Sunday Morning ~ Puerto Rican Lessons
Mtengo wopanda tsinde mudam’penya? ~ Did you ever see a tree without roots?
January 26, 2020
I’m home and have been doing lots of thinking about Puerto Rico. It is part of the United States and has been since well before I was born, yet, I learned nothing about this island in my public education in my little town of Maynard, Massachusetts. Puerto Ricans lived in Maynard when I was growing up. They lived on Railroad Street, a tiny street making a triangular shortcut from Florida Court to Main Street. This was my walk to church and the library, a quick pace up Railroad Street. When we played Monopoly I always thought of Baltic and Mediterranean as Railroad Street, the poorest street in town. I remember being warned to avoid it, but it cut off going under the railroad bridge and around the corner to end up in the same place, so I always walked up Railroad Street and back down, seeing nothing nefarious during those passages. I don’t remember seeing loads of people hanging around there, maybe a few. Were there any kids? I don’t remember. Some old cars, run down row houses probably covered in asbestos shingles, dark windows, no grass, the gas station for a view out the front door, and litter. But litter was hardly confined to this street; litter was everywhere. Turning onto Florida Court, across from my elementary and junior high school, was a little stream that, I guess, flowed into the Assabet River. It was filled with trash. Other parts of the river I remember seeing shopping carts and old tires. It was before plastic bottles so none of those, but filled with trash of the day. I think that’s why I always think I grew up in a slum mill town. It was probably a low point in the area’s history, but that is my childhood memory. Railroad Street was part of it.
I’ve spent the last week in Puerto Rico and am saddened by my ignorance. I knew nothing of this island, not the geography, not the history, not the culture. I’ve always been drawn more to Europe and Africa. Many of the people I sat with, wrapping ham and cheese sandwiches, reminded me to tell everyone at home that it was mostly Puerto Ricans there, helping their own. It’s true. Most of the volunteers were local professionals, out of work due to the earthquakes, spending their days making food to feed their community. They talked about the corruption in their government and how frustrated they were. There were colorful and vocal protests going on downtown Ponce after the discovery of pilfered goods after the hurricane two years ago. Hundreds of people were on the street. They were able to remove a corrupt governor within a couple of weeks by their protests. They are proud and motivated people frustrated by corruption. I thought about this and I thought a lot about Railroad Street.
Like many of my generation, we went out to play all day with neighborhood kids, our parents never looking for us or even asking where we’d been. We were supposed to be home for supper. And after supper we had to come home when the street lights came on, whenever that was. My friend Beth’s house had a bell out the back door that her mother would ring when it was time to eat. I thought that was cool. In the winter, after a snow storm, we’d dig tunnels through huge snowbanks that I’m sure would have crushed us had they collapsed. No adult seemed concerned. We’d sled down Wilson’s Hill, a steep street actually named Howard Road, but the big house near there was owned by the Wilsons so we called it Wilson’s Hill. It became Howard Road when they paved it and built the new houses, six of them, with big yards and attractive siding. Summer Street, one of the busiest streets in town, was the main road that Wilson’s Hill turned off of, up to a cul de sac which would eventually become a much bigger development. But back in the early 60’s it was all ours. When it was snow covered, we’d drag our sleds up Howard Road, and go flying down on our stomachs, wedging the runners of the flexible flyer just before we got to Summer street, sending us flying into a snowbank inches before the main road. The snowbanks were massive and none of the cars traveling on Summer Street could have possibly seen dozens of kids inches from their deaths. Adults occasionally watched from the windows of those new houses apparently not worried about any danger. (It was a blast) Yet, I thought, we were warned to avoid Railroad Street.
