Date: Thursday, May 9, 2013
Location: New Hampshire Hall, Dartmouth College
MS: These were the very first bags in 2005. And this is one project, which is recycling plastic grocery bags. And these are from local supermarkets. And so, you know, the town recognizing my work through resolutions and so on. But this was the very first construction project and it was in 2003. This was a very so-called school; it was in very, very poor condition. Here, it would be condemned, but there, that was what they had. And the columns you could move with your fingers, and then it turned into this! (points at picture in brochure) So then I brought people from the US who worked with me and that whole community worked with me, and uh, I brought those organizations together, and uh, we built a community center school with the agreement that they would use it for 5-6 years while their school was being built.
MS: I’m not into building schools—the government does that in my country. But uh, they did, an in fact the school is now being remodeled. We also built community ovens, students from Shan Academy. We would always bring a lot of supplies and it was in 2005 when we brought the women the first plastic bags to crochet. But the focus of that trip in 2005 was the building of the ovens and working with that community on a baking initiative for them to bake and sell.
MYY: Does the… is the oven shared among the community?
MS: Yeah, community oven. So this was somewhat of a combination of the first…of bringing these women together where also they are in the baking project. A King Arthur Flour baker went with me and since then they have had five trips with me…
MS: …for that very purpose.
MS: Again, these are early bags; these are 2006. So this was the group that I took with me: two nurses, the baker, and a clown…(laughs) so that is an interesting mix of people. Here are the ovens. They’re housed in a building that protects them.
MYY: Do people sell the things they bake in there?
MS: Ummm, yeah, yeah. That was something that was envisioned initially—they envisioned initially, and they have done it, but they have done it in pieces; they have not done it as a coordinated program.
MS: If somebody in community decides to go bake and they go sell. Rather than the whole community coming together to bake and create a business to sell, which is really what they have the option to do—to create a cooperative venture. So these are the women and the women really stand out in terms of persistence with what they have done both in terms of collecting the plastic within their communities and using what I had brought to them, bringing fewer and fewer bags from here, because the goal was sustainability. So…through that they have gone for their education through the funding of the bags. So the sixth graders are now in high school. Some of them are in two-year programs. This was additional funding to a nursing home to help complete this building—additional funding for a diabetes section of a health center. Um, and then this was the beginning of the rural clinic, which was began in 09. And the clinic finished—completely finished. I actually don’t have a photo of it, but this was really near finished. And many other initiatives, many based on what the communities look for, but you can see the communities that they live in—beautiful, lush, living on about $2 per day, some less than $2. This is another school; we helped with a little remodeling, um books distribution, equipment distribution. Because I am a nurse, my access to equipment and medical supplies is fairly good, so I brought them. Up to that time, they did not have equipment that could measure the strength of reading glasses, so I, uh… and glasses in general, so people from other villages would have to travel to other towns and only if they had the money to pay the transportation, so they didn’t go. So I found somebody who in this community who donated this equipment and now they have it in the town that now covers 50,000 people—that’s a large population not having to spend to travel just simply to travel to optometrist. They have an optometrist there.
MYY: I don’t know if you know; this just came to mind. For my organization, there is this program called New Eyes—I don’t know if you’ve heard of them before—but they provide free eyeglasses to those who can’t afford it. But I don’t know if it’s only within the United States, or…
MS: No, they do that. No, the Lion’s Club does that. SightFirst does that. There are many many programs. So we don’t have a shortage of glasses. In fact, the Lion’s Club just offered me a thousand glasses.
MYY: Oh, that’s great!
MS: If I had a way to transport them. So I have to wait.
MS: And these are Lorena type stoves, uh, one of the things I did was facilitate the installation of three Peace Corps volunteers and um, they each then had their own key project and these were one of them; the clinic was the other. So they were the people on the ground who were spearheading the project with me. I was here and they were there. And I would travel three or four times a year to support the program and do fundraising. And then this is finally a brochure that was done about the women…and their project. They were recently selected by the Santa Fe International Festival. This fair brings artisans from around the world and out of 300+ artisans, they select about 200, 190 and they were selected. This was our second application. It’s a very important fair in this country. You have people flying from all around to the world to go to this fair. So it’s a wonderful platform for promoting their product.
MYY: Wow, that’s fantastic!
