Our last writer’s meeting took place at the offices of the National Steinbeck Center on Thursday, November 20. Wellington Lee and Jaime Cortez and I shared with each other once again drafts of new material for review several days before our meeting. At our three-hour gathering, we were joined by Lori Wood and Elizabeth Welden-Smith who also read our material and offered us excellent insights and advice.
After reporting on our writing progress, we discussed each other’s work, beginning with Wellington pieces, which I found to be as interesting and informative as his previous examples. His writing has become more descriptive– “showing” rather than “telling.” His recollections of his childhood growing up in Salinas’s Chinatown, once the home to Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants, are a gold mine. Once completed, his book will be an invaluable literary and educational contribution to readers in general and to the community of Salinas in particular.
We next turned our attention to Jaime’s new piece, which focused on his father’s dire poverty as a child, experiencing severe hunger and having to sell newspapers in the street at the age of four to help his family make ends meet. It is a moving and touching graphic piece. (It reminded me of my own childhood when my family had no money and could not find work in the fields during rainy seasons. We would look for food in the trash behind grocery stores. ) We discussed whether or not to code-switch (using Spanish words in English sentences) when appropriate in his novel. We agreed that the use of it would depend on the audience for whom the novel was intended. Like Wellington work, Jaime’s novel will be a significant contribution to literature.
The comments and suggestions made by Wellington, Jaime, Lori, and Elizabeth about my two new pieces were once again helpful and encouraging.
Below is the draft of “Columbia Next Door”, one of my new pieces we discussed and edited. The title refers to Harlem, which is located near Columbia University.
Columbia Next Door
I dreaded having to meet with the chairman of the Spanish Department at the beginning of the second semester because of the bad experience I had with him at the start of the academic year. But I had no choice. I had to get his advice on and approval of classes to take. I dragged myself to his office on the second floor of Philosophy Hall and knocked timidly on the door. “Come in,” he said. The sound of his raspy voice brought chills up my spine. I opened the door slowly and poked my head in before entering. He was sitting at his desk reading the newspaper and smoking a pipe. I stood behind the chair facing his desk. “Sit down. Let’s see what you have,” he said, putting down the newspaper and stretching out his right hand to grab the form in which I had listed a few courses as possibilities. “These classes are fine,” he said. “But you should consider taking the course on Federico Garcia Lorca.” He proceeded to tell me that the course would be taught by Lorca’s brother, Francisco Garcia Lorca. It was the first and only time he would teach that course; it was to be the last class of his teaching career. Even though I had already taken the class on Don Quixote with him the first semester, I enrolled in the class on Garcia Lorca because I interpreted the chairman’s advice as a mandate. I was glad I did.
The class was held on the second floor of Hamilton Hall once a week, on Wednesdays from 3:00 to 5:00. The classroom was small with two entrances and 25 worn out desks bolted to the floor, facing a four-legged dark wooden table and chair placed on a platform reserved for the instructor. I took a seat in the back. The room quickly filled with students who applauded when Francisco Garcia Lorca entered the classroom through the back door. He smiled and greeted several of them by name as he made his way to the front, carrying a thick leather-bound book in his right hand. He placed it on the table, pulled out the chair, and sat down. His slim build and jet black sparkling eyes and thick grayish black hair belied his age. I felt my self-confidence slowly fading away as each one of the students introduced themselves. Most of them were far advanced in their studies for the Ph.D. at Columbia and were teaching at local colleges and universities. A few of them were political refugees from Cuba who already had their doctorate from the University of La Habana, but their degree was not recognized in the United States. I was the youngest in that class and the least experienced professionally, which was ironic because all through elementary, high school, and college I was the oldest in my classes–I had failed first grade and had to repeat it because I did not know English well enough.
Professor Garcia Lorca informed us that this was his last class. “I plan to enjoy it fully,” he said proudly and gleefully. “I am going to talk about my older brother and his work, which is contained in this one volume.” He grabbed the leather bound book from the top of his desk and proudly showed it to us and suggested that we obtain a copy from the library or purchase a copy of it at The Americas Bookstore in Manhattan. He appeared to be much more relaxed and open in this class than in the class he taught on Don Quixote. His jaw was not as tense and he did not clench his teeth as often between sentences. He spent the first class talking about Federico Garcia Lorca and his family as a backdrop to his brother’s writings.
Federico Garcia Lorca was born in 1898, in Fuente Vaqueros, a small town west of Granada in southern Spain. According to Professor Lorca, his brother was more absorbed by writing than study. “Federico was a poor student,” he told us, grinning. “He skipped classes frequently and was happiest writing, singing songs, reciting his poems.” What caught my attention was when he mentioned that Federico had spent a year as a student at Columbia University School of General Studies studying English in 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression. My interest turned to excitement when he told us that Federico lived in John Jay Hall, across the way from Hamilton Hall. Professor Lorca then read to us what his brother wrote about his dorm. “My room in John Jay is wonderful. It is on the 12th floor of the dormitory, and I can see all the university buildings, the Hudson River and a distant vista of white and pink skyscrapers. On the right, spanning the horizon, is a great bridge under construction, of incredible grace and strength.” I laughed to myself, thinking about my own unattractive dorm room on the eighth floor of that same dormitory. At the end of the class, he informed us that in lieu of a final examination, we were to write a research paper on any aspect of his brother’s work.
Immediately after class, I rushed to Butler Library to check out Lorca’s works. I was too late; they had already been taken out the day before. The next morning I took the IRT-Subway train downtown and bought a one-volume used copy of Federico Garcia Lorca’s complete works at the Americas Book Store. It was a beautiful edition published in Spain with a prologue by Jorge Gillen, a well-known Spanish poet and member of the Generation of 1927, the same group of talented writers to which Federico Garcia Lorca belonged. On the way back on the same subway line, I scanned the index in the back of the 2017 page-long book. Poeta en Nueva York on page 471 caught my eye. I tore off a piece of newspaper from a copy of The Daily News left behind on an empty seat next to mine and marked the page. I exited the crowded and noisy subway station on 116th Street and went straight to Butler Library to begin reading Poeta en Nueva York. I discovered that Federico Garcia Lorca had written it during his studies at Columbia from 1929-1930 and that this work was considered one of the most important collections of poetry he ever produced. I skimmed the work, noting that it was divided into ten sections, using Roman numerals, and became excited and intrigued when I read the title of Section I: “Poemas de la soledad en Columbia University.” My enthusiasm quickly turned into frustration. The poems were a challenge to understand, even after several careful and painstaking readings. Many of the images were weird. I worried that it was my own lack of ability to understand his poetry even though I knew that it was classified as surrealistic. I went to class the following Wednesday, hoping that professor Lorca would explain the poems in class. His explanations were helpful but even he, by his own admission, had trouble making sense of some of the poems and indicated that literary critics did not always agree about the meaning of many of them. “I think that Federico did not know what he meant either,” he said jokingly. “Seriously, if you have difficulty with certain passages, it’s best not to worry about the exact meaning; concentrate on the images and their emotional power.” His advice eased my anxiety, and after many more readings and re-readings and class discussions, I learned to appreciate and understand Poeta en Nueva York. I empathized with Federico Garcia Lorca’s feelings of loneliness at Columbia and of being disconnected from the City. I was drawn in by his long poem “Oda al rey de Harlem” [Ode to the King of Harlem”] in which he explores the alienation and isolation of the Blacks living in Harlem and their being victims of prejudice and discrimination. Upon reading it, I became more aware of the fact that before coming to New York City, I knew hardly knew any Blacks. There were only two of them in my high school class of 380 students and just as few in my college class of 579. I remembered them well but the most memorable was John Nelson whom I met after my sophomore year in college. He was a young field supervisor for the Santa Maria Gas Company. I was hired by the same company that summer to clean and paint gas meters throughout the central coast under his supervision. One scorching late afternoon, we took a break at a small coffee shop in Paso Robles, a small agricultural town located about 70 miles north of Santa Maria. We parked the white company pickup truck in front, entered the shop, and sat at the counter next to each other. The waitress walked past us several times, looking the other way. After a long wait, John got up and said, “Come on, let’s go.” “Why?” I asked. “I’ll tell you later.” I followed him, feeling confused. When we got into the truck, I asked him why we had to leave in such a hurry. He did not respond. After driving for several miles back to Santa Maria, he broke his silence. “Didn’t you notice that the waitress didn’t want to serve us?” “What do you mean?” I asked, still puzzled. “It was obvious! She served other customers who had come in after we had. She ignored us. Why? Because I am black; she’s a racist!” he said angrily. I felt stupid and embarrassed because I had been so oblivious to what was going on right in front of me. “Let’s go back and complain!” I said. “What for, to face more humiliation?” he said, shaking his head and gripping the steering wheel with both hands. “I understand how you feel,” I said, placing my left hand lightly on his right shoulder. I told him how Roberto and I had experienced discrimination from parents who forbade us to go out with their daughters because we were Mexican. He gave me a soulful look and said, “Unfortunately, discrimination is worse for us Blacks.” I did not disagree. I knew what was going on in the South from reading the paper and listening to the news.
As a result of my recalling this incident and reading Poeta en Nueva York, I decided to see Harlem with my own eyes and find out what had inspired Federico Garcia Lorca to write “Oda al rey de Harlem.” It was a cloudy and chilly Sunday morning. I bundled up and headed north to 125th Street and then turned east. At the northeast corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street I stopped and gazed at a large, abandoned building on which a giant billboard advertizing Marlboro cigarettes hung. Columbia University loomed in the distance. As I continued walking, I had to side-step cracked and uneven sidewalks and scattered chunks of concrete and trash. I was amazed at the number of blocks with crumbling and abandoned buildings and the lack of greenery. Some dwellings were boarded up or had the boards torn off and the windows and doors were smashed and broken. They reminded me of the old army barrack my family lived in during the time I was in high school and college. It too had broken windows and holes on the walls when we first occupied it. I approached a line of people going into a brownstone townhouse, which to my surprise, turned out to be a Baptist church. I stood outside and listened to gospel music pouring through the front door. The angelic sounds filled the air. I went on to the next block and passed a number of stores and brownstone townhouses that served as places of worship–Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic. On the second floor of another brownstone townhouse, I saw a woman gazing out a window. I wondered what she might be thinking. Several blocks further, I came across a junkyard littered with garbage and abandoned cars and barefooted children playing baseball in the street, using a broken broom stick for a bat. Across the street I saw a girl about 17 years old, cradling an infant in her arms and walking hurriedly past two disheveled men who sat on the front stairs of a hollowed-out building, playing pinochle and drinking wine from bottles hidden in brown paper bags. They must be drinking to forget their troubles like the braceros in Tiger Town, I thought. I turned the street corner and saw on the opposite side of the street a liquor store with steel shutters and five teenagers hanging out in front laughing and jiving. One of them caught my eye and yelled, “What the hell you doing here, white boy?” I was stunned. I had heard kids call me “chilly stomper,” “tamale wrapper,” and “greaser,” but never “white boy.” When he and the other four swaggered towards me, I got scared and ran like a cat on fire. When I got to the end of the block, I looked over my shoulder to see if they were following me. To my relief, they were not. I stopped to catch my breath and headed back, taking a different route. On the way home, liquor stores seemed to pop up at every street corner.
When I returned to my room early that evening, I lay in bed thinking about what I had seen. My visit to Harlem brought back memories of my family and other migrant families who struggled to make ends meet every day and lived in dirt floor tents or old garages without electricity and indoor plumbing and suffered discrimination and prejudice. It was clear to me that Blacks in Harlem lived in similar circumstances. I felt in solidarity with them. And I was sure that what I saw was not all there was. These inhumane conditions did not define Blacks and families like my own. I was convinced that we could realize our hopes and dreams for a better life if we were given equal opportunity. I got up and re-read an interview done with Federico Garcia Lorca in which he talked about the Blacks in New York: “Es indudable que ellos ejercen enorme influencia en Norteamerica….son lo mas spiritual y lo mas delicado de aquel mundo. Porque creen, porque esperan, porque cantan y porque tienen una exqusita fe religiosa….” Undoubtedly, they exert enormous influence on North America … they are the most spiritual and most refined of that world. Because they believe, because they hope, because they sing and because they have an exquisite religious faith….”
Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York and Harlem had evoked in me deep rooted emotions and tapped into stories of my family and my childhood that I felt an urge to tell.