A Typical American Boy
By Manuel Hernandez
My parents came to the United States of America in the late
1950's. Puerto Rico has one of the highest rates of emigration
in the world. Puerto Ricans began migrating to the United
States as early as 1870, but it was not until after World
War II that their presence as a community was felt. They were
part of a massive immigration movement inspired by the new
Commonwealth government of 1952 and its political and economic
ties to the United States. They joined thousands of Puerto
Ricans in their quest of the American dream.
Father was born during the height of the Great Depression.
He was the second born in a family of seven. My grandfather
abandoned my grandmother when my father was five years old.
Abuelo had dreams of a better life in the United States, and
grandmother wanted more rice and beans on the plate. After
Ramona, Manuel, Modesto, Félix and Toño were born, "abuelo"
abandoned the family.
Manolín as he was called by his family was forced to drop
out of school at the age of seven to help support the family.
Manolín sold his mother's famous "papaya" sweets
in the morning and worked as a delivery boy in the local bakery
in the afternoon. When he was ten years old, my grandmother
asked her brother in Naguabo, Puerto Rico to take care of
Manolín. He lived with his uncle in the hills of a small town,
east of San Juan, Naguabo, Puerto Rico. Its municipal roads
are extremely small and narrow. Naguabo is known for its steep
plantain fields, and Manolin was immediately employed to work
on the highest slopes of the mountains of Naguabo. Many of
Naguabo's rural neighborhoods are kilometers up in the mountains.
He worked like a stubborn mule from dawn to sunset for his
uncle. Every morning he walked two miles to get to his uncle's
farm to milk the cows and pick up fresh eggs from a couple
of hundred chickens owned by his uncle. He then ran another
three miles to make it to school on time. But he was just
another mouth to feed, and every time he ran into mischief,
he was physically and emotionally abused. One hot humid tropical
night, my father's uncle came home drunk and looking for Manolín.
"Donde está Manolín?", my father's uncle asked.
"Por ahí jodiendo", answered Manolin who had just
arrived from a friend's house.
"Mira pendejito, ven acá", yelled my father's uncle.
"No tío, no me des", screamed my father at the sight
of his uncle charging over him with an old heavy broomstick.
It was too late. Manolín had already been clobbered over the
head several times with a broomstick. There was stream of
blood coming down his forehead, and he ran for his life. The
blood looked like a river running out of its course. My father
ran away and slept outside that night. It wasn't the first
or last time that my father was the victim of his uncle's
rage. He came back the next day and stayed out of sight from
his uncle for months. Next time his uncle caught up with,
he threw him on an untamed horse and hit it with a whip. Luckily,
he fell off the horse before it headed for the races.
Abuelo moved to New York in the early 1950's, and a few years
later sent for the children. My father's brothers and sister
went first. A few days before his seventeenth birthday, Manolín
gave a sigh of relief when he received a one-way airline ticket
to New York City.
Manolín looked forward to a new life away from the torturous
life with his uncle.
It was a cold winter night when the plane reached The New
York Airport. The thousands of flashing lights he saw from
inside the plane startled Manolin. The freezing wind felt
like it could cut your skin. He had an old worn sweater, and
he could feel the cold breeze crawling in every bone of his
body. His lips began peeling, his ears felt like solid rock,
and his knees trembled like an earthquake. He looked at the
line of the sun in his hands, and they seemed to be out of
their usual position.
Abuelo arrived two hours late, and Manolín walked up and down
the airport until he noticed the figure of his father getting
off an old 53 Chevy. Abuelo was dark-skinned, close to six-feet
tall and barely weighed one hundred and fifty pounds. He had
a black hat and wore a black coat, but Manolin immediately
recognized his father. He was anxious to see his father. It
had been seven years since he last heard his voice. He could
hear his heart beating like a drum. While other passengers
received warm welcomes by relatives and friends, abuelo hardly
noticed his eldest son. Abuelo shook his son's hand and picked
up his luggage.
