To understand the deep and profound effect Lisa Lydia Rivera had on me you first have to know the value of a drop of water during a drought or the huge payoff gained after having spent year upon year mining for gold and suddenly striking it rich.
The inclusion of this girl during my adolescence was a long overdue break from the travesty that would eventually become my life. She was both essential and calming to me as I entered my forced march to adulthood. My life from then until now couldn’t be measured or thought of as seasons the way most people would think of theirs with spring,summer,winter,and fall marking the blossoming of someone’s existence. That wouldn’t even begin to describe my life. My existence here on God’s gangrene earth has been a voyage through treacherous terrain,wandering through strange
And on more than one occasion,it felt as if I were making my way across an obstacle course that had been built on a minefield,treading lightly while side stepping my way past an assortment of dangers. My formative years were a vast wilderness, a time when everything seemed to be sprawled out before me with no clear path in sight. These were years I spent traveling through the gorges of other peoples souls and personalities, people like my father who left me alone to wander through his barren existence.
This journey lasted until my mid twenties when I stepped out of that vast wilderness and entered a wasteland made empty by the absence of the few people I had gotten to know, people who chose different paths in life. Now in my forties I find myself wandering among the ruins of my life, surveying the wreckage and aftermath of my existence.
My early years though would always be the most brutal ones, a first time for everything filled with initial shocks and resounding trauma. This made me extremely grateful whenever I stumbled across any type of refuge. Lisa was the first true form of refuge for me. This was in 1981, a few years before the crack epidemic would storm through East Harlem where I lived with my mother, a martyr through marriage to an aging delinquent who unfortunately was my father, and a constant source of shame.
Also with us was my kid sister who at that time was just a nuisance, My four other sisters who were all older than me had all moved out, three of them married and living in different states, and the fourth oldest away at college, a first for anyone in our collective psychosis of a family. Life still held some promise then, not just for me but overall. The veil had yet to be lifted on reality.
I had already missed the first day of school and was still having trouble accepting the fact I had transferred from nearby St Lucy’s on 104th st(we lived on East 100th just four blocks from what I would always consider to be a death camp)to St Ann’s on East 110th street. Transferring out had managed to get me left back a year to ensure that I would get a better grasp of the work. The nuns at St Ann’s felt their curriculum was different than St Lucy’s and felt I would benefit from having to repeat the seventh grade over again despite the fact I had always been a B student with an occasional sprinkling of As here and there. That would be the first, last and only time I would ever have to repeat a grade, but back then it bothered me to no end. Still at 13, going on 14 that following summer of 81, I knew there were certain expectations I had to fulfill as a son, not to my father but to my mother.
It dawned on me at an early age how tragic my mother’s life had been. Starting off with having to grow up without a mother of her own, who had died of cancer when she was just twelve, the rest of her life after that became both an exercise in futility and a never ending struggle courtesy of my father who existed as a burden in our family, the dead weight of a club foot that slowed down any progress we made as a family .
My cynicism was set in stone at an early age and by the time I reached the seventh grade at both St Lucy’s and St Ann’s I knew exactly why it was so important to get a good education; because of the sacrifices my mother had made to send 6 kids through parochial school, which was still affordable at that time.
Her suffering bore many things to her six kids: inspiration,determination, and later on as we entered our thirties and forties, resentment to those of us who were left to wrestle with any deep unresolved issues,along with a strong desire not commit the same mistakes she had made by being foolish enough to fall in love with the shiny bauble that was my father in his twenties.
He was a good looking man. No shame in that,but throughout 35 years of a marriage that was more of a Mexican standoff, one that would only end when my father died of liver failure, my mother would always unearth some new cruelty about my dad. She learned too late that his evil was subterranean. To this day she’s still crawling out from under the mess he made of the time they were together.
I’d like to think I kept my promise to never hurt my mother, but I know better. Yet whatever pain I caused her was nothing compared to the grief my father had heaped on her.
So even though I was bitter about having to repeat the seventh grade over again, I had to keep my eye on the greater good:my mother’s happiness. Whatever resentment I had about it had to be reigned in tightly. Holding close to every little drop of anger I had back then was both blessing and a curse. At thirteen things had shifted inside me. A budding and natural sense of rebelion had started to take hold of me, at times sticking out like a loose thread in my personality, a thread that could have easily gotten snagged on any of the ceremonial pitfals of ghetto life,(crime and drugs).
Here I was at thirteen faced with a teenage angst that was constantly threatening to take flight, one that would make me crash and burn if I wasn’t careful. All it took back then was a brief moment of anger or despair to set things in motion when your growing up poor and in the projects. In the blink of an eye I could have found myself on the road to ruin, and in another blink I could have been a witness to my own demise. I had to keep a tight lid on my anger at almost every turn considering that I was angry about so many things. What could a 13 year old boy growing up in the rough ghetto of East Harlem have to be angry about.
Plenty,but I’ll stick to the ones that are vital to the story I’m trying to tell.
After having to attend public school for kindergarten my mother wasted no time putting my sisters and I in St Lucy’s the second we were ready to go to first grade. There were two beliefs at the helm here that set my mother on course to give her kids a good education. And while I’ll never understand how she managed the finances to send us to St Lucy’s, I do know the two things that had her believing her children would be better off in parochial school.
The first one was the firm belief that public school was open to the public, which was its biggest flaw, a belief I also hold true to. After my oldest sister had gotten in to a scrape with a boy from the neighborhood who was in the same class as her, my mother decided in an effort to minimize the number of dangerous encounters we had with the local low lives by sending us to St Lucy’s, where for a few hours we were in a relatively safe atmosphere, one the budding low lives couldn’t get into due to lack of money and a lack of concern from their parents who saw growing up in the ghetto as learning experience rather than a opportunity for disaster.
They thought it was character building, while my mother thought it was too risky to
expose your kids to the craziness of ghetto life. And she was right. Except that St Lucy’s had its own pitfalls that might have been the lesser of two evils, but still evil none the less. The problem here was the same problem with everything else in life:People. People are the chink in every armor.
Despite St Lucy being a religious institution, that sense of religion, was and always will be filtered through human nature. Human nature is a pendulum, swinging back and forth between perceptions that get altered the moment you’re born. This was where I learned how intent and execution were two separate paths that broke off at a fork in the road.
Thanks to human nature and personal idiosyncracy something always gets lost in translation, giving me one of many introductions to the shortcomings of man.
Religion like politics is practiced on the poor with a sledge hammer effect. In parochial schools that are located in bad neighborhoods Gods word is delivered as a slap across the face-literaly. The White mans burden of having to deliver God’s word to his lowly savage colored cousins(Blacks and Latinos)is alive and well and profitable even in a poor area. The process of converting the natives to a God of their choosing is a long and hard one that as far as the Catholic church is concerned doesn’t always take the first time around.
After seven years in St Lucy’s I had serious doubts about how God went about picking his emissaries and the standards he held them to. Seven years of being thought of as lesser people by priests, nuns, teachers and even the lunch ladies had left me with the impression that God had very little power to stop the borderline hazing practices used by the faculty at St Lucy. He also had zero power when it came to all the bullying and teasing I had to endure throughout those seven years.
That’s another thing I learned. Just because someone can afford to pay for their child’s education doesn’t mean that child is rich in morals and values. Kids can be cruel and brutal and flat out violent. Parochial school had just about as many retards as public school. Granted they were dressed in uniforms but all that did was give their stupidity a uniformed effect, and a lot of these kids still came from the ghetto, bringing it with them when they were at school. It’s true,you can’t make chicken salad out of chickenshit or even chicken soup for that matter.
These kids either came from two income families where neither parents were ever home, giving the little bastards free reign when it came to how they behaved or they were the kids of people who ran numbers and sold drugs,
which was like the kids of mafioso’s going to college;questionable morals hidden in a better package.
Seven years at St Lucy’s made me a raging atheist throughout al of my twenties and most of my thirties. It wasn’t until I came to God on my own accord without having some pious religious figure shoving his practices down my throat or delivering God’s word with an air of superiority that I developed a desire to be close to God. But back then being in St Lucy’s only made me curse him.
I cursed him when my first grade teacher Ms. Derwin, an Irish rose with thorns who had been wilted by a life of being a teacher in a bad neighborhood had no trouble handing down the most severe punishments to me and every other Latino student who got in to a fight with a Black student all because she was afraid of confronting the parents of those Black students. I cursed him when Ms. Santos, a tiny Filipino woman with all the self control of a piranha during a feeding frenzy took to punishing her students-myself included,and quite often myself only-by whacking them with a glass ruler across the hands,legs and butt.
I cursed God nonstop when I found out my third grade teacher would be Ms. Derwin again. Also during third grade, I cursed God when Father Fiorelo slapped me hard across the face for calling Ms. Derwin a bitch after getting in to a fight with Perry Blackmon who was actually Black and had a mother who attempted to not only intimidate you when she yelled but also tried to swallow you when she did, which was enough to convince Ms. Derwin that I deserved the more severe punishment.
In fact I was the only one who was punished,and after I sung Delta Dawn at the school pageant for her. Fuck Helen Reddy and Ms.Derwin. I cursed God in fourth grade for giving us Mr Krull (pronounced cruel, making it self explanatory)for a teacher. I cursed God from sun up to sundown when Ricky Guzman transferred from what I could only imagine was hell to St Lucy’s and turned my life in to just that with his constant bullying. I really hope that’s where he wound up at later on in life or death. I cursed God all throughout my time at St Lucy’s, and even cursed St Lucy herself. Cursing God wasn’t what I was doing when Lisa Lydia Rivera crossed my path though.