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Arsenio Rodriguez recording a song in a studio. (JOSE RAFAEL MENDEZ JR./The Bronx Ink)

Honoring a Legendary Salsa Musician in the Bronx

It’s an intersection like many others in the Longwood section of the Bronx: a large field of fractured asphalt with road markings in fading yellow and white, old brick buildings with fire escapes and the subway running on its metal stilts somewhere in the far background. Only the green northern tip of Rainey Park distinguishes the intersection of Intervale Avenue and Dawson Street. But soon it will be also known as Arsenio Rodriguez Way, named after a Cuban bandleader who died in 1970 and whom many consider a major figure in the evolution of salsa.

“Hopefully, the new name will be up later in October,” said Jose Rafael Mendez Jr., the Latin music fan who is behind the effort to rename the intersection. “But maybe it will be November. Let’s hope at least before the end of the year.”

Mendez has long fought for honoring one of his favorite artists. He first presented his idea to the Community Board 2 in Longwood on April 11, but not all of the members were there. He gave the same speech in May and finally convinced the board, which passed his request on to the City Council, where it was approved on Sept. 25. Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the necessary papers on October 2.

The intersection between Intervale Avenue and Dawson Street wil be named Arsenio Rodriguez Way. Photo: Hinzel

The intersection between Intervale Avenue and Dawson Street is scheduled to be renamed Arsenio Rodriguez Way. (JAN HENDRIK HINZEL/The Bronx Ink)

But Mendez’s quest really began much earlier, in 2005, when he overheard a friend who had just moved to Westchester County say that he was living near the cemetery where Arsenio Rodriguez was buried. Mendez, who is from Tarrytown in Westchester County, soon found out that it was Ferncliff Cemetery –the same cemetery where he used to walk with his girlfriend when he was a teenager. But when he was  young, he didn’t know much more about Arsenio Rodriguez than the name. He didn’t know Rodriquez was buried there. There was no sign, no plaque, no other hint.

Mendez wanted to change that. Together with his friends Henry Medina, a film archivist, musician Larry Harlow, and journalist Aurora Flores, he helped to place articles last year in The New York Times and The New York Daily News telling the story of the anonymous grave. Then, something happened that Mendez didn’t expect. Rodriguez’s heirs contacted him. The musician’s wife had two children from a different marriage who now live Manhattan and the Dominican Republic. When she died, these stepchildren had the rights to the grave. Once the contact was established, Mendez asked them for permission to name the burial site and Larry Harlow bought a bronze plaque that now adorns the grass-covered grave.

But the three fans did not want to stop with the grave. The renaming of a street was up next. On their search for the right place they ended up at Playground 52, where they found Al Quinones, who works as a volunteer steward there. Quinones is always up for a chat about the Bronx and its artists. He knows where they all lived. At the playground, wall murals feature artists and people influential in the community. Quinones is all for giving them the fame they deserve. He named the little community garden next to the playground after William “Bill” Rainey, a Bronx activist. Quinones also has experience in getting projects going. Together with other community members, he has invested thousands of hours renovating the playground and fighting to renovate the old brick houses around it. “So many great artists grew up here and went to this playground,” Quinones said. He assured Mendez that he would support the new initiative.

Mendez felt that Rodriguez had been ignored in the borough. “Tito Puente had a street named after him six months after his death,” he said. “La Lupe has her own street in the Bronx. All these other Latin artists have places named after them. Why not Arsenio? He founded modern salsa. And isn’t the Bronx proclaiming itself the neighborhood of salsa?”

The 57-year-old New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent is a Rodriguez fan turned expert. His apartment on the Upper East Side looks like a music library. On the walls are posters and paintings of musicians playing guitars and drums. Folders, files, CDs and pictures with information about Rodriguez’s life fill his drawers and flood his living room table. When Mendez starts speaking about Rodriguez’s life, he doesn’t stop. He explains that Rodriguez was born in Cuba in 1911 as a descendant of Congolese slaves and grew up listening to African songs.

Arsenio Rodriguez recording a song in a studio. (JOSE RAFAEL MENDEZ JR./The Bronx Ink)

Arsenio Rodriguez recording a song in a studio. (JOSE RAFAEL MENDEZ JR./The Bronx Ink)

In the 1930s, performing with bands in pre-revolutionary Cuba, Rodriguez merged African and Cuban rhythms. His instrument was the tres, a guitar with only three sets of three strings as opposed to six on a standard guitar. All these sounds, Mendez says, became major components of the style of music called salsa.