MS: It’s phenomenal. So that will be this July. And at the same time, just yesterday, it’s been in process for two years since my application, but just yesterday, a Peace Corps volunteer arrived, so this will be Peace Corps volunteer number four, and she will work with them for two years on business development.
MYY: Oh, wow, that’s fantastic.
MS: Yeah, so it’s been several projects and that one has been the ink of generating projects. So last year, I proceeded then. For many years, I had been functioning without an NGO. You can do that in my country. You are not obliged to have an NGO, so I was under auspices of another organization. But finally last year, 2011, 2012, I decided to create one so there is a bona fide organization that represents all the work.
MYY: So the NGO status isn’t actually required?
MS: Um, yeah, obviously I did the work for years since 1998. I didn’t have to file anything. I was just under the auspices of other organizations. So those other organizations continue to collaborate with me, but now I have an organization that speaks to all the projects.
MYY: Mmmhmm, that’s so great. Congratulations!
MS: Thank you, thank you. That gives you a sort of overview of the things that have happened there.
MYY: Are those pictures some pictures that you would be able to send along to me via email?
MS: Yeah, yeah, I have them all electronically.
MS: I’m just trying to think, there may be some older ones, cause this was a collage.
MYY: Or you know if you have the pictures, if you’re okay with it, I can also photocopy some of them as well.
MS: Sure, sure. And you can look on the website, since there may be some that are there as well. The most recent project I didn’t even mention. That one I just got back a month and a half ago, maybe two months ago. I—I spoke with a family, and I have been watching this family for about seven years. And their home is about to fall.
MS: And yet you go to visit them and they would act like you were being welcomed into their castle. You never would have thought of how bad the house was by the way they behave. They’re wonderful, humble, joyful, appreciative people, and I’ve known them for 7 years. So through a series of decision-making with the community and people—organizations who knew them, I went ahead and fundraised, fundraised the money for their home. So that’s it…I don’t know if you want to test it and see if the sound works, since my voice is kind of soft.
(tests voice recorder)
MS: Anyway, so that’s the latest project. The organization had started to do house-building, but the situation was—it was so bad the only piece of furniture in her living room was a table.
MS: And when once we built the house in February to March—we took a month to build it—it was a tiny house, you know, a tiny house. But enough so they could live somewhere safe. They moved the table out of the living room to put it in their new home and part of the wall collapsed in.
MYY: Oh my goodness.
MS: So the table was holding the wall.
MS: That’s how bad it was and you know, my country is affected by hurricanes and hurricane season begins in June. So that had been our goal to see if the home could be done before the hurricane season began. And I was actually told yesterday that the rain had actually began—the horrential rains had began. And they will last through November.
MYY: So it must be really bad for her right now.
MS: Oh, she has three children. One of them is disabled. Her husband, he earns $60, so less than $2 a day. And he committed his $60 per month to pay the bank back for a loan, so he has no salary whatsoever in what little he does. So yeah, we helped build a home and now she’s created a little business. This sustainability thread is always brought into whatever goes on. And also her commitment to her community. So anyway, that’s an aside, but that’s the latest—that’s the latest project.
MYY: Is she somebody who you knew before you came to the United States?
MS: Mmmhmm. Not to the US, no, no, no. I only knew—I know these villages only since 1998, for 15 years. Many of these villages are low residents. No, I didn’t know… (voice softens) But go ahead and ask your questions, so you can follow your own order.
MYY: Sure, umm… I guess we’ll start off with some of the more basic questions. Um, can you tell me about when and where you were born and where specifically you lived as a child.
