A Letter to a Child Like Me by José Torres
Published in Parade Magazine on February 24, 1991
José Torres was born in an impoverished Barrio in Puerto Rico and rose to become the world light-heavyweight boxing champion in 1965, and, later, to distinguish himself as a writer. We asked Mr. Torres what he would say to a child, someone like the boy he was—we’ll call him Pedrito—facing his future in today’s world.
You’re 13 now, and you must certainly be aware that there are some people in this country who refer to you as “Hispanic.” That is, you’re a member of a “minority group.” You read newspapers and magazines, you watch television, so you know that the world is moving into the 21st century faced with big problems, enormous possibilities, huge mysteries. I worry that you might not be fully prepared for the journey.
The statistics are scary. They show us Hispanics facing a sea of trouble. The United States has 250 million people, a little more than 20 million of whom are of Hispanic descent. That’s only 8 percent of the nation’s total population. We’re also the youngest ethnic group in the nation. We earn the lowest salaries, and, in cities where we have a large concentration of Hispanics, we have the highest school dropout rate. In New York City, for example, we comprise 25.7 percent of the high school dropouts, 42.7 percent of pregnant teenagers and 8.9 percent of the unemployed.
It should not be too hard for you to understand, my friend, that these statistics hurt us a lot. That means that many of our young people end up badly, as both victims and perpetrators. Some blame us for these conditions, despite our miniscule stock in this country and the fact the overwhelming majority of us are hardworking, decent, law-abiding citizens.
Still, you should realize that the world is not made up of statistics, but of individuals. By the year 2030, you’ll be my age, and what you do now is going to determine what you’ll be doing then.
I’ve had my defeats; I’ve made my share of mistakes. But I’ve also learned something along the way. Let me tell you about a few of them. You didn’t ask for this advice, but I’m going to give it to you anyway.
Let’s start with the fundamental human problem, and I don’t mean race or religion or origin. I mean fear. Fright, my young friend, may be the first serious enemy you have to face in our society. It’s the most destructive emotional bogeyman there is. Cold feet, panic, depression, and violence are all symptoms of fear—when it’s out of control. But this feeling, ironically, can also trigger courage, alertness, objectivity. You must learn not to try to rid yourself of this basic human emotion but to manipulate it for your own advantage. You cannot surrender to fear, but you can use it as a kind of fuel. Once you learn how to control fear—to make it work for you—it will become one of your best friends.
I learned this the hard way. I was a boxer. I became a world champion, but on my way up the ladder I found Frankie Kid Anslem, a tough young Philadelphian made of steel. The match proceeded, to my increasing dismay, with me hitting and Anslem smiling. At one point, I remember, I let go a particularly left hook-right cross combination. The punches landed flush on his jaw, but he simply riposted with a smile—and some hard leather of his own.
Suddenly, I found myself struggling for my life. I was afraid. For two rounds—the eight and the ninth—Anslem and I seemed contestants in an evil struggle. My punches seemed to give him energy and pleasure! Unexpectedly, my chest began to burn, my legs weakened, my lungs gasped for air. I felt exhausted. I was dying! Thoughts of defeat and humiliation assailed me. I was grappling with these facts when I saw Anslem’s jaw exposed and, reaching from somewhere beyond my terror, I threw a straight right with all my might. And Anslem lost his smile and dropped like an old shoe.
My fatigue disappeared. I felt good, happy, invigorated. Fear had overtaken me, been recognized, then resolved and manipulated for a positive result.
I was obliged to learn about handling fear through the brutal trade of boxing. I didn’t have the option now open to you, my young friend. I was one of seven poor kids who lived under many layers of an underdeveloped subculture. I chose a tough profession because two black boxers—a heavyweight champion named Joe Louis, and a middleweight marvel called Sugar Ray Robinson—showed me the way. They lived far away from my hometown in Puerto Rico. But I knew them. I wanted to be like them.
Looking back, I wonder what my choice would have been if real alternatives had been available when I was your age. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very proud of my first profession. To be recognized as the best in the world at what you do, even if only for a moment, is a wonderful experience. Still, I was very much aware that boxing was a temporary activity intended only for the young. And so I had a pretty good idea of what your choice should not be if you’re given a chance to become an artist, a corporate executive, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a writer, or a prizefighter—though it should be my choice.
Whatever your ambition, you must educate yourself. School is a great gift our society offers you. It provides the key for your future. You must accept this gift, not disdain it. School is where you’ll learn about your country and your world and your life in both. You also discover the conflicts and contradictions of history. You’ll unlock the treasure chest of the world’s literature and begin to sense the beauty of music and art. You’ll acquire the tools of abstract thinking, of science and mathematics—and the computer, perhaps the primary instrument of the world you’ll inherit.
At home, you should learn about compassion and dignity and care. You should realize that the workings of an individual’s heart and soul can be as important as the histories of the great battles, military generals, dictators and kings. Most of all, you should learn that it’s you who are responsible for your future.
There is a basic principle you should never forget: Don’t be ruled by other people’s low expectation of you! It almost happened to me. I grew up in Playa de Ponce, a small barrio in the southern part of Puerto Rico, an island 100 miles long and 35 miles wide, with a dense population today of more than 3.3 million— 1,000 human beings per square mile. I was only five when I first noticed the American military men—many of them tall, blond, and blue-eyed—wearing a variety of uniforms, roaming the streets of my neighborhood and picking up the prettiest girls. They seemed to own Playa de Ponce. Their attitude in the streets and their country’s constant military victories, which we witnessed at the movie houses, became symbols of these young men’s “obvious superiority.” By comparison, we Puerto Ricans felt limited, inadequate.
To catch up, I volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army as soon as I became of age. And, for some mysterious reason, I joined its boxing team. My first four opponents were two compatriots and two black men from the Virgin islands, all of whom I had no trouble disposing of. But just before my fifth fight—against one of those tall, blond, blue-eyed “superior” American soldiers, doubt started to creep into my mind. Yet, despite my worries, after three rounds of tough boxing, I overcame. I won! I had discovered the equality of the human race.
Your best defense against the ignorance of bigots and haters is pride in your own heritage. That’s why you must learn your own history. Do it now. Don’t wait until you are in college. You don’t need teachers. Go to the library. Ask your parents and relatives and friends.
Be proud of your ethnicity and language. Don’t be afraid to use it. Don’t give up to the stupidity of those know-nothings who insist one language is better than two or three. You should know, and be proud, that in the Western Hemisphere more people speak Spanish than English; that Español was the language of the Hemisphere’s first university—the Santo Tomas de Aquino University in the Dominican Republic, founded in 1538—and of the books in its first library. When you discover the long and honorable tradition to which you belong, your pride will soar.
So do not lose the language of your parents, which is also yours. Instead, refine your skill in it. If you’re having trouble with grammar or writing, take courses in Spanish. Go to the library and read Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the first full-fledged novel, or the works of the hundreds of great modern Hispanic authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, Lola Rodriguez de Tió, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Oscar Hijuelos, the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction (who writes in English). Read them in both languages; know the strength of both. This is the treasure that no one can ever beat.
Puerto Rico is a nearly imperceptible dot on the map, my friend. Still, this small island recently had five boxing champions at the same time. And consider this: Baseball star Reggie Jackson; the great entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.; Dr. Joaquin Balaguer, poet, writer and six-time president of the Dominican Republic; the renowned cellist Pablo Casals all had one thing in common—one of their parents was Puerto Rican. The film and stage star Rita Moreno, a Puerto Rican, is one of the few performers ever to win an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy, and an Emmy award. José Ferrer, a proud Puerto Rican, was once selected as the American citizen with the finest English diction in the United States. Ferrer also won an Oscar for his brilliant performance in the classic film Cyrano de Bergerac. Dr. Raul García Rinaldi, a physician of world prominence and a native Puerto Rican, made extensive investigation into Black history. In his honor, the New York Public Library system erected the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture.
The contribution of Hispanics to the development of the United States of America has been vast and unquestionable. But much more remains to be done, my friend. Every member of society must work together in order to survive together.
We live in a country where more than 27 million people can’t read or write well enough to take a driving test, and many can’t recognize “danger” or “poison”. Every eight seconds of the school day a student drops out; every sixty seconds a teenager has a baby; every six minutes a child is arrested for drugs; every year, the schools graduate 700,000 who cannot read their diplomas.
Most of them are not Hispanics. Yet, many of these victims are the same people who, day after day, throw themselves in front of a TV set and become passive, docile ghosts, allowing their lives to be easily controlled by others. Television, with its emphasis on package images and quick bites, discourages thought and imagination. Studies indicate that chronic televiewers develop problems with their thinking processes and articulation. Excessive viewing dulls the most indispensable muscle—the brain.
Instead of watching TV, read and write. Words are the symbols of reality, and a well-read person, skilled at decoding those symbols, is better able to comprehend and think about the real world.
Many years ago, the great Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai lay on his deathbed at age 89. Experts say no one could paint better than Hokusai during his prime, and many are convinced that his work is as good as—or better than—today’s top artists. But Hokusai was never satisfied with his triumphs and successes. “If I could live one more year,” he said, “I could learn how to draw.”
You, my young friend, would do well to become like Hokusai—a person who can lead a humble but useful and productive life, free of harm and, most important, free of the influences that generate hate, murder, suicide, and death. If you choose to spend your time not reading, thinking, and creating, but watching TV and learning how to deceive, cheat, and lie, then you become another person out there perpetuating the cycle of ignorance that leads to poverty, suffering, and despair. But if you commit yourself to a lifetime of honest work—if you assure yourself that a day in which you are unable to produce anything positive is a tragically misspent day—then, my friend, the 21st century is yours.
Go and get it!