West New York, NJ: A Reflective Dossier of Scholarly Formation
Three Latina scholars from the town of West New York, N.J. mull over their North Hudson (or “NoHu”) location where, according to the New York Times, “working class grit and Manhattan glitz meet.”
West New York, in the borderlands between New York City and the Garden State, is hardly part of “the” U.S. conversation, even when it comes to popular representations of “all” things “Joisey.” Recall here the particular class and cultural éclat that surrounds other recognized figures from the state, such as Allen Ginsberg, Philip Roth, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, and Bon Jovi. Yet this “non-place” clearly exists.
In 2007—decades after our interlocutors had graduated from Memorial High School—author Junot Díaz, a fellow New Jerseyan, immortalized Bergenline Avenue, a major business strip brimming with Latino and Latina commerce, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The Dominican American littérateur did not only make this geography come to life, he also made it part of the U.S. literary landscape.
Spanning the Northeast and Southeast corridor, Ada Ferrer at New York University, Iveris Luz Martinez at Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, and Claudia Milian at Duke University were given two exploratory questions for this autobiographical endeavor on West New York as a seed of knowledge construction. How have your intellectual formation, scholarly projects, and/or subject formation been shaped by the site specificity and multi-layeredness of West New York? And how has West New York served as a mode of a scholarly geography for you?
I remember the day I left West New York for college in August 1980. I had been imagining that day forever. My mother, who never graduated high school, always told me I would go to college; she even told me I would go away to college—a rare thing for a conservative Cuban mother. I was so eager, that throughout junior and senior years of high school I had exchanged fictional letters with my two best friends (Georgia Pestana and Mayra Silva), in which we all pretended that we were already at college, West New York only a gray memory. So when the actual moment of departure
came, I hesitated. My parents were heading down to the car; I was sitting on my twin bed thinking I should have an introspective, weighty moment. The windows were open, and I could hear a song playing on a neighbor’s radio: “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. Having never been on a boat other than New York’s Circle Line, I misunderstood the word canvas, hearing instead, “the campus will do miracles.” A good omen, I thought, and headed out.
Most of my classmates at Memorial High School—graduating class of about 600—were not doing the same. Even among the very best students, the norm was to remain at home. A select handful—Georgia among them—commuted to Barnard or Columbia. I can think of only four students who went away to college: an Irish Catholic boy who went to Notre Dame, an African American one who went to Williams, and two Latinas—Mayra off to Bennington and me to Vassar.
The Vassar campus felt like a miracle when I arrived; everywhere was a perfect alcove for reading or thinking. But I felt so nervous and out of place, so profoundly unsettled, that I had a hard time doing either. Many of my new classmates were from New York City, from private schools like Dalton and Collegiate and elite public schools like Stuyvesant or Music & Art, just across the river but worlds away from my West New York—brown, working class, immigrant, Cuban, Latino, overcrowded and ugly but for the part above the Hudson that faced Manhattan. When other students asked where I was from and I replied West New York, some thought that I had come up with a clever way of saying New Jersey without actually having to name it. They never knew West New York existed. Why would they?
West New York was an immigrant town. In the generations before mine, there had been Irish and Italians. In fact, the immigrant grandfather of my freshman roommate at Vassar had lived there and gone to Memorial. By the time I moved there in 1969, however, it was predominantly Latino, and within that predominantly Cuban. The names of stores were the same names those businesses had had on the island: La Isla Bakery, El Dragón de Oro (Cuban-Chinese), and so on. The wall above the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Bergenline Avenue sported graffiti by Omega 7, an anti-Castro paramilitary group that staged several bombings in the area. Every September 8, my mother made me march in the procession for the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint. The last of the collective prayers at Sunday mass was always a plea for the freedom of political prisoners in Cuba: te lo pedimos, señor. And the standard teenage lament in arguments with parents was heartbreakingly simple: “This isn’t Cuba!”
I study Cuba now for a living—something I could have never imagined back then. After all, wasn’t the whole point to get away from West New York and the Cuba tethered to it? Studying as a job would have appealed to me at 18, but I never conceived of it as a possibility. I remember a survey that graduating seniors at Vassar were required to fill out before picking up their caps and gowns.
Reading over a list of potential professions, I saw college or university professor and had a visceral moment of recognition: yes, that’s what I want to do. But the moment was followed by a sharper one of misrecognition: only really smart people do that. People like me—people from West New York—don’t do that. I left the box unchecked.
