The summer after my first year at the technical school I went with my family to visit my cousins in New York. I was 16 at the time. My mom was able to go to the States as a green card holder because her brother, who had migrated in the early ‘60s and became a citizen, had petitioned for her. My mom in turn petitioned for my brother and me, and my dad came too because there was a possibility that they would reconcile. The plan was just to be here for the summer and then go back to the Dominican Republic, but when my cousins took me to their high school, I decided, “I wanna stay here, I wanna go to school here, I wanna learn English.” So I went and informed my parents that I was staying. I said to my dad, “You can go back if you want. I’m staying here with mom.” That was the summer of 1985. We stayed with my mom and got an apartment in Corona Queens, New York.
Of course my parent’s possible reconciliation didn’t happen, but my father actually did stay in the United States for a few months, from that summer that we arrived until maybe December. But it was a failed attempt. It didn’t work out for a number of reasons. In the Dominican Republic he was a full, complete person. When he came to the United States he was a non-person. In his town, he is a respected individual with a circle of friends who seek him out for counsel. He is involved with politics and people consult him for his opinions. He came to the United States and he was a mute immigrant – no language, didn’t know anybody, nobody knew him. He couldn’t take it. So he didn’t last very long.
My experience was different because I began going to school and learning the language. When I was pretty freshly off the boat, summer of 1986, I got a job at LaGuardia airport that was an amazing school of English for me. (Fortunately for me, the man that interviewed me for the job was Columbian, so the whole interview went through in Spanish. At the end he said, “By the way, you speak English, right?” And I said, “Yes!”) It was interesting because when people would get off the plane and come to baggage claim, where I worked, they’d see me in a uniform and ask all kinds of questions. They had all different kinds of accents! In that way it was an amazing training school for me. Through this language training and through school, I took on a tremendous amount of responsibility to represent my parents and even others. For example, even when they’re going to write a check, they ask you to spell “one thousand” because they don’t know. Or when you go out shopping or to the doctor, you’re the one who has to interpret everything.
I think when people immigrate usually one of three things will happen. One extreme is that a person comes over here and has no intention of going back, so they go through a total transformation and want to melt into somebody else. The other extreme is my mother’s case. My mom has been here 25 years and she knows three words of English – because she’s going back. People in her case do the least they can to melt in the new culture because ultimately they know that they’re going back. Then there are the ones, like myself, who live in a permeable sort of bridge, on both sides. When something happens and I have to send out an email, I have to send out a bilingual email because I have friends that are bilingual and friends that are monolingual on one side or the other. So you live in this back and forth, sort of split identity.
With this kind of responsibility of representing my family and interpreting, I became sort of the head of the household. My brother and I lived with my mom until my mom got into a failed second marriage. My other brother, who’s now 23, came from this marriage. I disapproved of the union so my mom moved to the Bronx in ’87. I went to live with my cousins. My brother and I were living in their little basement room, but I felt so horrible. I said I needed to get a job and begin making money to help out. So I went and I got a job working construction with my cousin. I guess I was a junior in high school. My mom had my baby brother and then the whole thing broke apart. She was living in a five-story work-up in the Bronx, in the middle of nowhere, nothing close, not anybody. So I looked in the neighborhood and I found a three-bedroom apartment. I was, I don’t know,19 maybe, or 18. I talked to the owner and I said my mom was living out in the Bronx with a young kid, and that I was going to school but that I had a job and it was a decent job, and I wanted to rent his apartment. He rented it to me. My mom and my brother and I lived in the same household all during my high school and college. My mom still lives in that apartment. Since that was ’87, it’s been 20 something years that she’s been there.
I worked during the summers my first two years of high school, ’86 and ’87, but if there were no part-time positions for me to keep during the school year I would say, “I’m here to go to school, so I’ll manage.” School was important to me. I was a nerd in high school. I did my homework! I don’t think there was anything special to that. You just do your homework and participate in class. I was so fortunate that my high school had, at the time, 51 different nations represented, so they had a very strong bilingual program. I was able to continue at my grade and take classes in Spanish. As I took intensive ESL classes, I moved from like ESL 1 to ESL 3 to 5 then 7, then I got to a special regular class for non-natives. I think I had a very nice transition, with good teachers and a lot of support, and I did quite well. I ended up graduating salutatorian of my graduating class of 658 students. I had to give a speech at the ceremony. And it was ironic because my speech as salutatorian was to welcome the parents to the ceremony, and my parents were not at my ceremony. They both had to work. They were both there and they both had to work. So I was there welcoming the parents and my parents weren’t there. Now I go back and look back at it and I say to myself that I wouldn’t do that to my kids. But at the time I think that I understood.
I knew that my parents were proud of me, my mom by demonstrating that sort of confidence in me, where she would not hesitate to rely on me. With my father, it has always been a little difficult. He is a very stoic man, not very good at expressing emotions. The way that he will express his love and care is that he’ll point out what is wrong with something or what is right with it. When I was a kid, for example, I was really good at drawing. Anytime that I would show him a drawing he would point out what was missing, which gave me that feeling that it’s never good enough. But of course I knew that he was proud of me. I’ve always known that.