When a Heart Turns Rock Solid
The Lives of Three Puerto Rican Brothers On and Off the Streets
By Timothy Black
(Vintage, Paperback, 9780307454874, 464pp.)
Publication Date: August 24, 2010
Other Editions of This Title: Hardcover
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A WASHINGTON POST BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
This provocative and compelling book examines how jobs, schools, the streets, and prisons have shaped the lives and choices of a generation of Puerto Rican youth at the turn of the twenty-first century.
At the center of this riveting account–based on an unprecedented eighteen-year study–are three engaging, streetwise brothers from Springfield, Massachusetts: Fausto, incarcerated for seven years and in and out of drug treatment, an insightful and sensitive street warrior playing on the edges of self-destruction; Julio, the family patriarch, a former gang member turned truck driver, fiercely loyal to his family and friends; and Sammy, a street maven, recovering drug addict, father of four, straddling two realms–the everyday world of low-wage work and the allure of the drug economy–as he shuttles between recovery and relapse.
Timothy Black spent years with the brothers and their parents, wives and girlfriends, extended family, coworkers, criminal partners, friends, teachers, lawyers, and case workers. He closely observed street life in Springfield, including the drug trade; schools and GED programs; courtrooms, prisons, and drug treatment programs; and the young men’s struggle for employment both on and off the books. The brothers, articulate and determined, speak for themselves, providing powerful testimony to the exigencies of life lived on the social and economic margins. The result is a singularly detailed and empathetic portrait of men who are often regarded with fear or simply rendered invisible by society.
With profound lessons regarding the intersection of social forces and individual choices, Black succeeds in putting a human face on some of the most important public policy issues of our time.
Timothy Black is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Hartford, where he directs the Center for Social Research. He lives in Hartford, Connecticut.
Washington Post Best Books of 2009
Booklist Editor’s Choice Best Books of 2009
“Along with narrative drama, Black offers analysis. It’s not dry, however. And his emphasis on Puerto Rican brothers is eye-opening. . . . These mean streets could be Piri Thomas’s or Martin Scorsese’s. . . . Black relies on oral history. Swaths of his book are given over to dialogue he often presents in script form. And I applaud his choice to allow the men to express themselves. . . . We hear voices we don’t normally hear, and the book is filled with the poetry of the street. . . . The talk is cinematic, even when the data are not. The oddly melodious outbreaks of profanity are honest and, in their own way, poetic. These are the stories of the new America.”
—Luis Urrea, The Washington Post
“The book succeeds because author Timothy Black make readers care about his subjects. . . . Captivating.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“The twisting story lines and intriguing subplots from the Rivera brothers and their peers are good enough to compete with any series on HBO.”
"This ethnographic investigation into the processes that keep so many minorities in the United States in poverty and deprviation is an extraordinary, insightful, and gripping read. . . . Black's story is well told, at times both suspenseful and heartwrenching. . . . Profound." —José Ramón Sánchez, Contemporary Sociology
“Through the Rivera family, Black examines the interplay of economics and social policy that has made it more difficult for low-income Americans to progress into the middle class. Black explores the troubled history of the U.S. and Puerto Rico, as well as the decline of the industrial base at a time when the nation was cracking down on crime and drug addiction. Sociology, economics, history–and powerful human emotions–are all layered in this fascinating look at poverty and the life of one American family.”
–Booklist (starred review)
“A sociologist examines the lives of marginalized Puerto Rican youths in Springfield, Mass., connecting their stories to the economic, cultural and political factors that shaped them. . . . The author’s clear portraits of his subjects, his empathy for them, his pride in being accepted and even sometimes protected by them and his anger about the institutions and policies that have shaped their world give an immediate, powerful human dimension to their stories. An impressively long-term, diligent sociological study. . . .”
“The men in Timothy Black’s alarming yet compelling book don’ t stand still. They move from place to place; sometimes they are forced to move; and they are moved by traces of their own past. In a richly painted canvas, we see how profoundly history and the economy shapes the lives of these Puerto Rican brothers and how they respond to many imperfect moments.”
