From Ponce to Cooperstown

Former second baseman Roberto Alomar has been elected to the Hall of Fame. Alomar received the third highest vote total in history, making it in on his first second time on the ballot.


He is only the third Puerto Rican in history to be elected into the Hall. This year, upon his formal induction, he will join Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda in Cooperstown.

Not bad for a boy from Ponce.

Latino History Month #4

For the fourth and final installment of the “Latino Like Me Presents: Latino History Month 2010″™ series I wanted to go into the past to provide you a historical primary source that is both a window into our collective past as well as our collective present.

And so we turn to the legendary Bernardo Vega.

Born in Puerto Rico, in 1885, Vega worked as a tobaquero, a cigar maker. Tobaqueros were skilled workers on the islands of the Caribbean, as well as a highly politicized class. In each workshop a man called “El Lector” was paid to read newspapers and political treatises to the workers, providing them something of a sustained education as they rolled their hand-crafted cigars.

In the late 19th century, when Puerto Rico and Cuba were both Spanish colonies, tobaqueros were among the first migrants to the US from the Lain American Caribbean. They settled in parts of the US South and Northeast, and helped organize political groups to agitate for an end to Spanish colonialism. The groups they established became the roots of future Puerto Rican and Cuban communities for the next century.

In 1916, Vega became part of that community when he arrived in New York City.

What makes Vega an important figure is that he wrote about his life experiences. Published after his death, The Memoirs of Bernardo Vega is less a personal story of one man than a record of early 20th-century Puerto Rican life, in particular in the mainland US. Among the more exciting elements of his text are the detailed descriptions of this early community, both passionate about their island home as well as the political realities of daily life in the belly of the US empire.

Vega, like other politically-minded people, had ideas about the world he witnessed, many times identifying and analyzing important issues facing Latinos in the US. This passage, from that seminal text, is one example:

The constant growth of the Puerto Rican community gave rise to riots, controversy, hatred. But there is one fact that stands out: at a time when there were no more than half a million of us, our impact on cultural life in the United States was far stronger than that of the 4 million Mexican-Americans. And the reason is clear: though they shared with us the same cultural origins, people of Mexican extraction, involved as they were in agricultural labor, found themselves scattered throughout the American Southwest. The Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, settled in the large urban centers, especially in New York, where in spite of everything the circumstances were more conducive to cultural interaction and enrichment, whether we wanted or that way or not.

Vega’s analysis is perceptive and, on many levels, true.

In this time period, and for the next two generations, Puerto Ricans were concentrated largely in one urban center–New York. The “impact” they had on affairs in that city (and somewhat beyond) is partially a result of their concentration, but also a result of their political and cultural organization. Even when their numbers were few, Puerto Ricans came to the US and set out to do the work of community organizing, and they were successful.

The fact that much of this organization took root in New York city–the most important city in the US–provided other advantages. New York’s position within US economic, political, and cultural matters only increased throughout the 20th century, and by having a voice within the Big Apple, Puerto Ricans had a voice in the nation writ large.

Where Vega missed the mark is in his lack of acknowledgment of one key difference between the migration of Puerto Ricans and the millions of Mexicans in the Southwest. Puerto Ricans migrated to the US as citizens, vested with full political rights upon their arrival. This isn’t to say they did not face harsh racism and multiple forms of discrimination. But, as voters, they could garner the attention of politicians in ways that Mexican Americans could not.

Ethnic Mexicans in the Southwest were numerous and diffuse, but they were also clustered in key urban centers. By 1930, Los Angeles had become the second-largest Mexican city in the world, second only to Mexico City itself. But in the early 20th century, most in the ethnic Mexican community were first-generation, non-citizen immigrants.

As the number of US-born Mexican Americans came to represent half and, then, a majority of the population as a whole, they did so with the largest share of their population under the age of 21. For much of the century, then, ethnic Mexicans were primarily a non-eligible to vote majority population. Accordingly, as late as the mid-20th century, Mexican Americans struggled to exert any political force at all, living as they were in a political system that had little motivation to cater to them.

My analysis is not meant to disparage Vega as much as to point out the people we call “Latino” and “Latina” have much in common, as well as much that distinguishes their historical and present-day realities. Citizenship and regional migration patterns are but two. We could also have discussed gender, race, nationality, class and a host of other forces which have carved out divergent experiences.

The final lesson is not a pessimistic one. This “diversity within commonality” is at the heart of Latino America. It is the source of a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn about the contours of US imperialism in “on the ground”, concrete ways. It is also an opportunity for us, as Latinos, to better learn about ourselves and, in the process, create something new.

