We walk up Wyckoff Avenue. My companion, Modesto ‘Flako’ Jimenez, Bushwick’s theater and poetry wunderkind, is loyal to his moniker flako and also very, very friendly. Our walk is interrupted again and again with heartfelt hellos, holas and hugs. This is his neighborhood and he knows it better than most.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Flako moved to Bushwick as a child with his family. His love for arts, and particularly for theatre, lead him to Bennington College, which he attended on a full scholarship. He used his earnings as a street gang leader to buy books and a mini-fridge for his dorm room.
Now he lives a life of a critically acclaimed actor, writer, producer and arts educator, as well as a life of someone who was raised by Brooklyn streets. With greater or lesser success, his two worlds often collide. Flako, very prolific in his endeavors, works tirelessly to bring the two communities he’s part of together while addressing the negative impacts of gentrification.
Jimenez is the founder and director of Brooklyn Gypsies, an eclectic artist collective made up of New Yorkers both native and immigrant to this city. He has created and produced numerous shows at The Bushwick Starr and elsewhere, such as Yoleros, Ghetto Hors D’oeuvres, or OYE! Avant-Garde. He has been adapting Shakespeare for children around the world, and is a recipient of numerous prizes, including HOLA and ATI. In 2012, he published a bilingual poetry collection “Oye, Para Mi Querido Brooklyn (Listen, For My Dear Brooklyn).”
Through Nov. 26 at The Bushwick Starr, you can see “Fury!/La Furia!,” a play by William Burke translated by Jimenez who also plays a lead role together with Olander “Big O” Wilson. The play tells the story of a street Elmo who rises to power by taking over the 42nd to 46th streets by using “The Art of War.” Tickets are $15.
I sat down with Flako to discuss his life and work.
What is your story?
I came from Dominican Republic when I was nine. My grandmother came in the ‘80s with her man who didn’t want her to work, so she was like: ‘Bye.’ My grandma was a gangster; she didn’t want to be a housewife. One uncle was like, ‘This shit is not for me,’ and went back, my father did the whole drug thing and that just threw his life off, but then I learned from it. So it was all these beautiful battles of immigrants in America.
Have you always lived in Bushwick? Why did your family choose Bushwick?
I don’t think they had a choice. I think that it was just the most affordable situation in New York City. It was all Italians and Germans then. Our landlady was Italian, and the owners would change hands, later we had a Chinese owner, and now we have Jewish owners. It’s the same house on Harman Street.
Oh my god, I went through all these different eras of Bushwick changing—I went through the gang era—that was our day to day: ‘I went to central booking this weekend and you went last weekend, didn’t you? Oh yeah.’ You had to go through central booking.
Yeah, a bunch of times. It’s not something you look forward to, but you know that it’s something that’s going to happen to you.
Let’s go back to you growing up in Bushwick. How did you even start thinking about making art?
It’s not something I decided. I’ve always done it. I’ve always wondered how I can make things beautiful. One of my favorite books was “Curious George,” ‘cause I love how the monkey gets to know a lot of things by trying them and figuring them out. Always embracing the unknown. That’s what I got from those books.
I have always done weird shit. I never was like, ‘I’m trying to be an artist.’ I just accepted it. A couple of weeks ago when I got off the plane in Tokyo, I accepted that I am running to a rehearsal, I also have a whole year of this shit lined up, so I accepted that I’m living this life. I’m working, and that’s all that matters to me. Whatever I’m working on—it might be writing, acting, producing, I want to be part of some shit, and if that comes with that label ‘artist,’ I’ll accept it.
You went to a fancy liberal arts college, right?
Yeah, I went to Bennington College. I didn’t even know it was fancy. They just came to me and were like ‘Do you wanna come here, we like what you’re creating.’
At high school we went up to Bennington College with a play “Romeo & Juliet,” and they were like, ‘We love this, can you come again and bring us other plays?’ So the school kept commissioning pieces like “Hamlet” and “King Lear.” In my senior year in Bushwick high school, I was going around to all the universities and colleges in the New York state doing plays.
I went inside of the Bushwick high school building only for rehearsals. I wasn’t going to math class. I was already a super, super senior and all I needed was one credit from math to graduate but I wasn’t going there because I didn’t want to graduate, I didn’t know what would be afterwards, I didn’t know about college, that was just not something that was taught to us. I didn’t know that that was a possibility, and that’s a big one for low-income communities, that your parents are not teaching you to go to college, they teach you to go to work, because none of them went [to college]. It’s not in their experience, so that’s not something they pass down. They know that if they go to work, they can pay their bills.
That’s the reality of our lives and culture. We don’t have the freedom. It’s now happening in my generation for me. I tell my grandmother: ‘I’m going to Tokyo to dance and it’s all being paid for.’ She still can’t fathom that shit. She’s still like: ‘Who the fuck in their right mind is giving you money to dance?’ And I am just accepting it myself. Yes, I have been in this art game since I was 9 years old. I had been adapting Shakespeare since 15 years old.
