Sarah Martin, Environmentalist

sarahjoanSarah Martin lived in Grant Houses, a public housing project in Morningside Heights for 57 years until 2014. Grant Houses served as the original site of Martin’s environmentalist and sanitation work. Martin formed the Morningside Heights and West Harlem Sanitation Coalition with Joan Levine in 1994 when she was president of the Grant Houses Resident Association to address the effects of poor trash management in the neighborhood. Martin and Levin developed a hands-on recycling education program that has since been adopted by city agencies like Grow NYC, and have influenced city officials to expand the approach. She was a 2014 Clara Lemlich co-honoree with Joan Levine, at right, above..

 Interview by Julia Gagliardi

I came to New York when I was 12 years old with my mother. My mother left me with my aunt in South Carolina when I was very little. We were very poor, but when I lived with my aunt and my cousins, I learned how to plant a garden. We planted tomatoes and string beans. We raised chickens and pigs.

It wasn’t easy but I learned how to garden and to take care of animals. During the day, my aunt worked for a white family. Every evening my cousins and I used to have to wait for my aunt to come home to bring the leftovers for dinner.

But I survived. During the day while my aunt worked, my cousins and I went to school. Well, some days I went to school if my older cousins didn’t go I didn’t go because I did not know how to get there. I couldn’t remember the roads or directions to get to school.

When I was 12, I got this little job babysitting for these white people. I was picking up change and I thought I was rich. And when I went to town, I spend every dime of it. Then when I moved to live with my mother, she tried to treat me like a kid. I wasn’t a kid. I was independent.

When I first came to New York, we lived in a rooming house on 115thStreet. It was a really big room. We had a bed and I had a cot. I had to open every night to go to bed. Then I lived up on 131sst Street in a tenant bedroom. We used to call them railroad flats. If you laid down on the bed and looked towards the wall, you could see straight through to the bathroom and into the alley. So, I guess I’m not accustomed to having anything. So, the things I do have are valued. I don’t like to see things wasted. I like to see things taken care of.

That’s why I care about the Sanitation Coalition and the trash management in my neighborhood. I want the environment and my neighborhood take care of.

When the Morningside Heights and the West Harlem Sanitation Coalition was formed, we started by cleaning up parks and parking lots. We started recycling first in all the smaller buildings in the area, and worked with the superintendent.

Then we asked ourselves, “What is we tackle a housing development. What a difference that would make with the trash going out and in the environment.”  Right then we decided to tackle Gran House because I had become the president of the Grant Resident Association at Grant Houses. We started to attend the monthly meetings and talk about our reasons to bring recycling to Grant Houses and to the residents who live there.

Our recycling program was an education program. It was hands-on for the residents. We would go door to door, knocking on apartment doors and asking residents to come into the hallway. Continue reading

Gloria Sukenick, Housing Activist

sukenickGloria Sukenick is an accomplished social activist for both the women’s movement and the housing movement. Living in New York City, Gloria has used her opportunities to voice her opinions on important issues and has allowed others to do the same. Still residing in New York City, she continues to attend social movements such as fundraisers for electing people to office who hold the housing movement as a central issue. She was a Clara Lemlich awards honoree in 2015.

By Lilly Engeler

Social activism has been a very gratifying part of my life, even though I didn’t get involved in activism until later on in my life.

Before I focused my time on activism, I went to Yale School of Fine Arts and majored in painting. I came back to New York after about a year. I had a very nice cold water flat in Hell’s Kitchen. It had one washtub in the kitchen for clothes and dishes and everything. It also had no heat or hot water and it was a six-flight walkup everyday with no elevator. Though, the rent was $16 a month for four rooms. Later, I started living a very Bohemian life in another cold water flat in what is now SoHo. I lived there for a couple of years, and went to Bermuda to waitress for a year or two. For a while, I had a job as a model for Montgomery Ward. I used to try on their dresses and see how they photographed for their catalogs.

When I was in my 40s I got a job at Alexander’s in the advertising and copy department. This is when I truly got involved in activism. The first thing that got me very involved was the women’s movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was a very politically active group of people. In our meetings, we would have consciousness raising groups and political action groups, and we would go to Washington with these groups. This was probably my initiation into activism.

After this, I was involved in the housing movement. The initial thing that happened was when Barney’s was expanding and taking over apartments on 16thStreet and 7thAvenue. By doing so, they were putting out people who had affordable apartments. Basically, they were expanding their store at the cost of people who had apartments there that were affordable. I got involved with the Chelsea Coalition on housing, which was a very strong group of Chelsea-ites led by this one 80-year-old dynamo, Jane Wood. When she called for demonstrations, all of Chelsea would turn out. We had people standing in front of Barney’s lined down the whole block – we stopped 7thAvenue traffic. We wanted to make their lives as miserable as we could make them because Barney’s kept doing what they were doing and the mayor at the time was very much in favor of big business and expensive stores. When Barney’s construction equipment started to make noise I had pots and pans banging. I even bought a drum that was great at demonstrations that I still have today. Sometimes we would have costumes. At Christmas we would have big demonstrations with Santa Clause’s marching in front of Barney’s with big signs. Continue reading

Frances Goldin, Housing Activist

goldinFrances Goldin is an accomplished affordable housing activist and literary agent. She is the only surviving founding member of the Cooper Square Committee and has been active for over 50 years, fighting to save her neighborhood from destruction by construction running through the Lower East Side. In 2013, her committee’s alternative renewal plan was finally adopted and nearly 2,400 families previously at risk of displacement were able to secure their apartments for the next 200 years. She was a Clara Lemlich honoree in 2011.

Interview by Sereene Kurzum

I used to live in Queens, but it was a very uninvolved community. After I got married I decided to move to 11th street, to Cooper Square, and I found nirvana. I moved to 11th street between 2nd and 3rd and lived in a five-flight walk up. I heard that there was an organization called a tenant council, in the building of the American Labor Party on 2nd avenue. I initially went to the organization because I wanted to find out if I was paying the right rent. When I went over, they took all my information, and they said to come back in one week. I came back one week later, and they told me I was paying the right rent after all. It was $65 a month. Then they said, “You seem intelligent, would you like to come work in the tenant council and help us out?”. I said sure, and I’ve worked with the tenant council ever since. I never left.

Then in 1959, Robert Moses wanted to build a freeway through the Lower East Side to make it easier for rich people to get to their jobs on Wall Street. It would have destroyed our neighborhood. That’s when we formed the Cooper Square Committee. Cooper Square came up with a plan to build public housing on vacant lots and then move people right into that affordable housing in their neighborhood. We organized and demonstrated and finally beat him 50 years later.

It was a few years ago, when everybody who lived on 3rd and 4th street, between 2nd avenue and the Bowery, came out with their families and signed leases to secure their apartments for the next 200 years. Everyone came out, there was a lawyer there, they notarized their leases, and that was that. They owned their apartments for the next 200 years. This was the moment I knew we had won. Everybody who came to sign kissed me and said, “You helped us do this, thank you!” I mean, it was wonderful. Yes, it was quite wonderful.

I’ve been involved with affordable housing organizations through all those 50 years, and I was very active in meetings and organizations. I never stopped being active. When you stay active, it’s good for your health.

I have this sign that reads, “I adore my lesbian daughters” on the front, and “Difference enriches us all” written across the back. I had a friend who was very artistic. I asked him to letter that sign for me and he did. I took it to the parade that year and it was the most popular sign at the parade. Lesbians and gay men would rush to me and say, “Would you call my mother?”, “Would you contact my father?” Of course, I’d call them. I’d tell them about an organization called PFLAG that works with parents of gays and lesbians to help them learn to accept and understand their children. I’d give them the number of that group. I hope they called them. Continue reading

Connie Hogarth, Civil Rights Activist

conniehogarth-tnConnie Hogarth is a co-founder of WESPAC, the Westchester People’s Action Coalition, as well as the Connie Hogarth Center for Social Action at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. She was an active organizer with the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of Rev. Jesse Jackson. Her activism contributed to the closing of Indian Point, the ending of apartheid in South Africa, and spurred local movements in environmental protection, human rights, gay rights, civil rights, affordable housing and equal educational opportunities. She has lived in New York all her life, traveled extensively, and she continues to be active in the Beacon Sloop Club, the Duchess County and Fishkill Democratic Committees, and the Southern Duchess County NAACP. She currently resides in Beacon, NY, overlooking the Hudson River. She was a Clara Lemlich honoree in 2012.

Interview by Larissa Ross

I grew up in Brooklyn–in all its different phases and faces, Brooklyn is a great place.

My father was, in some part, a musician. He used to have a band in the Catskills, and he played the organ and the piano for silent movies.

As movies progressed and the talkies came about, he was out of a job. My uncle and my father got jobs as projectionists, and they had a strong union. I used to walk the picket line with my father when I was seven or eight years old. We won most of the labor struggles and I say that it’s possible: it is possible to be a community of workers, to resist and to win.

My mother was very feisty; rather a premature feminist. So, I had two positive role-models:A strong woman for my mother, and a father with a background of working-class success stories.

That was all in the Depression, and in those days, landlords would offer one month’s free rent to people moving in, so we moved a lot– just about every year. It created a lot of flexibility in me; in making friends and losing friends. By the time I got to high school, though, we actually bought a little house in Brooklyn.

I had an extraordinary, wonderful high school experience. It was the beginning of  the very positive effect of the Communist Labor Movement, of the Arts. Henry Foner taught at my high school, believe it or not. It was full of marvelous, progressive people and had a very positive impact on me.

I decided early on that I wanted to be a doctor, even though I loved painting and music and art. When I finished high school, I won just about every medal and award at graduation–I was an excellent student. Even with all this, I could not get into Barnard, because I needed a scholarship. It was a real rejection and I was quite disappointed.

Still, my parents always helped me to develop a confidence, a strong sense of myself, an ego. Despite the setback, I had to keep moving on. I went to Hunter College for a year and a half–commuting from Brooklyn. Then, I got a full scholarship to go to the University of Chicago. This grand disappointment turned into a positive–you can look at life that way if you see the possibilities.

I spent four years at the University of Chicago as a pre-med major, and as I graduated in pre-med,  I married my first husband–a man I’d known from high school–as he graduated from medical school. He took an internship at Mount Sinai while I applied to med schools in New York–that was about 1948. It was a tough road trying to get into medical school as a woman, who needed a scholarship. In the interim, I worked at Mount Sinai doing research on a drug for multiple myeloma.

In that time, I started to dance. I had danced in Chicago, but I got a scholarship to study modern dance in New York. I had to make a choice–do I want to keep trying to get into med school, or do I want to dance? I chose to dance.

