When I was small there were a few things that made breakfast worth getting up for. First, was my mother Carmen’s oversized Aunt Jemima pancakes; these were so big that when rolled-up, they could be used for batting practice. Second, was Carmen’s Puerto Rican oatmeal (Avena), with Modified tapioca starch; it was like eating hot ice cream.

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Carmen’s Avena Recipe

3 cups Quaker Oats

Half a cup of sugar replacement

1 teaspoon salt

¼ rice scratch

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 cups of milk

1 cup of water

In a medium sauce pan, mix all ingredients thoroughly. Then place on stovetop on medium/low heat, stirring constantly. Stir until Avena thickens to a smooth and creamy consistency. Top with cinnamon powder and eat hot.

Those were the good memories and I will share many with you as a blogger. There were other memories I have of growing up in Newark and Elizabeth. Memories of Christmas in the Dayton St. Projects, summers in North Newark, being physically attacked in elementary and middle school by gangs. Hearing teachers assure students they would go nowhere in life.

I think back to the Dayton St. Projects and wonder how anyone could have made it out alive. A walk to the Dayton St. School only three blocks away was like an excursion through a wasteland, without protection from the elements. Between home and school anything could happen and sometimes did. The tall dark red brick buildings cast a shadow upon the earth that followed you everywhere; they frustrated the sun’s attempt to shine light upon the concrete floor. The eighth floor where we lived overlooked the Evergreen Cemetery – a huge expanse of death and finality. No matter where you looked, one could find a “dead end.”

As a Boricua whose family subsisted on welfare and government benefits, Dayton St. was a place people wanted to live in. It was subsidized housing and really the only thing our family could afford. “Los Proyectos” – as the Boricuas called them – were prime real estate. Many of us adapted to the environment and learned survival skills that we use to this day.

We learned that survival and promotion – like in the work world – sometimes depends on who you know. My family knew Carlos my first cousin and everyone on Dayton St. knew Carlos – the drug dealer and eventual user. He loved his family and people knew that, but most importantly respected that. He would do anything for his family but eventually could not do anything for himself. He died of AIDS from sharing needles for his heroin addiction.

We learned that parents can hold together a family regardless of where you live or who your neighbors are. They can also teach you to be tough in an unforgiving neighborhood. Lesson number one: If you get hit you hit back! Lesson number two: See lesson number one. There were constant struggles between African-Americans and Puerto Ricans and neither wanted to seem weak. So we fought. Sometimes we got our asses kicked and sometimes we didn’t. Either way you got respect. My best friends in the projects were people who I had gotten into fights with. People who you could trust because one way or another we were in this together.

We learned that school was a great place to meet people from other places – white people. The fifth and sixth grades were great at Dayton St. School because we had the same teacher, Ms. Schimmel. Before her I did not know who Jewish people were or their stories. She showed us other cultures and took us on class trips, to fossil sites, foundries and even a picnic in Weequahic Park. I think she was the first teacher to believe in us. That was her best lesson.

So many things I can say about growing up in Dayton St. It was the kind of place that either killed you or made you stronger. But at the end of the day it was our home. The place where my mother made Avena and huge pancakes. The place where I went to summer camp with the Boy Scouts and where a girl named Peanut and I made out on the roof.