2014–2015 CONTEST
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2014–2015 Contest Winners

Evelyn Jones Rich’s stories—about how her earliest jobs (delivering papers, sweeping kitchens and cleaning fish) influenced her long and illustrious career as an educator and an activist—inspired the young authors and artists who won prizes in the sixth year of this CUNY/LaborArts contest. Rich joined Brooklyn College Dean Rich Greenwald and contest sponsor Donald Rubin in congratulating the young artists—their work inspires us all. It displays imagination, thoughtfulness, and an ability to make links between individual lived experience and larger social issues.

Open to CUNY undergraduates, contest entries are judged according to originality, content and style. Student writers and artists both draw upon history, upon close observation of the world them, and upon a wealth of first hand experiences to link their work to the spirit of labor arts.

Poetry winner Mariusz Zubrowski begins his prose poem this way:

Mama pays the bills by the skin of her teeth, the ones that are now rotting. She hides them from other people, especially those who can afford routine check-ups, or maybe are insured. Mama’s never been sure of the path she’s sailed; she tries not to get eaten alive by sharks—her boss the great white in a business suit and two rows of teeth.

Thomas J. Rachko’s essay about the role of organized religion in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike addresses a topic rarely attended to by historians. Evidence is used creatively, with both photographs and oral histories building the argument. For instance: Former sanitation worker James Robinson epitomizes the hardships that sanitation workers faced, “You work out there you needed some kind of prayer or somethin’”

Read them all—you will be moved, surprised, impressed.

We sincerely hope that these young authors and artists continue on with their work—their voices demand to be heard.

Photographs of students and from awards ceremony are by David Rozenblyum.

Thomas J. Rachko Jr.

First Prize, Nonfiction
Thomas J. Rachko Jr.  History and Political Science, Hunter College

Religious Righteousness in the Fight for Labor Rights:
The Role of Organized Religion in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike

Strikers Outside Clayborn Temple, 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike. Audience, 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike.

What was the role of organized religion and spirituality in defining the terms of the strike, coordinating the strike, and sustaining the strike in the fight for union recognition and civil rights?

While the 20th Century saw new hope for workers in the United States through rights gained during wartime efforts and movements towards equality, many workers still faced grave challenges in the workplace. Racialized and genderized notions of labor made such challenges worse for minorities. Even amidst the great promise of the breakthrough legislation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans continued to face discrimination, poor treatment, and lower wages. This was especially true in the South where Jim Crow laws that were an embodiment of the racism and the racial economic oppression of the region existed for nearly a century. Such grievances resulted in the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike. Initially envisioned as a fight for labor rights and union recognition, the strike challenged deeper civil rights issues and thus, became intertwined with the fight for civil rights. Garnering national attention and the eventual involvement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike illuminated the strong ability of the African American community to unite and successfully fight for labor rights, union recognition, and civil rights. The strikers’ fight strongly benefitted from the aid and influence of organized religion and spirituality. In this essay, I will argue that religion and spirituality played a central role in the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike by defining the strike in terms of peaceful and nonviolent protest, coordinating the strike by organizing the strike around the Church and local clergy leaders, and sustaining the strike by acting as a means of support. Throughout this essay, I will distinguish between organized religion which I interpret as the structures, institutions, and clergy leaders from spirituality which I consider as the broader values, feelings, and beliefs that are part of or inspired by religion. Although, there is a distinction between organized religion and spirituality, organized religion and spirituality acted in harmony to profoundly contribute to the success of the Memphis sanitation workers fight for union recognition and civil rights.

Spirituality defined the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike in terms of broader Christian values such as peace, nonviolence, brotherhood, charity, and sacrifice. These values were manifested by organized religion in how the Church and clergy leaders defined that the strike take the form of nonviolent protests, peaceful picketing, marches, and boycotts. By keeping the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike in accordance with Christian spiritual values, religious leaders could acceptably take on leading roles in supporting the movement and call on their congregations to join in fighting for the sanitation workers. Whereas, had the strike been predicated on violence and militancy, it would have been problematic for religious leaders and Church members to support such means that would go against Christian doctrines. In the cases where the strike broke out into violence black ministers were keen on urging restraint from violence and emphasizing that the strike be mediated by peace and nonviolence.

Through common spiritual beliefs it was essential for organized religion to define the strike in terms of pacifism and civil disobedience in order to maintain unity within the African American community. A strong example of the interplay of spirituality and organized religion acting together to define the strike can be found in Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Mountaintop” speech.1 This prophetic speech came following Reverend James Lawson’s call on the great figure of the civil rights movement to come back to Memphis after some violent protest, arguably instigated by police brutality, had broken out. King’s speech is heavily infused with religious references and his use of the parable the “Good Samaritan” particularly, demonstrates the sense of Christian fraternalism and sacrifice that he insists the strike should be defined by. Drawing from and reformulating the parable, King advances, “The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question”. Further, in the photo from the Civil Rights Digital Library titled, “Strikers Outside Clayborn Temple”, there is a sense of the peace, brotherhood, and the centrality of the Church that was so important to the eventual success of the strike.2 African American men are pictured outside of the Clayborn Temple, an African Methodist Episcopal church, and are gathered in support of the strike holding picketing signs with the slogan, “I am a man.” This image reinforces the notion of Christian fraternalism, unity, and the notion of sacrifice to help others, these men are answering the call of Dr. King in his “Mountaintop” speech and are doing so in a manner defined by their spirituality and their commitment to their organized religious institutions.

Drawing from spiritual beliefs that united Church members and the African American community in Memphis, organized religion coordinated the strike using the Church and religious leaders as a foundation for the movement. The Church and religious leaders such as Reverend James Lawson and Reverend Ralph Jackson were a familiar institution and familiar figures in lives of many of those who would come to support the strike. Organized religion coordinated the strike out of churches like the Clayborn Temple and Mason Temple. These religious sites in effect became mass meeting grounds and headquarters for peaceful protests and picketing as well as a starting point for marches to city hall. Preachers took on a huge role in coordinating the strike and could often be found at the forefront of demonstrations; in fighting injustice they were believed to be carrying out “God’s Will”.

In Michael Honey’s oral history book “Black Workers Remember”, sanitation worker Taylor Rodgers expresses the important role of organized religion and religious leaders in coordinating the strike, he says, “With the help of the community and the black leaders and black ministers, that’s when we started to pull everything together. Rev. Ralph Jackson, Reverend James Lawson, a number of other preachers, Reverend Henry Starks, marched with us every day for sixty-eight days”.3 In addition, Rogers explains how Clayborn Temple acted as a starting point for marches, “We marched every day from Clayborn Temple to the city hall and back”. This leadership of ministers, which was crucial to coordinating the strike, is best captured in the image of “Rev. James Lawson” from the Civil Rights Digital Library.4 Lawson is walking poised at the center of the image leading a group of African American men. Some of the men appear to be looking to him with an air of confidence confirming that he truly was their leader and this image shows as Taylor Rodgers said that Reverend Lawson played a central role in helping to “pull everything together”.

Spirituality and organized religion offered a support system and a safety net that the Memphis Sanitation Workers desperately needed in a time when they were out of work in order to fight for their struggle. Again, drawing from spiritual beliefs of fraternal charity, organized religion contributed much needed support by providing food, money, and other resources through donations and sacrificing self-interest in support of the larger community. Taylor Rogers clearly recalled the pillar of support that the Church provided him in his time of need, “My church, the Gospel Temple Baptist Church, helped me out. The churches supported everybody. The churches, the community, and everybody pooled their resources to see that we had food and places to stay”. Further, Rogers describes how such donations worked, “Every Sunday…We’d have mass meetings at Mason Temple and then we’d pass garbage cans around. Those garbage cans were just filled with money. It brought the black community together more so than anything I’ve seen. That’s how we survived”. The image from the Civil Rights Digital Library, “Audience”, illustrates the way that Rogers describes donations were collected.5 Collecting donations in a trashcan symbolized the solidarity of the sanitation workers. The collections of donations were of incredible help to supporting the strike.

