NY University students undertook a project to hear the voices of real and imagined immigrant communities, and to learn more about the people behind them
American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways. Christa Smith Anderson explains that up in the Bronx, New York, urban voices are shaped by immigrants’ far-off homes, by the sounds of Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Eastern Europe and more.
Carolyn Ferrell won accolades for giving literary voice to urban youth with the black and biracial characters of the Bronx in her short-story collection Don’t Erase Me. The story Proper Library introduces readers to a boy who’s working to get ahead in school with the help of his mother. Together, the two work on vocabulary in sessions called “word sittings.” “When we have a good word sitting, me and Ma, she smoothes my face with her hands and calls me Lawrence, My Fine Boy.”  A reader can virtually hear his Aunt Estine, a presence in her own right:
She makes sure you hear her heels clicking all the time, specially when you are lying in bed before dawn and thinking things in order, how you got to keep moving, all day long. Click, click. Ain’t nobody up yet? Click. Lazy ass Negroes you better not be specting me to cook y’all breakfast when you do get up! Click, click.
Ferrell writes a Jamaican accent for a character in Country of the Spread Out God:
Auntie snaps at me, A dat Ah raise yuh far?
She snaps, How yuh so brash dese days, yuh is deserve remembrance a what coulda been and den ache when yuh realize. Ain’t no new morning coming. You leavin de family wid yuh head.
Puerto-Rican American Abraham Rodriquez Jr. writes of the Bronx in Roaches.
‘If you need a excuse to stop playin’, bro, thass cool,’ he said in his raspy beer voice, ‘seein’ as how you losin’. I’ll jus’ take care a’ Yolanda for you.’ / ‘You hold it, man, it ain’t through wif’ us,’ Joey said, turning back to the others. ‘Now I wanna know who’s in the house wants a shootin’ war wif’ my boys?’
David Meltzer, raised in Brooklyn with Polish, Lithuanian, and Anglo-Saxon lineage, writes of his Jewish heritage and its recent legacy of children, mothers, and fathers who are “gone in gas or the flash of atomic ain-sof.” In the poem What Do I Know of Journey he writes:
Ancients sit on stoops too tired to mourn,
turn inward to blood rivers, lost shtetls.
They cannot take me with them and I cannot bring them back
and what do I know of journey, I
who never spoke their language.
New York City’s Eastern European Jewish immigrant community produced Yiddish theater that is distinctly and “uniquely American.” The Library of Congress makes hundreds of the Yiddish Language theatre scripts available online.
New York City native, Jesus Papoleto Melendez is of Puerto Rican descent. His poem OyeMundo / Sometimes includes an intriguing blend of English and italicized Spanish.
OYE MUNDO/ Sometimes
when the night air feels chevere
) when i can hear the real sound of el barrio
on la congay timbales
& garbage can tops
when i can feel
& reallyreally touch
la musica latina/ africana
& the fingerpoppin soul
emergin from tears/ sweet tears of laughter
& I can feel
a conglomeration of vibrations
of real gente
/& i feel gooooooood
when I can taste the rare culture
of cuchifrios y lechon
chitterlins & black-eyed peas
& corn bread
& la pompa is open
& cooooooools the hot tar
of summer heated streets
where children play
cannot be heard)
when the last of the ghetto poets
writes of flowers
growin in gutters /& i know it’s real
i run up on the fire-escape/ not to escape
&climb on the roof
& stand on the ledge
& look down
& yell out
to the midnight world
OYE MUNDO TÚ ERES BONITO!!!
& i forgot about the junkies
on the stoop.
Jesus Papaleto Meléndez
Christa Smith Anderson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. After several years producing and writing television news, she is now a federal government employee by day and a fiction writer the rest of the time. She received the 2002 Cynthia Wynn Herman Scholarship from George Mason University and has published non-fiction in So to Speak, a Feminist Journal of Language and Arts.
William and Flora Hewlett
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