Neither Black Nor White


Angelique Robertson was one of the many Black and Latino kids that hung around the handball courts in my childhood neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She was also in most of my classes in Junior High. There were only two courts and the wait to get on to play were at times excessive. Usually I brought a book to read, usually Science or History, while I waited. On this particular day I had a biography of Martin Luther King. Angelique had a crush on me. “Why you reading that book, you ain’t black”, she blurted out to me. My response was a cold stare.

I am dark skinned but my color and features tend towards the indigenous of America. My silence at the handball courts did not stem from any sense of shame, rather it was more a sense of confusion. As a person of Puerto Rican heritage, like many other Latino’s in The Americas, my culture and biology are a mix of the Indigenous, African and European, Different persons display different sets of traits. My Mother, whose grandfather arrived from Spain to Puerto Rico has very light skin and fine features. My Father, who was born and raised on the Island of Vieques has dark, has reddish skin and a wide nose. My great, great maternal grandmother was said to be of pure Taino blood. As a Puerto Rican I can lay claim to Indigenous, European and Black. But not really.

Unlike African Americans in the U.S. we have claims to the lands in The Americas. We were not captured and shipped to foreign lands to become slaves. We were conquered and put in bondage in our own backyards. The African Slave trade, while more pervasive in Latin America than the U.S., started earlier (closer to 16th Century) and partly because of this the African slaves were able to more fully integrate after emancipation. We are an amalgam of all that Imperialism has wrought. The history of American and European colonization is written upon our skins.

Blacks in the U.S. and Whites in the U.S. are the two poles of race with all others somewhere along this racial spectrum that makes up America. For Puerto Ricans and other Latino groups we can be found all along this spectrum from White (San Juan Mayor Cruz, Ricky Martin) to Brown (Marc Anthony, JLo,) to black (Roberto Clemente). As a member belonging somewhere in the middle of the spectrum (in the winter I am much lighter and I am often confused for a caucasian man showing off a tan in winter to very dark in Summer and very Indigenous looking) “Black Issues” effect me but not to the same extent. I have been denied apartments in some NYC buildings only to sign a lease for an apartment next door or the next block up.

As a group with Indigenous roots we face the same issues as other Native American groups of land theft and of cultural erasure and displacement. We have citizenship but like many marginalized groups we feel like second class citizens.

As I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book,  I am captivated by his piercing intellect and insight into the Black American experience. Some of which is relevant to me as a Puerto Rican, just like the life of MLK and history of the Civil Rights movement was germane to my understanding of myself back in the handball courts my youth.

Right now with all that is happening in Puerto Rico, from Hurricane Maria and America’s lacadaisical response to the $73 billion dollar debt to the question of Statehood, I can’t help but feel that we need our own Ta-Nehisi Coates. An insider with the eloquence, insight, intellectual breadth and deep emotional connection to help enlighten Americans about the Puerto Rican experience. We are citizens of the U.S. and yet fully half of Americans were not aware of this fact. Bill Maher and other TV personalities constantly brand us as immigrants instead of  “migrant” which would be the correct term. As citizens of the U.S. we are free to migrate from one State to another. We are not leaving a foreign country when we move from the Island of Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland. We are already in U.S. territory. Americans need to know this.

While I am fully aware that, as Angelique stated back then, I ain’t black. I also know I am not white as my older cousin once informed me. I had made the mistake of being well read and educated and well spoken. I was the first in my family to go to College. “Why do you talk like that” he asked. “You not white”. I guess that’s true but having someone who can speak “like that” and effectively communicate the ideas and experience of the Puerto Rican diaspora to white America is just what we need.


Neither Black Nor White

A Word On ¡No Mas!

It is Sunday and I just finished watching an ESPN special on the infamous “No Mas” fight of 1980, Roberto Duran Vs. Sugar Ray Leonard. First off the documentary was biased in Leonard’s favor. It was his point of view and the meeting at the end was for Leonard entirely. Roberto Duran got nothing out of it. But still a pretty interesting documentary.

The documentary did not get into he hispanic mindset, especially around the time of the controversy, the late 70’s and early 80’s. That was the time I was coming of age, I was in my late teens and taking stock of the world and my place in it. Just to have a living, hispanic figure to look up to was something. At that time our greatest sports hero was Roberto Clemente and he passed away in 1972. No one I knew was cheering for Leonard in my Brooklyn neighborhood.

