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’s first feature length documentary. His work can be found on several websites, including Facebook and YouTube. This past month, he was recently in Buffalo interviewing several local Puerto Ricans for his “Yo soy Boricua” documentary series.
A LOOK BACK INTO BUFFALO’S HISTORY: THE RIOTS OF 1967
The sixties were a turbulent decade where our nation saw many changes and challenges to the American psyche, with the Civil Rights Movement in full force, the war in Vietnam, the assassination of leaders, and many race riots defining the decade. Buffalo was the site of one of these race riots which spread throughout the city for several days in late June and early July of 1967. Although it can be argued that the Riots of 1967 were not an actual race riot, the political landscape present in Buffalo created an environment on the East Side which culminates with the breakout of violence and uproar that summer.
The start of the riots can be traced to acts of vandalism pointed at a group of black teenagers who busted car windows and storefronts throughout the William Street and Jefferson Avenue business district on the afternoon of June 27th. Not long after the group of youths started destroying private property, they were joined by other groups of people who continued to destroy whatever they could. As a response to the massive amounts of property damage caused, the Buffalo Police sent in over 150 riot police to quell and put a stop to the disturbance however the presence of so many police officers further enraged and angered the crowds which gathered. After a few hours, through the use of tear gas fired into the rioters, the crowds were quickly dispersed, and three police officers and one fireman were injured.
The next morning, the outbreak of violence, arson, and looting would continue as buildings were set ablaze and broken glass covered the landscape. In the book, City on the Lake: The Challenge of Change in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1990, author Mark Goldman describes the riots through the eyes of Floyd Edwards, the Buffalo Police Department’s first black lieutenant. Of what Edwards saw, Goldman wrote, Edwards had been on the East Side his whole life and had seen all the changes, from the mixed neighborhood that it once was to the black ghetto it had become. Edwards knew it inside and out and wasn’t surprised by the outbreak of violence that June.
The morning after the riots, Edwards was put back in uniform. With a battalion of police officers under his command, he went back onto the streets. The ghetto was still smoldering. Fires still burned at William and Jefferson, Maple and Carlton, and Peckham and Monroe Streets. Plate glass windows all along Broadway and Sycamore had been smashed, and the streets were sprinkled with glass, empty cartons of shotgun shells, tear gas canisters, broken eyeglasses, and bricks. Many of the store windows were boarded up, covered with large pieces of plywood bearing the glowing red and white lettering of the Macaluso Emergency Enclosure Company. Small groups of black teenage boys clustered on the corners, taunting the passing police cars from a distance. As the day wore on the situation grew worse. Beginning at about 4:30 P.M. buses passing through the neighborhood were stoned.
As night fell the gangs grew larger and more menacing, and still more windows were broken (even those store owners, some white, others black, who had written “Soul Brother” on their windows were not spared). — to be continued.
A LOOK BACK INTO BUFFALO’S HISTORY
BUFFALO’S ETHNIC CITY — Like many other cities of similar size during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the city of Buffalo saw significant growth in terms of new residents due to immigration from Europe and a large migration of blacks from the post-civil war south. Due to Buffalo’s reputation as an industrial center during the early Twentieth Century which provided several jobs for an unskilled labor force, many poor black families migrated to the city in search of greater opportunities and a better life. Buffalo’s black population during the early part of the Twentieth Century was centered in the lower east side section of the city, near Michigan Avenue, South Division, and Broadway. As the black population began to grow, both in size as well as in prosperity, families began moving into other sections of the city which had been abandoned by other ethnic groups.
When the Great Deprsesion hit the United States in the late 1920s, Buffalo was dealt a harsh blow when it came to manufacturing and industrial job loss. By 1930, unemployment in many of these industries was well over 20 percent. With the signing of the New Deal by President Roosevelt in 1933, the nation and Buffalo would finally see some relief in the form of public works programs. These programs and projects put many Americans to work, building infrastructure, roads, sports stadiums, and airports to name a few. Buffalo’s War Memorial Auditorium, the former home of the Buffalo Sabres, which was in the last few years demolished to make way for a dreamed Bass Pro Sports store was one of these public works projects. Along with the building of sports stadiums, many public works projects were centered on public housing. Because residents of the city were still feeling the effects of low employment due to the Depression, public housing was seen as a welcomed and needed addition to the city.
The public housing projects would become the home of many African American families; however, these families would have a hard time moving out and into better living situations due to the trend towards segregation happening in the city during the 1930s. The lack of political representation of the African American community is perhaps the primary reason for this unfortunate happening. In the book Race, Neighborhoods, and Community Power: Buffalo Politics, 1934-1997, Albany: State University of New York, 2000, author Neil Kraus looks at the lack of political representation as a key ingredient to the segregated city being created in Buffalo. Kraus wrote:
Buffalo’s residential patterns have played a significant role in the local political process, both contributing to policymaking as well as being a product of local policy choices. In terms of policymaking, segregation has been important because the black community was tightly concentrated from the 1930s through the 1950s, yet had little if any, representation during this period. Consequently, sections of the lower east side were, in effect, simply left out of the policy-making progress. And that very same process from which the black community was excluded segregated African Americans even more, particularly with the introduction of public housing in the 1930s.
The building of public housing would go on to create a negative identity with the communities which housed these new projects. Not only were black families pushed to live in segregated sections of the city, but the absence of representation also created a gap when it came to political power which was beneficial to helping the black community make progress. The politics of today were planted in the past and those seeds created a difficult world for the African American community to better themselves, like the Irish, German, Polish and Italian immigrants who came before them. However, due to racial prejudice, Buffalo’s African American community has had a difficult time breaking out of the mold created by segregation so many years ago.
