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So many people live far away from their birth family. There are many reasons for this. Career paths take us down different roads, marriage choices lead us to a new beginning, and even sometimes knowing you have to strike out on your own to make room for possibilities.
In my 30 years in Texas, I am one such relocated American. I was born and raised in NYC and left when I was18 yrs old. I came here to attend the university, but also more importantly, I left because I knew that for me, it was the only way to grow. In my youth, the years when I was to be my most carefree and light, I battled the heavy downtrodden blanket of fear and at times the despair of feeling like a victim of my surroundings. Every day I was bombarded with the echoes of restlessness.
I grew up as a Puerto Rican girl in Harlem in the 60’s - 70’s, and it was “never” home to me. I never felt like I belonged. I didn’t fit in with the Hispanic mamacitas or the black girls, both of which ostracized me for being different. I didn’t hang out in the streets or belong to the “in” crowds. I didn’t like trouble, I was quiet, shy, and smart.
In my classes, I didn’t voluntarily raise my hand to answer questions. The peer pressure was bad enough, with the slurs and snarls I received if the teacher blurted out my test score. I didn’t want to bring more attention to myself.
Racial tensions were rampant across America during these years. Being light complexioned, I was the minority in the classroom. In my last year in elementary school, I was targeted by a group of black girls and was harassed and threatened every day, until the day my older sister, nine years my senior, showed up to walk me home and gave them a verbal spanking.
On a different occasion, I braved to walk on the sidewalk, rather than cower in fear, as a group of 8-10 high school aged girls dominated the sidewalk. They walked in step, with arms interlocked between them, intimidating everyone in their path.
I recall the battle cry seconds prior to the attack, “Let’s get her!”
They chased me, grabbed hold of my coat, threw me to the ground, slammed my head on the pavement multiple times, while kicking me in the face and head. All this, while adults watched in full view, just 6 feet away from the closed door of a satellite police station. All it would have taken was a knock on that door.
I remember the humiliation of slowly peeling myself off the icy pavement, walking past these adult spectators, with no one offering me aide. I was maybe 12 or 13 yrs old at the time. I remember going home, calling my mother, and her leaving work frantic. She took me to the hospital, and as I sat in a room waiting to be seen by a doctor, I recall hearing voices just outside my room.
“Room 5 has a gang beating victim.”
“Really how many?”
“About 10 girls.”
The scurrying of feet, heads poking into the room, curiosity overtaking them. I felt humiliated. I felt like I was a spectacle for their morbid curiosity. I actually sensed disappointment on their part, since I wasn’t as badly mangled as they perhaps expected, or would have liked to see.
Oppression of any sort, is like a slow drip at best, and at worse, catastrophic. Without taking action to remove ourselves from it, it will eventually extinguish our spirit. We become a shadow of who we could have been.
Even today, when I watch movies shot on location in NYC, I feel it’s misleading. That’s not the only face of the city, though that is the one that’s pretty enough for Hollywood to write into scripts. When people find out I’m from the city, I typically hear “Oh, how cool!” and they assume I grew up in a brownstone or some penthouse apartment. They only know the glamorous side that’s advertised. If you are a family of modest means, your experience is entirely different.
I lived in “The Projects,” and cucarachas lived with us rent free—those little opportunists. Every little thing most people take for granted, such as stumbling into the bathroom at night to use the potty, I had to be fully conscious and aware of. I had to plan. Turn on the light, wait. Either with chinela in hand to knockout some cucarachas, or give up and give them enough time to scurry away before entering. Needless to say, I was fed up from the moment I woke up, to the moment I went to bed. Fed up with the cucarachas, boom boxes, violence, fear……..
My favorite activity for escape, was during warmer weather on Sunday afternoons walking from 116th street, downtown along central park, to somewhere in the 80’s, for a banana split. I think it might have been my older sister who first introduced me to this ice cream shop. Later I would take my younger sister and make the trek with her. But often, I enjoyed making the trip on my own. It was my time to dream and fantasize that I lived in the 80’s. You see, the demographics and the housing were very different from what I left behind one mile uptown. Savoring this walk, I found myself with my head held high, shoulders weightless, and I imagined that when people looked at me, they saw someone who belonged. I fit in—but not exactly. I was still this awkward, skinny, self-conscious Puerto Rican girl.
Every now and then, there was a Harlem escapee who also made his way downtown. Inevitably I’d hear his ghetto cat call, the disgusting sound of a loud and long drawn out kiss. It also included a whistle, similar to calling out to a dog, as he shouted, “Oye! Mamacita!” My reaction was always the same. I felt like I’d been slimed, and in need of scraping off this scum layer.
In my teen years, this restlessness and need to leave got even stronger. Yet, truth be told, I was afraid to leave. I knew I would have to do it alone. My parents were not of the mindset to move and venture into the unknown. As it turned out, as most stories do, there was a guy who stepped into the picture. I met him near the end of my high school senior year. He was a year younger and requested I stay. In fact, he proposed (What was I thinking?! Hindsight is everything). Needless to say, I put my plans on hold. I attended the local city college for that year, and when it was time for him to apply to college, unbeknownst to me, he was Chicago bound. I was livid. I learned a major lesson: Never put your dreams and plans on hold. I felt betrayed and used that energy toward my own good by mounting a full out campaign, researching and applying to out of state universities at record speed.
Growing up in the ghetto, was for me my catalyst for change. But a woman scorned, just added the extra boot to the kick I needed. The fear of leaving, was overridden by my rejuvenated determination. It’s amazing how fear takes the back seat at times like these. Anger has its place, and it can be used for good.
Though my days in Harlem are in my rear view mirror, those days have shaped a lot of who I am today. This and all my other life experiences, weave the intricate colorful pattern that forms the DNA of my life.
My experiences influence how I raise my daughter, how I live my life, how I appreciate the simple quiet moments, like no longer needing to turn on a bathroom light when I walk into the bathroom at night. I can keep my chinelas (slippers) on. I no longer feel the need to routinely look into storefront windows, checking for the reflections, to make sure no one is following me. However, when I return to NYC to visit my parents, I still find myself reverting to that, but not as intensive. I can’t totally relinquish my street survival skills, nor would I want to.
We all have different memories that we choose to fluff off like dead skin cells. We all have varied upbringings and challenges we overcame or are in the process of overcoming. And some, like my daughter, ironically, will not have an upbringing she’s trying to shed. Though, in the midst of a teenage rant, she may be heard saying, “I hate my life!” She hasn’t had to endure all the things I did, nor actual tragedies (mine was not a tragedy by any stretch of the imagination). She grew up in peace, harmony, surrounded by love, safety, and with more toys and food than she needs. This is by design, I vowed never to raise a child in such conditions from where I came from. For her and countless others like her, I wonder, what will their motivation be stoked by?
Perhaps I am one of the fortunate ones, I had something to overcome. I have had to learn how to move forward without perpetuating racism myself, though I was a victim of it in a most unconventional manner. Usually in America, we read or hear about white on black racism. Also having experienced it from my own Hispanic community, adds another wrinkle to this complex hatred.
Focusing on our differences acts to separate us from love. Fear also, acts to separate us from love. When we do either, we have closed our hearts. But when we open our hearts, we are open to others. Only then we are able to see, that all differences are merely labels we wear. It is in the heart that one sees the essential. There we lose all perceived borders, and only the sameness is magnified. We find our souls whispering to us, “This person knows and feels what I do.” But we wonder, How can this be, when we are from different places, circumstances, cultures, even religions? It is our limited mind wanting to compartmentalize, separate, label. Yet we are one in spirit! We are one with God.
Psalm 139:23 says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.”
Since we are of one spirit with our Creator, I humbly submit to us all, that we read that passage as:
“Search me, O John, O Lizzette, O Lungi, O Azar, O Diana, etc, ……and know my heart.”
Substituting anyone's name, in place of God's, I am supplicating that you search my heart, in order that you may know my heart. Only when we have a sincere and humble desire to know each other’s heart, will we stop separating ourselves from each other and from God.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” — 1John 4:18