1967. El Barrio was a mess. The gangs that defended us against intruders, bullies and racists were no longer viable. The Viceroys and the Dragons had graduated from defending turf, honor and little guys like me to selling drugs. It was inevitable. The New York City Youth Board initiated one of those inane, liberal, well-intentioned policy moves to pay gang leaders not to fight by offering them jobs. Once they left the gang structure, there was a power vacuum.
Gangs were rudder-less, confused, no sense of purpose, no direction. Into that abyss, came the dealers, guys and even girls, who would not have dared approach the gangs while the leaders were in power. They would’ve been severely beaten. All gang leaders knew you could not run an efficient fighting organization with dope fiends. Liquor and pot were fine in moderation, but heroin’s only purpose was to keep you nodding and looking for more. It was a waste of pure warrior power.
But, once the gang leaders started coming around with pressed chinos and bright-white button downed oxford shirts, the envious wannabe’s yearned for the same look, the same status. Drugs was easy money and since Puerto Rican culture, especially street culture, was circular, collective, and exceptionally loyal, getting friends hooked was easy.
All of us knew of older guys, local heroes, handsome guys built like Hercules, who seemed to go to sleep while you excitedly told them of the fights you had in the school-yard. Then, they would suddenly wake up and in raspy voices ask you a detail about something you mentioned ten minutes ago. We knew they always had clean handkerchiefs and were always wiping their frowning mouths or their sweaty foreheads. But, they were good guys most of the time, always looked good, smelled good, and would wake up quickly if an elder passed by or a fight was in progress. We knew something was wrong with them, but, didn’t exactly know what. Sometimes, I would peek at these metal containers they carried with syringes, little spoons and eye-droppers. What did I know? What did I care? They were like my older brothers. They were just weird guys, good guys, but weird.
When heroin became fashionable, it got dirty and so did El Barrio. Couples who had been together for years broke up, fights occurred between friends, fathers threw sons and daughters out of their apartments, and cops started whipping heads for nothing more that guys nodding on the stoops. It was a new world for me. I hated it. And though I loved some of these addicted men and women, I didn’t know how to bring them back to their old smiley, lovely, courteous selves.
Something had to be done. Someone had to lead the way. The church wasn’t doing much, social agencies were doing less. And what could I do? I was just a kid who went to the Pentacostal church every night; three times on Sunday; a kid who loved to fight and loved to read.
For me, the decade of the fifties was about life lessons and character formation Take sex, for example, I couldn’t go to the Cosmo on 116th Street and make out with local girls because, according to my mother, it was sinful, but God, did I love the necking and romance of the project hallways and the grind-em-up parties after school. Heart and courage: I used to watch the dark-skinned Puerto Rican Viceroys fight the biggest, tallest light-skinned Dragons or Sicilian Red Wings or Afro-American Tiny Tots with unabashed joy. I learned it’s not the size of the enemy, it the intensity of your desire to win.
I was never the leader of anything. I was just a good member….a real good member. You could count on me in the school-yard. I thought every Puerto Rican was like that. You love somebody, you defend them, die for them… with them, if necessary. It was about blood, strength, family and honor. Nothing came between that. Nothing was more important.
I was out of the upstate jail in Greene County, but, in a new one called East Harlem. But, I had the ability to come and go as I wished and think and act out of the box, differently. I didn’t have to go with status quo and as far as I was concerned, I couldn’t see my mother and father’s neighborhood, the home of Tito Puente, Machito, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Jimmy Sabater, Joe Cuba and Willie Bobo waste away like this. I decided it simply was not going to happen. I loved El Barrio too much. I knew those warriors with glazed eyes walking erratically down Madison Avenue didn’t get there by themselves. Somebody had pulled the wool over their eyes, sold them a horrible dream. I vowed to find out why my role models were destroying themselves and who was responsible. I vowed to kill the culprit myself. I didn’t know it was America.