Friday, November 22, 2013

"A Blanquito En El Barrio," Gil Fagiani's East Harlem

"A Blanquito in El Barrio" is a parade of fringe urban characters tinged in tropical light (under soot), a borinquen carnival, sexy sometimes, baroque others, festive or nightmarish.

This collection of poems from 1966 through 1969 offers a view of Puerto Rican culture in East Harlem by a white guy (blanquito) from Connecticut, a survey of sixties New York and the drug scene that characterized it, as well as impressions of immigrant life, settled Nuyorica.

The clash of cultures spins sparks over most every page, as in “Reunion,” where an announcement in the doorway that “We are Catholics” contrasts starkly with the commission of adultery beyond its threshold.

The style in “Blanquito” is plainspoken, almost prosodic. There is little that is opaque or requiring contortions of linguistic comprehension. Sometimes this works in poetry, sometimes it doesn't. Here it does, the sparing, but forward-driving narrative possesses the preciousness of verse.

In “Fluteflirting,” the bond between music and sensuality coheres into erotica, without ever employing a hardcore vocabulary:

“He trills at the end of an arpeggio.
Her shoulders shake, nipples harden.

“He flutter-tongues high G.

Her legs tremble, eyes closed.”

The scene between dancer and flautist is literally choreographed through typography, the poet playing at puppeteer. The result is simple and on point, but open-ended rather than pat.


For all his clean lines, sometimes, like a musician who has kept with the beat too long, Fagiani breaks out in a redolent riff, as in “125th St.” where:

“...girls in straw hats wave at me
with mocha tans
and strawberry fingertips."

Music is very important to “Blanquito,” which generates its own and commemorates much of what was heard on El Barrio's streets in those times. It even comes with a discography, the names of bands and song titles themselves a kind of found art: “Soul Makossa,” Manu Dibango. “Boogaloo Blues,” Johnny Colón...

Not that Fagiani's is a candy-striped, timbale-splashed El Barrio. In “Blanquito,” The Spanish Harlem of the time is rendered in an earthy pallet, bruises and all, without repugnance or even detachment, rather with an intimation that what is ugly is also part of the beauty of the whole.

Fagiani is a founding member of the
Vito Marcantonio Forum and “A Blanquito in El Barrio” is dedicated to the unjustly forgotten East Harlem congressman.

Litany of San Vito.

San Vito of East Harlem             Pray f
or us

San Vito bread of the poor          Pray for us
San Vito crucified by Wall Street   Pray for us
San Vito Martyr of McCarthyism      Pray for us

From the jail cell walls           San Vito deliver us

From the backyard crap game        San Vito deliver us
From the loan shark's vig          San Vito deliver us
From the drunken stupor            San Vito deliver us
From TB and asthma                 San Vito protect us
From the social worker's visit     San Vito protect us
From the immigration raids         San Vito protect us
From the landlord's greed          San Vito protect us”

Read on its own, the piece's rhythm links the people of El Barrio and their congressman, the kindness he showed them, his secular sanctification and their mutual victimization by the same unforgiving forces.

Seen as part of a larger canvas, the poem serves as a kind of reprise, linking Vito Marcantonio to characters come before in “Blanquito.

In “Cuchifrito,” the blanquito finds himself turned on by the salacious way a puertoriqueña he's casing slurps her greasy native treats.

“La Capitana” recounts a childhood social worker hauling her innocent charges to confront the bureaucrats who have cut their summer program funding.

“First Day in El Barrio” has an Italian cop born there, before it went Puerto Rican, mocking the blanquito and his crusading friends for being heavy on book learning and short on street smarts.

“when he began his barrio beat

he was young and idealistic too
and wanted to help people.
But in no time he learned
that except for a few residents
too scared to say a word
mostly he met backstabbers,
sneaks, junkies, welfare bums,
dope addicts and cutthroats.”

Dust Recuperated.

“La Loca,” depicts a straight-playing secretary and mother of three who gets her freak on by hitting some weed and dancing for multiple macho admirers at something called the Hunts Point Plaza.

And there are numerous junkies laying about the streets and alleys of Gil Fagiani's East Harlem, notable among them the “Fashionista” whose journey on junk takes him from dandy to dirtbag.

