A TRUE STORY: A CUBAN IN NEW YORK
This is an excerpt from Miguel Barnet’s A True Story: A Cuban in New York. It is a novel is about Julian Mesa, a Cuban living in NYC. The novel spans the years between the 1930s to the 1980s as the protagonist moves from Cuba to the US. Barnet is a novelist who lives in Havana.
This translation is by Regina Galasso, a professor of Spanish language and literature at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, published by Jorge Pinto Books, Inc. with a foreword by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
116th is the busiest street. Years ago, a leader of El Barrio had the great idea of naming it after Luis Muñoz Marín, a man who betrayed the people of Puerto Rico. His soul was dirty like his teeth. He was a Governor whose name meant something; however, everyone knows who’s really in charge of Puerto Rico. He built hotels and highways, but he left the poor people without work in filthy neighborhoods. That’s why the working class is here. El Barrio has just as many stupid Boricuas as San Juan.
My barber is from Ponce. They call him an amateur because he’s pro-independence. The discussions that you hear there are all over the place. That barbershop is like a mini UN in the heart of El Barrio. Not too long ago he had the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags on a mirror. The customers said, “Look, Man, take that down. Cuba is a communist country.” But he didn’t touch a thing. And when they really insisted he explained that Cuba and Puerto Rico had the best baseball teams in the Americas. That shut everyone up and he just kept on cutting hair.
There were a billion stories about El Barrio during those years. Every day you’d hear about another robbery, murder, rape, or some other crime. They’d cut anyone’s face with a Gem blade. Most people were terrified. In any barbershop, no matter where you are, you always hear all about everything. The old men sat down to talk. They’d get off track about what they were saying, but you’d learn something about a bunch of different things. Since I never went to school, I enjoyed listening to old people talk. That’s how I learned most of what I know.
In the barbershop, I found out how the Latino neighborhood was formed. It didn’t happen overnight. It took some time. Spanish Harlem, East 96th Street to 125th Street, was a completely Jewish neighborhood. Then it changed, as did many other neighborhoods in the city. It’s Hispanic for a while and then it’s Middle Eastern. This city has a constant flow of foreigners. It’s like a Parcheesi game. El Barrio started to take off in the 20s. Before that, Latinos usually lived in Chelsea, where I still live, in Washington Heights, Brooklyn, Queens…
In the barbershop, someone was usually talking about the strikes in San Juan and baseball. Many workers came to New York because they were wanted in Puerto Rico: anarchist tobacco rollers and peasants. Some were arrested when they arrived and accused of a plot to kill President Wilson. They never wanted a liberal Hispanic newspaper here. That’s why they arrested Puerto Ricans. The talk of the town was the confiscation of newspapers such as El Corsario and the mechanization of the tobacco industry. That caused the uprising of hundreds of little stores throughout El Barrio.
In the early 50s, people still had beat-up furniture. When they were evicted it was a painful sight to see. They used shopping carts to move to another place, always in El Barrio, of course. You’d see them carrying one or two cots and a rickety chair. In the barbershop, they talked about all of this and about nationalist leaders and benefactors. They also talked about the supportive opportunists that had to do with the government of guys like Montgomery Reilly. People still talk a lot about those political issues. The nationalists hung out in one place, the socialists in another. It was basically chaos or revolú as they say. The old people remember a lot about Jesús Colón and Bernardo Vega, the founder of the 1920s newspaper Gráfico. According to some, they were spokesmen for rights for Boricuas. What can we say about Vito Marcantonio, Puerto Ricans’ favorite congressman? He was the one who said, “I don’t have knives to sharpen, nor family members who’ll benefit.” It was true. Vito was always in favor of independence of the Island.
El Barrio became full of criminals. Many came in through the back door from Latin American countries. They did their sketchy business and gave the Puerto Ricans a bad reputation. They pushed their way into El Barrio and the Jews and the Blacks got out of there and let them do their thing.
El Barrio looked like a circus. It’s the same today. Only it’s not a happy one. People mill around in the streets because they’re unemployed. They go in and out of the bodeguitas, botánicas, and cafés. They walk as though they’re lost, starring into space, dressed in rags. It’s disturbing to see so many human beings like this. Religion gives them comfort, it’s the only thing the poor people have in this country. That’s why there are more botánicas in El Barrio than anywhere else, but they don’t do well because people don’t have any money. When people go there, they buy a fruit of the Seven African Powers, luisa herb or some amansaguapo or rompezaraguey spray. Cuban Santería introduced this city to herbs they’ve never heard of before and much more. Every day there are more botánicas all over New York. It’s incredible. Even in the marketa they now have Cuban herbalists. Between the barajeros and the santeros, or what would be something like the priests of Santería, they flooded New York. It’s a way of making a living just like any other. And of course it doesn’t require much physical effort.