Abuelo lived in East Harlem. The new immigrants founded a
Puerto Rico of their own called "El Barrio". It
stretched across 96th Street North to 127th Street and Fifth
Avenue East in Manhattan. During the summers, El Barrio came
alive with the sounds of "La Isla Del Encanto".
Puerto Ricans brought their music, food and traditions with
them to New York. The smell of rice and beans, "sancocho"
and "frituras" filled the air, and the sounds of
Tito Rodriguez, Machito and a young mambo king, Tito Puente
were common denominators in El Barrio. The Puerto Rican flags
were displayed on balconies, cars and window apartments. Men
played dominoes outside, and women gathered in apartments
to talk and share experiences. Manolin thought he was still
in "The Island of the Enchantment".
Once in New York, my father learned abuelo had sent for him
so he could help and feed the family. His brothers and sister
went to school, but Abuelo had a different idea for him. He
started to work in his father's "bodega". Puerto
Ricans worked in the tobacco industry, factories, hotels,
city jobs, and a few owned small grocery stores also known
as "bodegas". Abuelo had a small bodega and was
making a living for himself, but it meant hard work and sacrifice.
Manolín worked from 6:00a.m. to 6:00p.m.. My father's setting
changed, but he still felt enslaved.
My father spent evenings roaming around the neighborhood.
He wondered why neighborhoods seemed to have boundaries. The
Italians were jammed up in Hell's Kitchen, African Americans
lived in Harlem, and the Irish were in a place called The
Hill. It was practically impossible to get out of the neighborhood.
If you crossed those boundaries, you had problems. Italians
didn't want Puerto Ricans to walk into Third Avenue, and African
Americans didn't allow them into Fifth Avenue. Puerto Ricans
arrived all at once and in different colors making it more
difficult for other ethnic groups to accept them. He quickly
learned some painful lessons about prejudice. One day he roamed
a bit too much and found himself lost in the middle of Hell's
Kitchen. A policeman stopped his car and yelled at him with
an accusing tone.
"Hey you, what you doing in this neighborhood?"
said the policeman in a heavy Italian accent.
"Aim sorry. Aim lost", said my father in Puerto
Rican English fearing the worst.
"Turn around and get the hell outta here, we don't want
any spics invading the community. Let this be the first and
last time I catch you round here. Now, walk up two blocks,
turn right and you back where you belong".
"Sank you", said my father with a sigh of relief
and ran back to El Barrio. He had never run faster in his
When he turned eighteen, he decided to take his future in
his hands. Thanks to a friend, he heard of the General Motor's
automotive training program in Tarrytown, New York. General
Motors was offering him on the job training, fringe benefits,
a competitive salary and a retirement plan. Manolin's eyes
glittered when he signed the contract in Tarrytown. It was
a dream come true. He never thought anything like this could
be offered to him.
It was my father's obsession to get out of El Barrio, and
he saw Tarrytown as a way to escape the fast pace city life
and begin a new one in Westchester County, New York. Tarrytown
is a small country town just thirteen miles away from New
York City. It is right on the outskirts of the Hudson River.
It is the last exit before the legendary Tappan Zee Bridge.
My father registered in the General Motors' automotive training
program without abuelo's approval. He knew his father needed
him. Abuelo disowned him, but my father packed his few belongings
and took a train to Tarrytown.
Carmen Gloria Carmona, my mother, came to New York in the
early 1950's too. Carmen's mother, Carmelita, gave birth to
fifteen children, but the first three died of malnutrition.
After the first three died, and then came Pepe, Isabel and
my mother, Carmen. The 1930's were difficult times for Puerto
Rico. The Island's economy was mainly dependent on the production
of sugar cane. This industry left workers unemployed during
periods in between harvests. Workers became unemployed, and
American farmers announced their packages to the unskilled
and uneducated Puerto Rican worker. Thousands were forced
to migrate to the United States.
