Brenden Navarro

I look out the window of my apartment in the Bronx to see my view of the highway, some mechanic shops, and cars parked on the streets. My phone vibrates. It’s my abuela. “Buenos dias, mi amor. Te desperte?” she asks. My grandma is an elderly Puerto Rican woman who is as outspoken as she is a good cook. I used to stay over at her house when my mom would work late nights and whenever I wanted to have a sleepover with my cousins.

“No, ma. Yo me desperté casi ahora mismo.” I wipe my groggy eyes.

Oh. Pues, y tu hermano y mama?”

“Mi mama se fue pa’l trabajo y Jaren está durmiendo. Voy a despertarlo en un minutitos para que se prepara para escuela.” 

“Oh. Tu vienes por aquí hoy? Para cocinar te un desayuno ‘buenísimo’ como a ti te gusta?” My mouth waters thinking about it. I would get up in the middle of the night and wander into her kitchen, where she would be sitting there, smiling at me. We would make all sorts of food and go back to bed. That was fifteen years ago or so, and we still have nights like those when I visit her. “Claro, ma. Cuando dejó a Jaren se vas, cruzo la calle pa tu casa. Podemos ver pelicula juntos.”

“Te espero, papi. Dios te bendiga.”

“Dios te bendiga, ma. Bye.” I hang up, make breakfast, and wake up my brother for school. He wakes slowly, sitting up in bed. Looking up at me standing by the door frame he says, “What’s up, bro?” 

“Jay, you got school in an hour. Your breakfast is on the table.”

“Copy,” he says. Still groggy, he unties his silk durag to reveal the waves he spends hours a day brushing. I walk over to the sofa and turn on Netflix while my brother showers. He starts off his morning with music in the shower. A Boogie wit da Hoodie ricochets from the hard bathroom appliances to the living room. I love A Boogie. He has a hometown hero feel to him when I listen to his music. The artist was born and raised not too far from my home in the Bronx, New York. In his hit song “Jungle,” he referred to our neighborhood as a jungle. He sings “–that jungle turned me into a monster–.” My brother shuts off the shower, finishes his breakfast, and puts up his hoodie as he walks out the door to school. He daps me up. “Peace, bro.”

“Peace, my G,” I respond, and close the door.

I lace up my Nikes, put up my hoodie, and put on my headphones. I scroll through Spotify and pick a song of somebody who I’m walking in the shoes of, “Latino,” by Joell Ortiz. “–Look around in my neighborhood, aqui en el barrio, tu sabes–” Ortiz says, starting his song. Ortiz described his experiences living in a predominantly Latino neighborhood mine.

I walk out of my apartment into the hallway. I shut the flimsy door to my apartment behind me, being sure to lock it. It always smells like weed. We were pretty sure our downstairs neighbors were selling after they were arrested and then put up a sticky note saying something along the lines of “we’re back” the week after. My neighbor, a large Dominican man always sporting a baseball cap and basketball sneakers, is walking out of his apartment at the same time as I’m walking out of mine. “Vecino, y tu mama,” he asks. 

“Ella esta bien. Tu sabes, haciendo lo que haces. Y tu?”

He says “bien” and by then I’m already downstairs. 

“–Dope gets sold by the bodega, while y’all call it dope, we call it the manteca–” Ortiz raps in my headphones. Bodegas are a cultural icon down here. There’s a bodega four buildings down from mine. The one on my block was beside a liquor store where we had dope dealers loitering at all hours of the day. Middle-aged men posted up in front. At night, they’ll be drunk and yelling at people walking by. “–Sit down on milk crates and play dominoes. Capicu! Slam it down, tell them adios–.” My mom knew some of the old men that hung out at a bodega by my grandma’s house. They sat around folding chairs and played dominoes in front of it. One of them was her best friend’s father. They all remembered me from when I was still being carried in my mother’s arms.

