This article by Andre Lee Muñiz first appeared on La Respuesta.
My father, Stanley Muñiz (1954-2007), was born just two years or so after his mother Cruzita moved to New York City in order to join my grandfather Ernesto (1925-1972), a WWII era veteran who had been able to find work there. When my father was born in Gouverneur Hospital in the Lower East Side, where his parents resided at the time, he already had two siblings; a brother, born the year previously, and a sister, born in Caguas in 1951. After moving into a housing project in Brownsville, Brooklyn, my grandparents would go on to have four more sons. Later, Ernesto would form them into a baseball team.
It was sometime in the early 1960s that my grandfather made the political decision to take an active role in the community by organizing a baseball league for the local youth, and taking them on yearly trips to Puerto Rico so they might interact with and play against Puerto Ricans living on the island. In the years after my grandfather’s death in 1972, his daughter Jenny (1951-2012) would continue the Ernesto Muñiz Baseball League in his name and maintain it as a significant community organization for the youth in Brownsville. At its height, the league would consist of seventeen teams in four divisions, with more than five-hundred young people, from ages seven to seventeen, taking part every season. Holding a parade each year, this community effort led to the development of the space located on Mother Gaston Boulevard now known as Floyd Patterson Ballfields.
My grandfather’s death, and the fact that my Tío Luis (1953-1994) was already in the Air Force, led my father to leave Hunter College, where he enrolled after graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1972, to also join the Air Force. During his three years of service, before being honorably discharged in 1976, my father experienced the divisive effects of U.S. racism from the perspective of a Puerto Rican whose culture was multi-racial. Having grown up in the housing projects of Brownsville, where he had many friends who were African-American, my father identified, to a large degree, with Black culture, which he understood to be a key part of the Puerto Rican experience. In fact, I can remember him telling me a story from his days in the service where, at some point early on, he had to make clear which group he would associate with, ‘los blancos’ or ‘the brothers.’ Even though he felt comfortable interacting with both groups, his cultural awareness, as well as his social awareness of racism, led him to associate with ‘the brothers’, the very people that resembled in appearance and personality his neighborhood and childhood friends.
After leaving the service, my father entered Brooklyn College but again left his studies after a semester or two in order to help raise my sister, who was born in November 1977. By this time, through his experiences growing up in a large Puerto Rican family, attending Hunter College in the early years of the student movements for ethnic studies programs, and having enlisted in the military, my father was culturally and politically conscious and began to involve himself in activism and community organizing. The stories I have are few, but they show the commitment he had to political issues. After William Morales was arrested in 1978 Queens, New York when an explosive device he was constructing for the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional) malfunctioned, severing large portions of his hands and damaging one of his eyes, my father joined those protesting the political nature of his imprisonment and the inadequate hospital and prison attention to his injuries. After over a dozen other Puerto Ricans connected with the FALN were arrested in Illinois between 1980 and 1983, my father again joined those in protest of the political imprisonment of Puerto Rican pro-independence activists.
After I was born in 1986, my father remained politically active for a few years. A raw example of a Puerto Rican struggling politically in that time period, he also struggled personally, though many did not know, with the use of heroin since the mid-1970s. The reason many did not know of this struggle was because my father, who often kept his personal health to himself, was what some would consider a ‘highly functioning addict’, able to maintain his personal and political life despite his drug use, working the night shift five days a week.
One day, after we moved to a housing project near Coney Island in the summer before I started first grade, we were riding the train and I innocently pointed to a “Just Say No To Drugs” advertisement, reading the first three words. From that day on he never touched heroin again. The curious part in all of this is that I was completely oblivious and ignorant to this side of my father. From my perspective as a child, he was simply a man that did everything for his family. He raised me with an active lifestyle, taking me to basketball leagues that I spent some three to four years playing in, going to weekly practices and taking part in exercise drills. My father was a simple, working-class man who worked nights, was always there for us during the day, and always came home to his wife and family. He supported my development by providing me with opportunities, never forcing anything on me, instead allowing me to develop according to my own interests and at my own pace. The role of Puerto Rican history and culture was no different. While it was always a part of my experience, my father never forced me to read any books or blindly adopt any political positions. Actually, growing up in the projects with African-American friends, many of them my classmates, I never took an active interest in Puerto Rican history and culture until later in my life.
It wasn’t until after my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 that I began to take interest in the indigenous history and culture of Puerto Rico, primarily as a way of escaping my circumstances and imagining myself in what I perceived as a simple and beautiful native past. This new interest came at a time when I had just entered Kingsborough Community College after barely graduating ‘on time’ from an alternative high school. My self-immersion into Puerto Rican studies provided me with a sense of national identity, leading to an increased sense of self-esteem and motivation. This newly-formed identity and pride gave me the personal strength to persevere in school during my mother’s fight with cancer. After she successfully completed radiation and chemotherapy treatments, which has her cancer in remission for seven years now, my father was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. With his health becoming severe, to the point of undergoing an emergency liver transplant in early 2006, I managed to maintain my studies, earning a full scholarship to a Math Education program in New York University. While finishing my last semester at Kingsborough, my father unexpectedly told me about a demonstration taking place on September 23, 2006. Bringing me to the demonstration, still recovering from his surgery, my father and I joined the marchers that day, on the 138th anniversary of El Grito de Lares, a revolt carried out in 1868 Puerto Rico. Bringing together a number of issues, the demonstration was in support of Puerto Rico’s independence while also protesting the lack of attention to the residents of Vieques, the continued imprisonment of Carlos Alberto Torres, since freed, and Oscar López Rivera, and the FBI assassination of revolutionary leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos on September 23, 2005. At the march I was given the opportunity of walking with a poster of political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, who was arrested in 1981 in Illinois.
That demonstration was a turning point in my life. From then on, especially after my father passed away eleven months later, I was committed to the study of my history and culture, as well as intent on participating in the activism in support of certain Puerto Rican causes. In the years following, I would participate in demonstrations and events around Puerto Rican grand jury resistors and political prisoners, the Puerto Rican student and workers movements, the environmental struggle for Vieques and against a proposed Gas Pipeline project, in addition to other cultural activities. This political and cultural activism was a direct result of the influence of my father, and in a way the continuation of a political commitment that he introduced me to on September 23, 2006.
As I dealt with the loss of my father, continuing my enrollment at New York University while at the same time involving myself in self-education, I used the free time playing basketball to stay fit since I was a substitute teacher unable to find a full-time position. Eventually, as I learned more about the history of my family in Brooklyn, I attempted to continue, in a small way, the tradition of community organizing my grandfather and Titi Jenny practiced by discussing with others in my neighborhood park the idea of forming a traveling basketball team. The idea being to eventually support other parks in forming their own teams, with the goal of neighborhood park tournaments. Forming a basketball team able to take on this project proved too much for the young men in the neighborhood who were struggling with school, being young fathers, and the jobs they were forced to take to support their family. We still get together to play basketball however, so the opportunity is there—the truth is that community building is never quick or easy.
Today, as I write this article for La Respuesta, I am reflecting on how the history of my family, and the influence of my father especially, has placed me in the position that I am in today. In writing this article, I am filled with great pride over the fact that I am a child of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. We are truly a resilient people, having been able to ‘bring over’ a lot of our island culture, while maintaining a strong Puerto Rican identity that, in my interpretation, will only become more nuanced, rather than ‘watered down’ or assimilated, through the experiences with new people, settings, and events we live through in the U.S. We have struggled, and continue to struggle, not only for our cultural and national survival, but also for our cultural and national development. Writing for La Respuesta is one small way I can support this development, as I hope my writings can help increase the knowledge others have of our current reality and situation, particularly in the Diaspora. I am a proud child of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, and I hope that what I share of my experience fills other “Diasporicans” with a similar pride and sense of motivation that leads to political and social engagement. There is a long, often intergenerational, history of political and community struggle outside of Puerto Rico, both within the books of history as well as within the family histories of our communities. We have every reason to be proud, and it is our duty to develop our communities and assert our human right to free and full development wherever we are.