1969

There was no getting around violence in the late sixties.  It was everywhere: racial riots in American cities, student riots in Mexico City and Paris, The Tet Offensive against American troops in Viet-Nam,    Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinated within months of each other,  Che Guevara killed in Bolivia,  and then the shocker, an ultra-conservative die-hard, Richard Nixon, elected to the Presidency of the United States.  For a young, black Puerto Rican like me, broke, fresh out of jail, afraid of nothing but God, it was time to shit or get off the pot. In 1967, I decided to shit and throw it at this government.

I was in love with Doris Day. I believed in Dwight Eisenhower. I loved Superman, Mighty Mouse and My Friend Flicka.  I didn’t have a father, but, Robert Young was my great daddy surrogate on the daily TV show, “Father Knows Best.”  We couldn’t have dogs in NYC projects, but, in my fantasies, I lived with Lassie in the country and Rin Tin Tin on the frontier of America’s West, fighting those evil Indians.  You see, for me,  America was a meritocracy and you could rise to any heights if you had the brains, the will, the talent.

Jail changed me. Prison tends to have that transformative power.  I saw a depressed, young Jewish guy clasp his hands around a searing, hot steam pipe in his cell and burn his palms off just to get into the infirmary and not hear the silence of his jailroom.  I saw a friend, Itchy,  beaten so badly by prison guards his thigh and shin bones were broken. He made the mistake of quickly right crossing his mentor, the kitchen correctional officer, who played the game of pushing Itchy from behind without notice.  In prison, there is no time to think.  You have to hit fast and hard when touched.  You may not get a second chance.   The white officer collapsed like a sack of flour and so did the friendship. He helped the other officers pummel Itchy into unconsciousness and transferred my friend to a state mental institution for the criminally insane. So much for love and friendship.  I never so Itchy again.  Though I never saw him, I heard a newly arrived inmate raped by several guys on my floor.  The screams were unbearable, high-pitched, furious and then suddenly, there was silence.  I heard the grunts of their passion. I heard the body hit the floor.

The Barrio I remembered was warm, familial, pulsating with rhythm and laughter, very loyal and very forgiving. Not so in 1967.  I had left East Harlem in 1957.  In just ten years, heroin destroyed any shred of chivalry, any scintilla of respect.  It was all about money now and how to cop and cope.  I didn’t know it then, but, if the Young Lords had not been formed by us, someone else would’ve had to invent the movement.  It was needed…desperately.
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