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Diverse And Divided; Blacks, Latinos Struggle With Differences; One City, Two Communities
By ELIZABETH LLORENTE, STAFF WRITER
January 25, 2004
From his apartment in the predominantly black 4th Ward of Paterson, Bishop Brown sees an America that increasingly pushes him to the margins.
His neighborhood feels lost - in poverty, crime, in a sense of having been forgotten amid the great swath of boarded-up windows and vacant lots.
The feeling of displacement grows deeper in Brown's neighborhood as Hispanics - who edged past blacks last year to become the largest minority group in the nation - soar in number and influence.
For the first time, Paterson has a Hispanic mayor, one who beat the first black mayor in his reelection bid. Hispanics own most of the city's small businesses. They must be getting special breaks, many in the 4th Ward believe, breaks that are denied to blacks.
Across Martin Luther King Way, from Harry Alcazar's point of view, America is a vastly different place.
He sees opportunities waiting to be seized. After all, he says, he knew no English when he came from Colombia; but he went from doing odd jobs to graduating from college and, now, working for state government. He worked hard to get everything he got, he says. Alcazar is energized by a mayor named Jose "Joey" Torres. Blacks, he says, have had their chance.
Hispanics and African-Americans are lumped together under the term "minorities." They have a lot in common: great pride, strong spiritual beliefs, a history of discrimination, inferior schools, and limited access to health care. In Paterson, they live in adjoining neighborhoods.
But between them lies a deep divide.
The neighborhoods with the highest concentration of blacks lie mainly to the north of Martin Luther King Way. Those with the most Hispanics are mostly to the south. Blacks rarely venture into the predominantly Hispanic areas because, they say, shopkeepers in those areas tend to regard them with suspicion. Hispanics say they stay away from black neighborhoods out of fear.
The boulevard named for the slain civil-rights leader traverses two vastly different perceptions of America - one, the age-old immigrant belief in the Land of Opportunity, and the other, a gnawing doubt and cynicism, laced with the knowledge that their ancestors came here against their will. It defines a clash among two groups who start out together in tough Paterson neighborhoods, on the bottom rung of the American dream - one with hope for a bright future, and the other with the frustration of living some of the worst of America's struggle with race.
In this city, where the census shows 150,000 people packed into eight square miles, blacks and Hispanics can't help but come into contact in school, on buses, in downtown shops and city offices. Yet, like strangers on a congested New York City train, they remain worlds apart even when their paths overlap.
"For business purposes, we have dealings, no problem," says Carlos Garcia, one of the city's most prominent businessmen and community leaders. "But not after hours. We go on our own way."
Occasionally, the friction heats up.
In October, a race-related argument broke out in a City Council meeting when a Hispanic councilman proposing a candidate for constable and two of his African-American colleagues opposed him. During the meeting, two of the council members - one black, the other Hispanic - got up from their seats and exchanged shoves.
At John F. Kennedy High School, administrators say black and Hispanic students get into racially charged confrontations over such things as girlfriends and slurs every day.
These tensions echo problems that marred relations between earlier generations of immigrants and blacks, who saw waves of newcomers move up and enjoy the acceptance and better living conditions that eluded their race. But the consequences are more serious today than ever. Hispanics and blacks form one third of the American population. In Paterson, the two groups constitute an overwhelming majority.
As the population of Hispanics increases, often in cities that have been home to solid black communities, the tensions seen in Paterson are playing themselves out across the country. Blacks and Hispanics have clashed in Miami, Manhattan, and Southern California, as well as traditionally black areas in the South, where many new immigrants from Latin America are settling.
Paterson, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, has long been a first stop for immigrants. Europeans came in droves to work in the city's textile mills. When blacks moved north after World War II, many settled in Paterson. In 1990, Hispanics surpassed blacks in Paterson to become the largest minority group. Today, the city reflects a current of change that is sweeping America and holds important lessons for race relations throughout the country.
"If blacks and Hispanics are at each other's throats, race relations in this country will only get more complicated; it'll get worse," says Ron Gross, a 71-year-old civil-rights activist and lifelong Paterson resident. "That will be bad for everyone."
Life on 21st Avenue
Twenty-First Avenue, a generation ago the domain of Italian business owners, is now unmistakably Hispanic.
The strip, which lies a mile south of Martin Luther King Way, crackles with entrepreneurship. Immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries as varied as Peru, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Ecuador own and run real estate offices, travel agencies, money- wiring firms, pharmacies, beauty salons, bodegas, fast-food eateries, and white-tablecloth restaurants that play soft background boleros.
Awnings bear the colors of flags from the owners' homelands. Spanish is the main language.
The two-way avenue is filled with dilapidated buildings. Yet, few immigrants see the neighborhood as grim. Stacked against what they saw in their homelands - children begging in the streets for food and money, starving dogs roaming through neighborhoods, supermarket shelves nearly bare - 21st Avenue is glorious.
Like the immigrants before them, Hispanics view 21st Avenue as the American dream in technicolor.
In his 12 years in the United States, Ricardo Diaz has worked in laundromats, factories, and newspaper delivery. And during that time the Peruvian immigrant has been stung by prejudice: A Clifton man hurled slurs at him one day when Diaz delivered his newspaper late. Some employers have demeaned him. His marriage has crumbled.
Now 48, Diaz is still struggling. Sitting in a Cuban restaurant on 21st Avenue, he says he works on his English when he gets time away from his 60-hour-per-week job at a laundry service firm. He hopes to take a course in medical radiology and earn enough to buy a small home.
"I've had setbacks, but I was not discouraged," he says. "It's gone well here. I'm still happy to be in this country.
Down the avenue, in Carlos Garcia's real-estate office, an 18- foot sign proclaims: "The most important tool for success is the belief that you can succeed. You never know what you can do until you try."
Many of the shopkeepers speak of coming to the United States with little money, and taking odd jobs in the early years. They cut lawns, waited tables, hoisted buckets of cement, baby-sat children who taught them simple words in English and introduced them to Babar and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." They dreamed of owning the kinds of homes they scrubbed.
Puerto Ricans were the first Hispanics to settle in the Silk City, says Paterson business administrator Eli M. Burgos, whose parents came to the U.S. mainland in 1951. He remembers how lucky Puerto Ricans felt to land factory work, no matter what the working conditions.
Burgos, an energetic, diminutive man who speaks in staccato sentences, is part of a group of Puerto Ricans who grew up together. Many in the group, which included the future mayor, Joey Torres, dreamed of the day when Hispanics would be a force in the city.
Step by step, many of them rose up the political ladder.
"For a lot of people, the work here was better than 12 hours a day of cutting sugar cane in Puerto Rico, or working in pastures with cows and horses," Burgos says.
Some scraped together nearly all their savings and started businesses.
Census figures for Paterson show that Hispanic-owned businesses have soared. Between 1992 and 1997, the latest figures available, the number of Hispanic businesses rose from 893 to 1,222. In that same period, sales rose from $66 million to $128.3 million, and the annual payroll increased from $3.9 million to $26.3 million. City officials say that now most small businesses are Hispanic-owned.
"Latin Americans, and a lot of other immigrants, like Arabs, are very business-oriented," says Burgos, breaking into his easy smile. "If there's a little table, they'll set something up there and sell it."
Elsa Mantilla didn't have a little table. But she did have a shopping cart.Mantilla, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1972 with less than $100 in her pocket, sold perfume, costume jewelry, and lingerie door-to-door.Hers is the story of many immigrant shopkeepers who peddle their goods from the back of a van, the trunk of a car, or a basement apartment.
Years later, Mantilla opened a small store on 21st Avenue.
"I was a novelty," says Mantilla. "The only other Hispanic business around was a bodega owned by a Cuban. But I felt accepted by the Italians."
Today, Mantilla, who sports stylish, short-cut hair and fitted blazers, owns a busy boutique at a larger location on the same strip. Her husband, an Ecuadorean native, and three adult children work alongside her.
Mantilla, 49, and other Hispanic merchants say African-Americans rarely enter their businesses.
And when they do venture into an Hispanic-owned store, they are not warmly welcomed, she acknowledges.
"A lot of people say they watch blacks closely when they come into their stores," Mantilla says.
The suspicion toward blacks gnaws at Rafael Cuellar, a Cuban- American whose family operated a supermarket in Paterson for many years.
"It's silly and racist on our part," says Cuellar, 34, whose family now owns a supermarket in Passaic. "It's wrong, it's not giving people a chance. A lot of people who treat African-Americans that way never grew up with them. I grew up with them, I went to school with them. They're 20 percent of our customers, and they're some of our best customers."
Back in her shop, Mantilla is checking RSVP cards for a breakfast she has organized for the coming weekend. The ticket money, she explains, will be used for academic scholarships for Hispanic students.
"We have to do things for our community, no one else does it for us," Mantilla says.
Being passed by
Hispanics are etching their imprint in Paterson well beyond their enclaves.
Most of those who live along MLK Way itself are black. But there are signs of Hispanic culture everywhere along the drag, which is also known as Broadway. A bright blue Barnert Hospital sidewalk directory reads "Bienvenido." Up a few streets, a huge billboard promoting an African-American dentist's practice proclaims: "Se Habla Espanol." Farther down the boulevard, near the heart of the 4th Ward, a supermarket window boasts "Fiesta Goya."
A few blocks away on Rosa Parks Boulevard, Carnie Bragg Jr. sits in the office of his funeral home, one of the oldest black businesses in Paterson. A portly man with a quick wit, Bragg lives over the funeral home, just like his father before him.
Drug dealers dawdle outside the squat building, even during the day, as kids with Disney-themed backpacks walk home from school. Despite that, the funeral director stays put.
"Life for the African-American community here hasn't changed much from when I was young," Bragg says. "We were poor then, and we're poor now."
Statistics from the Census Bureau bear him out. In Paterson, blacks have the highest poverty rate - 26 percent. The Hispanic rate is 21 percent, with whites at 16 percent.
Bragg, an elegant dresser who exudes a corporate boardroom air, has seen other groups arrive in Paterson, create a middle-class life for themselves, then leave. "This whole neighborhood was Jewish when my family moved in," he says. "We were received fine, but they started moving out."
He sees Hispanics following in the footsteps of earlier ethnic groups while blacks remain behind.
He loves his community; speaking with pride about its rich history, its spirituality, and all that it has endured.
But he says: "Look, we can't blame things on immigrants. Immigrants do jobs blacks won't do. It's not just Hispanics. You have a lot of West Indies immigrants who work very hard; they have two and three jobs. I get [American-born blacks] coming to me who have no skills and they want a job that pays $15 an hour."
One block north of Bragg, Vera Ames-Garnes, the longtime city councilwoman representing the 4th Ward, holds court on her cramped porch, which she only half-jokingly calls "my office."
She is more den mother than politician. She wears her gray- flecked black shoulder-length hair in braids. She says "ain't" and tells it like it is. On this day, she sports a T-shirt that says: "The Only Time You Look Down On A Sister Is When You're Helping Her Up."
From the porch, Ames, who is 56, sees the best and the worst of inner-city black life. She knows the people here won't go to City Hall. So they go to "Miss Vera." They tell her when something goes wrong in their life. And they tell her when something goes right.
A young man drives by in a pickup truck, honks, and shouts: "Hi Miss Vera."
Like most of the people who pass by Ames' modest, multilevel home, the young man has a remarkable life story that the councilwoman knows in fine detail.
As usual, it involves something terribly sad.
"He was in jail, for drugs," Ames says. "But he's got a job now. He's clean."
He is a reminder that there is hope.
A young woman passes by along the vacant lot across the street. She tells Ames she wants work. Does she know of a job? Ames says Kmart and the new Ikea are hiring.
"But I've got a record," the woman shouts.
She is a reminder of the struggles.
Ames looks toward the corner where her street meets Rosa Parks Boulevard, and finds more reminders of the struggles. She can see part of the blocks-long row of businesses there. At one time, the businesses were owned mostly by blacks, she says. A black grocery store is a bodega now, a black laundromat is Hispanic-owned, a black restaurant became a Hispanic-owned poultry place.
The black merchants closed their shops, either to retire to the South, where many of Paterson's black families hail from, or to end the stress of having to cope with the drug dealers who scared their customers away.
Census figures show an increase in the number of black-owned businesses between 1992 and 1997. But the data include all blacks, including black immigrants, who have been moving into New Jersey in large numbers. At the same time, though, payroll for black businesses in Paterson declined 42 percent for black firms, while it skyrocketed by 575 percent for Hispanic ones.
Ames and other Paterson residents say they don't need government data. They see what's happened to black businesses with their own eyes.
"This is our main economic thoroughfare," Ames says of the strip along Rosa Parks, where drug dealing still is a problem.
"Three of the businesses are black, two are Muslim, and seven are Hispanic. Some people say they're afraid of us, but they're not afraid of us economically, are they?" Ames says. "Everybody makes money off the black community, except the black community."
Struggle for City Hall
Until two decades ago, African-Americans were the city's largest minority group, and many Latinos voted for them.
"We knew we couldn't get elected, so we supported black candidates because they were the ones most likely to address our issues," Burgos says.
The fledgling alliance unsettled some white political stalwarts, who tried to drive a wedge between the two groups, both camps agree.
"They went to the Hispanics and told them that blacks were trying to stop us from progressing," says Idida Rodriguez, a consultant who worked on Torres' campaign. "And they went to blacks and told them Hispanics wanted to take over the city."
Still, blacks reached important milestones, winning seats on the City Council, and appointments to boards and commissions.
For Latinos, the political world was tougher to crack. Latino leaders, including some in power now, say that when they sought help from blacks, more often than not, it did not come.
In 1997, "after we waited so, so long," as resident Ron Gross puts it, Paterson elected its first black mayor. The man who'd ripped through the barrier was Marty Barnes, who struck many as bright, charming, destined for great things - perhaps national office.
But the historic tenure lasted only one term, and ended in disgrace.
Barnes pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from companies doing business with the city. He was sentenced last year to 37 months in a federal prison.
At the same time, the Hispanic population continued to grow, in numbers and influence. Through an unabating wave of immigration and high birth rates, they became the largest minority group and, eventually, the majority. They elected Torres mayor.
Harry Alcazar, the Colombian immigrant, was thrilled.
"This is a Hispanic city," says Alcazar, who is 30. "Hispanics rule."
Many blacks speak highly of Torres. Still, they say, it's painful to see the first black mayor end up in prison.
Bishop Brown, the 4th Ward resident, once felt the same sort of pride as Harry Alcazar. When African-Americans had a majority on the City Council and a black man in the wood-paneled office of the mayor, he felt like "I just got my space," he says.
Now, Brown, 29, says, "I feel my space is being invaded."
"Their resentment is a matter of people who've suffered as much as they have, when they get something, they're going to fight to keep it," says Jose Morales, a longtime Paterson resident and pro- Latino activist.
"But they fall into the same trap of most people who take power, they don't want to share it," he says. "The oppressed becomes an oppressor. When Hispanics say 'minority,' they mean Hispanics, blacks, Asians, everybody. But when blacks say 'minority,' we learned that they really mean blacks, and only blacks."
The tensions extend to the city leaders. One of the most public expressions of the friction was the October scuffle between council members Juan Torres, who is Hispanic, and Anthony Davis, who is black.
Ames, who sided with Davis, says with exasperation that Juan Torres can be divisive.
Torres says he is sensitive to African-American issues as well as Hispanic ones, but that's more than he can say for some blacks on the council.
"Blacks have five votes on the council. They're the majority," he said. "We should work together. Blacks and Hispanics have common problems and common needs. But they [blacks] try to pass whatever ordinance or resolution is in their favor."
Bias runs both ways
The tension between blacks and Hispanics stays beneath the surface, lurking in the everyday side glance, in the extra degrees of body space between people who look different, in the eyes that see an illegal alien in every Hispanic and a mugger in every passing black male.
Sometimes, the friction rears its head. When it does, it shocks.
Marilee Jackson recalls a time when she overheard the owner of a bodega tell a visitor from Africa that he liked foreign-born blacks, but not American-born ones.
"I was surprised, and I was angry," says Jackson, a lifelong city resident and director of Paterson's Department of Community Development. "I was going to buy something, but then I made a conscious decision not to exchange money with the store's owner."
Jackson, a gregarious woman with curly, close-cropped hair who stands 6-foot-1 and loves large hoop earrings, says she could have tried to explain to the bodega owner that blacks and Hispanics share a great deal in common - slavery and being colonized, for starters.
"Hispanics were dropped to cut canes, and we were dropped to pick cotton," she says, "that's all. We're alike in many ways. But I thought 'What's the point?'-"
Assimilation by Hispanics, many blacks say, seems to mean adopting the larger society's prejudices against them.
"People buy into the racism here," says Jackson, who gives her age as "more than 50." "You have ethnic groups that think they can assimilate with white Americans, and so we allow ourselves to be separated because of race."
The accusations of discrimination, though, go both ways.
Gus Penarando, a community leader, saw a group of black youths vandalize a park sign this summer that bore the name of Mayor Torres.
"I was so angry, very angry," Penarando says. "There wasn't really anything I could do. I watched them, and I thought 'Why, what is the point of all that?'
"They pointed to the sign, to the name," Penarando, 34, says. "They hit it, they kicked it. I found it discarded about a block down. That sign used to say Mayor Marty Barnes, and it was never touched."
A few weeks ago, Elsa Mantilla says, an encounter in her shop with an African-American woman who was searching for a wedding gown ended in a heated exchange.
As Mantilla and the bride-to-be finished what Mantilla described as a pleasant conversation, the woman who accompanied her warned the friend not to believe that the dress would be ready on time.
"She said to the other woman, right in front of me, 'You can't believe those Hispanics.' I let her know I didn't care for it," Mantilla says.
Those who bridge the divide sometimes find themselves in a rough spot.
Alicia Williams, 18, says her mother strongly disliked Puerto Ricans. But that didn't stop her from falling in love with Justin Rosado, 19.
"I probably would have felt like my mother about Hispanics if I hadn't met Justin and gotten to know Hispanics," says Williams, who is black.
She became pregnant toward the end of 2002.
"I really heard about it from my mother," Williams says. "She said 'Why do you have a baby with that Puerto Rican?' She thinks they're lower than us."
Her mother and Justin's disowned them. They were forced to sleep in his car.
All the hostility toward their relationship brought them closer together.
"I like to think that there are other people who think like Alicia and I do about race, which is: It doesn't matter," says Rosado, wearing a shirt with "No Justice" written on it. "And then there are other people who try to feel superior to another group so they're not in the lowest spot. But really, we're all just struggling in life."
While some young people are forging cross-racial bonds, others are perpetuating the friction.
In the city high schools, racial and ethnic groups have claimed certain corridors and cafeteria tables as their turf. Fights break out over racial and ethnic slurs.
"We've had a lot of conflicts," says Zaida Padilla, the school district's ombudswoman. "But the students are reflecting the friction that exists in the community."
Struggles at home
Look at their faces. World-weary. Lost in thought.
Look at their eyes. Sometimes defiant. Often dispirited.
Most young blacks in Paterson are growing up in broken homes: only a third of the black families with children are headed by married couples, according to the 2000 census. Single women head 58 percent and single men head another 9 percent.
The young pastor of St. Luke Baptist Church, the Rev. Kenneth D.R. Clayton, a lanky bespectacled man, has taken the role of father of several children in his church who come from troubled homes. He attends their parent-teacher conferences, goes to their recitals, and makes sure they keep up with their school work. One of his prized possessions, which he has framed and displayed in his office, is a letter from six siblings thanking him for caring.
"Before, in the Forties and Fifties, when we faced blatant racism, we still thought that we could overcome," Clayton says. "The difference was that in those times, we had a strong family structure, parents at home to instill love of yourself. The breakdown of the family has been one of our problems."