A LOOK BACK INTO BUFFALO’S HISTORY
Buffalo was also enjoying inner growth as well with the advent of new technologies such as street cars giving its residents access to parts of the city they normally would never venture out to. Although the city at the time was beginning to show signs of ethnic segregation within its separate district, these streetcars created a sense of accessibility to many of the city’s residents. During the early 1900s people never really ventured outside of their surroundings and neighborhoods due to the lack of transportation but this all changed once the city of Buffalo began adopting public transportation streetcars as a cheap transportation alternative. These streetcars crisscrossed the city and were powered by the same electrical source Nikola Tesla was using at the Pan American Exposition. The Exposition was a World’s Fair held in Buffalo, from May 1 through November 2, 1901. The fair occupied 350 acres (0.55 sq mi) of land on the western edge of what is now Delaware Park, extending from Delaware Avenue to Elmwood Avenue and northward to Great Arrow Avenue.
Streetcars helped people move about with people moving around the city, and business began to pick up, especially downtown as the city’s business and commercial center began to take shape, however, it was the advent and the manipulation of electricity that would help the city gain its audience. Buffalo was booming. The industry was taking shape. People were moving about and the Pan American Exposition was seen as a success as it brought in many outsiders to the new City of Lights. One of the most interesting exhibits displayed during the Pan American Exposition was the African Village in which sixty-two people representing over thirty African tribes were brought to Buffalo and displayed alongside their weapons, handicrafts, songs, dances, and witchcraft. There has always been a question of the authenticity of the African tribesmen, and although that is an important question that should be explored further, the representation of the African village in the backdrop of the progressive and forward-thinking Pan American Exposition is telling. The Pan American Exposition’s theme of human progress from savage to civilized used the African village as a representation of the savagery, untamed man, and this exhibit, for all of its popularity at the time, would go a long way to reinforcing negative attitudes and stereotypes against African Americans.
It was also the site of a very tragic and unfortunate historical event with the assassination of President William McKinley. He was originally supposed to be at the opening of the exposition in May 1901, but due to his wife’s illness, delayed the Buffalo. President McKinley arrived in Buffalo in September and on the afternoon of September 6, Leon Czolgosz, a budding anarchist, shot President McKinley twice in the stomach, fatally injuring the president. Ironically, it was an African American man by the name of James Benjamin Parker who tackled and knocked the gun out of Czolgosz’s hand during his attack on the President. The President would survive for over a week before succumbing to his wounds on September 14th. In this instant, Buffalo New York, a place filled with pride and joy, would sadly forever be linked to such a tragic event. Two months after the assassination, the Temple of Music along with many other buildings that housed the many exhibits of the summer Fair were demolished. Buffalo had hoped the exposition would positively promote the city, however, with the fallout and aftermath of President McKinley’s death, the city would forever bear the shame. — to be continued….
A LOOK BACK INTO BUFFALO’S HISTORY
(Continued from last month)
Buffalo is viewed as one of the most segregated cities in America. If one were to take a map of the city as it stands today and split it into four sections, it would be easy to identify which ethnic groups lived there. North Buffalo has been known as the predominantly Italian side with its own “Little Italy” running along Hertel Avenue. Many of the Italian families in North Buffalo had roots in the lower Westside, however, with the influx of newer immigration groups and better opportunities for second and third-generation Italian families, many families moved to the northern suburbs and to North Buffalo. The Westside is predominantly Latino, with Puerto Ricans making up most of that group followed by a scattering of Italian families left over after the Italian exodus. South Buffalo is the blue-collar working poor Irish part of town. Many of South Buffalo’s residents had ties to the steel and flour mills that dominated the industrial past of the city. The Eastside was a predominantly Polish section of the city, however over the years like the Westside, other groups moved in and made it their own.
Although there are still many Polish families and influences in this part of town, with the name of parishes that still have Polish flavor, Buffalo’s Eastside is known as the black or African American part of town. Unfortunately, this section of town is perhaps the largest and yet arguably the poorest, due in part to many decisions made in the past which left the Eastside a forgotten piece of the Buffalo puzzle.
The City of Lights
Years before the 1901 Pan American Exposition took place within the city limits; Buffalo had already enjoyed growth due to its importance in the shipping industry. Set some eighty-eight years after Buffalo was burned to the ground by the British during the War of 1812, the Pan American Exposition was a celebration of the city and the area.
At the time of the Pan American Exposition, the city of Buffalo had a population of 350,000 people, making it the 8th largest city in the United States. Thousands of people from all over the world made their way to Buffalo during the seven-month-long Exposition. Many came to see Nikola Tesla give electrical demonstrations using electrical power fed from Niagara Falls which gave the city of Buffalo its nickname, The City of Lights. Many others flocked to the city to see musical performances at the Temple of Music. The Pan American Exposition was planned to take place years before, but due to the onset of the Spanish American War; those plans were put on hold.
Following the war, as the United States further began to put its imprint on Spain’s former Latin American territories such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Pan American Exposition became a symbol of Pan Americanism, and the city of Buffalo became a national symbol of pride.
To be continued in next month’s column.
A LOOK BACK INTO BUFFALO’S HISTORY
I’m a firm believer in looking into the past to shape one’s future. As a media professional and history buff, and one who holds degrees in both subjects, I’ve always been fascinated with reading history, researching, and documenting it for future generations.
