Andre Lee Muñiz

Andre Lee Muñiz is a Boricua born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. His family settled in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn in the late 1950s/ early 1960s from the Puerto Rican towns of Caguas and Añasco. As a public housing resident near Coney Island, Andre Lee attended local public schools and Kingsborough Community College. At KCC, he earned a minority student transfer scholarship to NYU, going on to earn a B.S. and M.A. degree, while also developing his interest in Puerto Rican history and culture.

A Puerto Rican Account of the Ferguson Decision and Day-After Protests

We at La Respuesta magazine believe in and practice solidarity. You can find us side-by-side at events and demonstrations with our brothers and sisters facing oppression and actively engaged in people’s resistance.

My role as NYC Regional Editor of LaRes encourages me to fulfill our pledge to solidarity. Nevertheless, I was personally motivated by the grand jury decision in Ferguson, MissourI to join the day-after demonstrations taking place in my city and across the U.S.

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The author helping facilitate a youth circle dialogue at El Puente on the Ferguson decision

The Grand Jury Decision on TV

When I saw the decision made by the grand jury not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of 18-year old Michael Brown, minutes after getting home from work, my reaction was admittedly of surprise. Not because I wholeheartedly believed in the capacity of the legal system – I didn’t – but because I thought it was clear enough that Officer Wilson had used excessive force and murdered an un-armed Mike Brown.

Of course, considering the long chain of injustices produced by the systemic discrimination that exists within the U.S., the decision is no surprise. As I watched the TV, suddenly the broadcast changed to a live message from President Obama. As he talked about justice, I could not help but begin to get distracted by the outline of his figure. Immediately I thought about the nearly 4 million people living in Puerto Rico. Here on the screen was the man they cannot vote for, but who, along with Congress for over 116 years now, controls the entire structure of Puerto Rico.

Also, as friends of La Respuesta have noted on Twitter, Puerto Ricans have also experienced their share of police violence in the U.S., with a number of cases where the officer was similarly not indicted.

After the President’s message, the news returned to coverage of Ferguson. Not too long after, I began seeing coverage of actions taking place in New York City. A mass of people walking through the streets of Times Square in nonviolent protest, it was a rare sight. I already knew there would be day-after demonstrations, and so everything within me worked to inspire my own participation in these actions.

The Day-After Demonstrations

With cities across the nation taking part in protest, NYC had a number of contingents focused at various locations. The one I took part in gathered just outside Union Square Park and marched all the way to Fulton Street and Nostrand Avenue in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn.

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Protestors in the streets of Loisaida

The route of the march first took us through the streets of Greenwich Village towards the busy FDR Drive. Once there, people began jumping the barricade onto the highway, blocking off an entire lane of traffic. Though a few demonstrators began moving back, claiming that police were gathering up the highway waiting to arrest people, the great majority stayed together and continued until reaching the Lower East Side.

By this moment, the first high point of the march for me had occurred. The cops unaware of the route of the march, we suddenly made our way through a large public housing project, making me feel a special sense of satisfaction as a public housing resident myself. Often times we say it is the people in NYCHA and low-income housing/neighborhoods in general that rarely and need to see this type of protest in their community, and so this was a welcome change. As we went through the projects, dozens of residents watched and/or cheered us on from their windows, others actually deciding to join us.

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Marching through public housing

This was soon followed by the first challenge to the protest when a heavy police presence prevented our entrance onto the Williamsburg Bridge as we stopped traffic there. Uncertain for a few minutes as to what would happen, someone got on a bullhorn and called the mass to march on, which we did. Marching through the streets of Loisaida, passing by a NYCHA space named after Mariana Bracetti as well as a school named after Roberto Clemente, in addition to a number of Puerto Rican-inspired murals, we made our way down to Chinatown and the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge. Entering the bridge, we stopped an entire lane of traffic and slowly crossed the entire structure, with some cars honking us on in support, and the drivers of others actually stepping outside to cheer us on.

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At the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge

Once over the bridge, we continued down Flatbush Avenue Extension, making our way to the Barclays Center. It was there we staged a powerful sit-in in the middle of the intersection, holding four and a half minutes of silence, all while the cops looked on helplessly. Moving forward together, we continued to march through Downtown Brooklyn, eventually making our way to Fulton Street. Passing through the neighborhood of storefronts, cheered on by people mainly of Black Caribbean descent, we came to a stop at the intersection of Fulton and Nostrand in the middle of Bed-Stuy.

Bringing the march to a close, after taking over the streets, highways, and bridges of NYC, we gathered to hear people speak through the people’s mic/bullhorn. The last person to speak recited the words of Assata Shakur, asking us to repeat, ‘it is our duty to fight for freedom, it is our duty to win… we have nothing to lose but our chains.’

Revolutionary Change is Needed

Much of the protestors being young people thoroughly distrusting of ‘the system’ and committed to radical social change, when an organizer called through the bullhorn for the abolition of the police and the development of community control, the mass erupted in applause. Such a revolutionary vision is not beyond our reach, as far away into the future such a possibility may seem. For a more short-term solution, an economic boycott of Black Friday was also called for. In general, we were called to continue our protest in our communities and organize our people to affect the change we want to see.

This is not the end, but it was an incredible addition to the movement for justice that is growing throughout the United States. It was my honor to take part in it, passing through neighborhoods much like my own, and people who look like those in my community. Let us continue to educate and organize our communities to assert our human rights through word and deed. Let us dare to struggle. Let us dare to win.

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The Flag On My Way To Work

I had seen it before, in my days as an NYU student commuting from my project building in South Brooklyn to West 4th Street on the D train. It served as a reminder of what and who I am: a Boricua raised in a working class family and community.

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Photo by the author

A Puerto Rican flag waves from a set of windows four stories below the top of a high-rise building. It can be seen while crossing the Manhattan Bridge, on the side that gives the bridge its name.

Shortly after ‘Hurricane Sandy,’ when I next took that trip over the 100+ year old structure, the flag had disappeared from sight. It was a disappointment, causing me to feel a sense of loss. From then on, gazing through the scratched glass train window, it was like looking into a void, not focusing on the building, but looking at the space where an object once lied.

Recently, I interviewed for a position in the Williamsburg Leadership Center, a community space opened in Los Sures by El Puente, a human rights organization founded in 1982. As I made my way to Williamsburg’s south side, an unexpected sight became an omen of good fortune: the Puerto Rican flag reappeared, tightly fastened to two window guards.

Now, as I make my way to work, I once again reflect on my circumstances and feel a sense of direction. In part I am driven to such deep contemplation because of my strong sense of national identity and my reading of the Puerto Rican nation as incomplete due to its bondage under U.S. colonial rule. In a sense, when I look at the flag I begin to understand my own self also as a work in progress, ever striving to better myself.

When I see the flag on my way to work, and begin to reflect, it’s a reminder of the soul of a people. A reminder that no matter the odds, I will persevere. It’s as if the flag is saying, to use a popular phrase at my workplace, “¡Pa’lante!”

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The Discovery Of A Family Relic

BkIcon-Newsletter1x1When my sister’s 10-year old son couldn’t remember the name of his grandfather, who passed when he was just 3-years-old, she decided to reach back into our family archives. Taking out pictures and chess sets, my nephew soon recalled the name of the person seen with him in baby pictures, who he also ‘kinda‘ remembered had showed him how to move those black and white pieces over the green and cream checkered mat.

To my sister’s surprise, in a little pocket of one of his chess set bags, she found a sticky note with writing in pen. It was a draft for a letter our father had wrote to someone in regards to a genealogy workbook he wanted to pay for. He knew it was available free of charge, but was “willing to make a donation to cover mailing cost or any other costs.” What he wrote in the letter impacted us in a profound way. It began like this:

“I have just started to do family genealogy and I am very much interested in your Family Genealogy Workbook. I want to learn about my family heritage, and hopefully this workbook can help, but I plan on starting with this book so that it can help me put together a good gene [tree] so that one day I can pass it on to my son. Hopefully it will get him interested in family history and he will take it even farther.”

FamilyRelicWhen my sister called me to share her find after I came home from work, we both began reflecting on who I have become as a young adult. When my father wrote those sentences around the year 2004 I was an “at-risk” student. I really didn’t have much interest in my family history, or even our Puerto Rican culture. It was as I pushed myself through college that my interest in such issues sparked, coincidentally just before my father’s passing in August 2007.

Not only have I taken an interest in my cultural identity as ‘a Puerto Rican in New York,’ I’ve continued the genealogical work begun by my father. I’ve corrected some of his findings, added on, and have had a most enlightening experience doing so. The things I’ve learned about my ancestors have changed the way I see myself within the context of my family, and within the context of history. Having been able to trace my family tree back six generations, I’ve learned a great deal. As my sister and I reflected on this, we were also conscious that I took on this path after our father’s passing without knowing about the existence of this letter, and without him, to our knowledge, having ever bought the workbook, let alone later giving it to me – I took on this path on my own.

Such discoveries are rare, and I am among the lucky ones able to have such a connection to a most beloved family member. It was a powerful experience learning of the letter through my sister, and I am humbled to know I am on a path of my own making that is in tune with the dreams of my ancestors.

For tips on conducting Puerto Rican family history research, view my article, Discovering My Boricua Roots On Ancestry.com.

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