That was well and good until one day I was working with some liver samples at Mount Sinai. Things were done differently then, we didn’t have as much knowledge about certain diseases. I used to be sent down to the morgue to take liver samples from some of the cadavers–I had to aspirate the samples myself, and I got hepatitis. I spent a month in the hospital with the illness which effectively ended my dance career–not my interest, just the formal career. Continue reading

Molly Klopot, Women’s Activist

MollyKlopotMolly Klopot is a lifelong activist. For many years, she headed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s New York Chapter, initiating the active “gaggle” of the Raging Grannies. She had been involved in similar activities since the start of the Cold War, serving in East Berlin with the Women’s International Democratic Federation to develop international attention to women’s issues. A Detroit native, she was active in United Auto Worker strikes and demonstrations. She worked in the then-new Social Security Administration, where she worked to organize the first State, County and Municipal Workers of America union. She worked as a riveter and was among the first women to be a union rep. Later at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, she taught and counseled union members and worked with pregnant teens. She was a 2013 Clara Lemlich honoree.

Interview by Sereene Kurzum

Growing up, my father was a Communist and we were involved in a fraternal organization called the International Workers Order. This was a mutual benefit, Communist-affiliated organization. We were provided with medical care, the kids were taught to read and write in Yiddish, these were the kinds of services and cultural activities offered.

As Jews, we had our own organization with our own cultural activities, and the Poles had their organization, and it was divided up culturally like this. However, we all came together and existed as a community through the workers camp. We had choirs for the children and the adults, and we’d put on shows and plays for each other. We would all go to this same camp and come together as a community. This was the community I grew up in.

I was also a member of the Young Pioneers, a youth Communist organization. Because I was the chair, I would open all the meetings. We’d open them by singing the Internationale, a song for the workers of the world, and I’d shout, “Pioneers for the cause of the working class, are you ready?”, and they’d respond, “Always ready!” I’d say it with such fervor. We would have meetings and learn about how people lived and why it was a big time for organizing unions. I learned about the history of the working class, the beginning of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the fight for unionization.

I was heavily influenced by my father, and by belonging to the International Workers Order. I was meeting all these different kinds of people and working together with them. Another influence was belonging to the Young Pioneers. We were always reading and always studying, but at the same time, we were together as friends, and we’d sing and dance and have fun together. Even the parents belonged to choirs, and they’d have concerts. So we had this feeling of solidarity. This was our culture. It is why I have always had the feeling of being one with the world. Despite the bad experiences in life, despite being jailed several times. Because from the very beginning, I was always part of a bigger world. It’s how I grew up.

This was a time when the KKK were very active. One day at the worker’s camp, we were to have a meeting. We were all crowded into a big hall, filled with people, and the kids were outside talking. Then the KKK came. They had come to burn down the camp. They were downstairs, and they were going to get us when we left. So what did we do? We organized the kids to go marching around the hall singing our worker songs. By the time we finished the meeting and got downstairs, the cops had chased them away. These are the kinds of experiences I had.

I’ve spent much of my life organizing unions with a focus on women’s issues. The first union meeting I went to, they had never seen a woman at these union meetings. I was going to talk, and some man said something like, “Oh, this little lady wouldn’t!” So I got up to answer and I said what I wanted to say. Then they finally let me talk. Wherever I worked, I was always in a union. I always organized around women’s issues as well.

I worked as a social worker before and after the war. I began with Social Security, which provided aid to the blind, aid to dependent children, old age assistance, and so on. We organized a union there. I later went to LA and got a job in a hospital as a social worker, then moved to San Francisco, where I continued my social work. I organized unions in both those places.

When the war began and all the men went out to serve, they wanted the women to take over the factory jobs, so I got a job at Ford factory in Highland Park. There were all these women, the mothers and wives of the men who were overseas, working at the factory. The factory was supposed to be putting them to work making war missiles and things like that, which it was getting government money for. Instead, women were sitting around reading, and they weren’t given any work. So I organized all the women, I called the newspapers, and we had a picket line in front of the factory. Not to keep people from going in, but to let them know what was going on. So we were able to unionize there. That wasn’t the end of it though. Issues would arise and I’d continue to challenge the factory. For instance, I noticed that the factory was not hiring any black women, even those who were trained and qualified. So I organized a picket line for that as well. Again, not to keep people from going in, but to raise awareness. All the newspapers wrote about it. After that, the factory began hiring black women. I also organized a fashion show, showing the women how to cover their hair so it wouldn’t get caught in the machines, but still look good. That was in the newspapers as well.

Near the end of the war, the women had just gotten 40 cents an hour. The men of course still made more, but they made a big deal of honoring all the women who had worked in the factories and helped out during the war. They honored us, then the war ended, and they fired all of us.

These were the kinds of experiences of solidarity I had. When Paul Robeson sang at Peekskill, I was there. And, though I didn’t know it yet, so was my future husband. This was the concert that sparked the Peekskill riots, which were rooted in racism and antisemitism. Paul Robeson was up on a stand, and surrounding the field were all these people holding arms, forming a chain, throughout the concert. My husband was one of these people holding hands. Later when we left, we saw that the cops had been patrolling the entrance, letting one car out at a time, holding others back. There were men standing with stones, all throwing the stones at the cars. One man lost sight in his eye. A rock was thrown into  his window and the glass shattered and a shard had hit his eye. I was lucky I didn’t get hurt. But these were the kinds of experiences I had, and in the end, I was lucky to have had them.

We went to the Board of Education of a school once. It had something to do with discrimination against black students, I don’t remember what the exact issue had been. But I do remember that the cops chased us out. So, I ran into a nearby street car and I sat down next to an African-American woman. The cop came to the door of the car and he was looking over everybody, and it was quite obvious he had been chasing me. The black woman who I was sitting next to, who I didn’t know, said “She’s with me.”  So, the cop turned around and left. So I’ve had these experiences of solidarity in my life. Continue reading

Maddy Simon, Musician, Activist

maddysimonMaddy Simon is an accomplished social activist, educator, and musician who has attended and led many rallies for causes such as labor issues and peace, among many social justice issues. Maddy was a professional choral conductor of many amateur choruses throughout the New York area. She also taught music in the New York high schools for over 25 years and was involved in Camp Kinderland for 70 years where she used musicals to teach campers the importance of social activism. Maddy is still involved in social activism through attending rallies and demonstrations and by teaching weekly Yiddish classes. She was a Clara Lemlich honoree in 2011.

Interviewed by Lilly Engeler

Since childhood, I have been very involved in social activism. Perhaps my biggest influence for this was growing up in a workers’ cooperative colony in the Bronx. This was one of the first projects that was built and it was very left wing and similar to a co-op of today financially. There were about 750 families living in the two blocks in a racially accepting community that was mostly first generation Jewish. We called it the coops. It started in around 1927 and my parents were original investors. It was an ideal place for children to grow up – everyone knew everybody else, there were gardens and playgrounds. There were also political, sports, social, and science clubs for the children growing up there. The adults were all socially active as well. As a matter of fact, my mother marched on City Hall to get a playground.

Overall, it was a very special place to grow up in, and I was raised as a left-winger because of it. That is why I respect people who are political activists who come from no political background – for me it was very easy, because I just grew into it. That is also why when I got the Clara Lemlich award, I was like, “Who, me?”, because what I did were ordinary things, I just participated in a lot of things during my lifetime.

I believed that at the time I was growing up, that 98% of the world was like me, as a left-winger, progressive, and believing in justice for everybody. Along with the influence from the coops, it was also very easy for me to fall into political activity because my parents were in it, and my friends were in it, and that’s what everyone did. My parents belonged to a left wing, Jewish organization, and as I grew, I became part of that world also. When I was a child my parents took me to rallies and I would march along with them – I went to rallies during the Second World War when I was very young.

As a teen, I belonged to a group called American Youth for Democracy. This was around the time when Henry Wallace, a progressive third-party candidate, was running in 1948. There was a major movement to elect Henry Wallace. There were songs about him, which I loved – “It’s the same old merry-go-round, which one will you ride this year? The donkey and elephant bob up and down, on the same old merry-go-round.” We had several songs like that, and my friends and I went to Henry Wallace rallies and we sang them. This was my social experience – I was 16, and this was what I did for fun. This was a time of the famous hootenannies with folk music becoming important. These hootenannies had performers who were all left-wing and the audience, including me, learned many political songs about current issues of the day.

Music thus became a huge influence on my life and became my main channel for social activism. I had perfect pitch, and as a result it was ordained that I should be a musician. I went to a high school called Music and Art, (now called LaGuardia High School) and I also took piano lessons from an early age for fourteen years.

Continue reading

Lubow Wolynetz, Museum Curator

wolynetzLubow Wolynetz is the curator of folk art at the Ukrainian Museum on the Lower East Side in New York City.  Born in Ukraine, she spent four years in a displaced persons camp in Germany following World War II, and then immigrated to the United States with her family. She studied at Hunter College and earned a Master in Library Science from Columbia University. She organized the Ukrainian Museum and Library of Stamford and continues to teach embroidery and other traditional crafts at the museum on the Lower East Side. She was a Clara Lemlich award winner in 2017.

Interview by Larissa Ross

Some things kind of fall into your lap. I think it starts with the family. When I was growing up, we lived according to certain traditions. I was interested in the details: Why do we do this thing or that? Why in this way? What is the purpose?  I wanted to know.

I was six when we had to leave Ukraine. We were fleeing the Bolsheviks in a covered wagon, bombs blazing, through war.

When we finally landed in this little town in Germany, my mother went through to see what we had and what we did not have. She saw that I had outgrown my embroidered shirt.

So, I had no embroidered shirt, and this is a big thing for Ukrainians. She had some cloth–my mother was a seamstress–and all the other women got together bits of thread and things, whatever they had, and my mother made the shirt. I remember putting it on; it was a really important moment. In the middle of everything, the fact that I had to have this piece of tradition was meaningful.

I forgot about that for a long time until this guy from our camp who lived in California wanted to put a film together about our camp. I saw myself in this embroidered shirt and it struck me. I think a lot of my love of tradition started then.

While we were in the displaced persons camp, I remember this little photo studio opened up in the German town and a lot of people went to have their picture taken. Everyone gathered together different pieces of traditional clothing for the photos, and the result was all of these pictures of people in traditional Ukrainian costume; it was as if to say, “we made it. We survived.” Continue reading

Etta Dixon, Dancer, Healer

dixon

Etta Dixon, Brooklyn born, began dancing as a child, starting to dance at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom (the only integrated ballroom in New York), eventually becoming a competitive dancer in exhibitions, competitions and contests, and she’s still dancing. She also worked for DC 37, the municipal employees union, and works today in dance and health and wellness outreach. She advises neighbors about diet, exercise and a more stress-free life at Brookdale Hospital and the Mt. Ararat Center in Brooklyn. She was a Clara Lemlich award winner in 2016

Interview by Julia Gagliardi

Whenever I talk to younger people, I always ask them how old they are. I say, “How old are you, twenty? Well. I was sixty-four when you were born.” You don’t ever hear older people say, “Wow, I was sixty-four when you were born.” Why is that? But I say it. It makes an impression.

