African American Studies
Interviewee: Joe Bataan
Interviewer: Mark Naison, Maxine Gordon
Interview took place June 12, 2006
Summarized by Concetta Gleason 2-1-07
Bataan Nitalano’s mother is African-American and his father is Philippine. His father joined the navy and did a lot of seasonal work as a short-order cook. Bataan would see his father only six months of the year. His racially mixed family was a rarity in Spanish Harlem where he grew up. His father was Catholic and his mother encouraged his attending Church. Although the neighborhood was mostly Spanish, there was a lot of Blacks, Chinese and Jewish people and his elementary school was racially mixed. The school required English, but Bataan learned Spanish because most of his playmates were Puerto Rican. Most of the tenements were five or six story buildings. Growing up his musical heroes were black and his role model was Jackie Robinson. His elementary school did not have second language requirements or give lessons on people such as Rosa Parks. Bataan has been singing from a young age and was told his style was between Black and Puerto Rican, although he lacked a gospel background. He eventually created his own style by researching older music and making the style popular again. His music had Latin beats, but he sang in English, and he has made significant crossover record during his music career. Bataan is a self taught musician who learned to play instruments in a New York State Vocational Institute, where he spent five years for stealing a car.
Bataan’s mother always did domestic work and organized dances, to which she charged admission for. College and music lessons were not an option for most people in his neighborhood when he was growing up and the education they were given did not take them very far. Once he became interested in girls he lost interest in schoolwork. Despite the fact he was smart and well dressed he kept getting in trouble with the law and he missed his chance to go to college. His father taught Bataan at a young age how to fight so when he was attacked he could defend himself. He became overconfident and by the time he was 15 years old he was the president of the gang, the Dragons. When he was sent to a juvenile detention center Bataan graduated High School early and took classes from the Bronx Community College, which had music programs. After being released he was overwhelmed by his job, night classes, dreams of playing professional sports and his marriage to his girlfriend, who raised his child when he was in prison. He eventually returned to prison, and during his second stint in jail he did a lot of writing. After he was released from jail for the second time he was determined to start a band. After Bataan became a popular music artist he returned to sing for the inmates in his former jail and was treated unwell. Bataan witnessed a condoned, filtered racism in jail both when he was an inmate and a visitor.
When Bataan was 19 years old he harassed a group of kids younger than him to play in his band because he had a hard time starting a group. He even had the children dancing, but when they became famous it became too much for them and they never finished school. After some initial trouble trying to find a record label and make an album he cut a record with Fonman Records, and in 1966 it was played on the radio. Once he found success some of his past was erased from people’s memory in his neighborhood. Bataan played at many clubs in the city and in the Bronx, and that is where he made most of his money, not many artists made money from records at the time. He played mostly with Latin and Black musicians, but his interest was always in the talent, not the musician’s race. He got his fist job at 40 years old and had been working there for 25 years, in a juvenile jail. In 1994 Bataan put a band back together for the kids he helped and supervised at the Castle Hill Community Center. A few years ago Bataan was in denial of his diabetes and experienced a near-death experience, when he was coming out of coma he realized he has been selfish by only worrying about himself and he needs to use his talent of music to help other people. He has been performing all over the world ever since. Bataan was working in the Community Center when he discovered rap music, before it had a name and he also raps. Bataan still receives residuals and money from his music being sampled from other artists and listened to by a rediscovered audience, abroad and domestically.
Bataan, Joe. June 12, 2006. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
Click below to download supplemental content.Bataan, Joe.mp3 (117008 kB)