(by Frank M. Figueroa)
(by Luis Pérez)
(by Ray Acevedo-Flores)
(by Angel Lao)
[Photo: Carmen Martínez]
UNA CARTA DE AMOR A MI BORINQUEN HERMOSA
(por Frank M. Figueroa)
Muchos de nosotros que nos criamos y vivimos en diversas zonas de la gran ciudad de Nueva York, tuvimos la dicha de haber nacido en Puerto Rico "La Isla del Encanto". A pesar de los muchos años de ausencia y de que por necesidad tuvimos que adaptarnos a una nueva cultural nunca hemos olvidado nuestras raices. Dentro de nuestro corazón seguimos siendo puertorriqueños de pura cepa.
Yo sé lo que son los encantos
(Oh, tierra de mi amor.)
de mi Borinquen hermosa.
(Mi perfumada flor.)
Por eso la quiero tanto y
por siempre la llamaré preciosa.
Isla del Caribe, Isla del Caribe,
A nombre de todos los hijos de Borinquen, que como yo vivimos lejos de ese punto de referencia en el Caribe que es faro que guía nuestra existencia, he escrito esta carta.
Mi terruñito querido:
Hace tiempo que vengo pensando en escribirte esta carta. Ya que para desgracia mía, al partir perdí tu dirección, me valgo del Internet para dirigirme a ti. Espero que llegue a tus oídos lo que mi corazón quiere expresarte.
Yo sé que soy sólo uno de tus miles y miles de hijos que se han ausentado de ti, pero como buena madre que eres, sé también que no te olvidas de mi. Pero tampoco pretendo acaparar tu amor. Hoy quiero hablarte de lo que mis hermanos han escrito y cantado para ti. Comenzando con tu hijo Rafael que te escribió diciendo:
Si yo no hubiera nacido en la tierra en que nací,
estuviera arrepentido de no haber nacido allí."
Yo quiero explicarte lo que Rafael en realidad quería decirte... Madre querida, si yo no hubiera nacido de ti preferiría no haber nacido.
Si, porque Rafael Hernández siempre fue un buen borincano.
Ay, madre patria, tú no sabes lo que sufren tus hijos al tener que abandonarte. ¡Qué triste la despedida al levantar vuelo el avión y ver por última vez tus palmeras diciéndonos adios con su verde pañuelo!
Como tú bien sabes, tus hijos somos un mosáico de colores. Pero somos hermanos y tú nos quieres a todos por igual. Algunos de tus hijos no tienen la gracia poética para expresarte lo que sienten en bellas metáforas y símiles, pero todos desde el más humilde jibarito hasta el negrito más retinto de Loíza Aldea, quieren cantarte a ti. Aquí mismo en Nueva York te grabaron plenas desde Canario hasta Los Pleneros de la 21 y todavía siguen cantándote.
Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico,
es mi tierra natal.
No la cambio por ninguna
aunque me paguen un capital.
Estoy seguro que recuerdas a uno de tus hijos, José Gautier Benítez. Ese inspirado poeta te escribió los siguientes versos:
Puerto Rico, patria mía,
la de blancos almenares,
la de los verdes palmares
la de la extensa bahía
. . . En vano patria, sin calma,
muy lejos de ti, suspiro:
yo siempre, siempre te miro
con los ojos de mi alma.
En vano me trajo Dios
a un suelo extraño y distante;
en vano está el mar de Atlante
interpuesto entre los dos.
. . . Hoy ya sé lo que vales,
hija del sol y del viento,
que helarse mi sangre siento
con las brisas invernales.
Hoy diera, en la tierra hispana,
el oro que el mundo encierra,
por un puñado de tierra,
de mi tierra borincana.