Gangs and drug dealers fill the void, he says. "They become the surrogate family."
Two married parents head 58 percent of Hispanic families with children in Paterson, while 32 percent live with a single mother, and almost 11 percent with a single father.
Make no mistake: Hispanic kids are also falling prey to drug dealing and gangs.
But there are safety nets. Extended families living under one roof are common. If only one parent lives at home, or both parents are away working long hours, often a grandmother or other relative comes from overseas to supervise the young.
The immigrant enclaves hold out a strong sense of possibilities. Here is an immigrant-owned business that is flourishing. There is a poor villager from Latin America who now is earning enough to drive a sturdy car and send money back to his homeland.
Blacks who grow up with a parent at home often find themselves going it alone.
"So many [black] young people have mothers and fathers on drugs," Ames says. "The kids have to handle the problems and be the mother and the father of the family."
Carrying the weight of such burdens, some, like Dina Earl, have remarkable gumption.
The single mother, 37, walks purposefully toward the multifamily house where she lives across the street from Ames. Her almond- shaped brown eyes burn with hope, even as she stands in front of the door, tired and harried.
Her mother is battling a drug addiction. Her father, who is deceased, also was hooked on drugs.
She is determined to give her three children the kind of home life she craved. But the path often twists and dead-ends; it's so exhausting, sometimes, to keep hope alive.
No matter how many times she has walked up the front steps and crossed the narrow porch to the door of the home, her insides twist in disgust.
The uneven wooden floors of the porch groan and creak. The worn siding is cracked, the dirty white paint is peeling. The ceiling bulges downward, looking as if a collapse is imminent.
Earl wakes up at the crack of dawn to collect the mice in the traps around her apartment before the children wake up.
"I don't want the children to see that," Earl says. "Just because we're poor doesn't mean we should live like this."
A single mother, Earl is determined to find a better life. She is taking classes at Passaic County Community College ("I'm getting great grades") and hopes to someday attend Montclair State University.
"Sometimes, I go into the bathroom, shut the door so the kids don't see me, and I just cry," Earl says. "But then I say no, I can't give up, I've got to do better so my kids don't have to live like this."
She is conflicted about Hispanics.
On one hand, she finds common ground with them when, for instance, she and Hispanic single mothers share stories of hardship while waiting for the wash at the local laundromat. On the other hand, she says she has been denied work in the city because she is not Hispanic.
"They say they want someone who is bilingual," Earl says. "We know what that means. It means Hispanic. There are lot of opportunities for them to learn English, but not for people like me to learn Spanish."
Malik Myles, 18, was an orphan by the time he was 10. His father died when he was very young. His mother, who he says was a crack addict, died in 1995. His grandmother raised him.
In a barely audible voice, Myles speaks matter-of-factly about his difficult home life. There were times he'd be so distressed by his mother, he says, that he'd refuse to open the apartment door for her.
He ended up like so many - selling drugs, and landing in jail about a half-dozen times.
"I was impatient, I wanted money," he says. "I couldn't wait for a check from a regular job. You can make $1,000 a day selling drugs. If you get busted, you have enough lawyer money."
He finished his last jail sentence in March.
He has five siblings - three are locked up on drug-related charges, Myles said.
"I don't feel shocked that they're in jail," he says evenly.
Myles dreams of being a big-time rapper. Many young men in his neighborhood hang their hopes for a better life on becoming rap stars.
A lot of his friends feel threatened by the growing influence of Hispanics. But he doesn't.
"Too many of us blacks put ourselves down," he says. "No one takes your opportunity away. If they take an opportunity, and you didn't, it wasn't yours, it belongs to them."
To lift spirits, especially of the young, Paterson's black leaders often invoke the mention of the teachers, ministers, union leaders, and physicians who have emerged from their community, usually against staggering odds.
Some became legends, such as Norman Therkield Cotton, who grew up in poverty in North Carolina in the late 1800s and became a doctor known for his kindness to the indigent. Or George Jiggett, a Virginia native who started a transportation business out of his home that expanded from one taxi to an entire fleet. Or Larry Doby, who was the first African-American to play American League baseball, and the second to play major league ball.
