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The story of Lito

By Michael Sitzman

Section: Arts

September 29, 2006

I. In Early Memory

Next thing I remember, I am walking down the street
Im feeling alright;

Im with my boys, Im with my troops, yeah,
And down along the avenue, some guys were shooting pool
And I heard the sound of a cappella groups, yeah,
Singing late in the evening, with all the girls out on the stoops, yeah. *

All his life he longed for that scene. Or something like it. It came to him only in occasional dreams: That indescribably painful sweetness. Being one of the group, hanging out with friends, belonging. Years would pass, but still those rare dreams would haunt him with their bliss. He would always wake up crying.

Some of you may know him. This is the story of Lito, and how he spent a lifetime searching for that sweet place we all seek. Come, let us walk the streets with him and hear their music. You may hear an oddly familiar tune

II. Growing In The Street

There is a rose in Spanish Harlem;

a red rose up in Spanish Harlem
It is a special one, its never seen the sun
It only comes out when the moon is on the run and all the stars are gleaming
Its growing in the street, right up through the concrete
But soft and sweet and dreaming. **

Lito was born in East Harlem;

not that it should have mattered much, since he was raised in Boston. His father spoke some Spanish, and sometimes called him Miguelito Ratn, which is sort of Spanish for Mickey Mouse. From that, he came to call himself Lito for short.

The landscape of his birth was never far from his heart, and the family took frequent trips back to New York. As a kid, he heard stories of his dads youth in Queens, and his mom read him tales of the city, such as Barto Takes the Subway.

Raised in the age of progressive, culturally-aware television, he took in a steady diet of urban-oriented and bilingual programming, such as Sesame Street and other PBS fare. He loved books like Enrique by Pablo Figueroa, the story of a boy who moves from Puerto Rico to New York, as well as Down These Mean Streets and the Harlem poetry of Piri Thomas.

With the stories he found all around him, Lito, who did not like his life, managed to dream for himself a very different childhood of fantasy. There, vicariously, he flourished in a world of subways, friends, and stickball. Like that rose poking through the pavement, he found a most unlikely place to grow.

III. The Boredom And The Chowder

When I left my home and my family, I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers, in the quiet of the railway station, running scared,
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go,
Looking for the places only they would know. *

Lito went to college in Los Angeles. The city had a vibrant aspect that echoed his fantasies. It was also far from home and the unfriendly world of his peers. As before, he needed to escape

When little Gabriel fell down while skating on campus, Lito went over to check on him. This random event began a friendship with Gabriels family, and then with their friends, and friends cousins, and so on. They were mainly Mexican, and their culture had a curious familiarity. These were also large families, much like the kind that, as a lonely boy, he had always wanted. Lito, who had studied Spanish for many years, soon became conversant in another tongue — and comfortable in a new identity.

IV. Things That Might Have Been

God only knows;

God makes His plan
The informations unavailable to the mortal man. *

There could be more to tell, but it would just be a long tale of hardship. Let it suffice to say that some lives are destined to be that way, and that for some people, that sweet place is elusive, ever limited to occasional dreams. This is how the rest of Litos life remained. And so we arrive at the recent past, when he came to this school and became a part of this community. Here, he re-discovered the Jewish identity he had long ago left behind in his hunger to break the boundaries of his unhappy world and escape. It is here, then, where Litos story ends, and where begins the story of Michael.

Where does the sweet place lie? Where does its sweetness come from? For some, it is the dream of having friends and a sense of belonging. For most of us, it is a search for some permanent sense of identity. As we begin our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we'll explore this theme further together, and the surprising ways we break boundaries and borders in order to forge that identity and a connection to each other. There are many stories to be told, and I will attempt to bring some of them to life. Among them you may well find a story about yourself. Come along.

Cuidado con el rbano picante;

es picoso, s, bastante.

* Lyrics by Paul Simon.
** Lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector.

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