Patria, tú tienes algunos hijos adoptivos que también te quieren mucho. Uno de ellos, nacido en España, te escribió tu himno nacional. Yo sé que tú no olvidas a tu hijo Félix Astol. Otro hijo adoptivo tuyo, también español, Leopoldo González, te escribió "Puerto Rico, patria de mis amores jardín de flores sólo pienso en ti." Todo esto, habiendo vivido siempre en Nueva York y sin haber ni siquiera pisado tu suelo. Nosotros acá en la Ciudad de los Rascacielos te vemos con los ojos del alnia, como dijo Gautier. A veces si cierro los ojos y pienso en ti, me parece que oigo el eco de tu voz en tus calles y hasta oigo al sereno guardian noctumo de nuestros campos, el coquí. También movido por la nostalgia, nuestro hermano Bobby Capó, te escribió desde Nueva York:
Si por casualidad, duermo y notas
que una lágrima me brota,
seguramente es que sueño
que camino por las calles de mi pueblo.
Y en el ventorrillo aquel de mil recuerdos,
reviví el ayer, quizás llorando.
Borinquen, nombre al pensamiento grato. ¡Qué bien nos sentimos al pronunciar esa palabra henchida de cariño con que te llamamos tus hijos! Y, ¡qué felicidad sentimos cuando regresamos a tu regazo. Sí, ya al acercarse el avión a la costa vemos tus verdes faldas en las laderas de tus montanas y la sonrisa de tus labios rojos en el barro de tu suelo, tus brazos de mar se extienden para abrazarnos y las torres de tus iglesias nos echan la bendición.
Patria querida, ya pronto te volveré a ver. Hasta entonces me despido, pero quiero que sepas que tú vives en mi pensamiento.
Tu hijo ausente,
Frank M. Figueroa
[Photo: William Millán]
A REUNION TO REMEMBER
(by Luis Pérez)
I can still recall the excitement I felt when, out of the blue, I received an email from my old friend José stating that he was coming to New York, or more specifically to the Lower East Side for the Thanksgiving Holiday. My excitement grew when he mentioned that our friend Héctor was also planning a visit to the "Big Apple" around the same time. It had been a good twenty plus years that we had not communicated since Jose graduated from Yale University, and subsequently moved to Puerto Rico. Although Hector has been living in Puerto Rico for over twenty years, too, I've had the opportunity to see him in "El Aeropuerto Internacional Luis Muñoz Marín" in San Juan. Héctor is now employed by US Customs, so you might say he gets around.
In order to put things in proper perspective and so you can understand why a reunion with two old friends from the neighborhood should elicit such emotions; I need to explain some of our shared experiences and how they shaped our lives. José and I have been friends since our junior high school days at Beha Junior High School (better known as "Sixty") on Twelfth Street. It's scary to think but this means we've known each other for over thirty-four years (now I know these grey hairs are not cosmetic). We belonged to a group of guys who bonded together in school as classmates, and as athletic competitors in the Tompkins Square Boys' Club, on tenth street and avenue A. We all loved sports and we competed in everything from "Ping-Pong" to basketball and baseball. Our usual "hang-out" was Tompkins Square Park. Here we learned to become fierce competitors, especially, when we were chosen on opposite sides. Our group consisted of some colorful characters with some colorful nick- names like "Speedy", "Tookie", and "Monk". I was usually referred to as "Watt-head" because they said I had a big forehead (I still believe they were simply jealous of my chiseled good looks).
When we were not playing sports we would "hang-out" and joke and have fun; usually at the expense of each other as we were adept at what they today call "dissing." Although, we all got in our licks José was known as the introvert or "Quiet one". I used to stop the pleasantries and remind José to "lay a fart", so we could remember that he was present. Don't get me wrong now, José participated and enjoyed the banter, but my man was quiet and soft-spoken. This demeanor would fool other people into thinking that he was an easy target, or pushover, but they soon learned what a fierce competitor he truly was. This was especially true in "Ping-Pong" where José took care of business. The same would happen on a basketball court where he became a lefty terror with the "deadly lefty hook shot". I always remember José as the "cerebral one", but with a cutting subtle humor.
