Some memories don't fade with time. Sixteen years ago I returned home from the university in the inattentive manner that accompanies daily routine, pushed the message button on my answering machine, and began shuffling around the kitchen to start dinner. As I peered into the refrigerator, the third message rolled up, “Tim, it’s Fausto, I fucked up, I'm in jail, come see me.”
Fausto Rivera was among a group of young men I had met three years before, in 1990, while evaluating a school dropout prevention program in Springfield, Massachusetts. Very rapidly, our relationship spilled out of the schools and onto the basketball courts and neighborhood streets of Springfield, where we spent hours talking about our lives. Fausto was engaging and inquisitive—qualities that seemed to stand in sharp contrast to his inability to read or write. The determination of this fifteen-year-old boy was expressed one spring afternoon: "We got a saying in Spanish, 'La fe mueve las montañas.
' It means hope moves mountains." One year later, Fausto left school and became more deeply involved in Springfield's underground drug economy. At eighteen, addicted to heroin, he went on a ten-week robbing spree that ended in a failed bank heist and a ten-to-twelve year prison sentence.
Fausto's life carves out a unique pathway; after all, it is his
life, based upon a series of events, choices, and contingencies. Yet, despite the particulars of Fausto's story, many others have taken similar paths—their lives exist within the social grooves that are created and reproduced through public policy, economic opportunities, social institutions, and cultural practices. These pathways developed within the context of Springfield's deepening crisis for Puerto Rican youth in the early 1990s. The number of Puerto Ricans in Springfield nearly doubled in the 1980s and the median age of the population was merely twenty-one (twelve years younger than the white population in Springfield). The Puerto Rican school dropout rate in the late 1980s was around 50 percent, as was Springfield's Hispanic poverty rate. And then
the recession hit. At the height of the 1991 recession, the formal unemployment rate in Springfield reached 10 percent, dimming future job prospects for Puerto Rican youths and prompting one Springfield leader to refer to Fausto's cohort as the "lost generation." Not surprisingly, street activity escalated during this period and exploded into gang warfare in 1994. Fausto was just one of many. By the time Fausto was released from prison in 2000, the Massachusetts inmate population had more than quadrupled in the prior twenty years and Latinos were being incarcerated at more than six times the rate of whites.
Of course, the social currents that shaped the lives of young Puerto Ricans in Springfield did not deposit Fausto's entire generation in Massachusetts jails. In fact, the economic recovery that began in 1991 and lasted for a decade eased oppressive conditions in Springfield. Some of the men, including Julio Rivera, Fausto's older brother, left the street economy and found jobs in the expanding labor force. In 2007, Julio had been driving a tractor- trailer for more than ten years and had secured a unionized job that paid nearly $20 an hour, while his wife worked as a bank teller. As testimony to their success, they became homeowners in 2006, albeit two years before their variable interest rate jumped and they joined the millions of homeowners trying to hold on to their homes amidst the subprime mortgage crisis.
Getting to this stage in Julio's life, however, had not been easy, nor had it followed a straight trajectory. In the early 1990s, out of work and desperate, Julio held a gun to the head of a novice drug dealer and robbed him of $5,000. In the heat of Springfield's gang wars, he was made "godfather of the Warlords" by the street gang La Familia. His transition from the streets to working- class stability depended on a number of contingent factors, including his access to job information about the trade from an informal network of men who hung out nightly on "the block," the deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980, which opened up more driving jobs for Latinos, and the tight labor market in the late 1990s.
Also no stranger to "the block," the youngest and most street involved of the Rivera brothers, Sammy, negotiated these circumstances in Springfield somewhat differently. Foundering in schools in Yonkers, New York, during their court-ordered school desegregation initiatives in the 1980s, Sammy gravitated to the streets at an early age, escaping the radar of his parents and brothers. By the time the Riveras reached Springfield, Sammy had already acquired a delinquent identity that provided peer status and respect in a world lacking in these opportunities. Living in one of Springfield's most ethnically isolated and neglected neighborhoods, Sammy made street connections quickly and his budding street identity was nurtured by one of Springfield's drug kingpins, who would become his mentor. Heroin-addicted and gang-involved in the early 1990s, Sammy ironically managed to avoid prison until he had begun to "age off " the streets in his late twenties.
Today, Sammy's life straddles the streets and the low-wage economy. He completed a three- year prison stint in 2005 for a drug arrest, after which he moved back in with his partner and their child. Upon release and branded with a felony conviction, Sammy looked unsuccessfully for work for months. Finally he threw down the gauntlet, insisting that if a manager of an assembly plant didn't hire him, he was "going back to do what I know best." In 2007, he had been working at the plant for nearly two years, where his salary had increased from $8 to $11 an hour, but without employee benefits. His partner, more stably employed, helped create a family environment where Sammy spent more time with Sammy Jr. and less time on the streets.
This book illustrates the interplay of political, economic, and cultural dynamics that shape the lives of the Rivera brothers, their family, and a network of mostly Puerto Rican men, and examines the strategies that they adopt to negotiate their social conditions. To understand the circumstances through which the drama of their lives unfolds, however, we need to consider the political and economic changes that occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century and particularly the backdrop that jobs and prison created in their lives.
Excerpted from When a Heart Turns Rock Solid by Timothy Black. Copyright © 2009 by Timothy Black. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.