“Can you Dig it?” Nuyorican History in Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker
In this third installment of “Latinx Comic Biographies and Graphic Memoirs” series, I dive into how Voloj and Ahlering illustrate the 1970s South Bronx, which chronicles the life of Nuyorican Benjamin “Bengy” Melendez, former gang leader and community activist.
Buildings reduced to rubble, concrete and metal strewn about, tires piled high on dirt mounds piled higher. It looks like a bomb went off. This is the beginning of the 2015 comic biography Ghetto Brothers: Warrior to Peacemaker by Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering, published by NBM. Ghetto Brother recovers a history of the Puerto Rican diaspora that negotiated and resisted urban decay during a time when the NYC government left the Bronx to Burn.
Some of you might remember the iconic scene in the 1979 movie The Warriors where hundreds of NYC gangs meet up for a summit in the Bronx, the leader Cyrus delivering the line the famous line: “Can you Dig it?” Well, that was based on a true story. After the death of his friend and fellow Ghetto Brother gang member Black Benjie, Melendez decided that there needed to be another way to deal with the detonating living conditions of their city. Through music (early hip hop), parties and street cleanups Melendez and others in NYC made active efforts to better their life in the city. A narrative often ignored in the popular imagination.
Voloj interviewed Melendez about his life growing up in the NYC in the 1960-70s. Then in collaboration with Ahlering, they created the beautiful watercolor-style comic Ghetto Brothers. Melendez narrates his family’s move to the Bronx (which was undergoing intense “white flight”) caused by the redevelopment of lower Manhattan under the direction of urban planner Robert Moses. The historical narrative of the comic goes, “and then came Moses.” The image is of a biblical Moses parting the Red Sea. Melendez refers to a different Moses, using the visual metaphor adds humor to the reality of the matter; Robert Moses parts the borough in order to make way for the Cross Bronx Expressway.
Later in the comic Melendez decides to read about the crypto-Judaism that he believes his family descends from. The comic depicts Benjy visiting the New York Public Library; the top left panel is of Benjy simultaneously looking to the left to right and up and down. He is overwhelmed by the both the interior of the library and also of the wealth of information. Soon his narrative transitions into a third person account of the expulsion of the Jewish population from Spain. Histories fold on top of each other, the transition communicates how Melendez’s own learning of his familial history is also intertwined with the larger anti-Semitism of Europe during the fifteenth century (which the reader also might be unaware of).
Ghetto Bother includes so much more than I can cover in a single review. I believe it has a renewed significance for recent Puerto Rican immigration. As a Nuyorican comic history, Ghetto Brother offers hope for newer generations of Boricuas seeking refuge in the United States post-Hurricane Maria.