MS: Okay, so I was born in the Southeastern part of the Dominican Republic. Very progressive town, with the refineries and resorts. And uh, I was there in school. I attended school with nuns – a religious school, and that was in the 50s. And by early 1961, we had the dictator who had ruled for 31 years—he was assassinated, and uh, that created a tremendous amount of unrest in the country…and my mother who I believed at that point was a single mom of three children is a seamstress—was a seamstress—decided that she needed to move out of the country in order to help us. And she had friends in New York City… and to everyone in my country, New York City is this wonderful place, where everything is easy and you know, you can find work and so on, so ummm, she sent me to the central region of the country, which was the subsistence farming region—very high poverty rate—to live with her family, umm, who were—umm, I didn’t grow up with my father, so this was her family that she was choosing to send me to. And they had seven children and adopted children, and…you know, parents and grandparents there. All in all, there were 17 of us in this tiny house. I don’t know, I don’t know how much it could fit, but it was a tiny house; there were only two bedrooms and there was a shack attached to the house in the back. There was no indoor plumbing. It was a dirt floor with a thatched roof. We slept on cots—two to a cot, and um, a tremendous amount of pestilence—bugs, bed bugs, all kinds of things. And my uncle slaughtered pigs, right there in the house, and ummm, he-he worked baking, he also baked and sold bread. So that was the lifestyle I-I—the transition from where I was born, you know, up to age 12, the style of living was very different. As I said, I was in a religious school, and in addition to that, my mother had maids who took care of us and took care of all of our needs, and here I went to a subsistence living environment with 17 of us. I was one of 3 girls, and even though I was 12, I was expected to know how to cook, and know how to go to the river to wash everyone’s clothing, and know how to use an iron—these old heavy irons that are now considered antique. I was expected to do all of that and I had a very steep learning curve. I had to pick up pretty quickly what my responsibilities were in that household. And umm, you know, so began a life of uh…I don’t know…uh, uh, self-teaching…and uh…in many ways, I feel like they contributed in many ways to my own capacity development, skills, and how to get around and manage in a difficult environment. That was a difficult environment—very very difficult. And um, very poor health conditions. It’s um, I never went to a dentist. I never went to a doctor. Whatever illnesses we had, they were just taken care of in the house, with whatever home remedies we had. And that was that, they couldn’t afford any home services, so…
MYY: So, basically, when you grew up in a household where you had maids, what was the transition—I guess why did your parents decide to send you to subsistence farming?
MS: My mother, well, my mother was a single mom with three children, so had to figure out what to do with us before she left New York City, and her family were the only people she wanted to send us to, even though they were dirt poor. As people say here. But those were the only people she would trust to send me to. She was thinking it would be a brief time. I think it ended up being close to three years. So, umm, but those were the people she trusted.
MYY: And how old were you when you moved?
MS: From my umm, birthtown to this town, I was 12.
MS: Yeah. And by…before I turned 15, um, I was sent to New York City.
MYY: That’s great.
MS: That was another very big shift, and if you think of a child going through—these were major traumatic transitions, major traumatic transitions…
MYY: It was only three years…
MS: …from one environment to another. So yeah, this was a Spanish-speaking country. I really, umm….I feel in many ways I gained the skills to find my way in New York City, but it was a very different environment.
MS: I learned how to survive. That was a skill. How to survive, you know, in….umm…and face a lot of odds in order to survive.
MYY: And uh…what were the names of the towns…the town where you were born and the town that you moved to?
MS: So, you will probably want to look at a map of the country, so you see the relative locations, but it is La Romana…
MS: L-A Capital R-O-M-A-N-A is one. And then Cotui, C-O-T-U-I is the other—that was the subsistence farming town. And it is Cotui where I return later on to do this work. So this is the base of my work since 1998; it was in Cotui.
MYY: Sound great..and can you tell me a little bit more about where you grew up before you were tell and elaborate more on how it was different for you on the subsistence farm and what that transition was like for you?
MS: So is your question elaborate more on my childhood before I moved to subsistence farming?
MYY: Uh, I guess I’ll like to know about both and your childhood before you moved to subsistence farming.
MS: Right, right. It was very traditional. It, um…um…girls were greatly protected by the adults. The nuns really focused on um, preparing their students for a life of education. So there was a strong emphasis on education. There was a strong emphasis on socializing you. My memories of those times with the nuns were hearing Gregorian chants. You have to know, my country at that time, the environment was not that sophisticated—people would not have known what a Gregorian chant was, and yet I was hearing that in religious school—and there was a strong emphasis on attending a religious life, attending mass, it’s a strong Catholic country—there was a very high proportion of the population that was Catholic, um…yeah…
MYY: How big was your family?
MS: Two brothers.
MYY: Two brothers?
MS: And myself.
MYY: So both your brothers also went with you to the farm?
MS: They didn’t. We were separated. Yeah, they went to um, stay with their own…their father’s family. Yeah.
