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Archive for September, 2015|Monthly archive page

Hecho in New York City – Or, Why I’m So Borderland

In Geography/ Spatial Justice, History on September 11, 2015 at 6:31 PM
Manhattan skyline from Sunset Park, Brooklyn. 5/25/14

Manhattan skyline from Sunset Park, Brooklyn. 5/25/14

Here’s a story few people know about me: My origin story lies in the Twin Towers.

In fact, I probably wouldn’t be here sharing this were it not for those aesthetically dubious buildings that rose into the sky like drab metallic beams.

For about a quarter century, during the span of the Towers’ very existence, my father drudged through the evening shift as a maintenance worker. His job was something of a rarity in contemporary times: a unionized job with benefits. During those years, he swept, mopped, organized and took out the thrash for America’s top financial elite.

But my New York roots really begin in the island of Borinquen (today, Puerto Rico). It was in his early teens, in those hot revolutionary late ‘60s, that he joined the declining end of a massive wave of Boricua migrants that re-settled into, and helped shape, the many neighborhoods that make up Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx.

Since history has a way of being forgotten or deliberately suppressed, and individual stories decoupled from the social contexts from which they emerge in our neoliberal age, I feel it necessary to underscore a particular history, which I argue has everything to do with what the World Trade Center was, how it functioned and why.


Per many historians, critics, and activist scholars, the Puerto Rican diaspora to Gotham was far from incidental. Pushed, in great part, by the economic failures of the Operation Bootstrap—a mid-century program that failed to produce the sought after industrialization-cum-prosperity in the island nation—as well as a much longer legacy of exploitative, colonial American policies tracing as far back as the island’s takeover in 1898*, the “invisible hand” that thrust many island Black and Brown folks into the northern metropolis was far from an abstract market mechanism.

It had everything to do with post-war American global dominance and a prevailing Keynesian economic system wherein suburbanization, white flight and a hegemonic, modernist culture that relied heavily on mass production and cheap labor.

By becoming the first substantial population of Latina/os to permanently reside in New York City, puertorriqueña/os ultimately built the foundations of Latinx urban life not only in the Empire State, but across the country for generations to come.


Fast-forward to the infamous 1980s, when my genes were still split between a sperm and an egg. I can only speak of this decade as a distant historian (too bad, since I feel like I missed out), but when it comes to making sense of the political economic life of the United States in broad strokes, it can more or less be summarized as:

Reagan and Thatcher ruling the world. Perestroika, glasnost, and the final decade of the Cold War. The neoliberal turn. The AIDS crisis. The crack cocaine crisis. The war on drugs. The beginnings of mass incarceration. The beginnings of neoliberal gentrification. The beginnings of ‘colorblind’ liberal multiculturalism and the ‘new’ white supremacy. Rampant poverty and stunning inequality. Privatization, union busting and across-the-board cuts on state social spending. The demonization of “welfare moms,” urban “thugs,” “hood rats” and “bums.” Flashy Porsches and BMW’s for Wall Street and real estate gremlins, graffiti and scratchitti for everyone else.

And then, of course, the Central American crisis.

As various political economists, historians, and geographers have commented, the 1980’s were a time of financial experimentation and speculation. When our infamous Wall Street gremlins couldn’t figure out where to invest—now that Americans were faced with a crisis of overproduction that was viscerally felt in the decade prior—their decision to invest in foreign countries led to massive, cross-border state destabilizations.

When the civil wars in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador broke out, there was a common theme: the extreme inequalities engineered by years of local, capitalist oligarchies and foreign imperialist exploitation were countered with revolutionary resistance (however flawed). In that volatile chess game that was the Cold War, Central Americans were just pawns with a refutable humanity.

My mother was just one person in that mass exodus from this other part of the Caribbean Basin at the time. Unlike much of the approximately 62% of Central Americans suffering from ‘extreme’ poverty in the mid-1980s, she had sufficient resources to flee her native San Pedro Sula, the industrial capital of Honduras, the quintessential “banana republic.”

