The Great Ardito and a Glimpse at The Class of ’78!

Rafael Román Martel

As June closes in on 2008, thick winds stretch the lungs of 18th Street. New York Avenue is one breath away from youth- never gone, never too far- as the two corners meet in generations of young men and women whose point of intersection was much more than a high school diploma.

As my eyes come and go in a span of thirty years, I stand in the same corner as in 1978 with all the baggage implied since I had left, like most, and now I was back to reconstruct broken photographs locked in the beats of the 70’s, far deeper than most can imagine today.

We were the Class of 1978. As freshmen many of us were immigrants, coming from a strange planet where freedom was prohibited and its exercise a harshly punishable crime.

In 1974, a Cuban exile community was brewing a new beginning. We were not only met with the challenges of the language and cultural barriers; those of us who would never forget carried the fresh wounds of being born and growing up under a Communist dictatorship. Even though we would spend most of our time dreaming of Cuba, hoping to come back to a free homeland, we would grow up and learn the American way in this Northeastern part of the Great Country. Union City seemed to welcome us. Well, most of it.

Across New York Avenue there was a Dairy Queen. Along that sidewalk where today stands the school gym, houses rubbed shoulders with each other, culminating at The Yellow Submarine, a sort of American diner influenced by 60’s pop culture. Bridging the ice cream shop and the diner stood Burner’s Grocery and Deli. A laundromat filled the corner of today’s De Palma.

Traffic was soft and people were polite at a time when kindness didn’t have to be hidden. Fear wasn’t a factor that made the young walk in primal ways and throw hand signs and constantly curse as a way of expression.

As prices increased, a slice of pizza went from 15 to 25 cents between ‘74 and ‘78. Richard Ardito, born and raised in Union City, recalls with a certain air of nostalgia the nickel his father paid in parking meter fees during the 50’s, the 90 cents he would pay for a pizza pie, and the meager 19 cents a gallon of gasoline cost at the time. Two movies, cartoons, and occasionally live music at the theater would cost an uncomfortable 35 cents, enough to make some complain about the rising cost of living in Union City.

Things would get tough in the 60’s when a slice of pizza and a soda hit an all-time high: a quarter.

Ardito graduated from Sarah M. Gilmore Grammar School on Seventeenth Street; so did I, years later. When in 1965 he earned a High School Diploma at Emerson, there were 5 Cubans in his class. In 1969 he came back as a teacher at Gilmore: half of his students were Cubans.

By the early 70’s Dade County, Florida had less Cubans than Union City and West New York combined, yet they received federal aide. The local elected officials here moved to follow their Florida counterparts.

In May ‘73, Mr. Ardito became an Assistant Coach for the Emerson Baseball Team. In 1974, more than 50% of the Emerson High School students were Cubans. It was the beginning of the rebirth of Bergenline Avenue. As many welcomed the Cuban community and a minority rejected them Ardito recalls, “I always saw them as an extremely industrious people. They would work in a factory and three years later they owned it.”

Ardito and an army of Italian- and Irish-American teachers, as well as a few Cubans who started their careers in the early 70’s- Ms. Villegas and Ms. Vazquez, just to name two- would play a pivotal role in the lives of that generation now known as Cuban-Americans.

Cubans were beginning to fill the Union City boat. On the corner of 17th Street and New York Ave, El Tío sold “Cuban Sandwiches” for a dollar. They were the worst Cuban sandwiches I’ve ever tasted, but what the heck? Cuban Sandwiches for a dollar? It didn’t really matter that they were filled with a piece of the cheapest ham, a slice of tomato, and melted American cheese. El Tío must have bought a mansion with those terrible tacos, because most Cubans- now beginning the road to Cuban-Americanism- crowded the small candy store that stood open until 2005.

The options were scarce. Most of us did not have enough money for a proper lunch. The ones that had just come from Cuba didn’t dare go to the Pizzeria, just in case they asked us a question and we would inevitably embarrass the hell out of ourselves by looking like Cubans who had just come from Cuba, and end up in the worst situation: being forced to ask another Cuban who spoke English to come to our aid. Another option, for the poorest of us, was the free lunch. First of all, there was no cafeteria. A heavily built lady would take your ticket and throw a piece of bread with a slice of bologna and mustard at you. The sound the bread made on the counter told the story. She then gave you a small container of apple juice. What the more sophisticated Cubans- the ones that made terrible faces when you mentioned the school lunch because they had escaped Cuba in the late 60’s- didn’t know was that in Cuba there was no bologna, much less apple juice. My freshman year I was grateful for my school lunch.

