Going back to the 1970s, the Bronx, especially the southern part of the borough, was looked upon by many as an impoverished community, home to men and women that did and sold drugs, criminals who went in and out of prison, pregnant teenagers, and abused and neglected children. Due to such stereotypes, many people to this day frown upon this borough for its disparaging reputation. However, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s best-selling non-fiction book, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx (2003), makes us aware of the intricacies that surround such a claim. LeBlanc relies on the notions of an ongoing cycle of poverty, criminality, and child neglect as a result of teenage pregnancy to tell her story of several Latino families living on the edge in the Bronx during the 1980s and ’90s. Both men and women struggle to escape this cycle, which clearly disables them from attaining a better life for themselves and their families.
To my amazement, it took LeBlanc more than 10 years of research and interviews to publish her book, Random Family. Even though LeBlanc was not a Bronx resident, she spent time with the families she shadows and says she was present for most of the events mentioned in the book. LeBlanc does a wonderful job in bringing her characters’ stories to life and does not include herself in the narrative. The book is primarily an account of two girls: Jessica, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican who lives on Tremont Avenue, and Coco, who is also Puerto Rican, and is first introduced to us as a 14 year old living in Morris Heights. Both these teenagers face challenges with their romantic relationships because there is an influx of men going in and out of their lives. The men, often involved in the drug trade, either leave the girls for other women or end up in prison. As a result, both Jessica and Coco give birth to children with multiple fathers and struggle to raise them on their own. Jessica’s first child, Serena, is raised in part by her mother, Lourdes, a cocaine addict, while Jessica’s twins, Brittany and Stephanie, are raised by her friend Milagros. Unlike Jessica, Coco tries to take care of all her kids by herself even when she faces homelessness. The central male character in the book is Jessica’s half-brother Cesar, who illustrates the sad cycle of criminality, as he grows up watching and then emulating the drug dealers and street gangs. To Cesar, these are his only role models, which is why in order to develop a sense of identity and manhood, he wishes to follow in their footsteps. Over the course of the book, we see Cesar create his own gang and start to engage in criminal activity by getting into fights and stirring up trouble in the community. Eventually, this path leads Cesar to prison for a murder that he did not even commit.
One of the biggest concerns addressed in Random Family is that women and girls are depicted as victims with little agency or control over their lives. The issue of sexual abuse is seen to have affected almost every woman and young girl in the book, committed either by a relative, family friend, neighbor, boyfriend, or a passing acquaintance. One line in the book, in particular, shocked and saddened me: “All the women in Serena’s life had been sexually abused at one time or another, and their upset [over the sexual abuse of Jessica’s two-year-old daughter] seemed to be less about the child’s trauma than the overwhelming need, precipitated by the crisis, to revisit their own” (17). In addition to Serena’s horrific abuse, alluded to here, Jessica herself was sexually abused at a young age by Cesar’s drug-dealing father. Even Lourdes, Jessica’s mother, was abused, and in none of these cases, was anyone ever held responsible.
Viewed in this way, the pattern of abuse can be seen as a generational cycle, going from grandmother to daughter to granddaughter. It is extremely disheartening to hear about situations like this and to learn that no one helped these girls recover and heal. They ended up feeling like they had no control over what happened to them; all they could do was accept the abuse and move on from the trauma by trying to bury it. Yet, by experiencing trauma like this at a young age, most of the girls in the book started sexualizing themselves and ended up having babies while still children themselves. These occurrences seemed to form a pattern within the families, becoming a norm that the girls could not escape from. Because of this norm, teenage pregnancy, instead of being seen as a negative outcome, initially gave many girls in the book a misguided sense of hope of maybe securing a better future, or it made them feel important because they got attention from family and friends.
We see an instance of this toward the end of the book at Serena’s sweet sixteen party when her mother, Jessica, and her grandmother, Lourdes, are trying to educate her about being careful with her boyfriend Derek, who has already got another girl pregnant. Serena is upset and fights against their assumptions, saying: “If I want to have sex, I’m going to have sex. Everybody has sex. They all want me to change. I don’t care what my family, friends, or nobody says about me, I am the way I am and I don’t care!” (393). As adults, Jessica and Lourdes are just trying to prevent Serena from making the same mistakes they made, but it is sad to say that LeBlanc ends Serena’s story by writing, “She would be pregnant within six months” (393). This just goes to show that, regardless of Jessica’s and Lourdes’s good intentions in warning Serena, because of the powerful norms that were present in her family and community—and, one might add, though LeBlanc doesn’t mention this, the lack of adequate women’s reproductive healthcare and education available—Serena’s life was predestined to end up like her mother’s.
