23 years, Brooklyn, New York
Cesar is a self-identified Afro-Latino man. His biological father, who he does not know, was Dominican, and his mother is Puerto Rican. He says “I would consider [my family] indigenous people because we have native inside of us, as Puerto Ricans and as Dominicans as well.” Cesar was interested in telling us his story because “nobody has ever done this. To put us on the map. To give us a voice.”
He explains his upbringing as:
“Growing up we always had a big family. We always had dinner together. That was one of the greatest things. And my mom taught us table manners and manners in the house. Those are great memories, things I instill in my life now. Those are lessons she taught me. She was the mom of the hood. She was the mom of the community. My mom was always feeding everybody. My mom always made food especially in the summer and fed the whole block. She would sell the food too she would make empanadas, you know tamales, sell them, and give them to the homeless people. ”
However, he adds, “my mom was gang affiliated back in her days… a Puerto Rican gang that migrated from Puerto Rico in the early 90’s. She beat up a few females and done a couple things. But she’s known for being a sweetheart. She was always for the community. So she was very known in the community negatively and positively. Even when we didn’t have it she somehow she made it happen to the point where we will eat and there will still be enough for others”
Cesar was first locked up at age 13 following a violent incident. One day he went to a community gym and found out it was closed. “At the time I was going through a lot mentally. I was just finding out that my father who I grew up with was not my father. Just seeing my mother for who she was, she was an alcoholic and she did do drugs growing up. So life was hitting me. I decided to just basically beat the shit out of somebody. Like I’m going to punch the next dude that comes down the block. He ended up getting hurt really bad he suffered broken teeth, broken nose, internal bleeding in the brain.” Following the incident Cesar was rapidly surrounded by “probably six to eight cop cars, you know, lights, sirens. And they just pulled out their guns and like, “freeze”, you know. They put me in cuffs and ended up searching me.” The cop found Cesar’s "navaja" (switchblade), as well as a black bandana and other apparel that appeared to affiliate him to a gang. “Then they knew I was [gang-]affiliated right there and then.”
Cesar describes the intake process as highly hostile and aggressive. At the precinct, Cesar was immediately surrounded by police yelling, “is this the monster? You fucking people are disgusting. What the fuck is wrong with you? Why would you do that?” They started cussing me out and just getting told all types of names. You know.”
The police were confused about Cesar’s racial and ethnic identity. “They thought I was black at first. So, that’s when they started calling me racial slurs like, monkey, stuff like that. But once they found out my [gang] affiliation they found out I was Hispanic. And they called me all types of names, Spic, like I didn’t even, it was just crazy. ‘He might be both. He might be whatever.’ Then my mother came, she couldn’t pick me up and they said I was going to be processed.
Although the police made racial assumptions about Cesar, they did not attempt to clarify either his identity or story: “I didn’t fill out anything. They just took me in. They took all my property and searched me. They didn’t really ask me much but more like accused me of everything.” Cesar was charged with robbery and second-degree assault.
About his time in juvenile detention, Cesar says, “They treated me like shit. I was treated like an animal. To be honest. That’s just keeping it really blunt…. Especially when they were upset. It depends on the CO or intake officer nine out of ten times, they give you a shitty attitude. It’s not like they are supposed to be welcoming, but they don’t care about anything you are going through. They just see you for what is on this paper. So whatever is on this paper, ‘such and such did this, he’s an assault. It made me feel like, it really pissed me off, I felt like I was in a turning period going through all the stress, I’d made this bad decision, and they are not making it any better. They are supposed to be for the community, supposed to protect us and serve us, when really they oppress us and try to take us apart limb by limb. And at 13 years old I didn’t know shit.”
Although Cesar tried to stay out of trouble during his incarceration, he had an encounter the night before his release where six COs roughed him and another young inmate up, unprovoked, leaving him with permanent damage to his knee. “It took me a long time to cope with it. The hate for authority. I would always catch myself even if it was as simple as seeing a cop. I developed a hate for them, and I had to deal with that, that was hard. I had to get back and not really sympathize or empathize with them but try to understand what it is or why they do this. Maybe it’s a greater force behind that. As I got older, I wanted to learn more, you know, learn the ins and outs of why people do things—that is why I studied psychology.”
When asked what would make youth like himself feel respected and honored in the system, Cesar says, “How about don’t treat people like animals but treat them like people. People are mentally challenged, and people have trauma. We are people that have generations and generations of trauma, that our parents and grandparents bestowed upon us, subconsciously, because they didn’t even know that what they are doing was creating trauma for the future.”
More specifically, when asked how Latino youth should be identified, he says: “As of right now what would make it better is to ask how people identify themselves. Give us a list of options. Something that we feel comfortable and not something that is created by the system. Something that we as a whole as a community create for ourselves….But be sincere about it and not just to put it on a piece of paper. Give some type of care for it because we are people, no matter what, we are one people.”