Aside from the music, there is a special detail that connects Mendez with Rodriguez. Rodriguez went blind after he got hit by a horse as a kid. Mendez’s father lost his eyesight 20 years ago. “I feel like I can relate,” Mendez said. “His music resonates inside me.”

Mendez lowers his voice when he admits that Rodriguez also lived in Los Angeles, but raises his voice again to emphasize that his idol lived in the Hunts Point and Longwood sections of the Bronx for many years. He performed in places whose names are just memories now:  Club Cubano in Prospect Avenue, Club Tropicana in Westchester Avenue or Hunts Point Palace, whose big corner building on Southern Boulevard today hosts a Duane Reade.

In all these places, Cubans and Puerto Ricans once celebrated Latin music together. But it took the Puerto Ricans to start the initiative to honor Rodriguez.

Mendez hesitates when he talks about the reasons for that. “Only rumors,” he said. There was talk about Rodriguez not choosing sides during the Cuban Revolution like many exiled Cubans, talk about Rodriguez being black and many Cubans in the Bronx being white. But he doesn’t want to make too big of a deal out of it. “In the end it doesn’t matter who did what and what not,” he said. “It’s not about being Puerto Rican versus being Cuban. We’re all Latinos. Arsenio symbolized that mixture with his music and his personality. He hired many Puerto Ricans in his band.  But there were also black Cubans and black Venezuelans. This is about great music and honoring it.”

David Garcia, a musicologist, salsa expert and professor at the department of music at University of North Carolina,  is also cautious when talking about racial issues in salsa. He sees a simpler explanation: “Puerto Ricans were just one of the biggest Latino groups in the South Bronx of the ’70s. They grew up with Rodriguez’s music. Of course there are more people of that group that could value his cultural contributions.”

Rafael Mendez archived every step of his initiative to rename the street. Photo: Hinzel

Rafael Mendez archived every step of his initiative to rename the street. (JAN HENDRIK HINZEL/The Bronx Ink)

In Mendez’s folders, there are maps of various South Bronx neighborhoods. Using a yellow marker, he has drawn lines in them with anchor points that represent important stages in Rodriguez’s life. One of those points is Kelly Street, where Rodriguez lived; another is a location where he used to perform. Still another one is a temporary home. The lines cross at the intersection of Intervale Avenue and Dawson Street,” Mendez said. “This is the center of his life in the Bronx,” and the intersection that will be renamed.

The intersection was supposed to be renamed on Aug. 29: Mendez and the other Rodriguez fans gathered to celebrate the musician’s 101st birthday 42 years after his death. They even flew in from Cuba Rodriguez’s daughter by an earlier marriage, Regla Maria Travieso Montessini. Mendez had tracked her down.

But the re-naming had to be postponed because the city hadn’t yet given official permission. “Well, the mills of government are slow,” Mendez said. But he is patient.

“I’m that kind of research guy,” Mendez said. “A shy guy, the guy in the background. But on this initiative, I had to run at the front.” He seems still upset that Rodriguez’s  musical achievements haven’t been acknowledged. “Rodriguez even dedicated a song to the Bronx: La gente del Bronx, which translates to people of the Bronx.”

Bobby Sanabria practices Latin music with his students at the Manhattan School of Music. Photo: Hinzel

Bobby Sanabria practices Latin music with his students at the Manhattan School of Music. (JAN HENDRIK HINZEL/The Bronx Ink)

Indeed, Rodriguez’s influence continues today. Bobby Sanabria, who also supports the street renaming, rehearses in a studio at the Manhattan School of Music in Morningside Heights, where he plays Afro-Cuban jazz pieces with students. “There aren’t too many young people into this sort of music,” said the multiple Latin-Grammy nominee. “They’re more into hip hop.” But he says Rodriguez’s legacy is everywhere in modern Latin music. “Arsenio Rodriguez has the same importance in salsa that Louis Armstrong has in jazz,” he said.

Many jazz teachers have their students listen to Armstrong. It’s the same for Rodriguez and Cuban music, explains musicologist David Garcia. Rodriguez did more than just set the path for the development of salsa, Garcia said. Rodriquez defined the trumpet play for modern salsa and was famous for his specific style using conga and bongo drums. Yet, modern salsa did not evolve out of Rodriquez’s  achievements alone, Garcia said.  “In music you can rarely give credit to one musician,” he said. “It all develops and emerges constantly. Often it is a collection of musicians of the same culture or area.”

