Paradise Lost

Mark for Street Gangs
December 21, 2005

The Dominicans of upper Manhattan, like most immigrant communities in the United States, are dreaming and working their way into the opportunities and rewards of our society. Dominican-owned businesses line either side of Broadway from 135th to nearly 207th Street; Dominican livery cars are now a ubiquitous service anywhere above 96th Street; several new schools are available in District 6 for the overflow of children in Inwood and Washington Heights; the sound of merengue, salsa, and bolero pours from neighborhood nightclubs and restaurants every week-end; the organized Dominican criminal element is said to dominate a variety of uptown trades, not the least being the lucrative drug markets.

With my brown skin, black hair, and passing high school Spanish, the people here think I’m one of their own. I’m from South Central Los Angeles, though, which takes many Dominicans by surprise. I watch with admiration their enterprise and style of life, especially their love of one another as a people. Because of my origin in Los Angeles, I experience such deja vu here, since theirs is the way our world in Southern California was in the late fifties and early sixties, a world of hope and unity and natural beauty, a paradise, as some immigrants call this area by woodlands and rivers in Manhattan, but one which was eviscerated by forces which no longer seriously threaten the hopeful, industrious Dominicans.

I’m a black Angeleno, my parents having traveled during the fifties with tens of thousands of blacks, mostly from the south, to Los Angeles. Black Angelenos were part of the massive movement of black people throughout the United States after the world wars, an immigration from within, as it were. Most people think of immigration as movement from one country to another. But with American blacks’ emergence in North America from the no-man’s land of slavery and the failure of Reconstruction, we were required to seek citizenship and place in the twentieth century as if we had never been in this country. Prior to the Civil Rights breakthroughs of the 1960s and thereafter, we existed with an indefinite identity and standing with respect to law, social institutions, and custom. So unlike other people from abroad who’ve sought place in this nation, we were required to be the architects of our citizenship, rights, and culture concurrent with our effort to establish residential communities and livelihoods and to receive education. We migrated from the southern states and re-settled into nearly every region in the country, and in the South sought access to neighborhoods and resources from which we had been barred; we inherited from whites who preceded us, immigrants all, housing, jobs, transit systems, hospitals, and schools.

The achievement of black immigrants was impressive, especially in Southern California, where we were pioneering where few if any of our people had ever settled. In Walter Moseley’s marvelous Easy Rawlins novels, you’ll glimpse the rise of early black Los Angeles in pursuit of the American dream, a place of a booming post-war economy, cheap but decent houses with yards, black churches, stores and nightclubs, abundant vegetation and sunshine. During that time a family could leave its door open day and night without worry; brownie cameras clicked on family holidays by the beach or in Griffith Park; schools were orderly and academically challenging; fighting was with fists, and to get high, you convinced a wino to buy you a cheap bottle of wine. “Life was fine,” and best of all, there in the western heaven were countless black people just like oneself, from the “country” we’d say, with a common joy and determination to see our community prosper, and we were making it happen.

Many whites saw our community’s growing presence and aspirations in Southern California as invading cancer, and the mainstream practiced or tolerated the horrendous economic discrimination and official misconduct levied against us. Most of my parents’ generation, knowing the brutality of the authorities and whites in general in the south, had never directly challenged the system and tried to take it all on the chin in California. But their children grew afros, donned dashikis, and prepared for defiance, which ultimately was manifested in the so-called Watts riots of 1965 and in continuing civil disobedience. Throughout the 1960’s, we thought that in our numbers and solidarity, we could raise hell and hold the system’s feet to the fire and achieve our rights and place.

Few of us in Los Angeles, though, could have anticipated the costs of the ongoing protest and activism: the destruction in Vietnam of scores of the most talented young men from our community, the political set-ups and murders of black leaders in California and throughout the country by the F.B.I.’s Cointelpro pogrom, the bloody shoot-outs between the bold young people of the Black Panthers and the L.A.P.D., the sudden plague in the neighborhoods of heroin, barbiturates, amphetamines, and hallucinogenics.