Across the street was a chain restaurant named El Valle. It sold staple Hispanic food. Like Ortiz says, “–you know rice and beans, a little chicken, maybe tostones–”. The smell would travel around the block. It made me hungry every time. I had my fifth-grade graduation dinner there and my mom would order whenever we wanted to have a family night. The taste of the chicharrones de pollo sin hueso still reminds me of Friday nights spent watching movies with my mom and my little brother. I would sit on the two-seater and fall asleep to whatever ABC movie my mother decided to put on that day. My brother sat on the edge curled up in a corner on the same sofa my mother had lain down on.

I cross the street, passing by a Mexican restaurant and the C-Town. My mom loved grabbing the sales magazine and only buying from the weekly sales. She said it saved money compared to buying everything at once when some of it isn’t on sale. My mother and I would take this route back home every day from grandma’s house when she would pick me up after work. She would spend all day at the Social Security Office answering calls. My grandmother, brother, and I were all proud of her. We used to live off her part time paycheck as an afterschool program employee. She was a grown woman amongst teenagers. I know she was a little embarrassed. Now, she has a career in a federal agency and she loves it because she gets to support everybody that helped her get there.

“–See e’ry block got a different crew. This kid I knew got paralyzed ‘cause of his tattoo and he wasn’t in a gang. Just some young punk tryin’ to come up and get a name put a bullet in his brain, it’s a shame–,” Ortiz’s lyrics ring. One morning we were waiting for the cab at five a.m. to go to grandma’s house. The cab company knew us by name at this point. My mother was dropping my brother and me off before she went to work. She wasn’t comfortable leaving us home alone. It was too dangerous. I was scrolling through Facebook when I learned about my classmate’s brother, Beejay. I was in ninth grade; he was a senior. “SIP Beejay” was written all over his brother’s wall. It was a little over a month until Beejay’s graduation when he was gunned down. He wasn’t in a gang; he was just some young kid hanging out with his friends trying to “get a name” by going to college after high school. His death was an initiation for some new members of a gang. It wasn’t related. It was just a wrong place, wrong time scenario. I wish I felt worse, but honestly, it was just another kid from the neighborhood. It felt routine. My mother was heartbroken over it. Despite being around this jungle longer, she was not jaded to it. She had seen him around the neighborhood hanging with the sports teams that practiced at the public park because they didn’t have a school field. That day my mother asked my school for Beejay’s mother’s email and his mother invited us to his funeral and his birthday memorial barbecue. Today, they are great friends.

I pass by the Catholic church near my grandmother’s house. I see the kids on their way to school, specifically my old high school. They’re wearing the same uniforms I used to wear. Navy blue polos, and khaki pants. They try to sneak around it by putting sweaters over their polos or wearing beige cargos in place of their pants. My brother does the same thing. I was always more of a rule follower. I figured the minor rebellion wasn’t worth ticking off the administration even slightly. I could get more out of them if I kept them happy.

It’s surreal to think these kids are walking in my footsteps in the same way I am following the footsteps of those who came before me. It’s a cycle. As I listen to Ortiz’s experiences through his song, I can’t help but think that before Ortiz dropped “Latino” in 2007, he was following rapper Fat Joe’s footsteps when Fat Joe referred to the Bronx as “–Bronx the Boogie Down battleground, Uptown turn smiles to frowns–” in 1993, and that Fat Joe was following rapper Too $hort’s release of “The Ghetto” in 1990. Even further, I’m sure today’s youth are listening to newer artists who release music based on similar themes. They’re probably listening to A Boogie’s song “–Got me feeling like Dre in Straight Outta Compton. Got me feeling like making Straight Outta Bronx and I don’t think they understand though–.” My phone vibrates.

“A Donde tu estas?” my grandma says.

“Yo estoy de camino ma. Estoy al lado de mi escuela.”

“Okay. Ten cuidado que la policia esta la esquina de tu escuela,” my grandma says. 

“–Oye, ten cuidado la policía está en la esquina de Broadway–” says Ortiz.

On the high school steps, kids chase each other, slapbox, listen to each other freestyle verses. The students wait for their first period class to start by sitting around the front door of the school. The school safety officers look out for the students through the cameras. It takes me back to when I used to wait for the first period to start. “–See where I’m from, the kids look up to the hustlers. Even if they family was some of the customers–,” Ortiz said. I used to watch my peers try their best to embody their favorite rappers and urban culture icons. At the time I never understood why they did it. They would pursue rap careers in the form of freestyle circles in front of the school or in the cafeteria. In some cases, students pursued drug dealing careers starting with the school bathrooms. My cafeteria smelled like weed some days. Deals were done on trips to the bathroom. Sometimes I wonder where some of my friends ended up. Last I remember, I was cracking “Yo Momma” jokes with my friend in class. Then, he took to selling drugs and earned a lot of money. He’d bring wads of cash to school. In ninth grade, he disappeared for a while, came back, and told us he had been in juvie. He disappeared again the next day and I haven’t heard from him since. I often wonder where he is and what he is doing.

In high school, I looked down on these passions and pursuits. I have always understood rap careers and drug dealing as unacceptable. Mom would tell me about all her friends who used to do the same. Cousin Kevin in Puerto Rico died because a crew ran up on him and his friends in the middle of the night after his mom had told him not to go hang out with them that night. He hid in the cracks of a security gate. That didn’t work. They found him. I was two years old when he died. My uncle Gago used to be about it. He’d jump across rooftops to avoid police, guns, the whole nine. I would write to him in prison up until the day I attended his funeral. The family had their doubts about the alleged cause of death, but it wasn’t anything they felt like investigating. I was still in elementary school. Another uncle I rarely see got released a few years back. We still see unusual new scars on his face. He must be in his late fifties.

All of them had a few things in common. They all began like my classmates did, before eventually dying on the streets or in a prison. I have always understood those roads only ever end in prison time or death. Even the legends of the industry, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G, and 50 Cent ended up in cells or shot, but this never stopped anybody. Even Beejay’s brother embraced the culture that got his brother killed. 

I remember Ms. Michelle. She was the strict teacher nobody really liked to talk to in my grade, a Puerto Rican woman teaching in the same neighborhood she grew up in. She was struggling to get my class to do the work one day when she blew up at us. “I wish you all would pay attention! You don’t know how lucky you are. The teachers here have a mission with you all and that is to prove the world wrong. There are people in this world that look down on you and expect you to fail. People like you, that come from low-income neighborhoods, are expected to fail by people who think they are better than you. They think we are stupid. That we’ll end up on the corner selling drugs or working minimum wage.” Her words hit me like a truck that day. “Do you know how I have been treated when people learn that I’m Puerto Rican? I have been asked if I was Puerto Rican. I told them yes. They asked if I had a knife, because they knew I was Puerto Rican. They think that’s what we do!” Nonetheless, my classmates continued chasing their dreams of being the next big star in the rap game. Sometimes, I wish there were more I could do, but I have learned that you can’t save everyone.

I take the elevator upstairs to my grandmother’s apartment. “Hola, ma! Pero huelle buenisimo aqui,” I say, giving her a big hug. She smiles back.

“Dios te bendiga, mi amor. Viste la policía afuera?” she asks. I know she was worried something had happened to me or somebody else in our family. Ortiz rings in my head once again. “–There’s action all the time in my neighborhood. But see we all mind our business like a neighbor should–.” I shrug, close the door, and sit down to eat with my grandmother. She’s made my favorite breakfast sandwich. The one only she can make. It is a triple-decker sliced whole wheat bread with American and Swiss melted together over seasoned eggs laying on a bed of ham and turkey with just the right amount of mayo. Next to it, a cup of cafe con leche from grandma’s favorite brand of coffee, Cafe Bustelo.

Now, I sit in college classrooms with the sons and daughters of white-collar members of society. Coming from the neighborhood I did, I am proud to have made it this far. As our professor discusses the readings for today in Humanities, I accidentally mumble, “Wow. College content is really interesting!” The content is head and shoulders above what I had the opportunity to learn in high school. It sounds like the level of education I always strived for, but it’s something I try to never utter, knowing the discrepancy between my old school’s standards and those of my newfound peers. It’s a discrepancy that I try not to think about, because to acknowledge it would mean I would be reminded that I was less prepared than everybody around me. The girl beside me is a lawyer’s daughter. She looks at me and says, “Really? I learned all of this stuff in high school.” She speaks about the AP classes she took and the pre-college classes she paid for while driving around in the car she bought with the job she had been working at. She was able to save up while not having to help her family financially. The girl across from me turns around and says, “Same.” Their remarks serve as a reminder that they come from big houses and beaches. I come from the neighborhoods their parents tell them to stay away from. The wildest part about it is that they had the privilege of not giving that discrepancy of education a second thought. They could turn around and ignore it.

The part of this travel experience Ortiz never talks about is the perception others have of your journey in these footsteps. While Ortiz shares a positive outlook on the neighborhood culture, that is not a common perspective. Having heard reactions from classmates and townies in my university, I learned that they do not see the obstacles you overcome; instead you are viewed as part of that obstacle. You are “those people.” The truth is I don’t blame them. Many of them are accustomed to gated communities, suburban neighborhoods, and two-income households with quiet nights and Whole Foods. I woke up in the middle of the night to gunshots in front of my apartment building, a single mother trying to make ends meet, and discount retail stores selling cheap goods to me and the rest of the community. To the shooter that wakes up the entire neighborhood in the middle of the night, being held back, yelling, “Next time, I won’t miss!” I’d love to say this was a unique experience, but I was only walking in the shoes of my friends from the same neighborhood, people who walked this walk before me, and people from similar neighborhoods.

You’re told to pass state exams without textbooks, without resources, and with street violence surrounding you and to make sure your scores are on par with those of the other schools in the better neighborhoods. It becomes taxing. It drains you to know that you are pushing harder with fewer things available to you and yet, you are only up to par with the average student in higher income areas. But after you look back, you notice how much stronger you are because of it, because none of that stopped you. It’s like Joell Ortiz said “–We had hard lives so our skin is thick forever–.”

It’s a madhouse in here. The two hundred clubs and organizations the college publicizes have all clustered into the ballroom to promote themselves to new students. The room is filled with banners, posters, music, and students trying to get each other’s attention. There’s no elbow space and everybody is bumping into each other, shoving, and trying to get by. I stand in front of my club’s table, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and lock eyes with a young man. He’s a lanky young man who stands around five-ten. His wandering eyes, dark skin, and curly hair tell me he’s an outsider to this environment. My curly hair and clothing tell him I can relate. The young man approaches me almost excitedly and says, “I can tell just by looking at you, the stance, the shoes, the joggers… you’re from New York City, right?”

“Of course. What part are you from?” I say. The young man huffs up his chest and deepens his voice. “The Bronx.” 

“That’s dope, but what part?” Again, he huffs up his chest. “Fordham…you?” It’s with pride that I giggle and say, “Hunts Point.” The young man’s eyes widen while his body flinches. He’s heard of it. I recognize the look. To him, now I’m a guy from the dangerous part of town, Hunts Point. It’s just like Ortiz said, “–I’m that and I’m proud–.”

    My name is Brenden Navarro. I was born and raised in the birthplace of hip-hop. I enjoy waking up early, playing video games, and working out. I became a first-generation college graduate by graduating from SUNY Geneseo in May 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Today, I am pursuing a career in Higher Education as a Resident Director at Keuka College in hopes of encouraging, motivating, and teaching young adults to reach their goals. Photo credit: Brenden Navarro