An Only Slightly Fictionalized Memory
The Early Years (Spanish Harlem Stereotypes)
I remember being around people who didn’t have money. We lived in Spanish Harlem. As I think back, the Puerto Ricans never seemed to be as broke as the few Black people around. Maybe because the “Spanish food” we ate was not available from the surplus food dispensaries, I remember seeing the distinctive black and white packages of cheese and macaroni and silver tin cans of potted meat at the houses of the Black families. On the other hand, the Black kids were freaked out by the fish heads and cow lungs that I ate.
I have memories of my Black neighbor waiting for government checks. I am now certain that the Puerto Ricans did also. It’s just not reflected in the rear-view mirror of my mind. I suspect that this is partly due to what I saw, and didn’t see in my Black neighbors. I saw lots of children. I saw mothers. I rarely saw fathers. I was in college when I learned about the laws that required men to be absent in order for their families to get government support. That was a misguided practice for which our society continues to pay.
Some of my memories are based on the stereotypes I heard in my home, on the news, and in school. “They” are all on welfare. Why don’t “they” get jobs? They did. I remember in the winter when it snowed really hard that the older boys would skip school and go shovel snow for the city for $5 a day. That was a lot of money. Men would work too. It was one of the few jobs they could count on in the winter when there were no construction jobs available. As I write this, I am recognizing that my vision is still tinged by those filters. I still see Blacks as poor, by their own doing. I still see myself as different, my dark brown skin notwithstanding.
I remember my Puerto Rican friends and neighbors. Pat’s father worked on ships, like my dad. I remember Helen, across the hall. She lived with her mother. That was unusual. The Puerto Ricans always had two-parent families. Helen’s mother didn’t work. As I write this, I am thinking that she must have been receiving public assistance. I remember that Puerto Rican family who lived across the alley. There were more kids in that family than mine, I had three siblings. I don’t know what their dad did. He would get drunk and yell at them and their mother, but he appeared to be supporting the family.