When the smoke cleared from the sixties in Los Angeles, drugs and welfare dollars were everywhere, two of the nation’s most indispensable leaders, our leaders, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, had been assassinated, and the fratricidal nightmare of the L.A. street gangs had begun. Our sense of the importance and protection of our community and culture, our confidence and pride in being together were gone. There seemed now to be peril, rather than strength in numbers, and a code of selfishness, going for one’s own became the way of life. Cuba Gooding Jr. in the film “Boys in the Hood” shouts tearfully after a night of violence and police abuse in South Central, “I’ve got to get the f___ out of L.A.” There’s a constant escape trajectory of the talent and an evaporation of spirit of the people, and few blacks seek to join a community of their kindred on the West Coast, or hardly anywhere. That is part of the reason why the black community in California and nationwide is stagnant and troubled.

Since the United States’ Constitution was promulgated, the most defined and important guarantees of freedom and opportunity for all people in the United States have been whipped out in federal court litigation and in Congressional battles on the backs of the first immigrants of color, African Americans. The price we in Los Angeles paid in the ferocious struggle to perfect and partake of the American dream however, was ultimately the loss of our desire and capacity for community.

Dominicans have their island as others have their native places abroad; I’ve heard it argued in New York that their heritage of distinct culture and experience of political autonomy is why these immigrants are more intact and productive than blacks in the United States. But in the sixties in Los Angeles and elsewhere, we immigrants were fashioning our island and we would have succeeded, but we were called to war on so many fronts; we threw ourselves against the mental and institutional blockade of whites like a battering ram, and, legal and structural changes notwithstanding, we have endured the last several decades as a fractured and disabled people in consequence.

When Los Angeles exploded in 1992 in its last riots, I recalled Dr. King’s observation that riot is the voice of people who have no hope, and the continually bullet-riddled, arid plain of black life in Los Angeles provokes that feeling of hopelessness. The surround of violence and ennui, the lack of any stability or center in community life deprive families and individuals of order and connectedness, and they will, like prisoners, attack the confines of this unreal world.

There was a scarcely-reported Dominican uprising in New York later in that same year, provoked also by the brutal conduct of the police, and the rioting in Washington Heights expressed the people’s sense of outrage about that act and other tough conditions uptown. Their protest, however, much in the spirit of early black Angelenos, also signified their sense of political arrival. What is different is that the Dominicans will not be consumed in a battle already fought by African Americans for rights and place. That many blacks in Los Angeles burned and looted in response to the pervasive injustice and deprivation of their lives shows a people going backwards.

As demographics shift and electoral power passes to a polyglot, multi-colored United States, Dominicans and other Latinos and Asians will increasingly benefit from the legacy of activism and democratic reform of African American immigration. Yet this new mainstream will not be accountable to their black forerunners for debts created by whites through slavery and discrimination. All communities will have to be culturally whole and economically competitive to participate productively in the future society. In New York, Dominicans, among other groups, seem to be working assiduously towards these goals. Racism, crime and poverty affect them, but, as Johnnie Castro, an uptown businessman explains, “Dominicans are looking out the opening of the bottle,” and no longer, as was common, think of an inevitable return home, but are increasingly committed to establishing themselves in New York.

African Americans have a powerful identity as the first and to date greatest agents of democratic change in the United States. Blacks justifiably lament the past, but fail to exploit the political capital – which we created – that other groups are taking advantage of. To experience the Dominican community in Manhattan at a stage and in a style of life comparable to that which the black Angelenos had at our community’s height is inspiring. The Dominicans are dreaming and working; they have a tradition, “la promesa”, the promise, where a person will make a personal sacrifice for a countryman, as simple as promising to wear only red or blue for several years to inspire someone in poor health, or to provide a training program and employment for ex-offenders as Fernando Mateo, owner of Carpet Fashion on East 57th Street has done.

Black Angelenos and African Americans as a whole need to dream again, to dream away the negative forces of selfishness and self-hatred, and then to awaken from the dream and, as with la promesa, take in hand the formidable tools we fashioned – the right to vote and work, educational access, purposeful political and cultural understanding – and for the next several decades rebuild our communities, and our spirit as a people.

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