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The Bronx Is Blooming, but for Whom?

Like most native New Yorkers, I take a kind of special pride in being from the City. The City, for most, means Manhattan. For me, the City has almost always referred to what has been, until recently, one of New York’s least respected boroughs, the Bronx.

Most outsiders only know the Bronx as the birthplace of hip-hop and a symbol of the kind of urban decay that befalls a giant county when you blend Seventies-era arson, white flight, and large-scale state and federal disinvestment. My Bronx is a scruffy David to Manhattan’s Goliath: birthplace to Grace Paley, New York’s first designated state poet, and home to James Baldwin’s alma mater, DeWitt Clinton High School.

I moved back to the Bronx last year based on my internal image of the Bronx, which is indelibly linked to my nostalgia for a place that’s been underestimated for most of my life. As long as being from here or living here has been a signifier meaning you were poor, it meant there has been nowhere to go but up.

What I didn’t expect to negotiate is what it would look like to move back as parts of the borough have started to thrive.

My current block features a new luxury condo building with a rooftop swimming pool. Nearby, the Mottley Kitchen serves avocado toast. The coffee shop previously known as Filtered Coffee has been rebranded in the past three months as Double Dutch Espresso. This year, three women of color from the Bronx graced the pages of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list — Cardi B, Tarana Burke, and Jennifer Lopez, about the last of whom Kerry Washington, another daughter of the Bronx, wrote, “She made me believe that you could come from where we came from and achieve whatever you imagine is possible.”

In the Fall 2015 issue of The Prospect magazine, longtime Bronx resident, city planner, and housing consultant Dart Westphal called the reconstruction of entire neighborhoods in the Bronx over the past three decades, “One of the greatest redevelopments in the nation’s history.”

I should have guessed this moment was coming. When the old Yankee Stadium, which I used to peer into when the 4 train passed by it, was demolished to make way for the mammoth, impenetrable one, it was a sign that a time would come when the Bronx Bombers weren’t the only symbols of a thriving Bronx. But I’ve never really been a baseball fan. I rooted for the Yankees because I grew up in the Bronx. You always root for the hometown team, even when you’ve been a homeless kid.

***

My mother and I came to New York City from Philly, arriving in Harlem in 1984, when I was six. Distant relatives of ours lived in a high rise for seniors near 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. There were lots of reasons we couldn’t stay with them, but the main one was that I was too young by a number of decades to legally live there.

Instead, my great aunt sent us to the Bronx. The now-condemned and closed Roberto Clemente shelter was our first address, then a subsidized housing apartment near Burnside Avenue. Back then, evicted tenants’ first stop was the Emergency Assistance Unit on East 151st Street — a way station of sorts where homeless families waited until cots opened up at shelters anywhere in the city, where they would wait again for an apartment to come open somewhere.

“Somewhere” was almost always in the Bronx, which still boasts one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the city and is one of the reasons the borough has resisted (and some argue always will resist) large-scale gentrification. After Burnside, we lived near Fordham Road, then Southern Boulevard, on the other side of Little Italy just past the Bronx Zoo.

I never had time to imagine what thriving in the Bronx would look like, but I also never imagined living anywhere else. Most of the time, I just wasn’t confident I would survive my childhood.

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The public and community school system was broken. There were almost no white people in our neighborhoods. If anyone had a dog, it was a chihuahua that mainly stayed indoors like a cat. I was an adult when I learned that there had once been enclaves in the Bronx that were predominantly Jewish and white. That seemed to be completely relegated to before, a regal past, like luxury apartments, which then referred mainly to the beautiful, aging buildings lining the Grand Concourse erected before the reign of Robert Moses.

I grew up here with my mother for most of my youth until I was away at college in Poughkeepsie. I worked hard at school and I was lucky — I got out, first for Texas, eventually to the West Coast. When I left New York eighteen years ago, the racial and cultural makeup of the Bronx was the same as it is now: majority Latino, Black, and first- and second-generation immigrants.

When I moved back to the Bronx for the first time in nearly a generation, amidst what looks like and feels like a renaissance, I came to Mott Haven. To the Bronx natives who never left, I must look like any other newcomer and sometimes I feel like one, even though I wrote this place on my heart as a child and have carried it with me everywhere I’ve lived.