One of the most interesting things I can remember about José was when we learned that he had been accepted to Yale University. I can not describe the pride we shared with our brother who had joined an exclusive list of Puertorriqueños who had been given the opportunity to attend this Ivy League Institution, and who was now on his way to New Haven, Connecticut. I remember thinking how would this soft spoken, introverted Puertorican handle being away in school in another state? Around this time in our lives most of us were in the process of investigating or researching our ethnic identities. For example, I went from dancing to Motown (Afro and all) to the Fania All-stars. I, too, was dealing with the pressures of being accepted to New York University, and the realization that although I could walk from my home on thirteen street and avenue B to it's campus in the village (Washington Square), there weren't many Boricuas here.
I'll never forget the day I saw José for the first time since he had gone off to his first semester in Yale. It was as if I was meeting a whole new person. This José was no longer the soft spoken, almost timid, friend I had gone to school with, but he was now "José the Puertorican Revolutionary". I mean even his attire was different, as well as his physical look. He now wore his hair long, and his clothes were accented with the Puertorican flag. Where he used to wait to enter a conversation he now initiated conversations that usually centered around social issues, and the Puertorican identity. He later admitted that his metamorphosis was a result of the culture shock he experienced in New Haven, Connecticut.
My memories of Héctor always bring a smile to my face because he's always possessed a great personality, and keen sense of humor. Héctor was also one of the first from our group of friends to have his own apartment located at ninth street between avenues D & C. Boy, do I have cherished memories of the times we used to meet in his apartment and enjoy listening to some great "Fania" salsa! Héctor could be described as an Eddie Palmieri disciple, and he owned (and it was great to hear that it's still in his possession) a small "stand-up" piano. When Héctor would make his way to the piano we knew that something special was about to occur and we became his adoring audience. As a matter of fact we used to serenade him with chants of "Tóca Palmieri!" In retrospect Héctor was our very own Puertorican "Victor Borge" (famous comedic piano player), except that he was always in "cláve" (well almost always). Why, he even had this great black beard (it's turning white now) that resembled "Palmieri", with all his mannerisms "down pat!" I just thought of this, but whenever I hear "Muñeca" I can still picture Héctor at his piano.
Well, I must admit that I had no clue how wonderful an experience it would turn out to be to assemble together with old friends again. When the word got out that that these two brothers were coming home there was no keeping those of us still living in New York away. Ironically, we didn't end up meeting in the Lower East Side, but in Teaneck, New Jersey (of all places) in the home of another transplanted Lower East Sider brother Harry & family. Unbeknownst to our two special visitors yet another transplanted brother by the name of Angel, who had coincidentally just arrived from his home in San Diego County in California, was also accompanying us. It's easy to say that I will never forget this night for as long as I live (a sentiment I'm sure shared by all those who were present).
His beautiful wife and family accompanied Héctor, and I'll never forget the looks on their face as they witnessed our exuberant hugs and greetings. It's amazing but it was as if those twenty plus years had never happened. I could tell that Héctor's children were probably thinking, "So these are the guys I've heard so much of!" We got so involved in the moment that immediately there was a barrage of old stories and anecdotes pouring from everyone's mouth that it became difficult to follow all of them. At one point I decided to offer my apologies to the rest of the family members, who were watching us in admiration (or disbelief) from the "sidelines", but I was assured they were enjoying this moment as much as we were. I think it was at this time that I realized these people aren't just old friends, but extended family. As the night came to an end we realized that there were, too, many memories and stories yet to relish, so we decided to meet in Loisaida the next day.
Although tired from the evening before, all except three friends met at "The Circle" at Tenth Street and Avenue D (known as "The Avenue!"). On this day we were also joined by other friends who, unable to join us the night before, joined us to continue our nostalgic trip down memory lane. For a few moments we were undecided as to where to take our cortege because of the extraordinary changes that have occurred in our old neighborhood. As we drove around we were tempted to check the street signs to make sure we were actually in Loisaida as things have indeed changed. I mean you know the economy is doing well by the incredible amount of construction happening in "Alphabet City!" And you can't help but notice all the extranjeros living, and opening up cozy small "bars and cafes" at alarming rates (they probably out-number bodegas) on streets they wouldn't even consider walking down just a few years ago.
