Assimilating into American Culture 1.0

Part of what informs my life is my ongoing assimilation into American culture. The journey began in 1961.

It was cold and snow was piled high on the tarmac of Idlewild Airport (now JFK International) and on New York City street corners. For a wide-eyed, frightened, young boy, but 7, and who didn’t speak a word of English, the City was something out of an epic, something only imagination can conjure in big terms, colossal, I don’t know, something seemingly impossible though there he found himself in Herald Square, W34th Street, in 1961.

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

What I didn’t know is that to take in a powerful culture like this, I had to give something up – and if not give it up entirely, tuck it away somewhere.

The first change, the one aspect of my life I had to immediately push away was fútbol. Not the game, rather the word. In it is a world. Only this world is not the U. S.’s. No longer would it be fútbol or even futbol, the name given by Spanish speaking countries to the universal game.

Football originated in England. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) lists 43 affiliated nations that use fútbol and futbol. The United States and Canada are the only two members, of a total of 45, that call the game soccer. Soccer has been the prevailing term for association football in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where other codes of football are dominant.

An initial code of football involves the helmet. When this kind of protection becomes central, the culture, unknowingly, adjusts its gaze on that one vital component. This change, this new point of view, is fraught with implication; it changes the values of a culture, an important factor in determining the meaning of football.

Ray Lewis

Ray Lewis

The head in fútbol is used for thinking, planning – and heading. The head is a weapon in football. The critical thinking happens on the sidelines and in booths, thinkers assisted by technology – computers, cameras, software, communications technology – that reflect our very own condition, the fan looking in, the fan trying to read the very confusing kernels of information streaming from various points of origin, most of which are unknown. This is not to suggest that there’s no thinking on the Gridiron. There is – but it’s short lived, reactionary,  compressed, almost ephemeral, fleeting – gone once territory is captured. Followed by chatter. Followed by next. In-between a beer maybe.

Violence, the taking of territory, anxiety over time – the defining characteristics of football that pushed aside the grace of the world’s game, fútbol. Instantly I learned that force is privileged in this foreign place. Force and violence, that is. The taking of territory by guile and violence, all neatly wrapped in a spectacle that generates huge amounts of money in a merciless, vertical economic reality. You’re in or your out. That’s it. Play or go home. The message, as a young boy trying to take it all in, was clear. Totally. Riches reside at the top, the penthouse – or in the case of football, the luxurious owner’s box. On the field the bodies lay wounded, forever changed in a quid pro quo: money for your body. A football contract is about the value of a player’s body – that’s it.

Heavy snow fell the night before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, January 20th, 1961. We flew into New York a few days before. The election of 1960 had been close, and the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts was eager to gather support for his agenda. Kennedy attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown that morning before joining President Eisenhower to travel to the Capitol . The Congress had extended the East Front, and the inaugural platform spanned the new addition. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Robert Frost read one of his poems at the ceremony.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Kennedy’s image was grainy on the Martinique Hotel’s TV. But I listened and my father translated.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

In 1961, the AFL and NFL agreed to merge together to create one “Super League” called the NFL. In this agreement between the AFL and the NFL they arranged to begin playing a championship game between two conferences the AFC and NFC after the 1966 season. Originally the Championship game was named the AFL – NFL Championship, but it was soon nicknamed the Super Bowl.

The first Super Bowl, though, between the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, wasn’t so eagerly anticipated. With Green Bay’s perennial dominance the only question seemed to be was how large would Green Bay’s margin of victory be. Even though the tickets cost only $12, the game still wasn’t a sellout.

The NFL machinery was in motion. The spectacle was born. I was terribly excited – all 7 year old boys, mostly Irish and Italian at St. Gabriel’s School in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, played out their athletic fantasies in the schoolyard. I was looking to find ways in, trying to understand and learn English – until I heard someone call out, Spick. Spick. I didn’t have to look long. My way in was fighting, just being tougher then someone else, not backing down. Respect.

Unconsciously, I was taking in a world awash with violence, anger and confusion. It came from all sides. The body of Christ, I heard the priest say in front of a crucifix held high for all to see the suffering. A political movement for equality played on TV, harsh images of German Shepherds attacking Black people.

The Cuban Missile Crisis paralyzed the world for 13 days, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side, the United States on the other. From October 14 to the 28th, 1962, the world stood at the brink of nuclear war; it was the very real moment when we first understood mutual assured destruction.

How long do I have? I began thinking then. How am I going to live with this? Certainly not abide. If I’m going to go, I’m going to go my way. Everything around me told me as much.

On November 20th, 1963, at 12:20PM, in Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, Texas, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. On February 21, 1965, one week after his home was firebombed, Malcolm X was shot to death by Nation of Islam members while speaking at a rally of his organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom in New York City. On April 4, 1968, at the age of 39, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. And on June 6, 1968, while campaigning for the presidency, Robert F. Kennedy, “Bobby,” was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California.

All of this was regular television.

We were in the thick of things in Vietnam, which lasted until the fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975 – three years after I first registered for the draft and missed being sent when I was 15 numbers off in the lottery. Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president on January 20, 1969, sworn in by his onetime political rival, Chief Justice Earl Warren. On January 5, 1972, Nixon entered his name on the New Hampshire primary ballot, effectively announcing his candidacy for reelection. At some point in the spring, I think it was, Nixon came through Garden City, Long Island, a Republican enclave in Nassau County, and I managed to shake his hand. He didn’t get my vote – no one did that year. I didn’t vote. By June 17, 1972, The Washington Post was breaking the Watergate Story.

The murders of the Kennedy’s, King and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights – and Nixon – were a perfect storm that changed the semblance of America until our very day. We haven’t recovered. We haven’t fully realized what materialized since.

But the spectacle of violence was in place – and getting stronger, growing exponentially with broadcast technologies. Football was fast becoming America’s game because America was fast becoming a media-centric society. And our attention was narrowing.

The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 was passed in response to a court decision which ruled that the NFL‘s method of negotiating television broadcasting rights violated antitrust laws. The court ruled that the “pooling” of rights by all the teams to conclude an exclusive contract between the league and CBS was illegal. The Act overruled that decision, permitting certain joint broadcasting agreements among the major professional sports.

Football’s potential was in its infancy. The road ahead was clear. It’s been television that’s brought the NFL to prominence, along with a spectacular way of passively transmitting the dominant culture’s ruling ideologies. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the financial fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights. This has raised questions about the impartiality of the networks’ coverage of games and whether they can criticize the NFL without fear of losing the rights and their income.

Monday Night Football first aired on September 21, 1970, with a game between the New York Jets and the Browns in Cleveland. This brought ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge’s dream of creating an entertainment “spectacle” as much as a simple sports broadcast to fruition. Advertisers were charged $65, 000 per minute by ABC, a cost that proved to be a bargain when the contest collected 33 percent of the viewing audience.

Before we knew it, the spectacle became how we experienced life in the U.S.. Programs such as the Kardashians and the Real Housewives of (fill in your city) were born then. They all work on the same soap opera narrative model, something NFL coverage excels in.

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football ushered in a new era of television and I was further away from fútbol than ever before, though I was playing in a small community league, coached by a Scotsman. It was soccer all the way. The Scotsman tried playing an orderly game, a military-like, precision game of mid-range passes, very little flair and solid fundamentals. It didn’t sit well with me. Remember: I was going to go at this life my way. Soccer in a football culture.

I was a foreigner, undocumented, except for a passport, until 1972 when I followed my father into Naturalization. See, because before I wasn’t Naturalized. I felt the Other – foreign – on and off the field.

By now, 2013, amidst scandal pertaining to concussions, exposed in the Frontline documentary, League of Denial, where the NFL is compared to the tobacco companies, the National Football League will have revenues “somewhere just north of $9 billion, which means the league remains the most lucrative in th world.” That is up 5.6% – or $500 million – from the previous year, and $1.8 billion (23.4%) more than Major League Baseball ($7.7).

This is the America in which I find myself and I’m not sure what I think. If NFL player contracts are about the player’s body – how long will it last? – then how much is a body worth?

An NFL game is about crisis and the drama that can be built around this with careful narrative strategies – as in politics. Television and now the Internet have forced new narrative lines to appear, across all professional sports, in order to capture the fan’s gaze. By now I’m wondering what’s left of that wide-eyed 7 year old boy? The violence and brute force that initially overwhelmed my conscience have metamorphosed into an experience that is highly compressed. Reacting to violence, which seems to be so prevalent – and promoted – is, as I write here, now, a major obstacle in every aspect of my life, and I suspect other’s as well.

The grace of fútbol is gone from my life – except when I catch a game (hopefully it’s Messi and Barcelona) on TV. Not enough time, a tighter field in which to do open field running, abundant crisis – these mark our lives today. Which is a road to what? Where are we going?

I haven’t watched any football this year, except to watch Middlebury College defeat Williams College, 21-14, on October 12, 2013. Perhaps a final act of assimilation into humanity.

The Yankees, The New York City Marathon and Citizenship

for Ronni and her students at George Washington High School, “the Heights,” NY


for Mahnaz, who wants to know about Edward Said

and for the late Edward Said, who inspires


Orlando, Fort Hood, Meb, Yanks

The morning after the New York Yankees’ historic 27th World Series win over the Philadelphia Phillies I received another email from my great friend, Ronni. She is the principal at the High School for Media and Communications, located on the first floor of the huge and beautiful George Washington High School, a public high school located in the Fort George neighborhood of the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in New York City, New York. Ronni writes that, “The kids told me that after the game they went down from their apartments onto the street to cheer and hug and set off firecrackers — don’t you love a neighborhood –“.  Toilet paper — “the working man’s decoration,” Ronni calls it — hung from trees and street lights all over Washington Heights. She could hear the voices in the hallways of her high school filled with Dominican Pride (she wrote this just like I have it here) for Alex and Cano, and, yes, Pedro, too.

What Ronni experienced the morning after the Yankee victory is a celebration of arrival — Dominicans have arrived. This is Washington Heights, it’s homes, schools and wonderful restaurants and stores, all truly an acknowledgment that America is vital and different. Not but different, and. A new order is in store for us and we must pay attention, acknowledge it and name it, as Julia Alvarez, our “mother-sister” has, as Junot Díaz follows — the narratives of assimilation and change and identity. All this is Washington Heights, a warm, happening place, full of life and possibilities. Washington Heights is undeniably tomorrow.

Washington Heights School kids — and kids in Iowa and Colorado, Texas and Wyoming — heard an accented English on national television — their English. Hideki Matsui even used a translator during his post-game interview, after receiving M.V.P. honors. The hallways of George Washington High School were filled with the pride of citizenship defined by a wide-ranging diversity. This is America. It’s befitting and telling that this victory was won in New York, a city less of the United States, but more a city of the world — perhaps even the capital of the world. The morning after the Yankee victory, President Obama said that the world was back in balance because the Yankees had once again won the series. The statement befits New York, home of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and the memories of the World Trade Centers, re-captured during the 6th game by the Navy brass — they’d christened the USS New York made from parts from the Centers — sitting behind home plate alongside Mayor Bloomberg who had just narrowly (51%) won re-election (New Yorkers were not happy with his aggressive altering of the mayor’s term limits — democracy speaks). Baseball is about redemption, going home; it is inclusive, the future, which takes time and careful understanding to reach.

The original George Washington High School, which was operated by the New York City Department of Education, was built February 2, 1917. The school’s name derives from the Revolutionary War battle fought on the hill of the building site. The school was once an annex of Morris High School. George Washington High School was built and opened in 1919, and then moved into the current building at 549 Audubon Avenue in 1925. George Washington High School has had notable graduates — Jacob Javits, Maria Callas, Henry Kissinger, Alan Greenspan, Harry Belafonte, and, yes, Manny Ramírez, who did not graduate. Ronni’s office window opens to their famed and glorious baseball field harking dreams of future glory, and the Hudson River — the beautiful crossroads of the American experience always and forever evolving and redefining America in “the Heights.” Jews, Gentiles, Muslims, Caribbean, Black and White – the history of George Washington High School is the history of America and its metamorphosis into a place of hope at the northern edge of Manhattan. It reads like something Aaron Copland would have composed, full of the color of deep valleys and mountain tops reaching for the heavens. Washington Heights, history and the future unknown living side-by-side.

Citizenship evolves from hope. Citizenship is directly proportional to how open and tolerant a society is to difference. This is profoundly a definition of justice where, according to Noble Laureate Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice,”human lives are then seen inclusively, taking note of the substantive freedoms that people enjoy, rather than ignoring everything other than the pleasures or utilities they end up having.” This, after all, is what we mean by diversity — tolerance for the Other that is not like us yet also completes us. This is the challenge of citizenship in the “new America” currently undergoing massive changes, a transcendence from a world power fixated on size and speed, to perhaps a more subtle nation that is more reflective, more inquisitive, and a bit more eager to open avenues for dialog where none have existed before. This is the hope.

It’s surprising, then, to read about the confusion that followed Mebrahtom Keflezighi’s New York City Marathon. “Should Keflezighi’s triumph count as an American victory?” asks Gina Kolata, writing for The New York Times. Mebrahthom, Meb he’s called, immigrated to the United States, from Eritrea, at the age of 2. He has been in the United States for 22 years and has completed his education here. How does one prove his or her “Americanness”? “The debate reveals what some academics say are common assumptions and stereotypes about race and sports and athletic achievement in the United States,” Kolata tells us. “Its dimensions, they add, go beyond the particulars of Keflezighi and bear on undercurrents of nationalism and racism that are not often voiced.” This is the American fear — the unstoppable nature of the changing face — and color — of America. On the one hand, we’ve invited the poor, the disenfranchised –“Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”–but on the other end we’ve been involved in violent disorder against these same tired masses for at least a few centuries. The Americas were founded on violent disorder, in fact.

The American notion of citizenship has to first acknowledge this painful reality — we invite and harm simultaneously; we also reap the benefits of immigration, as we see in the graduates of George Washington High School. New York City is the testament that what has founded this country is an international community. “Restless, turbulent, unceasingly various, energetic, unsettling, resistant, and absorptive, New York today is what Paris was a hundred years ago, the capital of our time,” writes the late, great Edward Said in “Criticism and Exile.” “It may seem paradoxical and even willful to add that the city’s centrality is due to its eccentricity and the peculiar mix of its attributes, but I think that that is so,” Said continues.

Ronni closed one of her emails, saying, “A good day for Washington Heights — though I heard one of my students was stabbed last night. He’s okay though.” A few days later, we hear of the violence in Fort Hood, Texas, of a man who shot up an office in Orlando, Florida, and the ongoing human tragedies that are Iraq and Afghanistan that bring us to our knees and all we can do is weep. The weight of America’s lack of political imagination — and will — around issues pertaining to education and health care compels us to wonder how we might even begin to address citizenship when citizens’ voices are muffled, our inalienable rights squelched, human needs repressed? This, too, is America in this age of transition.

The New York Yankees, a model of capitalism — a capitalist victory — and Mebrahtom, a model of hope and perseverance in a vertical economy, are the crossroads of America’s future. Ronni, who grew up in the Bronx, as I did, though I too am an immigrant, naturalized in 1972, and her students in Washington Heights are the hope we’re looking for. Historically, Edward Said tells us that the “set of urban expatriate narratives has over time acquired an almost canonical status, as have the various museums, schools, universities, concert halls, opera houses, theatres, galleries, and dance companies that have earned New York its considerable status as a sort of permanent theatrical showplace — with, over time, less and less real contact with its earlier immigrant roots.”

The Yankee players, Mebrahtom and the students attending George Washington High School in the “new Heights” are citizens that are forcing us to adjust old to new, difference to the status quo. George Steinbrenner told Yankee manager Joe Gerardi that what would be better than a 27th World Series victory is a 28th. This can’t happen without Alex and Cano and Jeter and Mariano and Jorge and… Tomorrow’s America depends on how we open up the “and.” We can’t exist otherwise.