“Clean, concise, clear –
Say the right thing.
Right way, no other way.”
Rethink, rewind, redo.
Say it out loud? Think it longer.
One way? Another way.
Some of this, some of that, somewhere between.
Say it now, how it is. Don’t deny
this way, my way.
Sing it with your voice, say it with your hands, sway it with your hips.
Give me the signal.
Do it now, do it naturally.
Don’t make me your example, excuse, lesson.
Don’t praise me, refute them.
Their way, our way.
Can’t say it, write it, express it?
Forget it? Switch. Switch back.
Ingles, Spanish. Switch it up.
Make it work, make them accept, make it real.
Don’t box me into their singularity.
Make it yours, make it both.
Channel, challenge, change.
Give me the signal.
I can do it all.
Lo puedo hacer todo.
This poem was inspired by Celia Alvarez’s testimonio, and also an earlier discussion we had in class about code-switching (primarily in reference to language in the poem, as well as culture).
I, too, was born a teacher. Maybe you of all people could understand the fulfillment and pleasure I get when I see the glimmer of understanding and comfort in a friend’s, student’s or relative’s eyes when they finally can communicate something once difficult to comprehend. Not just that, but the internal valor we feel when we can pave paths once unseen that will help someone realize their potential and find validity in their experiences.
I was always the maestrica. When my cousin Yamel came to the U.S from Santiago knowing nothing of English, I was her self-assigned English teacher. I was her supplemental tutoring in the mornings before Kindergarten and 1st Grade, and in the afternoons when my mother was still running her in-house (technically apartment) daycare. I became her math teacher, but I was still her English teacher and translator when needed.
When my abuelita wanted to learn some English to be able to greet and chat with her new neighbors in her co-op apartment after she moved out of our apartment, I resurrected the maestrica long forgotten in her focus on other elementary student things, especially after changing schools. I sat with her in her new apartment and repeated phrases and meanings until she could pronounce it easily. “Good Morn-ing”, I would say slowly. “Goot Mo-ning? Y eso e buenos dia?”, she would ask. “Thank you. Gracias.” “Denkyu?” I giggled, and so would she. But she was never self-conscious about her pronunciation, and I never judged. My grandmother never made the time to learn English because her neighborhood never required it of her. Her family never required that of her. My grandmother was the first person to teach me, never in the academic sense, but always of wisdom, of practical use and of life in general. She never learned to read and write in Spanish, but she picked up things for herself. She can slowly sound out words and put together meanings, and she can write very slowly and usually only words, never sentences. But she has beautiful scripted handwriting.
My passion for teaching comes from my abuelita. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that reasoning until writing those words down just now. When I think about it, she was always the one to tell me to do well, always the first one to say not to give up on myself or my opportunities. Sure, we always hear those words from countless people in our lifetimes, but now I know why she said that to me, and still does. Over the phone, “Dayi, yo voy a tu graduacion, verdad?” Of course, my life has culminated from your very strength and persistence as translated through my own actions — sometimes I like to think my grandmother lives vicariously through me when I come home and tell her what I’ve learned. I do this to make you proud, to fulfill what you have told me was never yours. For an interview in my Women in the Caribbean course, I interviewed my grandma and she told me how she has always had this hyper awareness of her own ignorance and the gaps in her knowledge. She told me that her sisters and her were always left in the dark by their own realities as women, their own bodies, and their relationships with men. She has always had this grave desire to never see me or my mom suffer at the hands of ignorance and social resolutions to keep women in their place. I have fulfilled that by making sure my purpose is to make sure that I can be a figurehead for those that are disenfranchised in the educational sphere.
For the past 15 years or so, I’ve always mindlessly said that I want to be a teacher. I never thought about anything else besides teaching. I can’t tell you who, or where or what I want to teach anymore (anyone, everyone). My passion is writing, I guess I became an English major for that reason. I, too, am a writer who teaches. Although I have not succinctly found my voice as a writer, I’m trying. I am teaching myself every day. I take every opportunity to teach, to write, to put myself out there and help others put themselves out there. Their voices, silenced, muted, or not so loud, will be heard.
Norma, I tend to ramble and lose my place when I write like this, but that’s the beauty of reflection and writing isn’t it? I’ve discovered my own potential through the support of my memories, experiences, and the people in my lives. You are now part of my collective. I’ve regained a confidence I’ve lost in school when it comes to teaching. I’ve been wandering doing small projects here and there (academic and not), without thinking about why I am doing what I do. But here I am, once again finding faith in what I know will be a difficult terrain for the educational perspectives of this country. I will dedicate myself to those that have lost faith in themselves and in a system (and officials) that deem it correct to disenfranchise opportunities and potential. These victories may be small, but every action counts.
It was thrilling reading these first few testimonios. In general, I felt an immediate connection to the storytellers and their use of language and form. Nothing ever felt too formal, too academic, or too dictated in usual forms of writing. In my creative writing course, my professor said one of our goals for the semester is to separate the self from the story and move away from personal reflections. At this point in my life, that’s something really difficult to do. My identity, and the exploration of my identity, has always come from my writing and my reflections. My creative writing isn’t a diary entry, but it is a testimonio to my experience in conjunction to my creative freedoms. I write what I know and that comes from within. Writing was my coping mechanism in difficult times, my hobby when words and sentences came to me in aesthetically pleasing ways, and now its a form of self-discovery and rediscovery of an identity that I feel like is slowly being lost. I’ve been channeling this course a lot in my creative writing exercises:
“My land is distant and familiar.
These memories of un cafecito
Under the sun en el patio de
Abuelita are displaced by incessant
Honking and rumbling subway tracks.
My land is distant and familiar.
I cannot be one without the other.
I exist as city lights and mango trees.
I am my memory and my mother’s.
I am the generation that remembers.
I am the memories of fiery summers
Of frio frios and sancocho shared
With abuelita en el parque with
No person or place demanding our
presence away from each other’s company.
I am my mother’s memory of desire
When shoes were a hard bargain over
Groceries since a mother’s sacrifice
Is her own perseverance in spite of
the lazy misogyny holding her back.
I am my abuelita’s memory of
Pain, soledad, la lucha and success.
I am the author of her untold stories
Waiting to be remembered by those
made possible by her resilience.
My land exists en las mujeres
Whose language refused to be lost
In a new land. This land is mine and theirs.
I am their choices and influence in
Moments of fear and hope, siguiendo el esfuerzo.”
(Dayamara Cruz, Creative Writing 2)
This poem is absolutely not polished or has any semblance of completion, but it is something I want to expand upon and reflect back on. It’s my attempt at a cinquain which means it is written in five line stanzas, and the assignment also included writing in iambic pentameter (which I fail at following time and time again).
This poem (which I wrote last week) reminded me a lot about Yvette Gisele Flores-Ortiz’s and Celia Alvarez’s testimonios. Ortiz’s reflection and stories resonated very personally with the stories my mother and grandmother tell me. I’ve also had the privilege of growing up with powerful and inspiring women, and I can’t imagine myself being so independent and resilient without them. I never deny my father’s strength and what he has done either, a lot like Ortiz, especially when he recounts the women of his upbringing being essential in a fatherless childhood. Her ruminations of belonging and bridging the gaps of her own life with those of her parents’ expectations and live speak a lot to the duality of Latinas’ identities when they are the children of immigrants. We are their hope from the despair of their pasts, both unspoken and well-known.
I connected a lot with Alvarez’s ruminations of the power of knowledge. Her “responsibility” as gifted by her parents is something that she shapes within herself. Her way “to knowing” wasn’t just reading the usual classics, but her sense of honor in her mother making her read Spanish newspapers. Not all people of Latino descent necessarily speak Spanish, but her reality felt a lot like my own. My mother, father and grandma only ever spoke Spanish at home, which is funny to think about since I never really registered that my parents could speak English until I was in Middle School. She claims knowledge as something granted to her, but as shaped and made relevant by her own circumstances. She doesn’t let the knowledge define her identity, but instead uses it as a tool of understanding knowledge. Understanding and knowing is the fine line that shows us what it means to make sense of our own stance and our own bodies in relation to what exists around us.
This first introduction to the testimonios have already forged relevance in what I feel is the purpose of this text. These connections have already allowed me to reflect on shared experiences that define a kind of theory that reflects experience while acknowledging differences in background, context and details. The process itself becomes the continuous study of respective pasts and how they inform the changing present notions of our own identities. I’m still thinking about this idea of theorizing through testimonios in a very broad sense, but I hope to continue breaking down these ideas and concepts.
In your story, I saw my own possibilities. I grew up looking up to my mother’s dedication to that which made her see potential in herself and her children. She was opened up to a possibility of self-discovery, change, healing and progress.
When she first arrived in New York City, she was plagued by an inability to apply for jobs that weren’t part-time. Although she started college in Santiago de los Caballeros (her hometown) in Dominican Republic, my grandmother couldn’t finish payments for more than a few months. She came to this great city for a chance at possibilities, and to stray from my grandfather’s lack of dedication. My abuelita, she was the one with drive and dedication.
Abuelita, tired of being held back by her husband’s routine and general passivity, became her own breadwinner. She started to sell homemade ice cream with the spare allowance she got from my grandfather’s paycheck. She invested in her own future, and in her children’s futures in a way that he never chose to envision. Abuelita invested in herself. She had to see the potential in herself so that she didn’t have to feel nailed down to a home life that threatened to keep her caged for decades to come.
My mother’s awakening came a little bit later. Upon arriving to Inwood (no, not Washington Heights), she invested in herself. When enrolling my brother into our community school (P.S.5), she discovered the organization that has been part of our family’ life for more than 25 years. The Children’s Aid Society literally saw my grow up since I was born, and up until the moment I write this letter. My mother enrolled my brother and I in the Head Start program, the after school program, and the programs offered during winter and spring break. I’ve gone on to volunteer for the same Head Start classroom I was part of and to work for the Summer Camp program for two years. My mother has worked as the Parent Coordinator of the program for almost 15 years, and my father has been a custodian for the program for about the same time.
The program connected me to my potential as a first-generation Dominican-American to reap the benefits of my education and beyond. They, along with activities and programs my mother led, helped me find a connection to the roots of my culture when I most questioned my claim to “Dominicanness”. My mom organizes parent workshops like English classes, how to get Spanish-speaking parents confident to help their English Learning children with school work, family life and sexuality classes, and nutritional cooking classes. My mother was my role model because I could see the change she made in mothers’ and fathers’ lives, while also forming friendships with them. She has never failed to create a community of parents that want to place an essential stake in the betterment of their own lives and their children’s lives in school. My mother welcomes immigrants from the Caribbean, South and Central America, the Middle East and Asia into the Family Room, famously known as Room 110. This is the safest space I’ve known growing up for conversations, jokes, chismes, support and a space for next steps.
This is what I’ve seen in you Antonia, and what I hope to awaken within myself, and something my mother has tapped into. Your legacy even gave my mother a place to comfortably takes workshops and a few credited classes at Boricua College — who would have thought I’d read about your part in my family’s life.
I most see myself in your accomplishments through my desire to work with bilingual and ESL/ELL students. Like you, I have seen the downfall of the educational system for the students that are simply thrust into an unknown language, but are expected to keep up with everyone else. Its disheartening. I must claim privilege to having a grasp of the English language since a young age, but I can’t deny that I was given support by my teachers, my parents and the CAS program. These factors aren’t necessarily true of everyone, so I want to be that factor in a student’s life to help them balance a foreign language and their own language. I recall the pulling forces that made me feel guilty for not speaking enough Spanish, or not enough English — you can’t please everyone. To this day I am made to feel self-conscious of my duality, but I have learned to take pride in my circumstances. Like you, I want to stop that. I want to follow in your footsteps.
What a feat
to acknowledge the daughters
of a struggle for la patria
still raging on
into the future.
What an inspiration
to feel Lola in the spirit of young
still pushing for la patria
with their beautiful
melodies of freedom.
What a terror
ques las calles
y los corazones
de Puerto Rico están
lleno de temores
y sin respiro.
What an amazing phenomenon
to experience my friends
and their friends
back down from the struggle.
no me digas
que me comporte
cuando soy más que
tú creencias porque
soy el destino de la patria
y soy la patria.