Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Lifetime of Shooting the Bronx

A Lifetime of Shooting the Bronx
Author Michael Crichton writes in his book, Timeline, that, “Professor Johnston often said that if you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree.”

Much to the credibility of that passage, it’s as if our own Latino history has been shamefully and unapologetically stripped from us in the curriculum of the American classroom, in order to keep us from realizing that we’re often the progeny of prominence.

We’re instead force-fed education about the most powerful families in America from the Kennedys and Vanderbilt’s, to the Du Ponts’ and Rockefellers’. But the half-truths always seem to omit any traces of greatness in the lineages of our own Latino and African ancestry.

The truly o
stentatious tales about our own descendants only survive through the spoken word and often times are lost over time, without ever having the opportunity to be documented properly for future generations to read about.

I had the pleasure of hearing one of these great tales from Lorraine Montenegro, the mother of famed Hip Hop photographer and author Joe Conzo Jr. (Born in the Bronx) about their families history of not only being survivors but saviors.

It was the story of Lucas Lopez, a Sephardic Jew and slave to the Spaniards who voyaged to Puerto Rico with the promise of freedom. Yet in keeping with the theme of broken promises the Sephardic Jews of Puerto Rico were never granted freedom and were forced to eventually shield their identities to avoid persecution by the conquistadors.

And while the life of Lucas isn’t literarily documented, the legend of his courageous act of saving a runaway slave named Mama Mangala from certain death at the hands of drowning is a tale that’s been passed down for generations.

It’s a tale which embodies the legacy of the great family lineage and compliments the later heritage of Dr. Evelina Lopez-Antonetty, Conzo’s grandmother, known as the, “Hell lady of the Bronx,” for her tireless efforts in serving the underserved communities of the South Bronx in the midst of the worst times the boroughs ever seen. A time when the Bronx wasn’t burning… it was burnt… a time when Bronx residents had been abandoned and left to find their own means of survival.

Lopez-Antonetty became a legendary activist eventually founding United Bronx Parents, Inc., an agency which continues to serve the South Bronx under the direction of Conzo’s mother; Lorraine Montenegro... a continued history of survival and saviors.

And while Conzo’s family was saving the South Bronx from itself, Joe was walking around with a camera visually documenting a new movement
being birthed out of the ash… a nameless movement created by the youth looking for an outlet for their anger and aggression.

A movement which saw storytellers such as Grandmaster Caz and Melle Mel reciting rhymes in the spoken word just as past ancestors had done… reciting stories of pain, hopelessness, drugs and despair.

It was a movement that helped Afrika Bambaatta of the Black Spades street gang, gain knowledge of self eve
ntually spawning the legendary Zulu Nation which generated the principles of peace, unity, love and having fun.

A movement which witnessed DJ Kool Herc host the first official Hip Hop jam at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx…

It was Hip Hop… a now billion dollar industry that very rarely, if ever, looks back to pay homage to its own impressive history. And one which owes a great debt of gratitude not only to the aforementioned pioneers, but to those such as Joe Conzo, Ernie Paniccioli and Jamel Shabazz who were insightful enough to visually document the movement. One which would’ve had a difficult time capturing the essence of itself without those visual works of art that their photography now affords the history books.

When I met with Conzo recently I asked him how he felt to finally be honored by clothing company Sedgwick & Cedar with a t-shirt line paying homage to his decades of photography.

Of course I was looking for a reply in the vein of, “It’s about time…” But instead Joe spoke softly and stated, “You know me, I’m humble… I’m just a kid from the South Bronx whose been fortunate enough to travel all over the world with my work. I’ve been able to visit Korea, Amsterdam and I’ll be going to Germany in September where they’re releasing my book (Born in the Bronx) in German. I’m honored and humbled at the same time...”

He went on to tell me that’s he’s proud of the company for doing things right. And in light of recent events with the Hip Hop museum slighting the pioneers, Joe is happy that Sedgwick & Cedar has enough foresight and respect for the pioneers of the culture to bring them in as business partners on their clothing line.

Hip Hop scholar and visual artist Koe Rodriguez was instrumental in brokering the deal with Sedgwick & Cedar to not only bring Conzo’s work to life on clothing, but also the work of Shabazz and Paniccioli ensuring that Hip Hop heads across the globe will be rocking the realest visual documentations of what it was really like to be a part of the earliest days of Hip Hop.

Just three days ago, Joe Conzo Jr. and his father, Joe Conzo Sr., a Latin music historian and one time confidant of Tito Puente were honored with the creation of a scholarship named after the father son duo at the Rafael Hernandez Middle School in the South Bronx, assuring that no matter where Joe goes in the world, he’ll always be tied to h
is roots back home.

The New York Times called Conzo Jr., “The Man Who Took Hip Hop’s Baby Pictures,” I’m just honored to call the man a good friend.

He’s certainly carrying a heavy family legacy on his shoulders. And in keeping with the tradition of his bloodline and his ancestor Lucas saving that runaway slave, Joe Conzo Jr. has proven to be the savior of what could’ve been a long forgotten about history of Latinos and African Americans running from the slavery of circumstance… and freeing themselves through creative expression.

We should all be grateful to the ancestors that Conzo was there to capture it all with his camera while shooting the Bronx.

Ivan Sanchez is the author of Next Stop: Growing up Wild-Style in the Bronx (Touchstone – Simon & Schuster, 2008). The book is the first memoir released by a major publishing house written by a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. Sanchez is also the co-author of It’s Just Begun: The Epic Journey of DJ Disco Wiz, Hip Hop’s First Latino DJ (powerHouse, 2009). He was awarded the National Novel honors for his first fiction offering and is currently working on several new books about NY Latinos. He is also the co-host of Rebel Radio on Urban Latino Radio.

Photos Courtesy of Francisco Reyes @

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Silent Brutality of False Love

The Silent Brutality of False Love

A mother is a person who seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie. ~Tenneva Jordan

On the outer layer of this quote, it’s nothing more than an analogy for a mother who cares more to feed those around her than to eat herself. But if you dig deeper into the quote and study it for a moment, you’d understand that it houses the essence of womanhood and the purest definition of what role women play on this earth as the careta
kers of everyone and everything.

In honor of Mother’s Day I wanted to speak out against one of the most heinous crimes against humanity… that crime being domestic violence.

In my household growing up I thankfully didn’t witness domestic violence, though my mother was a victim of it’s effects at the hands of the sperm donor who contributed to my creation… a poor excuse for
a man who talked more with his hands than his slurred drunken stupor of a speech.

My mother, in keeping with the strength that she’s displayed throughout her life, simply walked away from the abuse after birthing my brother as a teenager. To this day she’s unquestionably the strongest woman I’ve ever met. And I’m grateful to her that she found the inner-strength to walk away when she did, thus sheltering us from a painful everyday existence that millions of people call a normal family life.

Mother’s Day Mom… I love you!

Unfortunately domestic violence was very much a part of my world outside of the home, where the machismo dominated world of Kingsbridge introduced me to that, “Keep your bitch in check,” mentality that is still very prevalent today, perhaps even more so.

I hit a girl for the first time when I was fifteen-years-old and I still carry the guilt around in my heart to this day, something I often speak to the youth about. It’s a guilt you simply never escape and one made worse for me due to the fact that I now have three daughters of my own, whom I’d give my life to protect from ever experiencing this type of damage.

Sadly, the statistics say that one in three females will experience domestic violence in their lifetime… meaning I might have to kill another man one day for doing the exact same thing I did as a youngster.

hen I close my eyes and think about the abuse I inflicted on the young girls I dated as a teenager, I vividly recall trying to pull one of my ex-girlfriends out of cab, through the open window – by her hair – her crime: wanting to go out with friends on a Friday night.

If it were a movie, the soundtrack would’ve been of her screams coupled with the laughter I heard in the background, compliments of my boys on Bailey Avenue… Yo
u see in our neighborhoods this was not only acceptable behavior, it was expected behavior.

And it’s these kinds of memories that are an inescapable part of my life, my life sentence for my unjust behavior against young women.

The mental, verbal and physical abuse we expose our future mothers to is as much responsible for the declination of our communities and the destruction of our families as anything else discussed behind closed doors.

So why on God’s green earth would I put myself out there and expose myself as a batterer?

Well for one thing, I haven’t laid my hands on a woman in an inappropriate manner since my first daughter’s birth – she’ll be nineteen-years-old come January.

And secondly, because I have a duty and responsibility to speak out against the atrocious and damaging behavior that continues to victimize those we should be protecting the most… our women.

I also speak out against domestic violence in hopes of raising awareness amongst young men about the true effects of this type of behavior
and how their actions will follow them; even haunt them for a lifetime in hopes of dissuading them from participating in this barbaric behavior.

The statistics are staggering with an estimated 1.3 million women falling victim to domestic violence each year. And an estimated 4 to 10 million children witnessing domestic violence annually, forcing them into a life they now see as normal, which leads to repeated behavior and a never-ending cycle of violence against women.

At its worst, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners each day. Meaning each day four people are murdered due to a false love gone horribly wrong. In 80% of the cases, of a woman killing her male spouse, there was domestic violence perpetrated by the man.

How’s that for a thin line between love and hate?

And while all of these statistics prove that we’re certainly failing to protect our women. Of far greater concern to me are the statistics you never hear about. The silent sufferers who never dare to reach for the phone, who don’t have the strength to seek help or to walk away as my mother did, for fear that they’ll become one of the three women murdered every day in the United States.

Of far greater concern to me is the lack of the communities concern when they turn a blind-eye
or deaf ear to women being beaten on a daily basis in plain view of the world. Are we still simply standing around laughing? Are we turning our television volume up in order to pretend we don’t hear the woman next door crying out for help? Are we acting as if we don’t see that young girl being choked on the corner by her overzealous boyfriend who’s being told by his homeboys to, “Keep his bitch in check?”

At some point we all have to get involved and we all ha
ve to become a part of the solution or run the risk of being a part of a seemingly never-ending problem. At some point we have to realize that if we don’t step in, speak up and speak out, that we’re just as much at fault as the man actually doing the beating. And at some point we have to realize that most men who beat their women often turn their anger and aggression on their children next.

In the past month, a far more horrific and disturbing trend has reared its monstrous head in which two infants have been murdered by their divorcing fathers. Last month in San Bernardino County, Stephen Garcia killed his eight-month-old baby Wyatt. And a few weeks later in Meridian Idaho, Nicholas Bacon, shot and killed his nine-month-old baby Bekm.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence is speaking out about what it sees as a legal system that leaves it at the discretion of the judge to either believe or discount a victim’s story of abuse, regardless of the evidence presented.

In the case of baby Wyatt, court transcripts state that the, “judges reacted with disbelief when his mother Katie Tagle presented them with evidence of death threats against her son by his father.” Shortly thereafter baby Wyatt was murdered.

It was another tragic end to the brutality of love gone wrong.

For information about domestic violence please visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and get involved. You honestly might help save a life.

Ivan Sanchez is the author of Next Stop: Growing up Wild-Style in the Bronx (Touchstone – Simon & Schuster, 2008). The book is the first memoir released by a major publishing house written by a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. Sanchez is also the co-author of It’s Just Begun: The Epic Journey of DJ Disco Wiz, Hip Hop’s First Latino DJ (powerHouse, 2009). He was awarded the National Novel honors for his first fiction offering and is currently working on several new books about NY Latinos. He is also the co-host of Rebel Radio on Urban Latino Radio.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Cost of Chasing a Dream

The Cost of Chasing a Dream

I can still remember the conversation as if it were yesterday… and even though it seems like two decades ago, it was less than two years ago, sometime in late November of 2008.

I was sitting in my beautiful sports car, outside the beautiful townhome I lived in with
family in Virginia Beach, the place I’d escaped to in order to forget about all the hopelessness that had consumed me in my old Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, New York in the early 90’s.

There I was speaking on the phone with my very good friend – my sister – Lynx Garcia, telling her about my plan to move back to New York City to chase all of my dreams. These dreams of mine, which seemed to be right in front of me, daring me to reach out a little bit further to meet them all up close and personal.

My marriage, according to me, had failed… and my daughters, the honor roll, competition cheerleading all-stars that they were, would be fine without me in the household. I’d help raise them to be intelligent, compassionate human beings capable of acquiring their own dreams when they found the time just right… I rationalized that even my two-year old wouldn’t miss me much, as she didn’t really know me well enough to miss me.

So my time to start chasing my dreams became right then and there. But not before Lynx spoke her peace into the phone. And although I can’t speak verbatim as to what she said that winter evening, it was something to the affect of, “Be careful my brother… you know sometimes when we find that ultimate happiness in one facet of our lives, other things in our lives begin to go wrong. We can’t have it all; the world just doesn’t work that way. There is a certain balance to life…”

Damn, she couldn’t have been more right had she been cheating by staring directly into a crystal ball.

To put it blunt… I now believe that my sister was trying to share with me a wisdom she’d learned throughout her own journey in life. And I now believe it to be true… you can’t have it all… all the time. It’s just not the true
balance of life. There is a cost that must be paid in every measure of life.

Of course, I do wish that Lynx’s words wouldn’t have been so prophetic, so quickly. It would’ve been nice to have seen things collapse around me just a little bit slower than what they actually did once I touched down in the city that never sleeps in December 2008.

Because almost immediately after arriving in New York City, one day after Christmas, I saw projects failing for no apparent reason, I saw once opened doors – closing in a seemingly, “Oh shit, he really moved back to New York,” kind of fashion… I had partners tell me they no longer wanted to collaborate… But even worse, I lost close friends for reasons that I still don’t really understand to this day.

It was as if the ancestors and the universe were simultaneously trying to say, “Ivan, you done fucked up now kid…”

People I respecte
d told me to never look back and others I respected equally told me to dig deep into my past to find the answers to my future. Confusion began to set in and I fell into a deep depression; you know the kind that Latinos don’t ever like to speak about…

The kind of depression we’re not allowed to speak about… because it weakens our position in life, or at the very least weakens the perceptions others have of us.

I stopped answering my phone for weeks and even months at a time…

I stopped communicating with the outside world and at times it even became next to impossible to pick up the phone to say goodnight to my daughters – the only reason I was even trying to hold on at that point.

For all intensive purposes I no longer existed in the real world… I was a walking shell of my former self who had given up on life as he believed it to be. I questioned if I’d come back to New York to become another statistic while Frank Sinatra’s, “If I can make it there… I’ll make it anywhe
re… New York,” verse played on heavy rotation in my head.

Did I really come back here to fail… to give up on life… or even worse to swan dive off the Brooklyn Bridge and die here?

Shit with my luck, I would’ve survived the dive and become a paraplegic. The thought was enough to prevent me from such a cruel fate – well that along with the vision of my little three angels.

I had to answer no to all of those negative questions burning inside of me… I had to find the will and the strength to fight my way through another day of nothingness, knowing in my heart that I’d come back to New York in search of a dream – even if it was now clouded in a nightmare I never saw coming – even if the cost had become the weight of the United States deficit to China…

Little by little I had to dig myself out of what at times was a self-imposed coffin now burying me and my dream alive.

I began working with the youth in a writing workshop, lecturing, freelance writing more often and using the radio show on Urban Latino Radio to find my voice again… my confidence, my dream.

The inspiration that so many said I was providing to them, began to find its own way back to me in return and my darkest days began to lighten up a bit. The sun was finally shining again and my focus came back to me a little bit at a time… freeing me to finally see my dreams again.

There was a great deal of people around me who were never wise to the silent pain I was enduring. We’re not allowed to speak about such a taboo as depression. I recall people even telling me how good I looked and how much I looked like I was living it up in New York… They simply had no idea what chasing my dreams had done to my insides.

That’s the thing about life – sometimes we have to take the time to take a closer look at our friends and family members. Sometimes we have to ask questions about what’s really going on in their lives, if we’re ever to know how they truly are deep down inside.

Let’s stop pretending that all of the issues going on in society are normal. Let’s stop pretending that war, poverty, violence, hunger and an economy that allows the richest people in the world to get richer by placing bets around us losing our homes is normal… Let’s stop pretending that, “It is what it is…”

Because I’m here to tell you that it really shouldn’t be…

What happened to supporting one another as we chase our dreams? What happened to taking on some of your brothers or sisters burden to help push them along?

What happened to the love? Did it simply become too costly? Have we all just given up on each other?

Ivan Sanchez is the author of Next Stop: Growing up Wild-Style in the Bronx (Touchstone – Simon & Schuster, 2008). The book is the first memoir released by a major publishing house written by a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. Sanchez is also the co-author of It’s Just Begun: The Epic Journey of DJ Disco Wiz, Hip Hop’s First Latino DJ (powerHouse, 2009). He was awarded the National Novel honors for his first fiction offering and is currently working on several new books about NY Latinos. He is also the co-host of Rebel Radio on Urban Latino Radio.