The Book of Jose
The Paper Trail
The streets crowned me “The Realest Walking the Earth.” I earned it! Muthaf***as have been trying to kill me my entire life in one way or another. I’ve been shot multiple times in front of my mother. When I was just ten, a grown man named Papi Loco wrongfully accused me of trying to kill his infant daughter by throwing batteries from the roof of Forest Houses projects in the Bronx, and then pummeled me until I was bloody and had a concussion. When I was a young teen, a street don tried to scare me to death by threatening to stick my entire arm in a meat grinder. The police have done their best to beat me into oblivion. When that didn’t work, crooked cops tried to frame me for murder so I could do life in prison. Through it all, though, I never folded.
People said it was a suicide mission when I went head-to-head with a gangster known for butchering adults and setting infants on fire. I squared up with the Feds when they stepped to me, and just when I thought shit was sweet, some of my best friends and family died or went to jail or betrayed me.
My name is Fat Joe, aka “Joey Crack,” aka “JoPrah,” aka “The Don Cartagena.” But on August 19, 1970, I was born Joseph Antonio Cartagena at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital. The South Bronx to be exact, an auspicious and ominous birthplace.
Life in the South Bronx could feel like a movie. What kind of movie? Here’s an emblematic South Bronx tale: Sixteen years after I was born, right across the street from Lebanon Hospital in the Fulton Avenue tenement projects, a twenty-year-old named Larry Davis got into a shoot-out with damn near the whole police force. Not only did Davis get out of there alive, he left six cops filled with lead.
He was like a hood superhero. Nobody could believe his story. He was eventually caught after a seventeen-day manhunt, but in court, his lawyers’ defense was that corrupt police were trying to frame Larry for the murders of some drug dealers, and when they stormed his sister’s apartment, they were trying to kill Larry, not apprehend him. The defense worked. Larry Davis was acquitted of all charges except illegal gun possession. God bless the dead, Davis was eventually killed in prison in 2008, where he was doing time for a case unrelated to his famous shoot-out.
Me? By the time Larry Davis made his mark, I’d already been earning my own stripes as a shorty. My history with violence started almost as soon as I got out of the womb.
I’m the youngest of four kids, the baby of the family. My mother, Ruby, had two sons and a daughter before me: Angel Jr., Raymond, and our sister, Lisa. Ruby got married to their father, Angel Cartagena Sr., when she was still very young.
Angel was a bad guy who intimidated everyone around him. He was in jail when my mother met my father. Ernesto Delgado had just moved to the U.S. from Cuba. Ernesto, or “Ernest,” as he was called in this country, was a little guy; he had a big heart though. My father busted his ass to provide for us. He was a baker; he was a carpenter. In the summertime he would sell Icees and pastelillos in Crotona Park. He taught me what it meant to be relentless.
Ernesto always worked hard, but he went extra hard in pursuing Ruby. My mom is a beautiful Puerto Rican woman. Both her parents are from the island but her dad is Taino, one of the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. My grandparents migrated from PR to the BX when they were still teenagers and that’s where they raised my mother. Whenever my grandfather’s family would come from Puerto Rico and visit us in the Bronx—which would only be about every five or ten years—they’d come dressed in traditional garb. My great aunts and them wore moccasins and reminded me of images I’d seen of Native Americans. Ironically, my grandfather was nicknamed “Cowboy.”
My mother and her family all lived in the same building as my father’s sister Esther. Yes, I had a real life Aunt Esther before that name became famous via the classic sitcom Sanford and Son. My aunt was nothing like LaWanda Page’s outrageous Bible-totin’ character though. God bless them both.
Once, when my father was hanging out with Esther, he laid eyes on my mom and it was love at first sight for him. He would see my mother all the time and go try to rap to her. He didn’t care that she had three kids already. Shit, he had nine himself. They were back in Cuba with his wife. Stay tuned for that story down the line.
