Race and Puerto Rican Identity Comments

by Frank Bonilla

This is a photo from my mother's wake in April, 1993 --these are all close family. ..siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandchildren. Spouses and in-laws are absent --with them the mosaic of kinship would be even more varied. This is the multiracial reality of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos as well as Afro-Americans that is now exploding in the U.S. though here it has always been masked by the one drop renders you black mandate.

In 1936 I was sent to Memphis, Tennessee by my mother after she caught me hitching on a truck with my roller skates across Park Ave in East Harlem as she came home from her factory job. She had a foster brother there teaching Romance Languages at a black college, Lemoyne. I had no preparation for what came in Richmond, Virginia, where the Greyhound bus driver came over to say, "OK, kid get to the back of the bus. " I was refused water and directed to the restrooms for coloreds for the rest of the trip. In Memphis I attended a Franciscan mission junior high school for blacks for two years and learned the basics of deep South segregation. To my surprise, the mosaic in physical appearances in that "segregated" setting among students and the church congregation easily matched that in our East Harlem tenement.

That was, of course, just the beginning of learning about being "multiracial" outside the New York barrio setting --on to a Franciscan pre-seminary in a Chicago suburb, military service in World Ware II, with intervals in other parts of the deep south, the UK., France, Germany, and Puerto Rico and later extended stays in Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, and Panama. In Philadelphia a few days ago after a session with the American Friends Service Committee, I was asked by a subway clerk whether I could prove my citizenship just to claim a 20 cent senior citizen fare to the railroad station. Thus whenever and in whatever setting, the basic premise imprinted from childhood that any tinge of blackness is a misfortune has been brought home.

 

(4/24/98)