City Lit: Yanqui Doodle

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In 1992, I was asked to judge the Cintas Prizes for Literature, awarded to Cuban Americans. Part of the supporting material was Translated Woman, MacArthur Fellow Dr. Ruth Behar’s anthropological study of a woman in Mexico with whom she had established a relationship of comadrazgo, or godmotherhood.

Her text broke ground and broke rules regarding the behavior of anthropologist and subject. Behar was able to draw on her personal relationship with the woman to create an extremely well-crafted ethnographic study bolstered by brilliant scholarship, writing and intimacy. She had the advantage of speaking Spanish fluently, and was thoroughly aware of the subtleties of Latin American culture.

I wish the same could be said for King Kong on 4th Street, Jagna Sharff’s well-meaning anecdotal study of the Lower East Side. In contrast to Behar’s book, Sharff’s work reads like the chatty diary of a foreign exchange student mesmerized by an exotic experience. We are witness to a 15-year romanticized stroll through the Lower East Side that demeans the Puerto Rican experience and adds little to the documentation of the culture of poverty.

The best of the book–and there is too little of it–takes place when Sharff interviews her subjects or writes from her own notes. There are parts that speak to the truth of poverty and how it damages children, as well as adults.

But the narrative falls flat when the “anthropologist” takes over; the academic nature of the work is without verve and extremely condescending. One also wishes, reading this book, that more attention had been paid to common sense scholarship.

As a test of what we learned and still recall about generalizations, let’s try this one on for size: During a visit to a woman’s house, Sharff informs us that Clara “was re-mopping the floor, cold water pouring out of the kitchen faucet, as usual when Puerto Rican women are cleaning house full blast.”

Amazing! My South Bronx/El Barrio Puerto Rican mother certainly did not fit into this haphazard statistical model. Leave water running and the probability was more than 85 percent that you would be left out of the rice and beans list that evening. My mother’s conservationist zeal stemmed from having to fetch water several times a day as a girl in PR, a five-gallon can balanced on her head, from a common faucet 500 yards away from her mother’s house. She was 5’2”. I suspect that she could have been an elegant 5’8” had not this duty been imposed on her. Sharff’s curious Puerto Rican Nereidal decanting of water during cleaning is a bit strange.

I’ve spoken to at least a dozen women in the Lower East Side, believing that perhaps the practice was regional–which does not constitute a true or significant sampling–and I’ve gotten reactions that run from “are you crazy?” to “maybe she forgot to turn off the water because she was thinking about sex.”

The ethos of the neighborhood Sharff presents is that of the 1970s filtered through the flawed memory of 25 years of social upheaval in the United States. Sharff’s arguments sound like what many of us heard at boring cocktail parties on the Upper West Side when it was obvious that the revolution had fizzled out. The book is what a sanitized Tompkins Square Park is today, compared to what it was in the late 1960s when people scored the drug of their choice, drank wine, smoked pot and made love indiscriminately al fresco.

There is a lack of adequate understanding of Puerto Rican culture and a number of misspellings in English (“Pentacostal” rather than “Pentecostal,” as if the former were some sort of divine five-step program, rather than a religion based on the descent of the Holy Ghost to the disciples). This is Lower East Side 101, folks.

On the PR side, Sharff’s notion that “bobo” means “sissy” is hilarious. The word means dopey, lacking in smarts or unsophisticated. I’ve known bobos who were totally without brains but courageous in the extreme and therefore dangerous.

Sharff claims that El Teatro Ambulante mainly presented plays in Spanish. The plays were in English. I know. I played the lead in Bimbo Rivas’ El Piragüero de Loisaida, 50 performances in the storefront theater on 6th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A, and then about 100 more in the Orpheum.

In King Kong we’re asked, as in fiction, to suspend disbelief and be carried into what is uncharted waters for most people who don’t know the Puerto Rican community. What was needed in this book was some academic distance and more corroborative facts about this much misunderstood urban experience. Had there been more care in the scholarship, we could have had an enormously valuable study.

Edgardo Vega Yunqué is a published author and president of Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center on the Lower East Side.

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