–Carol B. Stack, author of All Our Kin and Call To Home
“When a Heart Turns Rock Solid is an amazing book. I couldn’ t put it down. Black practically takes the reader with him into the barrios in which he conducted the study. The result is an unforgettable portrait of the everyday life and the every other day crises of poor adolescents growing up in a neighborhood in which many men end up as drug dealers and prisoners. The book is sociology and ethnography at its finest: as graphic as a documentary and as spell binding as a novel. It should be read by the general public as well as by scholars and students. In a time of widespread economic troubles, Timothy Black reminds us dramatically of how much worse the permanently poor have it every day of their lives. Black’s book is a shocking reminder that the American Dream has been withheld from so many Americans.”
–Herbert J. Gans, Robert S. Lynd Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Columbia University, and author of Imagining America in 2033
“When a Heart Turns Rock Solid will break your heart, and it won’t–and shouldn’t–let any of us off the hook. This new, important book about poor people in America is an enlightened and anguished indictment of structural violence. Ethnographer Timothy Black brings us into the Rivera family and offers vivid portraits of brothers Fausto, Sammy and Julio. He explains how the very same structural and systemic forces that benefit some of us have all too horrific effects on the marginalized, racialized poor. These forces are neither impersonal nor invisible; as Black reveals, they are all too real and deeply, painfully personal.”
–Alisse Waterston, Professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and author of Love, Sorrow and Rage: Destitute Women in a Manhattan Residence.
“Nearly two decades ago, Timothy Black undertook an ethnographic study of a family that had migrated from the hills of Puerto Rico to New England in search of a better life. His life became intertwined with theirs, and especially with the lives of the young sons who tried to wend their way between poor schools, a deteriorating job market, the temptations of the street with its dangerous offerings of escape, respect and money, and the entrapments of our burgeoning penal system. This observant and thoughtful book is the result of half a lifetime of keen observation and boundless empathy for a world most of us know only from statistics, and it is a must read!”
–Frances Fox Piven, author of Poor People’s Movements and Regulating the Poor
“This timely book starts where In Search of Respect leaves off, and reveals the human faces of the suffering caused by the escalation of the War on Drugs in America. The author sensitively portrays the overwhelming challenges faced by second generation Puerto Rican immigrants in the nightmare of the American neo-liberal dream. Through his warm, long-term friendships with three Puerto Rican brothers, he brings alive the brutal effects of America’s failed policies toward the urban poor at the turn of the 21st century.”
–Philippe Bourgois, University of Pennsylvania
“When a Heart Turns a Rock Solid is a fascinating exercise in immersion ethnography. Black spends years of his life following three Puerto Rican brothers, and their affiliates, as they navigate a world of truncated educational opportunity, economic insecurity, drug and gang involvement, jail and prison. He reports on the challenges experienced by his subjects, and the life choices they make, with humility and common sense. The stories are intimate, yet written against a broad canvas of economic and political change. The overall effect is to draw readers in, both to the lives described and the wider world of poverty and marginalization. Black’s work is comparable to that of Adrian LeBlanc’ s writing in Random Family and to Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books. It pulls back the veil on a world largely hidden to outsiders.”
–Sasha Abramsky, author of American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment
“This is a vivid and poignant portrait of everyday reality for poor Puerto Rican men. For two decades Timothy Black documented the lives of three brothers, their relatives, and friends, bringing them alive as real human beings with hopes, fears, mistakes, setbacks, and successes. No sugarcoating here, as this ethnography follows men across the difficult streets and social institutions–workplaces, schools, prisons, rehabilitation sites–where they live often troubled and dangerous lives. Ultimately revealed is a coercive society much more concerned with policing and prisons than with people whose lives are trashed by age-old processes of class and racial oppression.”
–Joe R. Feagin, Ella C. McFadden Professor of Liberal Arts, Texas A & M University and author of Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression