Debbie Quinones, Coquito Mixer

 

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On the top floor of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the party was just winding down. People were laughing and clearing up tables, saying goodbye with strong hugs and kisses on the cheek.

In the middle of it all, moving at a million miles an hour, was Debbie Quinones, the founder of the International Coquito Festival, which has just finished its preliminary rounds.

Right away, she asked, “Do you know what coquito really IS?” A sort of Puerto Rican eggnog, a Christmas drink.

Debbie Quinones explained the complex heritage behind the drink, which she describes as “imperialism, really. The ingredients are not native to Puerto Rico.” Fortunately, this is a story of triumph over imperialism, and keeping your culture alive in a new place.”

She described the lineage from which the recipe descends, onward from a European drink called porcette to eggnog to coquito. The recipe and holiday tradition was brought over from Europe along with the spices and rum needed to make the drink.

Traditionally, the drink is made with rum, evaporated as well as condensed milk, nutmeg, cinnamon, sometimes egg yolk, vanilla, and different forms of coconut—milk and meat. There is also a blend of other spices usually specific to the family. There has been a new upswing in flavored coquito, like chocolate or pistachio.

Although these are the main ingredients, “Every family has their own special way of making it.”

Debbie Quinones explained that in each family, there is one person who makes the coquito and holds the recipe. She tells us if we have any Puerto Rican friends, to ask who the coquito maker is and then ask for some.

“They’re gonna be like ‘Woah, you know about that?!’ and then reach under the kitchen sink or out the window and pour you a glass.” We ask if she is the coquito maker in her family; she is not. It was a friend of their family, who passed away.

That is why Quinones started the International Coquito Festival. She wanted to honor this family friend, and to keep access to coquito in her circle. Originally just a gathering in her kitchen in El Barrio, it became a contest for the best coquito that Quinones says has become about pride. She did not expect it to snowball like this, but it has become a celebration of heritage and skill. Some of the contestants have even become professional coquito makers. It is an opportunity to be proud to be Puerto Rican, to be proud of not only national but familial heritage, and to celebrate holiday traditions that keep a culture alive in many different places.

In 2001, Debbie started the Coquito Contest in her house so people could get access to coquito. “The contest represents an opportunity to celebrate pride.”

Indeed, there was a large feeling of both pride and community that filled the room at the Bronx Museum. Vendors and customers enjoyed tasting the different coquito recipes and celebrating the Puerto Rican culture. This event allowed the people of the community to purchase coquito for the holiday season. Coquito was able to bring these people of the community together. According to Debbie, this drink “represents the resiliency of the community.”

–Lisbeth Brosnan and Katie Russo

 

James Manning, Bronx Retired Lawyer, Union Negotiator

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What drove him all those years, he said, was a constant search for fairness.

A son of Irish workers, James Manning somehow broke out of the neighborhood in the Bronx and made it through law school and into a firm representing corporations settling labor issues. But it did not hold.

In 1971, Manning said he found that his sympathies lay with the workers, and thus began a decades-long association with unions that unified as 32BJ and a sense of taking on management.

Over time, he represented sandhogs who built subways and tunnels, and those who did maintenance, took care of buildings, washed windows and did the cleaning.

He has started his life in the South Bronx in a neighborhood that “was on the poorer side. But everyone was poor, so it never felt like we were poor.” His parents had immigrated from Ireland in the early 1900s, and so had everyone else’s parents in the area. They were not all from Ireland, of course, but he learned early how to mix.

His mother had been 14 when she came to the United States, and she knew she had to find a job straightaway. His father was in the army. His parents met on Governors Island and later lived in the South Bronx.

So Manning understood working hard. He attended Manhattan college and then Fordham Law, and, along with 14 years service in the National Guard, Manning became a lawyer.

Through the eyes of a labor lawyer, he experienced the rise and cresting of the American union movement. In the height of unions, he said, people bound together to create real changes. Among the unions he represented were the sandhogs, the people responsible for building the tunnels in New York City — a very dangerous job.

He also represented two unions that eventually merged as 32BJ, a large union of property service workers such as doormen and maintenance workers.

