By Edmundo Bracho-Polanco*
This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London. Watch this space for the other 24 essays.
It must have been during 1995. That I know because I would have been playing the song “Combination Lock” over and over. And I still know that that song was released in 1995 and that I bought the full CD the first week it was in stores. And that I would be playing it out loud from my tiny studio apartment. I loved the band Fugazi. I still do. But no one else did. Not there anyway. Not in that street block of New York City’s Lower East Side. Or, as my Nuyorican friends would call it, Loisaida.
Isa, Manny, Adal, Ismael… and, I would say, everyone on that whole street where I lived in Loisaida, would hardly listen to anything other than salsa, or bomba, or plena. They might make a concession in listening to a jumpy cumbia, although that was “not really Puerto-Rican”. But they certainly would not listen to Fugazi’s punk rock. They hated it. “White noise mierda”, my friend Manny would say to me.
Just five blocks away from the street where I lived was the East Village. Spanglish was not spoken there, and punk rock was often blasted out of some shops and apartments. That’s where I bought Fugazi’s record and that’s where some reliable punk venues were to be found.
As a non-New Yorker, born in the Hispanic Caribbean, I found it both intriguing and bewildering that a city could vary so much in its demographics, languages, and cultural practices from one street to the next. South of the block where I lived in Manhattan, it was Russian and Ukrainian that one would mostly hear. Further up north, after a ten-minute walk, there was the imaginary border that separated Loisaida from the predominantly white and middle-class Stuyvesant Town. And so it went.
I had grown up hearing people refer to New York City as the quintessential melting pot. In fact, many would have said the city was the best urban representation of America’s own paradigm of multiculturalism. I am here assuming that a melting pot is that physical space where, at least theoretically, immigrant or minority groups blend or melt together into an almost homogenous society, with its members re-negotiating most of their original cultural forms and values.
It is not a new concept. The French immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, upon arriving in North America in 1782, described how in that part of the world individuals of different nations, ethnicities, and faiths “melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world”. This idea was amplified by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and his transcendentalist followers in the mid-nineteenth century as a utopian project of sorts that was taking roots in the United States at the time. A “culturally and racially mixed smelting pot”, Emerson called the nation.
I found it fascinating that there was even a Broadway play, staged in Manhattan in 1908, titled “The Melting Pot”. That year, and during the entire first decade of the twentieth century, at least forty percent of all New Yorkers were foreign-born. Perhaps one could speculate that to generate ideas for the play all Israel Zangwill, its producer, had to do was walk around just half a dozen streets in New York City and observe how the English, Italians, Russians, Irish, Germans, Greeks and others he met were reshaping the cultural tapestry of the place, negotiating cultural forms, apparently integrating through both difference and assimilation.
It comes as no surprise that there are a fair number of references in the play to the American Dream having been apparently embraced and lived by New York’s immigrants. For example, a character in a crucial scene, says, “America is the great melting pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming.”
As I walked the streets of the megalopolis, ninety or so years after Zangwill inaugurated his theatrical production, I found myself in a place where people seemed to have been able to negotiate their differences and together find cultural channels for diversity. Also, I experienced that such diversity appeared to be adopted as a necessity for there to be a relatively harmonious co-existence.
At a basic empirical level, tensions between certain groups were evident, but so were acceptance and co-creation of cultural products among different communities. It seemed to me that an impressive and varied set of cultures certainly co-existed in the so-called Big Apple. But the notion of an authentic melting pot was, to me, elusive at best. Instead, the pot was very much compartmentalised. Pretty much like Macy’s, one of the city’s flagship stores, with its many separate departments co-existing one next to the other in the same building. On the first floor you would have the perfume section, on the second women’s clothes, on the third men’s, and so on. And there were, alas, some departments that were larger and more visible than others.
Individuals of different cultures, I found, certainly tolerated each other in New York City’s districts, living side by side, engaging in polite transactions of all sorts on a daily basis. But they hardly melted together with one another. I dare say that they struggled to thread together genuine cultural hybridity. I would experience it almost every day: I lived in the Hispanic, salsa-listening, brown-skinned department – the barrio. And one single avenue, not too broad, would separate it from the larger, more privileged city compartment, one that was white – or Caucasian, as was the official term used then – and which was part of a dominant faction of North American society. This area of New York, like most of the city, belonged to the groups that tended to dictate the hegemonic narratives and policies of what citizenship, assimilation, social mobility, and diversity were and ought to be.
From the conversations I had with my friends and neighbours in Loisada, it became evident that they hardly agreed with the notion that the city – or indeed the country – was a melting pot. They would, moreover, argue that they felt like members of a peripheral community, visible perhaps as a commodity within a faux discourse of inclusivity and equality. The exotic brown Latinos. The sassy salseras. The rosary-carrying hustlers. The grandchildren of the Sharks in West Side Story… “We are a fringe community, like many in New York, because there is discrimination towards us”, Ismael said. “We live by the margins, mostly”, another friend echoed.
They conceded that the city did have a veneer of pluralism, of diversity. Yet it was exactly that: a light veneer, a semblance, a superficial brushing. The sense of belonging to a supposed melting pot society, they insisted, was a complex issue. Some of this involved having to do away with some traditions and longstanding cultural forms that were an integral part of their families and community. Like other minority groups in the megalopolis, they felt that they had to adopt much of the mainstream and dominant culture in a dynamic that could be best defined as acculturating rather than as melting with.
And the spatial compartmentalization into barrios, neighbourhoods or ghettos was only a spatial reflection of this established power dynamic, through which a specific type of assimilation was always imposed. Their words echoed those of immigration scholars Susan K. Brown and Frank D. Bean, who both argued that the notion of the melting pot reflects, in essence, an “Anglo-conformist classic assimilation theory”. In contrast with what seemed an idealised version of a newly integrated society, as presented in Zangwill’s play, the reality of New York City revealed that inclusivity was to be achieved only as dictated by westernised and Anglo-centric discourses. This was a pot of the most eclectic ingredients, but hardly a hybrid, certainly not a fusion, and never a mix. It was more of a set of social and political dynamics aimed at configuring a top-to-bottom monocultural society.
And yet, as much as the barrio represented a specific cultural setting that mirrored the wider complexities and impositions of the melting pot narratives, it was also a place of resistance – one of many in the heart of the megalopolis. Perhaps the manner in which assimilation was imposed – overtly or obliquely – brought forth many practices of resistance from my friends and their community.
No wonder they were not fond of me listening to punk rock – an Anglo white thing. Indeed, the salsa and Caribbean beats blasting out of cars and balconies in Loisaida were part of their domestic resistance. So were their Nuyorican words, their loud intonation, and their phrasing. The graffiti and tags that mapped their turf. The smell of fritanga and beans being cooked. The richness of colours in their apartments’ interiors and in their clothes. The motley look of girls and boys. Their banter. Their strut. Their laughter.
At times I would walk from the barrio to the Village or to Soho or to Stuyvesant Town. It would take me fifteen minutes at most. All those sounds, colours, and smells of the barrio would dissipate as I moved along. And once in those other compartments of the city, they became non-existent. Other sounds, colours and smells would take over. Other ways of resistance, perhaps, would make themselves visible, palpable. Or the landscape would be evocative of cultural hegemony, at times in subtle ways but often in an obvious manner.
The last time I visited New York City was in June 2017. The grand narratives of the city being the exemplary melting pot were still prevalent. Possibly every language was and is to be heard in the city, between the East Bronx and Bayside in Queens, Loisaida and Inwood. Spanish and Spanglish seemed to be spoken there more and more. But when I met up with Ismael, Manny, Isa, and Adal again then, they reiterated that, albeit Puerto Ricans and Hispanics had increased in numbers as New York residents, very little had changed in all those years. They were still the others, still peripheral, still racialised, still part of the poorer minority. Moreover, they told me they had been forced to leave Loisaida eight years before. “Gentrification everywhere, bro… they just came over and took us out of our streets”, said Adal. “They bought the whole ‘hood.”
The barrio now looked like a theme park for tourists. Its Nuyorican and Hispanic inhabitants were no longer there. The part of the city where I had lived had lost its colours, its shops and bodegas, its alternative outlets, its unique sounds that, together, produced different forms of culture and communitarian agency. Now, my friends lived in the suburbs – forcibly, they said. Call it a suburban barrio, far from the grounds where we had lived and where I’d argued, on a given day, that my punk music affinities were not incompatible with my love for salsa – that, in fact, one melted together with the other.
Now, in the space that used to be the barrio, alternative cultural and political practices seemed to be more limited than before, and the potential for multicultural transactions that I had envisioned years before, perhaps naively, had disappeared. What could I say to my old friends, now displaced and forced further to the periphery? I found less things melting in the melting pot, and the melting pot more commodified and compartmentalised than before. As if Macy’s stores had further sub-departmentalised their small departments, and made the large ones even larger than before.
The mainstream narrative may be trying to enforce the opposite notion – that the cultural landscape in the Big Apple is more diverse and hybrid than ever. I did not see it when I returned there, I did not feel it. The notion of the melting pot appeared to still be part of a majority-minority delusion, another top-to-bottom discourse of power, silently more restrictive than integrationist, with many of my friends feeling almost like outcasts. Such accentuated divides in language, in race, in ethnicity, in beliefs, and in lifestyles in general, could make for a binary reading – one of us and them.
On a more domestic note, Adal, Isa, Manny, and Ismael seemed at peace with me still listening to a punk rock tune followed by a Puerto Rican ballad – or vice versa. No dichotomy there. But much more importantly, they are aware that their resistance not only goes on but continues to have a purpose. From the fringes of the so-called melting pot, they still preserve their cultural forms and values, they negotiate with those around them, they still turn the volume on – salsa blasting out of their windows, above their little suburban gardens.
*Dr Ed Bracho-Polanco is an academic scholar, a published author, and a former journalist and media editor. He works as a Senior Lecturer in Communication at University of Westminster, and is Coordinator of the Doctoral Research Development at the Communications and Media Research Institute in (CAMRI). He has been working as a consultant in media for various international organizations since 2010. Dr Bracho-Polanco has written for or contributed to various high-profile media outlets and peer-reviewed journals in Europe and Latin America as a scholar, reporter and editor. His research areas of interest include media and democracy, diversity and media, political communication, and sociology of journalism.