MS: And it was an environment—the adults—as an adult today, I can describe it as oppressive. It was a secretive type of society. We were under the dictatorship prior to that, so childhood was…while everything seemed very orderly. My recollections was that there was a great deal of order, but it was also, there was an undercurrent of distrust because we were…it was a dictatorship that was running the country. I just remember the secretiveness that went on when there were political comments being made, when there were uh…you know, we had no TV of course; it was a radio. And you had to be careful what radio stations you listened to. You cannot have listened to radio stations coming from Cuba, for example.
MS: There was a, there were a lot of social restraints that were imposed at the time. I also recall as a student in religious school, marching, being a part of political parades in the street. I still remember my uniform. You were essentially told how to behave, what to say and essentially not to speak very much.
MS: And there was a very strong military presence in the environment that I was in, so my memories clutter with generals and medals and all of that you would witness, and very rigid kind of political behavior.
MYY: So…even the adults, the people in your family, they were also sort of um, like, would your parents tell you about anything that was going on, or…?
MS: Oh, no, no, there was no discussion with children about any of that. We just witnessed it. We would witness the…you know, the things being said behind closed doors, sort of securing doors, umm…comments about how we only had one political party. We had only one political party in the country. Somehow I don’t remember anything about elections, but there must have been elections somehow, but it was always for the same person—the dictator. But yeah, no, children would never be part of that. We would be told to hush, cause you know, if it was a comment or anything that was being repeated or anything that was being said. So the key then, I recall it in ’61, once he was assassinated, everyone knew. It was on the radio. So everyone knew, and um, my family, my mother’s family, and my brothers were connected to—related to university students, who were cousins. And these university students, many of whom were either assassinated or jailed because at the time, the military decided that military students were an insurgence. So within that year, there was a tremendous amount of persecution that went on…a lot of people disappearing, a lot of people dying…sort of unexplained deaths, and bodies would be found on the streets. Prior to that—that went on before he was assassinated, and there would be talk of that, but you didn’t witness the unrest. After the assassination, we witnessed the unrest as children. A lot of people running in the streets, and hiding, um, you know, the generals and military, a great deal of persecution. And I remember my home being ransacked, you know, they came in; you couldn’t say no, you had to…they knocked on the door, you had to open the door, so they came in and and checked everything and turned things upside down and the adults couldn’t say anything.
MS: So, uhh, and it was after that whole visit from the military that my mother made the decision to leave, and you know, take her house apart, and sell everything, and um, take off for New York City. Sent us to her family and my brothers’ families. Because it was a great deal of fear and uncertainty. No one really knew what was gonna happen. And you know, that followed…if you look at history, there were civil wars, many things that have happened in the country after that, between ’61, and uh…’66, so it was in ’64, ’62-’64—halfway into ’64 that I was in this subsistence village. There you didn’t notice very much, you know, you knew what was going on in the country, but it was a quieter environment. My town, the town I was in for my early childhood was much more progressive. It was more in touch with the politics of the country.
MS: It was a larger town…you know, much more modern. When I went to Cotui, Cotui was a backwards little town. It had a power plant, which would go off at a certain time, so there was no electricity—there was a power plant. There was no refrigeration. There was um, it was very different from my town, you know, it was a bit of village life. Yeah.
MYY: So, um, you spoke a little bit about your family and you said that you went to religious school. Did you live by the religious school? What was your housing like? Did your family live with you?
MS: I lived with my family, so I would be in religious school and at the end of the day, I would be sent home. I think I would come home for lunch, and then I would go back to religious school; cause that is the tradition in my country. You go home for lunch, and then you go back to school and you know, there is break between 12, 12:30 or so, and then you go back to school until 5, 5:30.
MS: So, I would be sent home after that. And I would walk. You know, kids at that time walked everywhere. In this other town in Cotui, once I arrived there in ’62, um, I was put in public school, of course. My mother’s family couldn’t really afford it. Nor could my mother for religious school, so I you know, I went to public school there with all the kids in that town. So…and the environment there, I described it already, it was a very difficult environment with a lot of kids growing up together and very little adult supervision. Umm, we were just at that very early on, we were expected to contribute to the running of the household and everything that went on. Age 7 or 8, you were expected to be a contributing member of that family.