Many years ago, I wrote a research paper on Buffalo’s history, specifically how it failed in urban renewal efforts, and while thinking of this month’s column, I thought it would be a great opportunity to look back and share my writing over the next few months. With that said, here is the first part:
Failures in Urban Renewal:
Buffalo Politics 1900 to 1989
Over the years, throughout America’s Rust Belt region, where steel factories once stood and American industry strived, urban decay and poverty have seen a rise. In cities such as Detroit, Flint, Gary, Indiana, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, there has recently been a steady decline in population and jobs. Buffalo, New York is one such city, and the presence of urban decay and the remnants of abandonment are visible if one were to take a tour throughout much of the city’s East Side.
Throughout its history, Buffalo New York has been known by many names that gave a great representation of what the city had to offer. Whether it was the City of Lights, the City of Good Neighbors, or the Queen City, Buffalo has always prided itself in identifying the positive aspects of its rich and vast history.
Buffalo, New York is a city rich in history and influence, not only in the prosperity of the State of New York but also in its importance to the American landscape, given its location on the Great Lakes. During the early part of the 1900s, Buffalo was a growing city with a bright future, however by the 1950s, the city reached its plateau, and the loss of industry and population would follow over the next fifty years.
Over the last century, starting in the early 1900s, Buffalo’s neighborhoods have seen several changes and renewal projects which haven’t always positively shaped the city. Political, racial, and social discrimination and bias have played many roles in the shaping of Buffalo throughout the twentieth century, and these influences have forever shaped the city’s identity, especially if one looked at the way Buffalo’s African American community was created and treated throughout the last century.
From the early years of the Pan-American Exposition, the American Negro exhibits displayed black men and women living in shacks and villages as a representation of the African American, to the creation of urban public housing and the riots which shocked the city in 1967, the African American community in Buffalo has a rich and sad history tied to many failures connected to city planning and political influence… — to be continued in next month’s issue.
RETHINKING THE FOOD WE EAT
At the time of writing this article, I can accurately claim that I am an award-winning filmmaker with my film “Boricua Soy Yo.” My film has won an Exceptional Achievement Award at the Multi-Dimensional Film Festival and the Award for Best Narrative Documentary at the Bright International Film Festival, both taking place in the UK.
Work never ends and as soon as I wrapped up “Boricua Soy Yo” I immediately started thinking about what the next project would be, striking while the iron, and creative juices are hot.
While working on “Boricua,” one of the subjects that I wanted to spend more time on was the foods we eat and why traditional “Puerto Rican” foods have led Puerto Rican communities to have such high Type II Diabetes rates, second only to the Pima Indians of Arizona.
After some discussion with Puerto Rican doctors and Health Care professionals, I knew this was an idea that could stand on its own, either as a limited series or a documentary feature, and thus, the idea for “Puerto Frito: Diabetes & Nutrition in the Puerto Rican Community” was planted.
Through a series of interviews and onsite production, this project will investigate the history of how different cultures came together to create the Puerto Rican diet, consisting of many of the foods our community enjoys. These influences will include foods and customs from our Spanish, African and Indigenous ancestors in addition to Northern African influences, cooking techniques, recipes, and spices brought to the island.
Because many of the foods we enjoy are fried, we will investigate what fried foods do to the body and how we can begin introducing new cooking techniques to make healthier versions of the foods we enjoy to hopefully begin slowing down the rate of Type II Diabetes.
Have you ever wondered why canned Vienna sausages were such a staple in our kitchens or questioned where alcapurrias came from? Why is our modern diet so starch and fried food heavy?
Additional areas I will be exploring are the origins of barbecue food as we know it, which originated from our Taino ancestors. When Spanish colonizers arrived on the islands, they observed the cooking technique Tainos used for meat, called barabicu which became barbacoa or barbecue we use today.
Keep in mind, that the intention of this project isn’t to shame the Puerto Rican diet, but instead, to acknowledge how our dietary practices have led to a health epidemic within our communities.
So many of us have been touched by friends and family living and dying from the effects of Type II diabetes.
This project is still very early and in the proposal stages, but as I mentioned above, the idea is still very fresh and one I look to accomplish while the creative juices marinate. My hope is, that once this project is completed, we may all rethink and reconsider our foods and take better care of our health.
TWO PUNKS WITH GUNS
Just as I was gearing up to write this month’s column that was to be dedicated to the horrific mass shooting that happened at Tops on Jefferson, news of another horrific mass shooting broke, this time in Uvalde Texas, involving elementary school children.
Both affected me for two different reasons.
The Buffalo shooting shook me due to my familiarity with my hometown and because of where it happened; Tops Friendly Markets. I can’t say I ever visited the Tops on Jefferson. As a true west sider, the only two Tops Markets I visited consistently were Tops on Niagara Street, and occasionally, Tops on Grant/Amherst.
However, my lack of familiarity with the store still made the terrible news feel close. As a kid in High School, I spent my years working at the (old) Tops store on Niagara & Maryland as a cartboy, stock boy stocking shelves, and finally got into working in the dairy/frozen department.
When the news broke of the racist rampage at Tops on Jefferson, I pictured myself as a kid, working at Tops, being in the situation those poor souls found themselves on that fateful afternoon when their lives were senselessly taken. These folks were milling about doing normal Saturday afternoon tasks and just like that, their sparks were all extinguished, all because a racist punk with a gun just could not accept the fact that Black people exist.
Seeing friends back home “Mark themselves as safe” on social media was a little distressing, especially knowing that 10 people would never have the chance to do so.
When the news of a shooting in an elementary school in Uvalde Texas broke, my heart grew angry and scared. As a father of three young children, two in elementary school, I just could not help but put myself in those parents’ shoes, the parents whose children were murdered for no other reason than being in the classroom on the last week of school. My immediate reaction was to take my children out of school. When I dropped them off at school the next morning, I just couldn’t help but think of the parents who dropped off their children the day before, just as I had, who didn’t have a clue that this would be the last time they would see their children alive.
Again, because of another punk with a gun.
We cannot become numb to these massacres. People in both mass shootings want to look at the mental well-being of both shooters and point to mental illness as the reason almost 30 people died in the 10 days from the Buffalo shooting to Uvalde.
Mental illness is not an American exclusive condition. Mental health is something all countries worldwide deal with, however, the US is the only country in the world where mass shootings have become a common occurrence.
The common denominator? The guns are easily accessible to people who may be deemed mentally ill or not.
FROM A FILMMAKER’S POINT OF VIEW
On Saturday, April 9th, I had the honor and privilege of screening my film, “Boricua Soy Yo”, at UCF Celebrates the Arts in Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando in front of a sold-out crowd.
Words cannot truly describe how happy I am about the screening and how after almost two years of filming and editing, it all came together for the first public viewing of my film.
I would be a liar if I said the screening went precisely as planned. Truthfully, I was a nervous wreck for most of the day leading up to the screening, and when we arrived at Dr. Phillips Center, I could not stop pacing in anticipation of my film being shown to an audience within a packed theater.
Once I introduced the film, and as the lights dimmed, I spent much of the screening in the back of the theater, watching people watch my documentary. I couldn’t take it, so I went to the lobby bar, and after a double of Crown (Royal) on ice to calm my nerves, I went back into the theater and took it all in.
As I sat there watching with the sold-out audience, accomplishment fell over me. The more I heard people’s reactions to what was onscreen, my nerves turned into confidence and excitement, and by the end of the film, when people clapped, I knew I had done it. A year’s worth of filming and editing finally paid off.
Being an independent filmmaker who works on a micro-budget (mainly self-financed) can be lonely. “Boricua Soy Yo” was a trip that took me almost two years to complete, from the time the concept came to me through the screening on April 9th, and although the film is done, there are still things I would like to tweak and more interviews I would like to conduct.
On Sunday, April 10th, I woke up feeling like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. All the stress from the last few months, from getting the film to a close enough completed state to show it, to making sure the folks at UCF Celebrates the Arts had everything set, to checking ticket sales to make sure my film wasn’t going to be a bust, had been lifted.
Now the business side of filmmaking takes over, as so far, I have submitted the film to PBS and have submitted it to the film festival circuit, where I hope the film will get a chance to be seen by more audiences.
I want to thank the UCF Puerto Rico Research Hub and the University of Central Florida for accepting my film to be presented at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
It was a truly humbling experience and one I’ll cherish forever.
THAT’S A WRAP!
I’ve spent the bulk of the last year and a half putting together a documentary film that researched Puerto Rican history, culture, and identity. After all this time, I’m finally proud to say that I’ve finally crossed the finish line and completed this project.
My film, “Boricua Soy Yo” will screen at UCF (University of Central Florida) Celebrates the Arts here in Orlando, at the famed Dr. Phillips Center for the Arts on April 9th, before I partake in the film festival circuit.
To say that I’m breathing a sigh of relief would be an understatement, as producing an independent documentary, solely by oneself (with a little help) on a shoestring budget is a very overwhelming task.
In mid-July of 2020, like many fellow Americans, I found myself jobless due to the COVID-19 pandemic that still has its traces in our everyday life. I was working as a Senior Functional Consultant for a Software Consulting Firm, making good money, however, due to the economic slowdown and societal shutdown fears, sales projections were grim and jobs cuts across the board were made. The loss of my job brought on depression, uncertainty, and self-doubt; however, I took that as an opportunity to pour myself into my next film project, and the idea of “Boricua Soy Yo” was born.
Over the last year or so, I’ve written about my journey completing this film, sharing the experiences I’ve had and people I’ve met along the way.
I’d like to publicly say thank you to the following individuals for their help along the way; Beatriz Flores of El Batey, Alberto O. Cappas of the Buffalo Latino Village, Maritza Vega of the WNY Hispanic Association, artist Aileen Gonzalez Marti, Dr. Luis Martinez-Fernandez, Dr. Fernando Rivera, Rep. Darren Soto, Efrain Burgos, artist Pedro Brull, artist Maria Ramos, artist Jose Sanchez, Comedian and podcaster Casper Martinez, master sculptor Nilda Comas, and Melanie Maldonado Diaz or PROPA.
This project could not have been completed without the help of each of these individuals, for taking the time out of their days to sit with me and talk about our history, our culture, and our identity.
When producing a feature-length documentary, unfortunately, a lot of footage will be left on the “virtual” cutting room floor, as there is only so much a filmmaker can include within any given film to move the narrative. When putting this film together, I wanted to include the most important pieces of the story.
I often tell people; documentary filmmaking is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture of what the finished film will look like. You can have an idea of what you want it to look like, however, the finished product is found within the interviews and how those come together to structure the story.
I’m proud to say that my puzzle is complete and I’m looking forward to sharing it with the world.
A Blue Truth (Will) Be Told
As I wrap up my documentary film “Boricua Soy Yo,” I’ve been kicking around ideas for my next project. For my day job, I work as a Communications Producer for the Public Information Office in suburban Orlando. As luck would have it, a few weeks ago I was out on a shoot promoting a Parks & Recreation survey, getting soundbites from senior softball league members and struck up a conversation with one of the softball players who had a very interesting story he was eager to share.