As fate would have it we ended up playing pool or billiards at a new pool hall located at avenue B and Second Street. This corner is probably the most prominent example of the "gentrification" which is inundating our old neighborhood. Not too long ago this area was a drug haven, but today there sits a new apartment complex boasting "state of the art communications system", with a doorman. After a few hours of reliving our childhood (this pool hall resembled a Boys' Club game room) we decided to go to a bar to quench our thirst as no alcohol is served at this hall. Unable to decide on which new bar offered the right ambiance we settled for the old classic corner bar at seventh street and avenue B, or the "Godfather Bar" (a scene from "The Godfather" movie was shot here). This tavern sports a classic oval-shaped bar, so you can gaze around and see which one of your neighbors is a lush, or just socialize with the other patrons. Needless to say more old stories spewed forth and we had another great time catching up on old times.
The day before our friend José was scheduled to return to Puerto Rico a small group of us met for the last time at "González-González", a Mexican restaurant located at Broadway near Houston Street that features Salsa music on Wednesday nights. Once again we shared a wonderful time reminiscing and enjoying the moment. This night culminated an extraordinary week where true friendship was rekindled and celebrated, and some great memories were immortalized. Although this might sound awfully "corny"
I now realize how lucky and rich my life has been, because of the friendships I've had and been able to keep throughout my life. To all of you who took part in this "Reunion to Remember" I want you to know that I will always cherish our special bond, and you are my brothers! This "ode to friendship" is dedicated to "Speedy", and all those who couldn't be here to join us!
UN ASALTO NAVIDEÑO EN LA AVENIDA
(by Ray Acevedo-Flores)
Nacimos en Puerto Rico y vivimos en Nueva York con la creencia en Santa Claus. ¿Pero quién es Santa Claus? ¿Y que es la navidad?
Traditionally in Puerto Rico, people gather during the Christmas holidays to celebrate la Navidad by playing the indigenous instruments of the island: El Requinto y El Cuatro (guitars), las maracas, el güiro (gourd) y la pandereta. Fueled by their native dishes of pasteles, pernil, arroz con gandules along with their canequitas de Ron Bacardí and Coquito (a type of spiked island eggnog), they went off into the night to surprise their family and friends in what is traditionally known as una parranda or trulla. Once the unsuspecting neighbors opened their doors, they were regaled with the traditional music of our forebears. Many of the lyrics heralded the coming of the baby Jesús and the journey of Los Tres Reyes Magos (or Three Kings celebrated on January 6th). Other lyrics (which were often sung in aguinaldo form) were humorous implorations begging the recipient to let the group in and allow them to partake in the holiday fare that was standard in practically every Puertorican home (regardless of how poor you were). As if inspired by the biblical teaching of the seven loaves, there always seemed to be enough to eat and drink. It was then on to the next house for more merriment and festivities!
As we slowly migrated to the United States, we brought with us the warmth of our traditions - settling with both uncertainty and complacency. For many of us, the Church not only provided religious sustenance, but an opportunity to gather socially and commiserate with others about our journeys, sufferings and joys. The Catholic Church of St. Brigid's in the Lower East Side - a church that once served the eastern European and Irish faithful - became la parroquia de Sta. Brigida. Under the guidance of the late Rev. Dermod McDermott, an Irish priest who spoke Spanish, we were encouraged to live out nuestras costumbres (customs).
In keeping with the traditions of the island's Christmas festivities, we would gather at the home of one of our neighbors to plot our strategy for the evening's secret raid (asalto). There were some parishioners that let us know ahead of time that our visit would be welcomed; but, it was the unsuspecting ones that made el asalto much more fun. Neither cold nor snow could dampen the warm memories we all carried along with us through those dark old streets. We were all urban troubadours - using cheese graters as güiros, pots and pans for panderetas, and bean/sand filled cans for maracas (that's in addition to our other traditional instruments) to accompany our choir!