MS: So, I had to learn to dig potatoes and dig peanuts; I had to learn the difference between coffee and cacao—you know, all of those things that I had to learn how to get rice from the fields, from the rice patties and shuck the rice with this wooden thing I had to hit. I had to learn how to do that with coffee. You know, there weren’t mills. This was all village-type life, so it was very old, traditional equipment that they used for everything. Cook on four stones with live fire. And learn to cook. And you know, just, learn to, learn to carry on my responsibilities as a 12-year-old.
MYY: So what were some of the classes that you actually had in class during that time?
MS: During that time? Um, in both towns – obviously the religious school had a strong focus on religion, um, and I don’t remember many subjects. I have wonderful pictures from there, but I don’t remember any subjects. I remember punitive—the nuns were very, very punitive. Um, so I remember being put in dark rooms all by myself as punishment. I don’t even remember what it was for. Maybe smiling at somebody, uhhh, when I wasn’t supposed to. And the subjects in this other town, I do remember more of that. I remember algebra. I completed the first year of high school there. I remember algebra, and I remember geography, and I remember uh, biology, um, history, so um, you know, math, sort of the basics. And I remember English too. We were not an English-speaking country, but the country was really trying then in the 60s to introduce English classes. It was so basic, you could almost laugh at it, and we just laughed ourselves through class; we never really learned anything. I came to New York City not really knowing anything about the language. Or American history. We did not study American history; we studied Dominican history, a little bit of European history, um, but I don’t remember a thing about American history. So when I got to this country and got put in the 9th grade, I didn’t really know American history. I had to teach myself, you know, sort of get caught up.
MYY: Did you—how comfortable did you feel about your English by the time you had left?
MS: None! I did not speak English. I came to New York City and I did not speak English.
MYY: Your English is fairly good!
MS: Oh, that is very nice. (laughs) I guess if you preface it with all things considering! No, I uh, uh, I just dedicated myself to learn the language and learn the culture giving where I was living.
MYY: So did your family have to pay for your education, or was it…
MS: It was public education in New York City, and at the time, there was a very small Washington, well, I was really on 81st Street, so those schools… I don’t imagine there was much funding funneled to schools that have foreigners. At that time, there wasn’t a focus on assistance or English as a Second Language Programs; there wasn’t anything like that; there wasn’t even special ed that I remember. So we were all put into what they called remedial classes. I remember I saw one of the classes I was being assigned to and I asked what the abbreviation meant, and I think that was an R and I asked what that meant, cause I didn’t know what it meant, and of course, I had completed the first year of high school in my country, and in my high school in my country, you begin getting tracked into college, so that last year of high school is really preparatory for college.
MS: So I was already choosing the sciences with the plan to go to medical school. And I was doing very well in algebra; I was doing very well in the sciences, and then I land in New York City, where I am treated as a remedial student who doesn’t know a thing. And in fact, I was put back on 9th grade. I had completed 9th grade quite well in my country—I had completed it with honors—and now in this country, I am put in remedial 9th grade, and treated as really, as dumb. There was prejudice; there was a great deal of prejudice. The other students who were of Spanish heritage from my school were from Cuba. They had come out of the whole exodus that happened between ’59 and ’61, so they were the other population. They were struggling in similar ways, and I don’t know how received they were. Those were the kids, I remember were primarily Cuban; there were very very few Dominicans. You know, in New York City now, there is a very high population of Dominicans, but that was not the case in the early 60s, ’64, so.
MYY: Was the population there…what would say is the population of uh, Latino students in that case in that school, of Cuban and Dominicans.
MS: Well, Spanish-speaking, maybe six Cubans and three or four Dominicans. Yeah, and it was in a large public school – public middle school. This was in PS 77 in New York City. So, um, and then the…the neighborhoods that I lived in were primarily Jewish neighborhoods. In that neighborhood, I think I was the only Dominican child on those streets. And then we moved to Washington Heights, and there we got to see more Dominicans. You know, it was a short block that had at least five Dominican families, which seemed a lot to me.
MYY: You originally lived on, uh…81st Street and then moved to Washington Heights?
MS: Mmhmm. So that was 81st, right by the Museum of Natural History; I lived there in the brownstones.
MYY: What made you decide to live there?
