If you ask me where I’m from the first thing out of my mouth is, Brooklyn. I say the word more with my body, than with my tongue and lips. It’s as if every part of my body reacts, memories are triggered, images evoked, and emotions are unleashed. So, when I say Brooklyn those eight letters are flavored with sazon and adobo, pulled to dance by Frankie Ruiz, and asked to rep by Biggie. And when asked what part of Brooklyn, I say: Sunset. Only after my street cred is affirmed do I explain. Explain that I live in Bayridge now, but born and raised in Sunset. Moved over to Bayridge at twenty-four. I joke and say, wanted to move on up like the Jeffersons. I laugh and say I’m George and Weezie, wanted a piece of the pie.
When I hear the words Sunset Park, a parade stomps up and down my body. I puff out my chest and slide my hands up my hips. Yeah, I’m from Sunset, I say all slow and badass. Not always though. My love for Sunset came after the world reflected back to me what they thought about my neighborhood. And me. Comments stuck to my brain long after the words no longer vibrated through the air. Words shaped my thoughts, I take the shape of my thoughts, and I believed it all.
- You can take the girl out of Sunset, but you can’t take the Sunset out of her.
- Damn isn’t like bad over there?
- Why are all the door bells ripped off?
- You know you sound just like Rosie Perez, right?
- Aren’t they gangs over there?
- Don’t they call it Gunset?
I didn’t realize that there were neighborhoods that didn’t look like mine. Where my Mami and Papi’s friends lived in Jamaica Queens and Jackson Heights, resembled my own. My Tio, in Patterson, New Jersey, could be added to the list. It wasn’t until I was in third grade, that I saw what existed beside these neighborhoods. An appointment in Bayridge for my terrible sinuses was my first glimpse. It was minutes away from Sunset Park, but it could be another country. Foreign. Graffiti, broken glass, signs for WIC and Food Stamps, and red and yellow bodegas were absent on these streets. Brownstone houses, streets lined with trees, fancy store signs, and delis were in place. People walked at ease. This was something I had no name for. Later I would learn it was a class and race thing. And the right set of class and race bought you safety.
A few weeks ago I took Holden and Ruben to La Gran Villa Bakery, in Sunset Park. Located in the heart of Sunset, La Quinta. Fifth Avenue. A few blocks from the park itself. We were in search for flan. My mother in law’s birthday that day. The kids and I wanted to surprise her. Flan, a favorite among all of us.
“Why don’t we live here?” My daughter asked as we crossed the street. Parked on the opposite side of the bakery.
It was mid day. One of those warmer than usual days. Where the whole world lives outside. Gaits are slowed down. No one seems in a rush when the sun is out. As if the sun a giant stop watch, clicked to stop time.
“What do you mean?” I asked over the reggaeton music that blared off of a car driving by. “We leave in Bayridge.” I lifted my palms, as if that was explanation enough.
“You grew up here,” she walked ahead. “My grandparents live here, we come here all the time, and you even taught here.” She listed off.
In front of the store. Cakes for quinceaneras, bautizos, cuempleanos, and bodas displayed behind the large glass window. A sign in block letters, open 24 hours above the door.
“Yeah,” My son pushed the door open. “You are always saying Sunset Park this and that…” He trailed off.
Once inside we were greeted by Gran Combo’s Me Libere. The smell of fresh-baked biscocho, fresh brewed cafe con steamed leche, and pressed sandwich Cubano. All in competition to reach my nose first. I watched my daughter order a flan, and a sandwich Cubano with an order of fries, to spilt between her and Ruben. My son walked up to the counter. He ordered a small red jello cup. Both at ease. And I thought of all the times I joked and called Fifth Avenue. Filth Avenue.
I walked over to Holden and Ruben at the counter. My hand over my chest, in some feeble patriotic attempt. I ordered a loaf of pan de manteca, a cup of arroz de leche, and two guava con queso turnovers. My children wide-eyed. Impulsive buys were something I was not known for. But overcome by shame. I wished to atone.
This past Friday I sat on the fringe of the class circle. My students sat crossed legged on the blue rug at the front of the classroom. I watched my students show case objects from their cultural background. One by one, they stood in front. The smart board behind them. Some held their object in front of them. Others slide them under the document camera. They were those that spoke in low whispers and with bent heads. Others spoke loud, and held their heads high. All marched to the front of the room with their object nestled in their hands.
Coins from Palestine, a Turkish decorative dish, a tostonera from Haiti, a glass tumbler in shape of a skull to represent el dia de los muertos, and a Bengali string instrument, a Jewish mezuzah. Five minutes alloted for Q. A. after each presentation. How long is the plane ride to Kosovo? Where in Italy have you visited? If your mom is Peruvian and dad Cuban, do you feel one more than the other? I watched each and everyone one of my students faces flush with pride. Smiles wide, each question received like flowers tossed on stage at the end of a concert.
And my mind drifted to the very start of our social studies immigration unit. I brought a balcon de Colombia to show my class. I held it up like a trophy. As I spoke about my summers in Colombia, the meaning behind the balcones, and accents that decorated the miniature porch under the Spanish styled roof. My balcon was passed around my students. My chest a helium ballon inflated with Colombian pride. I thought of my parents, and their love ballads to Colombia in their everyday. Colombian news on RCN transmitter radio, the smell of arepas de juevo on weekend mornings, the statue of El Divino Nino on my dresser, and the bottle of menticol by Mami’s nightstand. No shame. Celebration for all things Colombian.
But. I only spent most of my summers in Colombia. I lived in Brooklyn. Sunset Park, Brooklyn. And if Colombia was a love song, well Sunset Park was as hostile as head banger metal. Mami made her discomfort of Sunset Park clear. Her discomfort made me grow uneasy. Sunset Park was held at arms legnth. If I was the Cuban DA from Law and Order SVU I would enter the following list as exhibit 1 thru 5.
- Sunset Park Pool off-limits. “Aya te violan,” Mami insisted rapist congregated at the pool ready to pounce on women and young girls. “Y esa picina sucia hasta aye SIDA,” Mami wrinkled her face in horror at the thought of the AIDS virus on the surface of the pool, like a deadly inflatable float.
- Open Johnny Pumps in the summer off-limits. “No.” Mami held up her hand every time we saw an open water hydrant on hot days. “Estas calles estan llena de peligro. Y eso no se usa en Colombia.” And if it wasn’t custom in Colombia it was not to be done.
- Stoops off-limits. Porque se van a sentar afuera? Ojo con malas amistades. Eso es lo unico que un encuentra en la calle. Stoops a snare trap for friendships that would lead to bad influences.
- Walks to La Quinta off-limits. Forbidden. “Hacer que? Buscar novio? Malaclase en cada esquina. Corners crowded with thugs was deterrent alone to be kept home. Walks around the neighborhood, an invitation for a disgrace to spill into our lives. So, great was Mami’s fears of the street she walked us everywhere. Seldom was her shadow not beside my own. Even walked beside Joann and I on our way to highschool, and on real cold days took the car service ride with us.
- Sunset Park off-limits. En ese parque matan la gente. And Mami would list off all the deaths that occurred in the park in the last twenty years like some seasoned detective.
Mami’s list while comical and exaggerated was based on truth. The Sunset Park of my childhood in the 1980’s and most of the 1990’s is not the Sunset Park that it is now. A Sunset Park that battles gentrification. A battle that it will lose.
But if I narrow my eyes, look close at Sunset Park. I can see traces of what it was. And I can remember how Mami would walk fast once the sky darkened. Each hand wrapped tight around mine and Joann’s hand.
On holidays when we spent late nights in our godmother’s building. Mami would ask my madrina for one of those long forks used to turn the pernil in the oven.
“If anyone comes at me I will stab them,” Mami walked with the fork under her arm. Concealed, but accessible.
“Ring the bell in case anything.” My madrina instructed. “Call me when you get home,” she dead bolted the door behind us.
Mami walked with her head twisted back. A meat fork under her arm. Corners filled with thugs. Sneakers dangled from the metal arm of the street lights. Drunks zig-zagged down the streets. The smell of weed perfumed the night air. Merengue poured loud out of open windows, mixed with the rap that spilled out of cars. Tagged up buildings completed the scene. And that was the Sunset Park I remembered. The one I feared. A clichéd obstacle course of the hood.
In a New York Times article written by Marcia Chambers Sunset Park 80’s gang activities is discussed. Sunset Park gangs during that decade are compared to the epidemic of gang activity in the South Bronx.
With the devastation of the South Bronx over the last decade, gang activity in New York City has shifted from the Bronx to Brooklyn. That borough has 82 of the 109 city gangs that the police have identified, and gang rivalries over the last seven years in Brooklyn have left dozens of gang members, their girlfriends and innocent bystanders maimed or dead.
In Brooklyn, residents of Sunset Park were enraged over gang activity for nearly two years before Edgar Gonzales, 8 years old, was fatally hit last May by a stray bullet during a battle between La Familia and a group believed to be the Filthy Mad Dogs. The police in Brooklyn say La Familia members have been responsible for four shootings since 1980. The victims were a girl who is now paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, two girls who were wounded in a gun battle, and an 18-year-old who was killed as he was leaving a birthday party.
When I walk in Sunset Park now, it’s slow. And absent of Mami’s shadow. I want to savor all the things that I ran past. I notice the piragua cart. The discount stores where security is a shelf that holds your other shopping bags. Your claim ticket a torn playing card. Clothes stores have mannequins with ample hips and butts. Vendors on the street sell sliced mangoes in plastic containers. Tables with Avon products, Latin American flags and bracelets, and knock off perfumes are set up every few blocks. A preacher with an amplifier on the corner. His message of God’s word belt out into the air. Bacahata interrupt his words. An undesired duet. Teen girls with carriages push through the street. Teen boys on the corner. Jordans on everyone’s feet. And I smile. Because this is my Sunset. And I think of my own list about Sunset Park. The one that makes me every bit a part of this neighborhood.
- I rock Tims. I leave the lace lose and the small tag still on.
- I bounce to Freestyle music and dance at the first sound.
- I crave helado de coco every spring and summer.
- And when I get pissed off I call it getting Sunset.
Sunset is every bit a part of me. I think there is beauty in it. The name suggests it. I have learned to walk slow through the streets of Sunset. Claim it as my own. And only when I do that does my soul scream: SUNSET PARK IN DA HOUSE!