“Blanquito” dives into an unknown or, worse, ignored world, recuperates the lives of humans treated as something less than human. Without it, the junkies and petty thieves and desperate but honest ones who pass anonymously and without imprint on the collective memory, would be dust.

Gil Fagiani
Much the same can be said for Marcantonio whose life's work was to improve their situation.

The book introduces us to the jail cell walls, the backyard crap game, to the druggy stupors so that, by the time San Vito makes his appearance, these are not single-shot sentences, but markers for full-blown characters.

The yarns in “Blanquito” are
woven from ecstatic party vibe, lowdown hangovers or overdoses, stories of people who try hard getting the same raw deal as those who don't do. There is fried food, swampy summers streets with the sewer smell rising up, the final goodbye to someone who had it coming, the whole flawed festival of urban immigrant life.

Binding the tales of misery together with a lighthearted filigree is the incessant push of the desperate, confused, or wronged characters to not just live, but to insist on joy. In amplifying their drive, Fagiani infuses his story-in-poems with that same joy.

Portrait of "San Vito" by Roman O'Cadiz 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Vito Marcantonio and the Art of Spaghetti Making

Virginia Foster Durr was born to southern aristocracy and grew up in Alabama without even knowing her confederate ways were confederate ways.

She attended Wellesley College and that exposure to the larger world awakened her dissenting nature. 

She married an attorney named Clifford Durr.

According to a 1985 “New York Times” review of her autobiography “Outside the Magic Circle,” the pair became “the locally vilified champions in long battles from the New Deal through the arrival of the Freedom Riders.”

The choice to remain outside the magic circle of southern life led to their eventual insolvency and reduction to shabby gentility.

Along her heroic way, Durr made the acquaintance of Vito Marcantonio and, after a rough start, became the kind of friend, to he and his wife Miriam, that came to stay at their place on 116th Street in East Harlem.

Durr granted
interviews to the Oral Histories of the American South Project at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and these possess gem-like anecdotes for Marcantonio fans and scholars alike.

The rough start came at a meeting requested by Durr and allies in the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax who were trying, well, to get the poll tax abolished. They said they were backing a bill introduced by Rep. Joseph Clark Baldwin, a Republican from Manhattan's Silk Stocking District, in an effort to get conservative support. They asked Marc to withdraw his.

[From “Outside the Magic Circle”] 

“Oh my Lord, Vesuvius erupted! Whew! He sprang up and you never heard such a tirade in your life. 'I withdraw my bill and let that Park Avenue fancy pants...' He just raved on and on. He would not withdraw his bill. His bill was going to be the bill that got through and was going to be the bill that the House backed and, as far as we were concerned, we could just go and drown ourselves. He didn't care whether we supported him or not. Oh, he was mad, just furious.”

She remembered that Marc, who successfully ran in the primaries of the Republican, Democratic and American Labor parties a few times, prevailed upon the Republican House leadership to go with his measure.

“He even got Baldwin to withdraw his bill,” Durr recalled. “We were forced with the choice of supporting Marcantonio's bill or having no bill. We either had to eat crow or we had to get out of the business.

“We went to see Marcantonio again. He had won, so he was very nice to us this time. Any help that we could give him, he would be very glad to have. He was very pleasant. He had licked us good, too.”

She remembered how Marc legislated with joy. “He was one of the funniest people you've ever known in your life.”

It was typical of Marcantonio, Durr reminisced, to have Rep. Martin Dies, or some other reactionary rival, paged from the floor, mid-anticommunist rant, and come to the phone. Whoever was on the line would ask Dies if he knew where Vito was.

“He was a super politician,” she said. “The people in the House liked Marcantonio. They may have called him a Red, you know, and a Wop and all that, but they liked him.”

Her account of Miriam Marcantonio's life with the congressman's mother after he died is nothing short of harrowing for anyone with a heart, but at the opposite end of the emotional register, one of Durr's most charming stories involves the Italian-American passion for food:

“And you'd have him [over for] dinner,” she recounted. “I remember I had spaghetti. I thought since I was having Vito Marcantonio and his wife, who was this tall New England girl, that I would have spaghetti, you know, like somebody having me and having fried chicken.

“Well, he was so funny, because I thought it was pretty good spaghetti. He ate it and he said, 'Now Virginia, that was fairly good spaghetti' – well I had a lot of other things too – 'it was a really good dinner on the whole,' he said, 'but that spaghetti was not as good as it should be.' He said, 'Now come out here and I will tell you how to cook spaghetti.'
Durr with Rosa Parks.

“And, you know, he took an hour to tell me how to cook spaghetti: You boil a huge pot of water. It would have to be like a washtub practically, and you don't put a whole lot of spaghetti in it because it can't stick; it has to be all separate, and then you dip it out and then you immediately put butter on it or something to keep it from sticking.  

“And then the sauce, instead of being cooked as I had from four o'clock to six o'clock, had to be cooked two days to be real good Italian sauce. And he explained to me in detail exactly, putting the little bit of sugar with it...

“But he was such a human man, you know, and he really wanted me to learn how to make spaghetti since I was going to have spaghetti and he thought it was lousy.”


Friday, November 1, 2013

Paging Professor Melendez: Where's Marc in Puerto Rican History?

Although largely absent from the stories of Puerto Rican history and politics, Vito Marcantonio was a central player in both.

That was the main thrust of professor Edgardo Melendez's presentation at a November 2012 conference, convened by the Vito Marcantonio Forum and the Italian-American Studies Association, considering the relationship between the East Harlem Congressman and Puerto Rico.

Melendez, a professor in the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies at Hunter College, asserted that it was Marcantonio's break with the other central character in 20th century Puerto Rican history and politics, Luis Muñoz Marin, that led to his banishment from existing narratives of Puerto Rican history.

The two men, he noted, began as allies in the 1930s, both pushing the independence line and largely agreeing on the type of reforms the island-in-crisis needed.

Marcantonio's relationship with Puerto Rico, Melendez explained, began in 1936 with the newly minted congressman's first and only trip to the island, to work on the defense team of independence firebrand Pedro Albizu Campos. The nationalist leader was being prosecuted for conspiring to overthrow the U.S. Government.

The congressman, Melendez told the audience, was received in Puerto Rico as a “man of state,” treated to baths of multitudes at the San Juan airport and city hall.

The trip, he observed, would lead to a pair of long-term relationships. One, a “conflicted” affair with Albizu Campos, and another with the congressman's “compadre” Gilberto Concepción de Gracia.

Back home, Marcantonio took up cudgels both for the Puerto Ricans in his El Barrio congressional district and those on the island proper.

He became, Melendez said, Puerto Rico's “de facto” representative in Congress, countering Sen. Millard Tydings' (D-MD) independence bill with his own, much more generous measure extending free trade protections to the island and offering full access to the U.S. mainland even after liberation.

Most remarkably, Melendez observed, Marcantonio's measures called for indemnities to be paid the Puerto Rican people for their years of exploitation suffered under the imperial yoke.

On Principle

When asked what business he had meddling in the affairs of Puerto Ricans, Marcantonio answered that it was a matter of principle, and also duty, because of the thousands he represented in El Barrio.

Blanton Winship (at right). 
“The economic, social and civil rights programs of Puerto Rico are my problems,” Melendez quoted the congressman. “The sufferings of the Puerto Rican people are my concern. The exploitation of the Puerto Rican masses is an enemy against which I shall wage daily warfare. The use of the public treasury for the benefit of poltroons, loafers, political bums and phonies is a practice which I have been endeavoring to stop. As a member of the House of Representatives for the United States, it is not only my constitutional duty, but it is also a moral obligation to my constituents to defend the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico.”

Marcantonio was instrumental in the removal of Gov. Blanton Winship (above), the appointed island overlord behind the order that produced the Ponce massacre of Puerto Rican independents. The congressman's statement, “Five Years of Tyranny” was, according to Melendez, “a classic expression of how colonialism affected Puerto Rico and its citizens."

In his address from the House well, Marcantonio referred to Winship as the “Nero of La Fortaleza,” a sobriquet he would, years later, apply to an ascendant Muñoz Marin, when the two men were finally on different sides of the political divide.

“From a close alliance in the 1930s, what will happen is a transformation of Muñoz Marin's philosophy and views that will lead to an increased conflict with Marcantonio,” said Melendez. “But Marcantonio never changed his views. He always fought for social justice and Puerto Rican independence.”

In 1940, when Muñoz Marin's Popular Democratic Party (PPD) won island elections, it was a party of social justice, reform, and independence. “Marcantonio assumed his role in defending that program,” said Melendez, “and, until 1945, was a close collaborator with the Puerto Rican government. In fact, he served as Muñoz Marin's resident commissioner until 1944.”

With a progressive party in power locally, and a New Deal governor in the form of Rexford Tugwell appointed to the island, a right-wing backlash against goings-on in Puerto Rico led by Rep. Fred Crawford (R-Mich.) unfolded.

“Muñoz Marin moved away from Marcantonio,” explained Melendez (at left), “and toward Crawford, one of the most reactionary men in Congress at the time.” As Marcantonio criticized the plan for developing Puerto Rico, “Operation Bootstrap” as “Operation Booby-Trap,” Crawford increasingly became Muñoz Marin's legislative point man.

When the the PPD booted its independent wing from the party, Muñoz Marin had already decided that neither a Puerto Rican nation or U.S. statehood were viable options, and that a third way forward must be found.

Fateful Break

Marcantonio disagreed and backed Gilberto Concepción de Gracia's Puerto Rican Independence Party. The breach with the man who would soon be Puerto Rico's first duly elected governor was open.

The ensuing year, 1947, was an “extraordinary” one in Puerto Rican history, Melendez said.

Albizu Campos returned to the island, implementation of Operation Bootstrap began. The government encouraged emigration from the troubled island to New York City so that it might implement its program under less social pressure.

In New York, there was a negative reaction to the influx of poor, Spanish-speaking aliens that was summed up in the local media as “The Puerto Rican Problem.”

One response of the Puerto Rican government was to pass a migration law which gave it an active role in managing the movement of economic refugees north. Another was to attack Marcantonio because of the strong support he garnered from Puerto Rican voters.

With the cold war underway, Marcantonio became “persona non grata,” according to Melendez. The Wilson-Pakula Act was passed in Albany to prevent his long-time practice of running in primaries conducted by political parties not his own.

“In the minds of New Yorkers,” the professor explained, “the one to blame for the entry of Puerto Ricans into New York City was Vito Marcantonio.”

Broken Memory

In order to move people from Puerto Rico to New York, the Puerto Rican problem had to be dealt with and Muñoz Marin thought the way to do this was to sever links between the Puerto Ricans in New York City and Marcantonio.

The Puerto Rican government's campaign against Marcantonio reached its apex during the Gotham mayoral contest of 1949, in which Marcantonio ran as a candidate on the American Labor Party line.

The Puerto Rican problem arose once again. “It is one flank on which Marcantonio could be attacked and it emerged as an issue,” said Melendez. “You want to get rid of the Puerto Rican problem, you get rid of Marcantonio.”

The Puerto Rican government went as far as to send the mayor of San Juan, Felisa Rincón de Gautier (“Doña Fela”), to New York for two weeks where she campaigned on behalf of incumbent Mayor William O'Dwyer, “and against Marcantonio,” Melendez emphasized.

Not to be outdone, Gilberto Concepción de Gracia arrived in New York to convince Puerto Ricans that Marcantonio was their true friend.

The effort by Doña Fela and the American right wing to paint Marcantonio as a communist met with little success, Melendez pointed out. Even when he was defeated in his reelection bid one year later, “Marcantonio kept the Puerto Rican vote.”

The Puerto Rican intellectual Arcadio Diaz Quiñones wrote a book called “Broken Memory” in which the government's attempt to reconstruct the island's recent political history is analyzed.

Melendez said the book asserted that,“There are some spaces missing from this narrative of what is Puerto Rican history: colonialism, migration, militarism, and government repression of the independence movement.

“Marcantonio's role in Puerto Rican history is part of that 'broken memory,'” Melendez concluded.

Many of professor Melendez's thoughts on this issue can be found, hard copy form, in “Vito Marcantonio, the Puerto Rican Migration, and the 1949 Mayoral Election in New York City,” in the Fall 2010 edition of CENTRO Journal, published by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, City University of New York – Hunter College.