That collaboration is also Rodriguez’s legacy. After a recent rehearsal with his students, Sanabria sat in his car listening to his own latest album “multiverse.” The first piece has parts of Rodriguez’s music, accompanied by Bronx rap artist La Bruja. He remained parked at the side of Broadway, turning up the volume. When the song was over, he started the engine, and drove back to his Bronx home.

The rhythms of salsa resonate in the Bronx, Mendez said. Salsa means home.

“Whether we are in Puerto Rico or here, we listen to the same stuff.” But the Bronx, he thinks, is a special place. “There is something about the people here,” he said. “They may not know how to pronounce artistic concepts, they may not know how to explain things. But they feel culture. They eat culture.”

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BronxInk at Paseo

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Paseo: Dancing Along the South Bronx Culture Trail

Dancing in the Streets from Adam Perez on Vimeo.

Arthur Aviles is a professional dancer, who often performs center stage at venues like the Bronx Academy Arts and Dance.

But on one cloudy Wednesday morning in Hunts Point, the muscular modern dancer could be found rehearsing on the ledge above the door of an abandoned shop in the historical district of Longwood.

Fifty feet below on Beck Street, choreographer Joanna Haigood directed the Bronx native’s moves, as a Latin version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” blasted from a boom box on the sidewalk.

At one moment, Haigood told Aviles to push off the wall and lean off the ledge.  She drew two concurrent circles in the air, demonstrating how he could use the space around him.

Then the San Francisco-based choreographer lunged up the fence, grabbed the iron-clad bars that cover the cement-filled windows and pulled herself onto the awning to demonstrate.

“It’s different from the stage,” Haigood said sitting next to Aviles overlooking the street. “It’s a lot smaller and you need more control.”

Local artist Arthur Aviles co-founded BAAD! The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance  JAN HENDRIK HINZEL/ Bronxink

Both Avives and Haigood are some of the artists involved in Saturday’s “Paseo,” an interactive South Bronx culture trail designed for a roving audience to celebrate the rich cultural history of the Hunts Point and Longwood sections of the Bronx.

“I think the older people who live here are aware of the cultural richness of the place,” said Aviva Davidson, organizer of Paseo and executive director of Dancing in the Streets, an organization that promotes the Bronx’s dance history. “A lot of the younger people or people who just recently moved here don’t know much about it.”

Paseo is a part of The South Bronx Culture Trail’s two-year initiative organized by Dancing in the Streets and Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education to highlight historical locations in the community. The South Bronx Culture Trail, which is mainly financed by the Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation fund, will link known and lesser-known places in the Bronx where some of the borough’s well known artists got their start.

More than 80 dancers, musicians, poets, and actors, including more than 30 community members of all ages are expected to participate in the various live reenactments of historical scenes from the South Bronx that took place between 1945 and 1970.

Audience members are expected to see performances on fire escapes, alleys, bodegas, laundromats, and beauty salons over the span of 11 blocks from Casita Maria through Intervale Avenue and Beck Street, ending at the playground at P.S. 52.

Bronx Hall of Fame inductee and multi-Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria coordinated all the music performances for Paseo, tracing back the community’s musical history from Salsa and Latin Jazz. From Arsenio Rodriguez, one of the founders of Salsa and Cuban Jazz to “The Last Mambo” King Orlando Marin.

Haigood, whose work focuses on site-specific dances, crafted the dance pieces during her multiple walks through Hunts Point and Longwood and discussions with many current and former residents.

“The purpose of the piece is to expose people who are not from the community to the richness of this area,” Haigood said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of incredible energy here,”Haigood said. “Some of the most extraordinary artists have grown up here and they have invented and created forms of music and dance that have been practiced all over the world.”

Joanna Haigood incorporates local residents into her performances, building on her 32-year dance career. ADAM PEREZ/ Bronx Ink

The event will begin at Casita Maria, 928 Simpson St. at 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 6, 2012.  Players from the band, LosPleneros de La 21 will lead participants through Hunts Point and Longwood’s main streets and will end at 5:30 p.m. at P.S. 52. There a dance party will be held, led by Sanabria’s nine-piece ensemble, Ascension.  Admission is free. The audience can join the Paseo at any point along the route.

The Bronx Ink staff will be live-tweeting the event with the hashtag #paseo.


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Boy falls to his death from apartment window

A four-year-old boy fell from an apartment window and died in the Concourse Village section of the Bronx on Saturday afternoon.

Gabriel Estevez was on the fourth-floor apartment of a building on East 161st Street while his mother was at the Laundromat, neighbors say. People heard the boy screaming and tried heading to the building in time to catch the boy in case he would fall, but they didn’t make it in time.

The windows of the apartment don’t have window guards but there are radiators right below them, neighbors told NY1. The radiators would make it easy for an unsupervised child to climb up to the window.

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Bronx District Attorney Curbs Stop-and-Frisk Abuses

Angelo Meneses, 17, protested the New York City Police Department’s Stop and Frisk policies at a rally held by the New York Civil Liberties Union at City Hall. (JIKA GONZALEZ/ The Bronx Ink)

The Bronx District Attorney’s office became the first in the city to openly question the validity of some stop-and-frisk arrests, by requiring police officers to verify each one in person before charges are rendered.

In the past, arresting police officers had to fill out a sworn statement and routine paperwork. Now, officers will now also have to prove under questioning that the suspect was not a resident or an invited guest in the housing project. The policy has been in place in the Bronx since July, as first reported by the New York Times.

“It’s a great step and it shows that the community pressure can no longer be ignored,” said Jose La Salle, a community organizer with Stop Stop & Frisk, a police reform advocacy group. “People don’t really know yet, but it’s up to the community to let the community know.”

The policy’s objective is to “seek the truth” and give prosecutors a better understanding of the cases before they lay charges, said Steven Reed, spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson.

“When we don’t have the ability to question the officer as to the specifics, we don’t always get the complete picture of what occurred,” he wrote in an email to the

Reed also said his office discussed the policy with other district attorneys and with police before it was implemented. He declined to comment further due to ongoing litigation.

Legal and community advocates in the Bronx responded with guarded relief. “The Bronx District Attorney’s Office found what we have seen on the ground for years–a pattern of unlawful arrests resulting from the NYPD’s policies that target young men of color,” said Robin Steinberg, executive director of The Bronx Defenders, a non-profit legal aid organization.

Police data shows that young black men represent 26 percent of NYPD stops, but only 2 percent of the city’s population. Latino men make up 16 percent of the stops, but only 3 percent of the city’s population.

“It’s about time that a prosecutor finally had the courage to stand up to the NYPD,” Steinberg said.

Numbers from August show misdemeanor trespassing cases in the Bronx have dropped by almost 25 percent, which suggests the new policy may be having a dramatic effect.  Total trespass arrests have also declined in the Bronx since this time last year, dropping by more than 38 percent.

In other boroughs like Manhattan and Brooklyn, the number of cases declined by only 5 percent since last August. In Queens, trespass arrests actually saw an increase over the same time frame.

District attorneys in the other four boroughs have not commented on Johnson’s policy change.

Community activists hope the other boroughs will follow suit.  Bronx prosecutors “are starting to see that they can’t stand behind the NYPD,” said Andrea Ritchie, a civil rights attorney with Streetwise & Safe. “They don’t want to waste their time prosecuting people for no reason.”

The move is a step in the right direction, said Tomasina Sams Riddick, co-founder of the Black Law Enforcement Alliance, a nonprofit civil rights group that advocates fair law enforcement practices for people of color. She said the move highlights the current need to execute stop-and-frisk “appropriately” and puts more responsibility on police to arrest with a reason.

FURTHER READING: Sounding Off Stop and Frisk: Bronx Ink reporters fanned out over 12 neighborhoods last week to capture the stories and thoughts from Bronx residents about law enforcement tactics.


Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Former Featured, Front Page, Housing, Sizing up Stop and Frisk1 Comment

Woman’s body found in plastic container on street – Son charged for murder

The body of a dead woman was found in a plastic storage container on 1460 Macombs Road in the Mt. Eden section of the Bronx at about 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Police said a building superintendent found Tihesha Savage, 34, with a gunshot wound in the back of her head, the New York Daily News reported.

Police arrested Savage’s 16-year-old son Darwin Jackson. They charged him with second-degree murder, manslaughter and criminal weapons possession.

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District attorney’s office curbs prosecutions from police stop-and-frisk arrests

The Bronx district attorney’s office has stopped prosecuting people arrested for trespassing at public housing projects, unless the arresting officer can prove in person that the arrest was warranted, the New York Times reports.

