There is a rose in Spanish Harlem
A red rose up in Spanish Harlem
With eyes as black as coal that look down in my soul
And starts a fire there and then I lose control
I have to beg your pardon
I’m going to pick that rose and watch her as she grows in my garden
- Lyrics to Spanish Harlem as sung by Aretha Franklin
I live in Spanish Harlem which is cleverly now being called SpaHa but I don’t know, I prefer the full -Spanish Harlem. It’s a neighborhood my more prudish friends would call “sketchy” but they don’t see what I see. Not that I fault them. There was a time, when I first moved here, that the running joke between my husband and I was that I’d never live in Spanish Harlem. Now hear me out. I’m a proud Latina but living in a neighborhood that was a bit rough around the edges didn’t appeal to me.
I’m lucky to say that that’s all changed; including my perception of the place I now call home. Sure, on the surface there’s a lot of grit. But if you get past that you’ll see the beauty in my neighborhood. The beauty in raising my half Puerto Rican son in an area filled with culture and history. My heart swells with pride when I see congas beautifully displayed in storefront windows. And it’s pure love on a Saturday afternoon when I hear my neighbors four fingers hit the rawhide on his conga. Now that’s music!
Spanish Harlem is a neighborhood where plantains are sold in every local restaurant. Even the Chinese joints. It’s where the Puerto Rican flag can be seen hanging from at lest one window on every street. Around here you know it’s almost June because tattered flags come down and new ones start to pop up in celebration of the upcoming Puerto Rican Day Parade. It’s a neighborhood where I can get a shampoo and blow out for $15 bucks. Where the hairdressers rock their hips as the music plays and all the while you can faintly hear the novellas playing on the TV. It’s a place where, all bit a tad embarrassing, you can go to the local store in rollers and bobby pins. I grew up in rollers. I remember when, in the summers, my mother would ship me off to New York and my bag of pink foam rollers came with me. I think you have to be Latina to get it.
These days Spanish Harlem is less Puerto Rican and more Mexican but that’s ok. The congas and plantains are all Boricua. The flags of my homeland are still there, swaying in the wind. Mark Anthony can still be heard blasting from the radios. Even McDonalds gets in on the action. I’m lucky to own a small space in such a vibrant Hispanic community and my son is fortunate to grow up, immersed in his mothers culture. It’s his culture now and I hope the pride that I have for my heritage spills over into the person he becomes.
I discovered the artwork of Justin Bua when I first moved to New York about 9 years ago. I haven’t purchased anything but I’m certain at some point I will. So much of what he captures reminds me why I came here. I’m an Urban Girl at heart.