather is nice, there will be crates pulled up as well. Sometimes people sit on nearby cars.
*BTW, this particular Bodega is actually not owned by a Puerto Rican, but instead a Dominican. Nonetheless, it is – as is he – part of the community of Puerto Ricans. More than part. He is central. Also, he used to charge me too much for everything and never, ever smiled at me. He tacked somewhere between ignoring me and open hostility. It may sound contradictory and impossible, but he managed it.
Now, it is just the opposite. I love his wife, everyone loves their son. Every non-white loves their son, at least. Some (mostly older male) whites here, not many, but some, are still a bit less friendly to the non-whites, but not many. It was his son; an adorable, cocky, sweet, rapping, shit-talking, smiling, laughing, and all around incredible 19 year old, who first made some of the hostility from those who live in and around that store all the time, thaw a bit toward me.
Francisco, a very prominent Puerto Rican, and a powerful influence in my neighborhood, first let down his guard – and his guard was in many ways equivalent to everyone’s guard – in a moment of us just loving this fucking kid. We love him. And at that moment, with Francisco saying, “he’s a good kid, huh?” and even now, when I think of The Kid, I feel my chest swell with a very familial love. And Francisco and I, talking about The Kid, were suddenly family through the shared bond of love for this child. Francisco then said something that I think sums up what this community I love is about. He said – of a child that he, in fact, is not related to by blood:
“That’s what it’s all about, right? FAMILY.”
I would love to tell you that after that I was swept into the fold and not only Francisco, but everyone else, as well, welcomed me as one of their own.
But that would be a bald-faced lie. I had been here about a year then. And I still had a long way to go on that particular corner.
Things were a bit different at the other corner. Still not easy by any means, but circumstances bordering on extraordinary helped me along there, not once, but twice.
Poppy was never as guarded as La Favorita Crew, but he was guarded enough. A few happy accidents, however, helped me at his bodega. The first, smaller one, happened early on. The street headed toward the canal was closed to traffic, starting right past his store.
“Why is the street closed?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t know. Something going on with the white people. Some sort of party or something. There is music and beer, I think. You should go.”
Poppy smiles at me. We’ve gotten just far enough for him to know that I don’t eat the “white people” food. I snack on Puerto Rican snacks, eat Puerto Rican bread, and drink – mostly, at least- Puerto Rican drinks. He has a bit more trouble with understanding the whole vegetarian thing. I am very skinny when I move in. VERY skinny, and Poppy desperately wants to feed me.
“What about hot dogs? You eat hot dogs?”
He sets aside Mangoes for me. Convinces me that these big, odd-looking green things are, indeed, Avocados. (Until living here I’ve never seen Avocados look like this.) I think he worries that I am starving to death. This, I think, makes him slightly more protective of me, whether consciously or not, than he might otherwise be.
I have never, ever felt any threat on my streets, so on this night, the night with the blocked off road for the “white people thing” I am caught off guard at the sudden reek of alcohol beside me. Stunned at the immediacy of the white face just inches from mine. His unwelcome white hand reaching toward my chest. There’s a big blind spot from the inside of the store to the sidewalk, and the streets are deserted. Except for this man, backing me up and away from the bodega.
I remember his face well.
Remember his expression turning from leer to fear.
Remember his staggering run back to where he came from.
Remember Poppy’s satisfied smile as he turned and walked back into his store.
Remember the feeling of roots, my roots, sinking down and taking hold.
Remember the feeling of home.
(I’m not telling about the second thing. I have already written too much about things that involve others. I will only say that it was unlike the first thing and more time had passed. That, and the odds of the remarkable chain of coincidences lining up to make its occurrence possible still seem to me about like the odds of hitting a lottery jackpot; and it had an impressive reveal.)
Almost everyone I know has many, many family members still on the island. Yes, Puerto Rico is American, but it is not just the island that is American. It is here. My neighbors, my friends, my roots, my home, my people –
And I understand that there’s been so many hurricanes and so much destruction that the news is worn out on it, mostly because viewers are, and that means that advertisers are,
but that’s no fucking excuse.
I almost puked last night when a gleeful Rachel Maddow encouraged everyone to use the commercial break to “call right now” and subscribe to “your local newspaper.” To “spend that money because it matters.”
And then sounded bored, if not annoyed, in a call from Puerto Rico telling her that 70% of all the buildings’in Puerto Rico had their roofs torn off. To the news that there was no power anywhere on the island nor is there expected to be, for months, Maddow’s response was the multilingual “Mmm” universally recognized as the sound of someone on the phone who isn’t listening to a word being said. She certainly didn’t encourage weary hurricane donors to use the commercial – or any other time – to spend money on aid for the devastation in Puerto Rico.
The same damn people who criticized – rightfully, I think – Trump’s completely non-empathetic and completely tone deaf response to the victims of Hurricane Harvey have outdone the biggest asshole president we’ve ever had, and shown total hypocrisy and inhumanity in the process.
I am ashamed.
I love my people. I love them. There are no better neighbors. There are no better friends. Perhaps, just perhaps, we could be better neighbors back.