Paterson is also home to any number of successful blacks - people who have managed to navigate a route beyond the city's intractable problems.
The examples of triumph inspire some. But they fail to stir other blacks - including young men, pastors, community leaders - who feel life in this country is designed to keep them down.
The legacy of slavery and decades of institutionalized racism, they say, continue to have an impact. It is why, they believe, they languish while other groups move on.
They note that slave labor helped build the country and enrich the government and corporations, while denying blacks compensation for their work. The disparity in wealth and quality of life between blacks and whites, they say, was perpetuated by government policies long after slaves were freed. They say legalized racism such as Jim Crow laws, which allowed segregation between blacks and whites, laid the groundwork for other discriminatory legislation that erased gains by blacks.
Some blacks, including several prominent national leaders, are convinced that AIDS, drug epidemics, and long prison sentences for minor offenses are part of a government conspiracy to eliminate them. Such theories, long dismissed by authorities, have nevertheless circulated in black communities for years.
"Some things, like AIDS, were meant to wipe out blacks, but they got out of hand, I think," Kevin Thomas says during a break from rehearsals for Kid Fella, a play he wrote, produced, and directed for a youth theater group.
Cleashon Poindexter, the lead in Thomas' play, purses his lips as he listens to Thomas speak. They are sitting in a circle at the Hispanic Multi-purpose Youth Drop-in Center, which has lent them space for their rehearsals.
"Blacks are kept down in this country," Poindexter, 18, says. "You go for jobs and you don't get hired, no matter how qualified you are."
Marcia Hinds, 16, decides she can't sit by idly for another second.
"Don't blame immigrants, blame the employers," Hinds, who is black, snaps at Poindexter as their eyes lock. "Why aren't you doing something to change it? Go to school, get educated. I'm so tired of people saying, 'It's because I'm black.'-"
Perhaps, Poindexter tells Hinds, she doesn't understand how blacks like him feel because her skin is lighter than his.
"Sit in the sun all summer and turn darker, and just see how you're treated."
"The other day, a white kid called me a [slur] when I was walking down the street. I wanted to kick him," Poindexter says. "You get tired, so we have to take care of things our way, the street way. Police bother me and my friends because they're racists. All those things make me feel [badly] about this country."
Thomas nods: "Blacks are always at the bottom."
And that view generates resentment of Hispanics.
"They should leave the United States, all of them," Poindexter says.
Susan McKay, 23 who plays keyboard in Kid Fella, says: "I don't want to sound racist, but we need to take care of the people already here before we take more people in."
Hours later, a Peruvian dance group uses the same room.
"This is a beautiful country," says Lucy Figueroa, the mother of one of the children in the group.
They find it hard to understand how native-born Americans - whatever their race - cannot succeed if immigrants can.
"We immigrants are not given things in this country," Figueroa says as others nod in agreement. "I did housekeeping and baby- sitting and studied English. My husband worked as a gardener from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., then he went to school to learn about home repair at a school in Wayne."
The owners of the homes she cleaned in affluent suburbs in Bergen County told her she could make her dreams come true in America. She clung to their words, replaying them in her head.
"A woman from Emerson told me to work toward my goal, no matter how long it takes. Now I'm a nurse's assistant, and I'd love to go to college to keep learning."
"Blacks blame racism," says Mary Mendoza, another Hispanic mother. "We ourselves can get immersed in racism and being the victim if we let it happen. We can foment racism if we're convinced we'll never be accepted. This idea of race as a barrier is something we create in our heads."
'How dare you?'
Thomas, like many blacks, fumes over such assertions.
Racial and ethnic misunderstandings are further deepened, Thomas says, by newer communities who were not witness to the civil-rights struggles.
Kelly Moss recounts the time a woman of both Hispanic and West Indian descent asked her why blacks "allowed" themselves to be slaves.
"I think Latinos care," says Moss, who is black and works as a part-time receptionist at the Hispanic Multi-purpose Youth Drop-In Center. "I think they just don't understand our history."
But down the hall from the reception area where Moss works, Thomas is less forgiving.
"It's frustrating to have immigrants look down on us, too," he says. "You feel like 'How dare you?'-"
Across MLK Way, in the 1st Ward, Ron Gross says: "People tell blacks to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but we don't have any boots."
Other blacks, however, say that their community must get more aggressive about improving their lot, and focus less on obstacles - real or imagined - put in their path.
The Rev. Michael McDuffie, who heads a ministry of 50 members, says blacks must recognize that they have many more choices in their lives than they have been willing to acknowledge.
"Some blacks say, 'I sell drugs because the white man don't give me jobs,'-" McDuffie says. "No, you're selling drugs to that black man because of greed. The white man isn't making you do it."
During summers, McDuffie and a group of volunteers take to the most troubled areas of Paterson and, through catchy prayer songs and dance, try to reach out to drug dealers, prostitutes, and gang members. Many respond, often in tears, as they fall into McDuffie's arms and join in prayer.
Pastors have seen children who struggled academically begin to earn A's after they have held annual ceremonies that recognize such students before the congregation.
From the outset, blacks say, immigrants and blacks start from different places.
"People who save and save to come to America have one ambition, to come for a better life," Marilee Jackson says. "That person will do whatever it takes to get that better life. They'll make sacrifices to get that American dream. They'll take hard jobs, they'll live together with other relatives, older relatives will help out in taking care of children so that other relatives can work. Then they make enough money to buy a house."
Touching on a divisive issue among blacks, Jackson says: "I think African-Americans take things for granted. We think we are entitled because we helped build this country. And to a certain extent, we are entitled, but America doesn't see it that way. We don't take advantage of education. Many of us are still thinking we deserve 40 acres and a mule."
Friction on parade
A flashpoint of contention between blacks and Hispanics in Paterson is, ironically, an event that normally conjures up images of cheer: the parade.
In this city, the parade has become the most prominent display of the huge Hispanic presence. It is a raucous, spectacular showcase of pride, momentum, and revelry that is repeated many times over each year as Paterson's numerous Latin American and Caribbean immigrants celebrate their national roots, and pay homage to their patron saints.
It is the kind of big-time show of cultural pride that does not take place in the black neighborhoods to the north of MLK Way.
Each parade event draws - easily - tens of thousands of spectators.
On a sun-kissed late summer Sunday, the sidewalks of Market Street are jammed for blocks with people who have turned out for the annual Dominican parade.
For about two hours, the crowd cheers as the floats glide by, some with bands playing the pulsating beat of Dominican music, some with beauty queens, and a few representing other Spanish-speaking nations in a show of solidarity with one of the city's fastest growing Hispanic groups.
Emcee Raffy Medina Garcia looks out from the makeshift stage in front of City Hall and smiles. The display of Dominican pride - reflected in the posters that say "Viva La Republica Dominicana" and the thousands of Dominican flags - flows down Market Street as far as the eye can see.
He tells the crowd that Dominicans are becoming a force in town. He cites the Dominican domination of the bodega businesses in Paterson, and their ballooning presence in the schools.
"We are pervading all areas of Paterson," he says to cheers.
Kelly Moss remembers watching the Puerto Rican Day Parade as a child.
It was like nothing she'd ever seen in her community.
Men played bongo drums, moving their hands so fast they seemed a blur. Women shook the maracas. They all seemed to feel so lucky to be Puerto Rican.
"I'd love to see the blacks have an African-American parade with floats," Moss says. "We should have that. I'd love to wave a flag."
But some blacks complain about the parades.
Several years ago, some residents from the 1st Ward, another predominantly black area, asked the city to deny a permit for the Puerto Rican Day Parade, contending that the event, which took place in their section, was too disruptive.
Puerto Ricans denounced the move as racist.
"Slavery worked to the degree that we lost our culture," says Marilee Jackson. "We don't understand that people bring their cultures with them. What most other cultures have that we don't is that celebration of their history and ethnicity.
"But I still couldn't believe that we tried to rain on someone's parade."