City Lit: Bronx Tales

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“In the Bronx, you always had to watch where you were going. The smallest moves in the wrong direction could have enormous consequences,” journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc writes in Random Family.

LeBlanc spent more than 10 years following the poverty-stricken lives of a Puerto Rican family on Tremont Avenue. Her detailed immersion reporting, focusing particularly on the struggles of her female subjects, gives us a front-row read on a class of people who’ve been pushed to the periphery. With her book, which has been a runaway success, LeBlanc has given a face to some of the forgotten.

But it would be a mistake for readers to assume that the lifestyle that LeBlanc presents is “the” culture of the ghetto. It’s one of many. Readers shouldn’t replace their own vision of the Bronx with one of it as a dramatic hell. The lives that LeBlanc chronicles are vastly different, for example, from my own Bronx upbringing.

I grew up in “Little Jamaica,” a West Indian neighborhood in the Bronx’s northeast section. I was a sheltered bookworm, unaware of much of the drama that lurked around my own corner–save for the occasional boom of bullets at midnight.

My mother and grandmother–my primary parents–had immigrated to the States from another ghetto, in Panama, and often fretted about the dangers of their adopted borough. My grandmother was reluctant to let me frolic around the parks of her housing project. And though my neighborhood consisted primarily of working-class families (many of whom were homeowners), my mother still demanded I be ferried by van to my elementary school, a mere three blocks away.

Despite our poverty, my parents’ choices emphasized academics and social thoughtfulness. They would have classified themselves as “decent” folk, a category that, according to the urban ethnographer Elijah Anderson, many inner-city residents use to declare their subscription to values that include familial love and hard (legal) work.

While many of the subjects in LeBlanc’s book adhere to some of these values–e.g. the desire to see their children stay in school–her work focuses on generations of unabashed street life. We first meet Jessica, a sexually adventurous 16-year-old, whose mother, Lourdes, becomes hooked on drugs. Jessica’s little brother Cesar, a self-absorbed young criminal, falls in love during his early teen years with Coco, a thoughtful, tough and conflicted girl whose odyssey into adulthood frames much of Random Family.

LeBlanc illuminates the neighborhood’s dangers and difficulties in matter-of-fact, often unsentimental prose. She numbingly describes the horrors of ghetto life, from evictions to shootings to physical abuse. Yet the book’s disconcertingly nonchalant tone is an accurate reflection of how trauma becomes normalized when resources are scarce.

For instance, LeBlanc writes that many people saw Coco as just “regular” and thought that there were women who had it worse, despite the fact that Coco dropped out of high school, has five different children from four different fathers, routinely gets evicted from her apartments and ends up in homeless shelters twice.

LeBlanc also compellingly illustrates how interconnected misfortunes lead to despair. To treat her chronically ill daughter Pearl, Coco has to quit her job at a nursing home to make frequent trips to a distant hospital. Her absence from the house then creates an opportunity for her drug-dealing boyfriend to turn it into a spot where he can conduct business. In these pages, a safe, stable home is rarely found.

For policy makers, Random Family’s biggest draw is its focus on the socioeconomic and cultural legacies that children inherit from the system and their parents, especially the severing effects of jail time. Coco says at one point, “I feel like I do so much like my mother.”

Watching a child try to break away from her family patterns and circumstances is heart-wrenching. LeBlanc vividly sketches Coco’s oldest, Mercedes, as an intelligent girl who rages with resentment over her sexual molestation, impoverished surroundings and separation from her father, Cesar, who is in prison. She identifies herself as a “problem child.”

Mercedes temporarily succeeds under the guidance of a progressive summer camp and fourth grade teacher, but then slips into the abyss again because her mother lacks the necessary time, energy and imagination to give Mercedes a more formidable escape route. Mercedes’ admission to an uncaring social worker that she doesn’t know how to control her anger highlights the confounding haze that young people must contend with when they feel as though adult guidance has been insufficient.

LeBlanc excellently contextualizes these youth perspectives with adult experiences. But Random Family does not look closely at South Bronx denizens who paved a way for themselves, even if they are exceptions to the rule, to contrast with the more tragic figures.

My cousin Carmen often faces this juxtaposition of despair and hope. She still lives in our old neighborhood, where she’s married and raising two sons. Some of the men and women on street corners who ask her for money are former classmates, now burnt out on drugs.

Her oldest boy, Kenric Jr., is 3. His bubbliness and witty conversational skills are sometimes overshadowed by his defiance of parental authority. Carmen worries about what will happen to Kenric if his stubborn behavior continues. Will he hook up with the wrong bunch in our ‘hood in his later years?

But Carmen also knows the options she can provide for Kenric. LeBlanc does briefly mention people who make more well-informed choices: like Marlene, a hoodlum’s wife who worked, went to college and raised a daughter. Or Iris, Coco’s sister, whose relatively stable home seems perpetually undermined by the tension of her surroundings. But because of their brevity, these particular portraits shed little light on how their subjects managed to negotiate a culture of poverty more successfully. LeBlanc has written a study of intersecting systems of poverty that should be recognized as pervasive, but by no means the only models of limited means that exist in our ghettos.

Clarence A. Haynes is an editor of New Youth Connections, a teen-written publication.

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Power to the Poets

Doña Julia
By Alberto Cappas
1st Books Library,
93 pages, $9.50

If more public officials and politicians could write poetry as visceral as the Human Resources Administration’s Director of Community Affairs Alberto Cappas, the world would indeed be in a different place.

Cappas’ third book of poetry, Doña Julia, explores the complexities of everyday life for the Puerto Rican immigrant in New York City. The poems are sometimes touching and nostalgic, sometimes painful and alienating, as Cappas speaks to the ways in which poverty and racism impact the lives of immigrants who try to incorporate the supposed American Dream into their realities–and their varying degrees of success and failure in doing so.

In “A Distant Despair,” Cappas describes “the Building/With the graffiti/’Viva Puerto Rico Libre’/And other declarations/Woman and her three children/are evicted for not paying the rent.” In the same building lives a Mrs. Garcia, who is “glued to the window/Looking from corner to corner/For stories to talk about and invent.” The poem is filled with images of what life is like for the tenants of this building. Its beauty (and that of Cappas’ writing) lies in its ability to cause a tension for the reader, to leave us torn between those images that evoke a feeling of warmth for the people of the community and the ones that inspire anger, or sometimes hopelessness, over the living conditions that create such poverty.

It is this sort of complexity that keeps Do–a Julia from being a book about feeling pity for the people and places it portrays. The book’s characters are implicated in their own madness, too. In “Aguacate Power,” Cappas shows his frustration with what he calls “unconscious Puerto Ricans” who “have made it in the USA/They exist without the ganas/Without a place in the sun/They sing songs for the politicians/With nothing to offer them in turn for their dedication/They do not know the harm they generate.”

The standout poem in this collection is the title piece, “Doña Julia.” The poem is about a woman who commits suicide, and leaves a note that baffles police, stating, “One way or the other, I’m going back to Puerto Rico.” The poem starkly describes what led the woman to this place. “Do–a Julia/Committed suicide last night/Cause the welfare department/ Demanded too many documents she did not/know existed.” It’s quite the indictment coming from an employee of HRA.

In a city used to low voter turnout in most elections, where people feel increasingly alienated from their political and community leaders, it is refreshing to find someone working in the system who is sympathetic to the lives of ordinary citizens. Cappas’ poetry, never overly sentimental, demonstrates both a talent for the written word and a deep understanding of people, their communities and the larger institutions that influence their lives. The next time you go to the polls, don’t elect a politician; elect a poet.

–Kenyon Farrow