July 13, 2024 6 Ricans from the Ashes of the South Bronx

Seis del Sur (Six from the Bronx) – Collectivum photo

The day the present became the past, a life in six pictures.

Thirty nine years ago, I was on Boston Road, headed home after teaching a photo class at CS61 on Charlotte Street (yes, that Charlotte Street). In my bag was a Rolleiflex and a few rolls of 120. I had decided – after prodding from some friends – that I would do family portraits. Maybe it was, they suggested, a way to connect with them. Maybe it was a way for me to reconcile my dubious career choice with their expectations of me as a Yale graduate.

As I walked to the bus stop, I saw these kids in an empty lot, one of scores dotting this urban moonscape of rubble, charred wood and garbage. “Hey,” one shouted. “Take a picture!” So, I did. The image – like others I did around this time in the SBX – was not about debris, but people. And these kids, playing in an empty lot, spoke to me. As a child I had been like them, playing in empty lots and exploring the basements of burned out buildings or playing epic games of tag over rooftops, stairways and empty apartments, where sunshine bathed the pastel-colored walls after the roof had been ripped open to extinguish a fire, most likely an arson. To this day, the smell of charred wood brings me back – viscerally – to that era.

That photo was, simply, a commentary on life. On goofy kids doing what goofy kids do anywhere. Three boys and a dog. This was an image that challenges the stereotype of what Steven Shames would decades later refer to – blithely and insultingly – as “feral youth” in the Bronx. Hard to believe, but they had a certain innocence, though as Ricky knows, we lost that innocence as we realized the buildings were not playgrounds, the fires were real, and so was the fear of being displaced, consumed by the wave of abandonment and official apathy sweeping through our streets, taking with it our homes, our friends, our memories.

This is the last picture I took before my youth ended, definitively. When the photographer was as clueless about what lay ahead as the kids he photographed. When the present became my past. When Papi didn’t come home from work.

Everything had been prepared for the next day’s meal, from the turkey – its carcass slathered with garlic – to dozens of pasteles, plump as they bulged from the string that wrapped them. Night fell, and still no sign of Papi. A dash to the bodega, to see if he was having a cold one. Nothing. Evening became night, then night turned to dawn.

A knock at the door at 8 AM. Papi was there, still in his work clothes, soiled, disheveled, and looking lost. All we could do was let him lie down while we waited to take him to Monty. Within days, we would learn: a tumor in his brain has caused a seizure. It had started in his lungs. It was in his liver. I was in a daze.

Mami and I went home that night, after Papi had checked into Monty. We sat in silence at the dinner table that was tucked in the foyer, beneath a painting of The Last Supper, and ate turkey, going through the motions, but feeling cut adrift inside.

By March 12, he was gone.

Thanksgiving has never been the same. Nor have I, nor anyone else in my family. But as much as I don’t care for the enforced jollity of the season, I am ever grateful for Pedro Gonzalez, Jr., who left everything he knew as a teenager in Caguas, to find a new life in the South Bronx. Not a day goes by without thinking of him and the sacrifice he made decades ago.

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