Latino Americans Blog

Puerto Rican Discovery Day

August 21, 2013 10:10 PM by Sherman Jackson

Puerto Rican Discovery Day
I discovered I was Puerto Rican was on March 17th, 1954 -- St.Patrick's day.
Waiting for the principal to ring her bell, I was already ahead of most of the kids. Her first bell called for everyone to freeze, and with the second ring, students would walk to their designated spots outside the school and line up in preparation for their school day.
St. Pius was located on 144th Street between Willis and Brook Avenues in the South Bronx -- at the time a predominantly Irish neighborhood with a smattering of Italians albeit Puerto Ricans were arriving daily.
It had been a rough seven months since that first day I put on the school uniform of blue pants, white shirt and tie with the initials SPS, but I'd been adjusting. That sunny March morning, just as all my school mates had done, I wore a bright green tie.
The entire previous week, we'd been singing "I'm an Irish clock maker and to New York just came, Seamus O'Brian-that is my name." I liked the song, cutting shamrocks out of construction paper and learning about how Saint Patrick had chased the snakes out of Ireland.
My father's name was Chester O'neil Jackson and my mother had told me that my dad was Irish. So between my Dad's name, my mom's assurances and the Irish folk songs, darn it, I was Irish!
I was Irish that is, until a seventh grader walked up, grabbed my tie and asked, "Spic, what are you doing with a green tie on?" I answered assuredly and emphatically, "I'm Irish!" with a loud guffaw the kid called his buddies, "McLaughlin, O'Hara, look, the little Puerto Rican thinks he's Irish." My tie was torn from around my neck and the three seventh graders began to pummel me.
When my teacher, Sister Pius Marie saw me without a tie, a rumpled shirt and fat lip, she asked what had happened. I was embarrassed to tell her, I'd been beaten up because I wasn't Irish. Perhaps you've seen people wearing buttons or T shirts around St. Patty's day proclaiming "everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's." When you see that slogan, just remember what happened to me and say "not so!"
It had been rough going from day one at St. Pius. My mother accompanied me to school that first day. The Principal came out of her office and was scolding my mother because we were late. While my mom was being chided, I clutched her skirt with a tight fist, looking down the corridor, I saw this much younger nun dragging a kid by the hair. The kid was wailing. I was aghast.
After the Principal’s lecture, she had us follow her as she prepared to introduce me to my new teacher.  I realized we were getting closer to the scene I had just witnessed. Was I to have the misfortune of being thrown into that very same classroom with the violent nun?
I began my version of the moonwalk, pulling away from my mother's clasp and the fierce nun. My heart was fluttering. My hands were perspiring and I was approaching a state of panic. I'd only been to classrooms in Puerto Rico where my mother had been the teacher.
As I entered, I tried not to look at any of the kids, and simply followed the nun to a wooden chair by her desk where I sat. She began to ask me questions that my mom and dad had prepared me for: What's your name? Sherman Lee Jackson. Where do you live? 222 East 154th Street. Then she asked me to read.
I’d never spoken more English than called for in the songs my mother taught in school that said "lapis-pencil and pluma-pen, pollo-chicken y gallina-hen." I began to sound out "See Spot run" and "Dick and Jane called Spot." Amazing! I didn't know I could speak English let alone read it. Stranger still, I understood everything the nun was saying.
Unfortunately she didn't understand everything I'd say that day. After assigning me a desk in the middle of the classroom, the nun took out large white cards, each marked with a letter of the alphabet.
 I watched as the first kid stood up and blurted out the letter the nun was holding then sat down, then the next student stood and repeated the process. I had it! Just stand, say the letter and sit back down. What a simple thing. Sheesh, I knew the alphabet. Surely, I'd impress the nun and my classmates. Luck would have it that when it was my turn, the nun held up the easiest of all possibilities: The first letter of the alphabet, which I confidently stood up and identified as “Ahhhh,”  full of myself, I sat down.
The nun didn't move onto the next student behind me. She just stood there holding up the same letter. She motioned me to stand again, and I repeated: “Ahhhh.”  Suddenly, the only other kid in the class who spoke Spanish called out "he's saying it right, sister, but he's pronouncing it in Spanish." I gave Alice Quiñones the evil eye, and called her 'entrometia" (nosy), while the nun wagged her finger at me and explained that “Ahh” was one of the sounds the letter makes, but that in English, the letter was pronounced “ Aeeee.”
First grade was tough. I learned how to speak English, read English, sing in English and that I’m not Irish. There's an old "dicho" (refrain) my grandmother used when I was little and living in Puerto Rico: "no hay mal que por bien no venga." Roughly translated, it means-- every cloud has a silver lining. Mine was discovering that I am Puerto Rican on Saint Patrick's day!

Sherman Lee Jackson is a Puerto Rican of mixed parentage: A Puerto Rican mother and Southern White father who abides by the Puerto Rican refrain, "padre cualquiera, madre solo una". Born in Greenville, South Carolina, he spent five years in Puerto Rico as a child before moving to the Bronx, New York where at age seven, he discovered he was Puerto Rican on Saint Patrick's Day. Sherman attended parochial schools in New York and Puerto Rico and later, the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico and CCNY. He is among just a handful of Puerto Rican journalists to have received Ford Foundation felowships and graduate from the Minority Journalists Program at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he was sponsored by NBC News later becoming the first Puerto Rican on-air reporter for NBC's flagship station in New York.
He also worked at the NYC-based, Channel five news, where he labored as a freelance on-air reporter, assignment editor and writer. Sherman served as Deputy Director for Public Information for President Nixon's Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish Speaking People. His last Government sevice was as Deputy Director for Inter-Governmental and Public Affairs with New York City's Civilain Complaint Review Board, charged with investigating police misconduct.
In recent years he has been a Public Relations consultant to some poltical campaigns as well as Time Warner's Spanish-language news program, NY1News/Noticias.
An activist since his youth, Sherman was part of the Media/Press Team for Occupy Wall Street.
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