To that end, and to ease the angst of my mom's parents over their daughter marrying a man whose name Cruz translates as "Cross," he adopted the name Allen, becoming Allen C. Rivera when he married. Why "Allen?" I asked my mother. "When he came here he was ridiculed and put down. He was called "Chico" or "Pancho" and it really upset him. He just wanted to be an American. And he spoke English perfectly, with no accent at all, except when he was on the phone. So he never wanted to speak on the phone." My parents went so far as to give my older sister Irene and me the last name Riviera, as in the French or Buick Riviera, to further disguise our roots. It was the only thing they ever did that I'm still mad at. No one was fooled. All it did was confuse our school records and by the time my brother Wilfredo arrived from Puerto Rico and my sister Sharon and brother Craig were born, the artifice was dropped.
Dad and mom worked hard and we moved from Orchard Street near the main thoroughfare of Houston Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to a small apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. It was a perfect neighborhood for our blended family. It was divided by Broadway, the teeming boulevard under the elevated Subway that sliced through two radically different neighborhoods. One side of the street was nearly all Puerto Rican, the other almost all Orthodox Jewish. The family joke was that we were the only ones who could cross the street with impunity. Then in 1944, pop got drafted.
Like many Puerto Ricans during World War II, he served honorably in the Army, restricted as many Hispanics were in those days of military segregation to kitchen duties. "He was stationed out in Sacramento," Mom told me. "When his unit was being shipped out to Okinawa, the people running the Officers Club where he worked wouldn't let him go. They loved his spicy cooking. Otherwise, the army food was so bland."
After the war, dad drove a New York City taxi until, with the benefits of the G.I. Bill, my parents were able to buy a modest home for $8,000 in a blue-collar neighborhood in West Babylon Long Island. With his own extended family, Wilfredo still lives in the old house my family bought in 1950.
On Long Island, dad got the job that helped him ease us into the upper-working or lower- middle class, supervising the largely Puerto Rican kitchen staff of the cafeteria concession of the Republic Aviation Corporation in the town of Farmingdale. Now defunct, it was where they built the F-84 Thunderjets used in the Korean War and later the F-105 Thunderchiefs that saw service in Vietnam.
During the booming post-war economy of the 1940's and early 1950's, the Puerto Rican population in the States recovered dramatically, skyrocketing to well over a half million, still mostly living in New York. Puerto Ricans were on the traditional immigrant track to assimilation. But as the community grew, because of factors largely out of its control, so did economic and social tensions. While many people had been gainfully employed in the expanding post-war economy—women mainly in the garment industry, men like my father in hotel and restaurant kitchens—the accelerating shift of manufacturing jobs out of the inner cities displaced and impoverished many Puerto Rican and other immigrant families.