When You Know Better, Do Better
My father, Xavier Lucena, was born in a small town in Puerto Rico in 1924. He was not born into wealth; in fact, he was probably very poor by today’s standards. My grandmother divorced her husband in the 1930’s, a bold and unusual move on that catholic Island, and frankly, almost unheard of. Apparently, my grandfather was a charming alcoholic; an outgoing and funny man enjoyed by all, except, of course, the woman who had to find a way to keep food on the table and a roof over the heads of her two sons, while her husband drank the money away.
My father, and his younger brother ran wild and free in their town. While their mother worked they went to school, swam, fished and played baseball. Both boys were smart, but not particularly into academic achievement. My dad was a very good athlete, and an excellent baseball player. As the eldest son he was a little more serious, my uncle was the proverbial lighthearted younger child. The boys were a bit famous for good natured pranks (I vaguely remember a tale of a goat in the school room), and they were not opposed to playing hooky. They were, for the most part happy, good looking kids, and life, while not easy, was good.
The trajectory of my father’s life changed with the advent of WWII. He was one of the lucky ones and never saw combat. Because he was bright and quick, he was assigned to an office where information had to be handled quickly, filed away, and organized in a way for instant access. This fell right into my dads wheelhouse, his mother was ruthlessly tidy and organized, and these inherited strengths kept my dad in a post that ensured he lived through the war.
Post WWII, my dad settled in NYC, as did many young Puerto Ricans. He dedicated his life to the pursuit of fun; weekends were spent dancing and partying. According to my mother, this phase lasted quite a long time. My dad like most people, finally grew up. Realizing his drinking was getting out hand, he stopped the constant weekend parties and wanting a better life for his wife, young son, and future children, he started going to night school.
My dad was a delivery driver for Coca Cola, my mother worked part time and took care of my brother in their small Astoria apartment. College would have been in no way affordable without assistance. Luckily for him, as a United States citizen, (and yes, residents of PR are citizens), and WWII veteran my father qualified for the GI bill. This bill provided millions of servicemen and women the opportunity for education and home ownership; it equalized the playing field. New economic opportunities were available as Veterans attended college and moved into higher paying professions. Home ownership, the backbone of wealth building and inheritance was now not just for the lucky few at the top.
The GI bill has informed my life. My father went from delivery man to accountant. My parents purchased a house in the suburbs of Long Island; a quarter acre of bliss for my father who graduated from weekend party animal to king of the gardeners. My love of gardening comes directly from my father who grew every fruit he could and the world’s most beautiful roses. He showed me the joy of tending and preserving what you have.
My father’s job allowed for private school, dance and music lessons, all cementing the belief that education changes lives. The GI bill changed the trajectory of the Lucena family. Where there was once the major roadblock of money, the government sponsored bill created the road to opportunity. How lucky for us.
It could easily have been different. And tragically it was different for black veterans. The benefits of the GI bill were not given to African American service people. The single most important economic game changer for middle class America was denied to the people who already had been enslaved, tortured, oppressed; held back in every way imaginable. After loyal service to our country, risking their lives along with their fellow white soldiers, the black community was denied the opportunities given to whites.
When I was graduating high school it was a given I would go to college. So many of the things in my life I took for granted stemmed directly from the GI bill. I was horrified when I learned in history class that Black veterans did not get these benefits. I went to a progressive school where many of the girls were super wealthy, what we would now call the one percenters. The nuns, our teachers, at the school ,were vocal in their belief that the privileged had moral responsibility to help those oppressed by an unjust system. We were made to understand that we weren’t just lucky, we were also helped by a culture that rewarded us for our color as strongly as it held down others for their race.
I have been surprised to learn how few people know about the unjust and immoral underbelly of the GI bill. I have learned these facts are not commonly taught in school. More “luck” on my part , a private all girls school that not only had rigorous academic standards but a strong belief in social justice. The American dream, is in fact simply that for systematically oppressed people, beautiful and unattainable.
It could have been us. Puerto Rican’s have experienced a fair share of prejudice. West Side Story was not created in a vacuum. We are for the most part brown people. Brown people who come not from one of the states, but a commonwealth. It is not a stretch to imagine that Puerto Rican veterans could also have been denied the GI bill. My life would have been completely different. Many of the things I completely took for granted as a child would not have been possibilities.
Maya Angelou once said, when you know better, do better. And that is what the Black Lives Matter is trying to tell us. Protesters are trying to teach us that the centuries of brutality suffered has to stop. Institutional racism is so deeply rooted into the fabric of our culture that it can be sometimes hard to see; it is time to open our eyes. The privileged in our country have to look deeply at almost every aspect of our culture. The GI bill is just one of countless injustices served up to black Americans. The protesters are our teachers, and it is time for us to learn and change. It is not enough to post, or hold a sign. We must all actively find ways to make a difference. No action is too small; inaction is no longer an option. We are all starting to know better, now let us do better.