She left not because she was fleeing U.S.-trained paramilitary and counterinsurgency troops, or Maoist-Leninist guerrilla fighters, as many did in those years.

She left for the same reason migration perseveres as a forefront issue today, deeply enveloped within the discourses of the homeland defense: economic security.

She left because the economic situation in San Pedro Sula was simply impossible.

She explained it very succinctly to me recently: her job as a secretary gave her 400 lempiras a month in 1981—something tantamount to $20 in today’s exchange rates—and it was simply not enough to support herself, much less her aging parents.

Young, able-bodied, adventurous, with money saved up and a loose connection to a cousin in Brooklyn, why wouldn’t she go?


Moving to New York, like for most immigrants who come here, was a pivotal life decision. She lived alone in New York City at a time it was undergoing what historian Kim Moody has called a regime change, a financial “coup” that emerged in the aftermath of the city’s near-bankruptcy the decade prior.

As Moody explains it, it was a city on the road to achieving its self-proclaimed status as the “real estate capital of the world.” And yet, like most of the over 8 million people who live in the city today, she wouldn’t have time to take note of that.

Just like New York in the 2010s, the dynamics of city life didn’t lend themselves to careful observation, led alone anticipation of the future, if you were poor. Wracked by loneliness and self-doubt, my mother wondered if it moving to a city where she didn’t know the language was worth it. The calls to her mother required a good deal of psychic preparation, but disguising her New York discomfort was made easier by the money she could confidently send back home.

But between the late work shifts, the long commutes, she would sometimes look up. There were no stars. Skyscrapers were coming up everywhere. People would not stop hitting the streets, although at night they darted like shadows.

It’s a city whose transformations can be multiplicative, but it’s a city nonetheless. Cities are not built overnight, and pre-9/11, rarely changed from one day to the next. Like another, it continues to transform itself in an image cast by the movement and accumulation of capital—people, money, equipment, ideas, resources—and, as such, the changes can be slow and painful.

In 1983, however, it was clear that the city survived its financial doomsday. Some were even suggesting that it was thriving. And the Twin Towers still rose resplendent in the New York skyline, as if to obnoxiously proclaim the glowing triumph of a particular type of world trade. Still in Brooklyn, my father was one of the lucky ones spared from the economic calamities that struck many of his high school friends and family back home.

At this point, he had been working at World Trace Center 2 for almost ten years, which is where my mother found him. She had just finished an errand that took her downtown, and as she rushed home, somewhat lost and befuddled in that pedestrian traffic, she realized she didn’t have her watch. She asked the first staff person she found who looked like a Spanish speaker.


And that was that. I don’t handle maudlin shit very well, so I’ll say this: it was just another New York City moment. A cosmic convergence of sorts, maybe.

Coming back to New York this week after a year-long hiatus, it was strangely like old times: my family and me hanging out by the World Trade Center, complaining about the tourists.

Then things started hitting me in the head like meteor shows, or what could have just been falling New York debris, I’m not sure: I am ontologically bound to this city because I could not have been any other way. It also helps me understand why I am so driven to borders, the borderlands: I live, breathe, thrive at the crossroads. I am not whole when I am segmented into pieces that are then marketed and sold like tchatchkes on Union Square.

I was incredibly exhausted from my long flight from the West Coast, but it kind of hit there as I tried to process the changes: it’s ground zero, dumbass. It’s where space-time contorts in ways my puny human brain will never understand, largely because it’s like a black hole where multiple dimensions, histories and geographies collide. A surreal Dalí-esque world where clocks and maps collide and collapse into one other before melting under the night sky.

Puerto Rico. San Pedro Sula. Brooklyn. San Diego. The ’80s. The ’90s. The 2000s. The 2010s.

This city. Who knows what it’ll become?

The author in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. July 14, 2014.

The author in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. July 14, 2014.

The author at Brooklyn Bridge Park. July 22, 2014. (The blue cap reads 'Honduras')

The author at Brooklyn Bridge Park. July 22, 2014. (The blue cap reads ‘Honduras’)

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