This policy has been in place since July, when prosecutors realized that many people arrested for trespassing were not guilty. Often, police officers wrote statements that said the opposite.

It is the first time that a city district attorney’s office has publicly questioned arrests resulting from stop-and-frisk tactics.

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Hunts Point Residents March to Raise HIV Awareness

About a Hunts Point residents marched from Southern Boulevard to Riverside Park to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.

About 100 Hunts Point residents marched from Southern Boulevard to Riverside Park to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. (ADAM PEREZ/The Bronx Ink)

Orlando Torres III looks like the kind of guy who doesn’t back down from a challenge. At 49, he’s six feet tall with broad shoulders and long legs. But his tough appearance is deceptive. Every morning, Torres has to swallow three different medications: Norvir, Truvada and  Viramune to keep his body’s defense mechanism working. He has been HIV positive for more than two decades.

On Saturday morning, he joined a group of Hunts Point residents, activists and people living with HIV/AIDS. They gathered at Southern Boulevard for the first AIDS Walk in the history of the neighborhood. The goal of the march was to raise awareness about the disease. About 2.3 percent of all residents in the Hunts Point and Mott Haven section of the Bronx were living with HIV or AIDS in 2010, according to data from the New York City Health Department. Yet, many people still don’t know much about the virus.

Torres says that by the time he was 21 years old, he had been a sex worker and deeply involved in the drug lifestyle. He had been charged for 68 convictions and three felonies over the course of his criminal career, among them burglary. While in prison, Torres says he discovered he was HIV positive. That was in 1992, but his doctor estimated he probably became infected in 1984.

When Torres left prison after eight years, he went to a probation-mandated 90-day substance abuse program, where he began his HIV education. Now, he wants to tell others about the dangers of unprotected sex or drug abuse. But he also wants to fight the stigma faced by people living with HIV.

“HIV is not who I am,” Torres said.  “Just like HIV doesn’t define me. What defines me is me. If you don’t own yourself, how can you own anything else?”

HIV rates in the Bronx are about 1.7 percent of the overall population, according to 2007 data from the New York Department of Health. In New York City, the prevalence is 1.4 percent.

The 2.3 percent HIV infection rate in Hunts Point is similar to developing countries like Haiti or Ethiopia. In Hunts Point and Mott Haven, 3,131 people were living with HIV or AIDS in 2010. About 61 percent of them were Hispanic like Torres, whose family comes from Puerto Rico. Blacks make up 36 percent, while 2.4 percent of Bronx residents with HIV are white.

There is no updated data available, said Soraya Pares, program manager at the Community Healthcare Network, a group of non-profit community health centers.  But Pares says she doesn’t expect the numbers to change much this year.

Pares thinks the main reason for the high infection rate in the Bronx is a lack of education about how the virus is transmitted. She says many people with HIV in Hunts Point have drug problems and may have been infected with used syringes. The New York Health Department’s statistics show that most people get HIV/AIDS through sexual intercourse.“When people look healthy, their potential partners tend to think there is nothing wrong with them,” Pares said. “Then they don’t use protection. But you can’t see if someone has HIV or not until the AIDS virus breaks out.”

HIV is so common in Hunts Point that almost every member of Community Board 2 knows someone who has been affected. Milli Colon, 59, a board member who organized the AIDS Walk, has lost 17 friends or family members to AIDS. Her brother died from it and her niece is fighting “full blown-AIDS” at the moment, she said.

“I’ve reached my mission with this event,” Colon said.

But there’s still a lot of work to do, she said. People with HIV are stigmatized, even by their own families, she explained, and don’t want to get tested.

During the march, she sat in the truck at the head of the parade. Through loudspeakers, she addressed the crowd of about 180 people walking behind the truck.

“I’m proud of you for coming out today,” she said.  “I’m proud we are fighting the stigma together.”

Torres walked a few feet behind the truck.

“We can’t conserve life by keeping secrets,” he said.

The truck drove on, playing loud salsa music. A man danced in the street between the truck and the crowd. People stopped at the sidewalks and watched while other residents looked down from the windows of apartment buildings.  Some of them waived at the marchers, acknowledging their presence, but they didn’t join the walk or comment. Still, for one day at least, HIV was out in the open in Hunts Point.

Adam Perez contributed reporting.

Walkers were wearing red ribbons to show solidarity with residents infected by HIV.

Participants wore red ribbons to symbolize their solidarity with Hunts Point residents infected by HIV. (ADAM PEREZ/The Bronx Ink)


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