The role of the Church and religious leaders as well as spirituality through prayer was something profoundly remembered by sanitation workers. In sustaining the strike Clarence Coe, a unionist and strike supporter, also recalls the support the preachers and the Church provided, “They [preachers] would bring in somebody, and go from church to church raising funds, and so forth, and they weathered that storm”.6 On a more personal spiritual level, former sanitation worker James Robinson epitomizes the hardships that sanitation workers faced, “You work out there you needed some kind of prayer or somethin’”.7 Thus, spirituality in the form of prayer also acted as a way to make it through hard work and to keep one’s spirit up. Organized religion and spirituality played an incredibly important role in sustaining the strike and galvanized the African American community to unite in the fight for sanitation workers and for more wide sweeping civil rights issues.

On Wednesday April 3rd, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King returned to Memphis and delivered his final speech at a rally for the Memphis sanitation workers strike, beautifully put he said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” In many ways the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers was marked by “God’s will” through the efforts and influence of organized religion and spirituality. First, I articulated the role of organized religion and spirituality in defining the terms of the strike particularly by embracing Christian beliefs of peace and nonviolence. I then established the ways organized religion, spirituality, and local clergy leaders coordinated the strike and used religious sites, such as the Mason Temple and Clayborn Temple, as mass meeting grounds for supporters of the strike. Finally, I demonstrated how organized religion and spirituality sustained the strike by acting as a support system providing food, money, and other essential resources to the strikers. Ultimately, the strike, with the great help of organized religion and spirituality, came to unite the African American community of Memphis, and again, as sanitation worker Taylor Rodgers remembers it, “It brought the black community together more so than anything I’ve seen.”

Rev. James Lawson, 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike.
  • 1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Martin Luther King’s Final Speech: ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’—the Full Text,” ABC News, (accessed May 8, 2014).
  • 2. “Strikers Outside Clayborn Temple,” 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike, PS 90012, University of Memphis Libraries Special Collections, Memphis, Tennessee, (accessed May 8, 2014).
  • 3. Taylor Rogers, “Taylor Rogers Relives the Memphis Sanitation Strike,” in Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism and the Freedom Struggle, ed. Michael Honey Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 296.
  • 4. “Rev. James Lawson,” 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike, PS 90012, University of Memphis Libraries Special Collections, Memphis, Tennessee, (accessed May 8, 2014).
  • 5. “Audience,” 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike, PS 90012, University of Memphis Libraries Special Collections, Memphis, Tennessee, (accessed May 8, 2014).
  • 6. Clarence Coe, “Leroy Boyd and Clarence Coe Recall a Strike and the Death of Martin Luther King,” in Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism and the Freedom Struggle, ed. Michael Honey Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 311.
  • 7. James Robinson, “James Robinson Describes the Worst Job He Ever Had,” in Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism and the Freedom Struggle, ed. Michael Honey Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 308.

Anna Misyurenko

Second Prize, Nonfiction
Anna Misyurenko  Health Services Administration, NYC College of Technology

Triple Wave Tuesday

Green Violinist, Mark Chagall.

On Twenty-First Avenue in Brooklyn, between 62th and 63rd Street, is a two-story building with a brown awning, with white lettering on the awning saying Brooklyn Psychiatric Services, P.C.. My office sits between a family practitioner and a blood and drug-testing lab. The office door is always locked; every one who comes in has to ring the doorbell. All day long, the doorbell is ringing. When I get home, I can still hear the doorbell ringing in my ears. It is even worse on a busy day like Tuesday. Once you open the door, you walk in a hallway, which is just big enough for a patient with a wheelchair to come in. It is like a cube that leads you to another door, and then you enter a waiting area with yellowish like mustard colored walls. The color is supposed to remind patients of sunshine. That will help them to relax and calm down. One wall has a giant window from floor to ceiling. Vertical blinds, off white or dirty, I can never tell, cover the window. In the waiting area, sixteen simple but comfortable metal-framed chairs are spread along the walls. By the window are halfway dead palm trees, one in each corner. By the receptionist desk is an old, dusty, outdated tube television hanging high up in the corner. Three Chagall paintings decorate the waiting area: “Music (Green Violinist)”, “I and the Village’” and “Paris through the Window”. The paintings seem nice but, if you take a closer look they are very strange. In “Paris through the Window”, a cat with a human face sits on a windowsill next to a person with two faces, as if the artist is trying to show someone’s split personality. One face is blue, the other yellow, looking very creepy and in the background, you can see the Eiffel Tower. Also people are floating in the air sideways like ghosts. As for the painting “Music”, you can look at it for hours. The violinist has a green face, his hands are different colors, and he is a giant standing on the roofs of the houses. Once again, people are floating sideways in the background. They always remind me that I work with patients that have mental problems.

On Tuesday, the first wave starts at 9am in the morning. The doctor who comes at that time is never happy. It is either too many patients or not enough patients for her. Then, there are times when she makes them wait too long. Sometimes patients start complaining and get mad. It is very hard to keep everyone happy; especially it is true for patients in the mental health field. When patients come in to the office and see more than two people sitting in the waiting area, they start asking questions. Is the doctor here? “How long is the wait?”, “How many people are in front of me?”, “Will the doctor see me on time?” I have to answer all their questions all the time; otherwise, they get mad and start complaining even more. On top of that, the phone never stops ringing. Sometimes, I surprise myself by realizing how much I can tolerate.

At noon, I have the second wave with a new doctor. He is always late, however the patients that attend him love him so much that they never mind waiting for him. He is also the owner of the practice, and my boss. He has a great personality and, if you need any help, he will always go out of his way to help you. Most of his patients are elderly and Russian. When they sit and wait for him, they do not stop talking. Their conversations are almost on anything that comes to mind. Most of them cannot stop talking about Ukraine and what is happening there. They start discussing which side is right and which side is wrong. The conversations get heated because, it becomes clear that either someone talking is from Ukraine or they know someone who is. Then, they split into two groups: two groups on the side of Russia or the side of the Ukraine, and it ends with the big debate. They talk about it so passionately that they start arguing and get mad at each other. Then, they calm down, and stop talking to each other because they expressed their feelings so emotionally. You can practically write a book on all the stories you hear from them. The majority of them are very sweet and kind, and they always try to bring me candies and chocolate bars, which I have always opposed. Since I have worked there for the past nine years, each patient knows me by name. If it happens that they came and I was not in the office, they get very concerned if I am okay. Some people I know have two grandparents from their mother’s side and father’s side. However, since I have never met my grandparents, I feel like I have a hundreds of them now.

In the evening, at five o’clock, I get wave number three. The child and adolescent psychiatrists comes in for two and a half hours. That is when all hell breaks loose. At this time, the office gets crowded and hectic. Apparently, there is a shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrist in New York because I have also patients who come from Staten Island and even from Long Island. Some of them make a two hour commute to come to us. I see kids with autism, behavioral problems, and many other mental problems. One child is talking to himself nonstop, the other one is running, and jumping, the third one is moving back and forth with nonstop humming. As I am doing my job at the same time, my heart is breaking and crumbling from what is happening in the office. One eight-year-old girl who comes in to the office with her father. She suffers from autism and she cannot speak, however, her father understands her by the moaning and growling sounds that she makes. There are times when the patients are in a very critical stage. At any minute, they can do an unpredictable thing.

On Tuesday at about 8:30pm, when everyone leaves, I finish the paper work and clean up my work place. I turn off the light in the office and walk out. The first thing I do when I walk out of the door is I take the biggest deep breath of fresh air as I can. Only after that, I lock the door of the office from the outside. When I get home and see my seven-year-old son, I give him the biggest kiss and a hug he can get.

Michelle Long

Third Prize, Nonfiction
Michelle Long  Economics, Brooklyn College

Crossing The Desert

Friends, Severo Ramirez

It’s midnight on a Friday night. I’m a college student. Maybe others are out drinking, playing beer pong. Something like that. But not me. I’m at work.

I’m in the kitchen with the dishwashers and prep cooks, who just moments ago were peeking furtively from their tiny quarters, scoping out the remaining customers in an effort to predict how much longer they will be kept hostage. It’s getting late. It’s cold. Their kids and wives are home, in Queens. In the Bronx. Sleeping.

They are from Guatemala. Mexico. Ecuador. Their dark skin is beautiful, even under the harsh florescent lights. Their black, mischievous eyes gleam with perpetual want. Their teeth are always showing. Their happiness, it seems, it unfaltering.

“Michelle, do you want pasta?” they ask me. This late at night, with everyone gone, they always throw together some midnight snack to share.

“Que typo?” I ask in my horrible spanish. What kind?

“Con carne,” Maynord answers, showing me the contents of his frying pan with a characteristic giggle. With meat. The spaghetti glistens with chile oil and big hunks of dry-aged steak.

“Ok…si, si,” I say, giving in. And we eat together. Five people. Stuck, at least temporarily, in the same fate: working in the restaurant industry in New York City. A dead-end job that I’ve spent my whole working life in, since age 16. As I eat the pasta, twirling it on my fork, I slyly look around. Their eyes are focused on the food. But thoughts race behind those eyes just as behind my own. Intelligence, trapped behind their language barrier, longs to reach out and touch me. We communicate in smiles and broken tongues, intermittently littered with no comprendes and Que? Que? Que? And then I’m lost again in my own thoughts, which are something like a stream of: I hate my job…I have more to offer than such mindless drudgery! And: don’t worry, Michelle. Have patience, Michelle. Someday you’ll ascend.

I look around once more. Their plight interjects my selfish thoughts, and demands I confront its enormity. Why can I ascend through hard work but they cannot? the timeless voice asks. They, with minds as fit to be trained as mine? With potential buried deep in the “wrong” language? They, with a birthplace as random as mine? But mine, being in The United States of America, as Robert Frost would say, has made all the difference.

They finish the pasta, take my empty plate from my hands and continue washing, as my eyes wonder far from the comforts of my American life, and brushes only the topmost depths of their perspective. For them the washing may never end. For them, I am as fleeting as a Spring day. Long after I’m gone, they will still be wintering here in this dish room, sharing a silent meal.

Look around my restaurant and you will see much of the same. In fact, I am the only American in the place. I sometimes wonder: who is the foreigner? I sometimes wonder: why is foreigner a concept at all? The hostess has a PHd. The busboys: master’s degrees in finance. The waiters: parents of young ones they have sacrificed everything for in order to give them the gift of citizenship. To give them what they themselves could never have.

Intelligence. Potential. Selflessness. Motherhood. Fatherhood. These are banners under which all human beings strive. But out of all these beautiful souls, it is only me. The American. Who’s college degree will have precedence in this great country. Who will rise above the poverty she was born into. Who will struggle for a better life and be rewarded extensively for that struggle.

Who will transform herself from the server into the served.

I reach out. I try to bridge the depths of such rifts. Why did you come here? I ask. The hostess: “my husband….he had a political problem…” she trails off, her beautifully exotic eyes flash with a moment’s apprehension. But I don’t press, just let her talk. Since she moved here from Albania, she hasn’t seen him. She elaborates no further. “I’m in the process of trying to convert all of my [college] degrees,” she says, “but I understand there’s not much opportunity here without the papers.” Or Norbert, from Poland: “I expected a better future, a better life,” he says. “But I don’t enjoy myself like I used to, with my family being away.”

How did you get here? I ask Valdocindo, from Guatemala. A translator from Ecuador assists our conversation in the dish room. Valdocindo looks down. “Si,” he says solemnly. Yes. It was hard. “Tuve que cruzar el desierto.” I had to cross the desert.

Why? I ask him. Why did you come? “Because,” he says. “I need money for my family and relatives. Yes,” he says, beating another dirty dish into the garbage. “The life here is much better.”

Regardless of age, creed, political preference, economic status, bias, or agenda, it is easy, from these responses to feel the current of solemn, unwavering humanity that resides within us all. It is an inexplicable emotion. An intense desire to progress. To work. To protect the ones that we love. It is the reason the coyotes are paid. The deserts are crossed. The dishes are washed. The husbands are left behind. The educations are sacrificed. The tradeoffs are made. The long hours are worked. The privileged are served.

The reason survival treks into new territory.

Natasha Bruno

Third Prize, Nonfiction
Natasha Bruno  Entertainment Technology, NYC College of Technology

Family Takes Care of Family

Heart to Heart, Kelly Rae Roberts, 2013.

“Charlie, can you pass me the aluminum foil?” I ask while placing some leftover rice, beans, and chicken, in a bowl.

“Where?” he asks without searching.

“On the rack, in the hall, next to the kitchen.”


After Charlie made his way to the hall, he stands in front of the racks and stares at the products for a minute or two. Then he moves away, and looks at me dumbfoundedly, and asks again, “Where?” As I look for the aluminum foil with him, I see it in front of all the other products on the third rack.

“Charlie, the aluminum foil is right in front of you.”

Charlie then looks at all the products in front of him and sees the aluminum foil, but asks me one more time, “Where?”

I finally walk up to the rack and physically point to and touch the aluminum foil package.

“Oh oh oh,” Charlie chuckles nervously, “I didn’t see it, I didn’t see it.”

Every day is the same routine with Uncle Charlie. He is a 50-year-old bald headed Puerto Rican man living in New York City. He lives with my parents, sister, and me. His daily outfit consists of a t-shirt, jeans, white socks, and comfortable slippers to walk around the house.

I wake up every morning to the sound of his voice praying for God’s guidance for himself and for everyone around him. “Seenorrr, ayudaaaa Antoniooo, Natashaaa, Carolynnn, Nancyyy, Nicholasss, Vincentteee y yooo. Ayyuudaamee senorr. Graciass Seenorrr, Gracias Seenorrr, Gracias Seenorrr…” The simple translation for his prayer is, “Lord, help Anthony, Natasha, Carolyn, Nancy, Nicholas, Vincent, and me. Help me God. Thank you Lord, thank you Lord, thank you Lord.” His prayers remain the same, and I can tell they always come from his heart.

After Charlie is finished with his morning prayer, he picks up his bible and reads from Psalm 91: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust…’” Psalm 91 is a prayer for God’s protection and strength. It happens to be my uncle’s favorite Psalm.

After his morning devotional, Charlie puts on his boots and coat. Once fully dressed, he searches for the dog’s leash. The leash is always found on the brown wooden desk next to the basement doorway. The dog, Babe Ruth, sees that Uncle Charlie is reaching for his leash and begins to jump enthusiastically. Sometimes Charlie reacts with a grunt, “Ba-Ru, stop it man. Relax!” Then he turns to me and says, “This dog, man.” I giggle at his reaction, but if the dog wants to go, then the dog should go. After half an hour, Charlie and Babe Ruth are back from their walk and immediately Charlie goes downstairs to place his coat and boots on the couch. He slips into his sandals, walks back upstairs, washes his hands, and then sits in his wooden chair in the living room. There are times when he falls asleep right where he is with the television tuned to the BET channel and his glasses still resting on his face.

As I leave for school or work, I walk out of my room and pass by the kitchen. Dishes explode out of the sink and cover the tops of the counters. To my left and right, I see bills, magazines, and receipts all over the wooden tables and stone countertop near the dining area. The floor needs to be swept and mopped, yet Charlie is still sitting in his wooden chair instead of doing the work that is expected of him.

In an ordinary person’s mind, one would think Charlie is lazy, but it’s really much more than that. Charlie was born with a neurodevelopmental disorder which can cause autism symptoms. Some of his nerves cannot respond to the brain, resulting in a slower response time than the average person. When Charlie was a boy, his parents and his three brothers and sisters took care of him. All his life he was able to sit back and relax. He lived by eating, sleeping, and pooping, but Charlie had a tough side to him, too. He was bullied at school –called names and teased- but Charlie never liked to be called a “retard.” Whenever he heard someone call him that, Charlie immediately grabbed the person’s shirt, lifted him up just by a little, and demanded that he take it back. Charlie was not a retard.

It’s amazing how a person with autism can react so strongly. There’s so many things that we don’t know about autistic people and what they go through. One autistic man named Larry Bissonnette, said, “Being autistic is like having a body that doesn’t work.” I heard about Larry through a documentary called Wrenches and Jabberers directed by Gerardine Wurzburg, on individuals who suffer from autism and explain what they go through. Autistic people want to express so much through speech but cannot because their bodies aren’t functioning the way they should.

Now Charlie is in his 50s and in order to move him out of his comfort zone, my family and I work together to involve everyone in cleaning the house. Unsurprisingly, Charlie is not familiar with deep cleaning, which is my mother’s third language. For instance, I need to make sure he cleans the dishes or the bathroom correctly. Often when I check the dishes that Charlie claims to be clean, the forks have food remains still on them, and dinner plates and bowls are still greasy. Grease is the worst enemy of dishes, so, I place the dirty dishes back into the sink and I clean them myself.

Whenever Charlie cleans the bathroom, he needs to be reminded to use soft scrub for the toilet and clorox wipes to wipe down everything else.

“Charlie, you need to remember to scrub the inside of the toilet with the toilet scrub.”


“Also, you didn’t clean the sink correctly. It still has some dirt around.”

“Awee mannn. I don’t like cleaning the ba’room.”

“I know but we gotta do it.”

I do not expect Charlie to know how to do a complex task, but I do get frustrated. Working with Uncle Charlie made me realize I need to learn how to cope and communicate with others better.

The rest of Uncle Charlie’s day consists of watching television, going to a community program to eat free food, and taking a walk to get some more exercise. Sometimes he even vacuums the living room rug without anyone telling him to do so. If he’s on schedule, which he often is, he is in bed by 10:00 p.m. after praying for his family and friends one more time. He has told me that he prays to God for a wife one day. Sometimes I feel sorry for him because I don’t think it will happen, but I stay quiet. The odds seem to be against him. I try to make sure he feels good about himself. Whenever he does a good job at cleaning or buying the right groceries, I cheer for him and tell him how much of a good job he did. I also try my best to be kind to him whenever I ask him to help me clean. I make sure it’s a request and not a demand. It is like a saying I once heard, “Love does not come in way of demand.” I love my uncle and I want him to feel comfortable and loved by the people who take care of him. He is family and family takes care of family.

Emilia Mikrut

First Prize, Poetry
Emilia Mikrut  Psychology, Urban Studies, Hunter College

Love Carefully

Planned Parenthood Button, LaborArts

You were born into a room
drenched in the stench of hydraulic oil.
Your Mama won’t let you forget this.

She says that we came here
because there was no work elsewhere
and bartending on Queens Boulevard
was better than brick-laying in Germany and
Papa was running from the army.

The week after your thirteenth birthday,
she tells you God made the best men
with hands of stone-
heavy and worked and grey
like river water when it wraps
around skin and bone.

“Home is here,” she points to a
small spot on the map
surrounded by cold water,
and kisses your head
from across the oceans.

Papa comes through the door every
night at nine, coughs and says
he would have a much better job
if he could somehow lose his accent.
Mama nods,
wipes the grease off his hands,
and pours him a glass from the sink.

Somehow he still smiles
and folds his calloused fingers
tight over your white palms
the day you turn eighteen though he knows
you are now a woman.

“Love carefully.”
Your Mama won’t let you forget this.

Djordje Janicijevic

Second Prize, Poetry
Djordje Janicijevic  Theatre, City College

The Tobacco Harvesters

The Tobacco Harvesters, Stephen Macari, 08/20/2014

On cold scales with bronze they weigh it—
but can they gauge its weight—
our tobacco, our troubles,
our salty sweat!
From the dark dim dawns of summer mornings
up to the godless time of winter evenings
greedily it drinks of our sorrow,
our sweat, our blood and our strength.
The yellow-gold makes faces pale
and brings a yellow guest into our breast.
On dew-laden mornings in the first dawn
bowed low in the fields of the place where we were born
listlessly we gather it in.
Pick leaf by leaf
string leaf by leaf
turn leaf by leaf over and press down,
line leaf by leaf gently, sadly
on the long string of beads of sweat
hope with an oath and green fury
with hard stares from cloudy eyes
at the soft leaves all yellow gold
a bitter tale of a life accursed
string on so, soundlessly but clear.
Don't you know this?
The day is come for the weighing-up.
There is no gauge meet, it burrows in the breast
without ceasing, without finding its level
not grief but an oath, and in the clouded eyes
unsummoned rises the tempest.
The scales bear golden leaves
while in the breast rage furious waves
of golden grief, of golden tobacco
of the golden sweat of our hands.

Mariusz Zubrowski

Third Prize, Poetry
Mariusz Zubrowski  English, Brooklyn College


Great White, Rutzen, 01/01/2013

Mama pays the bills by the skin of her teeth, the ones that are now rotting. She hides them from other people, especially those who can afford routine check-ups, or maybe are insured. Mama’s never been sure of the path she’s sailed; she tries not to get eaten alive by sharks—her boss the great white in a business suit and two rows of teeth. She’s been cleaning his fish tank for years; a good lobster, the cockroach of the sea. Every holiday he hires her for catering events, during which she never smiles. He and his friends eat lobster and drink sparkling water. Mama’s eyes are beautiful and blue, but she thinks of them as those floating islands of trash—the ones that span the Atlantic Ocean. “We are trash, just nobodies,” she says, after a long day of work. Mama looks at my teeth, which are as crooked as hers. “They’re just like mine,” a fate that never fails to drown me.

Luisayra Madrigal

Honorable Mention, Poetry
Luisayra Madrigal  Business Administration/Marketing, Lehman College

If Lebron was a yellow cab driver

Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell

He would have built his car from scraps.
Paint, wheels, bolts, all found in the back
alley of his apartment building.
He would have known a truck driver
named Henry Muhammad who
knows a guy named Steven Grove who
has a cousin named Terence Wright whose
father invested in a cab company.

He would have gotten the job.
He would have started on a half a tank
every morning,
and would have still doubled
what the other drivers made.
But it wouldn’t have been enough.
He would have stayed up at night,
thinking of ways to triple
what he was making.
On his off days he would have returned
to where it all started.
Working on the mechanics
of his car.

He would have invested that full tank one day.
And would have realized he could make six times
as much as the other drivers.
Eventually he would have
enough money to stop driving.
Enough money to feed his family.
And some friends.
Enough money to buy
the company,
and their competition. Enough money to live,
where ever he wanted to.

Eventually he would have
the respect of every cab driver,
because there would have been absolutely no doubt,
That he would have been the best
cab driver of his time.

First Prize, Fiction
Chris Bonfiglio  History/English, Queens College

Il Sole e la Luna

Italian immigrant workers constructing a sewer, photographer unknown, 02/11/1903

New York, 1905

They emerged as one from the ferry and proceeded along the dock, their work boots leaving flecks of dust in their wake as their stomping released some small measure of the dizzying amount of dried mud that had accumulated there from, not just the previous work day, but from many previous days of back breaking labor. The rest of their attire fared no better; it was a sea of trousers and shirts and jackets all tinted in an almost yellowish hue thanks to the endless sea of muck that they came to swim in once more.

For some, their faces and hands matched their clothing as sleep found them before the urge to clean up did. For the others, their hands and faces were the only clean things about them. Although, clean was subjective in their world. Traces of dirt could still be found under their nails and in their hair as a quick scrubbing of hands and dousing of faces was a poor substitute for a bath. The rest of their bodies were lost causes since their clothing offered little protection against an enemy that seemed to make a game out of slipping through their collars, sliding up their sleeves, and attacking any hole or breach in the worn fabric that they put on day after day.

The weekend was fast approaching and some intended to head over to a bathhouse near the Hudson to rid themselves of the grime if only for a day. Others would wait far longer to shed their second skin.

As they approached their work site, they were greeted by more of their disheveled compatriots who had arrived by trolley or train. Among the group was a steely eyed man who was closer to five feet tall than six. His true visage was only partially visible. Dirt still held tight to his neck and ear region, but he had combated it somewhat by repeatedly cupping his calloused hands in water and bringing them up only to the center of his face. It had the effect of creating an almost trademark oval shape where his skin had been reclaimed from the dirt.

“Vincent, over here,” a voice called out to the man in Italian.

“Roberto. Good to see you, my friend,” he replied, also in Italian.

The two men made their way through the crowd to formally greet one another with a firm handshake and a pat on the back. Roberto was a good head taller than Vincent and quite a bit more robust. They made an odd looking pair as they continued, side by side, on their way and were shortly thereafter handed heavy stones out of a horse drawn wagon that they in turn handed off to a succession of other workers. Slowly, the stones made their way to the water’s edge where they were unceremoniously plopped down next to their previous day’s efforts. It was grueling work but it meant a break from the muck that would later need to be piled on top of the rocks and for that Vincent was grateful.

