Excerpt: "His Panic"

Read an excerpt of Geraldo Rivera's new book "His Panic."

ByABC News via logo
February 9, 2009, 8:01 PM

Feb. 26, 2008 — -- In Geraldo Rivera's new book, he examines the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States.

The journalist tackles the highly divisive issue of illegal immigration, specifically focusing on Hispanics. Rivera references his parents' struggle to assimilate into American culture, as well as other ethnic Americans who try to do the same.

Rivera uses "His Panic: Why Americans Fear Hispanics in the U.S." to try to explain why the immigration issue is such a sensitive one in America. Read an unedited excerpt of the book below.

First, let me tell you my father's story, just one Hispanic family among millions. Like the overwhelming majority of immigrants Hispanic otherwise, the Riveras of Puerto Rico worked hard, served our country in many different ways and made enormous efforts to assimilate, despite the obstacle of prejudice.

My dad always wanted to fit into America, his "new" country. Well, technically the country wasn't new because US citizenship had been bestowed on him and all current and future Puerto Ricans by legislation called the Jones Act in 1917. The United States had been in possession of the lovely tropical island it had conquered from Spain for only 20 years, and Cruz Rivera was just two years old, the sixth of seventeen children born to Juan and Tomása Rivera of Bayamon, Puerto Rico.

"How could you have so many children?" I remember asking my grandmother, a woman of enormous patience and good humor who wore her snow white hair pulled back contrasting dramatically with her angular, chocolate-colored face made leathery by the sun. "Times were different then," she replied in fabulous understatement, referring to their modest agrarian lifestyle in the sugarcane and coffee economy that dominated the island in the days before commonwealth. My grandfather helped manage one small operation and each child became another income earner, cutting and stacking cane watched over by a slightly older sibling.

With citizenship bestowed, the new Americans were free to roam and the Puerto Rican Diaspora began, with island residents leaving their then largely rural society for the far-flung corners of the industrialized mainland United States. Most like my dad came to New York City.

When the now 21-year old Cruz arrived on board one of the New York and Porto Rico Steam Ship Company's "banana boats" in 1937 more than 50,000 of his fellow islanders lived here. The number had been higher, nearly double earlier in the decade, but the Great Depression had unleashed a torrent of bitter racism toward the newcomers who, like the immigrants of today, were thought to be stealing jobs from "real" Americans. So thousands had gone home to the island. My dad and several of his siblings were determined to stay.

He met my mom Lilly Friedman at Stewart's Cafeteria on 6th Avenue and 42nd Street. He was a counterman there; she was a pretty brunette from Jersey City who cleared dishes and waited tables. She is Jewish, he was Catholic, but he spoke English fluently, having learned as the valedictorian of his Bayamon high school. He proposed marriage, promised to convert to Judaism, (which as a lay deacon of the church he never got around to doing). He had been on the mainland for only three years and was keen on assimilating, becoming even more American.

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.