I thought and thought about Railroad Street. Where did those people work? Where did they go to school? I don’t remember ever seeing them around town. Don’t remember any Puerto Rican kids in my class. They must have had kids? I don’t even remember seeing any of them in church and they lived right down the road from St. Bridget’s. Were they there I just didn’t see them? This is very disturbing to me. I wonder if this is why I never thought about Puerto Rico until the hurricanes, never had a desire to travel there. I chalked it up to the fact that I’m not a beach person and tropical vacations weren’t a draw, but now I’m wondering if it was a bias I grew up internalizing. I never had a desire to learn Spanish. Until recently, I didn’t even know where in the Caribbean Puerto Rico was! Didn’t know the name meant “Rich Port”. Didn’t know it’s economic importance or it’s long colonial history. Shameful. But most shameful, is that the people who lived on Railroad Street were in no way integrated into our town, and it was a small town. And I am only just realizing this now.
So when I wonder and wonder how can it be that we don’t treat people equally, don’t value their contributions, don’t even see them as people, I got a little more insight into that this week. It wasn’t blatant. There were no signs that said, AVOID THE DANGERS OF RAILROAD STREET BECAUSE PEOPLE THERE AREN’T LIKE US. It was much more subtle, but I see better now how that works. Blatant racism is easier to identify and condemn.
I spent this morning reading through Maynard’s history: the Native American people inhabiting the land before Puritans arrived, the Revolutionary War, the separation from Stow and Sudbury, the woolen mill, the railroad, the start of Digital. There was lots written about immigrant populations: Italians, Polish, and Irish, but I couldn’t find a word about the Puerto Ricans. I found somewhere that Puerto Ricans were brought over to work in mills in Massachusetts but the woolen mill in Maynard closed in 1950. Were these families living there then? It was only ten years before, but where were they working after the mill closed, if that’s indeed where they worked? Did they just stop having kids or sending them to school? Did they not go to church? We had two big Catholic Churches in such a small town, maybe they went to the Polish church (I can’t even believe we had a separate church for the Polish!) but that was further away. Spanish wasn’t even offered as a second language in school until my second year of high school. It was either French or Latin until then. It’s like they were invisible, shadowy existences. I wonder what their names were, where they shopped, if there were other Puerto Rican communities in neighboring towns they could visit? Were they residents? Could they vote?
There were plenty of biases in town. We were pretty mean to kids with disabilities I’m sorry to say. Even if it wasn’t outright abuse, they were at minimum excluded. Athletes, however, were revered. We had one black family that I knew of but I don’t remember any disparaging words or actions against them. I doubt, however, they had positions of prominence in town. We had a few Jewish families including my beloved neighbor who was kind and generous to the neighborhood kids having none of his own. I didn’t know anything about his judaism until I was much older; it was never discussed. The talk was more of the men’s clothing store they owned, I think called New Idea or something like that. One brother was a chemistry teacher at the high school, and one the superintendent of schools, so they seemed very important and I don’t remember any hint of antisemitism, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.
I missed (literally and emotionally) this year’s weekend with my childhood friends. We’d planned this trip to Puerto Rico last year when we were discussing how terrible our president was treating them. We decided to go spend some tourist dollars there. Their economy is something like 82% based on tourism. Then the earthquake happened right before we were to go and anxiety levels rearranged plans. We would have talked about all this. We would have shared our experiences of Railroad Street. We’d have examined insights and would have talked about who we were then and who we are now.
When I found my Air b&b in a run down neighborhood I was wishing I’d splurged on a more expensive place. But after being there for a week, it didn’t seem so run down. I didn’t like the windowless room, but each day the neighborhood seemed nicer to me. I finally found my way there and back without the GPS and as it became more familiar, the houses looked well kept and more inviting. Kids who stared at me smiled when I smiled and waved. Early one morning a van was blaring something on a loudspeaker driving through the tiny streets and I freaked out. I didn’t know if they were telling everyone to evacuate or what. It sounded like a warning. I peeked out the front door trying to take cues from the neighbors. It sounded scary. There’d been a couple of small quakes during the night but all seemed quiet then. The van stopped in front of my place and the neighbors across the street came out. The driver started handing out loaves of bread. I laughed. They were delivering food. Taking care of each other.
I have so much to learn.
Love to all,