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

Seeing Racism as a Child

 

 

By Carmen Bardequez-Brown

Al que le caiga el sayo, que se lo ponga.

                  Puerto Rican saying

Skin

The greatest camouflage of all

A web of hearts

Blood

And veins

Synchronistically

Singing

The rhythms

of

The soul.

 

 My Encounter with Americans

I always had problems with the term “American.” Why do the people of the United States call themselves American when they are not the only people who live in the Americas? How dare they ignore the people living in Central America, South America, the Caribbean and Canada.

I thought that Americans were arrogant. I still think that they are, but I also have discovered through personal experience and their own history, that there is more than one America. American history is incredibly complex. It seems that it’s been constantly struggling to live up to the words inscribed in the second paragraph of the preamble of The Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed way their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I learned that Americans are capable of the most beautiful acts of compassion but also the most cruel of actions. There are two kinds of Americans, those who support the American Dream and those who support the American nightmare. Two realities, one country

Since 1898, Puerto Ricans have become participants in the struggle to shed light into the American nightmare as we continue to engage in the struggle to create and live our own Dream.

Accidental tourists

In Puerto Rico, you are always reminded that you are under the American spell. Since Maria, we clearly know that we are second class citizens. We have two national anthems and two flags that are raised in every public building. There are residential and commercial areas like Condado, Miramar and Isla Verde where English is spoken on the streets.

There are also specialized schools with English as the main language of instruction, instead of Spanish. You will meet “American” tourists and few Americans who work in specialized jobs such as in finance and pharmaceutical corporations. Maria brought a new kind of American worker, the FEMA employees. Due to the magnitude of the destruction, some of these employees are living semi-permanently on the island.

I don’t remember seeing so many Americans when I was young, except for traditional tourists in certain well-off areas and every now and then, an expat enjoying the benefits of living in a Caribbean colony.

In school, I learned American History and of course, English. I think I first learned about the Americans through their language.

My two Abuelas

Both of my abuelas were smart and gorgeous. My dear Abuela Concha, who was my father’s mother, died quite young. She had been a teacher and a well-known midwife in Guayama. She passed away when I was seven or eight.

Essay: Racism, Language Gaps in the Eyes of a Child

She always encouraged me to pursue my love for music. Abuela Concha was short and had a strong stare. She was famous for her long black curly hair that she later cut to fulfill a religious promise, la promesa. Every year, she celebrated The Three Kings day and had family and guests come to her house to pray the rosaries and prepared a truly Puerto Rican gastronomic feast in honor of the sacred day. She was a devout Catholic.

Abuela Concha and Abuelo Luis were known teachers for many years in Guayama in the early decades of the 20th century until the early 1960s. They both strongly believed in the preservation of Puerto Rican culture and traditions.

My grandmother on my mother’s side, Mamabuela, taught me and my sisters two songs that she had to learn when the Americans invaded Puerto Rico. She took care of me and my younger sister Debbie for a few years, while mom was working.

She and Papabuelo would come every day after we arrive from school. She will always made him coffee which I used to drink a escondidas because children were not supposed to drink coffee.

I miss the way she made coffee. I think my son has taken after her. He is a real barista. You need to have time to prepare a good cup of coffee in order to enjoy its rich aroma and flavor. You know, Despacito like Luis Fonsi says.

I remembered how she used to enjoy watching movies from Libertad Lamarque y Agustin Laraand any Mexican or Argentinian movies. Debbie and I would sit next to her and watch the movies. I found them too dramatic and sad. We enjoyed the experience of seeing her so attentive to the story and the usual sad songs that the protagonist sang. I don’t remember seeing a black person in those movies. I still remember the sad melodic songs that sometimes Mamabuela would hum while cooking the kitchen.

Mamabuela loved gardening. She and Mami planted dozens of rose bushes, herbs and fruit trees  like acerola, limon, gardenias, amapolas and guanabana. We also had aguacate, platanos and mango. Mamabuela planted three rose bushes, one for each granddaughter.

She knew I liked pink so she planted a pink rose bush next to my bedroom window. Every morning, I’d see the beautiful flowers when I wake up. We used to have many rose bushes but that one was special because she planted it for me. I still remember what she told me after she planted the pink rose bush:  “Carmin, esta es para ti.” What an amazing gift to wake up every morning and see the beautiful roses smiling at you.

