As a late teenager, deeply impressionable, culturally conscious and concerned, Pepe was moved by the struggle. Pepe saw many a strange thing in life but even late in life he was moved by the struggle. It was all about his people or so he said. It was all about his people. Pepe grew up in an immigrant (Puerto Rican) home located in the inner city of North Philadelphia. The section he matured in is known as the Barrio, which showcases the Bloque De Oro (the GoldenBlock) “5th street” and is flooded by Spanish speakers and spanglish often reverberates in the air over the songs of salsa music and gun shots and hip hop. As he narrates, the Bloque De Oro is historically noted as the location where big time drug dealers trafficked in large sums of cocaine and some marijuana. They masked illegal business with legitimate businesses like restaurants and video stores etc. to move their dirty money. Often they were these businesses were the targets of the city’s drug task force.
It was with “dirty money” that many found small fortunes, fortunes they failed to find once America’s factories were exported and inner city schools crumbled there was no way up the social ladder in teh face of poverty and discrimination. In the Barrio many ” went big time and got paid” they sold crack and heroin, two drugs of choice for the drug addict and the feds. Pepe says, for the addict these drugs were cheap and addictive and for the feds they made big money that needed to be seized. How many millions of dollars the feds seized in North Philadelphia has yet to be known to its inhabitants all victims of the war on drugs but one thing is sure the money never was returned to the school system nor did it create jobs for the poor. One thing is sure many of the drugs seized made their way back to the streets at the hand of corrupt cops in the early and late 90’s. (today America’s inner cities are seeing regentrification the question is are its inhabitants?)
This is why Pepe liked that the rapper KRS ONE would say things like “illegal business controls America” this line he said, speaks to reality ( a nasty reality that people suffered with their lives). With the new found fortunes the American gangsters amassed they built mansions in Puerto Rico and wrecked the Island by bringing corruption and by default extended the sway of the Columbian drug cartels over American streets and Latin American countries. But in the absence of economic ventures that created strong markets for the poor markets governed by the rule of law the underworld took over.
They killed us, Pepe said, by destroying the very fabric of community and life. Our youth poured out the Churches and into the streets and into the Prison system (and their blood poured too) there are few that made beyond 25 years of age and less who entered into the University. The Church became a place for funerals as the murders increased and the Barrio’s walls hosted an array of murals dedicated to the dead. Street corners were ornamented with candles and trinkets marked the spot where someone was killed, assassinated in the war on drugs.
The Barrio was marked by the acronym “R.I.P” except we never saw peace and it has yet to descend. Pepe chanted to me a mantra that I would never forget “they destroyed us and the Barrio our streets are covered with blood“.
Pepe claims his mother told him his family was a refugee family from Puerto Rico, forced to leave the Island because of trade agreements between the US and the Island leadership and this is how he saw himself a Puerto Rican Fugee. This feeling of refugee was dispelled when he realized America was home. Although he was always distrust that American troops colonized the Island during the Spanish-American war and Puerto Rico and today they perform military exercises in the Island’s waters that are said to be the cause for the high cancer rates in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Like Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans inhabit a limbo state as an identity (and hold on tight to Spanish as a resistance move that they learned when the US tried to force them to speak English) not from here and not from there. Pepe reconciled with this ambivalant state as many Puerto Ricans had done. But he never failed to remind me that Puerto Ricans fought for the Yankees and spilled their blood for America this he believed entitled Puerto Ricans, gave them a right to be citizens of los Estados Unidos.
He also felt that if it was not for the African American and Latinos that there would be no United States. He also declared staunchly ” we built this country with our blood and sweet”. My grandfather, he said labored in this country and my uncles fought for this country andI pay taxes young buck.
Pepe knew about things, facts and stuff, he reminded me of someone who preserved and narrated an oral tradition, a village elder. It was because of his peculiarities that the “young boys” who crowed the corners to peddle drugs for older drug dealers considered him odd. He only offered anecdotes and advice on life and not an opportunity for quick cash. Unfortunately, it was common for young men to sell drugs with the purpose of making enough money to take home to provide food for their parents, buy clothes and escape the stresses of life by getting high at night (smoke blunts and drink beer).
Pepe said: “it is depressing that they use the school yard to peddle “weight” (large sums of cocaine) but they never took benefit of the school. In scuffles with other thugs they fought for Potter Thomas School as territory and never came to know who is Potter Thomas (Thomas Potter :an Irish immigrantwho became wealthy) and why the school was erected in 1965.
Pepe knew about the struggle he said. He knew about the real story about Puerto Ricans and he felt their pain. He had an uncle that went to the caves in Puerto Rico and studied Taino drawings and religion and through his great uncle he connected with his ancestral roots and always recalled that he was native to the Americas. Pepe ranted about facts such as:
1.) the first sociologist in all the Americas was Puerto Rican ” Eugenio Maria De Hostos”
2.) Julia Maria De Burgos was one of the greatest poets of Perto Rico she settled in New York and year later a schools was named after her in Philadelphia but they never taught her poetry
3.) Many Puerto Ricans were literate and intellectuals possessed of degrees (Phd’s and MA’s) from European Universities in the early 1900’s.
4.) Muslims from Mali and Andalus inhabited Puerto Rico but were banned by the Catholic Church after the emergence of resistance movements against the Spanish were launched in cooperation with the Taino tribe that spanned from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic over to Cuba but popular historical records fail to report the detailed facts of these events the actual details are preserved in Spanish libraries and Church records after all the rebellions is one of the primary reasons Islam and Muslims were banned from New Spain by legal and Church decree.
Pepe was a walking book of Puerto Rican history characterized by melancholy. Once I confronted Pepe and asked him: “what was the issue” he broke down, and told me, in tears, with distraught what ached him. He said: “I love my people but they are killing themselves.” Drugs, crime, ignorance have overwhelmed our community. Pepe went to the extremes -emotionally- he wanted his people to be in the stuggle for a better life, he thought Islam could help. The question was would they put aside their culture and habits for Deen, were the men brave and strong enough for that and the women willing to sacrifice?
Pepe was a Catholic but he was fascinated by Islam. Islam occupied his mind so much so that he narrates that one time he preached to his friends on a street corner about Islam he told them it could benefit them. Despite, his efforts and enthusiasm he saw little results.
Years later Pepe would see his friends convert to Islam (something that made him content) the problem, he said, was many entered Islam in jail, as protection for advantages. Pepe on the other hand entered Islam because he felt and saw in it truth and was convinced that the Catholic church failed abandoned Latinos. The closing down of Churches in the inner city for economic reasons only convinced him more of this reality -big business he said.Pepe said weird things like: The Polish Pope John Paul the II made an agreement with President Regan to eliminate the work of priests in Latin America (they were with and for the people) so Poland could be rid of Communism (in other words he sold them out for national liberation). It took me years to figure out what Pepe was talking about (after entering the seminary and leaving the Church for Islam).
Pepe always was about some affair and steadily aware of the trends and forces shaping thought and action in the community. One time he told me about the 5% Nation of Gods And Earths and the Nation Of Islam. I thought he was nuts until I saw a 5% Percenter talking to him telling him he was a God and he needed knowledge of self. He seemed to be interested in the idea of self knowledge and the focus on literacy that he saw these things in these two groups but he did not think they were real religions.The Nation of Islam and 5% ‘s cultivated learning he said but he wanted to know about Jesus and it was this quest to know Jesus that pushed him to study Islam and by this means he came to enter into Islam.
Pepe took to study the history of the Holy Land for a greater knowledge of the historical Jesus during this quest study he confront Islam for the first time as it was practiced in a Muslim land . Through this search he would learn of the adhan and heard it called while watching a documentary on Palestine (the land Jesus was said to have been born in). The adhan resonated in his heart for years, its beauty and simplicity moved his heart and years later he became Muslim. Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar….La Ilha Illa Allah
Pepe commented on the influx of converts into Islam in the late 80’s and 90’s and did not seem to like the manner in which people in Philadelphia were converting to Islam (in large numbers from both the African American and the Latino communities). I found this strange at first but the reason for his unease was a lack of quality in commitment. He felt that many were moved by the fad to imitate the Muslim but the yearning for an inner transformation was lacking. In fact, this same feeling was reverberating among many young religious people particularly Christians who saw young people flocking to Islam because it offered a culture, an identity (dress and name and cool terms).
Pepe recalled to me a story that highlights what was happening among the youth. He said he once saw an old classmate on the city’s public transportation. While on a bus his friend Jaime, with whom he went to Catholic school, had been exposed to Islam. (this would be one in a large series of contacts with Muslims) During the encounter Pepe asked Jaime if he had been attending Church as both Pepe and Jaime were once altar boys and did their confirmations together. ( Pepe also recalled Jaime was beaten by the nuns, quite often. So one day Jaime punched the nun who beat him in the face, in retaliation for what he deemed abuse this happened at St. Henry’s Catholic school. He also mentioned that Jaime was being raised by his father and grandmother and seemed to have emotional problems) Pepe said Jaime was not very religious in school but he made a point to talk to Pepe about Islam when asked about Church he told him: Muslims have a Holy book (theQur’an) that rhymes and itis “dope.” Pepe never saw Jaime have enthusiasm about things holy but Islam seem to overcome him as if he had nur on his face.
This I think is what scared people about Islam, it energized people and caused them to love religion and study and practice and brought people together. This posed a threat to emotional religious activity and its establishment (this is what characterized Christianity in the poor communities). Christians in the inner city saw Muslims as a threat because in the words of a religious Christian man: ” those Moslems study, you gotta watch dem” this identity took people from the Church but today Muslims seem to be no threat because they have the same problems that drove people from the Church.
Pepe was possessed by sadness, I believe, because he saw so much in life. Once he narrated to me a story about a young guy who grew up in a crack house, saw his mother used by men for drug money (she sold her body) and then saw his mother shot by police officers, gunned down in the streets. This is the stuff that brought sadness to him. Much had changed in the Barrio he said. In the old days the elders worked together and settled their problems by a fist fight at the most by the time this incident of tragedy occurred the streets were plagued by guns, trafficked in by gun peddlers many of them European Americans from the country side and the suburbs. They sold military issue weapons and traded shot guns for drugs Pepe said.
Pepe told me. social breakdown this is the plight of our people the poor of America in the country and the city (white, black and latinos and others) and his struggle is struggle to be a poor righteous teacher in a cess pool.
It was a sense of mission that pushed him into Islam but he was sad his people did not follow suit. He told me he read Piri Thomas‘ biography (from the Nuyorican movement), it was like a Puerto Rican version of a Malcolm X story, except Pepe says, Piri missed the boat because he saw Islam thought about it and never became Muslim. Pepe says many older Puerto Ricans say the older American Muslims in New York and Philly carried with them traces of the Zulu Nation. Their practice of Islam and way is marked by their past. Then he said you see Muslims today use licorice sticks as miswaks these sticks before the dawn of Islam were a mark of the Zulus. This and other coded symbols and behavior indicated to older Puerto Ricans that the trend among Zulus was to turn to Makka, i.e., they were entering Islam.
Pepe was always sad when he thought of the plight of his people, the poor, their stuggles but he regretted more and with greater intensity that the early Muslims who converted to Islam did little in education. This tore him apart after he converted. He said this failure to build in education will haunt the community in the future. Pepe supported this claim by recited that Guarionex, a great Taino chief from Puerto Rican taught us a lesson. When he fought the Spanish colonists he declared “we must fight them or our children will blame us and curse us for being subjugated to oppression.” From this historical lesson he said the older generation must make a way for the youth, we must leave them a better state or they will blame us for their ill condition and deficiency. Predicated upon this principle, of making a way for the youth he hoped to work in education among Muslims and change the effects of history.
Historically he saw that the effort of the Nation of Islam to educate their members served a great need and they did more in this regard than did the Sunnis. This hard lesson I was never to forget.Pepe always had ideas he tried but he worked to be practical. He said to me: “Our people will come into Islam but they will bring their cultural baggage and stunt their growth. They will make a point to keep their Latinoness and keep alive their Nationalism and fail to learn because they will have to change this is what will destroy them. Do not take this path and work to make a difference.”He said: “If they only knew how they only needed to cultivate a Muslim identity and replace shallow notions of culture and life with founded principles and revelation.
Time to time, Pepe would emotionally break down before me, in tears. I will never forget when he said in tears: “I have watched my people kill themselves and I only loved for them the best. I would never think to see Muslims kill and fight each other and argue over their Deen. What I realize today is that they too are in need of Islam -oh how Islam is strange” He then looked at me still in tears and said: ” Young akh, you are Puerto Rican?” and I turned to him and said: “no, I am Muslim.”He said: Correct, you have done well “young boah.”
What I want you to realize is that studying Islam and living it is to have real have culture and in this you will find yourself. Our people, he said: they die in ignorance and some love kufr instead of Iman. Because of desire they fail to love the Deen. Don’t be afraid to stand alone, without your people if need demand this is the way of the Prophets (as) Ibrahim (as) was a Nation, side with the truth. Remember that the brotherhood of Islam is a brotherhood of Iman and transcends race, class and color, a lesson yet to be learned!