How did you even end up doing Shakespeare at a Bushwick high school?
The first play at P.S. 87 was “Wizard of Oz,” and I lost the part because I had an accent. This kid with blue eyes and perfect hair got it. So after that I was like ‘I’m never gonna have accent again.’
The second play was “West Side Story,” which fucked me up, because I was supposed to have an accent. But I didn’t get the part either, and I’ll never forget that my only line in that play was ‘POW’ as Indio. In my head I was like, wait these are Latino lines, I know these lines, but I still don’t get the part?
Who got the part?
The blue-eyed kid again. He kept getting all the parts even if they were for Latinos. It was an Italian teacher, so I don’t know what the fuck she was thinking in her head.
Dealing with all those things as a kid … I was already starting to understand what the art game was, and how I’m supposed to swim through it. As a 9-, 10-year-old kid I realized that speaking with an accent might deny me a job. I’m not even thinking of pay, just of being on the stage. So I was like let me work on it and I used to watch a lot of “Full House” and “Family Matters” to get rid of my ‘accento.’
My first Spanish role happened at the age of 33. Every other role was either Shakespeare or American regional theater—never outside of that box. After college I realized that I don’t need to be in that box, and I can do crazy work.
[College] was literally a moment when I got to be a kid, a teenager, and not a survivor …
How did you fit in at college?
[He laughs.] Being a black Dominican at the whitest state of the Union, speaking Spanish and people were like: ‘What? A black person speaking Spanish?’
The college was great, a moment of freedom that a lot of low-income minorities don’t have. They don’t get to go to a dorm. If they go, they go to a community college and they take one class or two.
I got a full ride. It was a beautiful moment. It was literally a moment when I got to be a kid, a teenager, and not a survivor, because when you’re in New York City you’re day-to-day surviving, especially if you’re a gang member, if you’re living that thug shit.
I knew that gang was my way to surviving in the neighborhood, especially if I was going to do Shakespeare, ’cause if not I was going to get picked on. I had braces, glasses, and was walking around with Shakespeare books, so I ended up running the neighborhood gang.
At the end of the day I was just a geek that read the fucking gang books. That’s it. I wasn’t a big strong kid, I just used what was given to me to live by.
How did you end up running the gang?
Those gangs are being run like governments, so if you read up on all their laws and bylaws and constitutions, you get the power. I knew all those lessons, and the paperwork says that if I know my lessons and you don’t, I can take the power away from you. So at the end of the day I was just a geek that read the fucking gang books. That’s it. I wasn’t a big strong kid, I just used what was given to me to live by.
So it was fun running the gang, because that paid for most of my college—for my mini fridge, for my books. It wasn’t all bad, we were sending people in jail food for example. Of course, it’s all destructive in the end, because you either end up in jail, or dead. But between that there’s a lot of shit that seduces you to stay. If a member is over 18, he has to pay $5 to the leader, if a member is under 18, he pays $3 and there are a couple of thousand gang members, so do the math. It was a business and that’s where I learned a lot of my producing skills.
How did you get out?
It actually took a while. When I came back from the college in 2006 I sat down with big bosses, because I started noticing a lot of clarity to what gang life is, and the destruction that comes with it, like ‘Oh my God, you’re just another 20-something fucked up Latino and you think you run shit, but you’re running absolutely nothing, you’re running another thing that keeps you absolutely stuck. What am I doing?’
You’re black and it comes with all these fucked up ways embedded in your head.
I had a lot of time to read my favorite books, and I saw that we were living “1984,” we were on a loop here accepting all these moments. It’s all about classes and this is how America works. I was able to accept that I come from a hut in Dominican Republic, and you do have a lot of socially awkward issues. You’re black and it comes with all these fucked up ways embedded in your head. We’re taught that this is how you’re supposed to be. It’s been passed on from generation to generation: ‘Don’t even think you can be more than a mechanic, if you think that, you’re gonna hurt yourself.’
And breaking those stigmas, man, it takes a lot. I know I damaged kids because I was a gang leader, and they damaged me. So now I’m like, ‘How can I help at least a few.’ And how can I keep myself happy. Because if you can’t keep yourself happy then you’re not doing anything.
You returned from college. What was the moment when you realized the neighborhood was gentrifying?
I realized it when I noticed that my whole college class lived in Bushwick.
I asked my hood friends to come with me to hang out at ‘a white party.’ My college friends were throwing a lingerie party, and my hood friends were not comfortable seeing women in lingerie and not being able to smack that ass. And that’s the hood mind. Hip hop tells you over and over to smack that bootie, bitch, bitch, bitch, cunt, cunt, cunt, and that’s the life these hood guys live. Some of them don’t even have a momma to tell them that they can’t say bitch and cunt.
