A poem by Malcolm Friend

for Rita Moreno

Immigrant goes to America,
Many hellos in America;
Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico’s in America! 

Dad doesn’t talk about his pain,
won’t tell me the bad stories.
Most of the time,
I have to hear it from Mom:
how her family never liked him.
Her grandma said he only proposed
to get a green card, didn’t know
he was American as her.
My older sister’s named after her.

Dad told Mom about an ex
with a racist father who said
he had the worst black blood
and white blood,
being Jamaican and Puerto Rican.

Dad never told me what to do
when white boys and black boys screech
¡ay ay ay qué qué muchacho! at me,
exaggerate an accent
while making jokes about the machete
I’ve gotta have, the violence
that’s gotta define me.
Maybe that’s why I freeze.

I read once Rita Moreno thought her Oscar
from West Side Story
would open up more roles for her.
No more playing Conchitas.
She didn’t work for seven years.
After West Side Story,
it was pretty much the same thing.
A lot of gang stories.

Dad always hated
West Side Story.

Rita’s the only Puerto Rican in it,
he says. She don’t even play María.

The one time Dad told me,
shared his pain with me,
it was about the day he got home
from Vietnam. The best friend he’d lost.
The white man shouting slurs at him.
Hadn’t even changed from his uniform,
beat the man unconscious
in front of a police officer
who had enough pity to tell Dad to leave
before he had to arrest him.

He doesn’t tell me
what the man called him,
like I can’t imagine it.
Can’t hear spic over and over—
Stupid spic! Soldier spic!
Dad snapping at spic,
beating the man over and over,
pounding his head into concrete
over and over.

Like I can’t see Rita Moreno
staring in the mirror every morning
of the seven years she didn’t work,
lines from West Side Story
playing over and over in her head—

Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico’s in America!

Like I can’t see Dad
trying not to remember
what it’s like to beat a man bloody
with just his hands.