Mamabuela was tall and regal. She had the most amazing posture and was famous for her gracious slow walk. Her long and soft curly black hair faded in later years as she persistently wanted to color her gray hair. She taught me to always use lipstick. “Eso es todo lo que necesitas para verte bien”

Mamabuela was in school during the American invasion in 1898.  She recalled that the teachers were forced to suddenly teach English and one of the easiest ways to do it was through the teaching of songs. Mamabuela also told us that some of the teachers would teach them songs and pretend to teach in English when they were observed and then, would revert to Spanish when they closed the classroom doors. She taught me and my sisters a few songs that she learned during the early years of the American colonization.

One of the songs praised the mythical heroic traits of George Washington. The first line of the song went like this:

Yo nunca

nunca

digo una mentira

pues quiero imitar a Jorge Washington…

The song literally translates: I never want to lie because I want to be like George Washington. The idea that this American revolutionary founding father and first president of the United States would be incapable of lying was ingrained in the young minds of children living under the new colonial rule. He was the role model of purity and integrity. Never mind, that he had slaves.

The other song that Mamabuela taught us that I remembered has been in the family repertoire for four generations. I taught the song to my son when he was a child because I wanted him to remember something that was learned in our family and was connected to the history of Puerto Rico. The song lyrics go like this:

Pollito chicken

Gallina hen

Lapis pencil

y pluma pen

ventana window

puerta door

maestra teacher

piso floor

Music played an important role in learning about the American culture. My mother used to play long-playing records every Sunday while everyone was engaged in doing their household chores. From early morning to sundown, we listened to Tito Puente, La Lupe, Tito Rodriguez, Noro Morales, Cortijo, Marco Antonio Muniz, and many other Puerto Rican and Cuban singers and orchestras.

She told me that while visiting relatives in New York she went with them to the famous Palladium to dance. I assumed that was how she developed her taste for Mambo and Cha-Cha. But Mami also played American music and I liked it. I could not understand them because they were all in English. The rhythms coming from the records playing Eartha Kitt, Nancy Wilson, Mahalia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Elvis Presley and Chubby Checker made me want to learn that mysterious language.

My first memories of anything “American” were mostly learned through the music. First, through the songs that Mamabuela taught us and then through the music that Mami would play on Sundays. It is interesting how music can instill interest in other people’s cultures.

The Nuyoricans

My first real encounter with American people was through my relatives who lived in New York. They were a different kind of American. They were a different kind of Puerto Rican. They were Nuyoricans living in the Bronx.

One day, Mami told me and my sisters that we were going to meet our two cousins from “Los Nuyores” at Mamabuela’s home. I really did not understand why that was special. It was just meeting cousins that I never seen before. I had no idea that it was going to be a special kind of reunion.

I saw my two cousins as soon as we entered Mamabuela and Papabuelos’s home. They were sitting in the balcony. I smiled at them but they were serious. I had a strange feeling that this was not going to be a regular play day with cousins. I remembered my cousin David. He said something almost whispering to his sister, my cousin Donna. That was definitely not Spanish, It was English!

They spoke the language that I could not understand – the language that sounded like buzzing mosquitos flying near my ears. His words were lost in the air. I could only hear bzzzzzz. Debbie looked at me with her big incredulous eyes and I did not know what to do. I was frozen.

We stared at each other. Nobody knew what the other one was saying. We did not know English and they did not know Spanish. Later on, I found out that David knew more Spanish than he first wanted to acknowledge. We looked at each other with suspicion. During that entire afternoon, we were trying to figure out how could we be family when we could not communicate.

I remembered that Papabuelo telling us, “Ay ponganse a jugar.” We respected his command, so we all did our best to play together we use hand signals. We ran and played with small toys, and every now and then laughed and shared a few words.

My cousin recently told me that he used to serve as interpreter for Mamabuela, who was also a seamstress, when she visited them in the Bronx. He told me that she would accompany her to buy “telas” or textiles on 165 and Fox Street in the Bronx.

Mamabuela used to buy telas when in New York for herself and her friend, also a seamstress who moved back to Puerto Rico. That was how David knew a few words and sentences in Spanish. His experience as an interpreter gave him the upper hand in the situation and became the leader on this language adventure of ours.

I became his second in command. We kind of agreed that we needed to get it together and worked it out. So we put our best effort to learn from each other. We started to build trust. He would later become the brother that I never had.  Every summer, we shared our realities of living in San Juan and the Bronx.