My grandfather was an alcoholic and a womanizer. He had a
hell of a reputation. He could fall in love with "un
palo de una escoba". My grandmother wanted babies, so
she got fifteen of them. By the time Carmelita gave birth
to her fifteenth child, my grandfather had already moved in
with a younger woman.
Carmelita brought up twelve kids alone. She did not have any
means to support herself, but her strength of character and
faith in God helped her through extreme poverty. She ironed
clothes for neighbors and baked pastries to make ends meet.
Carmelita lived close to the beach, so the sea became the
family sustenance. Pepe went fishing with grandfather to help
feed the family. Isabel and Carmen helped with the caring
and feeding of the younger. My grandparent's troubled marriage
influenced the up bringing of the children. Carmen fell in
love at sixteen, but Carmelita did not approve of her older
boyfriend. Isabel married, but grandmother did not attend
her wedding. There were striking physical similarities between
Pablo, Isabel's husband, and my grandfather, and grandmother
did not want to be reminded of her relationship with my grandfather.
Isabel moved to New York with her husband, and Carmen dropped
out of high school and escaped to New York City.
Carmen was uneasy with the turbulence during the flight to
New York. A passenger sitting next to her got drunk and started
talking about a possible airplane accident. Carmen quietly
started praying but felt relieved when the plane landed. It
was a bitter January day when Carmen's plane arrived. Carmen
was strikingly beautiful, and a couple of airport workers
could not get their eyes off the newly arrived Boricua. Her
olive skin glowed at the touch of the cool wind. Isabel arrived
late, and Carmen almost took the next plane back to Puerto
My parents just happened to attend the same Pentecostal church
in Brooklyn. Manolín set his eyes on the newly arrived boricua,
and it was love at first sight. It was a distant "noviazgo".
Manolin lived and worked in Tarrytown during the week and
stayed over his brother's apartment in Brooklyn during the
weekends to see Carmen and go to church. Seeing each other
during the weekends wasn't exactly what Carmen had in mind
for a formal relationship. My father was persistent, and they
married in April of 1962. By then, my father was working full-time
at General Motors in Tarrytown. My parents decided that Tarrytown
was the ideal place to begin a new life.
I was born in Tarrytown, New York in March of 1963. Tarrytown
is small but rich in history and pride. It is known for the
setting of Washington Irving's legendary stories Sleepy Hollow
and Rip Van Winkle. Ever since General Motors opened a plant
right on the edge of the Hudson River, it became a safe haven
for newly arrived immigrants from all over the world. I can
still picture the leaves turning colors in the fall, the snow
covering the park like a blanket in winter, the flowers lighting
up the schoolyard in spring and the sun shining through the
trees while I bathed in the swimming pool during the summer.
My parents couldn't afford a house. Mostly all Latinos lived
in project buildings. We lived at 126 Salley Street, apartment
#6E. The owners of 126 Salley were a well-known wealthy Jewish
couple in town. My mother felt comfortable and at home there.
Taking the elevator up to the sixth floor was a Latino experience
for Carmen. The Island sounds and fresh smell of rice and
beans were every day wonders in the building. When we wanted
"frijoles negros", we visited the Dominguez family
in apartment #3A, and music was the specialty at the Sarmientos'
apartment in #4C. When there was a birthday party, we all
celebrated together. When someone was looking for a job, we
all helped to find one. When there was tragedy, we all mourned
together. It was a warm circle of brothers and sisters who
lived together in warmth and friendship.
Six E was a small two-bedroom apartment. There was a small
park in front of the building in which I played all day. My
mother's undivided devotion lasted one year and four months.
Elbita was born in July of 1964. Our apartment came alive
with family visits from Puerto Rico and New York City. My
cousins, aunts and uncles coming home for the holidays were
truly wonderful moments. We sang traditional Puerto Rican
songs and ate rice, beans and typical food from the Island.
