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The City and the Writer: In the Bronx with Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

By Nathalie Handal

Part of the Special City Series / New York City 2011

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

1.  Can you describe the mood of the Bronx as you feel/see it?

The Bronx, like everywhere else, has many moods and many realities:

Near Co-Op City, Mrs. Haywood leans over the counter ignoring the half dozen teenage coworkers that huddle nearby.  The beaded chains looped down from the sides of her reading glasses, around her wrinkled neck.  Her gray hair is neatly coiffed.  Her pearl necklace rests on the lace collar of her blouse.  She adjusts her readers.  Looking around discretely she slips off her heels and pushes her tired feet into fuzzy slippers.  They aren’t allowed to sit during their shift.  She still can’t believe that it’s come to this.  How did she end up standing here at this stage of her life.  All those years of savings and sacrifice, for what? She scans the books, takes the money and then stretches her face into a smile, “Come again and happy holidays”.  There’s nothing happy about her as she stands, shifting foot to foot, working the last hour of her ten-hour shift.

A few miles away, in Soundview projects, Christina rocks the baby carriage in front of her as she tries to balance her chemistry book on her lap.  A few feet away, Benjie bounces his ball.  She glances up to check on him and then back to the text.  She should be in class, last semester before graduation, but financial aide was cut and she’s left out in the cold.  Her for-sure job had vanished with the aid.  Now, she bends over a borrowed book and tries to keep up with a class she can’t afford to attend, hoping that next semester, things will be better and she can finally graduate.  The baby starts to scream; Benjie chases the ball out to the curb.  Nooo!  Christina drops her book in the snow and runs to catch her little boy.

Anne Howard slips into her limo and sits back, thinking of her evening.  The opera tonight will be lovely.  As the car pulls out of her Riverdale driveway she anticipates a fine dining experience at Babos.  They’ve had reservations for over a month. The highway is backed up.  They’ll never get downtown in time.  They take the streets through the South Bronx.  Anne hates these detours.  She leans back and closes her eyes to the garbage on the streets and the poorly dressed children.  She doesn’t notice the camaraderie of the domino players or the chatting women on the stoop or the flock of girls in their communion dresses.  Instead, she turns her head away and tries to recapture the image of candle light and crystal goblets.  She taps on the partition and asks Henry to turn up the music.  Maybe the Brahms will erase the scenes out of her window.

Raúl stands on the corner of White Plains Road and 231rd Street and waits.  It’s minus 12 degrees.  He stomps his feet and dreams of warm waters and palm trees and his wife’s plump arms.  Then he sees a clear picture of his six children.  Whenever he thinks of them, he sees their bare feet and hungry eyes. Raúl blows into his threadbare gloves and prays that one of the vans will stop and pick him up.  An SUV slows down and one of the kids inside spits in his direction before speeding on.  Raul wipes his face and tries to find a smile for the next car that slows down.  Maybe that one will mean a few more meals on the table, some new shoes for his kids.

I’m a lucky one.  My retirement check is not lavish but it’s enough, for now.  Only one trip a year, short jaunts, an occasional weekend.  But I’m grateful. We’ll be all right.  We set the thermostat lower and wear lots of sweaters.  I can’t remember the last time we went to a fancy restaurant.  No nail salon for now.  But we hang on.  Things aren’t great but they’re far from critical.  I look out of my window and watch the Hudson River flow by.  Soon spring will come and I can tend to my garden.  No, I can’t complain. 

I look at my neighbors and I gauge the mood as cautiously hopeful.  Things are tough for many but few have given up.  The food lines are getting longer and longer.  The Salvation Army and Good Will stores are doing a brisk business.  People on fixed income wonder when the effects will hit them where they live.  There is no security, no certainty anywhere.  Not anymore. So we?  We are cautiously hopeful.

2. What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I suppose the most heartbreaking incident for me has been the shooting and death of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant that was shot over forty times by a group of policemen.  The man was standing in the hallway of his home, trying to take out his wallet to identify himself.  The police assumed he was pulling out a gun and shot to kill.  The people of the Bronx were furious that once again, the police had ‘overreacted’ and shot another resident without provocation.  At the request of the defense, the trial was moved out of the Bronx to the state capitol hundreds of miles away.  The officers were all found innocent.  Once more the poor people of the Bronx learned that for many of us, the law has nothing to do with justice.

3. What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

We have people of many cultures and many languages here.  The borough is a collection of ethnic neighborhoods, some well-to-do, others struggling, all with distinctive characteristics that most tourists never see.  Most people who don’t know the Bronx think of it as the burned-out landscape of the early seventies. When I think of the Bronx, I think of a treasure trove of communities and cultures.

4.What writer(s) from here should we read?

Of course when people think of writers from the Bronx, they think of E. L. Doctorow.  So do I.  And reading his work will give you the world of the Bronx in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

But the assumption is that the Bronx is a wasteland today, has nothing to offer.  When Judge Sotomayor was nominated for the Supreme Court, everyone made such a big deal about her being from the Bronx.  People are still so surprised that people who grow up here may have a great deal to contribute to our society.  In fact, I think that the prevailing notion is that there is nothing and no one of any worth here.  I wish I could explode that stereotype.

5. Is there a place here you return to often?

In times of stress I always drive out to Orchard Beach in the northeast section of the borough.  I especially like the area off-season, when I have the whole expanse to myself.  I sit on the sand or the boardwalk and am free to lose myself in thought.  It’s quiet and beautiful and I can walk for hours or just sit and meditate or write.  It’s my favorite place. 

6.Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Edgar Allan Poe’s cottage is still sitting in the middle of the Grand Concourse, a major avenue in the Bronx.  It’s a tiny wooden structure that takes you hundreds of years back the minute you walk into the place.  It’s an unexpected surprise in the middle of one of the busiest streets in the county.

7. Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

City Island is one of the most amazing places in the area.  It’s a nineteenth-century fishing village that still provides some of the best seafood in the city.  Once you drive over the bridge connecting it to the rest of the borough, you feel like you’re in a totally different place.  But try to go off-season or in on a weekday, because on holidays or warm weekends, the place is mobbed with families and seafood lovers.

8. Where does passion live here?

I think there is passion everywhere.  You just have to follow your senses. Little Italy in the west has its own vibe.  Most of the Italian community now lives in Morris Park, but their restaurants and marketplaces still have the flavor of the community in Belmont.  Woodlawn is the Irish community in the east. The culture of Ireland is everywhere and it’s still a working community with family homes and longtime community associations.  Wakefield is a huge West Indian community of small homes and lush gardens. Curry hangs in the air on White Plains Road. Asians and Africans have moved into neighborhoods along the Grand Concourse.  On any given afternoon, you can see the colorful saris and grande bubus floating down the street as mothers maneuver children, groceries, and shopping carts through the dense crowds. The Concourse now houses Senegalese braiding salons, Guyanese grocers, African gift shops, Indian doctors, Chinese herbalists, all offering the sights and sounds and flavors of their communities.  I think the first entrée into the passion of these communities is through food and the scent of the dishes. You only need to sit and express an appreciation for the food and you’re in. Once you move beyond that to get to know the people, that’s where you’ll find their passion.  It’s not very hard to find.  It just takes being open to the new and different.

9. What is the title of one of your short stories about the Bronx and what inspired it exactly?

Most of my Bronx stories are young adult pieces.  One, "The Apartment," is excerpted on the Bronx Council of the Arts Web site.  The story is really more a memoir based on some of my own experiences growing up in the Bronx.  Some of my favorite places are highlighted and the theme of family strength and nurturing is always at the heart of my work, especially my young adult pieces.

10. Inspired by Levi, “Outside the Bronx does an outside exist?”

What comes to mind when I read this is that there is a little bit of everything in the Bronx.  We are a microcosm of the world outside. There are very wealthy people and very poor.  There are happy, creative folk and very angry and violent people as well. We have excellent schools and others that are struggling.  I think that people who only know the Bronx through the prism of the sensationalism of the tabloid headlines are missing out on the complexity and the many gifts that we have to offer.

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City.  She has won the Bronx Council on the Arts ACE and BRIO Awards, as well as a BCA Literary Arts Fellowship. Black Pearl Magazine and have selected her novel Daughters of the Stoneas one of 2010’s best fiction. She was selected as a finalist for the prestigious 2010 PEN America Bingham Literary Award for her novel.

NH’s Discovery of the Month: The Bronx Council on the Arts is making things happen. Some books related to this borough: Bronx Accent: A Literary and Pictorial History of the Borough by Lloyd Ultan and Barbara Unger; The Wanderers by Richard Price (also made into a movie); Underworld by Don DeLillo. And look at what artist Béatrice Coron has to say about “Bronx Literature, a subway station with a reading list…”

Published Feb 24, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nathalie Handal

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