To Be Puerto Rican, Male & From Hartford: A Hispanic Heritage Month Reflection

Nick with his wife and three children in 2000.

Nick with his wife and three children in 2000.

Nick Lebron is a community outreach associate at Achievement FIrst. 

I am a Puerto Rican man from Hartford. My skin color, facial features and machismo make up the cover of my life book that the world sees. I am that, and I am more. My truth is not one single thing.

When I was young, I was cute and cuddly in everybody's eyes. When I started to grow and become a young man, I was no longer seen as cute, and I started to notice that certain types of people who wanted hugs before began to cross the street when they saw me. This perception that people had of me was not helped by the fact that I was enthralled with hip hop culture. I am in the first generation of my family to be born in the U.S. and unfortunately, my elders and other Puerto Rican traditionalists perceive hip-hop as black culture exclusively. But to be young and Puerto Rican in Hartford was to embrace hip hop. I don’t know how to dance salsa. I speak Spanish, but I don’t do it flawlessly. Those are reasons why, to some, I do not fit so neatly into the Puerto Rican demographic box I am supposed to check on surveys or the census. It’s sometimes hard because I don’t know others like me: Puerto Rican men from Hartford who are heavily influenced by hip hop and who are also professionals.

My heritage can leave me without a box to check in professional settings. I am not black. I’m not white. To some, I might not be “Puerto Rican enough.”

I am proud of the barriers I’ve overcome, and I’m proud that I am opening doors for people who fit the same mold. I want to show young people who are like me that there’s more out there than gang members and ex-cons. I can be your role model. I want people to see me in meetings and know they can see themselves in those meetings. If you look at statistics, Hispanic men have a low college graduation rate, but Puerto Ricans specifically have a graduation rate that is far lower. It is important for me to work in a professional setting where there aren’t a lot of us. I feel like I’m setting a precedent for others coming up behind me.

Nick and his mom.

Nick and his mom.

I am Puerto Rican. My mom and pops told me so. I walk with my head high knowing this. I look at my kids, a generation further removed from Puerto Rico, and I see more assimilation. But I know we’ll never be truly assimilated—I know the way the world sees us—and so I want us to hold on to the pride. I am so proud that my when my son runs Cross Country at his college, he wears sleeves bearing the Puerto Rican flag.

There are many truths to being Puerto Rican. I am no less Puerto Rican because I was born in Hartford – there are more Puerto Ricans in the United States than on the island. I am no less Puerto Rican because I choose hip hop over salsa. I want to see the Boricua nation overcome the divided mentality the dominant culture ingrained in us and become one whole nation. We also need to show that there are many paths possible for Puerto Rican young people – I want my journey to serve as one example. My parents told me the same thing I tell my kids: You are a true Puerto Rican!

 

A Day On Broadway

This summer, two of our high school students from Brooklyn had the chance to spend a day with the team at Finding Neverland. They got a behind the scenes look at how it’s produced, toured back stage and capped off the day by watching a performance. Here, they reflect on their experiences during their day on Broadway.

The opportunity to see Finding Neverland and learn what happens backstage has really opened my eyes to what it's like to be on Broadway. I was surprised at all the work it takes to make a show happen and run so smoothly. The show itself was magical—it made me feel like I was four years old again! Everything in the play was so eye-catching and beautiful that it even made me cry at one point. It’s also very inspiring how hard everyone in the show works to be able to make it successful. I’ve always wanted to perform in front of people, but it was only recently that I decided I want to be on Broadway myself. This experience pushed me to work harder and improve myself as a performer so I can make that happen.

Alaila is a junior at AF University Prep. In addition to her academic achievements, she's had many leading roles in school performances, including Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray.

My day on Broadway was once in a lifetime, and I feel lucky that I had the opportunity to see what it’s like backstage. I realized that the work the performers put in for the show is not always easy. For example, being in a tight and cramped room might not be the best to get dressed in, but you make it work with the space that you have. The team talked to us about how you always have to be prepared for anything to happen and multitasking keeps the show going (we learned that as Captain Hook does his change, he's moving around and there's someone helping him put the next wig on). My favorite part was probably the dancing section of the tour. The biggest lesson that I want to take with me is that you still have to continue even if you make a mistake. Your mistakes don't show who you are—they’re just something to learn from.

Zaria is a junior at AF Brooklyn High, where she’s a dancer and leader, serving on student government.

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Thanks to Robin Hood, SpotCo and the cast and crew of Finding Neverland for making this experience possible.

Our Team & Family Reflects (Part II)

Last week was incredibly difficult – for us as individuals, for our communities, and for our country. The videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s tragic deaths – two more cases of black men killed by police – were shocking, upsetting and distressingly familiar. Then the week ended with the terrible retaliatory violence against police in Dallas. Many of us went into the weekend feeling confusion, pain, fear, anger – and yet deep love for all those who are hurting and all those who are demanding a better way forward.

On Monday, we gathered together in our Network Support offices to process and reflect together. This is the second of two posts sharing just a few of our voices. Read Part I here.

Embracing and Empowering Our Communities

We gathered Monday because of the collective desire to candidly speak on our feelings towards racist and oppressive systems. It’s more important than ever that we continue to create these spaces both formally and informally to reflect on our realities and critically think about the world we live in.

We must remain aware of the fact that our AF family is filled with Black and Brown students and families who are most vulnerable to day to day forms of injustice that result from oppressive systems. Therefore, to stand against one form of injustice inherently means that we must stand for all forms of injustice. We must ensure that the way we operate is nothing less than transformative.

An old mentor explained to me that if you are to help a community, you must become of that community. To become of that community means relinquishing the idea that you know something they don’t.

For all of us - whether we come from the communities we serve, or we come from elsewhere- we should all look to these communities at this time. They have been having these conversations long before AF schools opened their doors. –Mesha Byrd, Team External Relations

Surmounting Institutional Racism

Recent events have brought to mind a disturbing parallel between police-citizen interactions and teacher-student interactions. So many incidents where police and vigilantes have murdered Black people are about power, escalation, and control. The officer stops someone—nominally over a minor offense—and proceeds to escalate the situation in order not to "lose" (the officer in the Sandra Bland video particularly comes to mind). How many times do teacher-student interactions look something like this?

I look back with nausea—no, something worse than that—on my early teaching career. I can think of more than one moment where my interaction with a child escalated from a minor correction into a major power struggle that removed the child from class. A perfectly human reaction that spiraled into a dean's referral. An untucked shirt that led to an argument that turned into hours of detention for the child. How many times did my desire to maintain an authoritative presence in the classroom come before the actual needs of the children in that room? The need to conduct every interaction with children from a place of love rings louder than ever.

Institutional racism can feel insurmountable. Those of us in schools, however, are part of institutions. We can, however, act locally to make sure our own institutions do not suffer from the same sickness that so many other American ones do. We can make our schools spaces that lift our children up when so much else in our society does not. –Michael Russoniello, Team Greenfield