Sunday, July 8, 2007

Americana: New York City

The last of July 4th celebrations: I am in Harrison, near my childhood turf, a universe away (really?) from the prairie…When I was growing up in the Bronx there were less than 10,000 Dominicans in New York. Now, there are (conservatively) over a million documented and undocumented migrants who often travel the corridor connecting the two islands. Manhattan and Santo Domingo are linked by a mere three and a half hour direct plane ride. Washington Heights is known as Dominican Heights, where all the streets beat and buzz with hip-swaying merengue, a bodega in every block and throngs of frenetic people out and about. Conversely, streets all over the DR are named Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy. Dominicans started arriving in New York during the mid-1960s, after President Johnson invaded the island and civil war broke everything. My father, Antonio, was among those early Dominican seekers of a better life. He wound his way, through the newly constructed John F. Kennedy airport, to the Bronx where the United States government had eased immigration laws because, among the many reasons, places like New York were in great need of low wage laborers willing to put in two and three shifts seven days a week almost all year round. The textile industry was faltering since, partly, the Puerto Ricans who had toiled in them since the 1940s were then far enough in the perennial cycle of assimilation to be able to choose other jobs.

For decades, he worked nearly twenty hours a day almost all year. Up until age 71 when he died, my father refused to let his atrophied body prevent him from being useful. From his wheel chair he routinely watered my garden and instructed me on how to care for my plants. Too many flowers, he’d say; grow something more valuable, things you can eat. You can’t survive on beauty alone. He inherited that kind of determination and practical attitude, I believe, from his father who left his beloved Galicia while Franco was ravaging Spain; he sought a better life on the Dominican Republic only to be consumed by the dictatorship of Trujillo. My father saw his father attempting in vain to eek a living, and when the United States worsened the situation, my father was among the first to leave the Dominican Republic. He saved all his pennies, and a short time after his arrival my mother and two siblings joined him in a third floor two bedroom sparsely furnished apartment overlooking East 178th Street. Although at a comparatively (with the Caribbean) diminished intensity, most mornings the sunshine sneaked into every corner of the apartment. We had a routine: Mamá also worked two shifts at the same textile factory on Third Avenue, but she was invariably up first, no later than 5 am, to make breakfast for all of us and the lunch and dinner she’d pack for Papá. He would get up and help her with whatever chores hadn’t been done. Then by 6 the three of us would be out of bed, eating, polishing our shoes, ironing, making the beds in our one bedroom, cleaning or doing the last of our homework. By 7 AM everyone was out of the apartment and on various buses.

I was in charge of bringing my siblings home safely from private school, and of making sure that they finished their school assignments and chores. Often, I also had to have dinner ready when Mamá arrived. Most nights we wouldn’t see Papá, but Mamá always left his dinner on the table and sometimes, at about one in the morning, we would hear her get up to eat with him. Our life was harried. Mamá bought groceries at the Puerto Rican owned bodega downstairs in the corner of our building, and on Saturday mornings, apartment cleaning day, she or I would load all our dirty clothes into a metal cart and walk to the Laundromat about two blocks away. Everyone else in the neighborhood was also there, mostly elderly Jewish, second generation Italian-American and Irish-American women, and a few Puerto Ricans and even fewer Cubans. There was one Spaniard single mother; we were the only Dominicans in the rapidly changing neighborhood. On Sundays we went to church and later in the day we walked to the park to meet friends, or we took the train to Lincoln Center, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the bus to Wave Hill. In the winter we went ice-skating in Central Park or Rockefeller Center; in the summers we went to Rye Amusement Park or to Orchard or Jones beaches. Our playground (and still one of my very favorite places in the entire world!), was the New York Botanical Garden, a 250-acre National Historic Landmark founded in 1891 inspired by England’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

On Saturday, Homero, Jennifer, Allison, Jeremiah and I drove around seeing Homero and my old haunts: the building where we had our first apartment in the United States (which now looks run down), the building where I first lived without my parents (which now has an ominous iron gate), and the last building I lived in before moving out of the Bronx (where we saw a Dominican flag hanging from a window). We also went to the Botanical Garden, a truly exquisite place, especially now that all of the major renovations are complete. As a child and young adult I experienced those 250 acres as an open and free expanse where we could run, roller skate, picnic and even ride our bikes. Now there’s an exorbitant entrance fee, signs everywhere requesting that you stay away from the lawn, and everything is pristinely sculpted and ordered. Nonetheless, it’s simply beautiful and worth the price, particularly the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, where I spent years as a volunteer tour guide. The Conservatory first opened to the public in 1902 and it is still the largest Victorian-style glass house in the United States. I truly enjoy walking through the 11 different habitats, which allow you to experience ecosystems from around the world, and through the numerous gardens outside. One day at the Bronx Botanical Garden is just not enough!

I’m thinking… two seemingly distinct worlds: Miles City/New York City; two seemingly distinct immigrant experiences: John coming from Scotland/my father (and our family) coming from Dominican Republic… not profoundly different at all.

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