Or they don’t know English well enough to understand what those words mean. So we go to this party and I’m not better than them and they’re not better than me, it’s just that we’ve learned different rules for surviving. That’s all. I understand a different level of survival. And I know I no longer live that life. I no longer live the world where if I don’t smack that girl’s ass I’m not a champ. So then I realize, ‘Oh shit, he’s smacking my friend’s ass,’ and I know that girl is now feeling really weird and now she’s giving me that look. And I tell my friend, ‘Don’t do that,’ but he’s like ‘Flako, that’s what we do.’ And that started to happen a lot, it wasn’t happening in college, but now the worlds collided.
The worlds colliding …
That’s my life and I love it, but it’s also a lot of darkness, and depression realizing that I can’t hang out with that dude ever again. That dude can mean jail to me. I don’t know if he has a gun behind the garbage can or on himself, and some of us still live that bang bang shoot him up life. I still have to respect that because I don’t want to get shot or get caught up in some bullshit because I wasn’t paying attention to hood signs.
I’ve been at parties with two or three white girls. At one moment we’re having fun, the next moment, the bottles start flying and someone starts shooting, and I’m like ‘We gotta hit the floor,’ because the only way outta here is us staying low for 20 minutes and making sure that’s it’s over. That happened to me when I was at school and brought my friends to a party in the hood, and then realized, ‘Oh, shit, I wasn’t supposed to bring them here.’
During moments like that I’m like, ‘OK, what’s happening? Can we be here? Is it just two worlds embracing each other?’ And I’ll keep my eyes open for any red flags. Day to day.
Even if you both live in Bushwick and you both have 40 roommates, you’re fair-skinned, so you have more chances and have a higher status than this person who is not.
Yeah, because if not, it means I gave up the battle of having these two worlds talk to each other. These are two groups of people who speak the same language, sometimes don’t, trying to understand each other in the world that already tells you you shouldn’t even speak to one another. One is higher, one is lower, and both have the same amount of money in the bank.
Even if you both live in Bushwick and you both have 40 roommates, you’re fair-skinned, so you have more chances and have a higher status than this person who is not … So all of that shit, I’m just trying to be some middle ground, who is like, ‘Let’s talk. OK, there are no guns around. Communicate.’
Have you seen any good moments, and examples of this communication through your art?
Yes, sure. “Yoleros,” “Ghetto Hors D’oeuvres” show, or “OYE! Avant-Garde” … those helped me a lot. When I see those people from both sides at my shows, I’m like, ‘Nice.’ I offer food, and they don’t have to worry about a bill at the end. All of us are helping each other, from different parts of the world, and then I put up a video online that shows them how they played with each other, and for a moment in time they didn’t think about money, class or any type of weird embedded issue or social construct in their heads.
Both of these worlds are some type of broke artists. People from one world have a diploma and they were told to have some kind of a status, the other one is told that they are nothing, not even an artist, but they are both creating the shame shit. So I let them play with each other, and they understand that, and it’s beautiful fucking magic. One of the best highs I get.
I am just gonna let you know where I’m at, and if we can communicate no matter where you’re from, than that’s a fucking good step.
What’s on your mind these days?
We’re now working on a script about gentrifiers accepting their responsibility. It’s about someone who knows and understands we’re here to talk to each other. ‘Oh, you landed here coming from somewhere, you didn’t know shit about what’s happening here, but you’re now part of it, and you can now either put up a shade and not address it, or you can actually have a conversation with the people you’re displacing.’
Many people who now live in Bushwick, came here because a friend told them that’s it’s affordable, you can live here, and there’s a lot of art. That’s the story of most of the people who came here right from college and made Bushwick into a dorm room town.
But what’s happening now is that some of these people were here for 10 years, and now they’re having kids here and they’re making it into their home. This whole fucking battle … How can I now tell that person that they’re not part of the neighborhood when they’re having a kid here? That’s the whole battle of gentrification … I am just gonna let you know where I’m at and if we can communicate no matter where you’re from, than that’s a fucking good step.
How can this discussion happen?
I am an artist, and all I can do is to put up a show. After the show there will be some food, so we can communicate as artists to artists, as artists to audience. But that’s me. I don’t march. And others, too, should help the way they can—if it is by marching, then march, if it is by getting on the phone with a politician, then do it. Don’t think that you can do it all—it’s better if you can hone your energy towards one thing to make sure you’ve accomplished something positive. Not doing a million things and none of them gets your full attention.
Is today’s Bushwick better or worse than in the past?
Both. There’s a lot more art happening, there’s a lot more kids who get to see it and are able to say, ‘I wanna be that weird,’ there’s more art classes in schools—that part I am super-grateful for. But the other side of the coin is that the realtor is fucking this place and these families up, so eventually it won’t even matter that art keeps happening. That’s the part that I’m still trying to figure out. How do you not fall into that realtor when you’re the one who needs that cheap rent, even though the rent is not even cheap anymore and you have to find three roommates. That’s the part that sucks. It’s all a balancing act. You gotta just figure this shit out. Keep working. Because if you stop working, you’re fucked.
The interview was edited for lengh and clarity.
Cover photo by Katarina Hybenova for Bushwick Daily.