Not many people may have heard of the name Joe Sanchez, however speaking with him and learning about his history as a decorated retired NYPD officer who was falsely arrested and convicted only to be vindicated and expose the “Blue Wall of Silence”, I couldn’t help but marvel at how lucky I was to have had this man’s story fall into my lap. It was truly serendipitous.
Mr. Sanchez was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, but moved to New York City at a young age. He was drafted into the Army at the age of 18 and sent to Vietnam on his twentieth birthday. He was awarded several medals, including the Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal, after being wounded during combat. Upon leaving the Army, Sanchez moved back to New York City and attempted numerous times to become a police officer. Sanchez’s career as a police officer with the NYPD was a decorated one, earning a reputation of being an “Arrest Machine” however Sanchez, by his own words also saw many of the dark sides of working in law enforcement. This was during the early 1970s; around the time another NYPD officer, Frank Serpico, brought to light widespread corruption within the NYPD ranks just years prior.
As he shared his story of discovering corruption in higher ranks, Sanchez expressed how the “Blue Wall of Silence” kept honest officers in check and made them look the other way due to fears of repercussion. Sanchez attempted to report corruption he saw to Internal Affairs however investigations were shelved. In 1982, Sanchez participated in a drug bust only to be framed by his fellow officers. All charges were subsequently dropped against Sanchez and he continued a long year’s legal battle to be reinstated into the NYPD.
After leaving law enforcement, Sanchez authored a few books, detailed accounts of his experiences as a member of the NYPD. He also acted as a consultant on Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of “West Side Story,” helping to give the film a more accurate account of NYC during the early 1960s. Joe Sanchez’s story is an interested one, and although I’m still debating on what I will be doing next as far as documentary films are concerned, his story is one that should be told.
“If I were Italian, Hollywood would have been ringing, my phone off the hook for me to tell my story,” Mr. Sanchez said to me.
One day, he may not have to look that far.
Photo 1: Joe Sanchez / Photo 2: Book Cover / Photo 3: Steven Spielberg and Joe Sanchez/West Side Story
RETHINKING WHO WE ARE
Recently, I finally sat down and interviewed Arleen Ramirez for my documentary film “Boricua Soy Yo.” You may remember, in the September issue of the Buffalo Latino Village, I wrote a column and highlighted Ramirez.
Arleen Ramirez is a Soprano singer and Ladino Music Artist who is spearheading the BorikenSphared Ladino Music Project, a research project that explores Judeo-Spanish heritage and how that heritage influenced cultural traditions throughout Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Arleen is a proud Puerto Rican who was born and raised in Mayaguez and has made a living and career as a Ladino Music recording artist, and through her Music Project, she is trying to educate others on Sephardic heritage in Puerto Rico; a heritage many Puerto Ricans don’t even know exist or fail to acknowledge.
Growing up as a Puerto Rican in Buffalo’s lower West Side, we typically have been taught that Puerto Ricans are made up of Tainos, Africans and Spanish conquerors who enslaved and captured the island. As I continue to learn more about the history of the island and the history of the people who have ties to the island, this oversimplification of what makes up a “Boricua” is eye opening.
There are far too many layers to our history and heritage, and to simply tie the European or non-Taino and African side of our heritage to “Spain“, hides the complex nature of our diversity as a people and does a disservice into not truly showing how diverse and culturally rich our island of Puerto Rico really is. It never occurred to me that there were Puerto Ricans whose cultural backgrounds may have been different than the Boricua Trinity (Taino, African, Spanish) we’ve always been taught but the more research I do with this film project, I’m uncovering so much that has either been forgotten, hidden, or just gone unexplored.
The island of Puerto Rico was settled by people who flocked to it from all areas of the world, and in doing so, the Puerto Rican identity has always been fluidly changing and being reshaped and formed. You see it in our language, customs, and the traditions we practice. For instance, the phrase ““Ojalá”, (which means “hopefully”) comes from the Arabic phrase “inshallah”. You see it in the foods we eat such as Alcapurria which itself has Middle Eastern influences (falafel) to even buñuelos which has a historical connection to Sephardic Jews who settled in Puerto Rico and through Latin America.
I challenge anyone reading this, whose families have ties to Puerto Rico, to investigate your history, customs, and cultural practices. You may be amazed at what you will uncover.
I don’t intend this to be a paradigm shift, I just want folks to know Puerto Ricans are made up of more than what we’ve been taught. There are many layers to the Puerto Rican onion, and I’ve only begun to uncover but a few.
DON’T FORGET OUR TRADITIONS
With the new year comes expectations for new beginnings, prosperity, losing that little holiday weight and a clean slate.
As most folks put their Christmas decorations away the hope for a better year ahead looms large.
On January 6th, many Puerto Ricans on the West Side (and worldwide) will celebrate Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos (Day of the Three Kings’ Day). Shoeboxes will be full of grass and placed under children’s beds in hopes for one last present to celebrate the Epiphany.
Over the last two months of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, it will not be surprising to see holiday lights and festive foods at any Puerto Rican household you visit. The festive spirit is ingrained in our people, possibly due to the struggles and hardships we have had to endure throughout generations as citizens of the United States.
Recently, a friend and an interview subject for my documentary (Boricua Soy Yo), Dr. Luis Martinez-Fernandez, wrote a column on how “Puerto Rico Has the World’s Longest Christmas Season” and it honestly didn’t surprise me.
Whether they are holiday traditions or National cultural celebrations, our people are proud, humble, and full of joy. It is rooted in the Puerto Rican spirit.