The US national project has been simultaneously tragic and hopeful. Far from a fulfillment of its most enduring ideals, the US–as experienced by indigenous Americans, African slaves, and waves of immigrants–has been as much a story of conquest and oppression as freedom and liberty. But the space between those two poles, the lived reality of millions of us now and then, continues to breed a hope that something better can be realized.

The hope of this something better requires a deliberate and purposeful re-imagining of ourselves in ways that incorporate difference, acknowledge past and current struggles, and embrace true equity.

This is the example we set as Latinos in the US. We forge a pathway to this new nation by our current struggles to do exactly the same within our own “community.” The mere fact that this word can be used to describe us–however conditional it might be–should be embraced as a sign of hope for everyone.

We have been so important to the past of this nation. We are vitally important to it if it is to have a future.

Latino History Month #3

We’ve been discussing Puerto Rico for the past week in my Chicano/Latino Histories class so perhaps it’s a good time for us here at LatinoLikeMe to do the same.

In 1898, as a result of a war with Spain, the United States became a formal imperial power, taking possession of Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico (as well as a host of other islands in the South Pacific). From 1898 to 1900 the US ruled the island as an occupying force. Then, with the passage of the Organic Act of 1900—also known as the Foraker Act—Congress provided for a prolonged condition of imperial rule for the island, under the illusion of representative democracy.

Puerto Rico’s colonial government consisted of a Governor, an Executive Council of 11, and a House of Delegates comprised of 35 members. However, it was the US President who appointed the Governor, with the approval of the Senate. Then the Governor, with the oversight of the President, appointed the Executive Council of 11, providing that 5 members were “native inhabitants of Porto Rico.” Puerto Ricans elected the House of Delegates, but the President, the island Governor, and the Congress all had veto power over anything they passed.

The people of the island had no voice in the United States political system, even though the US had all power over them. They were allowed to elect a nonvoting resident commissioner who represented them to Congress, but this position held little sway.

In 1917, the US Congress extended US citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico, a move Puerto Ricans received with mixed feelings. Some supported the move, envisioning it as a step toward statehood. Some opposed it, seeing it as an impediment to full independence.

The Unionist Party on the island fell in the opposition camp. Originally dedicated to independence for their island, the Unionists amended their platform to more affirmatively support increase “autonomy,” a move made to garner more support in Washington. That didn’t stop their overall dream, however.

Luis Muñoz Rivera (pictured below) was one of the founders of the Unionists, serving as their party head. He also served as the nonvoting representative of Puerto Rico to the Congress. In 1916, as Congress debated citizenship and other matters, he made his views on the matter clear, while also phrasing his stance in as politic a way as possible:

We, the Unionists, believe that from the standpoint of American national interest this question of citizenship should be left undecided for the present, in order to prevent a possible embarrassment in the international policies of this country as a result of premature action—an international policy which includes at the present time open tendencies toward closer relations and a better understanding with the Latin Republics of South and Central America and the West Indies.

I believe that, in view of the divided opinion on the subject existing in Porto Rico, this Congress will lose nothing by waiting for future events to determine or indicate in a more precise manner the path that should hereafter be followed in this matter. No one expects Porto Rico to continue always a colony. Statehood or independence appear at the present time to be very remote measures. To declare now American citizenship for the Porto Ricans does not answer any practical purpose, especially when this Congress is about to promise independence to the Filipinos and when a former Congress granted independence to the Cubans. Neither Cuba or the Philippine Islands is superior to Porto Rico as regards the ability to maintain a national life of its own. They are both larger in territory, but not more civilized or wealthier in proportion to their respective areas.

The US-appointed governor of the island, Arthur Yager, supported citizenship in his testimony, while he also made it clear to the House of Representatives committee that, in his view, independence was “absurd.” When asked If the island was “in a condition of development such as would enable them to carry on a representative government,” Yager replied “Oh, no.”

Well, the tools with which we have to carry on self-government are dangerous and difficult tools, an no people without some experience and development could handle those tool without danger to themselves. I do not believe that there is any Latin American country on the continent now, with perhaps the exception of those older and stronger nations south of the equator, where they can hold an absolutely fair election, and without a fair election you can not have self-government. I do not believe there has ever been a perfectly fair election in many Latin American countries, as, for example, in Santo Domingo.

In 1917, Congress passed the so-called Jones Act, extending US citizenship to Puerto Ricans. Though Puerto Rico is now called a “Commonwealth,” it remains in, nearly every sense, a colony of the United States.

