In winter, icy winds blast through Harlem like a Puritan spirit. They silence the joyous hustle and bustle of our foreignness and break our will. The neighborhood freezes over with an Anglo-Saxon frown – respectable, remote, morally superior – and us Harlemites tend to ourselves. But as soon as the summer winds arrive, we all head down to the banks of the river to while away our afternoons. There by the river, Harlem bursts into life. It grows like an animalistic, horny flower, each petal a slice of its past.
One afternoon in the year 1600, a tall woman, her skin the color of a redwood tree, throws a stone into the Mahicanituk River. Around her, families of the Wappinger tribe are gathered. The adults fish, the elders busily barter, the children mess about and play, the adolescents look around.
One afternoon in the year 1918, Martín Luis Guzmán writes “A orillas del Hudson” (“On the Banks of the Hudson”) in which he describes a Harlem summer as “a fertile season of sonorous storms.”
One day in 1609, the explorer Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon attempt to kidnap two Wappinger youths who paddle a canoe toward their ship. They fail. A month later, the two youths lead an ambush against Hudson and his bearded invaders. They succeed.
One morning in 2011, a man runs alongside the Hudson River. His arms are slim, dark and strong, and he wears a t-shirt bearing the slogan, “Don’t shoot me! I’m just jogging.” A patrol car drives past, slows down, then carries on.
One Sunday in 2017, the sun comes out and families head down to the banks of the river with their chairs, barbecues and stereos. Old Dominicans play dominoes. Teenagers spit rhymes, roll joints and twerk to the beats of the latest Kendrick Lamar track. A father teaches his daughter to fish, while the mother looks after the barbecue. A group of Hondurans – good-looking, shirtless and tattooed – make up a ball game on an old volleyball court. Sons of Mixtec, Puerto Rican and Guanaca mothers fly kites, not knowing that their grandmothers used to call them papalotes, chiringas, pizcuchas and cometas. Behind the trash cans, adolescents practice French kisses on the backs of their hands.
On the wintry island of Manhattan, we are all strange and foreign. But we’re at home again when summer arrives and we’re reunited with the banks of the Mahicanituk – which translates as “river that flows in two directions.” Like its currents, we are the ones that come and go. We are the latest Kendrick Lamar track, Soprano C, we like to keep it on a high note. We are papalotes and chiringas. We are bachata, reggaeton, trap, ranchera. And when the Henry Hudsons pass by in their patrol cars, we turn up the volume. We are the sonorous storms of the reconquest.