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Johnny Diaz (Jan. 21, 2004)

I sometimes think the greatest thing we got from Puerto Rico was Johnny Diaz. Of course, there was Raul Triaz. He was and still is (as far as I know) a wonderful Puerto Rican. But that is another story. This story is about John. 

It was our first Christmas on the Island. We went from Synanon to Puerto Rico. Seven of us. Manny Rivera, Bud Bancroft, Jim and Dayla Morris, the marvelous Andy Torres, George Terflinger and Tammy Halpern (our cook who couldn't boil water). We had received a rather grand announcement from Santa Monica that we at Synanon were not to celebrate Christmas. 

Puerto Rico is a small Island 50 miles wide, 100 miles long. It is Catholic. There are as many holidays on the calendar as there are workdays. No matter that the church itself de-sainted many of their saints, the Puerto Ricans still celebrate all the saints. And Christmas is a two-week affair, ending with Three Kings Day on January 6th when presents are once again exchanged to honor the three kings bearing gifts to the Christ child in the manger. 

Were we to not celebrate Christmas our growing group of supporters would have thought we must be anti-Christ, Satan-worshipping Americans. Puerto Ricans tend to think Americans are morally suspect (what with the preaching of birth control and such). At the very least, we were Protestants. But, to not celebrate Christmas would have been a big mistake for Synanon. So we ignored the edict and decorated our tree as usual, putting up little cut out snowmen in the windows and strings of lights out on the gates.

You have to give money to everyone on Christmas in Santurce — the garbage man, the postman and of course the carolers. The carolers started arriving two weeks before Christmas. It wasn’t like we could take all this out of petty cash because it would be impossible to explain to Santa Monica where one does not give money to the postman ever. So we had to pay it out of our WHAM. Being rich Americans we of course paid too much. What seemed cheap to us was overly generous to the barrio kids. We ran out of money. One group kept coming back — two, three times a night. We had no more money so we started giving them things. We had tons of donations. We gave them toys and clothes and household items. 

There was a group leader. He was the cutest little boy with an elfish twinkle in his eye. He had blonde hair, blue eyes, and was very fine-boned. His skin was golden brown. He wore the same pair of oversized ragged shorts everyday. He had no shoes and no shirt. His shorts were tied around his waist with a dirty piece of clothes line rope. On his knee was a huge infected scrape. I could not resist the urge to doctor his knee. That boy was Johnny Diaz. He spoke not a word of English, but had so much charm and charisma.

Christmas came and went. It was our little secret, that Christmas. I don’t believe any of us ever copped to it. Or felt an ounce of guilt. You can take all kinds of things away from us but Christmas is not one of those things. I do believe it was one of the most wonderful holidays I have ever spent. The Puerto Ricans do not have a lot of money to go charge things up at Macy’s but they are so generous. They cooked the most wonderful foods and brought them to us, and there was so much love shared with each other and us. 

After Christmas the boys had no reason to come around singing so they just showed up. Every morning — by 10am the boys were at the gate, one at a time, two at a time. Sometimes the older boys did not come. But John always came — every single day. We held children's games for them in Spanglish (half Spanish/half English). We started a mini-synanon school. It was clear that none of them were actually going to a regular school. 

John had a brother named Gilbert. He was a dour child. I caught him once trying to whack John with a machete. I saw little hope for him but he was Johnny's brother so I did my best for him. The boys now were well clothed, well fed, and learning to be Synanon people. 

Bud and Andy went over to the caserio to take some furniture and a TV to John's mother and were appalled at the conditions that the boys had at home. She was a sweet woman, Aurelia Diaz, but she had eight children and someone had just left an infant girl at her door. She took the baby in. She had no furniture, no beds, nothing. She got only $100 a month from federal welfare to take care of them all plus the small federal housing apartment. It was just a concrete box and everyone slept on the floor with no mattresses. We furnished the house and provided food for the family out of our extra donations. It was an easy thing to do and it might have gone on for years.

But then we learned that Synanon was pulling out of Puerto Rico. 

The big problem was that we sent lots of dope fiends to Santa Monica but they never stayed. Why? Because they did not speak English. 

The ones who were bilingual had no problem — Tony Reyes, Raul Triaz, Manny Rivera… These guys did very well. But they came from the middle-class. They went to school. English is taught in Puerto Rican schools from first grade up. But the very poor people like the Diaz family don't actually go to school very often. In fact, I don't think John ever went to school. Whenever I asked, he claimed it was a school holiday and the discussion ended right there. He gave me an ear-to-ear smile and a big hug and said he learned more in Synanon than in school. How can you resist that? So all these dope fiends were thrown into Synanon and could not communicate. They went to games and were yelled at in a foreign language. People told me that the Puerto Ricans were just pretending they didn't know English!

I don't suppose we were generating the level of donations the foundation hoped for, either. We had a few millionaires we were cultivating but most of our support was from the families of the junkies. They gave all they could. But it wasn’t much. So suddenly we learned we were to come home.

I could not accept leaving Johnny to go back to that kind of poverty. He was not cut out to be poor. He was a prince. He trusted Synanon so much. He believed that we would save him from this life he was born to. And he believed it with all his heart. How could I get on a plane and say, “Sorry about that. Soon your new clothes will turn to rags. We can give you a month’s supply of food and then you can go back to begging can't you?” I could not fail him. I could leave him. So on an impulse, actually in an elevator, going up to the condo of a millionaire sponsor I said, “John, would you like to go back to Santa Monica with me and be in the school?” He jumped up and down and hugged me and yelled, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” And I knew I would find a way to take him. 

Then I looked over at Gilbert who was with us. Gilbert's head was in his chest. I could not bear it. I said. “And what about you, Gilbert? Do you want to be in the Synanon School?” Gilbert nodded his head yes. He did not look at me. He already knew it was an afterthought. That it was really John that I loved the most. But he said yes, and so he would go too.

I wrote a letter to Chuck and Betty. They said yes. I had to put them on a plane before we went home. Aurelia was there to see her boys off. John became terrified and tried to run off the plane. But finally the door closed and the boys were in the air on the way to a new life in America, in Synanon, in the School. I hoped I had made the right decision.

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