At 18, I took professor Dickerman’s statement age-appropriately and literally. But, decades later, I began to recognize my Nuyorican heritage as largely unheard in my own birth city and almost completely unknown of outside of it. So, over the past several years, I wrote creative non-fiction memoirs of growing up on the Lower East side in the 70’s and 80’s. These stories became the basis of my new book, TALES FROM THE EAST SIDE: ONCE AROUND THE BLOCK.
Boys and girls lead different lives in El Barrio. My mother, a pretty, light-skinned girl had a very different experience than my handsome dark-skinned father. She and her sisters were watched closely and protected from harm. That didn’t stop the racist slurs from reaching their ears, and they came home one day asking Grandma Justina what a “spic” was. The neighbor girl, Isabelle, had shouted it at them. Grandma had no idea what it meant, but it couldn’t be good, so the sisters took to mooning Isabelle from their bedroom window every time she passed. Dad, like most of the boys, was “out in the world”. Whenever I would ask about his childhood, he’d make it sound like an endless summer. “That was the first time I had pizza, in el barrio. I never had anything like it before. I loved it. “It wasn’t without it’s roughness, but the stories would always end happily. Dad would tell me about having to fight his way through the Italian neighborhood to get to school, but years later, when everyone was grown and home from the army, they would run into each other and laugh about it. I dismissed it all as a generational chapter closed.
The housing projects we lived in were built in the 1950’s for current residents of New York City to be able to raise their families in affordable, clean and dignified homes. By that time, both the Diaz and Rivera sides of my family had planted roots and birthed children in NYC. They qualified. Just after dad turned 18 and joined the Army, both families moved to the Alfred E. smith Houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. They lived on the same floor, so eventually, when my parents finally married and moved into another apartment in the same building, I would have both sets of grandparents on the third floor.
Although my childhood world centered around this one block on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, we were shaped by the unique generation before us and their new seeds of Nuyorican-ness. Dad brought his love of pizza and mom brought her hatred of racism, both things they had experienced for the first time in El Barrio.
Around 10 years old it dawned on me that my parents’ lives had nothing to do with me when they were growing up. The world was spinning before I was born and I was not at the center of it. I grew a sudden urge to know my parents. What was important to them when they were my age? Mom loved television. That was easy enough. I spent the summer of 1977 watching old reruns of Gidget, Bewitched, I Love Lucy, and whatever else was on channel 5.
Dad, on the other hand, was more enigmatic. He loved bagpipe music, radio science and Shakespeare. One proved difficult to find in the Projects and the other two were well above my head, so I gave up and continued watching The Munsters. As the year progressed, these shows were replaced with m favorites, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, The Monkees and, of course, Que Pasa USA? The latter delighted me because I got to use the other dial on the television set AND watch in my brother’s room, which got the best reception.
Shortly thereafter, I visited Grandma Belen, and over pastelillos I told her I was reading a book about El Barrio and how I was up to the part about the boys getting into fights. Yes!, she said, and my youngest aunt joined in the conversation. They proceeded to tell me about the fights my dad got into, and how he lost his front tooth in one of those fights: Grandma ran outside, and in an attempt to restrain her good son from fighting, held him down, giving his opponent the opportunity to kick him squarely in the face. As a young girl, all I saw was a shiny gold tooth implanted by a German Army doctor when Dad joined the service at 18, and I thought him lucky.
My protective father never shared the angst, turmoil and pain. But Piri did. Piri was the voice of a generation of people who deserve the dignity of recognition. Of acknowledgement. Of understanding. IN DOWN THESE MEAN STREETS, Piri gave me an insight into my father's experiences that I had never known. By telling me the story of his own life, he gave me my own history as a Nuyorican, and a way to start a conversation with my grandmother. I held my tears in the elevator for the seven flights up to our apartment. I went into my room, closed the door quietly and cried. That was a turning point for me as a writer and as a Nuyorican, though I was unable to express how or even why.
