Where I come from, there is graffiti everywhere. This place is their museum, an outlet for their frustration, inspirations, and pride.
Home Is Where the . . .
Where I come from, there is graffiti everywhere—trains, buildings, sidewalks, walls, trucks. To artists who live here, everything is seen as a blank canvas, something to be filled with their wildest dreams. This place is their museum, an outlet for their frustration, inspirations, and pride of whatever it is they want to spray paint. It is radiant, vivid, intense, dark, broody, tearful, melancholy, and rich. It is the fumes that are released when a finger presses down on the valve cap that can be smelled, the air being released as the paint travels up the tube and out onto the concrete canvas. It is found in various colors and most involving neighborhood pride, gang sets, or just simple words saying that person was here. So many questions would go through my head as a young girl, riding the train with my mother: How did they get up there? Why were they up there? Who taught them that? Did they get hurt going up and down?
Once, as my mother was trying to squeeze in some time to sleep while raising three young children on her own, I asked her, “What do you think the spray paint on the buildings means? Why do you think people went and did that?”
She thought for a second, then said, “I don’t know what they mean because they’re hard to read. They spray painted because they wanted to be cool, bad, and dangerous for their friends; something you should never do because you could get hurt and then the police will get you.”
A few years later, while in high school, I learned about the history of graffiti through the development of hip-hop; graffiti developed as an art form since funds for arts programs dwindled in the 1970s and geopolitical programs ravaged areas that were filled to the brim with Hispanic, African American, and Caribbean people. This was and still is the story of their response to how their home treated them—when you have no sense of identity, you can find a tag on a wall with the artists’ alternate identity; when you have no sense of family, you can find gang sets spray painted, claiming territory or a neighborhood; when you have pent up anger for the realities of life, you can find artists in a park gathered together, talking about life, and painting their emotions out. Works of graffiti and tags are still ever-present today with current protests surrounding police brutality towards Brown and Black people here; you can find them on buildings that symbolize injustice, trauma, anger, sadness, and rebellion.
I guess things never really change when it comes to home.
Where I come from, there is a loud whooshing of wind and then loud, greasy workings of the wheels and various parts of the engine that come to a screeching halt. A brief second of silence—everything and everyone is silent. In this split moment of silence, I revel in the fact that I am going wherever I am going—to the doctor, a friend’s house, a social event, rock climbing, or even out of state. Trains—something so complex that is reduced to simplicity and movement. Then the noise starts back up again as people walk by; there are jobs, soccer games, classes, or doctor appointments to get to in the early morning. Where I come from, a piece of flimsy plastic is what gives you freedom and headaches at the same time. It is a staple of growing capitalism yet a piece of history of marginalized communities such as mine. One day when my mother had to take me to the doctor, I remember the mornings when I sat with her and watched her count the coins she had. Two dimes, twenty cents. Four quarters, a dollar. Four quarters, a dollar. One nickel, five cents. Two dollars and twenty-five cents. Wait, what’s double that? Another two times, twenty cents. Another four quarters, a dollar. Another four quarters, a dollar. One nickel, five cents. All ready. I ask myself, “How can a yellow and blue colored piece of plastic rule how I live my life?” If you bend it, you’re screwed —you’ve lost your only way to get home and you either have to beg people to help you or you walk it. I still struggle with my relationship to this piece of plastic—it can be freeing to travel wherever and whenever you want but it also can be angering and stressful when you don’t have the money to ride. If you don’t have enough money to get one, it is a symbol of police brutally—men and women in blue uniforms running and violently holding Black and brown people against the dirty floor. As is everywhere else here, the floors they face are dotted with black dots—perhaps for a moment, they can feel the presence of all the people who used to be here. A gateway to see what was once here and what is now in its place.
It is even worse now—as a pandemic lived out in capitalism extends its giant hand over the city and chokes the life out of Black and brown communities. Lack of jobs and a need to regenerate the same amount of revenue leave Black and brown communities devastated—how can we get to places we need to when we barely have enough to scrape for ourselves or our families? If we jump over the turnstile to get to the nearest supermarket, police are behind us, and a family goes another day without the basic necessities of food. This is what I call home—a mentality that is based on struggle, poverty, and a sense of freedom. Sometimes I think to myself, is this what I should really be calling home?
Where I come from, the cheese is greased up, the tomato sauce is simple with a touch of acidity, and the crust is thin-like yet crispy. There are many different types, and everyone who was born and raised here has very particular preferences for what ingredients are used. There are various preferences down to the basic ingredients: flour (bread vs. specialty vs. all-purpose?), tomatoes (imported vs. San Marzano vs. plastic jar vs. no tomatoes vs. white sauce?), cheese (mozzarella (fresh or shredded?) vs. cheddar vs. provolone), cooking method (gas oven or wood fired?), shape (circular or square?), and price (one dollar or up to five?). It is a staple traditional lunch, on-the-go meal as you walk to your next destination, or a meal for friends to gather around.
Where I come from, community runs deep, and this comes in one of the many forms of local, cheap, and fast food served in a foil container in a brown paper bag. It’s the recipes handed down from generation to generation, from mother and father to daughter and son to their grandkids. It’s the comfort food that allows those who just came here to feel some sort of connection to their own home while in this new world. A bridge a community walks on to enter home. As you enter the spot—emphasis on spot, not restaurant—high chairs positioned next to each other for seating at the counter, workers in front of you, yelling to coworkers and chefs in the back for orders made by customers in their native language. The worker serving your food never calls you by your name—it’s “Papa,” “Mama,” “Mami.”
It is so different when I go to a restaurant; I may not be called by my name at either establishment, but there is some sort of disconnect that happens in a restaurant. Food for a community becomes informal. A sense of family and friendliness is lost. When I’m at a restaurant, I feel like I can’t connect with what I’m eating—the order isn’t taken by the lady who always calls me “Mami,” and I can’t see or hear what is going on with the food, hidden away in some other world that I can’t reach momentarily. Out of my grasp, I feel that I’ve lost what is home to me in a world where these local Caribbean spots close due to a pandemic that once again takes another part of home.
Where I come from, the music is loud and blasting from multiple parts of the block—from Spanish music to African music to Italian music, the music never stops. It’s the local grandpas and grandmas that are seated out on the sidewalk, playing dominoes or cards, dancing until late into the night, and a sense of family. There are nights that I consider one of my favorite yet least-liked events: family barbecues in the front yard. The reason these days are my favorites is because my family gets together and we talk, laugh, sing, and dance while grilling up great food. It puts in perspective the days that you don’t get to spend with your close family, the days you spend cooped inside trying to finish typing up a paper or an assignment, the days you spend in silence without speaking to them, and the daunting question of how many days more will we be able to spend together. It marks the disconnect I have with my grandparents who only speak Spanish and a scrap of English. I guess this is what home is in a sense—loving yet struggling to say what you want to your family members. The unsaid. The unknown. The space between my grandparents on one side of the table and me on the other side. However, I think the music connects us in a way. As I have watched countless times the black-and-white music videos and heard the artists sing, I can see the history behind it. I can see the many men and women of Latin America pour out their struggles with love, life, money, and family through their music. I can hear the pain, sadness, longing, desperation, happiness, anger all in the music. Perhaps the way Mr. Hudson and Jay-Z’s “Young Forever” was the soundtrack for me not wanting to go into adulthood, the same as their black-and-white music is for them.
The song plays at spontaneous yet big moments of my life, for example, when my great-aunt left us to go back to live in Ecuador with her daughter. I often regard her as almost a second mother to me despite our language barrier. Even though I knew that she would go back to Ecuador after she gained citizenship since I was young, it still hit me like a ton of bricks when the day came. As we stood in the living room and I saw my siblings cry as we all hugged her goodbye, I remembered the McDonald’s meals she’d bring us—the smell and oily fingertips of the French fries, the crunch and chew of the chicken nuggets, the plastic toy in a small plastic bag for little kids, the cold drinks filled with carbonated soda that makes you burp and your stomach feel gaseous. I remember when I’d walk in the kitchen and see her at the stove, cooking for my siblings and me when my mother was at her doctor appointments and my father away working, and sometimes sleeping at the kitchen table while watching Spanish television. The tired look in her eyes. I remember the numerous times my mother would laugh and cry with her—another mother figure to my mother. The laughs would fill the kitchen, the smile, crow’s feet on their faces, and the tiredness in their eyes. As I go to sleep and she goes back home, the first lines of the last chorus of the song echoes in my head:
“Forever young, I wanna be forever young.”
Where I come from, there are always aspiring musicians who play in front of everybody with what they can scrape together—big plastic tubs, chopsticks, makeshift instruments, or a formal music instrument. The mentality of making what you can out of scrapes is a staple of what I call home: my great-aunt gaining her citizenship with limited English and help from my mother; my own cramped room with a bunk bed and no closet; having to go through the obstacles of the Department of Education in order to get a better education in another town.
Where I come from, all these things are constant but always evolving from what I once knew. Grandpas and grandmas move into the local retirement homes, a new family moves into their home, the music always changing from modern to old classics, and some prices for food rising while others stay the same. But why is it that home is the place where all the bad things happen? People in blue uniforms take another brown or Black child, parent, or sibling’s life. Another number of homeless people in the streets appear, begging for money and food just to beg again the next day. Sidewalks filled with pollution and overflowing garbage bags, rotting with the smell of rodents and spoiled foods of the day. A transportation system that takes advantage of marginalized communities with rising fares and over-policing. Buildings that were once filled with the generations of immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa are now hotspots for in-house gyms, new plumbing systems, new fire systems, doormen, security guards, and spacious rooms. Ah yes, the life of the middle and upper-class. Another day where brown and Black families are forced out of their homes and out in the world without a new home, going from neighborhood to neighborhood. This is what I call home—a mentality that is based on struggle, poverty, and a sense of freedom. Sometimes I think to myself, is this what I should really be calling home?