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Professor Manuel Hernández
Essays Collection

Address: : 2012 Ernest St. Kissimmee, Florida 34741

Manuel Hernandez was born in Sleepy Hollow, New York in 1963. He completed undergraduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus and finished a Master�s in Education from Herbert H. Lehman College (CUNY) in the Bronx in 1994. He has coordinated symposiums, produced and coordinated television interviews on the literature written by Puerto Rican and Latino/a writers from the Diaspora. He has done numerous presentations, workshops and seminars on how to integrate latino/a literature in the English classroom. In 2014, he participated in a TedxTalk (Connections) at Southern New Hampshire University. He is the author of three books, , Latino/a Literature in the English Classroom (Editorial Plaza Mayor, 2003), The Birth of a Rican (Imprenta Sifre. 2008) and Living the Kingdom with purpose (Imprenta Sifre, 2013). He is a Language Arts teacher at Osceola School District in Florida.

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 life.
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 Rico.
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 and mothers.
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 and dignity.
"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.