LeBlanc describes the Bronx of the 1980s and ‘90s, particularly the West Bronx neighborhoods of Tremont and Mount Hope, which form a border with the South Bronx, as places where Spanish music was heard blaring on radios and car stereos. On the streets, young boys, some of them drug dealers, stood about wearing gold bracelets and chains. Grandmothers and young mothers pushed strollers or carts filled with groceries and laundry (1-2). Apartment buildings were overcrowded, and the apartments themselves were decrepit: chunks of plaster were missing from the walls, and cabinets were filled with roaches (25). These Bronx neighborhoods were also surrounded by abandoned buildings transformed into “hooky houses” by teenagers who skipped school (13). LeBlanc describes how these abandoned buildings were like second homes to teenagers trying to escape from dysfunctional family lives. The teens managed to put sofas in the basement of the buildings and would set up beds, along with weights and punching bags for the boys so they could work out (5). Some other popular spots were Poe Park and Echo Park. These parks were the locations where the young men went to sell drugs and where they would invite their girlfriends to visit them.
While Random Family can paint a bleak picture of Bronx life during this period, it’s important not to blame the people who lived there, especially the children brought up in this environment, for the community’s ills. In fact, LeBlanc’s book identifies entrenched poverty as the key factor limiting many Bronx families’ mobility. Poverty in the borough is seen in the book through the crucial reliance on welfare checks, which mothers needed to pay their bills and feed their children. Most of the time, these checks were not enough to depend on and families went hungry at the end of the month. In 1976, the New York City Mayor’s Office reported that one-third of residents in the district south of Fordham Road were on welfare, while, by 1984, this number had increased to 39% with almost 60% of families living in poverty (Gonzalez 119). Due to such conditions, the male characters in Random Family rebel and turn to crime since it offers an easy way to make fast money. Hardly any characters in the book have a steady or legit job. Part of the reason why is because, as Evelyn Gonzalez reports, “between 1947 and 1976, the city lost 500,000 factory jobs as big and small industries left the city” (118). Also, since most entry-level service jobs have educational requirements, the characters in the book—mostly high school drop-outs often with criminal records—were unable to apply for them. Due to these disadvantages, as well as the long history of discrimination LeBlanc doesn’t touch upon enough, the characters remain immobile and unable to successfully move upward in society. Random Family shows how poverty in the southern part of the Bronx steals hope for a better future from the community and its inhabitants. To a middle-class reader growing up outside these Bronx areas, the lifestyle choices of the characters can sometimes seem irrational. However, LeBlanc strongly stresses the conditions that existed at this time, thus making us feel more sympathetic toward these young people who had no other choice but to find impractical ways to survive such a harsh life.
A particular question that kept bothering me while reading was, “if life was so hard for the Puerto Rican community in the Bronx, then why didn’t they go back home, or why did they move here in the first place?” This question, I came to realize, was based on the misconception that Puerto Ricans had a home to return to. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. colony since 1898 and Puerto Ricans have had U.S. citizenship since 1917 when the Jones Act was passed during World War I. Since then, Puerto Ricans have often migrated to New York City for economic reasons, fleeing poverty and seeking better opportunity for themselves. According to one academic researcher, “In 1940, there were 61,000 Puerto Ricans living in New York City. By 1970, that number had jumped to 817,712 with Puerto Ricans accounting for over 10% of the total population of the city” (Shekitka). So, by the 1980s, Jessica’s family, although Puerto Rican, may already have been living in New York for several generations. There was no Caribbean island for them to return to. The Bronx, and its issues of crime, drug use, poor educational opportunity, unemployment, and the breakdown of the traditionally strong Puerto Rican family structure became these individuals’ new reality.
Unlike any other book which addresses impoverished urban communities, Random Family is an eye-opening text and a MUST READ. It allows readers who have a negative outlook of the Bronx to become more aware of how this cycle of poverty and other intractable issues can be almost impossible to escape from. Readers will develop a more sympathetic viewpoint toward the struggles of teenage moms and incarcerated young men and will get to learn about them on a deeper level. While reading this book, I asked myself whether I would have been able to do any better than Jessica or Coco or Cesar if I had had to deal with the experiences they faced. I can say with confidence that I wouldn’t have been able to, because there was almost no room for opportunity or improvement in the Bronx neighborhoods these characters lived in during the 1980s.
After reading Random Family, I decided to visit a few sites mentioned in the book, one being Echo Park, where much of the drug business described usually occurred. Sadly, it seems like not enough has changed in this area because while I was there, the park did not feel safe. Although I went during the day, there were no children playing. The few people I did observe were drunk; a few men were drinking, while another was passed out on a park bench. The park was also unclean, with garbage, needles, cigarette butts and shards of glass everywhere. So, whether you’re from the Bronx or not, we should all read this book because it allows us to become aware of the recurring problems plaguing our communities. We often choose to neglect or run away from these problems, but for the characters in LeBlanc’s book, there was no other option but to live through them.
Gonzalez, Evelyn. The Bronx: A History. Columbia University Press, 2004.
LeBlanc, Adrian Nicole. Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. Scribner, 2003.
Shekitka, John. “On Arrival: Puerto Ricans in Post-World War II New York.” Teachers College Columbia University, www.tc.columbia.edu/che/whats-new/from-the-archives/on-arrival-puerto-ricans-in-post-world-war-ii-new-york/.
Sana Naeem is a Bronxite and senior at Lehman College pursuing a degree in English literature. Her main goal is to hone her skills as a creative and analytic thinker and writer. She likes to read mystery books and is a fan of William Shakespeare.