Even before the first Leonard – Duran bout, Duran was already a boxing hero to me. Manos de Piedras, Hands Of Stone-Damn Right! He was a mean mother fucker to lots of people. But to us he was what it meant to be a man at that time in our lives, tough and ruthless. There was that fierce look in his eyes that most people saw. But I saw something else behind those eyes. I saw the soul of a misunderstood country boy, a jibaro, who wants to be popular, a hero, a lover, but knows he has to be ruthless and savage in order to survive and become something in order to live out his inner persona. I saw the soul of many a hispanic man in those eyes.

Just watching the short segments of him in the bar in his hometown; he is playing pool buying beers, shaking hands and joking with everyone and taking in the subdued adulation of the other patrons, shows him at his happiest. I think that is all he ever really wanted.

I don’t think that Duran was expecting to defend his title so quickly. It was only a few months. The man was in the middle of his much deserved celebrating in New York when he gets called back to Panama and is asked for a rematch. Now a smart man would have put off the fight. The smart thing to do was to get the celebrating out of your system, rest, and then get back down to fighting shape before even considering a rematch. But Leonard could not wait. His ego would not let him. Duran unfortunately was seduced by the $8 Million purse. He let money blind him and went into the ring not with the heart of a fighter but with the stomach of the newly indulged. He had to take drastic measure just to make weight.

In the eighth round of that infamous fight Duran realized his mistake after being frustrated by Leonard from the beginning of the bout. Now I am by no means saying Duran did the right thing, but I could see in the shaking of his head and the look in his eyes as he turned around and let Leonard take a few more blows to his back, the look that said, “I fucked up!”And then he lost heart. Personally I think the thing to do would have been to finish the fight, take the loss and then ask for a third bout. The smart Duran would have studied the fight film and figured out how to counteract Leonard’s style and build up and harden his heart against Leonard.

The psychology of any fighter is a mystery with countless levels of desire, regret, and ego, but to delve into the reasoning and the lightning quick decision that was ¡No Mas! is to hack your way through the cultural, societal and personal history that makes up the hispanic boxer. Roberto Duran will forever be the archetypal hispanic boxer and Champion.

¡Mi Campeón!



A Word On ¡No Mas!

Time And The Photograph

The author and his brothers and Mother at The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, 1971

Physicists today will describe Time as an entropic process. The passage of time and the direction of time, what some call Time’s Arrow, is governed by chaos. In a closed system the particles that make up reality tend to become more and more disordered until at one point they are evenly spread out across a given space. This process is how we can tell Time is passing. A macro example of this would be my son’s room. The less energy I put in telling Isaac to clean his room the more disorganized his clothes become until eventually (I imagine) they would evenly cover all the surface of his space. In order for his room to become less messy and chaotic (i.e. less entropic) I would have to put energy into the room system by physically picking up and folding and putting away his clothes.

Sorry Isaac, that is not going to happen. Clean your room! I am busy with a project scanning and preserving my Mom and Dad’s family photographs. Pictures of my Mom and Dad and me and my brothers as kids, pictures of my Mom and Dad and Uncles and Aunts and Grandparents before we kids were around. Pictures of my Dad in Korea!

If you think about it, a photograph is a slice of time where we are able to stop (or at least greatly slow down) the process of entropy. The light energy in the form of a photograph is brought forward. In a sense, it is taken out of the flow of time and brought forward, hardly changed to give one a sense of the past. This is the value and true essence of a photograph.

I think Stephen Shore understood this very well. I am sure lots of other photographers understand this also, at least in an innate sense. But Shore, in his Uncommon Places series really tried to make “dated” images. He was not trying to make that cliche of a “timeless” image. He very deliberately includes cars and signs as markers of time. So the idea behind this post isn’t exactly original but it still bears repeating and in this case explicitly. Okay, off to rummage among my parents boxes of photos!


Time And The Photograph


New York, 5/18/2016

This blog has been a little quiet. Sometimes the writing bug carries me away and sometimes the photo bug draws me out into the world. As you can guess I have been bitten by the heliographic creepy crawly and I have been posting random images, some old and some new on a tumblr titled “Once Was Here”.

It looks like some foul weather come my way on the weekend. You might see a posting or two shortly.