The young teens held on to the elders as we negotiated the stairs of the tenement walk-ups; one lady, Doña Anita was in her late eighties and never missed a parranda! Later, we would cram ourselves in the elevators of the Riis and Wald housing projects. I remember trying to fit thirty people into two small elevators (after all, we all had to get there at once!)then slowly and quietly creeping up to our next victim's door. Some of us could not contain our laughter - anticipating the look on our unsuspecting host's face. One person would knock..."quién Es?" "Yo, Julio Cordero" would reply and when that door opened, a flood of song (everything from Feliz Navidad to The First Noel) would fill the corridors as the crowds moved in for the assault.
These celebrations went on well into the night, often growing as we picked up additional people on our route from house to house. On occasion we would celebrate into the wee hours of the next morning giving us only enough time to run home and get ready for mass early Sunday morning. The parrandas were always conducted with much respect and generosity. It was the exchange of the gift of a shared community in anticipation of the birth of Christ. At the end of la parranda, the men would gallantly escort the ladies home conversing about how they looked forward to the next asalto!
At a time when the season of Christmas was progressively becoming commercialized, the people of the Lower East Side managed to hold on to their traditions and their faith. Perhaps we should plan to revisit these practices and slow down a bit in order to reflect on our special past. I mean, its come to the point where by the time you've carved your turkey on Thanksgiving, its time to buy the Christmas tree. What's the rush? What happened to that mutual celebration of life and spirit?
Unfortunately, we don't hear about too many urban parrandas anymore. The neighborhood has somewhat changed. Some people do not open their doors, perhaps due to fear. But in our hearts we still remember the nights when we were greeted with un fuerte abrazo, a smile :) y un canto de lechón. We were a mobile church, breaking out of the four walls - reaching out to each other and most of all - Maintaining Nuestra Cultura!
(by Angel Lao)
It was fours years ago this coming April 18th that "Speedy" passed away. During a visit to New York in January of that year, my father informed me of his deteriorating health. When I returned to New York for my mother's burial a few months later I learned that he had been moved into a hospice.
My earliest recollections of Speedy go back to when we were both about 6 or 7 years old. As youngsters, we grew up together and played every conceivable inner city game you could imagine including Punch-ball, Box-ball, Stick-ball, Johnny on the Pony, and Tag. It was his ability at those urban street games that made him a popular choice among his friends when team players were chosen. His friends took notice at how Speedy would routinely jump over fences to swiftly retrieve the Spauldings that were hit into foul territory and promptly donned him Speedy.
Speedy always loved to play ball as a kid and growing up on the Lower East Side inevitably made him an avid Yankee fan. One of my fondest memories as a young adult was going to Yankee Stadium with him to watch the 3rd game of the 1976 World Series. It was a thrill to see our favorite team players live in world series play after having emulated them so often on our make-shift asphalt and concrete fields.
Throughout our childhood, we spent a lot of time playing games when we weren't in school. There were days that we couldn't go out to play ball so we would stay indoors and play cards instead. Speedy was an excellent card player. Not only was he naturally quiet but he had a great poker look on his face that would never let on to what his hand was. Then there were the much anticipated holidays such as Holloween where we would go trick or treating together up to Stuyvesant Town. I still recall a couple of occasions when we were chased home by "thugs" threatening to rip us off of our candy and money.
We were classmates until the beginning of secondary school, when we went to different high schools. I remember that Speedy was especially interested in the sciences which ultimately led him to find work with a phone technology company.
Speedy was the first born of three children. He left behind a grown daughter, a loving mother, and an extended family along with a great number of close friends who all remember and miss him. Months after his burial, a group of his childhood friends got together to plant a tree in his memory. At that reunion, they had a short ceremony and dedicated a plaque made in his honor that read, "Although he sped through life, he was always firmly rooted to family and friends!"
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