As a mainland born and raised Puerto Rican, it is something I try to recapture and regentrify into my own identity. I was never raised on the island, the traditions I know were passed to me from my mother, my aunts, and uncles, all here on the west side of Buffalo. These traditions may seem “old school” to some, but these traditions are the way we honor those who came before us.
It’s one of the reasons I set forth in producing my documentary and telling it from the point of view of someone who was not born on the island. If you were to read the title of my film, you would notice the grammatically awkward title is a call back to how many of us living here of Puerto Rican descent speak broken Spanish.
Although I sometimes feel like our traditions are dying every year, it makes me happy when I see grown Puerto Rican men wearing Middle Eastern robes on January 6th, as it brings hope that our traditions aren’t lost.
A year ago, I wrote a column about our elders’ stories being like recipes, and how we need to write them down to pass on to generations that come after us. Hollywood is taking note. It’s no surprise that over the last few years, films, animated and live action, have been made to capture Latino Audiences.
I’ll admit, I’m happy to see the attention our cultures are given for the masses, I also cannot help but feel a little guarded over how our culture is portrayed and how our traditions are not co-opted by others for their own gain.
Celebrate and protect our traditions. Share them with the world but protect them from those who want to take them over or change them to fit into their own circle.
May you all enjoy a beautiful Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos, and may the new year bring you blessings and joy.
YEAR IN REVIEW:
FROM INSURRECTION TO WRITE-IN
As we’re coming to the end of the year 2021, I wanted to do a quick year in review. Insurrection at the Capitol Building, Murder Hornets, COVID-19 Vaccines and the delayed 2020 Olympic Games were just a few of this year’s headlines. With each passing month this year, there seemed to be a new “threat” or top story that was going to be a paradigm shift of sorts.
January: On Three Kings Day, with the incoming inauguration of President Biden, Agent Orange’s cult members stormed the Capitol and thought they would overthrow the government in a desperate act of insurrection. Thankfully, the republic stood, and these traitors are now being held accountable for their actions.
February: With the sad one-year anniversary of COVID-19 making its way to the United States, the country recognized the grim mark of 500,000 deaths due to the pandemic. If only Agent Orange and his administration took the warning signs the year earlier more seriously.
March: COVID-19 Vaccines begin being made available in the US as those at the highest risk groups are given priority. The Biden Administration sets forth some pretty high expectations for the roll out of the vaccine as well as goals they would like to hit by July. Additionally. March 2021 also gave us the world’s largest traffic jam in the Suez Canal where one of the world’s largest container ships ran aground and got stuck for several days, delaying shipments throughout Europe, and causing all kinds of headaches to the world’s economy.
April: Raul Castro, brother of the late Fidel Castro steps down as president of Cuba, bringing an end to the 62-year rule of the Castro brothers on the island.
May: Violence breaks out in Israel and Palestine as their ever-ongoing crisis continues. Israel hits
the Gaza Strip with airstrikes after violent protest break out due to Israel’s continued push into Palestinian territories and displacing the Palestinian population.
June: Little known India Walton, self-identified Democratic Socialist wins primary for the mayor’s race in Buffalo, seemingly shocking the country and longtime Mayor and incumbent, Byron Brown.
July: Food and Medicine shortages force thousands of Cubans to the streets in Anti-Government protests.
The delayed 2020 Olympic Games finally kicked off in Tokyo. Puerto Rico wins its second Gold Medal, its first in Track and Field.
August: After many months of guest hosts filling in for long-time host Alex Trebek who passed away the year prior, television game show “Jeopardy” announced its new host, Mike Richards. Richards acted as an executive producer on the show. Weeks later of course, Richards is forced to step down as host of Jeopardy due to problematic sexist language he used on podcasts from a few years ago resurfacing.
Also in August, the United States ends the twenty-year war in Afghanistan as it pulls all troops out, creating panic in the war-torn country whose government fell to the Taliban within a few days after the US announcement.
September: El Salvador becomes the first country in the world to adopt Crypto Currency (Bitcoin) as legal tender. Bitcoin prices soar. COVID-19 Delta variant spreads and causes panic.
October: The Atlanta Braves face the Houston Astros in the 2021 World Series. It is the first World Series the Braves have made since the 1999 season.
November: Byron Brown seemingly holds onto his seat as Mayor of Buffalo, winning as a write-in candidate over Democratic Primary winner India Walton.
December: Still to be determined.
These were just a few of this year’s headlines that stood out to me. With that said, I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and safe and Happy New Year.
FROM LOWER WEST SIDE TO CENTER STAGE
As I’m celebrating the first year as a columnist with the Buffalo Latino Village, I’ve begun seeing some positive news from the documentary project that introduced me to the publisher of this monthly publication, Mr. Alberto Cappas.
A year ago, I went back home to Buffalo to film some interviews and footage for my project, “Boricua Soy Yo.” My main goal for this series is to capture what does it mean to be “Boricua”, and how is it defined. Although I conducted a few interviews in Central Florida during the late summer in 2019 for the piece, I could not have thought of a better place to really get footage rolling than my hometown, the lower West Side of Buffalo, NY. Although this project is trying to capture what it means to be “Boricua,” because of its personal nature to me, I wanted to capture when I grew up and how the West Side may have influenced my life as a Boricua moving forward. This documentary project has introduced me to many people from all walks of life who have that one connection; a Puerto Rican identity as it relates to our history and even our future. In early October, I was made aware of an Arts & Cultural Festival that would be hosted by The University of Central Florida (UCF) in downtown Orlando, at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Arts, in April of 2022.
