A recent talk with a friend gave me valuable insight into an important human phenomenon: how is a moral conscience created? A few years ago, I met Pierre Moreno, an abstract painter, and we became close friends. During our talks, I learned about his complex upbringing and wondered how he had been able to overcome harrowing events in his life.
During Spain’s civil war between 1936 and 1939 between Republicans and Nationalists, Pierre’s parents fought on the Republican side against the regime headed by General Francisco Franco. When the Republicans were defeated, to escape Franco’s retributions, they crossed by foot the Pyrenees, a mountain range that separates the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of the continent, on their way to France. A strenuous trip under any circumstance, crossing that tall mountain range in Europe was excruciating during the bitter winter cold. Pierre was conceived there.
When they reached France, Pierre’s parents were captured and taken to a French containment camp (which in practice was a prison; they didn’t have any freedom of movement.) Pierre was born in the camp in April of 1940. From the camp, Pierre and his mother were sent to a senior citizen’s home. “My mother told me I was the center of attention among all these old people, who were constantly spoiling me, because I was the only child there.” “For a long time, I thought I was the only child in the world since I had never seen another child.”
When the Nazis invaded France in June of 1940 they sent Pierre’s father to a concentration camp, while his mother went underground to fight against the Nazi invaders. Because his father had been taken away by the Nazis, his mother raised him with the help of paid caretakers. Once, when Pierre was under the care of an old lady, a neighbor called his mother and said, “Antonia, come here, let me tell you something. Your son is crying all the time because he is constantly being beaten by his custodians. You have to take him away from there!” Which she did. “I lost track of in how many places I lived in while I was a child.”
When the war ended, Pierre was sent from France’s countryside to an orphanage by train. Because he was sent alone, he was scared during the trip and was terribly lonely. He was welcomed at the orphanage, and for the first time in his life, he had the chance to play with other children. “That was like a feast to me, to be surrounded by so many children. It opened up a new world for me, a world I didn’t know it existed.”
Three years after the war ended, Pierre was sent to Paris where his mother was expecting him. However, because he had seen so little of her, their initial reunion wasn’t particularly warm. “We were like strangers.” Antonia got visas for both to Mexico and in April of 1948 boarded a ship called the George Washington. When the ship anchored in New York, Antonia and Pierre left the ship, evaded the immigration authorities and entered lower Manhattan. With Antonia carrying a small suitcase with all they owned, they started walking up Broadway, until they reached an apartment on 69th St. There, they met a Spanish couple that offered them shelter until they could find a place of their own.
As they walked up Broadway, Pierre marveled at what he saw. When they reached Times Square:
I saw a huge fat man smoking a cigar and making smoke rings. Next to him was an enormous waterfall, where water was moving continuously. Coming from our drab neighborhood in Paris I didn’t know if I was dreaming, looking at all those lights, the noise, the traffic! Everybody seemed to be happy, another sharp contrast with how people were in Paris, still trying to recover from the miseries of WWII.
They stayed with the Spanish couple for almost a month, after which they moved to a Spanish neighborhood, since Antonia didn’t speak any English. It was a rough neighborhood in the Bronx, the only place she could afford. She felt at ease being able to communicate with the many Puerto Ricans living in that area.
At first, because he only spoke French, the frail and shy Pierre was the target of bullying and threats from older children and had to be rescued by neighbors. Once he learned English, however, he was finally accepted by his peers. “These were not easy years for me,” he told me, a gross understatement considering he was left in the care of neighbors or family friends when his mother, who worked in the merchant marine, went out to sea.
Often short of money, he found a way to survive as a courier to drug dealers. He said:
It scared the lights out of me, since the dealers were older than me and very tough, but it was an easy way to make some money for food and the frequent movies I attended, where I was transported to another world, away from the strains and ugliness of everyday life. Full of music and family life, the American movies showed me a world of abundance and joy totally different to the one I had known in France. Despite the difficulties in my new country, I felt that while my life in France had been in black and white, my life in the U.S. was Technicolor. My eight years in France were like a cold, muddy stream in the shadow of a moonless night. My main regret of those years was that I don’t have any memory of my father and that I never bonded with my mother. Until the end of her life, although we were in contact, we remained strangers to each other.
Pierre was able to stop being a courier (“a cause of great anguish"), learned a few trades in the construction business, created a loving family, went to art school in the evenings, and became an excellent abstract artist. “I played the cards that life gave me the best way I could.” Pierre is now concerned about the fate of the world and the kind of world we are leaving for our children. Given the challenges of his childhood, I was curious to find out how he became the good citizen I know him to be, concerned about the fate of this country, and the world, always ready to help people in need, and eager to become a better artist. Simply put, how did he find his “moral compass”?
“When I was a child, I saw ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, a movie based on the book by Harper Lee, an iconic book on race relations.” The book is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression of 1929. The protagonist, Jean Louise (“Scout”) and her brother, Jem, are raised by their widowed father, Atticus Finch, a prominent lawyer in town. Tom Robinson, a Black man, is falsely accused of raping a white woman. Despite threats from the community, Finch agrees to defend him. Although he makes a strong case for Tom, Tom is convicted and later killed when trying to escape.
More than any other, that movie had a transformative effect in my life. That’s how I learned about the evils of injustice, racism and prejudice and their negative effects on people’s lives, and on the lives of a nation. And because it showed the consequences of those feelings from the perspective of a child, the impression that movie had on me was even greater.
Mesmerized by the movie, at times I was ‘Jem,’ the child protagonist; more often, however, I was Atticus Finch, the lawyer who taught his children to be empathetic and just. ‘It is a sin,’ he told them, ‘to kill a mockingbird,’ referring to the fact that the birds are innocent and harmless. Since then, the values portrayed in that movie became part of my moral compass, and the sense of justice and my endeavor to contribute even in a very small measure to build a better world have never abandoned me.