The following tape-recorded interview with a young Puerto Rican living in New York will form part of Oscar Lewis’s new book, La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty, San Juan and New York, which Random House will be publishing in October. Mr. Lewis, who is professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and the author of Five Families, The Children of Sánchez, and Pedro Martínez, writes:
“. . . I am aware that an intensive study of poverty and its multiple facets and problems, particularly one which reveals its effects upon character, runs the risk of offending some Puerto Ricans who have dedicated themselves to the elimination of poverty and who are trying to build a positive public image of an often maligned minority group. I am also aware of the danger that my findings may be misinterpreted or used to justify prejudices and negative stereotypes about Puerto Ricans, which, unfortunately, are still held by some Americans. . . . There may be some people who, for various reasons, would prefer to conceal the conditions described in these pages. However, if anything is to be done to improve these conditions, the first step is to know about them. There is a popular Puerto Rican saying that is appropriate here: No se puede tapar el cielo con la mano—You can’t cover up the sky with your hand. Indeed, you can’t cover up slums, poverty and ugliness.”
Simplicio Rios, age 20, is speaking.
Well, here I am in New York, now, and I’m doing fine. I earn sixty-five dollars a week in a finishing factory where they do all sorts of work, buttons, belts, everything except coats. I do many kinds of jobs. I sew with machines, make ladies’ scarves, big silk buttons, well, everything. I work very hard there, it’s true, but I do it because they are considerate of me.
At first my job was delivering stuff, walking all over everywhere with a big suitcase, eight hours a day, for forty-five dollars a week. Soledad showed me how to take the subway to Manhattan where the factory is, and after that, they just turned me loose. It’s lucky that the streets in New York are numbered and easy to find. So I learned as I walked around making my deliveries. I often got lost. But when I did, I just wandered around until I found my way back. It took me about a month to learn to go places on the subway. I got lost there, too, but that was plain stupidity. In my hurry I often caught the wrong train. But early rising has never hastened the dawn.
That’s all I did when I started working there, delivery. But I didn’t mind because I know that if you don’t have schooling you go down, instead of up, when you first come here. That’s what many Puerto Ricans won’t do and that’s why they give themselves up to a life of vice. Because you feel lower than other people when you have to take a job as a delivery boy. And that might make you turn to stealing or to taking drugs, it might lead you to quit your job and become a tramp. And then you’d be a failure for sure. Because here in New York if you don’t work, you don’t eat. This isn’t Puerto Rico, where if the neighbor sits down to a meal he’ll send a plate of food over to you. Here people, even the Puerto Ricans, throw out food rather than give it away. That’s because people change when they come here, on account of always having to think about working. That makes you use your mind, think of tomorrow, you know. If I have twenty dollars to last me all week, I can’t go out and spend ten now. Because I wouldn’t be spending only today’s money but also tomorrow’s and the next day’s. And when the money’s gone, there’s nobody you can turn to for more. So we become used to that and lose our own customs little by little.
My boss is a Jew, like most factory-owners in New York. Those people expect you to work hard. But if you do a good job they’re swell because, after a time, they’ll do any favor you ask them for. They never say no to you. Whenever I tell my boss “I need this,” he gives it to me. Right now, they often give me buttons for my wife and sister to cover. The pay is a nickel per button. Last week they covered fourteen-hundred buttons. That’s about eighty dollars, I think. My boss has even told me, of his own free will, that if I get myself a bigger apartment he’ll help me. I want to do it but Flora doesn’t. And, after all, why should I pay more than the seventeen dollars a week I’m paying now for a place for Flora, Gabi, and me? But that just shows you how good the boss is to me. He trusts me, too. He leaves me the keys and I am the one who closes the factory and opens it in the morning.
I’ve never been absent once in the year I’ve worked there. And I’ve never been late, either, in spite of the cold and the distance. This isn’t Puerto Rico, where every place is near; it takes me at least half an hour to get from my home to the factory. I always get there an hour ahead of time. That way I can read El Imparciál and chat with my friends a while before starting work. At seven forty-five I start working, and I’m happy to do so. Sweeping the place isn’t part of my job but I like to have everything clean before I start. After that, I change my shirt and settle down to sew scarves on the Nero sewing machine. I stick to that until the boss sends me out to deliver packages.
The only thing I don’t like about my job is the way the boss’s father comes around to hurry us. But I know him well enough to speak frankly. So I say to him, in English, “I’m not coming to work to kill myself.” The boss doesn’t say a word. He’s the old man’s son but they’re Jews and have their own customs. It doesn’t seem strange to them that a son should order his own father around. And fathers treat their children like strangers.
They also have the custom of saving money. They won’t eat a lollipop so as not to waste the stick! And they spit on coins for good luck, so they’ll get more money. For them, work is the thing. They kill themselves working, week in and week out. When they go out, they go alone. They never make love to women or anything like that.
For that reason, most of them are rich and able to send their children to school to get a good education. When the kids graduate and grow up, their father says to them, “We have such and such an amount of money. This is my share and this is yours, to work with or enjoy now, as you wish. Only remember, if you go broke, you’ll have to take a job with me like any other employee.” It’s as if they weren’t very close to each other as a family. As if they don’t feel they have a duty to help a relative who’s badly off. That’s the way they are; I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they suffered so much because Hitler didn’t like them. Hitler killed twenty million Jews, including newborn babies, for having killed God. Hitler was bad. He took no pity on anybody.
Look here, they say a lot of things about the Jews. That they killed God and spat on Him and nailed Him on the cross. But that’s not their fault. Because the ones who killed God, all died ages ago. There’s not a single one of them left. All that’s over and done with and it isn’t important now.
They say that God died for us. Everywhere you go they tell you that. But how could he have died for us when we’re Puerto Ricans and Christ never went to Puerto Rico? God didn’t die in Puerto Rico, so it couldn’t have been for us.
It isn’t true that the Jews are bad. The trouble is that they have been labeled by history. But they are really good. Of course it’s true they don’t believe in God but they do have a religion. They believe in Moses who saved them from a land where they were held as slaves. And they have churches of their own where they pray and sing. They don’t have saints but they have everything else. And those people have been good to me. They have given me the chance to earn a lot of money. The only reason I don’t earn even more is because I don’t want to. I don’t like to work overtime. Sometimes the boss asks me to go to work Saturday and Sunday but I don’t want to do that. I don’t like to drive myself too hard.
Sometimes I get to thinking and I say, “Hell, it’s a good thing I wasn’t born rich.” I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Because those people have everything, so they have nothing to do with their time. Hey, I’m proud to be poor! We poor people may gossip about each other but we’re goodhearted. And after all, the rich depend on the poor and the poor on the rich. We’re all flesh and blood and when we die, we’re all stuck into a hole.
I would rather my wife didn’t work outside the house but Flora is ambitious that way. She leaves for work at seven A.M. and gets home at five-thirty every evening. I don’t like that because if I have a woman, it’s so she can take care of my needs. Now my pants are all unpressed. Before, when she stayed home, Flora kept my things nice, and the house always was clean and neat. Her working is no advantage to me in any way; I never see a cent of her wages. In fact, I never have asked how much she earns. When I get paid, I give her the money to pay the bills, fifty dollars a week for rent, electricity, and food. So Flora’s money doesn’t do anybody any good. We’re going to have a big fight about that someday. I don’t spy on her or anything, but I like to keep my woman at home.
With what I earn, I’m sure of a home, food, clothes, and everything. I mean, I feel more settled here because I have a home where I rule. That’s something I never managed to have in Puerto Rico. There I was like a waif. Nothing in the house was my own. Here, everything I have is my own, so I think of the future. I have responsibilities, see? I live with Flora who is a good woman and satisfies me. So I have to make sure I have a decent life and that my woman doesn’t ever have to go hungry.
It’s true we have our arguments and all that, because when I buy a gift for her she never likes it. I always like the things she gives me, at least I never let her know any different. We quarrel, too, because she doesn’t like me to go out with my own relatives. But I do as I please, no matter what she says.
What really drives her wild is my going out with other women. When she finds out, she slaps my face. I control myself so as not to hit back too hard. She’s suffered a lot, you see, because her first husband was a drunk. Fontánez gave her money but he left the house on Thursday afternoon and never showed up until the following Tuesday. I mean, he never gave her love or anything of the kind. I have given her a little love and she has been good to me. With her advice and by controlling me, she has made a man of me. When I met her I was a street urchin. I didn’t even wear underclothes. She made me wear them, instructed me, taught me how to dress. And then I’d go out with my girl friend and come back two days later, with lipstick on my clothes and kiss marks all over!
In spite of all that Flora has done for me, I won’t marry her. If you marry a woman legally you have to stay with her even if it doesn’t work out. You can’t remarry. If you fall in love with another woman you can’t have her because you’re married to the one before and she’s the one who gives the orders. Of course, it’s true that if you marry under the law the woman belongs more to you. But there’s something forced about it. A man and a woman who marry legally have to put up with each other, no matter what. Suppose I wanted to divorce a woman and she didn’t love me either, but refused, out of spite, to let me go. I couldn’t do a thing about it. And one couldn’t kill her or anything like that. I’d have to stay with her simply because she was my missus. And she couldn’t leave me because I’d be her husband.
Flora and I stay together for love, because we do love each other. We can both be sure of that because we are under no obligation to stay together. If we weren’t in love, each would go his own way. When I get to be thirty-five and, God willing, I have children, then I’ll marry. By then I can be perfectly sure of what I want. But not now. I’m only twenty-one, and I don’t know what life may have in store for me.
Flora’s family likes me and is good to me. There’s not a two-faced one in the bunch except for that brother of hers. I tell him my secrets and he runs to repeat them to my wife. I spoke to him about it once. “You know how Flora is. Don’t play that game of making my wife jealous. I don’t go stirring up trouble at your house. I always show you the same face. I’m not changeable or a hypocrite. As I treat you today, I will always treat you.” I haven’t spoken to him since. I know myself and I don’t want to risk getting mad at him. I am not what you would call a violent man. I think before I act. But if I’m pushed beyond a certain point, I lose control of myself and don’t know what I do.
I don’t like to fight. Not me. I like to treat other people with respect and have them respect me too. But sometimes people like to make fools of others and lots of people have tried to make a fool of me. I won’t stand for that. There’s only one way anybody can make a fool of me, by being nice and getting around me that way. I’ll do anything for someone who’s good to me but you can’t get anything out of me by force. And if anyone tries it, I’ll get even. That’s why I try not to get into a spot where I’ll lose my temper, and I’m trying to break away from my old life. That’s another thing I owe to Flora. She has helped me make a decent life for myself. Just think, all my old friends are in jail now, Pipo, Benito, Geno, Johnny, El Indio, the whole bunch except me. I’m the only one who’s come up to New York.
Up here in New York, the family doesn’t mean the same as it does in Puerto Rico. No. Here you go to stay at the house of a relative and they’re fond as can be of you, for the first few days. After that, they kick you out. You can’t do like you do in Puerto Rico, go into a relative’s house and say, “Let me have a clean shirt, this one’s dirty,” and put on the shirt and go your way. Not here. I have gone to my sister and said, “Soledad, lend me one of your husband’s coats.” And she has answered. “No, I won’t. Why should I go around lending things?”
Like when I first came to New York, I went to stay with my sister, Felícita. I was only sixteen and I had left my woman in San Juan. Felícita threw her arms around me when I came; she was happy to see me. After a few days I got work and I always gave Fela fifteen dollars on payday. But she got real nasty about it; she thought I ought to turn over my whole paycheck to her. She’d curse me and she never gave me anything to eat. If I happened to open the refrigerator, she got mad. She’s always been that way. When I got home, tired, at five o’clock, she never said, “Here’s your dinner.” So I went out again and came back about seven after eating a good meal at a restaurant. Sometimes I spent as much as ten dollars a week on food. And I had to pay for my laundry, too.
One week I sent Flora some money and Felícita got angry. She refused to take the money I gave her and she told me to get the hell out of her house. Then Edmundo, my brother-in-law, said I had to leave, and Felícita, my own sister, didn’t speak up for me.
To show you how Felícita is: one night when I was in her house in La Esmeralda1 she was saying nasty things about all the Negroes around, especially her own brother-in-law, Crucita’s husband, who was there. She went on and on, spoiling for a fight. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any more and knocked her down. Then I hit him and we started to fight. I really got into trouble that time. He picked up a handful of stones and I dared him to throw them. He did. I threw them back and hit his neck. He flung a bottle at me but I stooped and it didn’t hit me. I picked up a piece of the broken glass and drove it into his arm. They had to take him to the hospital.
After that I always went to see Crucita when he was out of the house. Crucita cooked my meals, washed and ironed my clothes, and gave me money. She was so good to me. If I wanted to do anything, she told me to go ahead and do it. She let me eat all I wanted and she never asked for anything in return.
But I have fought with that husband of hers. One time he asked me what was wrong, were we two going to fight? I said, “Fight with you? I should say so! Wait for me here.” I went to my house to get a big knife and a baseball bat but when I came back he was gone. I went looking for him but couldn’t find him. Since then I’ve always been standoffish with him, polite but distant.
One day he hit Crucita on the mouth. She came to me, bleeding. “Simplicio, my husband hit me.”
“He did? But tell me, chica, how did that happen?” I asked her about it but I didn’t go saying anything disagreeable to him on that account. I know how women are. Never have I interfered in his quarrels but when I was in New York I did send word to Crucita that if I should go back to Puerto Rico and meet him, and if he should say something to me, I’d shoot him. The next time we get into a fight, it’s him or me.
Right now. Soledad has Benedicto. You can see he’s a real man, because he took her out of a bar and set her up in a place of her own. And he loves her children and everything. I say this even though I know he went around saying I was boastful and a queer. But he’s good to my sister. Well, one day I was visiting them and they got into a fight. You see, she’d been to Puerto Rico on a visit and Benedicto found out she’d slept with an American there. And her a married woman. But that time Benedicto did something I don’t like. He waited until I went home and then he beat her. I don’t like that. I never mentioned it to him though. One shouldn’t butt into the affairs of a married couple.
I did talk to Soledad about it later. I told her she’d done wrong and if she didn’t change her ways I’d stop going to see her. I said it was wrong to quarrel in front of me. When married people want to quarrel, they should wait until they’re alone.
The truth is, I don’t think much of my family, except for Crucita and my mama. Because mamá is a woman . . . and she has been a good mother, too. She used to beat me . . . well do I remember how hard, but she was right. This two-inch scar on my arm is from a blow she gave me. I even have a scar on my back, too, from that time. But that wasn’t her fault, she can’t help it if she’s hot-tempered. That happened once when I got drunk and met Flora’s brother. We both went to Fernanda’s house and smashed everything we could lay hands on. That made her mad and she struck at my face with a stick. I warded off the blow with my arm and the stick broke. But she herself took me to the hospital and everything.
Another time Catín went and told Fernanda that I was with a woman in a bar. Flora rushed over and I socked her. Cruz butted in and I fell on her too; then Fernanda grabbed a bottle of Pepsi-Cola and hit me with that. I had a black eye for about a month. You can still see the scar where she split open my upper lid. And God help anyone who butted in! It made no difference to her that I was already a grown man with a woman of my own.
I don’t give a damn about the rest of my family. I don’t care for my sisters. None of them has ever been satisfied with only one man. They like to lead the gay life. I think that’s wrong and I tell them so. I don’t bother to explain that I say it for their own good or anything like that. No word recommending any special man ever passes my lips. I never say, “Look, this boy is my friend.” I simply don’t introduce my friends to them. And I don’t say, “This or that would be good for you.” They never pay any attention to me anyway.
But in spite of everything, I do love my sisters. And I won’t let anyone speak badly of them in my hearing. Sometimes they even appear in my dreams. Now and then I dream that I’m in a wonderful, beautiful place full of dancing, singing people. I sit by the shore fishing when suddenly fish, or sometimes it’s snakes, come and bite off my arm. And there I stand, with one arm missing, when Soledad appears and gets in beside the snakes, into a sort of puddle. And suddenly there are about a thousand snakes all over her. Seeing her in that fix, I fight and struggle with the snakes until finally I get her out of the puddle, out of the water, see?
Of course, I treat all my sisters as a brother should. I help them out with food and everything. I won’t deny them my help simply because I disapprove of the life they lead. Because the truth is that whatever is going to happen when you grow up, is predestined from the day you’re born. Many are born to steal, others to be whores, and some to loaf their lives away. Just like some are born to go to jail and they do. But destiny isn’t all. You yourself have a part in deciding what you are, and what you do. Before you can do that, you have to know yourself. And it’s up to each one of us to know himself.
1 In San Juan