African American Studies


In this moving interview with the Bronx African American History Project, Benjamin Melendez, speaks with Dr. Mark Naison about his life, which has taken him from gang member to community organizer who now tries to educate young men and women about the dangers of the lifestyle that he once led.

Born in 1952 on the island of Puerto Rico, Melendez moved to New York when he was just eight months old, jumping from place to place in New York City before settling in the Bronx in 1964. Living on Stebbins Ave between 163rd and 165th streets in Morrisania, Melendez quickly found himself familiar with the gang culture that pervaded the South Bronx beginning in this time period. Although Melendez discusses in detail his life in gang culture, he also takes great care to emphasize the role that education has played in his life. Although he dropped out of Morris High School after the tenth grade, Melendez is what one may call an intellectual of the streets: an avid reader who never let lack of a formal education stop his cerebral advancement. A member of two gangs before he even graduated from elementary school, Melendez went on to form his own gang, the Savage Skulls, when he was just in junior high school. After leaving the Savage Skulls, Melendez helped to find the Ghetto Brothers, an organization of a different color.

Although it started out as just another gang, Melendez tells us, the Ghetto Brothers quickly transformed into a sort of local political organization. The focus of the Ghetto Brothers, Melendez says, was not gang violence, but rather bringing the community together, an objective that often left him at odds with gangsters in neighboring territories.

Melendez goes on to give a riveting experience about what it was like to live in the South Bronx in the early 1970s, when arsons and other social factors led to the time period in which it is commonly held that the Bronx was “burning.” Looking upon his home in the early 1970s, Melendez recalls, reminded him of pictures of Berlin immediately following the Second World War.

The most emotional and powerful portion of this interview, however, comes when questions stop, and dialogue begins between Melendez and the young men accompanying Dr. Naison, who give insight into gang life that one doesn’t often find in history books. The men discuss the constant threat of danger associated with gang life, the innate desire to leave such a life, and the societal and institutional pressures that relegate young men and women to such an existence. No matter how long I try, I cannot encapsulate in a few short sentences the moving nature of the discussion between the men as they reflect on their lives and attempt to manufacture solutions to fix it.

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