American Pancho

My final revised essay #2 for English 404 Creative Nonfiction is the following.

Photo by Sumire Gant

There was a time before the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s cries of I have a Dream. Before Civil Rights laws ended official discrimination and hypnotized America into believing that racism was dead. A Catholic priest in a monk outfit called me Pancho when I was thirteen years old at an all-white seminary for future pedophiles (I mean priests), where I was the only Puerto Rican Dominican boy.

I’ve always wanted to be a Catholic priest since probably the first time I became an altar boy at ten or eleven. There was something special about the church's ritual, high holy mass, the religious statues, incense burning, the blessed cross, the priest robes, and the dead Latin words that we had to learn as altar boys (sorry, no girls allowed). I wanted to be a priest to comfort the sick, look after the dead, and serve the church.

The man in the monk outfit believed, in 1962, that he could mock me with the name Pancho because there was a white comedian of Hungarian-Jewish origin named Bill Dana, aka William Szathmary, who thought it would be funny to ridicule millions of Spanish-speaking Americans, both native-born and immigrant American whose only dreams were to dream upon a star for the American Dream. Dana thought it was hilarious to create a broken-English-speaking character named Jose Jimenez to prance through white television before white audiences acting like it was all good fun, mocking our accents and culture and our ability to understand what the fuck he was talking about (sort of like a Latinx version of Stepin Fetchit).

American Pancho
Photo by Antonio Ruiz

He stereotyped us at our expense, giving this Catholic priest the cojones to color me Pancho (Pancho, Jose, it’s all the same. Foreigners) like he didn’t know my real name. Or maybe he thought that all Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, and Mexicans were called Pancho instead of Antonio or Emilio or Margarita or Estella because we all looked alike or spoke Spanish only or Broken Spanish English even though I stopped speaking Spanish in the second grade after a Catholic nun told my parents

We don’t speak that foreign language here
this is America, and in America 
we speak English (Or is it American English?).

My second-grade teacher

I was taught to be a loyal flag-waving pledge-of-allegiance-reciting American like the American-born citizen I was. Still, the priest made me feel like I was different from the other boys with their blond hair, red cheeks, freckles, blue eyes, Irish and Italian names, and excellent friendly American names like Anthony or Tony.

The United States of America, when I was growing up, was not shy of proclaiming itself a white America (like today) because they were the majority and who would stop them? They taught us in Catholic school that to be a good Catholic was to be a good American, and to be a good Catholic, we must bow to Rome and Europe and follow closely behind the Irish and Italian priests in Negro (we didn’t call them black people back then) and Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods because as any good Catholic knows if you study the statues and pictures in our churches and schools and homes, Jesus and the Apostles were white like in European white. 

Yep, no doubt about it, and we should be grateful for it. Even after I wrote my name as Anthony, the priest continued to call me Pancho like he had a permanent brain fart and wouldn’t remember my real name, the boy with brown skin, black hair, and brown eyes. So, the name became a label, and then all the other students thought they had permission to suddenly not remember my proper name, and they began shouting:

Come here, Pancho. Go there, Pancho. Be our mascot Pancho.

My co-students at the school for priests.

They treated me like an outer space alien from some foreign South Bronx ghetto public housing project who was probably there on a scholarship. They didn’t hide what they thought.

You must be poor because you are brown and come from a long line of those people who are not from around here and speak some foreign language, unlike the dead language of Latin that we are taught daily.

I’m sure this is what they were thinking.

Talk about irony.

My father, who was Puerto Rican, would often proudly tell us that his grandfather was from colonizer Spain. There was no mistaking him for anything but a Spaniard on a dark moonless night. At the same time, there was no mistaking that my mother was from the Dominican Republic. You know, the country right next to Haiti on the same island called Hispaniola, where many dark people who are descendants of Africans live and where my mother had something other than the colonizer's blood in her. African and indigenous Caribbean DNA.
Nope, no mistaking where she was from.
American Pancho
Photo by Antonio Ruiz

I knew my name was Anthony or even Tony and I wasn’t Jose Jimenez or Pancho. I did hear about Pancho Villa, but I wasn’t Mexican, and I didn’t think they were talking about that Pancho. If you watched television and movies and commercials or read comic books in the fifties and sixties, you were an American if you looked a certain way. Hence, the name Pancho was to remind me that I was a foreigner from another country, not the United States of America.

My parents called me Anthony when I was born because they wanted me to grow up as a good American boy. So all my siblings’ names, Margarita, Pedro, Virginia, and Jose, were anglicized because that was the best way to prove that we were all genuinely American.

