About Anastasio: Born and raised in Buffalo’s Lower West Side. He grew up loving film and moving images. He is a successful filmmaker, presently working a series called, “Yo soy Boricua.” He attended Brooklyn’s Long Island University and has been producing videos for the last 20 years. “In Their Words – Of Service and Sacrifice” is Rocco Anastasio first feature length documentary. His work can be found on several websites, including Facebook and YouTube. He was recently in Buffalo this past month interviewing several local Puerto Ricans for his “Yo soy Boricua” documentary series.
DOCUMENTARY FILM UPDATE AND THE PUERTO RICAN STATUS DEBATE
My intentions with this film are to cover different bullet points that address Puerto Rico’s past, from its beginnings as a US territory, to the island’s culture, and to the identity of those of us living here on the mainland.
This film would not be complete if I chose to ignore the “status” question so in part, I chose to focus a good amount of time of my project speaking with folks who had interesting ideas regarding the island current state and the possibilities for the island’s future.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Congressman Darren Soto (FL-09) and speak on his thoughts regarding Puerto Rico’s status. In March, Congressman Soto cosponsored a Puerto Rican Statehood bill. In November 2020, while most of the US was embroiled in the presidential election, Puerto Ricans living on the island were given the opportunity for a simple Yes/No vote in favor of Puerto Rican statehood. By introducing this bill, Congressman Soto, who represents the largely Puerto Rican Kissimmee, Florida area, wanted to uphold the Puerto Rican people’s vote.
Statehood was favored by 52.5% of the 2020 vote. Mind you, this was a simple Yes/No vote and not a true referendum offering the options of Statehood, Independence, or continued Commonwealth. The last referendum to do so was the “2017 Puerto Rican Status Referendum”(*) which saw Statehood win an overwhelming margin of 97.13% of the vote. Of course, the next steps are up to those on Capitol Hill.
While working on this project for the last ten months, I have found that support for the pro-Independence movement is greater by mainland Puerto Ricans compared to those living on the island.
I see this plastered all over social media pages and groups, people calling for an end to colonialism through independence.
I admit, the idea of it is very romantic, especially with “Hamilton” still fresh in our memories, fueling thoughts of independent thinking and living, however the numbers were just not there in the 2017 referendum. Don’t misunderstand me, I see nothing wrong with wanting independence for the island, however, calling for independence while benefiting from mainland living is a little bothersome to me. The island itself must make the moves for independence, and yet, as of this writing, the movement is far greater here than it is on the island.
My interview with Soto touched on a few more items surrounding Puerto Rican status that will be presented in the finished film. The subject of Puerto Rican status is one that can cause heated debate and although there really is no easy answer, I am happy to have included it in my film.
I am looking forward to focusing on the next few segments of my film, which will include art and culture, and that is something all Puerto Ricans can agree with and come together on.
(*) The Independent Party boycotted the 2017 elections, staying away from the polls.
JUSTICE NOT SERVED
The Derek Chauvin Trial resulted in the surprising guilty verdict of the former Minneapolis Police Officer who committed a modern-day lynching in front of a crowd of witnesses, using his knee as a noose as he squeezed the life out of George Floyd’s body.
To say this verdict was a surprise is telling, especially when video evidence of Mr. Chauvin kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck — while Mr. Floyd cried out for his dead mother in agony — was so clear.
There are two justice systems in America, one for those of power or privilege and another for those who do not fit into those parameters. Time and time again, when a Police Officer or anyone playing Cop (see George Zimmerman) is accused of murdering a person of color, they are almost always acquitted of charges and the victim’s families are left picking up the pieces without a sense of justice ever being served.
Breonna Taylor’s family never received justice. In fact, the only punishment officer’s received in that case were for the bullets that missed her sleeping body.
I avoided the Chauvin trial, because I did not want to relive Black trauma and pain again. We have been down this road too many times, and although Floyd’s name was not Fernandez, his death and the death of others still come too close to home.
As the verdict was announced, I noticed social media was filled with posts claiming “Justice” or “Guilty” as if a guilty verdict erased decades of mistreatment.
One guilty verdict does not erase a history of systemic racism that was created to keep a people in place. We live in a society where the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and societal status is always considered. It has created a discriminatory bias and thinking, to the point where early on, many were calling this trail “The George Floyd Trial” as if the victim of a murder, one caught on camera and witnessed by dozens of people, was himself on trial instead of the man who murdered him.
Whenever these tragedies occur, many people are quick to say the “system is broken.” I say no, the system is working exactly the way it’s supposed to, by protecting those in power and keeping the rest of us in place.
Mr. Floyd’s family did not receive justice, what we all saw was accountability being upheld.
Justice cannot be had in an unjust system. When one’s guilt or innocence can depend on whether they can afford a high-priced attorney, we are not living under a just Justice system. No, we are living in an oppressive system created to keep those in power powerful, and the have nots in check.
Justice was not served by Chauvin’s guilty verdict; it was just put on hold to appease the masses.
The American Justice System needs to be severed instead…
CAPTURING THE RECIPES OF LIFE
The month of April is upon us and with it, spring should be in full bloom. Warm weather, rain and the return of green grass and foliage brings life back to our eyes after a long winter. The coming of spring season brings memories of renewal and rebirth and the beauty of life.
As I work on my own documentary film (Boricua Soy Yo), I was fortunate enough this past March to put together a slice of life documentary short on a woman name Ada Avila. Senora Avila lives in Deltona, FL with her daughter Grace. Senora Avila was born in Manta, Ecuador in January 1910, making her one of the world’s few supercentenarians at 111 years old. She came to the US in 1954 with her six children, first settling in New York City.
Speaking with Sra. Avila, I was taken aback at how much life was still in her, how great she looked for her age and how sharp her mind was. I was really impressed with her sense of humor, as she reminded three of her children who were also interviewed for the piece, that she was quite the disciplinarian.
As a video producer/documentary filmmaker, I have interviewed countless of people, spanning various topics. Whether they were internationally known musicians, professional sports stars, boxers, wrestlers, business owners, historians, or veterans, I have always enjoyed the stories told by the older folks I’ve interviewed.
A few years ago, I interviewed two Borinqueneers who were in their late 80s and early 90s respectively and the stories they told, along with the how much wisdom they shared will be something I will always carry with me. Like lost languages or cultures, the stories, wisdom and cultures our elders carry are slowly evaporating with each passing day.
The reason I mentioned Sra. Avila and the two Korean War Veteran Borinqueneers, is because we live in a day and age where technology is part of almost every facet of life, yet so many of the experiences of our elders are not being captured. I wish I could go back in time and document my grandparent’s stories, hit the record button on a camera and just ask them questions.
Our elders, those that came before us carried a lot to bring us to where we are today. As a documentary filmmaker and historian, my main goal is to capture a person’s story so that it can be passed onto generations after. Like a favorite recipe that a loved one had that was never written down on paper, the stories and experiences our elders carry disappear once they leave this earth.
If there is only one thing you take away from my column this month, please let it be this: Talk to your elders, ask them questions, and document their stories and experiences, so that they may live on when they are gone, or be revisited when they themselves are fortunate to celebrate their 111th birthday.
—— Until next time.
TWO GENERATIONAL MUSICIAL ICONS LOST
I originally wasn’t looking to write an obituary column this month, however Latinos of two separate generations lost two music icons. I’d be remiss to not acknowledge their passing and what it meant to me, as a music enthusiast and lover who has enjoyed their work during various tenures in my life.
Johnny Pacheco, co-founder of Fania Records, which introduced a specific New York Salsa and Guajuanco sound, passed away on February 15th. Born Juan Azarias Pacheco Knipping in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic in 1935, it wasn’t until Pacheco’s family moved to New York City in the 1940s that his love of music began.
Pacheco had decent success as a musician throughout the 1950s and early 60’s, however it wasn’t until he founded Fania Records along with Jerry Masucci in 1963 where Pacheco’s “Nuevo Tumbao” was created.
Working with a stable of artists such as Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, Cheo Feliciano, Ismael Miranda, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe and a host of other talented musicians, The Fania All Stars (as they were known) toured worldwide, selling out concerts from Yankee Stadium to Zaire Africa, in front of 80,000 attendees. This event seemingly brought Salsa music back to its African roots with Pacheco leading the way as Composer and musical Arranger, improvising his dances on stage for all to enjoy.
Then on February 18th, the Hip Hop world mourned the loss of Prince Markie Dee, of the early Hip Hop trio known as the Fat Boys. Markie Dee, born Mark Anthony Morales on February 19, 1968, was a pioneer in the early genre of Hip Hop music. Not only did he bring in a new sound to Hip Hop, he was also one of the first Puerto Rican Hip Hop artists to be accepted into the mainstream. Being a young Puerto Rican Hip Hop fan in the 1980s, seeing the Fat Boys in music videos or in movies, it was amazing to see someone who looked like me (and some of my cousins) rocking stages worldwide.
The Fat Boys and Markie Dee had their heyday during the 1980s, releasing seven albums, three of which reached Gold status while another reached Platinum, which was (and still is) a huge achievement. The Fat Boys were regularly seen as a comedy Hip Hop act, almost like the Three Stooges, but they were a talented group whose acceptance in the Hip Hop world was visible in films like “Krush Groove” and in the comedy film “Disorderlies.”
After the group broke up in the early 1990s, Morales made a life as a producer for artists such as a young Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige, even writing Blige’s debut single “Real Love” which was also produced by a young Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs.
Although Pacheco and Prince Markie Dee were worlds apart as far as musical genres, the loss of these two artists is felt by many, especially by those of us in our early to late 40s, as Salsa and Hip Hop music grabbed our attentions as youths growing up in the 80s. I still remember going to parties as a youth hearing Salsa music played at house parties, and at the same time, I also remember seeing cousins and friends carrying folded cardboard boxes ready to break (dance) at Beecher’s Boys & Girls Club on 10th Street.
Although our heroes pass on, the memories we made with their music became the soundtrack that never fades.
GOOD DAYS ARE COMING
February 2021 Issue
It is now February 2021 and since we last touched base, we have been witnesses to a failed insurrection, a presidential impeachment and a presidential inauguration.
And that was just the first three Wednesdays in January!
The year 2021 is only a month old, and already things seem to be leaning towards the better. As I write this, our hometown Buffalo BILLS were eliminated from Super Bowl contention, falling to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game.
Although as a BILLS fan it was very disappointing to see our team lose, it was still a hell of a season that many Buffalonians and Westsides will remember. Honestly, I cannot complain, not many of us expected the team to go as far as it did, and all the pieces are there for a good run in the coming years. The BILLS will be back, and good days are ahead.
With the turn of the monthly calendar, we are also seeing some positives with the COVID-19 pandemic. This of course is due to the vaccines that have been rolled out but also, with the new Biden administration creating an actual plan for mandating facial coverings in public places. We certainly are still in the thick of this pandemic, however, knowing that we have an administration in the White House that cares about getting a handle on the pandemic, unlike the demagogue rabble rouser that lied to his cultish followers.
As we all know, February is the shortest month of the year and before we know it, Pitchers and Catchers will be reporting. March will be here very soon, and just like that, Spring is around the corner.
Flowers will bloom, birds will chirp, the sun will shine again, and the summer sounds and smells of the West Side will be in full force.
You may ask, why am I so positive, since we still are in a pandemic that has taken the lives of 400,000 Americans at the time of this writing. You see, we have made it out of 2020. More importantly, we have survived the Trump Years.
The Biden administration already has begun to undo many of the harmful executive orders Trump signed early on in his administration. There is talk of additional stimulus packages to help those effected by the economic slowdowns. I for one am hoping there is student loan relief in the works as well.
Our country is healing; however, it will take time, especially when you consider 74 million Americans voted for an open white supremacist.
Good days are ahead because, my friends, we reached the bottom on January 6th, during Insurrection Day. The day will live in infamy; however, we Americans will rise above it as Americans always have. —— Until next time.
HINDSIGHT IS 2020
JANUARY 2020 Issue
Each January, with the arrival of a New Year is the coming hope of a better year than the one that just passed. In my forty-two years on earth, I cannot think of a more difficult year than the one that just ended. The year 2020 was one we may all need to put an asterisk next to. I like to call it the “Forgotten Year” of our lives.
Living through a Pandemic that lead to the recession affecting many American lives due to failed leadership in Washington, it’s very easy to see why many are excited to turn the page on 2020, especially with new leadership moving into our nation’s capital. I speak from experience as I was one of the millions of Americans who lost their job due to the pandemic. That being said, we still must be vigilant here at home.
At the time of this writing, our hometown Buffalo BILLS have clinched the AFC East Championship for the first time since I was in my junior year at McKinley High School, back in 1995.
Living here in Florida, I would be lying if I said I was not excited and wished I could go out and celebrate with fellow BILLS fans as they arrived back home in the winter night, to a crowd of thousands. Sitting here in my living room though, I saw footage of the “BILLS Mafia” celebrating their team at the airport, people crowded, circling cars as they drove by trying to get a glimpse of their football heroes. Two things I did not see much of was social distancing or masks.
We are still in a pandemic people! Regardless of what some business owners think, we need to be mindful of ourselves and the safety of those most vulnerable. Although we are all aware there are two vaccines that are being administered, there is no telling how this virus will mutate, as it already has in the UK. Celebrate your BILLS but do it at a distance, from home and away from others.
I would love to see the BILLS in the Super Bowl, but sadly, seeing the crowds of people cheering their playoff berth and AFC Championship, I cannot help but think there are folks in that crowd that may not survive to see it happen if the BILLS do reach the big game come early February.
Wear your masks. Keep your distance and celebrate the New Year with a better focus on eradicating this virus. Let us not bring in those 2020 habits with us into the New Year but leave them back in the year 2020 where they belong.
Let us make the phrase “hindsight is 2020” come true, and look toward the future with a safer, healthier mindset.
I honestly believe the year 2021 will bring on many great things, but it all of course starts with us here at home. Keep social distancing, keep safe and wear your masks and GO BILLS!!!
SIEMBRA COMO EL JIBARO SIEMBRO
December 2020 Issue
December is upon us, and while colder weather and the holiday season is in full swing, it is not too late to start planting or watering seeds. It is quite common practice while scrolling through social media to see folks engage in online “challenges” for attention. Some of these challenges start off with good intentions however many are just idiotic, and I usually scroll right past them. This however did get me to thinking of a new challenge: support a local entrepreneur or business.
Our people come from remarkably diverse backgrounds and experiences, and through these experiences our entrepreneurial spirit has always been strong. Unfortunately, many small businesses suffer early on before they can successfully turn profit due to the lack of support they receive from the people closest to them.
On my visit to Buffalo a few months back, I was glad to see many of “our businesses” on Niagara Street and elsewhere throughout the Puerto Rican West Side. Whether they were restaurants, small grocery stores, hair, and nail salons or even clothing shops, I am glad to see that entrepreneurial spirit live on within our people.
These seeds are not only relegated to businesses, they can also be ideas in the form of art or cultural programs. The term “starving artist” is well known in the English lexicon; however, it does not have to be. If you know an artist, share their work, buy their work and wares, and make sure you spread their art through word of mouth or social media. That exposure goes a long way, especially now with the holiday season in full swing. Buying locally produced goods from your neighbors would mean the world to an artist struggling to get by. It will help stimulate the local economy but more importantly, help stimulate the growth of a local business owner or dreamer.
The phrase “support your own” is one I have heard for years and I cannot repeat it enough. Support our people, be the cultivators of their dreams and wishes and spread their works so that others may enjoy it.
Do you know of a great hidden gem that sells amazing pinchos? Tell a friend! Do you know a lady who crochets awesome newborn baby outfits? Share their work! The Latino Community on the West Side is so full of talented people who have either planted seeds or have some in need of being planted and supported with sunshine, fertile earth, and water.
With the holidays coming, the best gift you can give someone could very well be the support they need to continue growing their businesses or ideas. Be the water or sunshine that helps that seedling spout. Cultivate their ideas like our ancestors worked the cane fields, machete in hand, sowing the fruits of their labor that fed their communities.
This community here on the west side will only go as far as those who support one another. Siembra Como el Jíbaro Siembro.
MY BUFFALO LOWER WEST SIDE STORY
November 2020 Issue
In early October I returned to my hometown of Buffalo to film interviews for my next documentary project, and to spend a little time with my mother at the home I grew up and was raised in on West Avenue. Being back home after so many years away was a real eye opener to how much this city has changed. As I drove through downtown Buffalo, I was in awe with how much this city had evolved during the ten years since I relocated to the state of Florida. I told my mother that if I were to be dropped off, blindfolded on Chippewa between Delaware and Elmwood, I would be completely lost once my eyes were free to see the views of new structures replacing old gas stations and open lots.
Continuing my drive up Niagara Street through Buffalo’s Latino corridor on the Lower West Side, the changes continued. My eyes were amazed at the sight that the old Pine Harbor apartment buildings were now gone, being replaced with low income housing that will more than likely cost a pretty penny once all is said and done.
However the more things changed, the more they stayed the same-this was evident as I left the main arteries and started driving through neighborhood side streets which told a different yet familiar story. Driving up from the lower West Side on Plymouth or Prospect, I saw the same sights I had seen when I left the city ten years ago: abandoned, broken down homes corner stores with graffiti, and folks loitering about. Different faces, but the same people.
Although some homes have been fixed up, for the most part, many of the same street corners have not seen the “revitalization” other parts of the City of Buffalo saw.
Visiting Grant Street was quite a site, with the influx of newer Asian and African immigrant communities that have added additional spices to the upper West Side. But the lower West Side still felt awfully familiar. For all the gentrification the lower West Side has seen, some places remain stagnant and have not changed whatsoever. This thought recalls the issue I have with those who remained on the West Side and the politicos and who outsiders determine where this part of town is headed. You may ask yourselves, “Who is this guy to talk about the West Side” since I no longer live there. My friends, I was born on the West Side. My father had his barber shop on West and Maryland. My mother still lives in the house we owned on West between Virginia and Maryland. Although I left the West Side my blood has never left. Which is why I was so surprised to see the sight of white joggers running up and down West Avenue as I sat on my mother’s porch, across from this new building that now sat in the place of the old advertising agency grounds and open lot I played football and boxed as a child. I’m not against improvements and progress. I have no issues with homes being revitalized or new buildings being built for growing populations. I am however disappointed that many of the West Side residents who have contributed to the flavor, added the Adobo, Sazon and “Soulfrito” to the makeup and identity of the lower West Side will continue to be forgotten.
We as a people on the West Side must not let the identity be erased. We would be repeating the same mistakes Italians made when they abandoned the West Side many years ago, for North Buffalo and the Tonawandas.
I was very happy to see cultural displays, murals and even “El Batey” dance studio. These institutions are important as they promote the culture and identity that many Puerto Ricans who have settled in Buffalo either had lost touch with or never knew they had. Puerto Ricans in Buffalo need to positively promote and support one another. We are each other’s keeper and all related in one way. For too long we have been separate in our own little worlds and allowed the politicians sitting in City Hall to make decisions for a part of town that was somewhat forgotten, until folks recognized its low cost homes and prime location, close to downtown.
I don’t fault those who have sold their homes to the highest bidder and left for greener pastures. No one should have to feel guilty for making the best financial decisions possible, especially when outsiders are offering to pay well above what West Side homes used to go for. My plea is for those who are still there living on the West Side, to please continue to fight for your place in this special part of town. Do not let those outside forces price you out and drive you away, particularly the culture.
Make sure your voices are heard politically. As I write this, we are only days away from the General Election and I can’t help but shake my head at how little representation Buffalo’s Latinos, more specifically Puerto Ricans have with local elected office.
My trip back home was a successful one. I spoke with several people making the best of their lives on the West Side. Although my film isn’t a documentary about Buffalo’s West Side Puerto Ricans, I needed to start there because this is a very personal film for me. My film is going to investigate what it means to be “Boricua” and in capturing that meaning, since this is a somewhat personal film, I needed to start at the place I started — My lower West Side, the Puerto Rican Lower West Side to be exact. —— Until next time…