Essay: Racism, Language Gaps in the Eyes of a Child

The phenomenal Jackson 5

We celebrated birthdays while dancing to the Jackson 5 and imagined that we will create our own group: The Browns. We listened to the Gran Combo and Cortijo. I remembered listening to “Mataron al negro Bembon” sang by Ismael Rivera and Cortijo and we were like…wow!

We could not believe that someone could be killed because they had big lips. We did not realize that the popular song was indicative of the acceptable cultural racism that existed in the island. The song was written by the famous Puerto Rican composer, Bobby Capo. In spite of the incredible rhythm of the song, it still made me uncomfortable to grapple with the blatantly  acceptable racism of the popular song.

Every summer, we would go with the entire Brown family including uncles, aunts and cousins  on weekends to the beaches in Luquillo and Isla Verde. Our Nuyorican cousins would also party in our big family gatherings that we always had at our home. We always looked forward to the story time which took place towards the end of the party. Our uncles would narrate stories and jokes about the family. Everyone laughed so hard, young and old, together while listening and learning about our own history.

Essay: Racism, Language Gaps in the Eyes of a Child

Our youthful summers on the beach.

I think it was on one of those gatherings that I learned that my bisabuelo from my mother’s side. His name was Jim Brown and was not originally from Puerto Rico. He was born and raised in Nevis and according to family oral history, we are related to Hamilton which is one of our last names.

I have yet to research that narrative of our family history. During the mid to late 1800s, my bisabuelo traveled to Dominican Republic where he established an Anglican church. Then he moved to Ponce, Puerto Rico and established another Anglican church.

He witnessed the actual American invasion and served as an interpreter for the Americans. The Americans thanked him by giving him a flag. The flag had 45 stars. One of my uncles is in possession of that flag. That aspect of our family history really surprised me and confused me.

My bisabuelo helped the Americans by serving as an interpreter. I wished I could travel in time and ask him so many questions. He died many years before I was born. I only knew him through a picture and our family stories.

My family history on my mother’s side seems to have a deeper connection with the Puerto Rican-American experience. There were relatives on my father’s side who had move to New York but they were older and I only remembered meeting them once or twice.

My cousins spent many summers with us. We became so close that we always cried when it was time for them to go back to school in NYC. The whole family would go to despedirse at the airport. It was a big event that we all cried. They cried, we cried. He told me how he still remembered those goodbyes and how is one of his fondest memories of summers in Puerto Rico. I wonder why we all cried.

My family from New York City made me aware of another Puerto Rican reality. I learned about “America” through their experience, the Nuyorican experience.

My First Visit to America via The Bronx

I was eight years old when my parents took us to New York City on our first overseas vacation. We stayed with our cousins and my aunt in the Bronx.

It was the summer of 1968, a few months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the weekend after the assassination of Robert Kennedy Jr. We were too young to know and understand politics.

But we knew that something was terribly wrong. Our parents and relatives always said how they were doing things to help real people and how Black people were going to be respected. There was a deep sense of pride, and fear.

I remembered being scared of being in New York. My cousins and I thought that if we stayed near windows, someone will shoot us. I asked my cousin and he confirmed that we all felt that anyone could just killed you for no apparent reason.

I remembered watching TV and seeing the train carrying the remains of Robert Kennedy Jr. We were scared and noticed how our parents and relatives were serious and looked grim as if a relative had died. I will never forget those faces.

While on vacation, I saw my relatives driving nice cars and wearing nice clothes. I also remembered when my parents and my aunts would go into the kitchen to have adult conversations. They spoke in English and Spanish and sometimes I noticed how they mixed both languages.

Us kids stayed in the living room playing. I remembered hearing a word that I did not recognize before: racismo. They said it in English and Spanish.  It actually sounds the same: racismo,racism. It was the first time that I heard such word. I never heard my parents said that word in Puerto Rico.

We went to Chinatown, the United Nations, and Little Italy. We visited the Bronx Zoo and the Empire State Building. We saw the many attractions that New York City had to offer, including the people that I saw walking on the streets.

It was the summer of 1968 and we learned about the American way of life through the unique experience of witnessing a political assassination and a word that will start to create a new perspective of how I viewed America.

New York was the most important city in the world. It was the city of the young empire. The Bronx was part of New York, or was it? The Puerto Rican presence was noticeable, impressive.