In the 70’s and 80’s, the Lower East Side was a multi-ethnic playground to grow up in. My friends are of Puerto Rican, Black, Italian, and Chinese decent. We had to answer to our own mothers and our friends’ mothers. A pre-determined number of telephone rings summoned us to come downstairs and hang out, a special whistle summoned you back home. We strolled through the neighborhoods on a summer day and have a slice of pizza, an egg roll, an Italian ice, a knish and a Malta all at once, and all for under three dollars (which we, of course, had to pool together). We roller boogied to Fania, Sugar Hill Gang, ABBA, Micheal Jackson, Slave, Queen, Air Supply, Prince and Madonna. Our families filled shopping carts with an entire day’s worth of food and rode the F train to Coney Island Beach where 92KTU blasted from every other radio. Between it all, we dodged bullets and knew which bench to sit on. We really thought this was the way the entire world spent its childhood.
Staring at a tribute mural of Generation X at the student center in 1985, I thought I filled its description. Yes, we are eclectic, loyal and a little lost. We embrace new things readily. Fellow writer, Steve Garvey once told me I had “a lot to say”; I was not as versed in suburban pop culture as he was, and so I didn’t know quite what to make of what was clearly a compliment. I hadn’t truly understood that my upbringing was not typical in the rest of the country until I gave the draft of my book to my dear friend, playwright Dan Wolpe, who also happens to be an established authority in Jewish Theater. We had studied writing at NYU together, along with Steve, and he commented that it was all new to him, even having lived on campus, so close to the locations in the book.
When I announced the completion of my book on social media, I got a small, but loving outcry from older residents of the block. I was leaving out “the beginning”: their generation. I replied that this was a memoir, so I am only recounting my own experiences, but I would work on a prequel, so to speak, if I could get input. I began receiving pictures. I received stories of first impressions of seeing the tall buildings, and not understanding that the trees were part of the landscape. We started playing nostalgia games. My own uncle told me about his childhood friendship with Luther Vandross, a “Smith Boy”. The Prequel is under way.
Maybe we are unheard because we don’t speak. And when we don’t speak, we lose our history. When we lose our history, we feel as though we are being erased. When we feel we are being erased, we make the next child, the next musical wave, the next group of residents feel unwelcome. And while we are busy lashing out, we are holding ourselves back.
Both El Barrio and The Lower East Side are facing gentrification. Inevitably, big cities change and grow. But, if we know and let our history be known, we are more likely to embrace those changes and let ourselves grow. We have so much to offer!
While the Lower East Side has its Loisaida status, its cohesiveness as a neighborhood is giving way to bar hoppers and the general night life. I feel it is essential to not just preserve our history here, but to share it as Puerto Ricans, Nuyoricans, Americans. Regardless as to how each neighborhood’s destiny plays out, knowledge leads to insight. Insight leads to empathy, and empathy opens all paths. ###
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A native New Yorker, Diana Diaz is a writer, producer, editor, and cultural entrepreneur. Her by lines have appeared in Big Apple Parent, Italian Times, Latino Flavored and Caribbean Voice, among others. In February of 2012, she co-produced the sold-out event, El Barrio Remembers Piri: Down These Mean Streets, 45 Years Later, a tribute to Piri Thomas, held in El Theatro at El Museo del Barrio. In spring of 2012, Diana completed editing the celebratory art book, KEVIN COLE: STRAIGHT FROM THE SOUL for Blue Lotus Publishing. She is contributing entries to THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LATINO CULTURE, printed by Greenwood Press, due for release in 2013. Her most recent creative work appears in the 2011-2012 season of the Rough and Ready staged reading series, and she is currently a writer and producer with The New Audience Project in New York City. TALES FROM THE EAST SIDE: ONCE AROUND THE BLOCK is scheduled for publication in October 2012. Diana earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from New York University in Dramatic Writing, and earned a Masters degree from the University of Puerto Rico in Literature.
EXCERPT: TALES FROM THE EAST SIDE is being previewed by the Local NY Times, East Village. You can read the excerpt by clicking here.