I was born and raised until the age of 16 in the Dominican Republic. I’m from a small, very rural town called Cambita Garabito in the province of San Cristobal. It’s in the southern part of the island, about 50 kilometers from Santo Domingo.
My family was very well respected in the community, with a lot of stature and power. Interestingly, that wasn’t because of money. It was because we were such a large family and because we had been there multiple generations. My father is one of 12 brothers and sisters, so in one way or another my family was involved in different parts of community life. My aunt and her husband were the bakers in town so they owned the bakery, another aunt was married to the mayor of the town, and my dad owned the tailor shop. Through these connections, people around town would know me. They’d say, “Oh yea, that’s the son of the tailor,” or that sort of thing.
I was also a very active young man in the community. I learned at an early age – probably because my small cousins annoyed me with their little car or soldier games – that I liked to be part of things that had rules that were established and somebody who was calling the shots, like baseball. I became a member of the basketball team and, at the age of 14, I joined a political party. I also became an organizer for a community talent show. The other organizers and I even went into Santo Domingo to try and solicit funds for the event from big companies, like the tobacco and rum companies. I was so young, only 12 or 13 at the time. It was an adventure! But I was good at these organizing things because I’d always been, since I was very young, my father’s assistant, his little secretary, in his tailor shop. I think that shaped me into being a very organized person.
My home life was interesting. I grew up in what is referred to as a dysfunctional family, or a broken home. There was constant turmoil between my parents, separating and getting back together, until they finally divorced when I was 11. At that point they began living completely separate lives and I thought perhaps that was the best thing to happen. My mom went to live with her mother in the same town, a few blocks away. I always wanted to remain with my dad, because we were very closely tied. He had intentionally raised his children differently than the old-fashioned way he grew up. His attitude was, “My children need to know my political activities, my friends, what I know, cause I need to rely on them. If I cannot rely on my family, who am I going to rely on?” Because he and I were good friends, when they divorced I chose to sleep at his house. My younger brother, the only sibling I have from my mom and dad’s original marriage, wanted to remain with my mom. So we shopped around in the way that we lived. I slept in my dad’s house, my brother slept at my grandmother’s house with my mom, but I bathed or showered at my grandmother’s house and I ate at my aunt’s house. It was complicated. Then my father remarried a short time after the divorce because, in his words, he felt he needed somebody to help raise my brother and me. After that my brother and I went to live with him and his wife, which was good. We were fortunate that he had found someone who treated us so well, a real mother. It brought some stability to a very chaotic situation.
There were other issues within my family that made my home life interesting. My father suffered from political persecution and because he was a tailor, people became afraid of coming to his shop. The business went bankrupt. He was also incarcerated at some point. Besides affecting my family economically, these problems and the constant turmoil between my parents made me feel like there was no one to take care of me. My brother and I were going to a little private school in the town that was very cheap, only 5 pesos a month for each pupil, but it got to the point that three of four months had passed since we’d paid. I was too ashamed to go to school and be presented with a bill to take home every month, so one day I decided I wasn’t going to stand for that anymore. It was then, when I was in the fifth grade and my baby brother was in kindergarten, that I took charge of his and my education. I took us to the public school to get us registered. The principal of the school said, “Well, where are your parents?” I said, “Well, isn’t what you need is the students, and we are here?” They just looked at me and laughed, then registered us and we went to school.
Since then, the fifth grade, I have selected the school that I wanted to go to and what I wanted to study. In the seventh grade I decided to go and do the admission test for a technical school. It was actually free, but very demanding, with a very rigorous admission test. I was admitted and I just told my dad that I was going to go and I needed him to give me money for it, because I had to travel on a daily basis. I did the eighth grade in that school, and then I began the high school part, which is when you begin the technical education. My first year I took classes in all the different disciplines – electricity, electronics, diesel mechanics, mechanical engineering – but after that first year I ended up moving to the U.S.