Text from “A Civil Government for Porto Rico,” Hearings Before the Committee on Insular Affairs, House of Representatives, 64th Congress, 1st session, January 13 and 15, 1916, pages 10, 11-12.

Latino Heritage Month: Miguel Piñero

Miguel Piñero (1946-1988) entered this world in the belly of U.S. empire, the island of Puerto Rico.  Like almost half of the island’s population, he and his family migrated to New York in the 1950s, settling in the urban jungle of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  A child of the streets, who started getting into gangs and drugs and crime at an early age, Piñero was in and out of the juvenile justice system, his formal preparation for an adult life in prison.

At the age of 25, while serving a sentence at Sing Sing, he wrote a play, Short Eyes, as part of a prison writing workshop.  When he got out, two years later, it was performed at famed Riverside Church, where it caught the eye of a noted producer. When the play opened on Broadway, Piñero seemed an overnight success.  It was nominated for six Tony Awards, and it garnered the New York Drama Critics Circle Awards and the Obie.

It became a move, Piñero a part-time actor and full-time writer. With others he started the famed Nuyorican Poets Café, perhaps the single greatest institutional effort behind the poetic movement today called “slam” poetry.  He was a poet, a playwright, and a screenplay writer for TV and film. But he was also a junkie, a drinker, a child of the pain and violence of which he wrote.  He died in 1988, of cirrhosis.

His words live on.

___________________________________________

A LOWER EAST SIDE POEM (1980)

Just once before I die
I want to climb up on a
tenement sky
to dream my lungs out till
I cry
then scatter my ashes thru
the Lower East Side.

So let me sing my song tonight
let me feel out of sight
and let all eyes be dry
when they scatter my ashes thru
the Lower East Side.

From Houston to 14th Street
from Second Avenue to the mighty D
here the hustlers & suckers meet
the faggots and freaks will all get
high
on the ashes that have been scattered
thru the Lower East Side.

There’s no other place for me to be
there’s no other place that I can see
there’s no other town around that
brings you up or keeps you down
no food little heat sweeps by
fancy cars & pimps’ bars & juke saloons
& greasy spoons make my spirits fly
with my ashes scattered thru the
Lower East Side.

A thief, a junkie I’ve been
committed every known sin
Jews and Gentiles. . . Bums and Men
of style. . . run away child
police shooting wild. . .

mother’s futile wail. . . pushers
making sales. . . dope wheelers
& cocaine dealers. . . smoking pot
streets are hot & feed off those who bleed to
death. . .

all that’s true
all that’s true
all that is true
but this ain’t no lie
when I ask that my ashes be scattered thru
the Lower East Side.

So here I am, look at me
I stand proud as you can see
pleased to be from the Lower East
a street fighting man
a problem of this land
I am the Philosopher of the Criminal Mind
a dweller of prison time
a cancer of Rockefeller’s ghettocide
this concrete tomb is my home
to belong to survive you gotta be strong
you can’t be shy less without request
someone will scatter your ashes thru
the Lower East Side.

I don’t wanna be buried in Puerto Rico
I don’t wanna rest in long island cemetery
I wanna be near the stabbing shooting
gambling fighting & unnatural dying
& new birth crying
so please when I die. . .
don’t take me far away
keep me near by
take my ashes and scatter them thru out
the Lower East Side. . .

Please feel free to share your thoughts below…

The “Border Beat” (October 13, 2008)

Today is the United States’ official observance of Columbus Day. I encourage you to take pause and think about the millions of lives lost in the brutal processes of global imperialism. These were human lives, human cultures, confronted by a European tradition that saw their culture and religion as better, their racial composition as supreme, and their economic needs as a justification for their abuses. How far we have come!

This week, LatinoLikeMe will be focused on the issue of California’s Proposition 8, the measure seeking to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. In recognition of this, today’s “Border Beat” is featured in abbreviated form.

“Civil Rights Group Stays Puerto Rican at Heart, but Now Has a Broader Reach” (New York Times)
“In N.C., Pro-Immigration Hispanics Face Threats” (NPR)
“McCain, Obama seek to avoid fray on immigration” (San Francisco Chronicle)
“Enforcement Policy For Illegal Immigration Raises Ethics Questions” (Washington Post)
“Experts compare current immigration situation to deportation of Mexicans in 1930s” (Dallas Morning News)
“It’s time for Latinos to reach their voting potential” (La Prensa-San Diego)
“Growing Latino Population Redefines Small Town” (NPR)