Ruby and Ernest started spending time together and next thing you know, she became his girl. They moved in together with my mom’s kids in the Bronx’s Forest Houses projects on E 165th Street and Trinity Avenue—1000 Trinity Ave to be exact. They lived in apartment 5E, which had two very small bedrooms and one bathroom. Soon after, Ruby got pregnant with me. All this time, Angel Sr. was in jail. My mother had moved on, but she was still married to my brothers’ and sister’s father. When I was born, I was given the name Joseph Cartagena because mommy was still legally a Cartagena.
Angel got out of jail damn near right after they cut my umbilical cord. Back on the streets he caught wind of my birth and made a beeline to the PJs. He started yelling in front of the building, threatening to kill my mom. Then he threatened to kill my dad. Finally, he declared he was going to “kill the baby.” What the hell did I do? I wasn’t even a full two months old yet and already in the mix.
As Angel was making his way into the building, my mother frantically ran out of the apartment with me in her arms and gave me to the neighbor down the hall. My mother’s instructions were concise: “Don’t open the door under any circumstances!”
Angel finally made it up to the fifth floor and started banging on my parents’ door, yelling once again that he was gonna “kill the baby!” The men in the building heard the commotion and gathered together to confront Angel. They told him, “You can’t be threatening her.”
When Angel Sr. resisted, the men in the building busted his ass. They beat him to a pulp and dragged him out the building and told him to never come back. Believe it or not, after all of that, it wasn’t until much later on in life that my mom got a formal divorce from crazy-ass Angel.
Angel came to accept my mother and dad’s union without any more threats of violence. My mom is such a loving and forgiving person, she let him see his children. Unfortunately for my brothers and sister, he wasn’t a real father. He never even gave them as much as a lollipop. He helped to make them biologically. You got to be grateful for that. But the man wasn’t a real factor in their lives.
And he wasn’t nothin’ to me. I didn’t really know him like that. I might have seen him once or twice when I was real little. He would look at me and I would look at him like he was weird. I don’t know why. I didn’t know the story of how he vowed to kill me. I just knew I didn’t like the man or anything that came with him.
Even his family, who I’d see whenever they came to visit my sister and my brothers, I didn’t like them either. It was just in me. My mother would be like, “This is your sister’s aunt.” I felt like Maaannn, if these people don’t get the f*** out the house. I was just a little kid but my intuition has always been on point, even as a tyke. Angel wound up repeating the cycle of getting incarcerated, being released, coming home, then going back in. Eventually, he died of cirrhosis of the liver. He was also drinking too much.
My father, Ernest, drank a lot, too. Not as much as Angel, but Dad loved that firewater. Almost as much as I loved to eat. My family, even though we were poor, we ate good. My grandmother Tati was the best chef in the family. The best chef in the world if you really want my opinion. She was phenomenal. And she loved to make sure the whole family enjoyed their meals at gatherings.
When I was little there were always a lot of grandkids around my grandmother’s house. It was like fifty of us. Fifty grandkids running around, but I would be the only one under the table. My reputation as the family black sheep preceded me, so at the gatherings, my family didn’t even give me a chance to get in trouble. They kept me on lockdown as a precaution.
One time, I started a fire at my grandmother’s house. Other times, I broke our chairs. You know, I was always fat, so I would jump around on the furniture. The weight and pressure of me jumping on the chairs would break their legs. On a couple occasions, I’d break a chair and put the leg back on it. I wouldn’t tell anyone I broke it. I was just a little badass kid running around and the older people in my family would be like nah, this guy’s too much.
I’d literally be forced to sit under the dining room table at my grandmother’s house while my brothers and sister and all my cousins ran around playing.
I was punished all the time as a kid. That’s why I’m so close to my Aunt Barbara. Because even when the rest of the family was treating me crazy, she would give me cookies and take me to her house and treat me kindly. Out of all fifty grandchildren, the rest of the family thought I was the one least likely to succeed. I love my whole family so this ain’t shots at them, but I was always treated like the black sheep and that’s a fact.