Widely criticized by current community leaders like fiery congressman Jose Serrano and former Bronx Borough President and losing mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer, Badillo has written a scathing but not entirely mistaken commentary on our current situation called, One Nation, One Standard: An Ex-Liberal on How Hispanics Can Succeed Just Like Other Immigrant Groups. In the book, Badillo points to the relative success of our cousins from the nearby Dominican Republic. They didn't have the same advantages we did when they got here. The DR was suppressed for years by a series of brutal dictators, principally Rafael Trujillo who ruled with an iron hand from 1930 until he was assassinated in 1961. The island nation, which is next door to Puerto Rico, separated only by the 60-mile wide Mona Passage is now free and unfettered. Unlike Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens all, many Dominicans came to America as visitors or trespassers with no advantages, but with immigrant vigor. They are now turning vast swaths of New York City into upwardly mobile enclaves. Once a ghetto, Washington Heights is a thriving Manhattan neighborhood heading straight into the middle-class thanks to its hard-working residents largely from the DR and Mexico. Unmistakably Latino, the Heights are a vastly more stable, safe and prosperous neighborhood than they were just 20 years ago.
I respect both Herman and Guillermo tremendously, but I see the root of our problem in our ambiguous status. Puerto Rico is neither an independent country nor a state of the union. We get many of the benefits nationhood or statehood would bring, but not the responsibility or respect. Our island is a stepchild in the family of nations, charming, ebullient and attractive, but a stepchild nevertheless. And until that status is resolved with either independence or, my preference, statehood, the stubborn social problems will persist as they have for more than a half-century. The stepchild needs to grow up and become an equal member of the American family. To mix metaphors, Puerto Rico has to pick a lane.
When the Ozzie and Harriet ideal was sweeping the nation in the Eisenhower days, hard times in the inner city intensified residential and racial segregation, crime and unemployment increased, public schools spiraled downward. I have an image of my dad coming home from work in the afternoon and scouring the crime stories in our hometown newspapers Newsday and the Long Island Press hoping that the perpetrator of some particularly vicious act was not a Puerto Rican or other Latino for fear that the dirty deed would only make our efforts at assimilation more difficult.
My father's response to the growing discrimination and backlash against the community was to align our family with the Anglo mainstream, becoming suburban "us" to the inner city barrio's "them." His fear of being racially stereotyped and his malignant communal shame at any dreadful or embarrassing act committed by any Hispanic is something I can never forget. As a young adult, it was what caused me to reject his cautious assimilation and adopt a flamboyant ethnic identity; growing a mustache I haven't shaved in forty years, habitually wearing a Che Guevara-like purple beret, permanently becoming Geraldo (don't call me Gerry unless you want a fight) and throwing my lot in with a grassroots East Harlem radical group called the Young Lords.