What I could not grasp at 18, perhaps still less at 21, was that growing up in West New York helped make me an academic. I received a quality of education that many of today’s college students—even at places like NYU—haven’t always had access to in high school. Kathy Dekranis taught us to write; Mrs. Cross taught us to analyze literature; Ms. Segali challenged me to read novels in Spanish and gave me my now weathered copy of Cien Años de Soledad. A trio of bearded draft avoiders—Augustine, Cocuzza, and Wilson—taught us to do research, requiring that we cross the river and work at the New York Public Library, develop arguments and interpretations from primary sources, and memorize footnote and bibliography formats. With them, some of us worked on political campaigns together, quoting Shakespeare’s Richard III and Henry V to analyze our side’s chances! At the time, however, I didn’t have the confidence to realize that, yes, Memorial had prepared me academically for Vassar. A priori, I assumed, a place like that couldn’t prepare me for a place like this.
Beyond the issue of preparation, West New York informed the very questions that even today appeal to me as a historian and humanist. Most of my neighbors, like my own family, had experienced the Cuban Revolution, directly or indirectly. As I read about the revolution, I was continually struck by an apparent contradiction. Class-wise, the people around me seemed like the kinds of people for whom the revolution had been made. In 1968, over 74 percent of Cuban West New Yorkers held blue collar or manual jobs; only about 10 percent had graduated from college, and almost 68 percent had not even completed high school (see Eleanor Meyer Rogg’s study, The Assimilation of Cuban Exiles). These were mostly humble working class people. Yet in their attitudes and outlook, my family and neighbors seemed anything but revolutionary. They were not “new men” (or women), nor, I speculated, were they even new-man material. Gradually, a set of questions took shape in my mind. Had leaving the revolution made that transformation impossible, or had they left because it was improbable in the first place? Does a revolution change the way people understand the world, themselves, others? How do individuals and societies change? Beyond the questions themselves, growing up in West New York made me attuned to a particular form of answer. West New York was a place of struggle, where women like my mother worked in factories sewing coats for a few months every year and then worked off the books sewing other things the rest of the year, where kids like me were always forced to translate for parents who spoke or read no English, where those same kids watched TV in English and saw nothing that resembled anything they knew. It was a place represented, reflected nowhere.
It was populated by people who might have benefitted from a revolution yet vehemently rejected it, by people who might have naturally aligned with Democrats but tended to register Republican as soon as they became citizens. It was a place between categories—not Cuba, as we liked to tell our parents, but not really the U.S. We called other people Americans, never ourselves. West New York was a place where things didn’t quite fit, where generalization almost always failed and interpretive devices usually came up short.
Yet in that distance between things as some theory assumed they should be and things as they were before me, I developed a feel for the uncomfortable, for unexpected facts and disruptive stories, for the counter beat in the melody, the indistinct face almost out of the frame. Today, it is a taste I take into the archives when I research; it punctuates my thinking and inflects my writing. But its roots, I now realize, were in West New York. At home, at Memorial High, on the Boulevard East park bench, where you might have found me eating cherries from a bag, looking up from a novel by Kurt Vonnegut or Thomas Hardy, housing towers to my back, to my right a statue of (who else?) José Martí, and before me the Hudson River and Manhattan.
IVERIS LUZ MARTINEZ
As an anthropologist working in medicine, among my multiple identities, I am an outsider. But growing up in West New York gave me a sense of my global citizenship, with a healthy dose of how to hustle to make things work.
Growing up in West New York, I had a deep sense of being American and never questioned my identity as such … that is, until I left. This questioning was foretold by one of my history teachers at Memorial High School who I remember telling our class in the mid-1980s, “You think you are all typical Americans, but you will find out otherwise if you ever leave this town.” And I did leave town in 1989, though I often return.
I grew up across from the Flower Hill Cemetery. My father, who has always loved history and is a frustrated historian, would invite me to walk through the cemetery. We would study the tombs for clues about the people who occupied this space before us. On these walks, I became aware that we, Latinos (mostly Cubans at the time), were part of a long history of immigration to the area—preceded by Italians and Germans before them. It was on these walks with my father that my interest in immigration began.
In the 1980s, West New York, which occupies a little over one-mile square, was inhabited by over 39,000 persons originating from numerous countries of Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and beyond. Most of us were first generation and spoke a second language at home. Non-Latinos were the minority. None of this seemed odd to us. We shared fluid borders with our surrounding towns—I still can’t figure out where Guttenberg starts and ends—and were a 10-minute jitney ride from mid-town Manhattan. This afforded me the ability to go to the mid-Manhattan Library after school to do research as the town’s local library rarely sufficed for my interests. It also made me, unknowingly, part of something bigger: part of an exciting urban landscape where I, a daughter of Cuban immigrants, could feel at ease rapping in my bedroom to the latest music played on KISS-FM 98.7 or dancing along to the British new wave and post-punk tunes played on the progressive/alternative rock station WLIR 92.7, while at the same time watching telenovelas in the evening with my mother, and never missing Siempre en Domingo, the Mexican weekly variety show that aired, yes, on Sundays. Chinese food was served up with plátanos maduros since the local Chinese restaurant was owned by Cubans of Chinese descent. And who knew that all Chinese restaurants did not have that menu option?