In spite of everything, Miguelito and I both thought that El Barrio was the most entertaining place in New York. It was appealing to us as Latinos. Besides all the vice and blood, they also held dances and beauty contests among the girls from the countryside back home. I went to a bunch of benefit dances for political organizations and local newspapers. They were in different places, nowhere special; fairly big lofts, where they had some Latino group playing sons, guarachas, danzones, and chachachás.
Cuban and Puerto Rican dance music is very similar. That’s why it was easy for us to follow them. There was a group called Yumurí, another called Cubaney. The most popular was Machito and His Afro-Cuban Boys. They played at a high-life place, or somewhere with a little something extra, like Manhattan Center on 34th and 8th Ave., St. Nicholas Arena, and the Paladium. That was more stylish. Sometimes I went, but I liked the atmosphere of El Barrio better. At Manhattan Center, families would bring food in baskets. They’d make a real picnic there under the theater’s roof.
The Arts League also threw popular dances, which tended to be a bit posh. I saw the crowning of Jenny Rivera there. She was a girl from the Peñuelas countryside crowned by the Banana Club of fruit merchants. But the good places were in small joints on 116th or Lexington. There was one every three or four blocks. I remember El Cano, a dive very close to St. Cecilia’s Church on Lexington between 105th and 106th. Miguelito, his woman, and I would go out on the town when we had some change in our pockets.
By that time drugs were all over the place. It was bad marijuana: cheap and harmful. It was only smoked discretely, not like now how it’s all out in the open. Luckily, I was never a fan of it. There are some who say, “Marijuana isn’t bad for you. But alcohol is.” I’m not the one to make that decision. For me both create a vice and a person with a vice is only half there. I’ve seen it all and I’m not afraid of anything in life. I always want to have my eyes open in order to enjoy everything to the fullest and with all five senses.
Vito Marcantonio severely condemned the bad reputation that was attached to Puerto Ricans in New York. There was a time during the 50s, when they were treated worse than any other national group even though they were US citizens. When an American from Oklahoma got to New York, he was well received; but when a Boricua got there, they slammed the door in his face. They could only get jobs as servants, and that was only in some places. It was like a big filter and very few made it through.
Nothing’s changed. That’s why nobody forgets about them. And although many sellouts and traitors go to the barbershop, in general most of the customers are progressive. I’ve been getting my haircut there for thirty years. The barber and I both went gray at the same time. He’s always saying that when he retires, he’s going to Ponce to buy himself a little ranch. But he’s old enough and he hasn’t moved an inch. I can understand him. Why jump out of the frying pan and into the fire? It’s not worth it. In Puerto Rico he has to deal with taxes and the entire family’s problems. He’s spent a good deal of time thinking about it. That’s why he’s still cutting hair in New York, although he won’t admit it. His son is a Nuyorican, he’s never been to Puerto Rico, but he’s more Puerto Rican than his father. This happens a lot here. The boy speaks English better than Spanish because he was born in New York. The Nuyoricans go to Puerto Rico when they’re twenty-one and make some money. Until then it only exists in their imagination.
“You Cuban! You’re rich, damn it.”
Because I’ve always lived in Chelsea and that’s downtown and a stone’s throw away from the Village, people think I have it good. I don’t go to the Village for anything. It’s for rich people and artists. I go to work and on the weekends visit a friend or my wife’s family. The closest I get to the Village is when I have work there or go to some party at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on 14th Street. The masses and novenas there are in Spanish and sometimes Celia gets the urge to go. She’s Catholic, so she says; a very unique kind of Catholicism if you ask me. I walk her to the door and while she prays and goes around the church, I take a walk on 14th: a gigantic flea market in the hands of Latinos, Jews, and Arabs. Or I go to La Casa de las Américas and wait for her to have Cuban food for lunch with Cuban friends and old emigrants like myself. La Casa de las Américas is our club, the only form of entertainment for the progressive Cubans here. But I’ll talk more about that later.