“I don’t know what you always complain about, this isn’t that bad at all. There’s sun on our faces and a cool salt water breeze to breathe in. I could get used to this.” declared Roberto.

“You’ve only been on the job for a few days. It get worse, trust me. And this time it’s rocks and dirt. Next time it may be garbage.”

“Spend a few days in a hole digging this stuff out so everyone here doesn’t have to rely on garbage as much and you’ll be changing your tune. I tell you, you don’t know how plum you have it. Besides, at least you’ve been doing some of significance. People need more land. They don’t need a subway when there are plenty of regular trains around.”

“Is this the part where you say you wasted three years of your life working on the 4th Avenue subway because it will be defunct after all this landfill work we’ve been doing pays off?”

“Have we had this conversation before?”

“Many times.”

“Oh, well, still you should be more cheery.”

“I’m just tired, my friend, and doing landfill work is not what I want out of life, you know?

“Have you talked to that baker friend of yours? The one in Greenpoint who you said might be willing to teach you his trade?”

“Not yet.”

“You should. A baker’s life would be perfect for one so delicate.”

Vincent stopped what he was doing to shoot Roberto an annoyed look, but Roberto quickly disarmed the tension with a hearty laugh.

“I joke with you but, truthfully, if that’s what you want you should get on it. You’re getting up there in age, you know,” Roberto added.

“I’m only twenty-seven.”

“Twenty-seven? I thought you were a good three years younger than that. I take it back, you’re a lost cause. Look at you, you’re not even married yet.” Roberto smiled through his mustache.

“There will be plenty of time to get married after…”

“Yes, yes, after you’ve established yourself as a baker. I’m not the only one who retells the same stories, my friend. Look, I know this girl who just came over and is living over on Goerck Street with my cousin. Nice girl. She’s from Sicily like you, twenty-two or twenty-three I think. I’ll introduce you.”

“What’s her name?”

“See, I knew that would get your attention. It’s Maria Rosa. Soon to be Maria Rosa Salerno, mark my words. Of course, you’ll have to clean yourself up. I don’t know if you realize this, but you’re filthy.”

“You’re one to talk.”

“I don’t know why we don’t just take a swim in the water over here when we’re done. It would make things so much easier.

“I told you last time, the bosses won’t allow it.” Vincent nods his head to a pair of figures supervising the latest wagon full of stones.

“Fine, fine. A bathhouse it is. Clean yourself up. We’ll head over there on Sunday. What do you say?”

“Maria Rose, you said?”

Roberto let out another of his famous hearty laughs and patted his friend on the back.

Arkansas, 1909

The sun was high in sky and merciless in its assault on the workers that toiled in the field below it. It had been a few years since they moved there, encouraged by promises of a better life as a sharecropper, but they were nowhere closer to growing accustomed to the conditions than they were when they first arrived.

Some of the workers chatted amongst themselves while they picked cotton to make the work go easier, others took a solitary, quiet approach to getting through the day. Among the second group was a burly fellow named Leonardo Mastropaolo. If he regretted moving his family from Louisiana to spend his time working to get out of the debt imposed upon by him by a landowner seeking an alternative form of slave labor, he did not show it. He went through life wearing an indelibly stoic expression in all matters, favoring simply to do his work without complaint and return to the home that he still owed over a decade of service to pay off.

Such aspirations were shattered on this day when a neighbor woman came running through the field screaming his name. He looked up, seemingly nonplussed, but he knew something was horribly wrong.

Several evenings later, as he sat with his five children, eating a meal that the same neighbor who came to fetch him kindly made for them, a well-dressed man sporting a frock coat came knocking on his door.

“Mr. Mastropaolo?” inquired the man.

“Yes. Who are you?”

“May I come in?”

Leonardo stood unmoving, giving the man one of his usual blank looks that to the uninitiated could be confused with a cold, death stare.

“My apologies. I am Mr. Baird. I represent the Corbin family. I have an important matter to discuss with you. Please, may I come in?”

Leonardo continued to stand in place, staring at the stranger for what the balding lawyer perceived as the longest moment in his life. He fidgeted with a button on his coat and audibly gulped, looking for something more to say when, suddenly, Leonardo stepped aside without a word, allowing the unnerved Mr. Baird entry.

“Do you mind if I have a seat?” asked Mr. Baird as he motioned to a shaky bench in the corner.

“What do you want?”

“My clients are deeply regretful for the automobile accident involving your wife. It is terrible business. Especially what with you now left alone to care for children.” Mr. Baird glances over to the five faces staring back at him from the dinner table. “Yes, well, you see, my clients know how difficult this must be on you and so they would like to offer you a hundred dollars to make sure you and yours are taken care of.”

Leonardo glances down as Mr. Baird produces an envelope from his pocket and presents it to him.

“Go on take it now and let’s put this nasty business behind us.”

For a moment it seems as if Leonardo has no intention of moving, but after taking a deep breath he reaches out to take hold of the envelope and then shuffles off to his bedroom without a word uttered or any effort made to usher Mr. Baird out the door. Lifting a silken handkerchief from his pocket, the lawyer uses it to pat his sweaty forehead and then looks over at the five eerie faces once more before lettering himself out.

“Did you see that, Ciro? I don’t think I’ve ever seen papà that emotional before,” uttered one of the two boys.

“Eat your food, Frankie,” replied his older brother.

With that they and their three sisters turned their attention back to their dishes and ate in utter silence.

New York, 1912

“Vincent! Hurry!” Maria yelled out the window in Italian.

Vincent came running up to the front door of their apartment building in Greenpoint and stopped to look up at his wife. “What’s wrong? Did something happen to the baby?”

“No. It’s Joanna, I can’t find her anywhere. Someone took her, I know it.”

“It’s going to be okay…”

“It’s not going to go be okay. It’s that boy all over again,” she cried in reference to a kidnapped child who had just recently been found in a basement four buildings down. Pregnant with their fourth child, hearing what happened to that boy shook Maria deeply, both because it was so close to home and because it was only the latest in a growing trend that made her fear for her children’s safety.

“Hold on, I’m coming up,” an exaggerated Vincent yelled up to her.

Rushing up two flights of stairs and bursting through his apartment door he was greeted first by his oldest daughter, five year old Rosalia. “What happened?” he asked of her.

“Me, Joanna, and Francesca were playing and then I don’t know daddy. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Maria appeared behind their daughter, a frantic look on her face.

“It’s okay Rosalia. Go to your room.” Turning to his wife, Vincent asked, “When did this happen? Were they outside?”

“No, no. They were in the apartment. I was making dinner and Rosalia came and told me Joanna was missing.”

“Well did you hear the door open or…”

“No, nothing. It’s been an hour, I just know something terrible happened. We looked in the apartment, we looked up and down the street. I just came back to see if she returned home and then you showed up. I don’t know what to do.”

“Did you knock on doors and ask if anyone in the building saw her.”

“No. I didn’t have time. I thought she was outside and I just got back.”

“It’s okay. Just sit down. You’re pregnant. You need to sit. I will go ask around. You wait here in case she comes back.” Vincent fixed her with a look that shut down any argument and ran out the door.

After he can been gone for over an half hour, Rosalia appeared in the doorway with her two younger sisters in tow.

Flabbergasted, relieved, angered, and so much more all at once, Maria got up and embraced her daughter.


“If she was hiding under the bed, why didn’t she come out when you called her?” Vincent asked his wife after returning home later that evening.

“She said she was afraid that she’d be in trouble once she realized how upset I was. I was so sure the worst happened, Vincent. I can’t take this neighborhood, it’s killing me.”

“Everything is fine. She was safe, don’t worry.”

“It’s not fine. She was safe this time, but something bad is going to happen. It’s only a matter of time.”

“What do you want do? Do you want to move to another neighborhood?”

“No, not another neighborhood. I think we should go to Marineo. It will be safer there and you can be with your father. You told me you were worried for him since he took ill.”

“Maria, my love, you’re six months pregnant. Plus, what about the bakery? Al just made me a partner. We can have a good life here.”

“You can run the run general store for your father. We can have a good life there. Think about it, please.”

For Vincent, leaving everything and everyone he knew to come to United States seemed like the hardest thing he would ever have to do. The thought of going back after all that he went through seemed like giving up. But as he thought more on it, he came to see that maybe coming to a find a life for himself wasn’t about the place he lived in but the people he lived with. Two months later, they packed up everything they had and returned to Sicily.

Arkansas, 1921

“It’s time, Frankie.”

“How long do you think it will be, Ciro?”

“I don’t know. A few months, a year maybe. I’ll send for you all as soon as I earn enough money to. In the meantime, take care of your sister.”

“I will.”

They looked each over and shook hands before Ciro walked out the door. In many ways, it had been just the two of them for so long. Their youngest sister largely kept to herself, and their two older sisters were married to older men when they turned fifteen because their father was unable to care for all of them by himself. The man himself was distant, although understandably so to the two brothers since he had to both work and care for them. Seven years the senior of a now sixteen, almost seventeen year old Frankie, Ciro in many ways took on a fatherly role in his brother’s life. That was true more now than ever as he set off to Brooklyn in search of a better life for all of them.

New York, 1939

Joanna sat at the counter of her parent’s bakery, alternating between chatting with her cousin, reading from her copy of Jean Val Jean, and serving customers when a salesman walked in.

“How many more days do you need to work to have enough?” Jimmy asked his cousin.

“Not much. A few more months and I’ll be set,” Joanna replied.

“What are you going to get, a Chrysler?”

“Uh huh. I just need to learn to drive now,” Joanna said with a laugh.

“Excuse, my name is Frank Mastropaolo and I don’t mean to interrupt, but is there someone here who I can speak to about your coal situation? Whatever the owner is paying now, I’m sure I can offer you a better deal.”

“I’m sorry, no. My parents are not in right now.”

“Fine, fine. Here’s my card. I’ll be back around in about a week and, you know, if you want to learn to drive I can always give you lessons.”

At that moment a customer approached the counter and Joanna moved to help her.

“Well?” inquired Frankie.

“Huh? Oh, sure.”

“Okay great, see you next week,” Frankie said before exiting the store with a big smile on his face.


“Hi again,” Frankie smiled brightly at Joanna when next he visited the bakery.

“Can I get you anything?”

“Actually, I was wondering if the owners are in and would be willing to discuss their coal supply and if after that you want to go for your lesson.”

“Lesson? What lesson?”

“Your driving lesson, of course.”

“Oh, yes, you did mention that…”


“So how long have you lived here?” Frank asked from the passenger seat as the two pulled out of a parking spot during their fourth lesson together.

“In Corona or New York?”

“Both, I guess.”

“Oh well, we moved here from Marineo in ’23, but I lived in New York until I was four.”

“So your parents immigrated here and moved back to Italy? How’d that happen?”

“My grandfather was sick and so my father moved us back there to take care of him.”

“And then you all moved back after he died?”

“No, he died before that. Things were hard after the war and so my parents decided to come back. They started the business in ’31 and I take care of orders and the books for them.”

“That’s neat. I’m planning to start a business of my own, you know.”


“It’s going to be a coal/oil delivery business. My brother Ciro—he repairs watches—is going to help.”

The two chatted for some time more. Joanna talked about how her father was drafted into the Italian military and fought in Northern Africa in The Greater War. Frank talked about his own father who suffered from hardening of the arteries and couldn’t work since moving to New York, but was cared for him and his brother. The conversations continued over many more lessons and many more dates, leading to a walk down the aisle and their first daughter two years after that.

Joanna never did to buy that Chrysler, but she did use her car money to help her husband buy his first oil delivery truck. From there the business took off, serving the Queens neighborhood of Woodside and the surrounding areas for decades to come. They had their own stumbles and their own setbacks, but they pushed through them and came out of those experiences all the stronger, as did their children and their children’s children.

Stephanie Lubin

Second Prize, Fiction
Stephanie Lubin  English, John Jay College

The Colors of Hope

The Global Refugee Mural, Joel Bergner, Silver Spring, MD, 2010

Amarillo. (Yellow)

“Sorry kid, but this is all that we have left.” The clerk hands me back a tube of teal acrylic paint and $3.00 worth of change. “Are you sure you don’t have anything in the back at least closer to royal blue? My mother is really particular about this kind of stuff.” I said stuffing the bills into my back pocket. “Nope, sorry. We won’t get another shipment of paint until Friday, try back again then.” I shake my head in disagreement and take the bag of paint from the counter. “Nah, no thanks man, thanks for your help though.” I begin to head for the door when he calls out to me. “Hey wait a minute, isn’t your mother Rosaria Guevara? The one who painted Los Esperanza right there on 116th street? Man, that mural is freaking amazing!” I begin to smile. “Yeah, that’s my mother’s work out there, thanks.” The clerk smiles and then holds up a portrait of himself which was painted on a small canvas that sat on top of the counter. “She left this in front of my store last week. It meant a lot you know, coming from her, she’s a saint.” I nodded, smiled and walked out of the store, heading down the street toward 116th. It always makes me feel good to hear about my mother’s art. Some may even say that her art changed this community for the better. Ever since she took over the convenient store from her grandfather back in 1986, you can say that her paintings pretty much changed the way our neighborhood looks today. She used to tell me stories about how back in the 80’s, the neighborhood around Spanish Harlem was really bad. Fights broke out almost always, drugs crept in to the neighborhood too which led to more fights, broken families and a loss of the community. My mom told me that one day, she just decided to start painting this random wall right over on 116th and that was the catalyst for change. She painted a loving community, families at the dinner table eating with one another, children in the park playing, musicians in the park performing. She said that once it was done, everyone sorta just, stopped. The mural was right in the center of everything so you couldn’t avoid it even if you tried. People saw it every day and felt a sense of community, hope, love, and started living that way themselves. Los Esperanza is what she named it. I guess you can say that she saved the neighborhood. So now she paints everyday on her lunch break. Inspiring paintings that she leaves around the neighborhood so people can marvel at just like her mural. From the janitor who cleans the school, to the bus driver, to the clerk at the paint shop. My mother takes the time to paint these people in their element, and once she’s done, she leaves them in front of their work places, just to let them know someone is thankful for them.

I arrive to my mother’s store at a quarter past noon as she is wrapping up with her last customer before her lunch break. She leans into a small fan on top of the register and wipes the sweat off her forehead with her apron before she notices me. It seemed to be one of the hottest days in July, perfect timing for the air conditioner in the store to break down. “Hector! your fifteen minutes late.” My mother exclaims placing her hands on her hips behind the register. Her once curly hair now straight and dripping with sweat. “Sorry mom, I really tried to get you the royal blue paint that you asked for but they only had this.” I hand over the tube of teal paint to her. She took it and pursed her lips in a thin line. “Well, at least you tried baby. I won’t be able to get the exact shade of the bus in this painting but I will have to make this work.” My mother says walking to the back of the store where her makeshift art studio stood. We couldn’t afford an actual studio space so my mother used a small storage room in the back of the store as her art sanctuary. A large canvas propped up on cans of corn, beets and just about any inventory she could find served as her easel. An empty rusted can that used to hold green beans now held her paintbrushes. Every day on her lunch break she opted to spend her time in there rather than to eat. She always told me that her paintings nourished her, whatever that meant. I didn’t know about her, but I’d rather a burger and fries over a tube of acrylic any day.

Azul. (Blue)

The teal paint cascades from her paintbrush and on to the canvas to fill in the white spaces of the bus she is painting. Her hands move the way a maestro would during a performance. Her brush controls the movement of the teal paint as she finishes up her painting. I sit and watch my mother through the open door of the storage room as I sit at the register; helping customers as I cover her lunch break. The storage room and the register were directly across from each other, so when there were no customers I would watch my mother paint gracefully until it was time to relinquish my post at the register. The bell chimes as the door opens and my father Sal walks through. He is wearing his uniform; dark blue jeans and a light blue button down shirt with his initials “S.G” over his right pocket. He works a few blocks away on 113th at an auto repair shop and started coming in to the store to check up on my mother ever since she was recently diagnosed with diabetes. My father grew concerned with my mother opting to spend her lunch breaks painting rather than eating to regulate her blood sugar. It always seemed like a constant battle between the two of them for what my father wanted my mother to do, and what my mother felt she needed to do. “Hector, you’re at this register again? Where is your—oh wait, I know where she is.” My father says with an annoyed tone. “Yeah dad, she’s in the storage room painting, but I wouldn’t go in there if I were you. Last time I did she hissed at me, sometimes I don’t know if it’s mom in there or a cat!” I began to laugh but quickly stopped once I noticed the look on my father’s face. His eyes grew low and his eyebrows along with them. “She’s in there every day Hector, I just don’t get it. We have customers to serve and money to make yet she chooses to stuff herself in that old room doing what? Huh? Painting.” My father shook his head and began to walk to the storage room. He closed the door behind him and I could no longer see my mother or her canvas. The fan blows hot air on my face and I watch as the sweat drips from my cheek and lands on the register. I stare at the cold bottles of water and beer across from me in the fridge and begin to wish I was one of them.

“I see you’re in here painting again Rosaria.” My father spoke with a gruff, masculine tone. He takes the paintbrush out of her hand and replaces it with her insulin. Her face draws into the needle and away from her painting. “Sal, you know I don’t need that thing, I’m doing just fine.” She says placing the insulin on the easel. “Your just fine you say? Well explain to me then why the doctor prescribed you with this? You wouldn’t need to take this if you weren’t sick, and yet you still refuse to take it.” My father reaches over for the canvas and stares at it. “The bus driver. You spend all of your time in here painting the bus driver at work when you need to be the one at work!” His voice grows louder and he tosses the canvas to the ground. Splashes of teal paint lie on the floor as the canvas is faced downward, undried. “We’ve spoke about this over and over again. We need money. You know ever since Carlos opened up a shop nearby my business hasn’t been making as much as we used to, we need two incomes now more than ever to pay off the bills that we have. You being back here doesn’t help us Rosaria.” My mother falls to her knees and begins to wipe off the paint now caught between the floorboards and rests the canvas back on to the easel. “Money isn’t everything Sal! Yes we’ve got bills to pay but we don’t need to spend every waking second thinking about it. I paint because the people in this community deserve some recognition. There’s nothing worse than to work 40 hours a week for little pay to keep a company going and no one even knows your name.” My mother’s voice has gotten louder now. “They only see the company as a whole, rather than acknowledging the individuals within it who break their backs every day to make it what it is!” She pauses. “Think about it Sal, you’ve been working at that repair shop for 25 years, making sure everyone in this neighborhood’s car runs smoothly and no one even knows your name.” She places her hand on his chest by the initials over his pocket. “S.G. That’s who they know. You’re more than that name tag.” She says softly. My father takes my mothers hand and pushes it off from his chest. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Make sure to take your insulin and get back to the register, Hector isn’t an employee here.” He doesn’t say anything to me as he storms past the register and slams the door behind him. The bell above the door has never chimed louder.

Negro. (Black)

Several weeks went past and the tension between my mother and father got worse. She continued to refuse her insulin stating that she felt fine and continued to use her spare time, including her lunch breaks, to paint. My father would come home from work and find her medication partly used although her condition seemed to worsen. She began showing symptoms of hypoglycemia as she was not sleeping well, became fatigued often and her vision began to blur. Her failing health showed within her paintings as I noticed her images more distorted than ever. We later found out that my mother would empty the daily dosages of insulin out into the sink and left the small bottle back in place to make it seem as if she was finally complying with my father; anything to keep him from arguing with her. Her behavior had been going on for a few days before I decided to approach her about it. Her stubbornness was causing my father and I to worry. “Ma!” I called out as I walked up the stairs to my parent’s bedroom one afternoon. I’d just come home from school, searching for my mother at the store but another employee Juan, told me that he did not see her all morning. I figured she was back at home on her day off. “Ma, are you here? I’ve been looking all over—” Just then, I noticed my mother lying on the bed and her chest was not moving up and down. I hurried quickly to the bed and grabbed her hand to feel for a pulse, but none could be found. “Ma!” I yelled, urging her to wake up from her seemingly deep dream. When she did not respond, I grabbed the telephone from the night-stand and dialed 911. I breathed heavily and jumbled my words as I explained to the operator the situation and our address. All I could think of now was splashing drops of paint all over her, I figured the thing that she coveted most would revive her.

I called my father as soon as I got to the emergency room and he arrived moments after straight from work. He didn’t speak, but his face read “Where is she? Is she ok?” I hugged him and told him that we had to wait to see what was going to happen next. About an hour later, the doctor came and informed us that my mother was holding up but she would need to stay in the hospital overnight for further testing. “Mr. Guevara, we’ll have to keep her a little longer. It seems as if she hasn’t been regulating her blood sugar for quite some time now, good thing your son found her in time, she passed out and who knows what could have happened if he didn’t.” My father’s face grew weary. “Thank you doctor, yes I’ll have to get her a few things from the house so she can stay overnight here.” The doctor nodded and went back into my mother’s room. “Hector, will you be alright in here? I’ll have to go home and pack some of your mother’s things.”

“I’ll be alright dad.” With that, he left for our house. My father went straight upstairs to their bedroom and found a small bag which he began to fill. He opened her dresser drawer and placed a night-gown, under-garments and socks. As he lifted up the pair, he noticed something lying on the bottom of the drawer. A small painted canvas.

And it was that moment there where my father finally realized that my mother was right. Life wasn’t about using every waking hour to make money but instead using your precious limited time on earth to appreciate the people around you who work hard everyday to make our communities what they are. The people who aren’t famous, drive fancy cars or attend award shows. These are the people that maintain the flow of the community; the mechanic, the bus driver, the store owner, the janitor, the teacher, nurses, construction workers. Everyone who we come across everyday and seldom stop to think about what life would be without their contributions. My father held the canvas in his hands which had a painting of a man with a teal blue shirt and dark blue pants changing a car tire. The man’s shirt had the initials “S.G” on it. My dad gazed in awe at the thought of my mother hiding away this canvas in her drawer, perhaps my father’s constant disapproval of my mother’s art caused her to keep it hidden; afraid that he would criticize her. But he didn’t, he finally understood what my mother was speaking about. “You’re more than that name tag.” Her voice vibrated through his mind. She had appreciated my father and the contribution he made to the community through his work, no matter how menial it was. He closed the drawer, picked up the small bag of belongings for my mother, left the house and started toward his car to head back to the hospital. He also took the canvas along with him. He drove over to the auto repair shop where he worked and got out of the car to place the canvas my mom painted of him in the front. It leaned on a tire. “Soon.” He said. “Soon you’ll get better Rosaria.” He got into his car and drove past Los Esperanza, making his way to the hospital.

Jude Rubenstein

First Prize, Visual Arts
Jude Rubenstein  Visual Arts, Brooklyn College


“Striking Workers” (2014)

My paper sculpture depicts striking workers. Their signs are blank. They might be demanding an end to child labor, or a $15/hour minimum wage; that is, their demands span the decades. As does my family’s involvement with unions and workers’ rights. Uncle Sam, coming from Poland in the early 1900’s, did leatherwork and fought for the International Fur & Leather Workers Union during its most radical period. Grandpa Harry was a pattern-maker and a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. As the decades went on, he was able to collect Unemployment Insurance during the down season. Then my father, he went to college, and so he got to manage offices for the NY State Dept. of Labor’s Unemployment Insurance offices.

Me, I enjoy my hard-fought-for weekends free from work, and make art that commemorates the fight. My work is a paper sculpture–paper because it is inexpensive and thus brings attention to the low wages my ancestors earned and continues the tradition of leather and fabric working, that is, working with one’s hands.

Jason Prabu Mas

Second Prize, Visual Arts
Jason Prabu Mas  Graphic Design, Queens College


“Indonesian Bazaar” (2015)
11″ x 17″
Mixed media, ink and acrylic on paper

Growing up in Indonesia, I remember as a child my mother would take me to the local market right after school. I remember the outdoor bazaar being hot, smelly, and noisy. I disliked it. In retrospective, however, the entire thing seems extraordinary. Most of the merchants are women, young and old, working outdoors from dawn till dusk everyday. It was common for them to build their own stands, often out of sticks and cloth. for this reason, I believe those women truly embody the labor spirit. This painting is my attempt to create a genre scene, where mundane activities are depicted expressively and symbolically, but I also wanted to show absurdity and strangeness by flattening up the figures and breaking the constraints of perspective. I wanted to depict a distant memory of one of my visits to the bazaar. I remember big, tall buildings left half finished, due to some corruption scandal or something like that. After a while people started coming to those buildings to build stands in and around the properties to sell their goods. Suddenly the entire area was transformed into one big market. It was such a weird experience, looking at those people among what seemed to be ruins. So I wanted to depict this by making the upper structure nonsensical, yet underneath the drama of daily life continues obliviously (except the child). Moreover, people would walk around in their helmets because helmet theft was so prevalent, so I added helmeted figures for emphasis of absurdity.

Ndjiharine Vitjitua

Third Prize, Visual Arts
Ndjiharine Vitjitua  Art, City College


“Metropolis” (2015)
11″ x 17″
Gauche and illustration markers
Bristol Board

This painting is inspired heavily by the philosophical as well as the aesthetic aspects of the 1927 silent film Metropolis. This is a stylized composition on 11″ x 17″ Bristol board. The materials used here are gauche and illustration markers.

The film that inspired the painting portrays life in Metropolis, a bustling futuristic city of sixty million people that is divided into two economic groups; the wealthy industrialists who rule a vast majority of the city from high-rise tower complexes, and the underground-dwelling lower class who constantly labor on the machines that power the city.

Randon Rosenbohm

Honorable Mention, Visual Arts
Randon Rosenbohm  Fine Art/ Gender and Media Studies, Brooklyn College


“Treadmill of Production” (2015)
Digital Illustration

My illustration is a digitally hand drawn vector tracing of a still from a video I recorded of myself running on the treadmill in a “power suit” and heels. This comical clip-art-esque image gets its title from the Environmental Sociology “treadmill of production” theory, which explains how increased economic growth caused by production and consumption results in environmental degradation. The theory’s source invites a restructuring of the political economy in order to solve environmental crises. I think that treadmill theory and the prevalent, white feminist discourse surrounding wage inequality are related, not only in my illustration, because most arguments for the (gendered) wage gap fail to mention the importance of race when discussing it. As of 2013 black men’s annual income is less than white women’s. The political restructuring necessitated by wage inequality must be intersectional. White feminist discourse surrounding wage inequality, which ignores race, ironically continues to produce wage inequality. I believe that nothing can fix the effects of oppressive systems without a political restructuring.


Background & Credits

The CUNY/Labor Arts contest aims to expand student’s thinking about labor history—broadly defined—at CUNY, and is open to any undergraduate attending a CUNY college. Begun in 2010, it encourages students to write creatively and analytically about work and workers, to make art about work and workers, and to link their efforts to the spirit of LaborArts.

We were honored to have Donald Rubin, co-founder of the Rubin Museum and of the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, and Brooklyn College Dean of Humanities Richard Greenwald join the contest organizers and judges at the awards ceremony in April.

We would like to thank all of the students who submitted work for the 2014—15 contest, and to congratulate the authors of the prize-winning essays and poems and the creators of the visual art featured in this exhibit. All CUNY students are encouraged to begin considering possible themes for entries in next year’s contest. Guidelines for the 2015—16 contest will be available in fall 2015; the guidelines used for this contest are here

The contest is funded by The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, and was made possible this year through the efforts of The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation and Don Rubin and Alex Gardner; Brooklyn College/CUNY and Professor Joe Entin, Associate Provost Terrence Cheng and Acting Director of Graduate Studies Patrick Kavanagh; and LaborArts and Rachel Bernstein and Evelyn Jones Rich.

Special thanks go to our judges: Professor Julie Agoos of the Brooklyn College English Department (Poetry); Professor Timothy Alborn of the Lehman College History Department (Non-Fiction); Brooklyn College Associate Provost and English Professor Terrence Cheng (Fiction); and Professor Becca Albee of the City College Art Department (Visual Art).

The photographs of students and event speakers were taken by photographer David Rozenblyum at the Awards Ceremony, held at the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education in Lower Manhattan on April 22, 2015.


Making Work Visible—A Labor Arts Contest
2014–2015 Contest Rules

Nina Talbot Open to CUNY undergraduates, this contest offers cash prizes up to $1,000 in four categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and visual art. Click here to read the winning entries from previous contests.

Entries should relate to labor arts—to portrayals of work and workers, as well as art by working people. Paid work and labor unions are only a part of the story — entries about unpaid work, immigration, family and community are also encouraged. Funded by the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the contest aims to expand student engagement with the under-appreciated history of work and workers in this country, and to re-vitalize the study of labor history at CUNY.

Undergraduates in good standing enrolled at any CUNY institution are eligible to compete. Entries must be submitted by March 2, 2015 online at this link.

Prizes in each category: First Place: $1,000 // Second Place: $500 // Third Place: $250 // Honorable Mention $100.


Garment Worker

Here’s what makes this contest unusual —

Students submitting written work
must include an image that is related to the themes in their writing. You may include a link to: a) one of the images below; b) one of the images from this gallery; c) an image from any Labor Arts exhibit or collection; or d) an image from another source. Sample images from the web museum:

  • Sample 1
  • Sample 2
  • Sample 3
  • Sample 4
  • Sample 5
  • Sample 6
  • Sample 7

Students submitting visual artwork must include a paragraph (100-250 words) explaining how their work shares, and is a part of, the Labor Arts spirit. The statement must address the medium and the artistic tradition in which you are working.

Successful entries show thoughtful, original work on subjects relevant to work, to working people, and to the labor movement. Topics might include, but are not limited to: economic and social problems; issues of immigration; conflicts based on race, class, and ethnic identity; environmental concerns; child labor; women in the labor force; economic justice; globalization and international labor markets; organizing campaigns; crime and corruption; anti-labor campaigns; cultural and artistic visions; ideals and ideologies.

Entries are judged according to originality, content and style, by professors who teach undergraduates at CUNY. Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony in Spring 2015.

For more information, contact Professor Joseph Entin and Acting Director of Graduate Studies Patrick Kavanagh at

Click on this link for the entry form you need to submit with your work.










Making Work Visible—A Labor Arts Contest

Bao Lin Zhang Open to CUNY undergraduates, this contest offers cash prizes up to $1,000 in four categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and visual art. Click here to read the winning entries from previous contests.

Entries should relate to labor arts—to portrayals of work and workers. Keep in mind that paid work and labor unions are only part of the story—entries about unpaid work, immigration, family and community are also encouraged. The contest aims to expand student engagement with the under-appreciated history of work and workers in this country, and to re-vitalize the study of labor history at CUNY.

Undergraduates in good standing enrolled at any CUNY institution are eligible to compete. Entries must be submitted by March 7, 2016 online at this link.

Prizes in each category: First Place: $1,000 // Second Place: $500 // Third Place: $250 // Honorable Mention $100.


Fasanella - Subway Rider #2

Here’s what makes this contest unusual —

Students submitting written work must include an image that is related to the themes in their writing. You may include a link to: a) one of the images below; b) one of the images from this gallery; c) an image from any Labor Arts exhibit or collection; or d) an image from another source. Sample images from the web museum:

  • Sample 1
  • Sample 2
  • Sample 3
  • Sample 4
  • Sample 5
  • Sample 6
  • Sample 7
  • Sample 8

Students submitting visual artwork must include a paragraph (100-250 words) explaining how their work shares the Labor Arts spirit. The statement must address the medium and the artistic tradition in which you are working.

Successful entries show thoughtful, original work on subjects relevant to work, to working people, and to the labor movement. Topics might include, but are not limited to: economic and social problems; issues of immigration; conflicts based on race, class, and ethnic identity; environmental concerns; child labor; women in the labor force; economic justice; globalization and international labor markets; organizing campaigns; crime and corruption; anti-labor campaigns; cultural and artistic visions; ideals and ideologies.

Entries are judged according to originality, content and style, by professors who teach undergraduates at CUNY. Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony in Spring 2016.

For more information, contact Brooklyn College Professor Joseph Entin and Director of Graduate Studies Patrick Kavanagh at

Entries must be submitted by March 7, 2016 at this link.