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The Struggle Goes On For N.Y. "Ame-Rícans"

By Frances Negrón-Muntaner

January 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002
PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Wake up call. Defining moment. Time to act. These are some of the ways that New York Puerto Ricans were describing the impact of the World Trade Center attacks on their lives, one month after the towers collapsed.

Authorities say that between 500 and 800 Puerto Ricans may have lost their lives on September 11, 2001. The pain of the families directly affected was dramatically evident at body-less services and funeral processions in New York’s five boroughs over the last four weeks. But the grief — like the smoke — has spread well beyond those who died and the ones they left behind.

Many New York Puerto Ricans — more so than islanders who make New York their residence — are in as much shock and mourning as other city dwellers, even recognizing feelings that they did not even know were in them.

"Everybody is American all of a sudden. Puerto Ricans that wouldn’t have been caught dead carrying an American flag are now waving them," says a teary-eyed Angel Rodríguez, who witnessed the impact of the first plane while walking to a meeting in the Wall Street area. An accomplished musician, former army cook, and pacifist who works part-time at the Hunt’s Point Community Center in the Bronx, Rodríguez had an unexpected response to the mayhem: "I told my sons Angel and Justin, ages 23 and 18, to enlist. Although you are looking at someone who doesn’t believe in war, I would never want my children pointed out, go to jail, or have anyone think that they’re cowards or traitors. They’re Americans too."

The stigma associated with Puerto Ricans declaring themselves "Americans Also" in Nueva York has been greatly lifted in the attacks’ aftermath. Well-known poet and playwright Tato Laviera, however, is quick to add a critical accent to this assertion: "American, no — AmeRícan." Laviera, who has spent much of his celebrated literary career calling attention to the racial and class injustices of U.S. society, admitted that the attacks profoundly changed him. "This is my island. And I have invested too much of my life trying to make this island good. What they did was against me too."

Santos Crespo, the president of Local 372 of the Board of Education, and an early volunteer in the rescue operation, believes that the feeling of connectedness experienced by New Yorkers is similar to what soldiers experience in combat. "When I was helping people down at Ground Zero, I felt my Vietnam war memories coming back to me. I started to shut down when I saw the lifeless body parts. But I also began to feel that the important thing is not that you are white, black, or yellow, but that you can be helpful. The sense of unity overcoming some people in New York comes from that: We’ve gone through war together."

But lo cortés no quita lo valiente. New York Puerto Ricans insist that flying the colors and singing "America the Beautiful" should not be confused with acceptance of past or present policies that affect Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. Many people who still support the Navy’s exit from Vieques are gravely concerned with the loss of civil rights at home — including any use of the despised practice of racial profiling — and oppose the war as a means to prevent further terrorist attacks. "Given the circumstances, Puerto Ricans need to find other strategies now," says Crespo, after some reflection. "Throwing rocks from the outside may not be effective now."

It is, then, all the more striking that as New York Puerto Ricans pondered these questions, a boricua son of the Bronx was campaigning to win the Democratic mayoral nomination. Although no one really thought that Fernando Ferrer’s election would mean much for the Puerto Rican community in a concrete sense, the majority recognized the symbolic importance — and poetic justice — of having an AmeRícan be the mayor of the United States’ arguably most important city. "I would love to see a Puerto Rican mayor," says Carlos Torres, a talented young artist with a contagious passion for his city. "New York is the capital of the world. At least, it gives you an example, something to look up to."

Ferrer lost the Democratic nomination last October 11, mainly due to his campaign’s inability to attract a significant number of "white" votes. The candidate’s pronouncements concerning his special concern for the "other New York" — understood by most to mean non-white ethnic groups — and the fear that Ferrer’s administration would be overly influenced by the colorfully polarizing figure of the Rev. Al Sharpton, both played a role in trimming his early lead over contender Mark Green. Evidently, despite the city’s new found sense of inter-ethnic solidarity, race still matters. Quite a lot.

Yet, Ferrer’s strong showing and high level endorsements let everyone know that sooner rather than later, New York will have a Puerto Rican mayor.

"We’re in the process of building community," adds Torres." But we’re not there yet. . That’s bad because we don’t have it, but it also means that all of can have a say and put our grain of sand into building that community."

The "strogel," as they like to say in this part of Puerto Rico, goes on.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner is a writer, scholar and filmmaker. Her column, The Writing On The Wall, appears courtesy of The San Juan Star. She can be reached at:

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