Manning recalled that there was one union representing men and another women. He found that he could succeed at getting the men, who worked outside, washing windows, more money, but could not get the same wage for the women cleaning inside those same buildings. “They could see each other, but they couldn’t make the same pay.” He described it as his most difficult negotiation, though over time, the two groups became 32BJ and did continue the fight for equal pay.

Those years taught him that getting management and labor on the same page was extremely important, but that it was possible to find shared interests. People did talk with one another. By contrast, he said today, such negotiations are far more difficult.

Workers are making minimum wages with little benefits and the people in charge are making much more money than they should. Manning described it as a problem of “morality” because the little pay the workers are making is not enough to make a living or have a retirement.

The future of the job market is disconcerting, according to Manning. Without the help of unions, bridging the gap between the workers and the elite positions will be difficult to do.

In his opinion, the presidential candidates do not know what they are talking about with labor and work. The Bernie Sanders fan sees this as another obstacle that is going to set back current and future people in the workforce.

–Terry Schwadron and Carly Loy

 

 

Judy West, Retired Jazz Singer and Labor Activist

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Judy West, 94, who has pursued issues of inequality for decades from her Upper West Side Manhattan home, describes herself as an optimistic jazz singer, avid reader — and political activist who is very sensitive to social injustices.

For years, she was the political director for Local 802, the Musicians’ Union in New York City, a perch from which she joined with others in the Labor movement to rally for a host of social justice causes.

She continues her work today, joining in with tenants’ rights groups to protest unfair housing practices. “Since my retirement (in 2000) I have been the Labor Coordinator for Tenants and Neighbors and now for Tenants PAC,” she said.

Her parents, she said, were progressives and raised her to be an independent, assertive woman. but much of her learning came from the world. Her father was a singer.

She was in grade school in New York City, just seven years old, when a fellow student said she did not want to sit by another boy, despite entreaties by the teacher. “I realized that it was because the boy was black. So I put up my hand and went to sit beside him. That was my first act of resistance.”

Many more followed. “Being active, being part of a collective movement takes you out of yourself, takes you to a place where you realize that a victory is not just for yourself, but for all those with whom you are linked.

“It’s a search for justice,” she explained, adding, “It became part of my DNA.”

She grew up during the  Great Depression, which “convinced me that an economic and political catastrophe of this magnitude should never happen again. From that young age, and for the rest of my long life, I have been active in a score of movements that define ‘power to the people.’ “

She worked as a singer, a jazz singer, and a marketing and media executive in advertising. In 1973, she opened a book and record store called “Seize the Time,” partnering with members of the Black Panther Party. “We lived in a commune at the time,” she said. Her involvement with the Panthers began when she saw a spate of killings of Panther members increasing across the country, and had a “moment of cognition.”

“Frederick Douglass said about cognition that if you look at a pear, you perceive what it is. But if you take a bite of a pear, than you have cognition of what it really is.”

Her last job was as Public Relations and Political Director for Local 802, AFM.

She married, but her husband, a violinist, died at the age of 42. She has raised two sons, one a singer, with grandchildren and one grandchild.

In 2013, she received a Clara Lemlich Award, an honor named for one of the leaders of the union organizing response to the death of 147 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in lower Manhattan in 1911. The award recognizes women in their 80s, 90s and 100s who have worked for the greater good for their entire lives.

Judy had wanted social activism to be a central part of her career. She explained she would have stayed working in the Musician’s Union forever if she had not grown old. She loved her job at the union and described both the work they did and her staff as extraordinary.

“We made history at 802. We got the ‘Cabaret Law’ overturned,” she said. The law prohibited dancing without a special license.

As a jazz singer herself, Judy West has always been fond of music. She declined to pinpoint a favorite musician, but describes all musicians as the best type of people. Her husband had also been a musician, a violinist.

One of her sons is also considered an important violin teacher. She considers musicians to be the nicest and smartest of all people, describing their relationship with the audience as organic. She stated that musicians are “more emotional than males are allowed to be.” Even her great granddaughter, aged 11, can sing many songs from the musical “Hamilton.”

-Terry H. Schwadron and Lisbeth Brosnan

 

Jose Alejandro Guzmán, Retired Court Officer and Orchestra Conductor

 

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“What we are doing in community music is recognizing the importance of culture. We get to be participants in works by geniuses in Western civilization.” The speaker is Jose Alejandro Guzman, conductor in several New York City community orchestras, talking about why he has been drawn to classical music and working with citizen musicians.

At age 70, the self-taught maestro is standing atop the podium in concert dress, ready to conduct orchestral scores from memory; he sees it a service, a calling even, to be able to offer thoughtful musical works to audiences who may not make it to top professional concerts.

“We get people who are very musically sophisticated and we get people who say they don’t know much, but they love the sound. That’s why we’re here.”

It’s a long way from growing up in the South Bronx and other poor neighborhoods in New York City, and a distinctly different way of seeing the world than from his 29 years as a court officer in New York family, criminal and civil supreme courtrooms.

“In Europe, every musical organization, every arts organization, is run or backed by the government, something that recognizes the importance of culture to people’s lives. In this country, the amount of government money for the entire NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and support of all arts groups in the country is less than the cost of a single F-18, which should tell you all you need to know about this.”

Guzmán is musical director and conductor of the Centre Symphony and is conductor laureate of the New York Symphonic Arts Ensemble in Manhattan. He stepped down following 26 years as Music Director of the Regina Opera to devote more time to symphonic repertoire.  He is Music Director of the Staten Island Philharmonic and was formerly the Music Director of the Bronx Symphony Orchestra and the Rockaway-5 Towns Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he a frequent guest conductor, having appeared with the Bronx Arts Ensemble, the Bel Canto Opera, the Riverside Symphony, and the Massapequa Philharmonic Orchestra among other groups over the decades.

He likes performing with community groups, working with “anyone who really wants to be there,” noting that in immigrant-rich New York City, there are many musicians who moved from Europe where they found support to a more difficult life as musician here. “One of the best cellists I know is a housewife here in Brooklyn and works as a hair stylist” because she cannot support herself as a musician, he said. She is a graduate of the Saint Petersburg conservatory and performed with the Israeli Philharmonic, and she is not alone.

Community music for him represents democratic access to great culture, and something he found himself, taught himself, and learned to encourage.

Even just in New York City, there are numerous community non-pprofessional orchestras, dance, theater and and opera companies; he said, “I once conducted a community musical theater group where the children were now playing the roles their parents had played. There is talent out there and a thirst for Art that in unacknowledged. Yet I always hear ‘the Arts are dying.’ There is incredible ignorance among our leaders.”

His journey, he acknowledged, might be an exploration of finding balance, of finding strains of passion along with making a living and recognizing what makes for meaning in life.

His mother came from Puerto Rico to get away from his father, whom Guzmán describes as a drunkard and court clerk about whom he learned about only when his mother told him the story on his 51th birthday. “She never wanted to tell me,” he said.

His father refused to divorce his mother, who fled to New York City. His mother, Mary, who remained the most influential person in his life, was a seamstress who produced fine work, he said, but life in New York proved a difficult slog for her through welfare, night high school classes, learning English and various poor neighborhoods and housing projects, along with twin sons.

In the fourth or fifth grade in the Lower East Side, Guzmán, who dryly revels in self-deprecating humor, found music, and never let go. He played the trombone, then later, the trumpet, “but I was never any good at it. Still, those music teachers are the only ones I remember from that time. I was lucky that we still had music in school.”

He worked as a packer for Abraham & Strauss department stores (“I still can wrap anything so that it won’t break”), and wondered about a future. He described himself as a lackluster student who had trouble getting through high school. Almost by accident, he opened an envelope that invited him to attend New York Community College, a technical school that wanted liberal arts students, which took more than the allotted time, and finally at Hunter, where he started to formally explore a bit about music. Every part of it was difficult for him, he said, and he repeatedly found himself among peers who were better prepared. His take: Work harder to understand.

Throughout, he listened to classical music on the radio, though in school, “I was the fifth trumpet in a four-trumpet orchestra,” and was pleased to find a couple of courses in conducting where he found he had an aptitude. Being a good shortstop helped a lot.

His mother found a job working as a translator for the courts, and let him know about a vacancy for court officer, a union-covered civil service job, which he won despite being an undersized, skinny kid who was shy of the formal weight requirement, which a kind official overlooked. He spent several years at a family court in lower Manhattan, before moving to criminal trial courts for a year, and then civil courtrooms.

“It affected my political thinking, for sure,” he recalled, “I was a JFK liberal, and then I saw the effects of real life before me every day. The only difference between what I was seeing in family court and the criminal court was age of the defendants. Then, it was civil service, I was switched over to (trial) criminal courts. For a year.

“That’s where I saw hardened criminals, the bias against minorities, how people would treat each other, Were there dangerous moments, yes, but you’ve got to go where the noise is,” he said. “Thankfully, after a year, they needed bodies in the civil supreme court, so I moved there. The only criminals I saw there all had law degrees.” (Nevertheless, it was through court contact that he met his wife, Linda, a lawyer).

Actually, providing security for court officials and defendants meant sitting through thousands of actual court cases. “I can pick up a liar very quickly,” he said of his experience. Over time he became a captain at a . court facility on Thomas Street in Manhattan.

Over the years, it all made him “three steps to the right of Limbaugh” on issues involving crime and welfare, “which I knew, which I lived,” and much more liberal on issues involving religion, refugees, choice, free speech, arts support. He picks and chooses, though could not bring himself to vote in the 2008 election, the first time in his life.

Throughout, he listened to music, and started working as an assistant conductor in the Bronx. “I was an autodidact, teaching myself. When I was 59, I finally took a conducting class” and altered some of the things he had been doing in leading choral, opera and symphonic groups.

“Civilization, when you come down to it is about its arts.” Every civilization is what it’s Arts say it is.

Over the years, some groups, like Regina, have become stepping stones for talented, for younger singers to move up, and the orchestras have allowed many non-professionals to work together to pursue those lofty presentations. “It’s a team thing, we have to do it together,” the maestro explained. Indeed, with the groups, Guzmán is seen as a singularly humane and pleasant colleague who knows what he wants but often uses humor and grace to draw it from his players. The personalities of orchestra conductors often can set expectations for the music, but also can call for extra effort for individual musicians to find ways to blend, to work together, to achieve the final result.

Concert preparation for him takes months, he said, starting with listening to many versions of the piece, then working with the score, even fooling on the piano with certain passages to see relationships in the music.

“My musicians expect me to be prepared. To face an orchestra and not be totally prepared is an insult to them and your Art. By the time we have a first rehearsal, I know what I want to achieve in this performance.”

Even if only one person in the audience appreciates it or finds it fresh, “We have to be like Joe DiMaggio. People asked him why he would always try so hard. He said it was because if only one person was there, he didn’t want to make a bad impression.

We should not play for those who are in the know; but for the one guy out there who has never been to a concert before, who applauds in the wrong place and has never heard the music before but he likes it.”

 –Terry H. Schwadron

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Mary Douglas, Retired School Teacher and Hospital Volunteer

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“Living is learning, and learning is living. And you’re never too old to learn.”

Mary Douglas, a retired school teacher who stopped her paid job only to turn around and start formal training for her next assignment as a hospital volunteer, is talking. And when Mary Douglas talks, you find yourself listening. She may have stopped teaching, but her presence is sure to keep you focused.

She is 86 now, dean of the volunteers at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, and if she’s coming into your room to cheer you up, you had best be prepared to be cheered up.

“I know I have to go in there and be pleasant,” she explained about her weekly routine as a Certified Nursing Assistant. “I’ve been doing this long enough to remember that I was a called a Pink Lady” when I started. “That is the adult version of what we knew as ‘Candy Stripers,’ “ she said.

For those counting, that volunteer gig started more than 31 years ago. If it is Wednesday afternoon, it is Mary Douglas on duty.

Does she cure people? Why yes, she said, “I say, I came in her to get you well. I say it as nicely as I can. And I’m going to do everything I can to be nice to you. Your job is to get well.” Often, she said, it works.

“Patients are miserable and they react well if someone pays attention to them.”

Mary Alberton Douglas  was born in the Outer Banks/Kitty Hawk region of North Carolina to a farming couple. She grew up there and went to school there. She was the valedictorian of her high school class, and was loved and praised by all her teachers. She always knew she wanted to teach, and each teacher wanted to her to specialize in his or her subject.