I need to make an impression. I’m a walking wellness witness. But I’m an example in the flesh. Because I’m not having the same problems my peers are having. They have arthritis. Or they have high blood pressure. They have all these health problems. But I help them by telling them what they need.

I teach workshops for the elderly at the Brookdale Hospital and the Mount Ararat Center. And every Thursday of the month, I hold an open house for the neighborhood at my house, on the corner of Bushwick and 2nd Avenue. We only serve the healthy stuff, like salads. That’s probably the only good thing people eat all week. And they need it! They also need all the wellness advice they can get!

Every week, I go to the Senior Citizen Center to do bodywork and wellness work. One time, I came and I announced, “I’m here to do bodywork!” And all the old people there look at me and they told me they don’t need bodywork. They don’t need my health advice. They say, “I’m going to meet my Maker. I’m going to a better place. I’m going to meet my Creator.” When I got through to them, they changed their minds. You know what I told them? You’re going to hear it, you’re going to get a good hearing. I told them, “We don’t have one Brittany or one Whitney. We have a whole barrage of them, a tribe of them out there. They’re trying to get through a storm. And here you are, who survived the storm. You need to be here, to let them know how to get through that storm and survive them. And guess what? Since you’re the only person who knows how to get through the storm, you are the most important person on Earth. When I told them that, they changed their minds. They were so happy to be the most important person on Earth!

Continue reading

On Why Puerto Ricans Move to New York

Essay: Why Do Puerto Ricans Move to the United States?

Carmen Says

Why do Puerto Ricans move to the United States? Why did I?

By Carmen Bardeguez Brown

Lindo capullo de alelí

si tu supieras mi dolor

correspondiearas a mi amor y calmaras mi sufrir

Por que tu sabes que sin ti

la vida es nada para mi

Tu bien lo sabes capullito de alelí

                        Rafael Hernandez

Dislocations

The smell of aleli

Remembers a distant future

Of coco y pasteles

Yuca,name y cafe con leche

Aromatic memoirs

Chicharrones de Bayamon

VIajando por la carretera #2

Drinking pirogues en el Bronx

Memoirs of salt

Sea

Cana y pina

Translated in millions of taste

Sinsabores amargos

And the lullaby of a pitirre

Cantico del coqui

Frozen in giant mirrors

of voices

Tasting pinones y

Arroz con dulce sin pasas.

I amnot sure what was the final thought that made me decide to cross the Atlantic and move to New York City. I mentioned the idea to my father and he was supportive but he looked pensive when he told me to always focus on education and that I needed to work hard to achieve anything “better than them” in Puerto Rico or in the United States. He did not say it but I knew what he meant. He knew that there was racism in both countries, a different kind of racism but still racism.

Dad and mom instilled the value of education in all of us at a young age. I still remembered how they dutifully checked our homework and asked us about our school projects. They had high expectations from all of us and raised us to value education as the only true vehicle for self improvement.

I was scared about moving to New York. My older sister moved to the city to do her residency in a hospital in Queens. She had told me that after her graduation from the University of Puerto Rico Medical School, she was offered an unpaid internship while most of her more connected friends got paid residencies. Her choice was clear. She moved to New York searching for opportunities denied at home which is the number one reason why most Puerto Ricans move to the United States. Like any other immigrant group, we all search for better opportunities. The only significant difference is that Puerto Ricans are not immigrants as we are American colonial citizens since 1917.

My decision was a little more personal. I was feeling suffocated by what was going on in Puerto Rico and my personal life. I was not sure what I wanted to do after graduating from college. I was not interested in studying Law or getting married. Believe it or not, marriage was still the traditional thing to do for a young woman in the 80s inspite of having an education.

I knew neither of those options were for me. I was also involved with a few leftist organizations and felt that they were turning quite predictable and the cronyism of politics in my dear country was quite rampant. The unofficial black listing of anyone that supported the Independence movement in Puerto Rico was and still is a career death sentence.

The violence and constant surveillance towards individuals and organizations that were unapologetically working towards Independence was evident as in the Cerro Maravilla murder. I was a political science major and students knew who were the undercover agents in classes with professors who were considered radicals or on classes that were on the left side of the political spectrum. We all knew how to live under surveillance but the majority of the mainstream culture called us paranoids.

The sudden death of our beloved father seriously spiralled me into depression. I felt suffocated by the personal loss and the narrow-minded cultural discourse that was typical in colonial societies. I love my country dearly but I needed to venture into the unknown; explore new horizons that will force me to grow. I was in search of my destiny.

Essay: Why Do Puerto Ricans Move to the United States?

A few months after I completed my college degree, I made the final decision that changed my life. I decided to apply at the New School For Social Research and pursue a Master’s Degree in Political Economy. They had a world class faculty of Marxists and Social Democrats and it seemed to be the right fit for me. Once I was accepted, I eagerly ventured into my new adventure.

A Beautiful Sunny and Cold Winter Day

I arrived to New York City on January 4,1984. My sister Arlene and her Italian boyfriend picked me up at the airport. The next day, I woke up as if in a daze, thinking that I was in some kind of a dream. It was a beautiful sunny day and I decided to venture outside. I noticed some of the people in the lobby of my sister’s building looking at me a little strangely.

I was wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. As soon as I stepped outside, I thought I had arrived in Siberia. I felt so cold I could not think. I ran as fast as I could inside the building trembling. The concierge started to laugh quietly and said, what are you thinking? I was perplexed as I was not used to conversations in English. Then he told me in Spanish, muchacha mira que esta frio!

