A Nuyorican’s love letter to pandemic Nueva York
By Dan D. Irizarry
I am Nuyorican to my bones. Salsa music—the Golden Age of Fania Records to be precise—is the soundtrack of my life; Pedro Pietri is my
Allen Ginsberg, Julia de Burgos my Sylvia Plath; Don Pedro Albizu Campos my George Washington. I was born in New York Hospital and my first home was a tenement building on 110th Street in El Barrio (East Harlem), across the street from Hell Gate Post Office and around the corner from the church the Young Lords took over in ‘69. ¡Hasta los huesos!
My dad was pastor to the newly arrived poor of El Barrio, the Puerto Rican migrants and immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. If you needed help with rent or food or clothes, you called him; if your mom was in the hospital, he visited her; if your brother got busted by the cops, pop would try to find you a lawyer or help with bail. He and my mother attended most of the milestones in the lives of the Latino community of el Barrio for decades, presiding over baptisms, marriages and deaths. As a young boy I attended many of these moments, but the funerals always stood out. In el Barrio, poverty was Death’s favored handmaiden.
After college and a stint working with migrant farmworkers in the Hudson Valley as a paralegal, I returned to Nueva York to work as a community organizer in the smoldering South Bronx of the early 1980s. As America watched the Bronx burn and the City placed on life support, crack cocaine joined the mayhem, followed closely by a new, mysterious virus. AIDS came riding through the ghetto like a Horseman straight out of the book of Revelation and Reagan didn’t give a fuck because it was only killing “Black and Puerto Rican queers and junkies”—until it wasn’t. Pedro Pietri, the Nuyorican poet who coined the term, once wrote, “No hay nada nuevo en Nueva York/There’s nothing new in New York.” Plagues ’been killing my people in NYC for a long time, ain’t nothing new about that.
These days, my mind wanders to the city of my birth at the moment of its greatest tragedy. The images of body bags piled in Potter’s field or placed in refrigerated cars are seared in my brain; the sight of the streets I rode my bike through on countless adventures in my youth, now deserted and lifeless, fill me with dread. So, too, the grim statistics of COVID – 19’s toll: my Latino and Black brothers and sisters make up two thirds of New York City’s plague deaths. The virus gorges on Black and brown flesh—viejitos, the sick, the ones too poor to stay at home. Poverty and all its comorbidities, aka social determinants of health, is a plague by another name that has been stalking poor minority communities since Minuit bought the place.
New York City is a river delta of human migration, whose currents deposit nutrients that the city needs without knowing—an ecosystem in perpetual churn. As Whites took flight, once-Irish, German and Italian neighborhoods became the precincts of darker people, with no place to go while the city decayed. We remained and rebuilt our blighted neighborhoods through grassroots struggle, taking over vacant buildings, planting gardens, fighting disinvestment. We did such a good job that the White folks returned, replacing the bodega with Whole Foods and the mom and pop bakeries with Starbucks. The ghettos of my youth are now the new Bohemia, displacing poor and working-class folks to different area codes.
The churn caused by the virus has revealed an open secret: The Titans of Wall Street, the rich and their political enablers are not the ones who keep the City running. Suddenly, work done by Black and brown hands is deemed indispensable; surprisingly, the people who keep the trains running, who care for the elderly and infirm, deliver the food, keep the grocery shelves stocked, have experienced a pandemic-driven apotheosis: they have been deemed ESSENTIAL. After all, where would the “ladies who lunch” and their hedge fund husbands be without the Black and brown nannies who push the carriages of their entitled children; wither the elderly, without their Jamaican or Salvadoran personal care attendants; and what would those 5th Avenue addresses be like without Jose the doorman, who cares for NYC’s one percent in countless ways?
That’s right America, African Americans, Latinos and immigrants of every hue carry the City on their backs. To think that all we needed to reach that conclusion was a global pandemic.
Donald Trump’s America has become a loathsome place—a declining, bloodthirsty Rome. Our modern-day Nero summons his unmasked followers to the Coliseum and feeds them red meat and hydroxychloroquine, even as they watch his favorite Gladiator, Mitch-minimus, aim a sword at the beating heart of the nation. The President spends lavishly to build his wall while “blue cities” hemorrhage, endangering public employee and health care workers unions, and all the first responders who have fought death so bravely.
The City of my memory is the best of America—the pure embodiment of Lazarus’ words. All its dirt and grime, its sturm und drang, its magnificent mambo of ethnic commingling, its whirling dervish of weirdness seems to me the apex of human civilization. Flawed, yes, yet more beautiful because of it. A Mona Lisa painted by 9 million da Vincis.
How much of my chimerical City will remain is uncertain. I don’t doubt that those who can afford to leave—if they haven’t already—will go, afraid that history will repeat itself. Yet somehow, I have faith that the City that Lorca celebrated, that Pietri excoriated, that this Nuyorican remembers and loves as his cuna/crib, will come back transformed for the better. And maybe, just maybe, this new Nueva York will have a measure of justice and appreciation for all.
¡Nuyorican hasta los huesos!
Dan D. Irizarry is a community activist and writer whose commentary has appeared in the Albany Times Union and the Schenectady Daily Gazette and is a frequent guest on WAMC’s The Roundtable.
He is founder and chairman of Capital District LATINOS (CDL), a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to “...creating the conditions for success in the Latino community." In 2017, CDL purchased St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Central Avenue in Albany and renamed it the Cultural Empowerment & Community Engagement Center. The views expressed in this piece are his own.