One of my past interview subjects recommended that I submit my (still to be completed) project for a showing, and after some thought, I went ahead and started the process. To my surprise, the documentary project was selected to screen on April 9th, 2022 at 8pm, but also, I was asked, if I would be interested in having a panel discussion! To say that I’m not proud of this achievement would be an ultimate lie, as I’ve always been a little critical of my own productions, and honestly, always felt embarrassed when others watched my work. However hearing the excitement from the event organizers and how well they thought this project fit into their event, left me with a good feeling of accomplishment, even if I still have some edits to complete.
Saturday April 9th, for better or worse will be the culmination of an almost two year journey that started during the early summer of 2019, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when masks where a daily thing and vaccines felt like a lifetime away. As it stands, the film project, which is going to be broken into multi-episode pieces of 25 – 30 minutes in length, is still in production, however much of the theme is already set in stone. In fact, two of the episodes I plan on screening during the event at Dr. Phillips Center for the Arts, are already pretty much completed, save for a few more interviews I’m doing, centered on Puerto Rican arts and culture.
Although the screening will take place in downtown Orlando in April of next year, I’ll carry with me a little piece of the lower West Side. West and Maryland to be exact. Where my family was raised, where I rode my bike as a child and where the sights and sounds of my youth shaped me into the man I am today.
Until Next time…
OUR CULTURE IS NOT A COSTUME
By the time you’re reading this month’s issue of The Buffalo Latin Village, we will be smack in the middle of “Hispanic Heritage” month. All throughout the middle of every September and October, you will see television ads, print ads, internet ads and possibly, depending on the market, radio ads “celebrating” Hispanic Heritage.
It’s just like Christmas. Suddenly, you’ll see a celebration of Latin American Flags and cultures, language, but if you blink, you’ll miss it.
I’ve always been a little critical of the forced inclusion regarding our culturally different communities which were jammed into one “Hispanic” monolith, but alas, this is a battle I grow tired of every year. Outside of the forced inclusion of our cultures for the purpose of celebration, my frustrations are aimed at the commercialization of this monthly celebration and the way these “corporate celebrations” always focused on part of our heritage.
My issues with the term “Hispanic” are tied to the way it ignores what makes up a person of “Hispanic” origin. All the attention is paid to “Hispania” but the cultural and genetic influences from our African and Native Indian ancestors go unacknowledged.
Furthermore, and this is something I mentioned a few columns ago with regards to how we don’t all fit within one identity.
Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rican culture is as like Argentinians and Argentinian culture as Canada is to Australia. Yes, they speak the same language, but they are not the same people. However, having one “celebration” and throwing everyone under that one umbrella basically ignores the beauty of our separate Latin American cultures all in the name of inclusion.
It’s like whenever a person says “I don’t see color” when it comes to issues of race. This phrase has always made me cringe because, to not see color is to not acknowledge the struggle and history people of a certain racial makeup have had to endure, in this racially biased society we live in.
I’m in no way saying we shouldn’t acknowledge or celebrate our cultures, I just have a hard time understanding why so many are OK to see corporations and others who quick to jump on the “Hispanic” bandwagon, celebrating this month with Tacos, Trumpets, and Salsa.
Our culture is not a costume, it isn’t a thing you can pull from a closet once a year and celebrate like an old musty Santa Claus outfit sitting in storage.
We live and celebrate our culture year-round, and seeing corporations, businesses and entities only stop once a month, in the middle of two months, every year to finally say, “Oh yeah, you guys” is a little insulting. I guess anything is acceptable so long as corporate dollars are involved. We should celebrate our cultures, our identities, and traditions, but also make a point of seeing each for what we are; individual cultures that have a similar experience, but very different traditions, even if we speak the same language.
Latinos aren’t one monolithic culture, instead we are many pillars, each with our own stories to tell.
A PRESSURE-COOKED CULTURE
As another month goes by and my film (Boricua Soy Yo) production continues, I’m amazed at the awesome connections I’m making and how much of our history and culture I’m uncovering. Filming a documentary project is an arduous task and one that can be very time consuming, especially when one is an independent filmmaker, with a day job and family obligations. Of course, planning and filming during a pandemic doesn’t make things easier, however, I’m very happy to have made a few connections over the last few months that have given me different perspectives on how to approach the question of “What it means to be Boricua?” which is one of the main themes of my film.
I’ve recently had a chance to meet and speak with Arleen Ramirez, a historian and soprano singer/songwriter who has established herself as a crossover artist in the field of music, specifically in the opera and Ladino (not Latino) musical genres. Ms. Ramirez breaks the typical mold of “what it means” to be Boricua. Not only is she a successful musician and Opera singer, but Ms. Ramirez also belongs to the Puerto Rican Sephardic community, a community whose people and heritage can be traced to the island going back to the Spanish Inquisition days.
By speaking with Ms. Ramirez, I was able to learn about the research she has been involved with over the last ten years, exploring Judeo-Spanish heritage and how it influenced culture throughout Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. The “Boriken-Sphared Ladino Music Project” is the name of the research Ms. Ramirez is conducting and it is devoted to preserving Ladino culture and music along with educating people about Hispanic Sephardic traditions and heritage. Per Ramirez, “BorikenSpharad is a fusion of Sephardi music with Caribbean and Middle Eastern cadences and melodies.” The more I spoke with Ms. Ramirez, the more I opened to the idea that there is no specific picture of what defines a Puerto Rican. As a historian, I’m always open and eager to learn more about history, specifically OUR history, and speaking with Ramirez opened my eyes to a part of our history that seemingly isn’t really explored even among most Puerto Rican academic circles. I share this column in hopes that it opens the idea of what it means to be Boricua. It has nothing to do with language.