Americans want friendly American names like James, Mary, Michael, and Linda, but I still didn’t get why the priest and the white kids couldn’t swallow a nice Catholic name like Anthony or Tony but Pancho rolled right off their Catholic tongues. 

I read somewhere that Pancho is primarily a male name of Spanish origin that means free, a shortened form of Francisco, as in the name of Pancho Villa, the Mexican Revolutionary.

My feelings are raw sixty years later as the memories flood my head. I still don’t know why the Catholic priest chose Pancho (maybe Father Pancho sounded better), choosing to ignore my nice Catholic name, perhaps because it was so difficult to swallow. Naïve, I soon learned that there was pain in a name. But that didn’t stop the priest and everyone else who thought Bill Dana, aka Jose Jimenez, was hilarious with his broken English while wondering why Pancho here spoke good American English even if it was with a Bronx accent and despite being born in the United States of America in the most diverse city in the world called New York City and being given a nice Catholic name by parents who loved each other and came to America in pursuit of the American Dream just like the Irish, the Italians, the French, and the Germans. Instead, I was constantly told to go back to where I came from.

The funny thing is that my Puerto Rican father was born an American citizen, as are all Puerto Ricans since 1917, and I was an American citizen, and they still couldn’t bring themselves to say my name, Anthony or Antonio; hell, I would have even settled for Tony.

Now I see that those who called me Pancho did not appreciate the irony of the name Pancho, also a shortened form of Francisco as in Free Man, used by a Mexican hero and revolutionary who set out to make a nation Free, as in, I am a Free Man named Antonio.

American Joint

One in a series of essays about being American.


The first time I saw a joint was when some guy in gym asked me to pass it to the this other guy on the other side of me who seemed awfully anxious to get it like he was going to light it up right there in the bleachers in the gym at James Monroe High School in the Bronx I think in the first period as I just was minding my own business watching the other students in their gold and maroon gym clothes run back and forth across the gym floor that has seen too many sneakers running back and forth over the years and I couldn’t help but wonder at the big ass joint (I mean I’d never smoked in my life up until then but I sure knew what a joint looked like even at sixteen say 1965 junior year) with this sticky looking brown smudge on the side of the joint which was fatter than I ever imagined it to be as my eyes followed it from one black hand through my brown hand to another black hand to go somewhere where it would be lit and smoked and I didn’t even wonder what that would be like because well that was a bad thing that any good (well not that good) red blooded Catholic ex-seminarian would know enough to stay away from if he knew what was good for him in that moment in the James Monroe gym in 1965 in the Bronx as the counterculture and craziness of the sixties was beginning to capture my imagination even though I was still a straight-laced uncool kid from the John Adam houses struggling with pimples and identity about being a good American having attended a world conference of other good clean-faced kids that summer on Mackinac Island Michigan where we were reminded that the world was facing a crisis between good and evil (read communists and all those people who were working hard to bring down the righteous and the best and brightest with drugs and beards and long hair and surplus army jackets and sandals) just like was happening in my own soul where I was storing questions about life and authority and why did I have to think like everyone else in the John Adam Houses and St. Anselm’s church across the street instead of my own mind and my own ambitions about life beyond 156th and Westchester Avenue to places where you were free to experiment with everything that you were told you couldn’t do because that was the evil life versus the good life where you didn’t do things like I did the following year in 1966 now seventeen and having graduated from high school bound for college and hanging out with college kids when I smoked my first joint in an apartment in the West Village at a party surrounded by college kids two three years older than me teaching me how to inhale that bitter hard smoke into my lungs which very suddenly explosively rolls my head spinning into the outer atmosphere of the universe bypassing the earth and the moon shooting me onto the bed in the bedroom the one with the jackets while asking anyone who passed by me on their way to get their jackets or to the bathroom in the bedroom excuse me how long will I be circling Jupiter and Mars and is that Uranus coming up but they don’t hear me because I’m not even sure I’m speaking with my outside voice that maybe this is all in my head that maybe I’m not circling Jupiter and Mars and maybe just maybe that’s not Uranus coming up on my left that’s actually the door to the bathroom and the only space I’m occupying is the one where I’m lying on a bed that it not mine because someone is tugging at me telling me that I gots to go home because the party is over and warning me to never smoke a joint again because it’s obvious that I can’t handle being high and that I’ve embarrassed myself in front of a lot of people who are also pissed that I’ve smashed and wrinkled their leather and suede jackets so there are hands pulling me up while I’m still insisting that I am passing Jupiter and Mars and there’s Uranus coming up on the left but they insist that what I’m looking at are the buildings of lower Manhattan from a yellow cab whose windows are open on the way to the Bronx with the hope that I snap out of my space travel atmospheric adventures before I get to 710 Tinton Avenue in the South Bronx at four a.m. where I’m sure my mother is sitting by the window in 14F looking out for me wondering if her oldest child is alive or dead after having fallen under the spell of the devil or the communists or both as I let the night air traveling at sixty miles an hour rushed into the yellow cab pushing me back to earth from Jupiter and Mars and I can no longer see Uranus anymore only the Willis Avenue Bridge and Third Avenue and then Westchester Avenue and the twenty-one story high buildings of the John Adam Houses and the Westchester Avenue El and the front entrance to 710 Tinton where my mother is screaming down at me from apartment 14F at 4 a.m. on a brisk summer night no longer occupied by space travel replaced by reality that this was one trip that I would not like to repeat again especially after my mother shushes me as I stumble into the apartment 14F headed for my bedroom trying not to make any noise that would wake my father and the consequences that would follow as I throw myself down again onto another bed my bed swearing that never again will I take a rocket ship into outer space pass Jupiter and Mars and especially as far as Uranus I swear to my mother and my soul even as I sense that this will not be my last trip into outer space.

Image by Rob Owen-Wahl from Pixabay

American English

One in a series of essays about being American.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The woman in the black and white hijab like costume told my parents that we all are in America now and in America we speak English not the Kings English but the American English because while we are descended from England (well, some people are) because they founded this country (not really) and they built this country (definitely not really) we must therefore speak English (not really) not the King’s English because we fought a revolution against the King of England that’s why we don’t speak the King’s English but the American English that we speak everywhere otherwise how will Spanish-speaking (that’s another poem) people understand their orders to clean the bathrooms or push racks of clothing down seventh avenue or cook in their restaurant kitchens or wash their dishes or take care of their lawns or their children or whatever it is that we do when they’re not looking while some of us speak that non-American lingo hoping they don’t hear us because we know what they will do when they hear that non-American lingo and start screaming like banshees that they can’t stand to hear our mumbo jumbo como esta usted foreign lingo that came from our brown and black mouths and yes there are some white people on those same islands and countries that were raped and conquered by those European Spanish people from the Europe side of the world where the King of England lives near but doesn’t speak that foreign lingo that they say they can’t or won’t understand and refuse to acknowledge it but meanwhile they live in cities and neighborhoods with Spanish names and eat at those restaurants with Spanish names that they swear ain’t the same because that’s hip and cool and they tell me they love them some carnitas and burritos and arroz and beans and tacos and Cuban sandwiches but hate that we speak that foreign lingo in their presence puncturing their sense of identity as an American speaking you know American English because we might be talking about them and it is important that they always understand what is being spoken around them except for their hundred year old polish grandfather or eighty year old Italian cousin who came to visit and has no idea what the fuck they’re saying and the nice German girl they met while on vacation in Berlin at the Octoberfest festival the one they wanted to show her their sausage sandwich because hell who needs lingo when everyone can use hand signals and pictures to show what they mean but they still complain that everyone should know how to speak American English even the people who speak the King’s English even the damn people who come from China and Africa and the Middle East and they wonder in American English why won’t those people stop talking that foreign lingo shit because they’re convinced that they must be talking about them otherwise why wouldn’t they talk like every other red-blooded American with no accents and using simple words that they can understand without looking them up on google insisting that one or at the most two syllable words only in American English is sufficient (there you go using a big word) for them to understand while some of us dream that we could knew more the one or two syllable American English words like French words and yes Spanish words and Japanese words and Arabic words and even German and Italian words so we can communicate with as many people in the world and learn to share and learn their lives and maybe learn a thing or two that all of have in common and those things we don’t have in common and not worry about whether they’re talking shit about us but yeah it would be cool to learn a couple of curse words in French (connard) and Italian (figlio di puttana) and German (Mutterfucker) and Japanese (マザーファッカー) and Chinese (混蛋)and Spanish (hijo de puta) and wouldn’t that be cool so that the next time some fool tells all of us that we can’t speak anything but the American English (what exactly is that again) we could riff off some of these words and impress them because they wouldn’t know if I was talking about them or their mother and father or the close-minded mind that thinks all people in this country speak exactly the same without any accents because there are words that only they in their part of the country knows those words and an accent in New England is going to sound different than one in Alabama so really they need to get their asses out of their heads and learn a thing or two that might make them uncomfortable because they don’t know it yet but it might help them with that German woman or Italian man or how to order in an ethnic restaurant unless they’re going to stay in their neighborhood in their block in their house all their life damning anything and anyone outside their comfort zone learning nothing seeing nothing doing nothing being nothing all because they refuse to learn something because they think they already know everything there is to know and it is only spoken in American (tell me again what that is) English demonstrating once again how small how narrow how dumb a life that must be and that they really are so proud of it even if it makes them smaller than a grain of sand a speck of dirt that is so insignificant (no big words please) that there is no hope for them and that is sad for them and this country and all of our futures.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

This is the first in a series of works exploring what it means to be American.

I pledge allegiance to the flag but whose flag is it as I am standing there in the catholic school classroom with the white faces and red hair and blond hair and white shirts and white blouses and blue pants and black pants and the nuns are covered head to toe in their own hijabs but without their faces covered and they’re leading us in a solemn tribute to a country that tells me that I am an American but really they were just joking because I’m not really like them because my father is from Puerto Rico and my mother is from the Dominican Republic wherever the hell that is and even though I was born in Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx that doesn’t give me the right to think that I’m an American citizen when in fact it was just an accident of time and place when the truth is that I could have been born somewhere else like Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic although I keep telling them that Puerto Ricans are American citizens since 1917 they keep telling me they don’t care because it’s nothing more than an island where they take the whole family on vacation to San Juan beaches and that rainforest whose name they can’t quite pronounce and anyway they say Puerto Rico don’t send their best and brightest except rapists and murderers and bank robbers and juvenile delinquents so really I’m not a real American blue blood but probably a descendent of criminals so they tell me to look at me they ask do I have freckles and red hair and black hair like those nice Eyetalian kids whose parents hang out at that social club across the street from Saint Rita’s Parochial school sipping expresso and playing cards and kissing the ring of the old man who occasionally shows up in a Cadillac with a fat driver and his pinkie ring and shiny suits and silk overcoats and shoes that definitely weren’t bought at Buster Brown and all I can think as I stand at full attention with my right hand above my heart screaming louder than all the other kids in the class I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America trying to prove that yes I am an American and they’re laughing because I’m screaming I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America louder and louder and sister Mary Joseph Jesus is now looking at me sternly and warning that she will not tolerate anyone making fun of the pledge of allegiance to the United States of America even people who claim to be Americans just because they were born here by accident in the greatest country in the world instead of somewhere else like on a boat called SS Marine Tiger or one of those propeller planes that come from some foreign country like Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic destined for LaGuardia or Idlewild Airport in New York where those black or brown or yellow looking people arrive to infect their great nation with foreign blood (Did I tell you that Puerto Ricans are American citizens since 1917?) and strange customs and strange music and strange language (Is that Spanish?) that is definitely not American or English and I scream louder as I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands one Nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all because I was told by my father from Puerto Rico and my mother from the Dominican Republic that they came to the United States of America because they were told by their uncles and aunts and cousins and radio shows and newspapers and movies before there was television that this here United States of America was the home of the free and home of the brave and that there was an America the beautiful and that because people have been coming from countries like Ireland and England and France and Italy and Germany and Spain they thought that well that means they could also be welcomed because they were looking for the same damn things those people from Ireland and England and France and Italy and Germany and Spain were looking for and everyone is looking at me as I’m thinking these things and they can hear me under the screaming of the pledge of allegiance to the flag that I am also an American because I was born at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx and that made me an American citizen and anyway my father was already an American citizen since he was Puerto Rican so I am an American because I was born in the United States of America as the voices stop and I drop my hand from my chest and smile broadly on my brown face under my black hair and through my brown eyes and nod that this is who I am, an American.

Image by Prawny from Pixabay

“Where Are You From?”

The following is adapted from an essay first posted on on February 1, 2021.

Different Identities Montage by Antonio Ruiz

The question is always the same. The speaker is different. “Where are you from?” In the beginning, dating back to the sixties, I would say proudly, The Bronx. And I would think, that was enough. But, the questioner, sometimes some white guy from Manhattan or Queens or even Brooklyn, would dryly ask again, “No, where are you really from?” I would, without a hint of being insulted, proudly proclaim again that I was from the Bronx.

It would only be years later that I would understand that merely stating your place of birth in this here United States wasn’t enough. The questioner wanted proof that you weren’t from somewhere else because, well, since you didn’t look like them, was not like them, they couldn’t be sure that you were, like them, good old red and white and blue Americans.

It didn’t matter that my father was from Puerto Rico, where its residents have been American citizens since 1917. Yes, my mother was from the Dominican Republic, but she was legally here and later became an American citizen. Not that any of that mattered because I was born in this here U.S. of A. South Bronx, at the old Lincoln Hospital, a citizen of this great country. Didn’t matter. The question lingered because this here is the U.S. of A. They just can’t help themselves.

St. Mark’s Place by Antonio Ruiz

I didn’t think much of all this nonsense as I moved through life. It didn’t matter because, in the early seventies, I hung out mostly with people who looked like me or were other people of color who didn’t give a shit where I was from. They might ask, “Where are you from?” which usually meant like what city are you from (they figured New York) because I had this accent that I never noticed years after leaving the city. When I moved to New England, I would occasionally be asked the question “Where are you from?” by people who would claim to trace their ancestry back to Plymouth Rock. And I would dryly answer again, “New York.” I would forget the South Bronx part because I figured it would be too hard to explain the whole Bronx borough thing.

“No, really, where are you from?” they would ask again, and I would immediately know what they were asking. You don’t look like us, so you must be from somewhere else. Like from another country maybe. I would get a little annoyed because I knew it was a question centered on what crack of the Caribbean or South America or Central America I hailed from. “I was born in the United States,” I would indignantly state. Still incredulous, they would walk away or change the subject. As the years went on, my American English was enough to qualify me as an American. I mean, no foreigner talks like that. To most, it became apparent that I wasn’t from around there, but my patois of New York, New England, and semi-Southern accents inherited from spending nearly ten years in Washington, D.C., answered their question before it got out of their mouths. Although some would stare at me wondering, “Yeah, but what is he?”

After I moved to Southern California in 1984, I saw graffiti in big ass letters on a low wall on the 405 freeway at the Santa Monica Boulevard exit, “MEXICANS GO HOME.” It wasn’t long before, as I worked my way through low wage jobs to pay the rent, that someone inevitably would ask me, “Where are you from?” And they weren’t just white people but mostly. “I’m from New York, but I’ve lived in other states, and I just came from Washington, D.C.” like they gave a shit about my residences. “No, where are you really from?” And I would just mumble something about New York and move on.

Hotel Lobby by Antonio Ruiz

In the eighties, I worked as a bartender at a German-themed restaurant. It was full of ex-pats from Germany (before the reunification), the former Yugoslavia, and the U.S.S.R. (before the fall of the Empire). Some could barely speak English (well, American English), and they would sit on their stools in front of me and in accented English or broken English or straight out English (obviously here a long time), “Where are you from?” And again, I would dryly say, “New York.” I knew that this question was not about where they thought I had lived but was about where I was born because I was obviously not from around here. I don’t mean like from New York or Southern California. “No, where are you from? Where were you born?” I was born in Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, a borough of New York City.” They had no idea what the fuck I was talking about. There was a pause, and then it came again. “No, I mean, where are your parents from.” Oh, now we’re going to talk about my parents.

I was born in the U.S. of A. Raised in everything America, believing that qualified me to be called American. The United States of America is a feel-good fairy tale, an exceptional one even. When we want to feel the exhilaration of patriotic music and blood-boiling flag-waving, we all stand and sing the Star-Spangled Banner and dutifully recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Some residents of this country who believe that there is a sacred halo surrounding the good old U.S. of A. love to invoke images of America the beautiful to justify why this here America is their America. They believe it is an exclusive club from sea to shining sea, over large expanses of wheat and corn and mountains and rivers and small towns and big cities and the powerhouses of growth and industry and our exalted majesty, and we are not members.

Car Lights by Antonio Ruiz

I consider myself lucky as hell. I have lived in multicultural communities: New York, Washington, D.C., Southern New England (more than you think), and Southern California. I move very freely between many ethnic and racial communities and economic classes, selfishly sometimes absorbing all I can from them. I listen to their words and speech patterns. I am interested in what they’re feeling and thinking. Their religion, ethics, philosophy, politics, music, culture, and writings, all are sources of information that I suck up through a straw. It doesn’t matter if they are American born or foreign-born (No, I don’t ask them where they’re from that way). Or whether raised on a farm in Iowa or a five-million-dollar condo in Manhattan, New York. I just want to swim in this here diverse America, soaking it all up to be always growing in life and the people I know.

I’ve been to many parts of this country. I have met many great people who have never once asked me where I was from. They might instead say something nice like, “You ain’t from around here,” but not in an insulting way like I wasn’t an American but knew that I was not from around there and would light up when I told them I was from New York or that I was from the South Bronx. They never once questioned my Americanism.

American History
Cracks in Our Soul. (Image by SEDAT TAŞ from Pixabay)

Nativism, nationalism, xenophobia, small minds, small worlds are a disease that suffocates your ability to see and experience the whole spectrum of humankind, and that’s a goddamn shame — your loss.

Now, ask me again where I’m from.

%d bloggers like this: