I am originally from Brooklyn, New York. Over the course of a childhood spent bouncing back and forth from home to Manhattan for school and family parties, I never really experienced not seeing other Hispanics, minorities or people of color in my day-to-day life. The kids I played with at school were of all different colors, I saw people of all races and ethnicities on the street, and my teachers and other adults in my life were a mix of red, white, yellow and everything in between. I liked everyone and grew up for the most part unaware of any type of cultural divide between myself and others. Then again, I was only seven or eight at the time. Even if I had experienced it, maybe my little girl mind just didn’t understand. New York City is the culmination of the Great American Melting Pot. For the first few years of my life that I can recall, it was all I knew.
My parents and grandparents, aunt and uncle all worked and spent a lot of time bouncing between those jobs and collectively taking care of myself, my sister, and my cousins. When we were younger, we were together all the time- just 7 little Puerto Rican kids hanging in my grandparents’ living room. Around the time that I was 9 or 10, my mom had gotten a really time- consuming and demanding job, and my parents had saved up enough money to build our first house on a little over an acre of land one state over. We left our apartment and took a two-hour drive to our new home.
I had never had my own room or my own backyard or a real Christmas tree before. All of a sudden we had a 15- foot pine in our foyer in the winter, two living rooms, and even a guest room. It was totally different.
So was my home life.
Both my parents still worked in New York City and either drove the 4 hours round trip to go to work or saved the money on gas and took a 6 hour round trip train ride. The money was good and we liked our new house, so my parents did what they felt they needed to. Since they traveled so much every day, my sister and I had a family friend from the Dominican Republic come over as an au pair to take care of us. She lived in the guest room, and she loved us very much. She would braid my hair and put my sister in her high chair. She was very traditional.
In Brooklyn where I only hung out with my cousins, I didn’t ever have play dates or sleepovers because I didn’t need to. We were seven, and Latino kids in New York just didn’t really grow up doing that. In this new town, our neighbors’ houses were almost a mile apart from each other and you had to drive to get anywhere. Nobody in my family had every moved out of New York City, let alone the state, so we were on our own. There wasn’t really any time or any way to get to know neighbors. On top of that Doña Griselda didn’t drive or speak a word of English. Even if she wanted to organize something fun for us after school, she couldn’t. It was school and Doña Griselda during the day, home and mommy and daddy at night.
At school, I couldn’t even make friends. Nobody in my class had ever seen someone with dark skin before. And as third graders, they weren’t really too nice about either. I had people tell me they couldn’t be friends with me because their dads didn’t let them be friends with “black people”. This made no sense, because even if I was Black, what kind of parent raises their 10- year- old kid on racist stereotypes? I had people slip me Post- it notes under our desks telling me I was “stupid” or “a monkey”. Other parents wouldn’t let their kids come to my house or babysit me when my au pair went back to D.R. to visit family because she didn’t speak English or my parents weren’t white.
I felt completely isolated and I didn’t fit in. I still tried. I invited some girls from school to my Barbie- themed birthday party. I joined Girl Scouts. I invited my cousin who was in the Marines to come all the way from New York City to do a presentation for my classmates on Veteran's Day. I brought cupcakes for the class when it was my birthday. No matter what, I still always knew that at school, I was different. Not the good kind, either.
This went on for a while, and to this day I don’t even remember if I ever brought most of my problems at school up to my parents. Doña Griselda wouldn’t understand and couldn’t help even if she wanted to. My parents and I only saw each other late at night when I was already tucked into bed. They worked so hard to make my life great that they tired themselves out. They tired themselves out to the point that one day Doña Griselda left, my mom stayed home, got a new job and then we moved to a newer town only 50 minutes out from NYC.
Our house got a little bit smaller; we didn’t have all the extra rooms anymore. Our neighbors were right across the hedge or down the street. They knocked on the door with housewarming gifts. I got invited to my first sleepover the day I moved in. The person who invited me is still one of my best friend to this day. My family was together every day. We didn’t need an au pair now that New York was less than an hour by train or car.
We weren’t so far from being the 7 Puerto Rican kids in our grandparents’ living room anymore. I was still the only Latina in elementary school, and in high school one of a few. The racism was a less prevalent. Sure, my hometown can still stand to tone it down with the ignorance a bit, but everything one step at time. Being closer to New York has its merits, because it’s not like I was some kind of feral child being gawked at by my classmates anymore. It is better understood in my current town that no racial demographic is inherently good or bad. We are the ones that determine whether we are bad or good.
Being back in familiar New York City at university has allowed me to rekindle my love for my Latina- less. I look around and I see people that look like me, as well as people that don’t look like me. Both of those things make me happy. Diversity is so important to expose all people to, so that you don’t raise your little kids to tell their classmates they can’t be friends. Granted, my childhood has been a combination of cultural shock and whiplash, but I wouldn’t have it any other way because it has taught me what it means to be compassionate and accepting of others and myself.
When you come across somebody new or someone different, build friendships, not barriers.
(Disclaimer: In no way shape or form do I mean to slander any particular state, city, town or person within the New York City metropolitan area. These personal experiences are mine and mine alone. Locations and names have been changed or omitted in the interest of preserving the integrity of all involved.)