Race in the South Bronx
Like Americans from the beginning, we Puerto Ricans, especially those of us born and raised in the U.S., have had to cope with race. But there is a difference.
When we lived in Spanish Harlem, El Barrio, everyone seemed to me to be Puerto Rican. When we moved up to the South Bronx in the 1940s, there was a boundary. We lived on Longwood Avenue: Our Puerto Rican world ran along Longwood Avenue, across Fox and Beck streets. Kelly Street was the boundary to the “negro” world.
Now, “negro” didn’t mean Black. It meant African American Black. I remember asking myself why, when everyone at home spoke of “negros,” they obviously did not refer to the Black woman and her child who lived in our apartment building. They were Panamanian and spoke Spanish; they were one of us.
In the streets, Tony, who lived with his single mother, a nurse, was Black. But he was Puerto Rican, one of us: He was not a “negro.”
Our attitude towards the “negros” was essentially the same as to the others that lived outside our world: italianos, judíos, chinos, americanos—they were different, they didn’t speak Spanish. I don’t think there was racism nor hostility, no malice, but there was an element of fear. My brother was mugged by Black people: I remember seeing the dirt marks on his face where they have covered his mouth. And when we played in the schoolyard, I remember when we saw a gang of “negros” coming down Longwood from Kelly, baseball and stickball bats in their hands; they weren’t coming to play, they were looking for a rumble. Not with us. We fled.
I was 14 when I started at Morris High School. I had to walk up Longwood, across Kelly into the “negro world.” A light brown skin Puerto Rican, I remember feeling apprehension, but not fear. The first day in school I met John Rogers. I wanted to be “a writer,” and so did he. We quickly became best friends.
John was a “negro”. A very dark American Black. He lived with his Jamaican single mother and older brother on Kelly Street. We would meet and walk together to Morris. I went often to his apartment: I rarely saw his brother, a drug addict who soon after was found dead in his room from an overdose. We did homework together, talked a lot about writing and writers, and most of all, about girls.
John was athletic, muscular, ran like crazy. Somehow I convinced him to cross into my “Puerto Rican world,” the public school playground where I would throw a football trying to hit him running like a deer. And I convinced him to come over to my apartment to do homework together.
I don’t remember anyone in the family saying anything, much less complaining. But I knew that having a “negro” as my best friend, coming over to our house, was, to say the least, unusual.
Outside our world, it was, of course, Jim Crow America. In New York, we knew that many people didn’t like us, we were “spiks,” but I don’t remember anyone at home talking about being victims of racism. There was prejudice, but I think my family and the others felt that it was because we didn’t speak English.
And as I grew up, I wasn’t aware of Jim Crow. Until one summer when I told a friendly white woman in my summer job that I was going to visit Washington, D.C. She urged me not to go. Don’t you know, she seemed amazed and disturbed, that Washington is Jim Crow and that it will get very ugly? I went anyway with a friend, who was white, and although we were apprehensive that Jim Crow was everywhere and could strike at any moment, we were spared.
A few years later, we weren’t. A group of us were on our way to ROTC training at Ft. Mead. A few went into a grubby hamburger restaurant near the Baltimore Railroad station, sat down at the counter. They were all white but for a dark-skinned Puerto Rican among us. After a while, they were told they would not be served. I remember them walking out, shaken. We felt terrible. I remember the Puerto Rican coming to me, pulling off the ring from his finger to show me that he was not Black.
Yes, a mild form of Jim Crow America, but it was ugly.
When I moved to Puerto Rico in 1959, it was hard for me to figure out the attitude of Puerto Ricans towards race. I saw de facto discrimination everywhere—the better the jobs, the higher the pay, the whiter the skin. On the newspaper social pages, seeing a Black Puerto Rican face was rare.
But as in my home in New York, I thought I saw no malice. Soon after, I went to Loiza Aldea for the San Juan Star with a photographer, thinking I would get a good story of Black Puerto Ricans feeling discriminated against, living in a de facto ghetto. But instead, as I probed and asked questions, I noticed that the people began to feel uneasy, and then even hostile. They didn’t like where I was taking them, and the photographer and I had to make a quick exit.
Years later, trying to explain what had seemed to me Puerto Rican hypocrisy, I came up with a theory. That in our culture, I thought, it was not the classical racism that has existed in the U.S. and around the world: that whites are superior and blacks inferior. The feeling is, I wrote, that beneath the skin, everyone is equal, everyone has a God-given soul. But also in our culture, I think, perhaps more unconsciously than consciously, it is better, you are luckier, if also God gives you white skin.
As is all too evident, Americans are again struggling with race and racism—not entirely but certainly in large part because, as George Conway wrote on July 14, 2019, and he must know since his wife was Trump’s campaign manager and is now his close assistant—because they elected as President in 2016 “a racial bigot” who has deeply divided the country.
Here in Puerto Rico, let’s admit there is de facto prejudice. Yes, there is no malice but let’s admit the hypocrisy and let’s eliminate it.
The big difference between the American and the Puerto Rican attitude towards race is this: Whereas Americans have always struggled, have always been bedeviled by race, Puerto Ricans have never been hung up on race: Puerto Ricans have always known how to live with the reality of race.
A.W. Maldonado was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, a reporter and columnist for the San Juan Star, executive editor of El Mundo, and editor and publisher of El Reportero.