My mother, a dark skinned and attractive woman, was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico; my White father was born in Caracas, Venezuela. I was born in 1945 at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Though I was the middle child of the first set of three, I was delegated enormous responsibility and taught to be my siblings' protector because I was the oldest boy. We lived in a three-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, near the Juilliard School and the City College of New York.
My mother was aware before the creation of Puerto Rico as a Commonwealth, 1950—52, how this nation's focus on the accumulation of wealth created a country that demanded patriotism, exalted capitalism, but too oft en could not accommodate morality. She believed in God more than the US government. And in spite of the negativity toward Latinos, my parents quickly learned to navigate New York.
Contrary to the trend, it was my parents' decision to live among a community that looked and spoke like them. As children and young adults we were never told to dance around the raindrops to avoid the discrimination. If we did not succeed, it was our fault. Whether this was a form of denial or a strategy, we were not allowed to feel victimized. Ironically, my desire to be viewed differently from the Latino stereotype translated into showing support for White television family programming at my expense as well as all other communities of color. Not until my early twenties did start recognizing that by avoiding all commonalties—including the biological blood relationships—between our community and the Black community I was contributing to this nation's legacy of racism.
In 1951, pre—Brown v. Board of Education era, my parents pulled meout of first grade in apublic school because if I arrived late I would beasked to leave building. Unable to catch up to my parents' departingcar I would walk around Harlem for the day.
In parochial schools I learned God loved me; I had a lot to be thankful for and I shouldn't expect more. White kids were privy to the expectation they would make great doctors or lawyers some day...
My residence in a Latino neighborhood while attending Corpus Christi meant a physically demanding walk against strong winds hitting my small and skinny body. Occasionally, my brother, Carlos, and I shared a monthly bus pass tucked in a heavy plastic case. Carlos would get on the bus first and throw the pass out the window for me to take the next bus home. When it got too cold I would walk through the Julliard School of Music, get warm, and ask myself why no one looked like my musically gifted mother. When the weather was sunny and I did not feel like going home, I would walk a few blocks south on Broadway and watch the students play tennis at Barnard College, across the street from historically White Columbia. I wondered why they all looked like the students at Julliard.
In contrast to the public school teachers, who tended to ignore my presence, the nuns were constantly in my face. My parents viewed nuns and priests as the highest authorities. Knowing this prevented me from telling them that I was oft en asked to sit in the back, forced to write with my right hand though I was left handed, and, worst of all, constantly reminded that the holidays were for the White and Irish Catholic communities. I eventually gave up writing with my right hand and compromised by imitating the manner in which the right-handed students angled the paper.
During my years in elementary school, doctoral students of the historically White Columbia University and Teachers College would often ask my mother if my brother and I would submit to timed psychological tests. These tests utilized, among other things, blocks, puzzles, different shapes of paper, number sequence computations, and multiple choice questions. My mother always complied. I never understood how they knew about me, but it did not matter. I worked my hardest to succeed. I was more curious than they were about my intellect, aptitude, and motivation. I often attempted to interpret the examiner's face. If I read an expression of disappointment any sign of negativity, I asked if I could take the test over. My determination did not improve the test scores. I was defined evaluators as tenacious and unusually serious. I never knew they meant by "unusually serious," but a lot of people said about me. I was also defined as a disturbance in second grade and oft en sent to the principal's office to sit for long periods of time. I possibly should not have been surprised when I was required to repeat second grade. It was then when I built an intimate friendship with Tommy Mulligan, known simply as Mulligan—an Irish Catholic who lived with his grandmother.
It was not until the third grade that I felt any sort of educational support. A Maryknoll nun stepped into my life. Sister Bernadette, having recently arrived after serving many years in Africa, would put her arm around my shoulders, and I could feel that she "liked" me. My achievement soared, and I was never late for class. I lost contact with my Maryknoll relationship in the fourth grade, which may account for the decline in my academic performance. However, two notable experiences occurred. My walk to Corpus Christi was shortened as we moved closer to my grandmother on West 125th Street, and I was now living within a community of White Catholics and Orthodox Jews. This move allowed me to hang out with Mulligan. Together, and through most of elementary school, we enjoyed the ease of earning money by carrying packages for the elderly from local supermarkets and packing the food away for them, or collecting bottles from Harlem construction sites for the five cent deposit. This economic and service mindset would serve us well for years to come.