Island Memories in the Bronx

I grew up in those NYCHA buildings shown on the left. 

There’s nothing fun about leaving your home. Moving away is worse when you’re a child so when my parents informed my brother and I in optimistic voices that we were leaving our East Tremont apartment in the Bronx, I immediately dreaded abandoning everything I knew, especially my best friends. How could I leave the girls who were willing to let me be Sporty Spice (because of my big curly Puerto Rican hair) during our daily recess Spice Girl club meetings? Although my mother assured us we would be moving into a much safer and better apartment in another housing project in Manhattan, I wished I had a choice. Mom’s priority was living in a safer neighborhood free of impending doom around every block, where she could worry less about us growing up now that I was almost in middle school. My brother just shrugged at the news, he was eight years old and too preoccupied with boyish Tonka truck daydreams to realize the severity of this move. I, with a more mature deposition than an average ten-year-old, knew this move was forcing us to leave our culturally rich home, an urban Caribbean santuary.

We resided in E. 178th street in East Tremont with our elementary school was right across the street from the projects and still, staying safe was always my mother’s main concern. Every morning’s walk to school began a ridiculous amount of ten cuidado’, with my superstitious upbringing, I felt it was an absolute necessary way to start the day.  

Ma, can I go to the park with my friend?

OK, pero ten cuidado.

Ma, my friend is having a sleepover this weekend. Can I go?

Bueno, si, pero ten MUCHO cuidado.

Ma, my friends are going to the movies on Friday. Can I go with them?

Para que?

Sometimes the answer was just “no.” I knew our neighborhood was unsafe, oftentimes shooting being reported and petty crimes a part of everyday life, but safety wasn’t my ten-year-old self’s concern.

Those ten cuidado, Sasha instilled in me a strong sense of street smarts I still rely on today, especially in sketchy neighborhoods. Despite the complications brought on by Bronx urban living, the memories of my childhood in El Bronx are drenched in sweet nostalgia. Sweet, dulce, memories, snapshots of the smallest details that bring me syrupy comfort, wrapping me in much needed warmth as I write this while reminiscing in a shockingly cold coffee shop near NYU.

Urban memories: the glowing blood-red sign of the Pioneer supermarket located across the street, a lighthouse lighting my path home on winter nights when it got too dark too early with danger possibly lurking. Island memories: like the old Puerto Rican piragua man slightly bent over from age, dewy dulce de leche skin, who always smiled despite the sweat trickling down his forehead as he shaved the block of ice in the humid and sticky heat of a hot NYC summer day. The excruciating walk, two blocks of hellish heat, was worth it once the tart sweetness of our piraguas de tamarindo hit our tongues, instant cooling. Island memories like la senora de las frutas as my parents called her, the fruit lady, who sold avocados as lime-green and large as the ones my dad would climb to steal from his aunt and uncle’s neighbor in Ponce, Puerto Rico; the Bronx offering a piece of his own childhood. The fruit stand at the corner of the block, the only place in our neighborhood to get malanga and bacalao, dried codfish, my dad’s default dish.

My memories of the Bronx are as sweet as that old man’s smile on a humid summer day shaving the smoky ice for our piraguas. Island memories as vibrant and sweet as the sunshine yellow flesh of the aguacates the fruit lady proudly sold on the block and we devoured with my mom’s arroz blanco y habichuelas, white rice and beans.

The Bronx is a meld of life on the Island, like the mouth- watering aroma of oregano and garlic from the lechon crisping in La Lechonera down the or like the Puerto Rican icee lady who I relied to be out on her windowsill afterschool selling limbers, Puerto Rican style ices, from her fourth floor apartment.

 Tengo coco, cherry, mango, piña, y tamarindo!

Spot the Puerto Rican flag and you found her window. It was so simple- 50 cents in the bucket, up it went, and down came your limber of choice.

I think fondly of my short lived childhood in El Bronx, of my friends I left behind; of the piragua man, of the lady selling fruits. Island memories in El Bronx: simple, sweet and unforgettable.