Sundays were spent in Washington Heights in northern Manhattan visiting my grandparents, watching Santo Domingo Invita on television, and talking about news from family in Cuba, but never about politics. New Year’s was at el Club de Fomento, and summertime inevitably meant the Picnic of los Baracuesos (from the municipality of Baracoa, Cuba) under the George Washington Bridge. Both, I later learned, were part of the Municipios de Cuba en el Exilio, a form of mutual aid society formed in Cuban communities in New Jersey and Miami that originally aimed to provide support to newcomers. They took their respective names from the original municipios, or townships, in Cuba.
The West New York I grew up in was imbued with a seamless multiculturalism that I have not found anywhere else. It was very different to the city of Miami—where I have lived on an off in since the late 1980s—with its Cuban hegemony, waning politics of exile, and conservative Southern world-view. It was this perceived contrast in the perspectives of individuals within the two Cuban-American enclaves that led me to write my doctoral dissertation on the experience of Cubans aging in exile and the meanings of history. Why were older Cubans in Miami so different from the older adults I grew up with? In retrospect, I wonder if it was the physical distance from the island or the fluid interactions with other immigrants that made a difference?
It’s hard to say, with the exceptions of some pivotal moments or people, what sets one on one’s life’s path. My interest in expressive culture and national identity, the topic of my master’s thesis, probably had its roots in my childhood in West New York. The confidence and the skills I obtained attending public schools in West New York provided the launching pad. But it took being outside the city limits to really discover my roots. It was in a library in Connecticut College that I first heard the music of Nigerian Babatunde Olatunji and marveled at how similar it was to the music of Celia Cruz. I recognized how the Yoruba language had been infused into Cuban language and beliefs. I dreamed of travelling to Nigeria, but had to transfer to Florida International University instead for financial reasons.
Back in Miami, I was also struck by the contrast between the racial politics of Miami and West New York. I began historical research on Gustavo Urrutia, a black architect turned journalist, who wrote on the meanings of blackness for Havana’s conservative Diario de la Marina in the 1920s. It is perhaps not surprising that I ended up studying anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University, whose strong focus on historical anthropology and the Black Atlantic reflected my growing curiosity.
While at Hopkins, I decided I wanted to do more applied work, both out of vocation and out of practicality as I foresaw very few opportunities as an anthropology professor. As chance would have it, there was scholarship money to cross-train in public health at Hopkins. I applied to the program, which opened a path for me in public health and medicine. I initiated my career working in diverse government agencies, and later returned to the Hopkins as a post-doc in community health, and eventually was hired on faculty in the School of Medicine. Over the last nine years I have been teaching social determinants of health and interprofessional teamwork at the Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University, while continuing my research on the experience of aging in immigrant and minority communities.
My interests in social justice, stemming from my experiences both within West New York and by contrast outside of my hometown, informed what I might do with a Ph.D. in Anthropology after all—a question everyone in my family seemed to have.
There is a certain grandiosity to West New York.
The town overlooks Gotham. Its nightly panorama captures the spectacularity of the City: its infinite, vertical vibrancy, intermingling red and white urban lights (“photopollution,” some call it), the steady flow of cars. It could all be witnessed, anonymously, peripherally, from across the Hudson, from Boulevard East.
In the cool daylight, my friends and I would meet there, right on the corner of 60th street, cutting God-knows-what-morning-period of gym class at Memorial High School. Our sympathetic teacher, the one with, as my mother would say in Spanish, la vista gorda, gave us carte blanche to play hooky. Maybe we were utterly useless in our physicality, in our otherworldliness through and through. Maybe he intuited, rather accurately, that my coterie of three, all bookish, musicish, and filmish, had other considerations, other existentialist crises to prioritize, way beyond the halls of Memorial.
I knew then that there was more to the world. I’m talking late-1980s here, when I was a tyro, still didn’t know if I was Latina or Hispanic, and before I was aware, as Kurt Vonnegut announced, that I was a member of Generation X and thus “two clicks away from the very end of the alphabet.” The New York City skyline was a testament of an overpowering elsewhere, of everything I had not gotten around to being, so close and so far. Yet a megalopolis and a relatively sedate, citified town “got me.” Both captured what Colson Whitehead admits in The Colossus of New York: “The city knows you better than any living person because it has seen you when you are alone.”
For a little more than three bucks and change, I could access Manhattan’s cultural opportunities, round-trip, at any time of the day. Inquietudes about the world meant that there was another migration to be made in my family: my migration to attend college. Even Mr. Wilson, my teacher from the urban studies class, an honors elective of sorts, had screened the PBS documentary, from 1988, American Dream at Groton. He wanted us to grasp the magnitude of a featured high-schooler, Johanna Vega from the Bronx, whose story of survival at the New England boarding school foreshadowed the departure of our “ethnic” homes, as we embarked on another new world, and were to be surrounded by the codes and conventions of whiteness. America was some other place. And we experienced it from the outside, from “Havana on the Hudson.”
My most influential teacher and mentor was Mr. Augustine. He introduced me to the Beats; the beauty of a Didioneseque sentence; Diane Arbus’s dazzling eye for the strange; and the seriousness, playfulness, boldness, and sophistication of pop artists Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Mr. Augustine was a committed educator, whose interests and pedagogy reflected the sociocultural reality of his West New York students. His two courses on Vietnam and U.S.-Cuba relations were my initiation into critical U.S. history—sometimes accounting for and contextualizing the demographics of Memorial’s classrooms.
There was nothing startling about being college-bound. It wasn’t as though higher education was not in my plans. My mother invariably emphasized la universidad. But what was striking during that time—pre-Internet, but armed with heavy copies of Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, courtesy of the West New York Public Library’s reference section—was that I knew there were out-of-state possibilities. Memorial graduates tended to stay in the state. My family is no exception: I am the only one who left New Jersey and went further north (and now further south). West New York had copious amounts of Spanish-speaking parents who greatly trusted the authority and symbolic power of los maestros.
I sometimes ruminate on Memorial’s “exceptionalism,” not only through its Latino and Latina constituencies but also through the influence and narratives of hard work and success embodied by a large Cuban American entrepreneurial population. Stories of working class prosperity, in their diverse and distinct iterations and interpretations, were not uncommon. My mother’s résume from our own corner of the non-white rust belt includes work in las factorias as a seamstress, sometimes paid by the piece. The first wave of NAFTA layoffs, it seemed, hit northern New Jersey. My mother’s factory ultimately closed down, she didn’t have the time to be angry or feel abandoned, she just knew, stoically, that she had to move on to another job, and quickly.
The weight of the Cold War was felt in West New York. Latino and Latina meant footprints from the hemisphere. I had Argentine, Chilean, Colombian, Costa Rican, Dominican, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan, Honduran, Mexican, Nicaraguan, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, and Venezuelan classmates—continuous communities linked by a genealogy of deracination. West New York was global south long before I even engaged with the concept.
Bergenline Avenue exhibited national displacements, transformations, relocations. Local supermarkets like Las Palmas in West New York and Mi Bandera in Union City organized their food aisles with national flags from the Americas. This wasn’t a nostalgic way to do business: it was a practical and purposeful cultural world. This prosopopoeia of someone’s motherland, the interrelated sum of all our motherlands, was just so … Sartrean: every there requires a here.
I did not know it at the time, but West New York’s location and human geography pushed forward my intellectual endeavors. There is, of course, my interest in movement and place, in dualities marked by an overwhelming center (“I want to be a part of it, New York, New York”) and a seemingly underwhelming fringe (an epically lyricless West New York). Perhaps these urbanities simply mesh into one monstrous cesspit, where, as the Pixies put it, someone “got killed by ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey.”
I’ve never thought of West New York—my West New York, my NoHu musing space—as intellectually barren or broken. The “I” that appears before you is a continuation of consciousness through the site specificity of West New York and what its migrant communities bring with them. I became fascinated by headlines and life writing, with a here, an alterable present, that often needs to be refreshed, possibly because of the sensorial, auditory, and visual Latin excess that is Bergenline.
Things seemed so ephemeral and disposable in NoHu. And yet simplicity is not so simple. I wondered how one could write the self into history when surrounded by block after block of indefinite 99-cent stores. Did we have good stories to tell, or like the not-so-durable lifespan of one-dollar tchotchkes, would we be gone by tomorrow? What is our “tradition,” our contributions? Who would remember us, regular people, spectacular people, “Bastards of the Reagan Era” as poet Reginald Dwayne Betts calls them, of the northern New Jersey margins?