J. Bret Maney is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of Manhattan Tropics by Guillermo Cotto-Thorner. Originally published in 1951, Manhattan Tropics is the first novel of the Puerto Rican mass-migration to New York City, offering a panorama of mid-century life in El Barrio, and is a crucial forebear of the Nuyorican aesthetics that would emerge in the late 1960s. Maney’s translation deftly captures the wide-eyed wonder of the period and interweaves the Neoyorquismos that are this novel’s hallmark. In this early section of the novel, the protagonist, Juan Marcos, has just landed in New York City, and his friend Antonio has come to collect him at the airport.  Read Maney’s essay on translating Manhattan Tropics here.


Chapter 2

It had been a direct flight with no stopovers. Juan Marcos was a little disappointed because the clouds had kept him from viewing New York from the air, which he had long dreamed of doing. The plane was crammed with anxious-looking passengers. Deep within their eyes, strange premonitions were visible. The trip had been tiring. They had passed through a violent storm, and each time the plane dipped in altitude, then rose up again, or when lightning flashed nearby, threatening to split open the craft, the travelers gripped their seats and silently lifted up their prayers to God. During the storm, the calmest and most stoic person onboard had been an elderly woman in her seventies. While the faces of everyone else, both young and old, showed signs of distress and nerves, the gentle face of that little old lady was luminous. It radiated a serenity that could only be the result of a pure and unshakable faith.

Juan Marcos was seated next to a youth who was also coming to New York for the first time. They had talked over various matters, although they didn’t have much in common. The purpose of their trips to the continent, their attitudes toward life, and the invisible codes that governed their lives were diametrically opposed. Nevertheless, when in close quarters, we often make conversation with people who are unlike us. When travelling, especially when travelling through danger, we forget those emotional or intellectual qualms that are so important in daily life.

“Hey, what are you gonna do in New York?” asked Aurelio when they took off from San Juan.

Aurelio’s unexpected familiarity of address didn’t please Juan Marcos, but he let it pass. “I’m going to work and study,” he answered. Then, extending his right hand, he said, “My name is Juan Marcos Villalobos.”

“I’m Aurelio Fortes,” replied his seatmate. “Give me five!—but everybody calls me Yeyo.”

They talked for a while about the sensations of air travel. Both confessed they were a little frightened, but not too much.

“You asked me what I was going to do in New York,” said Aurelio. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find something to do where I don’t have to speak English. What I really want is to make me some dough and find a nice little sweetheart to keep me warm at night. They say they’ve got some terrific places there to have a good time.”

“And where will you live?”

“That’s the least of it! I didn’t tell anyone I was coming, though I do know a cat who lives in the Bronx—wherever the heck that is! I’m sure that when I show up, he won’t throw me into the street. Friends have got to be good for something.”

Yeyo shot a glance toward the back of the airplane. A very good-looking girl was seated in the last row next to a man of sixty. “If that old timer wasn’t back there with that sweet young thing,” he said, nudging Juan Marcos with his elbow, “I’d go get me some of that. Too bad, or like the record says, ‘Mala suerte.’”

The line had been crossed. The more they tried to find points of reference for shared conversation, the more they sought them in vain. Juan Marcos thought it best to shut his eyes and get some sleep. Yeyo, half-bored since his seatmate didn’t dance to his tune, took out a magazine of lewd jokes and racy photographs. He amused himself by examining the nudes from all angles as the propellers blazed a trail through the dense clouds. Hours later, the airplane prepared to make an elegant landing in the mysterious city of hope.

⨳ ⨳ ⨳

In the distance Juan Marcos spotted the vertical zigzag of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. He was struck by the width of the avenues; his retinas had yet to adapt to the dimensions of the metropolis. While he rode the bus with Antonio, he was all eyes. Antonio, who understood what he was feeling, saved for later the questions about back home. I’ll let Juan Marcos stuff himself on New York, he thought. In a little while, the novelty will wear off.

In Puerto Rico, Juan Marcos had said to himself, I will be so moved when I see those skyscrapers, it will be hard to contain my emotion. In search of that feeling now, he trained his eyes out the window. But what he had expected didn’t occur. In glimpsing the yearned-for city, he felt a blunted happiness. It seemed to him that he was viewing something ordinary, and not for the first time. The city wasn’t, after all, as big as he had imagined. He wasn’t bedazzled. A certain drabness began to ruffle his hopes. The books and movies, the people who had already been here, had described New York so well that everything was already familiar. That is, the appearance was familiar, because what was inside, that, nobody could describe—you had to live it.

In a few minutes Juan Marcos found himself “walking underground” for the first time in his life. The subway captivated him and he began to notice that feeling of mystery and grandeur the city imposes on its dwellers. He didn’t miss a single detail. Formerly a little tired from his trip, he now felt replenished with fresh energy to look and assimilate all there was to see. At the first station, their subway car filled with passengers. The newly-arrived jibarito noticed a pretty American blonde who clung to one of the stiff ceramic straps hanging from the ceiling in front of his seat. Behaving as if he was in Puerto Rico, where good manners have deteriorated less than in New York, Juan Marcos jumped to his feet. In his undomesticated English, he said to the woman, “Lady, dis is a sit for yú.”

The young woman looked him up and down. “Don’t be a sucker,” she said rudely.

Juan Marcos felt like he had been slapped in the face. To be sure, he didn’t quite know what the New York slang “sucker” meant, but judging by the woman’s rude, unwelcoming gesture, he guessed that it couldn’t be anything good. It had, without a doubt, something to do with the translation of the verb “to suck,” which in good Spanish was “mamar.” Juan Marcos fell back into his seat, as if someone had yanked him by his jacket, and for a moment he didn’t dare look at Antonio, who was watching him very intently with a half-smile on his lips. Mira que chica más sinvergüenza! Juan Marcos thought. Could all the women here be like that?

With the devil churning inside him, he felt like standing up again and giving the gringa a piece of his mind. Yet how could he? If the English he knew was no good, not even for selling tomatoes? Yes, he, Juan Marcos Villalobos, first prize in English in secondary school, teacher of sociology in the high school at Ponce, he, Mister Goody Two-Shoes!, who demanded—on orders from higher up—that his students in Puerto Rico do all their lessons in English, he, the young bilingual intellectual, who knew more of Shakespeare, Byron, Carlyle, and Dewey than of Cervantes, Lope de Vega, or Tirso de Molina. Yes, he, the diligent young man, the product of an unbridled system, who could recite whole passages from The Merchant of Venice, could not now tell, in plain English, this ill-mannered and ungrateful americanucha what she very much deserved to hear. In the midst of the deafening noise of the train, he bristled with anger.

“Look, Juan Marcos” said Antonio, breaking the silence. “This is your first lesson in the city. Don’t offer your seat on the subway or the bus to a healthy woman. We’re not in Puerto Rico anymore. Around here, you show courtesy in a very different way. Everybody fends for himself and is after his own thing. That lady probably thought you were trying to pick her up.”

Pic-up?” asked our confused young man. “What’s that?”

Antonio laughed. “What a lot you have to learn! Pick-up means recoger. I mean, when a man approaches a woman he doesn’t know and starts a conversation with her, to have fun with her later, if she’s down with it. You know, for a good time … Although around here you have to keep your eyes open, because sometimes it’s the girls who do the picking up, right on the street. There’s nothing that doesn’t happen here, you’ll soon see.”

“I do. I do already.”

“I should warn you though,” added Antonio, “it’s considered your duty to give your seat to a woman with a child in her arms or an old lady. As for the others, if they don’t want to fall down, they better hold on tight.”

The subway shuttled rapidly and noisily through the dark and endless tunnel. At last, the human moles reentered the light. They were at the corner of 110th Street and Lexington Avenue. A patch of sky was shedding itself of the storm clouds that had caused the previous night’s downpour. Antonio was uncomfortable in his galoshes, raincoat, umbrella, and old hat. He felt silly. Seeing the sliver of bluish sky, he had the urge to strip off his gear and pitch it in the first ashcan that he came across. But he quickly changed his mind. He had his old lady to please.

⨳ ⨳ ⨳

Juan Marcos had read and heard a lot about El Barrio, Manhattan’s Puerto Rican colony spread across Lower Harlem. After he left the subway station, he stopped instinctively to take it all in, while Antonio politely took hold of his valise. Looking a block’s distance to the east, he discovered the elevated train, the Third Avenue El, which slowly crawled across a gigantic steel bridge, rattling as though all its parts were loose. To the west, he saw an aerodynamic silver-plated train shoot across the sturdy bridge that reclined along Park Avenue. And looking once more toward Lexington, he saw a Puerto Rican greengrocer pushing a vegetable cart, which reminded him—that being life!—of his favorite song, “El Lamento Borincano.”

⨳ ⨳ ⨳

Nueva York is the city of commotion and mobility. The noise can be so intense that it numbs the senses, and the person who lives in this environment for a long time loses the notion of silence. The torrent of pedestrians and vehicles is endless—streetcars, buses, automobiles, horse-carts, trucks, trains, bicycles, motorcycles, airplanes, and wheelbarrows; fire engines, with their high-powered motors and ear-splitting sirens; the shouts of children and adults; the buzz of conversation of the human swarm on the sidewalks; guffaws, curses, cries; the explosion of a backfiring engine; wheels that bump over the rails and rend all tranquility; the spinning of propellers boring thunderously through space; noise, noise, NOISE: New York.

Mankind has won a victory over the horizontal. New York aims overhead, is in perpetual pugilism with space. From the hard rock of Manhattan, man has shot up to conquer the clouds. Strapping buildings, as tall and long as the jíbaro’s hope, dotted symmetrically with windows and bordered with aesthetic detail, to silence the critics—austere, linear, devastating. In summer, they give the impression of macabre furnaces where eyelashes burn, bodies melt down and all feeling contorts and loses its sense.

⨳ ⨳ ⨳

Juan Marcos and Antonio set out on their walk. On both sides of the wide street, the newcomer Juan Marcos could only make out two huge buildings stretching from corner to corner—windows in parallel with identical fire escapes that led to the sidewalk from six floors above the street. But no, they weren’t two buildings but many, one jammed next to the other, all erected in the same style. In these buildings lived hundreds—thousands—of compatriots who had, like him, abandoned the island to try their luck in “Los Nuevayores.”

Some kids were playing baseball in the middle of the street.

“Pepe, get over here. You’re up.”

Pepe was a sickly-looking boy of about twelve with trigueño skin. He was licking a piragua and had forgotten that it was his turn to bat. He gave the piragua to a slight, dark-eyed girl who was watching the game from the sidewalk.

“Hold it for me while I hit a jonrón. Don’t go and eat it on me, I know what you’re like.”

Pepe had the makings of a good ballplayer. He got riled up when the nimble pitcher, a morenito, threw a strike past him. On the second pitch, he gave the ball such a wallop with the broomstick they used as a bat that if Juan Marcos and Antonio hadn’t ducked, one of them would have sported a goose-egg on his head before reaching home. The rubber ball, warped by the bat’s impact, whistled projectile-like through the air, striking a target when it disappeared into the dim open window of a second-floor apartment. Pepe, meanwhile, ran the bases unaware of the flight the ball had taken; amid the shouts of the other kids, he was more intent on retrieving his piragua than scoring a run.

Two men were playing a game of checkers on a small table they had pulled to the curb while two others looked on. They were in front of La Cuevita, a lunch counter serving Puerto Rican food, from whose door wafted the delicious smell of cracklings, pasteles, and fried codfish. Near the table at which the unhurried gentlemen played, there was a large wooden box stocked with fresh coconuts for drinking and chipped ice. The checkers players said nary a word. In spite of the flurry and ruckus around them, their concentration was total. One of the game’s spectators noticed Antonio and Juan Marcos. “Here comes another gringón,” he said to his pal. “You can see it even in the way he walks.”

At last they reached Madison Avenue. Antonio lived near the corner.

“Say,” asked Juan Marcos, “does no one speak English around here?”

“This,” replied Antonio, “is our Barrio. People say that we Latinos are in charge here. And that’s how we see it, too. While the Americans scoop up most of the money that flows about, we feel that this part of the city is ours. Look at the signs on the stores: “La Fe,” “La Mallorquina,” “El Nuevo Gardel,” “El Atómico,” “Las Tres Marías.” It’s endless. The bodegas, the barber shops, the restaurants, the butchers, the churches, funeral parlors, lunch counters, pool halls—they’re all puro latino! From time to time, you’ll see a little shop run by a Jew, an Irishman, or an Italian, but you’ll notice that even these people know a bit of Spanish.”

They were already on Madison, the nerve center of El Barrio. This avenue is like a reel of movie film stretched across the surface of Manhattan. Following the contour of the ground, it undulates through the upper part of the city. Seen from above, the bluish line, with its parallel dots for buildings, gives the impression that scenes of a live and moving drama lie hidden in each of its blocks. In the lower part of the city, the avenue dangles its banks and sumptuous residences, imposing temples and cavernous office buildings. This is the stamping ground of the powerful, the rich, the well-to-do, the downtown element. But as the numbers on the buildings go up, the opulence retreats. The heart of the Latin Barrio is uptown. There, in close quarters and in dolorous confusion, a fragment of the people of Puerto Rico finds shelter, in the midst of poverty and hope.

With a few buildings still to pass before reaching Antonio’s home, Juan Marcos saw two disheveled women coming down the street. They carried small bags of provisions and were talking at the top of their lungs.

“They’re coming from the marqueta,” said Antonio.

Juan Marcos, not wishing to pass once more for a novice, decided not to ask his guide what that odd word meant. He would find out for himself soon enough. Indeed, it was for that, that he had come …

This translation is available for publication.

This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features excerpts and essays from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.