I did not expect to hear Spanish and a language that sounded like Spanish on the streets. My aunts were from Puerto Rico and now lived in New York. My cousins were born and raised in the Bronx and spent all their summers in Puerto Rico.

I thought that they were Puerto Ricans but they spoke English. They called themselves Puerto Ricans although their Spanish sounded funny. My cousins said that they were both Puerto Ricans and Americans. I was eight years old and I realized that that America was more difficult to understand than the English language.

(Featured photo is Carmen with a big hat with sisters Arlene and baby Debbie.)

 

Essay: Racism, Language Gaps in the Eyes of a Child(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 Puerto Rico, 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. This is her third issue.) 

 

 

 

Carmen Says

By Carmen Bardeguez-Brown

 

The Beautiful Faces of My Black People

 Las caras lindas de mi gente negra

Rican Issues

(An excerpt from the poem Rican Issues from the book Dreaming rhythms:

Despertando el Silencio)

That I don’t look What ?

Oh , I guess I don’t look cafe con leche

mancha de platano

Mulata,

high yellow

grifa

By the way

I did not know that there was a puertorican look.

And what exactly is that?

That I just look more what?

Well,    Y    Tu   abuela   donde    Esta?

I should said abuela, tio, Tia, y to el barrio

Let me tell you something

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Most Ricans are a mix of Africans, Spaniards and Native Americans called Tainos

By the way no one has seen a Taino in the last 500 years.

Sooooo exactly…you know what that means.

We are historical creatures and my story starts with the history of my ancestors, and as such I will start with my parents.

Both of my parents migrated to the United States in the 1950s. My father went to study engineering at Howard University and my mother was sent to live with a lady that somehow my grandfather knew and could help her find work for the Federal Government. According to Mami, it was her way of forgetting a love affair gone sour.

My parents had a serendipity encounter in a public bus in Washington, DC. She was on her way to work and my father entered the bus wearing his military uniform with a few of the soldiers from his division. One of the men in the group made a comment about how beautiful my mom was and she responded in Spanish. They were all surprised at the novelty of finding a Puerto Rican who spoke Spanish in a public bus in DC. They talked and exchanged numbers and on the next day, my father went to her place with flowers. Like they say, the rest is history.

My parents said they both liked the US capital. Upon graduation, my father served as Captain in the United States army. I believe that he served one or two duties in the Korean war. After a romantic courtship, he and my mom got married in a civil ceremony in New York and celebrated the event with a few relatives that were living in the Bronx.

Essay: What are the Colors of Colonialism, Puerto Rico?

They both had serious experiences of discrimination while living in the United States. At the time when they were in DC, members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, namely, Lolita Lebron, Andres Figueroa Cordero, Irving Flores Rodriguez, and Rafael Cancel Miranda entered the gallery of the US House of Representatives and open fired after the session on March 1, 1954. Five congressmen were seriously injured in the act which was a political act to call attention to the abuses and injustices perpetrated to the people of Puerto Rico.

Mami said that before the shooting inside the halls of Congress happened, she was reminded constantly that she was a “different kind of black, but she was black.” But after the attack, she experienced rejection for being Puerto Rican. Speaking Spanish became a serious threat to the Americans that she dealt with on a daily basis.

Dad only shared with me and my older sister one of his many experiences on discrimination. He said that one of his early experiences occurred after an arduous military training. He went out to eat with two of his friends at a local diner. He said that they were starving. They were all wearing their uniforms. As they entered the diner, they sat down and the waitress showed them the sign that said that they did not serve color people.

Dad said that they all felt humiliated and disrespected. He could not believe that they did not even honor that they were soldiers. I could still remember his restrained anger as he related the story to us.

In spite of the discrimination that they both experienced, my parents considered settling in DC as my father received several job offers after his graduation. The salary of the job offers was high and he knew that he will never earn that kind of money in Puerto Rico.

But they eventually moved back to Puerto Rico in 1955. My dad told us that he refused to raise his family in a country that legalized racism and discriminated against black people.

So my parents, then newlyweds, embarked on a new life back in Puerto Rico. They will have three beautiful girls. My older sister Arlene, who will later become a medical doctor and medical professor at Rutgers University, then me, a long-life poet and educator who dabble in social and political activism, and my young sister Debbie who studied agriculture in Mayaguez and worked for the USDA.

I know my family had a unique experience as black Puerto Ricans. It was a constant reminder when we participated in social events sponsored by the coveted Sociedad de Ingenieros de Puerto Rico. There were only two black families that participated in those events: the Walters and us, the Bardeguezes.

In Puerto Rico, everyone is mixed. You could “look” white but your father or mother or brother or sister or grandmother or grandfather is black. We come in the black-brown-white spectrum. The problem is that hardly anyone or a very small percentage of the population and the mainstream culture in general refuses to acknowledge their African heritage and accept themselves as a black or mestizo culture. As with many countries that were part of the African diaspora experience, we had institutional slavery until it was abolished in 1873.

Yes, my friends, there was slavery in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba.

That indian/trigueno look is more a consequence of the black mestizaje than Taino mestizaje. Remember that the Tainos were killed 50 years after the Spanish invasion while the Africans have been living in the island for over 400 years.

The Tainos no longer existed. They were massacred by the Spaniards. Many Puerto Ricans have difficulty accepting this reality and prefer to dwell in the myth of a modern Taino nation.

We all have Taino ancestry in our DNA and our culture, but ours is historically a culture that is predominantly of  African descent.

I believe that our failure to accept this fact is part of the vestiges of slavery and a problem that affects our cultural understanding of who we are as people. This lack of self-knowledge influences how we understand political and cultural struggles that have the potential to support radical change in our communities.

Like the famous Puerto Rican saying goes: “Y tu abuela donde esta?”

Higher Education is still a problem of class and race. There are not too many “Black Puerto Ricans with professional degrees.”

The Black Puerto Rican experience has yet to be written and understood. My intention is not to document the history of all Black Puerto Ricans. Iam just going to share one my story.

I love my country but my appreciation and love for my black heritage was born from a combination of looking up to the African American experience and the love my parents instill in us of the many accomplished Black Puerto Ricans.

Afro-Boricuas like Ramon Emeterio Betances, Pedro Albizu Campos, Francisco Oller, Sylvia Del Villar, Juan Morel Campos, Rafael Hernandez, Ruth Hernandez, Arturo Schomburg, Jose Campeche, Juan Boria, Dr. Jose Ferrer Canales, Rafael Cepeda, Pedro Flores, Rafael Cortijo, Ismael Rivera, Rafael Cordero, Roberto Clemente. I remembered how people mentioned their names and celebrated their contributions to the Puerto Rican culture.

There is a different kind of racism in the United States and in Puerto Rico.  The most important fact is that we did not have to legalize racism like Segregation or “Jim Crow” and rampant decades of lynching. There was no KKK and rampant police brutality that was race-based.

In Puerto Rico, cultural discrimination is ingrained in the language that undermined any acceptance of blackness as beautiful. For example, this thought is revealed by a few of the common sayings or “dichos” such as:

Casate con una blanquita para mejorar la raza.

Ay pero que linda en su tipo.

Ay es negrito pero con facciones finas.

Ay nena esa nariz Africana.

The media perpetuates the misconception of the “Puerto Rican look.” There was once a commercial sanctioned by the Tourism department of Puerto Rico that had 3 light skinned Puerto Rican kids with blond hair and blue eyes wearing a Vejigante mask from Loiza. Everyone knows that Loiza is one of the most African-centered Puerto Rican towns in the island.

My parents were proud Ricans who knew and embraced their culture but they also experienced the Puerto Rican brand of racism which was very different from the one they experienced in the United States. They also loved and embraced the history and culture of the African Americans. They blended the best of both worlds and as such, raised us to be conscious of our place in Puerto Rico and prepared us for what will be our future reality of Black Puerto Ricans who migrated to the United States.

A few days before my father passed away, I shared my desire and plans to go and live in New York and crashed with my sister that was doing her medical residency in Queens. I will never forget his words. “Acuerdate, Carmin que tienes que ser mejor que ellos para que puedas echar para lante. Sea aqui o alla.” Wise words from my beloved father.

Essay: What are the Colors of Colonialism, Puerto Rico?(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 Puerto Rico , 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. This is her second issue.) 

Teacher-Poet Offers Love Letter to Puerto Rico

carmenPR

CARMEN SAYS

By Carmen Bardeguez-Brown

Iam

Iam a woman.

Iam Puerto Rican.

Iam Nuyorican.

Iam an immigrant.

Iam African descendant.

Iam Taino descendant.