I’ve seen people criticize Puerto Rican kids for not speaking Spanish, all the while not even considering that our Taíno ancestors didn’t speak the language either. We are more than the familiar food and music we typically see. Our people are a beautiful mixture of cultures, beliefs, traditions, and identities that circumvent the globe, all concentrated and pressure cooked in that small island in the Caribbean, made to share with the world.
Note: Photos of Ms. Ramirez @ September 2021 issue, page 3. More about Ms. Ramirez and the work she has done, please visit www.arleenramirez.com
A LIBRARY OF FLAVORS
This past month, I had the pleasure of attending the opening of an exhibit at Mills Gallery in Orlando, Florida which was sponsored by the Hispanic Arts Coalition. The exhibit was titled “Cultural Revolution”, and contained various beautiful pieces from Latino artists all based here in Central Florida. Although most of the artists were Puerto Rican (with one or two from Cuba and the Dominican Republic), the reflections of culture through the work I saw could have been seen through the eyes of someone from Mexico, Peru, or any other Latin American country.
Our language isn’t the only commonality that we as Latinos share. We all have similar struggles and cultural queues. Although I never really believed in one monolithic “Latino” culture, there are as many similarities between us all as there are differences, regardless of what many within these separate subcultures may believe. I say this, not to try and divide us, but to shine light on the individual differences we have.
Recently, in the city I live in, there was a Facebook Group post asking about the differences of Latin Cuisine and Mexican Cuisine. I even had someone ask me about specifically about it, questioning why some considered Mexican food separate from Latin food. Although I agreed that Mexicans are Latinos, their food is distinct enough to stand on its own, separate from the “Latin Cuisine” label many uses. Which brings me to the term “Latin Cuisine,” what exactly does that mean? The foods that could fall under “Latin Cuisine” could, by definition, include pupusas, pernil, cuy (guinea pig), tamales, arepas, pastelles, ropa vieja, feijoada, etc.….
Although many of the ingredients, food and cooking styles are similar throughout different portions of Latin America and the Caribbean, our foods are in themselves inherently different. If you own a Puerto Rican restaurant, just tell people that’s what you serve, Puerto Rican food. Calling food you sell at your establishment “Latin Food” erases the cultural flavor and DNA that make up the ingredients and customs of the food you are selling, all in the name of inclusivity and ease.
Let’s celebrate our similarities but acknowledge our differences too. As mentioned above, “Latino” culture is not one monolithic culture that society should cram into a “one size fits all” category.
If you are Boricua or Dominican, share that pride of being Boricua or Dominican. Same goes with any country one is from. Show that pride and don’t hide behind an all-inclusive label. The ignorant, for instance, folks in that Facebook group asking about the differences of Latin Cuisine and Mexican food, will never see the differences because to us, because we’re all “brown.” However, those of us who do should embrace and celebrate our similarities AND differences and start seeing one another as we are.
A beautiful mixture of ingredients that make up a flavorful library of cookbooks, each with its own distinct flavor.
HEART OF THE CITY
When I left Buffalo for Florida eleven years ago, I was looking for a new life elsewhere but also hoping for the best of my hometown. I still have family and friends that call Buffalo home, and although I rarely make it back to the “City of Good Neighbors,” Buffalo is always on my mind.
This last month, primary elections were held throughout the state of New York, and although the New York City mayoral election dominated national news regarding the Empire State, to my surprise, as I went to bed on that primary day, a little blurb came across my social networking newsfeed regarding the Mayoral primary back home. The unthinkable happened; long-time incumbent Byron Brown had been defeated by a political unknown most folks outside of close circles in Buffalo never heard of. Now I know this publication has supported the campaign of India Walton, and I will be honest that I did not pay much attention to the race. I mean, why should I? Mayor Brown was a deep-seated incumbent who damn near ran unopposed for the last few elections.
The more I think about it, however, the more it made sense. When I was last in Buffalo, this past fall, I marveled at how much has changed but, shook my head at how much remained. Buffalo, for all the progress that has been made, in downtown and the waterfront, seemed to have forgotten the people and neighborhoods that make up Buffalo’s rich collection of faces and cultures. If one were to look at the layout of the city of Buffalo, which uses a baroque street layout, one could see how the grid was designed to city main arteries and streets reach the heart of the city’s downtown. City Hall is the heart of the city, which makes the people who live on those arteries the red blood cells that feed life into the city. Unfortunately, when heart is failing, the whole system fails.
Driving around the city back in the fall, the further I got from downtown, it became apparent nothing in the neighborhoods really changed. Wherever I went, lower west side, upper west side, areas on the east side and even riverside, the place looked the same as when I left eleven years ago. To this I ask, what has Byron Brown done for the residents? Buffalo was in dire need of a heart operation, and it looks like the people have spoken and made it happen. Now, I am not saying Ms. Walton is going to cure all the issues the city’s neighborhoods have, in terms of being forgotten and ignored for bigger businesses downtown. There can be complications with any heart procedures. The grass is not always greener on the other side, but it appears that Byron Brown was only watering one spot of the lawn. Let us see if Ms. Walton has a green thumb.
I do not know much about her; however, I do wish Ms. Walton the best of luck and hope she surrounds herself with a good team of people who will listen to the lifeblood of the city. Otherwise, Buffalo will be back where it was these last 16 years, pumping blood into a lifeless heart.
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 Tonawanda’s.
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…