The principal of her high school told her the best thing for her to be was an elementary school teacher in order to teach a bit of everything. She attended Elizabeth City State University, where she said that the college president was like another parent to her. Both her parents and the president were hard on her and made sure she lived up to their standards, reminding her she didn’t know everything. That same president signed her on to live and work at the college her senior year, then recommended her to her first job in Crisfield, Maryland.

Douglas said she “felt so alone” in Crisfield, without anyone to look after her. The teaching job she had there was very strict. Teachers could not be seen buying alcohol or with people of ill repute, and had to attend church on Sundays. She met and married her husband, Frederick Richard Allen Douglas (who went by “Douglas” to avoid the inevitable conclusion that he was somehow related to Frederick Douglass), a Korean War veteran.

Eventually, they moved to New York City, where Mary Douglas taught at an elementary school on 180th Street, Louise Archer Elementary. She retired Feb. 2, 1985, at the age of 56.

Mary Douglas keeps neat records of all such things.

She had never taken a day off, so when she went to retire, she had months of paid leave she could use. She took her leave from September, 1984 until January 1985, and used that time to attend medical aide training school. To become a certified nurse’s assistant (CNA), one must complete 122 hours of in class training and 32 hours of hospital training, the latter of which Douglas did at St. Barnabas Hospital.

Mary Douglas got 100 on her tests and was the top of her class at medical aide school, as well as being an honors student. Her graduation was in Riverside Church with her class of 1,500 people. The woman who ran the program, a Ms. Respoli, asked “What kind of people would you like to work with?” Douglas replied “Senior citizens” and has been working mostly with them ever since.

Even though she graduated as a medical aide, Mary Douglas has remained a volunteer as St. Barnabas because of pension restrictions with the City of New York, and her union contract. She cannot take vital signs or give medicine, but can assist RNs.

Over time, she met many very interesting patients in her time at St. Barnabas. She talked about a little boy from Australia who told her about playing with kangaroos, which made her determined to go to Australia (and she did). There was also a Kuwaiti patient with a translator that she found very kind. Interestingly enough, Mary Douglas said the most interesting people she met were a group from Texas, who talked to her about how different everything in New York was. In 2011, she took a training course in Long Island City to become a hospice volunteer.

Mary Douglas now volunteers with hospice patients every Wednesday. She walks into the patient’s room, and says “Good morning my love? How are you doing?” She also asks “Do you need something? Can I help you?” Even though she speaks Spanish, she speaks in English to the patients. She asks if they are Catholic or Protestant, and if they are Catholic they say Catholic prayers together, and the Lord’s Prayer if they are Protestant. She tells them stories about all the places she has visited through her late husband’s work, such as Cartagena, Santo Domingo (where she took merengue lessons), Los Angeles, New Zealand, and Australia. We remarked that she sounds far more positive and pleasant to speak with than most people, and she told us that “Attitude is everything” and that being as nice and she can and doing whatever she can to make them happy is part of the SBH motto, “Patients First”.

Even as she gets older, Mary Douglas leads a very fulfilling life. On Monday and Tuesday she goes to her doctor’s appointments and the bank, Wednesday she volunteers at SBH, and Thursday and Friday she volunteers at the school she used to work at in records and guidance. The third Saturday of every month, she has a meeting with her sorority. Mary Douglas sings in the church choir, and is a Eucharistic minister at St. Anthony of Padua R.C. Church.

Her husband died after a heart attack several years ago. She said they had been  watching “Wheel of Fortune” and when he died, she yelling at him to tell him how unhappy it had made her. Her two children, Frederica and Frederick, live in Green Bay, WI, and Spring Valley, NY. She has grandkids, and a personal legacy beside that.

Douglas has mentored hundreds of volunteers over the years, even teaching a reticent young adult everything about working in the hospital. She still has students approach her on the street in the Bronx many years later and say they’ll watch out for her. Elizabeth City State University granted her an honorary doctorate, and named an auditorium after her.

When asked for advice, she reminded us that attitude is a lot of how people perceive you, and finally: “Learning is living, and living is learning. I’m still learning, and none of us know everything.”

-Terry H. Schwadron and Katie Russo