I spoke English at school, but Spanish was the primary language
in my house and at church. My neighbors were mostly African
Americans. Our next-door neighbor was the assistant pastor
of the church, which we attended. Ariel and Jenny were not
only friends, but they were also my babysitters. My parents
belonged to the only Spanish speaking church in town, Light
of Salvation. There I learned about God and developed an acute
interest in the Bible and its foundations. There were kids
from Cuba, Ecuador, Colombia and Puerto Rico. We worshipped,
played and had good times together. We identified with each
other. It was a warm circle of brothers and sisters that lived
and survived together.
The pastor, Rev. L. Rodriguez was like a second father to
me. He had a son about my age, and Louie and I became close
friends. Many of my weekends were spent at the pastor's house.
In one of my fondest memories, I remember riding with the
pastor as a toddler to pick up people to go to church. He
used to test my resistance by squeezing my knee with his strong
hands. I resisted as much as I could but always ended up laughing
my heart out. I loved Rev. L. Rodriguez as we called him and
learned to love God through him.
I belonged to the Royal Rangers at church, and we spent one
week during the summers hiking and camping out at Bear Mountain.
We had softball tournaments during the summer and football
games with American churches in the winter. There were monthly
garage sales. There was always something going on at church.
Those years are like a beautiful dream that you have and don't
want to let go when you wake up in the morning.
My father's jobs prevented him from sharing more time with
us, but he always took time to take us to a park or a local
town fair. We also drove to the city every so often and visited
relatives. One of the most memorable drives to the city was
on the morning of January 1, 1973. It was about 11:00 am,
and we were minutes away from Yankee Stadium when we heard
the tragic news on the radio. Roberto Clemente's airplane
had disappeared along the Atlantic coast while on a flight
to aid the victims of the Nicaragua earthquake. The legendary
baseball superstar was 38 years old.
My mother was dedicated and caring. She was the mother woman.
Every now and then, she took up a part-time job at Woolworth's
but once the building administrator heard my mom was working,
he would raise the rent. I remember overhearing one of the
conversations between my parents where they argued about whether
my mom should continue working or not.
"Ma, I'm sorry, but you gotta quit your job".
"What, we need the extra money!"
"I'm sorry, sweetheart. The building administrator says
we're going to have to pay more rent". I did not want
to hear anymore. I could hear my mom crying.
My mother spent a lot of time playing dominoes and cards with
other women from church. Carmen and her best friends, Jenny
and Aida, were always doing something together. All three
were bringing up children and taking care of the family. They
shared stories, frustrations and experiences they had as wives
As a child, I never felt different from other boys. I grew
up like a typical American boy. I watched Superman and Batman
and learned the Pledge of Allegiance by heart. Even as a boy,
I felt great pride in being an American. I played little league
baseball and made the all-star team when I was ten years old.
The July 4th parades and fireworks along the Hudson are powerful
flashbacks engraved in my soul.
My pre-kindergarten teacher was physically impressive. Mrs.
Dye was a six feet five inches tall African-American woman
that scared the daylights out of you by saying "hello".
Her immense body frame and huge hands enhanced my impression
of her. It was my first school experience, and it was one
that I would never forget. I learned to deeply respect Mrs.
Dye. She was dedicated, hard-working and caring. She lighted
up the classroom with a smile, and her words were like music
to your soul. I learned the alphabet, but the love she gave
me complemented my mother's daily guidance and affection.
That is why the time I spent with her was meaningful and has
stayed in my memory forever.
Then came kindergarten. When I was five, I was about as normal
as any other boy of my age. For reasons still unknown, my
playground buddies started calling me "Little Junior".
I wasn't little, but I sure did feel that way. This continued
through first and second grades. During the summer in between
second and third grades, I grew five to six inches. Instead
of calling me, Little Junior, now I was plain Junior. The
kids that ran after me were now shorter than me.
As a young boy, I had a lot of freedom. My mother had a hard
time getting me away from the playground in front of our building.
