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A Simple Man
I was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, and lived the first few years of my life in the New York City area, but if you ask me, I’ll tell you I’m Puerto Rican. Puerto Rico is where I mostly grew up. It’s where the best memories of my childhood are. I have a lot of family there, and friends, and while it’s changed in the thirty years since I last called it home, it’s a place that remains close to my heart.
Both my mom, Juana Gloria Dones, and my dad, Jose Castro, were from the Commonwealth. Their parents were poor farmers; in fact, they worked plots right next to each other in Trujillo Alto, a landlocked, bucolic town in the northeast. Both raised cattle and sometimes horses; they grew bananas, plantains, oranges, grapefruit, yucca, pumpkins—if you could put the seed in the ground and get it to sprout, one of my grandparents would try it. My dad’s father made rum from sugarcane and even set up a little grocery store to sell his wares—it amounted to three tree stumps and a plank of wood, according to family legend. Today, we’d call this creative boutique family farming; back then it was subsistence living.
Farming wasn’t in my father’s blood, and like a lot of Puerto Ricans in the 1950s and early 1960s, he left to find work in the New York area. He got a job in Union City, a gritty New Jersey town directly across from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, the colorful name for what at the time was little more than a ghetto of recent immigrants. He sent for my mom; they soon moved to West New York—another nearby New Jersey town—and spent over a decade and a half in the metropolitan area. I was born in Hoboken on August 11, 1967, a latecomer to the family—my sister, Olga, and brother, Joe, are thirteen and fourteen years older than me, respectively.
Before you ask—no, Ivan is not a typical Spanish or Puerto Rican name, although I’ve been surprised to find many other Hispanic Ivans as I’ve gone through life. As far as I know, there was no special reason for it; my parents just liked the sound.
My sister and I were close, despite the age difference; she would babysit me when she came home from school, taking over for one of my aunts. According to family lore, I was a fussy eater when I was small. My sister loves to tell a story about how this drove my mother to distraction until one day, possibly at wit’s end, she grabbed a Halloween mask and put it on to encourage me to eat.
I’m not exactly sure how this worked—she seems to have slid food in my mouth every time I laughed—but apparently it became a nightly ritual for quite awhile. She would mug, I would laugh, and in the food went.
My father, God bless his soul, was a good man in many ways: kind and generous toward me, fun to be with. He worked hard. But he had a drinking problem, and too often when he drank he would gamble—not the best combination. My dad always thought it would make him rich, but then, so do most gamblers.
He also tended to be jealous of any attention my mother got. Since she was a beautiful woman, she got a lot. This was all a very bad combination, unfortunate for them, I’m sure.
One day when I was five, my father showed up at home drunk; he ended up passing out on one of the beds. This apparently was the end for my mother. She took me in hand and we went to her sister’s house in the Bronx.
We never went back. My parents’ marriage was effectively over. They remained relatively cordial, even after they divorced a short time later. My brother and sister, who were still going to school, stayed with my father until they got jobs; many years later, my father ended up living on property my mom owned next to her house in Puerto Rico. But there was never any illusion or talk of them getting back together romantically.
My mother had been a hard worker before the separation; now she worked even harder. She had a job in a textile factory—the garment industry was having its last hurrah in New York—then eventually saved enough money to purchase a bodega, a small neighborhood grocery store very common in urban America at the time.
The part of the Bronx where I grew up was like Puerto Rico north. I’d get out of school and walk home to the sound of conga music. Spanish was common here, and it had a Caribbean accent. It was a first language for many of my peers. We lived across the street from a Catholic church, which for many families was as much a community hub as a place of worship.
But New York was also a dangerous place in the late sixties and early seventies. Sometime around 1975, with crime increasing throughout the city, a shooting very close to my mother’s store shook her badly.
“That’s it,” she announced when she came home. “We are selling and moving.”
We left the Bronx and went to Jersey City, across the Hudson, where my mom bought another bodega and candy store. She soon met and fell in love with a man from the Dominican Republic, Osbado Alvarez. Somewhere around there, she saved enough money to buy an apartment building, then another; investing with an uncle, Mom ended up with four or five buildings in the area of Wayne Street, near a pencil factory.
I remember playing with my cousins in the sticky asphalt-covered street, building ramps from grayed plywood so we could fly over the street curbs with our bikes. I remember the Italian deli with the freshly cured salami hanging in the window, maroon-red speckled with brown and crisscrossed by white twine. I remember my gray blazer and tie for Catholic school, the nuns in their habits with starched curves and bleached white collars. I remember the red handles of the shovels in the window of the hardware store, and curiously bright colors of the wheelbarrows that lined the way inside. I remember the flowers I would sometimes buy with a few pennies for my mother on the way home—white daisies, yellow mums.
In summer we would open up the hydrants and let the water flow out—silvery water with drops that glittered against the flaked-red fire hydrants. The Twin Towers rose across the skyline, twin peaks of lofty ambition waiting in the future. Disco music shuffled from white plastic transistor radios and bulky black-and-silver boom boxes. Whatever cares my mother might have had—and I know there were many, between business and her marriage—they didn’t intrude into my world or those of the other kids. We played and ran and rode our bikes. If all I remember today is laughter, that is the way memory often works: polishing out the blemishes from predominantly happy times.
Around 1977, Mom found out that her parents were ill. Caring for your parents is very important in Latino culture and especially on the island, so she and I moved back to Puerto Rico.
You can imagine the culture shock. From English to Spanish. From very urban to very rural. We hadn’t been rich in the United States, but we were solidly middle class/blue collar. Puerto Rico, even near the capital of San Juan where we lived, was solidly poor. There were pans under the beds and an outhouse in the back. Mosquitos were kept at bay with nets. We were considered lucky because our kitchen was inside. We didn’t have hot water, but there was a wood-fired stove.
TV? Yes, but only a single channel.
I don’t remember how well I did in school the first year we moved. Probably not too well—everything was in Spanish, and mine was far from polished. It wasn’t until I started attending the Antilles Military Academy the next year that I felt comfortable. It was more than just the fact that most of the kids at the private school spoke English; there was something about the rigor of the classes that attracted me. Structure and discipline were what I needed as a young teenager, and the military drills and lessons that came when I reached high school age funneled my energy.
The academy was expensive; even with her sacrifices, my mother was only able to send me because my father took his Social Security money and gave it to her for the tuition. She worked several jobs, and so did I. I’d come home and go right out selling fruit and vegetables at a busy intersection; when the other kids saw me, they made fun. I guess they didn’t understand the benefits of work, let alone the necessities of bringing in an income when you aren’t born rich.
For me, those were important lessons, ones I learned entirely by doing—almost by osmosis, absorbing them from Mother and the rest of my family. Working hard, striving to make things better: These became second nature, habits that I never questioned.
I wasn’t the greatest student. Drilling, shooting, physical fitness (PT)—those classes I was great at. English, so-so. History, math—there were more interesting things to do than hit the books.
Our track team was studded with kids on scholarship, but I still managed to make the team, running in cross-country and the longer racing events. My memory is hazy, but I remember being somewhere in the middle, not too fast but above the worst. I was five feet eight and probably a little pudgy; not exactly the best build for a distance runner. I don’t remember competing in many races, and I know I didn’t come in first in any of them.
With one exception.
Even when you weren’t scheduled to compete, you were expected to attend the meets. I was standing around at one of those events during my senior year when one of our coaches mentioned to another that we didn’t have anyone for the racewalking competition.
“Hey, Castro,” said the coach, glancing toward me. “Ever speed walked?”
“Want to try?”
“Sure!” I said. “What do I have to do?”
He took me aside and quickly showed me how to move my hips and arms. The instruction maybe lasted sixty seconds, but it was good enough to propel me to first place, and by quite a margin. Beginner’s luck? Maybe. But I still took home the ribbon.
Racewalking—also known as speed walking, which is what we called it at my school—is not exactly a glamor event. It sounds a bit soft—walk, not run?—and looks a bit ridiculous. All of which would explain why all my friends thought it hilarious that I was now a “champion” racewalker.
The coach told me I had potential. I’m not sure I believed him, until I used it to get into college a short time later.
Very lackadaisical about my college plans, I didn’t bother researching, let alone applying to colleges until well into the spring. At that point—maybe panicking—I frantically looked around for a school that would take me. I applied to the University of Puerto Rico’s main campus in San Juan—after the deadline—only be told, duh, too late. And, duh, your grades are not good enough to make an exception.
As a consolation prize, the university agreed to accept me to their branch in Humacao. The college was more rural, its standards easygoing.
It was also far away. So I wondered—maybe I was a good enough speed walker to get into San Juan?
Worth a try, no?
I went over one day to see how I might go about getting in. Wandering into the gym, I eventually found the track coach talking with some of his team members and other coaches. I introduced myself, and he led me over to his office, a sweaty little closet at the far end of the locker room.
“I’m hoping to be on the track team as a speed walker,” I told him. “I have come in first and my coach at Antilles says I have talent.”
He looked over at his assistant. “Do we have a speed walker?”
Apparently not, judging from the man’s expression.
“OK,” he told me. “Try out.”
I was in street clothes: tight jeans and leather moccasins, no socks. It was ninety-five degrees out and if the humidity wasn’t near 100 percent, this wasn’t Puerto Rico.
“Go test him,” the coach told his assistant.
The poor man grunted unenthusiastically, then led me outside, where he took out a watch and told me to go for it.
I started lapping the track. I glanced at him as I came around the first time; he was drenched in sweat.
I did a few more laps before he stopped me.
“But I’m not done,” I said.
“We’ll use your average so far,” he said. “You’re consistent and besides, it’s too hot out here.”
Whatever the average was, it was enough to get me a full scholarship to the San Juan campus.
Racewalking is not just walking fast; it requires a certain kind of technique. For me, swinging the hips was critical, and easy—I liked to dance, and even better, I liked to do anything that would get the girls watching, and there were few better ways than swinging your hips back and forth in those days. A friend and I used to practice all over campus, collecting catcalls from the girls. Call it reverse sexual harassment; we ate it up.
Scholarship or no, I was a lousy student. Maybe the scholarship had something to do with it—in some ways I didn’t feel as if I had to work very hard for it. My studies were rarely my main focus. I was still working when I could, both at home and at a retail store in a local mall, but I was also spending a lot of time on the beach. In fact, when I describe my life back then, I’m more often to call myself a beach bum than a college student. I started blowing off classes soon after I arrived, with predictable results.
There was one area of study that I cared about: military science. I enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps or ROTC program at the school, with the vague idea of becoming an officer in the U.S. Army when I graduated. The way it worked at the time, you made a commitment in your third year; at that point, you would receive a stipend and join the army in return. You weren’t guaranteed to become an officer; among other things, you had to keep your grades up and prove you had the proper character. But it was a good route. I joined the National Guard, which in theory might have also helped me advance, but theory met reality on the sandy beaches of San Juan, and guess which won?
If I’d been more serious about my studies, I could have stayed in the program, graduated from college, and become a second lieutenant at age twenty-one. Maybe I’d be a general now.
Things didn’t go that way. I was less and less motivated to go to any class that didn’t have the letters ROTC attached to it. My grades went south. I didn’t have the mix of credits I would have needed to get that officer contract, and I wasn’t all that committed to getting them, either. I was still living at home, and days when I wasn’t at school or work were mostly spent swimming and lazing on the sand. At night, a friend and I would race our cars down the treacherous mountain roads at night to get to Old San Juan, where we’d party and club until all hours. Coming home we’d snap off the car lights and drive outrageously fast on the narrow lanes, sometimes hitting eighty mph on roads that you’d have to be out of your mind to do twenty on.
In the end, though, I wasn’t made to be a party animal. The military was calling.
Copyright © 2016 by Ivan Castro and Jim DeFelice