Charter schools complement the public schools now, bordered with community gardens in some places. More white people have arrived, some of them occupying the otherwise cavernous luxury condos around us. They have brought larger dogs, like German shepherds, which they walk around past galleries and pop-up shops that host parties featuring fewer people who look like me and more who look like them.

***

When I used to say I was from the Bronx, I would get a look of sympathy or pity. Now, eyebrows go up. Someone will say, “I hear there’s cheap real estate there,” the closest you get to a compliment in the City.

I supported the Bronx Book Festival Kickstarter, though I believed it to be more farfetched than it ended up being; the same thing is true for the Lit. Bar, the new brick-and-mortar bookstore scheduled to open this summer in my neighborhood. I’m not used to being from a place that’s cool and don’t know what it means to be from a place that is now, suddenly, inconceivably, becoming hip even while most of the Bronx remains unchanged, poor, and struggling.

Now that the Bronx is rising like a phoenix from the ashes, it has a lot of the amenities I’ve always wanted for my hometown. But as the ascent of my hometown continues, so does the gap between what the Bronx is becoming and the residents who have always been here, and who have made it what it was.

 

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STAGE STYLE

Fashion and music have long had a complex and intertwined relationship. From the way musical movements have inspired designers (remember Marc Jacobs’s grunge obsession in the ’90s?) to how clothes can often help cultivate a musical persona, the two media have always complemented one another. In the middle of this fall’s New York Fashion Week, which runs Sept. 4–11, Fashion Rocks, a massive charity event hosted by Ryan Seacrest, will go down at Barclays. Naturally, the show features the most fashionable lineup of artists imaginable, including Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj, Pitbull, Usher, Miranda Lambert, Duran Duran, KISS, Luke Bryan and more. If you can’t make it, the event will be televised live on CBS, but at least wear your couture pajamas while viewing.

Tue., Sept. 9, 9 p.m., 2014

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SELENA FOREVER!

It’s been 17 years since the Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was gunned down by the former president of her fan club, whom she had fired for embezzling money. Still mourned by her fans, the beautiful and talented performer lives on in song and spirit at tonight’s Selena Tribute Night at Fontana’s, where DJ Marcelo C. (of Nacotheque) celebrates her sound with his eclectic mash-up of electronica dance music. For those who never experienced the bootylicious singer in the flesh, the party also features a Selena impersonator. (Eat your heart out, J.Lo!)

Sat., Feb. 16, 10 p.m., 2013

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$ellebrity

It’s not easy being famous, as the famous love to remind us. Just ask Jennifer Aniston, Kid Rock, or any of the other instantly recognizable talking heads director Kevin Mazur has assembled for his docu-evisceration of the parasitic celebrity apparatus, appropriately titled $ellebrity. Although no one would deny that the increasingly unscrupulous paparazzi are sleazy and often even dangerous, Mazur miscalculates when he tries to direct viewers’ outrage at stars’ inability to walk down the street without getting cameras thrust in their faces. He’s on far surer ground when he uses his on-screen subjects to decry the proliferation of gossip outlets, such as TMZ, which in turn leads to the debasement of mainstream news outlets. A high point: the film’s background on the (d)evolution of press photographic practices. While it’s not all condemnation here, as Mazur allows gossip-rag editors and paparazzi to tell their side of the story, it’s clear where the film’s sympathies lie. $ellebrity, though, is less interested in any in-depth analysis of the system of star-making (and destroying) than in allowing Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony to tell stories of hiding in a car trunk to avoid snapping flashes.

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Parent Trap: The Narrow Worldview of What to Expect When You’re Expecting

Even though it doesn’t have a story, characters, or setting, Heidi Murkoff’s mega-bestselling, 28-year-old pregnancy manual, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, actually makes perfect sense as a vehicle for a contemporary Hollywood ensemble comedy. For an industry banked on bathroom humor, what could be more suitable than this vomit-, piss-, fart-, foreskin-, and flabby-vagina-filled tome? As adapted by Shauna Cross and Heather Hach and directed by Kirk Jones, the film similarly fails to tell a coherent story, create believable characters, or establish any sense of place (its Atlanta is strenuously Anywheresville). It, too, capitalizes on the anxious-mom demographic and proves equally preoccupied with pregnancy’s corporeal side effects. The difference, of course, is that for all the fear, loathing, and overthinking that Murkoff’s bedside text engenders, its journey ends with the hopeful beginning of a new life, whereas the movie leaves you hoping for a swift end to your own.

That feeling has less to do with the terrors of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting than it does with the gargoyles What to Expect presents as characters—a carnival-mirrored tableau of yuppie soullessness. The film opens, appropriately enough, within the warped confines of reality TV: After taking the top prize in Celebrity Dance Factor, Cameron Diaz’s go-go fitness guru, Jules, upchucks into her trophy bowl, shocking both her dance/romantic partner, Evan (Glee‘s Matthew Morrison), and the nationally televised audience. “Let’s hope she’s not pregnant, folks,” quips the MC, but as with any female who has ever felt nauseated on-screen, she so is. Cut to a retail shop called “Breast Choice,” which is run by Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), a Snuggie-wearing, mom-wannabe obsessive with a doormat of a husband, Gary (Ben Falcone); then to Jennifer Lopez as Holly, a childless children’s-portrait photographer who’s hoping to adopt an Ethiopian orphan despite the reservations of her callous hubby, Alex (Rodrigo Santoro); then over to food-cart dreamboat Marco (Chace Crawford), who seduces neighboring vendor Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and sets the interconnected fertilization machine in motion. Even Gary’s oily NASCAR-driver dad, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), gets into the act when his trophy wife, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), starts harboring twins.

Soon, we’re cycling through baby bumps, sonograms, and punch-clock marital meltdowns between irrational, irritating, sex-withholding alpha gals and their resentful, ineffectual patsies. “I’m the one with the bad eggs,” Lopez screams on a street corner, her justifiable sorrow quickly overtaken by the implicit misogyny that the film’s baby-factory worldview affirms. “I’m the one who can’t do the one thing that a woman is supposed to be able to do.”

As you might expect from a future in-flight favorite, What to Expect When You’re Expecting strictly follows Hollywood’s culturally appeasing comedy template: sophomoric mockery of all that’s held sacred followed (and neatly corrected) by an affirmation of traditional values. “I just wanted the glow,” a weary Banks tells a group of mothers-to-be, “but I’m calling bullshit on the whole thing. Pregnancy sucks.” But demystification cedes to worship when the babe is in arms: “I finally found it. He’s my glow.” Nowhere is this turn more pronounced than in Santoro’s auditing of a “dudes group,” in which dads strapped in Baby Björns and pushing Smart Car–size strollers let off some parental steam. Represented at first as a harrowing mess of errant children and castrated manhood (the men drink from baby bottles in mocking slo-mo), the group ultimately embodies an unambiguous veneration of parental sacrifice. Never mind all that was said before about economic hardship and identity crises. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” says sloganeering ringleader Chris Rock.

The film, much like the culture at large, insists that pleasure ends when parenting begins, yet also that the parenting life is the only one worth living. God forbid there could be something in between. “End of day, family’s all that matters,” says Quaid, never mind that his character’s abusive fathering made his son into an obese neurotic. “Kids—that’s all we really leave behind.” If that’s true, and if millions of years of biological, intellectual, and technological evolution must yield to shallow-field American family values, the least we can do is cop to our shoddy legacy. Let’s start with this disdainful, demoralizing, grimly unfunny bastard of a film.

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Even Cowgirls Go to Jail: Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo

A feel-good sports movie you can wrap your thighs around without blushing, Bradley Beesley’s film opens the door into two arenas doc-watchers rarely frequent: state penitentiaries and rodeos, which have been merged in Oklahoma at a massive round-up performed entirely by cons. An annual tradition for seven decades, the bull-and-bronc festival had just begun allowing inmates from a women’s prison to participate when the film was being shot, so Beesley hones in on the gals as they train, prep, and try to stay out of trouble in the weeks leading up to their showdown in front of thousands. It’s a thick ethnographic slice, for sure, if a little PBS in its rhythms, with a narrative net spread thin and wide by suspenseful parole-hearing melodramas, ubiquitous maternal angst, and a wrenching family-reunion clinch to beat all comers. The issue of over-incarceration (particularly in Oklahoma) infests the overall high, while we grow a little suspicious of Beesley’s favoring of pretty white/Latina cons over black, fat, or ugly. All told, though, there’s enough rosy-cheeked drama, triumph, and sacrifice for a ready-made Hollywood remake—it might be the cred project Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz are looking for.

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Marc Anthony

J Lo’s squeeze is good for much more Stateside than just his appearance in Shall We Dance?. The Puerto Rican star brought his music to the masses, becoming the first salsa solo act to sell out Madison Square Garden thanks to such crossover hits as deceptively catchy “I Need To Know.” Tonight, he’ll try again, promoting his new album Iconos and singing covers of Juan Gabriel, Roberto Carlos, and Jose Jose in his usual Cher-meets-Sinatra style. Expect much caliente.

Fri., Sept. 10, 8 p.m., 2010

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Anderson Cooper Vs. Dr. Death

Jack Kevorkian, the only killer I can safely rally around except for my exterminator, was grilled by the very alive Anderson Cooper (the CNN personality who’s definitely not shtupping his wife’s sister) at a Time Warner Center to-do last week that proved to be the most enjoyable assisted-suicide event in ages.

Three years out of the clink, Kevorkian was well-spoken, quirky, and sympathetic, explaining his death obsession by saying, “I’m interested in what I’m going to face. I think everyone should be.” (I am. Every day, I imagine what it’ll be like to be even more bored than I am now.)

“Is there an afterlife?” wondered Coop, not referring to ratings drops. “After death, all we know is you stink,” said the doc (who’s played by the unkillable Al Pacino in that new HBO movie). “Anything after that is mythology, and that’s what religion is. It’s all manufactured.” I guess it stinks.

Still, Kevorkian did grandly reference religion a few times when making a point. When asked about having offed his first patient in a van, he argued, “If Christ can die in a barn, I think the death of a human in a van isn’t that bad!”

And Kevorkian himself practically became a sainted martyr when tossed not into a van but into prison in ’98. Was it terrifying? “No,” he exclaimed, calmly. “I knew I wasn’t a criminal. And most of the nurses, guards, and inmates were on my side—but they had to whisper their support.”

The good doctor only lost my support when he claimed that the right to euthanasia is more important than the recently mandated right of gays to visit their sick partners, because the former affects everybody. Oh, come on, Jack! I bet there are way fewer euthanasia patients than there are gays in intensive care, but whatever the case, let’s not pit the two causes against each other. Let’s go for the whole delicious combination plate of rights for gays and suicides!

On a lighter note, a buxom lady with an unstoppable career—Broadway/movie veteran Lainie Kazan—got a Friars Club tribute last week full of so much old-time shtick and sentiment it was like a big fat Greek wedding, but far more Jewish. Human kreplach Fyvush Finkel toasted Lainie and admitted, “I’m 87. Don’t applaud. With this crowd, it’s not a big deal.” Veteran comic Joan Rivers remembered performing at the Duplex along with other then-unknowns like Lainie “and Barbra Streisand, pretty as ever, arf, arf.”

Another two-drink-minimum survivor, Michele Lee, arrived fresh off the plane in a slightly disheveled striped outfit, complete with plastic bags, and asked, “Do I look homeless?” “Yes!” Joan Rivers answered from the audience. “You’d look good if you were Precious!”

It all led up to Gloria Allred, lawyer to oppressed homewreckers everywhere, finding a home onstage and cracking to Lainie, “I fixed you up with Tiger Woods, and you’re getting $15 million!” “Gloria, don’t ever wear a miniskirt because your balls would stick out,” chimed in the MC, Stewie Stone. With that, Allred grabbed the mic—and the last word—and rasped, “This is a man of courage. You can tell he really has breasts!”

A man with “moobs,” Sean Combs shot an episode of Inside the Actors Studio last week—I am not making this shit up—and a friend of mine was there to soak up the thesping wisdom and report on that kooky tribute. Said my pal: “Combs talked about how his father was a crime kingpin who got murdered in a deal gone bad.” And what exactly does that have to do with Puffy’s craft? “It motivated him toward success. But he and James Lipton talked more about his music career—his relationships with Biggie and Andre Harrell.” And J. Lo? “He never said her name. About the shooting, he said, ‘My girlfriend told me to stay home that night, and I didn’t listen.’ ” One should always listen to J. Lo. But was there any craft talk at all? “He said they didn’t want him to be in Monster’s Ball, but he tracked them down and convinced them. And he showed a trailer for a Judd Apatow movie coming out where he plays an over-the-top record-label owner. Lipton looked moved and said, ‘It’s a comedy of the highest order.’ ” He has monster’s balls!

Moving on to musical tragedy, Broadway’s American Idiot combines the drugs and disillusionment of Tommy, the rambunctiousness in the face of mortality of Rent, and the armed-forces horrors of Hair with fluid staging by the Spring Awakening guy. It all adds up to a bunch of suburban youths energetically stewing in their nouveau punk irritability, and though the staged-concert-style result is hit-and-miss and some of the hooks sound borrowed and blue, it’s still a bona fide musical event, and one that amazingly attracts people under 90 to Broadway. Even under 80. This is definitely not the euthanasia crowd!

A more traditional show, La Cage aux Folles, has been brought in from the U.K. in a pocket version with six Cagelles, a handful of musicians, and a bottle of white wine. Budgetwise, this cup is definitely half-Folles. But the spare approach sometimes mines interesting results, especially since Kelsey Grammer turns out to be a charming musical star who does as well with open gays as he did with the closeted ones on Frasier. And his Zaza, the Judi Dench–like Douglas Hodge, makes a three-act opera out of every syllable, which can be exhausting and bizarre, but generally earns the ovation, not the hook.

So does pert little pixie Leslie Jordan, whose stream-of-gay-consciousness one-man show, My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, is hilarious and ultimately inspiring, filled with zesty experiences, from his telling Marlee Matlin that the alarm of her white Mercedes was going off to butting bewigged heads with Boy George in a strange commercial for sake (“Honey, she’s evil!”).

For me, last week’s pink carpet led to judging the Mr. Gay Philadelphia contest at Voyeur, which has nothing to do with the West Hollywood boîte where Republicans spent RNC money to patronize “erotic art” of the type they so vehemently condemn. There was no hypocrisy at this Voyeur club. The event was open, shameless, oozing with brotherly love, and as delightfully cracked as the Liberty Bell.

As the comely contestants paraded down the runway in evening wear, hosts Brittany Lynn and Frank DeCaro announced interesting factoids about each one. (“He has size 12 feet” somehow had the audience cheering as if the end of wartime had been declared.) That was followed by the bathing suit category, during which we judges strained our bloodshot eyeballs trying to distinguish the padded scrotums from the ones that needed padding. (I’m sensing a theme to this column.)

And in the climactic Q&A section, the incredibly diverse questions ranged from “How much would you charge Larry King for sex?” to “How much would you charge Tiger Woods for sex?” (Fifteen million dollars would be optimal in both cases, naturally.) “I wouldn’t do it because I have a boyfriend,” insisted one staunchly upright contender, and I applauded wildly, loving the idea that if the guy were single, he’d gladly entertain the idea of unsuspendering Larry’s scrotal sac and diving on it for some coinage. (Honey, I’m evil!)

A less pissy contestant got extra points when he announced that he’s a physician’s assistant, “and I’ll let you give me prostate exams later.” The audience got so excited by this proposition that they even forgot about his abnormally large feet. But because the competition was so Philadelphia-fierce, the saucy stud only came in second. Shoot me, Kevorkian!

musto@villagevoice.com

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A Bland Jennifer Lopez in The Back-up Plan

I’m no obstetrician, but I’d wager that Jennifer Lopez’s own labor when birthing fraternal twins two years ago was much less interminable and painful than watching this romantic comedy, the star’s first movie since 2006’s El Cantante, about knocking yourself up. As single, financially comfortable, baby-craving Tribeca pet-store owner Zoe, Lopez muddles through the dismal big-screen debut of both writer (Kate Angelo) and director (Alan Poul), who burden her with an absolute void (Alex O’Loughlin) as a love interest, an SNL castoff (Michaela Watkins) as a second banana, and a disabled Boston terrier. The same day she receives intrauterine insemination from Dr. Harris (Robert Klein, who later provides some weird gallows gyn-humor), Zoe meets Stan (O’Loughlin), an organic cheesemonger. Throughout their courtship, crises are incoherently manufactured, involving Stan’s struggle to pass an econ test at CUNY, Zoe’s eligibility in the Single Mothers and Proud Group (which, confusingly, seems to include dyke couples making predatory lez eyes at the newcomer), and our heroine’s final-act lesson on learning to trust. Though fans have long given up hope that Karen Sisco will ever be reborn, why does Lopez, post-motherhood, now seem intent on reinventing herself as a screen presence even blander than Kate Hudson?

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The N-Word Is Flourishing Among Generation Hip-Hop Latinos

“Yo, my nigga, that nigga’s crazy,” declares a young Dominican guy in his late teens, early twenties. “Yeah, my nigga, that nigga was buggin’ last night, my nigga,” responds another hermano. Chatter like this floated in the air like the whiff of days-old garbage smoldering in the heat while I took my frequent summer jaunts along Vermilyea Avenue way uptown in Inwood, with my 11-year-old daughter in tow.

Initially, you’d find mostly Caribbean Latinos dropping n-bombs into rap lyrics—”Pigs,” off Cypress Hill’s classic self-titled 1991 debut, is just one example—but nearly two decades later, the profusion of the word into the New York City Latino vocabulary is reaching an almost caricaturist quality. In Spanish Harlem, el Bronx, and the Lower East Side, it’s enthusiastically deployed in an almost faddish manner, as if it’s going out of style literally tomorrow. With Nas threatening to name his latest album Nigga (he relented, eventually, but most fans still call it that anyway) a few months ago, and iconic Latino artists from the authentic urban native Fat Joe to one of my favorite internationalists, Immortal Technique, still flinging it about freely, the word, its meaning, and our sense of who can and cannot use it still dominates public conversation. The palpable racial tension that’s been rearing its head this historic presidential election, the subject of race and who is truly considered black or white in this black-and-white race, is something Latinos need to pay attention to. For many of us, especially those of Caribbean descent who make up a sizable chunk of New York Latinos, race should matter, and so should that one particular word.

Personal feelings, premonitions, and politics aside, I took the two young boys’ exchange as an interesting opportunity, an exercise in thinking about Afro-Latino identity in an unlikely way: through a hip-hop lens. Aside from the fact that we’re in the thick of a predominantly Dominican enclave (for now) in our beloved Uptown Manhattan, and the first guy I’d overheard wore an oversized white T-shirt emblazoned with our motherland’s flag, homeboy could’ve passed for an African-American man on any other stretch of blocks stateside. By comparison, his comrade looked more like Fat Joe’s skinnier brother, with light eyes and pale skin. Was it OK, or more OK, for the darker-skinned kid to use the term?

As many times as I’ve heard it yelled across the streets and in playgrounds lately, it doesn’t take away the sting. But it’s naive to think Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban kids in New York City aren’t calling each other and themselves the n-word, especially in 2008. (It’s a global phenomenon, too: In West African cities like Freetown and Accra, heads that find out you’re from the States and part of the hip-hop community will find creative ways to work the word into a conversation.) For us, the word usually surfaces in the same context that arises among young African-Americans: as a term of inclusion and solidarity. “It’s just a code of communication to us, a ‘hood word people throw around frequently,” says half-African-American, half-Dominican rapper AZ, who released his “rap thesis” on the subject, titled N.4.L. (Niggaz 4 Life), last month. “I guess people want to use it now for press and all that; I don’t understand what’s all the big fuss about.”

Somehow, the n-word has found its way back into hip-hop’s critical zeitgeist: I’m interested in exploring, as a Dominican New Yorker, how we as a community have propagated it. Recently, due to the mounting criticism of Boricua rapper Fat Joe’s use of the term eight albums deep into his career (including his latest, The Elephant in the Room), Latinos are being challenged to introspect. But I can see why an impulse to laser-focus on the issue now would bewilder a veteran rapper like Joe; he’s used the word consistently since emerging in 1993, as have the Beatnuts, Hurricane G, and his late Puerto Rican cohort Big Pun, to name a few. In an interview with Chicago-based WGCI radio personality Leon Rogers, Joe said that while he didn’t know exactly when Latinos started using the n-word, he felt that “somehow it became a way to embrace each other.” He added: “Crazy shit is, my man Reverend Al Sharpton, whenever I see him, he’ll be like, ‘Wassup Joe, my nigga,’ and he’s the dude that protests ‘my nigga.’ He’s my friend, so he says it to me as a term of endearment.”

“It draws the racial differentiations into the Latino community, which I agree with,” says New York University Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, Juan Flores, who regularly teaches courses on Afro-Latino identity here and abroad. “It’s just an opportunity to check the power that Black Latinos reflect off each other and the Latino population.” In other words, Latino artists use the n-word as a reminder that they too have been oppressed and are products of the transatlantic slave trade.

There may be a reason for the lack of attention: Many Caribbean Latinos are, to Americans at least, ethnically ambiguous products of miscegenation. Regardless of what we’ve learned in grade school, our history extends past Columbus and our Spanish conquistadores. “The European Spaniards have left a legacy of self-hatred and racism among the Latino population; without acknowledging that, we will not evolve past our own inequity,” says Immortal Technique, an Afro-Peruvian hip-hop artist who also uses the n-word. “Racism in America, as horrible and ugly as it may be, still isn’t as bad as what it is in Latin America, and the sad part is that we are being racist against ourselves.”

Maybe, in a way, that’s the statement Dania Ramirez intended to make when, as part of Nas’s Grammy-night entourage earlier this year, the dark-brown Dominican actress sported a black T-shirt emblazoned with the n-word. Many folks in our parents’ generation have rejected their blackness—I have older Latino neighbors who won’t vote for Barack Obama simply because he’s black—but those generations more informed by hip-hop are embracing their Afro-Latino identity and evolving past our own self-hatred. Perhaps. “One fallacy is that [the n-word is] blasé, like, ‘Ah well, everyone can use it now that it has a different meaning,’ because it’s not completely meaningless,” says Professor Flores. “The other extreme, though, is the absolutist who thinks no one can use it because it’s taboo, under any circumstances. That’s a problem, too, because every expression has the potential for ulterior meanings, depending on the circumstances of the person.”

Crystal, a 13-year-old fair-skinned Dominican girl attending eighth grade in an Inwood public school, remembers first hearing the n-word in a song while hanging out with her aunt. “So then, we got on the computer and we looked it up, and it had the meaning and everything,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Why would you say it in a song?’ From there, you started hearing everybody on the street saying it, and then everybody started getting used to it.” To be fair, parents aren’t always able to interfere because they speak little to no English; those reared by hip-hop culture in the last two decades often use it themselves.

The similar term cocolo—most popularly used as an insult against Haitians by Dominicans, and by Puerto-Ricans against Dominican immigrants who look Haitian—is another word gradually being assigned a new meaning here among Latinos. Other words that translate to mean “black” among Caribbean Latinos are moreno/a and negrito/a, almost always used as terms of endearment. However, because none of these words have had the fraternal stamp of hip-hop approval, they have yet to receive their proverbial ghetto passes; speaking of which, Jennifer Lopez might’ve surrendered hers when she left the Bronx eons ago. While it’s a fact that men in the hip-hop industry can get away with murder, women are held to impossibly high standards, and the question of authenticity played a role in how negatively the public reacted to J. Lo’s use of the n-word on the remix for her 2001 single “I’m Real.”

“I think with that, it was really based more upon class than anything else,” Immortal Technique says. “Many people saw Fat Joe as technically black even though he was a light-skinned Puerto Rican, and he had affiliations with the streets that Jennifer Lopez probably lost on the way to Hollywood.”

With few exceptions within our community—Raquel Rivera’s 2003 book New York Ricans From the Hip Hop Zone devoted prime real estate to the discussion of Latino identity in hip-hop—this is a conversation we’ve failed to have, whatever our personal feelings. “It really don’t matter if you’re white, you’re black, you’re brown, or from the Boogie Down—it irks me to death,” says Alain “KET” Maridueña, 37, an entrepreneur and artist. “Latinos in our neighborhood use it a lot—like every other word—and I’m trying to check people because I find that we’re suffering, we’re going through our thing, times are hard, there aren’t enough opportunities out there, and I want us to rise up.” But we won’t rise up if we can’t talk about the reasons why we haven’t quite gotten there yet, and the words that’ve risen in prominence as a result.