I would let her scream my name at least ten times before responding.
As a child, I was nostalgic for Puerto Rico. I grew up with
the colors, stories and sounds from "La Isla". My
parents spoke often about going back to their homeland. My
mother showed me pictures of my young uncles, Diego and Eli.
She called her mother at least once a month, and I sometimes
spoke with her too. My grandmother always spoke about her
garden. The flowers were bright yellow and roses came in red,
purple and wine. Every time my mother spoke about the garden,
I imagined a beautiful rainbow of colors. There was also a
lot of talk about the "coqui", a small frog which
was not found anywhere in the world. I could sometimes hear
the "coqui" on the telephone receiver. I had never
been to Puerto Rico, but Puerto Rico lived in me.
In the fourth grade, I became very popular. I was outstanding
in sports and was the tallest boy in the classroom. I was
also a straight A student and developed a superior complex.
I had a crush on my English teacher. I loved listening when
she read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Mrs. McGrath was
very proud of her parent's homeland. She often spoke about
going back to her native Ireland. She described its green
pastures and plain valleys and even showed off an Irish Flag
on top of her desk. One day, she asked us what we wanted to
be when we grew up. I was the last one to be asked.
"Manuel, how about you?" asked Mrs. McGrath with
her sweet and soft delicate voice.
"I wanna be a writer," I quickly replied.
"A writer Manuel?" asked Mrs. McGrath with a sudden
change of tone in her voice.
"That's right, Mrs. McGrath," I answered with pride
"But I've never heard of a Puerto Rican writer before,"
added my teacher without hiding her anger.
"I'll be the first one."
"Well, go ahead and suit yourself," and she immediately
changed the topic.
On my tenth birthday, my father bought me my first bicycle.
It was navy blue with white wall tires. I loved that bike.
After falling down many times, I taught myself how to ride
it. The bike made me feel powerful, free and distinguished.
There was something about the bike that made me feel on top
of the world.
I began a puppy love relationship with a girl from school.
Karen was as tall as I was, light-skinned, and had dark-brown
hair right up to her shoulders and deep dark-brown eyes. She
wore a brown coat with a white furry collar in winter. Her
lips were round and lively. She had the cutest smile, which
accentuated her beautiful face. I walked her home and carried
her books from school. Karen's family lived in a big house
on the other side town. We played outside, but I was never
invited inside the house. Her father, Mr. Robert Levy, was
one of the richest men in Tarrytown. He also was an honorable
member of the Tarrytown City Council.
Karen liked sports; so we played football together. We sat
down at the lunchroom together. I felt good around her. Our
friendship grew stronger through the fifth grade. It was during
the summer of 1974 that Karen and I reached puberty.
At the beginning of the sixth grade, something happened that
has influenced my way of thinking forever. I was excited when
I saw Karen, but I immediately noticed her indifference. I
approached her, but she seemed cold and nervous. The sparkling
eyes were gone. Her eternal smile had faded into the sunset.
I tried talking to her, but she was not listening to me.
"Karen, can I talk to you?" She stayed quiet, and
moments later she replied.
"The problem is that you and I can't be friends anymore",
she said looking the other way.
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"Well, Jews and Puerto Rico are people of different races."
"Hey, what do you mean?"
"I'm a Jew and you're a Puerto Rican."
"So what? We're Americans."
"You and I can never marry!"
"Marry? I don't understand!"
"Leave me alone, okay!"
No further explanations were made. I did not understand her.
I knew that my parents were Puerto Rican, but I never thought
that was important. I couldn't sleep for days. For the first
time in my life, I realized there were differences between
people that went beyond my boyhood imagination. Karen never
spoke to me again. It took me years to understand her. My
parents had brought me up aware of my heritage, but I never
thought it meant anything really important in terms of having
friends from different nationalities. I was wrong. She made
me aware that I was different. I was a Puerto Rican. How?
Why? The years and experiences would shed light on my confusion.