Meanwhile El Tío sold hundreds of sandwiches every day. During the four years I was a student at Emerson he must have bought a yacht with the easy taste of his young and naive compatriots. He also behaved like a very nice guy- The Uncle, you know, the uncle that instead of giving you a dollar, took one from you. But I’ll concede him something: the slice of tomato was almost fresh.

During our high school years, the disco fever influenced a whole generation. Even old people wanted to disco. Flower shirts, the shoes, the hustle, the scene began to take over. America wanted to take an R&R from Watergate, Vietnam and the smell of the sixties. Disco was a reaction to the fakeness of the urban guerrillas- most of them today’s old and grumpy college professors or ambulance chasers for whom the 1968 Democratic Convention or their private local park insurrection rots in a yellowish picture somewhere in the attic. Like most revolutions, both the hippies and disco would devour themselves. Emerson was full of Cubans who were born to dance. Disco became their religion, where every Friday and Saturday night they gave their souls for a great song. By our senior year most students were converted and temples like Starship Discovery 1, Soap Factory, Cameo, Studio 54 (The Real One), Xenon, Limelight, and many other clubs, especially in New York, became sacred ground.

We held dances at the old gym. We sang along to happy tunes. As corny as this sounds today, we refused to take “the frustrations of the ghetto” with us during the only times we had to liberate ourselves from the toughness of the inner cities. For some of us it took on a more serious meaning; we had lived in real ghettos. We had been born and lived under revolution, where daily violence at all scales is the order of the day. We had experienced the rationing card, where we were allowed to buy two pants and two shirts a year. Many chose to forget, or were told to; it’s never easy to face reality. That’s the reason so many Cubans claimed they were from Havana. It was easier to start over as a winner, or at least as a native of a capital. A good part of our generation not only integrated into American society- they threw themselves into it looking for a new identity. For many Cubans the sense of competition erased the sense of nationality. There was nothing to blame for that except their lack of human and patriotic integrity: for some anything was better than being Cuban. As years passed they slowly came back to their roots, already burned by their confusion and the rejection of Cubans who always carried their nationality in their hearts.

Those of us who would never forget how much we suffered under the Castro regime didn’t need to sing about that. We had enough anger to deal with. Putting it into a beat didn’t make much sense. Music was a big part of our generation and the class of 1978 was not to be left behind.

It was during those years that we began to understand America. Some of the phrases I heard were forever engraved in my mind, and were useful at difficult moments. Especially the words of encouragement I heard from some of these teachers; the others we tend to forget just as we learned that even the Communist wounds heal after time. No one will change a Communist nor a racist nor a teacher who was locked in the wrong profession.

The Cuban subculture was different. It had its peculiarities. Young Cubans would judge their countrymen by the car they had, by their ride. The better the ride the more important you were. Hair was big, so the better the hair the better the person. Clothes and shoes played a big part in the opinion other Cubans had of you. The more expensive the clothes, the more important and influential you were. It was part of youth. It was also part of being Cuban. Our American counterparts were slightly different. They were looser, freer people who had other priorities that, if not more important on a Cuban scale, were at least more realistic in American terms. As distant or even hard as some Cubans found the Americans that had roots in this city, they were kind enough to share, even if there was nothing else they could do. Cubans were here to stay.

As it happens to all classes, the class of ‘78 was catapulted into oblivion. Most of us never saw each other again. Most drowned in the melting pot. Others have remained friends through the years and despite distance.

Richard Ardito and his Homeroom 112, 1978

Thirty years after my first year at Emerson, I was back. I had taught in Elizabeth for some time. It was a strange feeling. Sometimes I would walk out of my classes and had the feeling I would find my classmates walking around, laughing and talking in the hallways. I met some of my teachers- still teaching, still committed.

For days that Twilight Zone-ish feeling clung to me between class periods. On my first week I looked up and saw a teacher who had made a difference in my life. He read a book report I had submitted to him and had graded it with a B. As he gave it back, he said “Hey, you can do anything you want if you put mind into it. Go to college! If you work hard you’ll achieve your dreams! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!” It was the Summer of 1978.

In 2004, I stopped The Great Ardito in the hallway. I gave him back the report in pristine condition and said thank you before his astonished eyes. I had kept it and often in tough times, when someone told me “don’t even try it,” I remembered his words. Richard Ardito has been teaching at Emerson for 40 years.

Many of the members of the Class of ‘78 will never forget teachers like him and so many others.

This afternoon I stood on the corner of 18th and New York Ave. for a while. I looked at the old building with a ton of stories. A postcard of America in Union City. As my students passed by, neither they nor Vice Principal Eliseo Aleman nor UC Police Officer Ed Antommarchi, an Emersonian himself, could ever imagine I was, once again, 30 years away with a true feeling of gratitude to the institution and all it represents.


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