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.


The following essay was inspired by an assignment for my English 404, Creative Nonfiction class: My Childhood in a Cult by Guinevere Turner

Image by Robert Cheaib from Pixabay

I was kneeling in the pew section reserved for the high school sophomores surrounded by the ostentatious glory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Saint Albert’s Junior Seminary dressed in my Sunday best, a black suit, white shirt, black tie, black shoes, my black hair oily from too much pomade, parted on the right with a slight wave of hair on the left rolled back like a small pompadour, a style popular in 1964 with Puerto Rican-Dominicans. I prayed for forgiveness for all the impure thoughts I had granted myself during the Easter break when I slow danced with a brown-skinned Puerto Rican girl in her tight pants in the painted blue apartment with the plastic-covered sofa and Puerto Rican flag draped alongside the picture of Jesus with his red heart glowing in 3D with no witnesses to the carnal thoughts floating between us as I pressed my body against hers. The unexpected physical reactions (I had never been this close to a female before) flowed through my fifteen-year-old virgin groin. I was embarrassed, joyful, and unable to process what I should do next. I mean, I was studying to be a priest. I had told myself that this feeling flowing through me was corrupt.

Now, kneeling in the seminary chapel a week after my return from the Easter break, I prayed for direction seeking it inside the marble altar underneath the gold crucifix, knowing that this would be my last day at Saint Albert’s. I would blame it on finding my hormones because I met a girl, but I knew the real reason. The girl was a cover story. In my heart and soul, the truth was that I could no longer tolerate being beaten down by my fellow seminarians into an angry, confused, and prophetically anti-catholic refugee from the hypocrisy of Catholicism and religion. I told myself that if this is what they accept as Catholicism while teaching peace and love, then forget it.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When I was ten years old, as I was praying during mass while performing my duties as an altar boy in the basement church named St. Rita of Cascia, kneeling before the raised altar, the gold cross hanging above it, the smell of incense wafting around me, the Irish priest draped in his gold and white silk vestments, the strong urge of spirit enveloping me. I decided that I, too, was going to be a priest. This Puerto Rican-Dominican boy would make his parents proud as they would be able to share with the rest of the clan that their prayers were answered, their faith in their god, and the saints and blessings of the heaven above would be certified. A son as a priest would be their reward for all their hard work and religious servitude.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: What does a ten-year-old boy know about making a life-defining decision to be a priest? Well. I would point to my cousin, who entered a convent at a young age (in her teens) and became a catholic nun (although she left at some point to marry a Jewish man and move to Florida). I saw her dedication to serving our shared religion as a sign that, well, in the fifties, was proof that we could all be part of the all-powerful Catholic Church during a time when the majority of protestant America looked on Catholics as servants of the Pope in Rome. Catholics were a threat to America, they believed. The nation was founded to be controlled by the WASP establishment and southern Christians (Yes, that was a thing in America).

We didn’t care. In our neighborhood, the Italian and Irish kids were all Catholics. Most of the Puerto Ricans were Catholics. The Dominicans were another matter (they were Protestants), but my mother converted to Catholicism to marry my father, so all was right with the world. There were some Black Catholics, but most were Protestants. All that mattered was that we were Catholics and willing to die for our faith because, well, we were the only true religion as defined by the Pope of Rome and the priests who performed the sacred rituals of the sacraments and the nuns who taught us the word from the religious holy catechism which we swore to memorize until it was a part of every day, every moment consciousness.

At the age of thirteen, I entered Saint Albert’s Junior Seminary in Middletown, New York, seventy-two miles northwest of Bronx, New York, in the most rural area of the state full of dairy farms. The first four years were equivalent to any high school except in this isolated all-boys school, your entire purpose for being was to be trained in the fine arts of catholic dogma and practices so that one day you would go on to college and the novitiate and priesthood where you would then be dispersed all around the world to minister to the young, the old, the sick, the weak, the gullible, in the hope that you will convert millions of people to Catholicism and devotion to the pope in Rome.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Mass every day. Religious study every day. Study hall. Meditation. Quiet time. Praying time. No asking too many questions time. But there was time to question who was this thirteen-year-old from the ghetto (I’m not sure I would call it a ghetto in 1962) who seemed to appear a little darker than the rest of the boys, some of whom asked, what the hell are you doing here with the rest of us friendly white people. They didn’t wait for an answer. All that mattered was that they were white, and this boy (meaning me) from the South Bronx wasn’t white. And they let me know it.

For nearly the first two years of high school, I tried to be just one of everyone. Despite being called Pancho (another story) and a pejorative word used against Puerto Ricans, which I refuse to dignify now by repeating it on paper, I concluded in my second year that I didn’t need to suffer quietly at the hands of young people that I was convinced was no better than me. At the dawn of the Civil Rights era in America, the March on Washington, and the terror of southern brutality against Freedom Riders captured by television, I decided that I didn’t have to put up with this minor in comparison bullshit.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It took me years to recover from the PTSD (we didn’t know what that meant back then) but not before I turned to the religion of drugs in the sixties, man. You escape from one cult of immersion in fantasy to another cult of immersion in another fantasy. It was all the same. Genuflect before some imaginary power you think is higher than you in search of an answer to escape the real world around you, and all you end up with is emptiness because, in the end, what you must only believe in to make it through the day is yourself. Brain. Knowledge. Wisdom. And the faith that you will know how to use it to escape the mumbo jumbo of a cult following dogma and service to the invisible fantasy they call a god to make it through today.

Something Happened

A long read inspired by Jill Talbot‘sEmergent” for English 404, Creative Nonfiction.

Photo by Antonio Ruiz

Something happened to me in the seminary—seventy miles northwest of the Bronx in Middletown, New York. I was fifteen years old when I left after two years, and the whole world looked different to me. 1964. I can’t swear on a stack of bibles that I changed only because of the seminary, but I’m sure it had a significant role. Those were the first two years of high school, ninth and tenth grade. I’m sure kids in those grades went through all kinds of stuff as I did. The bullying, the name-calling, hormones overwhelming you (all you think about is sex), pimples (many pimples), you’re short(er) than everyone else (hell, you’re on the basketball team called The Midgets). Yeah, I’ve heard from lots of people that my experience in those first two years of high school wasn’t any different from anyone else.

the thought of becoming a priest
				the ritual 
				the vestments 
				the prayers
				i dreamed it with all my heart
				i was thirteen years old 
Photo by Antonio Ruiz

Life before the seminary was not idyllic, but it was simple. 1948-1962. My immediate world was the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx, the 149th Street shopping hub with Hearns and Alexander’s department stores, and the live poultry market on Westchester Avenue. St. Rita’s elementary was a catholic school with sometimes sadistic nuns, but at least I was an altar boy, and I loved going to church. We lived in the public housing, but I never felt poor. I had two parents and sisters and brothers and friends in the building and at my uncles’ and aunts’ homes with my many cousins that we visited often. The heartbeat of Spanish filled the air, and the smell of Rice and Beans and Lechon and Pasteles was always in my head.

While my father worked two jobs and didn’t seem to be there often, he still found time to drive us to mysterious places locally and upstate (although he never did take me to a Yankee game). We’d play stickball and box ball and Cowboys and Indians and all the child things like comic books and baseball cards, and did I tell you I never felt poor? Sure Renee kicked my ass when I was ten years old, and my parents sent me to Gleason’s Gym to learn to fight, and I sprained my wrist, hitting the hanging punching bag like the first or second time, and I never went back again. But I never got my ass kicked again. I don’t know why. Maybe they felt sorry for me.

i prayed but I wasn’t overly religious
		i think it was more about a spirituality
		seeking something that I felt or saw
		in the sky or clouds from the window
		in the projects
		even then i knew
Photo by Antonio Ruiz

I was angry. Depressed. The summer I left the seminary, I think I didn’t leave the house for two weeks. My parents moved to a twenty-one-story high-rise public housing project building during my second year at the seminary. I didn’t know anyone. I enrolled in a public high school out of my district, and it was a long bus ride up Westchester Avenue to get there, and it was coed, and no one seemed to care who I was.

I was just one more kid in a big school from 1964 to 1966 when the world outside was beginning to become more real to me through the nightly news and the newspapers that my father would leave on the bathroom floor after his two-hour-long meditation sessions. It all seemed more real to me than any other time. Something inside me grew into a festering blister from fifteen to seventeen. I could feel it. I sensed it. I saw it in the mirror—sad eyes. Pimples on my face that I was convinced came from whatever was aching inside me.

i would look into the eyes of religious statues
		and swore they were speaking to me
		but it was only my imagination
		wishing that something or someone
		would save me would show me a world
		outside my world 
		that there had to be
		something more 
		there just had to be
Photo by Antonio Ruiz

The seminary was full of young men only: Irish, Italian, Polish, and any other combination except Black and Puerto Rican. I was the only Puerto Rican-Dominican in my first year there. Someone, I’m sure it was a priest, thought it would be cute to call me Poncho. Throughout the nearly two years there, that was my nickname. I was so naive that I didn’t think anything of it. I responded to it. But something told me that I better not tell my parents. It was my compromise for peace. I got along.

It was my first time spending this much time with kids that didn’t look like my friends in the projects. They were at St. Rita’s, but we were much younger, and after school, they went back to their neighborhood, and I went back to mine. This time, I was sleeping in the same dorm and later in the same room, eating with them, studying with them, playing with them, and going to morning mass with them every day. And it was all cool until it wasn’t.

It wasn’t like we were enemies or that I was fighting with anyone. It was just that occasionally, someone would shout at me a word that I had never heard before I went to the seminary. Spic. What the hell did that mean? Wait, Spic & Span like in the cleaner? Then, it would settle down, and they would return to Poncho, and we would all go about our teenage lives. As time went on, something didn’t seem right. I had been home for Christmas, Easter, and summer and had begun to feel my body changing (damn those hormones), the kids back home trying their hardest to not curse in front of me, treating me like I was a priest already, not feeling like one of them. Not feeling like one of the kids at the seminary.

				the loneliness of prayer and
			the silence of retreat 
where all that mattered was that i  
			pray to god and the saints and
			i never questioned the universe
			even as i looked up at that overwhelming 
			night sky in the middle of nowhere 
			and it was almost like i could touch
			the planets and the billions
			of stars looking for heaven and finding
			my soul whining for something i couldn’t
Photo by Antonio Ruiz

I left in April or May of 1964 before the school year finished. One morning, I snuck out of the chapel and went to the bathroom to cry and mope that I didn’t want to be there anymore. The priest came out of the chapel and found me in the recreation room and got angry that I was feeling miserable. I told him I wanted to go home and, without missing a beat, he told me to go home. That was it. Within a couple of hours, I was on a bus from Middletown, New York, to the South Bronx. Done. No good-byes. Banished. But at least I was not going to be called Poncho or Spic anymore.

when did i tell myself that the peace
				i wanted was not going to be found in 
				that church building or in the chalice or the
				beautiful songs and prayers in latin
				(it was a dead language for a reason)
				the emptiness i felt wasn’t there because
				i didn’t find g o d 
it was because i 
couldn’t find my truth
Photo by Antonio Ruiz

The seminary opened my mind to the possibilities of the world around me. In a rural New York setting (the seminary was next to a Dairy Farm) far from the projects, I learned that there was a larger world outside the South Bronx. Whether it was learning Latin and Caesar’s Gallic Wars or History or Math, I became more curious about ideas about identity and current events and sex and injustice. I never wanted to be called Poncho or Spic ever again. There was a war in a far-off place called Vietnam, Black and White people were being attacked on southern city streets and backwoods, and there was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. who was getting much attention. I was pouring it all into my mind and soul, and I grew increasingly uneasy about what to do with all those feelings and knowledge.

i changed into someone i didn’t recognize 
for the remainder of my high school years 
i didn’t want to be a priest anymore 
i barely went to church and didn’t mean it 
when i did 
Photo by Antonio Ruiz

I found a girlfriend. I protested the Vietnam War, and I dreamed of fighting the KKK and Bull Connor and the horrors I saw on television and in newspapers every day. I changed, and I knew that something wasn’t clear to me until I graduated from High School. I had grown away from my parents (I questioned their authority in so many dumb ways), tried to find a roadmap for which way my life was going, and just kept walking blindly, searching for something that I expected I would find.

i’m still searching
				will never stop
				and i’m okay with that.
Photo by Antonio Ruiz
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