Iam Spaniard descendant.

Iam an American citizen.

Iam an ancient soul traveling this life’s journey.

 

This blog is an opportunity to share my love and concern for my adoptive country and my fascination with my step-culture. I want to understand who “Iam” through the complex relationship that I have of being a Black Puerto Rican/Nuyorican living in New York.

I hope that you journey with me, as I share my view on issues that affect our communities. When I say our communities, I refer to the immigrant Latinos who live in New York. I welcome your feedback and hope that together, we can make sense of who we are as individuals and as communities that need to galvanize and help create a society that supports human potential.

We all have stories that unite us and struggles that may divide us. Let us create conversations that build bridges of understanding, one word at a time. Conversando.

Conversation is key to our understanding.  Por que, hablando se entiende la gente.

 

Iam

 

I was born and raised in the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. I never experienced the change of season as we only have one: summer all year long, and of course – the hurricane period from June to November.

Poet-Teacher Tackles Puerto Rican Life and Culture in a Blog

The warm weather is always ameliorated by the occasional chubasco which is a short period of heavy rain during the middle of the day. Big warm droplets of water make the hot sun less harsh.

I always see mountains from every point on the island. The lush and colorful vegetation of our tropical paradise is part of everyone’s daily life. The breeze of the ocean kisses our skin from north to south, east to west.

The island is divided horizontally by the Cordillera Central which is a system of mountains whose highest peak is Cerro de Punta at 4,390 feet. This region of Puerto Rico is famous for the coffee plantations which have been the second most important export from the island.

Poet-Teacher Tackles Puerto Rican Life and Culture in a Blog

The coast of the island used to have the sugar plantations which used the African slaves and later on, of the jornaleros. Sugar cane was the most important commodity under the Spanish and early American colonialism.

In the evenings, nature treats us to a relaxing musical concert by the coquis. These are small indigenous green frogs that only exist in Puerto Rico. They create the most beautiful symphony that soothes us at the end of the day.

 

The wrath of Irma and Maria

 

After Irma and Maria, the coquis’ melodic sounds had competed against the growling of electric generators, a sound that reminded everyone about the harsh “new normal” of daily life of living in Puerto Rico.

Poet-Teacher Tackles Puerto Rican Life and Culture in a Blog

A seating president throwing paper towels to people struggling to rebuild their lives after one of the worst natural and man-made disasters in 100 years was a good reminder of the humiliating treatment Puerto Ricans had always received from the United States since its invasion in 1898.

The tragedy of the natural disaster of Maria was as ferocious as the financial hurricane that 100 years of colonial and self-inflicted corruption afflicted the country. A perfect storm had always been steadily created in the cauldron of modern capitalism with the United States government and its corporations using our land as its “bitch” without respect for the environment.

Academic studies show that almost every single river in Puerto Rico is now highly toxic and contaminated by all of the debris of the pharmaceutical companies that are located on the island, while the profits fly away to the mainland

Quieting of our Struggles

The nice manners and calm demeanor of many Puerto Ricans, to me, are a quiet way of carrying our history of massacres and constant surveillance of anyone who attempt to question or challenge the colonial system.

We have martyrs who gave up their lives trying to create a better life for the Puerto Rican people, but they are not celebrated like the US celebrates its founding fathers. We whisper the names of Albizu Campos and Ramon Emeterio Betances.

The continuous struggle for the country’s right to be independent is considered a marginalized note of a small group of people who don’t deserve to have their names remembered in history books.

A tropical island that imports most of its food is seriously a disgrace. As it is, the Jones Act of 1917 that establishes Puerto Rico as a “modern colonial model” by granting the Puerto Ricans American citizenship while eliminating any commercial venture of the island with any country that is not the United States.

So this Caribbean paradise, “La isla del encanto,” has been engulfed in a complex relationship with two of the most powerful empires of  the last 500 years, Spain and the US. The history of Puerto Rico has always been an afterthought or a just comment of the ancestry of celebrity singers.

Our Indigenous Narrative

Boriken, which is the original name of the island, was inhabited by natives called Tainos. Like the rest of the native population of the Caribbean, they were killed. They became extinct by the genocidal conquest of the Conquistadores led by Spain and other European countries.

Our country was “discovered” by Columbus in 1492. The Taino population was obliterated in less than 50 years. The Spanish empire brought West Africans to work in the plantations as part of the African Slave Trade. Like many countries in the Americas, the population in Puerto Rico became an amalgamation of diverse west African cultures, Tainos and Spaniards. The issue of controlled migration patterns is certainly an important topic that I would like to discuss in another article.

Puerto Rico was a colony of the Spanish empire from 1492 to 1898. The country was sold alongside the Philippines to the United States as a victory claimed of the Spanish-American-Cuban war.

The Puerto Rican people are unique. It is not an opinion, it is a fact.

We have been involved in the process of creating a national identity amidst the oppression of colonial occupation since 1492. Our character, history, and culture are a complex blend that illustrates individual and character development in spite of systemic efforts to destroy and suppress our growth and development as individuals as well as flourishing of our collective soul.

Poet-Teacher Tackles Puerto Rican Life and Culture in a Blog

We were born from the lasting cry and struggle of our first inhabitants, the Tainos. They succumbed to the tyranny of a greed inspired genocidal conquest but their DNA is in our heart, blood and soul.

We were born from the creative spirit, sweat and struggle of the Africans who were kidnapped and enslaved for over 300 hundred years. We were born from the sweat of the Machetes of the jornaleros that cut the sweet sugar cane in the plantations. We were born from our desire to exist and thrive as a creative group of Caribbean people destined to be free.

I don’t pretend to explain or dictate what I think is the history of Puerto Rico. I just want to stress that it is essential to understand that historical conditions of one’s life influence who we are. As a  Puerto Rican of African descent who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and migrated to the United States in the 1980s, my life choices are better understood if I know the historical factors that contribute to the reality that continues to influence my life.

Poet-Teacher Tackles Puerto Rican Life and Culture in a Blog

In order to understand who I am, I need to know the context of the history of my family and the history of my country and my culture. Only if I know the cultural and historical factors that contribute to shape and influenced my life can I have a better understanding of myself.

Only by knowing who “Iam” can I relate to the experiences that other people have. We all live in a small blue dot planet called Earth and it is only possible to coexist in a mindful way if we embrace our uniqueness in the majestic tapestry of similarities and differences that enrich our earthly life’s journey.

(About the author: Carmen Bardequez-Brown is a poet and teacher based in Hartsdale. Born and raised in Puerto Rico and educated in the US, 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.) 

 

We Built New York: Honoring Chinese Workers

chineseworkers-1024x575Between the 1970s and the 1980s, a wave of Chinese workers immigrated to the United States, in hopes of building a better life for themselves and their children. The hardships they faced were challenging and unexpected. Using photographs and first person stories, We Built New York: Honoring Chinese Workers showcases Chinese Americans in New York City, many of whom worked in factories in the garment industry. Their contributions are essential to the fabric of New York and the country as a whole. This month, which is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting their immigrant experiences.

We Built New York is a project of LaborArts, The National Writers Union, Workforce Development Institute, and Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. Photographs by Matthew Septimus. For more information, visit: National Writers United Service Organization

An interactive presentation of this material by PBS’ Chasing the Dream series can be found here 

ctd-notagline

Agnes Wong

Agnes-Wong-2

Agnes Wong was an activist in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union for more than 30 years. Born in Guangzhou, China, she moved to Hong Kong as a child and came to New York with her husband in 1974. Shortly after arriving, she took a job working as a seamstress in a garment factory in Chinatown and joined Local 23–25 ILGWU. She walked out of her factory with 20,000 of her co-workers in the 1982 Chinatown Garment Factory Strike, and later became a shop representative and a Local 23-25 Executive Board member.

She credits the union with ‘bringing her up’—she met strong women leaders, and learned English, leadership development, and organizing. The union, in return, benefited from Agnes’ activism. Over the years, she helped organize Chinese speaking workers in various industries in the US and in Canada. Completely bi-lingual, she represented the union in the media and by lobbying government officials on human and workers’ rights, fighting against free trade agreements and sweatshops in the garment industry, and by educating the public about the Triangle factory fire and its legacy. Wong is currently Vice President of the Local 23-25 Chinese Retirees Club, which engages its 500 members in political, educational and recreational activities.

A founding member of the Chinese Committee of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Agnes is active in many communities. As a committed member of the Transfiguration Catholic Church she provides support to those who feel isolated, regularly visiting the sick and ailing. “As an immigrant to the US who knows no one,” she explains, “you feel distressed. That is why it’s so important to support each other.”