I couldn’t stop shaking and looking through the glass door, I saw the beautiful sun and said: El sol que no calienta.”I know that it didn’t make any sense but I have never experienced winter and couldn’t understand how a beautiful sunny day could be so cold. What a mirage a brilliant sun and a coldness that freezes your soul.

Perhaps, my first day was an experiential metaphor of my future life in the United States. The superficial promise of the ‘American Dream’ interlaced with the coldness of the American nightmare.

And after many years…

I have lived in New York City, and now in Westchester (with a short New Jersey stint in between) since 1984. My entire adult life has been experienced by the realities of living in the Big Apple. My career as an educator was with the New York City Department of Education. I was a 24-year-old Black Puerto Rican woman in search of her destiny. Living in the United States transformed my identity and I became a Puerto Rican/Nuyorican. This transformation allowed me to understand my country and my adopted country better.

The journey from the colony to the capital of the most powerful empire in the world, a young country is unparalleled. There are many life lessons to tell and still learning. I hope that I can continue to write about my life and the realities of being a “Black Latina” from Puerto Rico in New York.

I appreciate your comments and feedback. Hablamos pronto.

Essay: Why Do Puerto Ricans Move to the United States?

(About the author: Carmen Bardequez-Brown is a poet and teacher living in Hartsdale. Born and raised in Puerto Rico and educated in the US and PR, she tackles the complexity and nuances of being a creature in both cultures of the East and West, the colonized and the colonizer, in her blog. The birth of this blog is brought about by Carmen’s desire to write and publish which is ushered in by the Aspiring Writers Mentoring Program of 2018.) 

 

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

A Short Story from a Family Memoir

By Natasha Lewis

 

I get handed a phone, without knowing who is on the other line.

Me: Hello?

Person on the other line: Hi Natasha!

Me: …..Um, hi……..

Person on the other line: My mum has told me lots about you. I here we look just alike and we share the same birthday!

Me: Huh?…(awkward look on my face)

Person on the other line: Do you know who this is?

Me: ………………..

Person on the other line: Well, I’m your Dad, Eric!

Me: Gasp!

Person on the other line: Well listen, I want you to come and visit me in London for Christmas. I’ve already bought the ticket, I just need you to get on the plane.

Me: (Thinking to myself: What the HELL! Seriously dude, we literally just met and you want me to visit? Why can’t you get on that plane and visit me!?)

Person on the other line: Are you still there?

Me: Yeah (rolling my eyes) ok, I guess.

 

 

I have never spoken, seen or met my father until I was 16 years old. I’ve always lived with a big family, so there was no time to wonder who’s missing. Everyone that I needed was right there. But normally, from time to time, every fatherless child wonders who he is and why isn’t he in their lives.  For reasons unknown, my mom never mentioned him to me.

Growing up in my family, the unspoken rule is to not ask questions. I had no clue who my dad was, but I never asked. But that was just the problem. Why keep something so important from your child? That thought quickly vanished when I realized that my mom played both “mom and dad” role to me and my three younger siblings.

It’s not that I lived in a society where all my friends had both Mom and Dad at home, but who cares? I longed for a Daddy. For those who lived in a single parent home, at least they knew who their father was. In my case, I had neither.

Of course, questions would be asked like:

Where is your dad from?

Me: “I don’t know.”

Where does he live?

Me: “I don’t know.”

Who do you look like more, your mom or dad?

Me: “My…mom??” (By default, because, also, don’t know what my Dad looks like).

By the age of thirteen, I became a pro at answering those questions.

My dad’s name is John.

He’s from New York.

He builds houses for a living.

The blanks would have different answers each time, depending on who’s asking. I’d tell them that I’m a mixture of both parents. I’d become more sad each time “those” types of conversations ended, wishing I really knew and didn’t have to pretend.

The house that I grew up in Miami was HUGE. White, beautiful, enormous backyard, eat-in-kitchen, large living and dining room. It was the house that all of my family lived in for about eight years.

All 13 of us fit into this large three bedroom ranch. More so, it was the house that kept all of my secrets. Whenever I got lonely, which was often, I’d daydream about my dad. I’d go outside and vent to my backyard, the birds, snakes, butterflies, lizards and iguanas that lived there. Sometimes, I would hear them telling me that everything was going to be just fine.

In that house, I’ll call her Big White, there was no authoritative male figure. My grandma held it down. She was the “king” of the house, and everyone was her subject. If ever we wanted to go outside and play, it was all up to her. If she said no, there was no daddy to plead and beg for him to change her mind. We were forced to either comply or sneak out at our own risk.

Mom, as we all called her, was working on getting a house in New York. So, when she left, the chaos began. The older siblings were now in charge of keeping the house in order. This caused tension because the younger ones’ philosophy was “when the cat’s away, the mice play.” Tension turned into arguments, and arguments turned into physical fights. No one was there to be the voice of reason. Nope. No father or authoritative male figure. Us younger ones quickly learned to listen to our “elders,” which meant that my uncles, who we’re only two and three years older than me were my “elders.” And being that at the time, they were ten and eleven years old, they would abuse their authority. Telling me to wash the dishes or else!

Usually, I would run to my mom to rescue me, but when she wasn’t there, I had no hope. In my anger, I would shout “I don’t hafta lissen to you–You’re not my mother or father!” to my shame they’d chuckle “Call your father. Oh that’s right–you don’t have a father!! Now do the dishes.”

When I was about 10 years old, I came home from church to a frantic house. My mom was packing and my aunts and uncles were running around with bags of clothes in their hands. I heard the echoes of questions from one sister to the next “What are we gonna do?” Suddenly, three or four white men knocked on the door of BigWhite, waiting to be let in.

Once my mom opened the door, one of the men started to take our door knob apart, another handed my aunt a slip of paper and immediately began moving our furniture and personal items to the backyard. “What’s going on?” I thought, too scared to ask my uncles and aunts, they were either mad or crying.  

Before I knew it, my mom made arrangements for me to stay by my pastor’s house, which was on the next block. No one told me what was happening. I just cried and hoped that it’ll all be over in the morning.

I wish I could be venting in my backyard, but it’s all being filled with stuff. I needed someone to hold me, to lift me up and kiss me on my forehead, and tell me that everything was going to be alright. I needed someone to protect me from the strange white men who were invading my house. I needed someone to set my uncles straight when they bothered me. “WHERE ARE YOU, FATHER???? AND WHY DON’T YOU CARE ENOUGH TO RESCUE ME!!? I began to cry, Why don’t you love me? Why don’t you ever visit me? Why doesn’t mommy tell me about you? Why are you such a mystery?” I was on a roller-coaster of emotions, as I drifted off to dreamland.

The next morning I woke up, I had breakfast with my pastors and my Mom came to pick me up. There were heavy drops of rain outside, just right for the mood, and when I got into the car, I joined my aunt, two younger sisters and my youngest cousin, Sarah. It was a tight squeeze, but I figured since we lived on the next block, the ride should only take a minute or so.

As we drove, I could see my backyard just before we’d have to make that left turn to our block. I was shocked at what I saw! All of our belongings: furniture, tons of clothes, kitchen table, and mattresses were still outside, and now soaked by the terrestrial rain!

To make matters worse, instead of making the usual left turn to go home, Mommy turned right. “Where are we going?” I asked shyly, trying not to annoy Mommy. “We’re going to Aunt Lane’s house,” she whispered, as if she was keeping a secret from Big White. In my mind, I thought we’d visit my aunt’s house in Ft. Lauderdale for a few hours then head back to clean up the mess in the backyard. But that was the very last time I saw the big, beautiful white house.

After staying by my Aunt Lane’s house for a couple of weeks, we packed up the car and headed back to Miami. We drove for about two hours and parked our car in front of this small duplex. It was so scary-looking. The grass was dry, super high and needed to be cut and treated. It looked nothing like the lawn at Big White. Her grass was always green and lustrous. From the outside of this small duplex, it looked like an abandoned place where drug dealers met and did business.

I had no clue what we were there for. Mommy took a deep breath and asked us to help unload the car and to bring our stuff into the apartment. We complied. When she opened the door to the duplex, I was terrified at how it looked. It was as if someone started to build it and then changed their mind. There was dust and rocks everywhere on the floor, spider webs, and what was supposed to be a kitchen had an old counter-less sink and a rusty-looking stove. And it didn’t have a refrigerator.

The windows around the house were foggy, the air inside was thick. I was getting sick to my stomach just standing in the doorway. This house was extremely small compared to Big White. I could see where the apartment ended just from the doorway. Mommy never told us this was going to be our new home, she never disclosed information willingly.

We just began to clean up and took it one day at a time. I resorted to daydreaming whenever I needed to escape the harsh reality. I daydreamed that this new home turned into a mansion. That one day I’ll have my own room with colors and a waterbed. We lived right across the street from a horse ranch, so I dreamed that I would own a horse and he would live in my backyard. That Daddy would come and make Mommy happy because she didn’t look happy nowadays. My daydreams were about where I wanted to live, not here in this room-sized apartment with rocks on the floor.

Mommy had no money to afford food, so she relied on my sister’s father to bring us a meal every night. Sometimes, he came through and sometimes he’d “forget.” For the first couple of months, we survived on canned foods. Sometimes mommy wouldn’t eat, just to save food for us for the next day. There were six of us living in that two small bedroom apartment: Mommy, me, my two sisters, and my uncle and aunt, which were my mom’s two younger siblings.

One day, while I was still unpacking and sorting through rubble of bags, I found a picture that would totally change my life. As I held up this picture, tears began to puzzle their way down my face. “Am I holding the answers to all my questions? Was it that easy?” I asked myself. It was a picture of three people: my Mom, some guy to the right of her, and me in the middle. The picture was in good condition, so I knew I wasn’t making this up.

I must have been around three or four years old in the picture. Honestly, I don’t remember taking it. Could this man actually be my father? I quickly flipped the photo hoping there would be a description of who he was, but it was left blank. I didn’t care ‘though, I was just freaking happy to see what my father looked like. I quickly shoved the picture in my pocket and kept it my little secret.

Fearing disappointment, I didn’t bother to confirm with mommy if the man in the picture was my father. This picture was worth everything to me. It was the proof that I had a dad and that, once upon a time, we looked like a happy family.

Finally, when my friends asked who my father was, I would have something to show them. Of course, I would still make up stories about why he wasn’t living with us and what he does for a living. But for now, the picture gave me hope. It now added a face to my daydreams. “Maybe something happened to him and mommy was too afraid to tell me? I’m glad that he actually knows me…..maybe he’d come find me again….maybe we could take another picture like the one I found, we would have to include my two younger sisters, though….I’m sure he wouldn’t mind….” as I drifted off to dreamland.

Mommy has a way of turning trash into treasure. In what seemed like a couple of months, she got a job and started to pick up where the builders left off. She began to beautify our apartment. From sheetrock to separate the living room from her room, to buying a couch, TV set, stereo system, a modern square glass kitchen table with fancy round pleather chairs, a refrigerator, and last but not least, a pair of noisy parakeets.

It was beginning to feel like a home now, still nothing like Big White, but at least I was able to invite friends over. In fact, they’d come over and rave about the decor of the apartment, the parakeets were a big attraction. No one else had exotic birds in their house, ha! That gave me a boost of confidence to now call this apartment my “new” home.

My aunt and uncle moved to New York to be with my grandmother, so that left just Mommy, me and my two younger sisters in the apartment. Mommy worked at nights, I didn’t know exactly where she worked, because again, If I didn’t ask, she didn’t tell.

I was only eleven years old at the time, but I don’t remember ever of being afraid of being alone with my sisters at night. Every night, I would routinely lock the front door after she left, get my sisters and go into her room, lock that door, and stayed there until the next morning. We would usually keep the TV and lamp on just for comfort.

In the mornings, Mommy would come home around 7:30, cook breakfast, get my sisters dressed for daycare and I’d get ready for middle school. After everyone was ready, she’d send us off.  Morning drop-offs were tough. Besides having to carry my backpack, I’d carry my two-year-old sister, Nann, on one side of my hips since she walked the slowest, along with her bookbag and lunch. Then my five-year-old sister Ella would get tired of holding her backpack, so I’d swing it on top of my free arm. Ella was still young, so I had to always hold her hand when crossing the street and often pulled her to walk up when she slowed down.

Nann’s daycare was about seven blocks away, and Ella’s was much further away. After the drop-off,  I’d had to run a couple more blocks to catch the transfer bus to school. Sometimes, I wished that my sisters’ father was more involved in their lives. He had a truck, it would’ve made life so much easier for us all. But Mommy wasn’t the one to wait on anyone to do favors for her, she’d rather do it herself, even if it killed her.

Getting through middle school was boring. Everyone had a boyfriend or a girlfriend. I was usually the third, fifth or seventh wheel. Overtime, I became very insecure about my looks. Picture this: Twelve-year-old girl, about five feet-seven inches, crooked teeth, spaghetti legs, long feet, long fingers, flat butt, iron-board chest, the list could go on but I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination. I was never the one to wear my emotions on my sleeves, so I became pretty darn good at pretending everything was “great” with me.

In my weak moments, when all of my friends were occupied with their significant others, I’d deeply yearn for someone to hold and kiss me like my friends were doing with each other. I wanted someone to chase me around at recess and sneak kisses behind the seventh grade annex. Was I wrong to want this? No one told me about boys and how to deal with them or whether I could have a boyfriend or not. I was a hormonal wreck! Although I was content with the physical picture of my father, I now needed him in my life more now than ever before. I needed direction, guidance, and discipline. I wanted to be told “Don’t let me catch you talking to boys!”

Middle School was almost over and I was looking forward to the summer. Summers were usually laid back and fun. We had comfortably settled into the neighborhood and made great friends. Playing on the train tracks was one of my favorite pastimes. It gave me the rush and thrill that was lacking in other areas of my life. My friends and I usually took the tracks home because it was faster. We would walk directly on the tracks like a gymnast walked on a tightrope. When we saw the train in the distance, we would lay down in the middle, between the two tracks, close our eyes and listen as the train drew nearer to us. When it came too close for comfort, we’d jump up and dodge the passing train, screaming at the top of our lungs from the near death experience, leaving us completely breathless. Other days, we’d sneak into an apartment complex and jump in their private pool. The manager would find us and chase us out with a bat in his hand. We ran so fast, laughing at the old man’s attempt to catch us.

During the middle of the summer, around July, Mommy came home with a new car. It was a black Toyota Camry that sparkled with silver glitter as the sun shined on it. It was way better than that old brown and beige station wagon we had sitting in our driveway.  My sisters and I usually used it to play house.

I was surprised and super happy we got a new car. As a matter of fact, it was the best looking car on our block. So, not only did we have the best interior-decorated home, now we had a car to compliment it. “Had Mommy gotten a raise from her job?” I thought.  Wow, things were looking brighter for us.

The next morning, Mommy began to start packing. She packed up all of our clothes, well, most of it. She began to go around the apartment and throwing things out. I thought “she must be catching up on spring cleaning.” She went in the refrigerator and started to empty it. I was wondering what was going on, but I never asked. We spent that whole day packing and around evening, she told me that we we’re going to New York.

I was thrilled at the news! New York, my birth place, I hadn’t been back in years, now I get a chance to revisit my home town. I ran out the house and shared the good news with my friends. They asked how long we were staying, I told them we’ll be back before school started again. I was wrong. I would never see the duplex again.

Someone once told me that when you assume, you’ll make an ass of yourself. I, my friend, was an ass to think we were going on vacation. What happened next will again, traumatize me and change my life.

“Wake up, wake up” whispered my mother as she shook me. “Let’s go, we gotta go,” she said. My sisters were already in the packed car, still asleep. We took off driving in the wee hours of the morning. Mommy behind the steering wheel, me in the passenger seat and my two sisters laid down in the back. We drove in silence for hours until we were awakened by a loud thump.

Mommy had fallen asleep while driving. We swerved and landed in a shallow ditch. My sisters flew out of the seats and unto the floor. They began to cry, but Mommy shh’d them back to sleep. Water swelled up in my eyes, but I didn’t make a sound. I wanted Daddy here. I needed him to drive us to New York safely. Mommy was too tired from packing and working, how could she do the 18 hour drive by herself?

We didn’t have money to stay in a hotel overnight, so Mommy had me feed her grapes to help her stay up. She slowly pulled out of the ditch and drove into the parking lot of a hotel. We slept in the car and continued to make our way up north.

 

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell