• Email
  • Print

Cuando

To the Editors:

I’m sending this letter to friends and acquaintances, and to people I think might take a special interest in the activities it describes, which are those of an unusual and wholly admirable neighborhood association called Cuando.

The members of this group—young Puerto Rican men and women living in the East First Street area of Manhattan—have been working for two years to improve the horrendous condition of the neighborhood, especially as it affects the young. They began modestly, but now the logic of the mess has brought them to a number of projects they can neither abandon nor—without help—fulfill. The most important of these is a full-fledged, non-tuition, libertarian school (or tutorial cooperative), staffed at present by two full-time teachers and one assistant. Eight children attend the school. (There will soon be more.) All are from broken and impoverished homes. A fourteen-year-old boy and several ten-year-olds are unable to read, though they are actually of good intelligence. In one short month, all of the children are responding (some few spectacularly) to their sudden medication of common decency and close relations with concerned adults.

Since I seem to be talking about eight children, let me describe my own larger interest in Cuando. I think others may share it. It’s simply this: that in the context of federal, state, and city ministrations, this local, almost powerless organization is blazingly rational and correct. It is correct to move humanly against dehumanization. It is correct to create havens of safety in an environment that is appallingly unsafe. It is correct to band together and try to fill, directly, the fundamental needs of communal life.

These actions, obviously, are responses to crisis. But they are more than that, for they form a pattern of a particular kind. I mean that they are the type of truly functional decentralized responsibility. They are libertarian and sensitive. They are political in the fundamental (to me, most valid) sense that the organized activity exists exclusively, and visibly, for the purpose of meeting common needs. All this, certainly, is writ small, yet it can be classed among the impulses that keep alive the idea of nonviolent social revolution. I am not claiming that Cuando itself is the seed of anything. ‘(One can hardly claim even that it will exist a year from now!) I am saying, however, that Cuando possesses a rationality which, in kind, and in the present condition of political life, is irresistibly attractive. It is a tiny beacon, and for my own part I want to keep it lit.

That’s my long-range interest, and I do certainly urge it on others. It may be, however, that the short, that is immediate, view is far more compelling. The neighborhood is a meat grinder. We know that heroin is being pushed in the public school. We know—and this is the newest development—that neighborhood addicts are recruiting twelve and thirteen year old kids into robbery gangs. The police know, too, and are nearly useless. Nor has anyone failed to observe that the chief products of the public school are ignorance, apathy, and collapse of self. All this is what Cuando is contending with. On the one hand, they’re snowed under. On the other hand, their achievements are impressive. (Which is how things are these days.)

I find it impressive:

1) that Cuando exists;

2) that for more than a year they have conducted an after-school storefront Children’s Center, staffed by volunteers and paid for out of their own pockets;

3) that for more than two years they have conducted athletic programs and weekend outings (Frank Baez, Melvin Cadiz, Daniel Torres);

4) that they have conducted a successful voter registration drive (David Muñoz);

5) that they have initiated clean-up campaigns; have cleared a vacant lot for play; have collaborated with an architect on the design of a mini-park, and are trying to bring it into existence (John Corsale); have agitated (and are) for playground lights, for landlord and NYC responsibility, and for some form of official and community response to the drug problem;

6) that they have held one very successful block festival, and are trying to make it an annual event;

7) that they have formed a school, have recruited students, and have been able to inspire three teachers to take on exhausting responsibilities.

The expenses and labors of Cuando have been borne by the members themselves, all of whom work hard for a living. Now their new school is underweigh, and the teachers, Barbara Hawkins and Damon Cranz, and their assistant, Teddy Gilliam (all of whom have been working without pay), must soon be given money if they are to go on eating. This is another of the impressive things about Cuando: that they have been able to attract people like these, who without any guarantee of a living have more or less turned themselves over to the community, not only teaching but visiting families and receiving visits from neglected kids, often working far into the evening. Their devotion will be all the more evident if I mention that all have agreed there will be no pay for time already spent, which amounts now to well over a month. Ann Wagner, a lawyer, has worked long and hard for Cuando, similarly without pay. Volunteers from the Catholic Worker have manned the Children’s Center. Among others who have helped and encouraged Cuando are: Paul Goodman and David Andree, a psychologist, whose friendship with the original members has influenced much that is happening now; the Reverend William P. Pickett of the Church of the Nativity, who has made space available; Father Daniel Berrigan (to whom many others, also, are indebted); Joe Gilchrist, of the Cornell United Religious Works; Anita Moses, of the Children’s Community Workshop School; Mabel Chrystie Dennison.

Obviously, there is a spirit here that touches others. Perhaps it can be proposed as a model of hope, 1970 style, i.e., the enterprise looks impossible, it won’t divert our larger rush to disaster, all powers (including the unions) are either by policy set against it or profoundly indifferent, and yet one is moved (even excited) in the presence of Cuando: their endeavor is admirable, their people cheerful, practical, and good, their example invaluable, their labor productive. Hope,. then, is this: that under the enduring condition of expecting nothing, one is heartened by the creation of positive good.

Cuando is approaching foundations for long-term (one year! two years!) support. In the meantime, the teachers (and children too, since lunches are provided) must eat, material must be purchased, trips must be paid for, more children must be reached.

I know that everyone who receives this letter receives, every week, dozens of urgent and truly important pleas for help. I don’t know what to say about this, except here’s another. I needn’t stress that it’s urgent. I do want to stress, however, that Cuando is unique. Its concerns are the basic functions of social life. It is a life-support organization—for which reason its claims on our assistance are of the clearest and most legitimate kind.

Cuando is tax exempt. The address is:

Cuando, Inc.

39 East First Street

New York City, New York 10003

George Dennison

New York City

  • Email
  • Print