MS: It was my mother. That’s where she lived before I arrived. So she had friends who lived nearby. And I’m sure they were small, they were convenient, they were studios, they were affordable, and um, yeah, so I’m sure it was convenience and access to public transportation, easy access to public transportation. At that age, my mother couldn’t take me to school, so I had to quickly learn where to take to subway and um, I think it was a dime that you pay for a token, so it is outrageous to think how much that has changed! Yeah, so I had to learn how to get to…from 81st to 77th wasn’t much. I could’ve walked it, until we changed schools. I went to George Washington High School, so at that point, I had to take the train.
MYY: Mmhmm. Yeah, I’m from New York City too, so I definitely know how that looks like, and it has definitely changed a lot! Have you been back?
MS: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Oh sure, yeah, yeah. That’s later in my adult years. I spent a number of years in New York City before moving here.
MYY: What about back in the Dominican Republic? Did you have to pay for education there?
MS: No, it was public eduation.
MYY: For both the religious school and the…
MS: Oh no, religious school was paid. It was private. It was really essentially for families of privilege. Not everyone could afford that. And it still is the case. Not only religious school, but private school in my country, it’s still really for the families who are well-off, can afford that and uh, public schools for everybody else.
MYY: So did your mom pay for public education, I’m sorry, your private education?
MS: Yes, she was a seamstress. Even though she was a single mom, my dad would send her child support, and my brothers also received child support.
MYY: Yeah okay. Um, if you don’t mind me asking, when did your parents separate?
MS: I never grew up with my father; I never saw my father. Well I saw my father in my childhood, but my mother was a single mother very early on; so she had me and she had another relationship and had my two brothers, and that also, in the 1960s, they also separated. So um, I don’t remember many years of a stable family household. It was always my mom—she was the primary caregiver, and in many ways, the primary earner. So as a seamstress, you could do fairly well in my country.
MYY: Oh, really?
MS: Yeah, yeah. But she also had child support, which could help with our expenses, and primarily mine, religious school.
MYY: So you lived with your mom; did you also live with your stepfather as well?
MS: Right, I lived with my stepfather for…I don’t remember how many number of years, but it was a number of years that I, that he was with us, um, but I don’t remember. By 59, 1959 or 60, he was no longer there. So somewhere around that time, maybe 8 or 9 years? Yeah.
MYY: Can you describe your relationship with your parent and I guess, with your stepfather as well?
MS: Yeah, well you know, in many ways we were raised by the maids, so the maids took a lot of responsibility for us, you know taking care of us, preparing our meals, getting our clothes ready, taking us to places. And my mother, you know, as involved in our care, but it was sort of on the periphery…it was on the periphery. And my relationship with my stepfather—he was a photographer, and um, I just remember a lot of posing, so he would take a lot of pictures of us, which is good because otherwise, as a Dominican family, we would not have photographs. So we have those photos, thanks to him. But there was not a close relationship there. I did not call him dad. It was not a…ummm…there wasn’t a paternal relationship there with me, so it was mostly with his two sons.
MYY: Yeah. So do you feel like you… did you see your parents a lot in the household, or did they seem to… did they usually work most of the time?
MS: No, they were there a lot. My mother did a lot of the sewing in the home, so I saw her. She was around all the time. And we did have times away for a weekend, where we go near the ocean to, I don’t know what you call them, to cabins by the ocean. We would have some vacation time.
MYY: And uh, I guess, um, how would you describe how close you felt with your mother? Did you feel that you had a close relationship? You described how the adults were kind of secretive about what was going on. Did you feel…
MS: You know, my mother’s about to turn 90. And she’s in the Dominican Republic. She went back to the Dominican Republic. Um, she was never a fuzzy, you know, warm, loving, caring kind of mom. She was more…hmmm….you know, sort of learn to take care of yourself, learn to do things kind of mom, encouraging a lot of initiative on our part. I think initially it was kind of like “forced initiative” because we were too young. But she was never a warm and fuzzy mom. She still isn’t…she wasn’t that kind of mother. She wasn’t protective, she wasn’t attentive, she wasn’t, you know. Umm, yeah.
MYY: What about with your brothers? Did you have a close relationship with them?
MS: Well, we did to the extent that we lived together, and we were in separate schools, because they were in public school, I was in religious school. I was the more academic, I studied more than they were, so I would come home and I would study with my little friends who were neighbors—girlfriends—then studying. I didn’t spend a lot of time with them, except maybe on those vacation weekends; bickering in the house, you know as siblings, you know, um, I think our closeness developed much later on in the adult years.
MYY: Are they also in the United States?
MS: Yeah, yeah.
MYY: Are they also in Hanover or somewhere else?
MS: Somewhere else, yeah, yeah.
MS: Um, one in San Diego—one’s a return marine—and the other’s in Maryland.
MYY: Oh, wow.
MS: Yeah, and we’re only in our sixties.
MYY: (laughs) You still look so young!
MS: I do, thank you! I’m getting all these compliments from you; I definitely have to come back!
MYY: (laughs) You definitely have to come back.
MS: (laughing) Yeah, yeah.
MYY: Oh, you still look young. My mom’s in her sixties, and she already has white hair…I think it’s in our genes; I’m getting it myself!
MS: Yeah, yeah. I’m never told I look my age. (laughs) I hope I behave my age!
MYY: Um, and I guess, uh…to go back to talking about your education a little bit, um, can you kind of describe the two schools a little more…how the teachers were, how the students were, did they actually take their education seriously…
MS: Mmhmm. In religious school we did. There was a strong emphasis on culture and society and as I mentioned, music, there was a very strong emphasis on getting educated. I think that is where I received my values on education—it was from the nuns—and on behavior, on etiquette, on you know, proper speech, on posture—all kinds of values they instilled on us. Public school—uh, all bets were off. Public school was essentially a place where you went to. You got ahead if you wanted to study; if you didn’t you sort of coasted. So it was very evident to me, especially in this town, where, as I said, it was a backwards town; people didn’t really have an interest in education. It was a farming environment. Families preferred to keep their kids at home, helping with the farm rather than sending them to school. So um, you know, there was a lot of mockery of me when I arrived at that town by my cousins because they could see my education, they could see how I behave and how I spoke and what I did and they would mock that because they hadn’t seen that, they haven’t seen a peer behave in more social ways…well social isn’t term, but more cultured? So uh, they would mock me. And um, but then, in high school, clearly I was with a peer group of girls—five or six of us who were really focused on education. The rest of them were fooling around; there were five or six of us who still stay in touch. There were five or six of us who were focused on education—I was focused on medicine; I had a friend who was focused on chemistry. So two chemists came of out that group. One lawyer came out of that group, you know. They were very focused on education. But we were very serious about it; the rest of the kids—they were just joking around, fooling around, playing. So, uh, by the time I get to New York City, I had some values about education that were instilled in me, not necessarily by my mother. My mother had a third grade education. She barely knows how to write, and has very limited social graces. And again, she made a very good choice, by sending me to have an early education by the nuns. That was very important. And I could see that she made a very good choice because she knew that she could not impart what she wanted to see in me for the future. She couldn’t impart it. She didn’t have the skills for that.
MS: So she came out of a very tough environment. I think there were six or seven siblings farming, abuse, early marriages at age 14 to 16, you know, early marriages, so she was coming from a very tough environment, so it was my sense that she had a vision for something very different.
MYY: Right. Did she encourage you to pursue your education?
MS: No, not really, the nuns did. The nuns encouraged that really strongly. And um, in New York City, my mother was very interested in eking out a living. She made, I don’t know, maybe six thousand dollars a year, maybe five? If I ever saw the paystub, five or six thousand—that might have been a lot. And she very quickly had the three of us to maintain and take care of in an apartment in New York City, and those were very difficult times. She was very interested in having us help and having us work and uh, so she wasn’t that focused on education, but she knew that putting us out there, somehow we would get it, that somehow we would get an education. But she was not focused on education at all. She wasn’t saying “do your homework”—she wasn’t saying any of that. She didn’t know. She didn’t know homework existed. She didn’t use those terms. I had to do it. But, as I mentioned, those two and a half years in that farming town helped me develop some skills for self-sufficiency and initiative. I had some of those skills now. Even though she wasn’t mentioning that, I knew as I was coming from school what I had to do—I knew my responsibilities; I knew how to help, but I also knew how to keep on with whatever education what I wanted to get.
MYY: Do you feel like living in the subsistence farm changed your relationship with your mother in any way, I guess in terms of how you understood where she was coming from…?
MS: No, no, no. It was two and half, three years of not really understanding at age twelve why she was doing what she was doing…and…subsequent years in New York City still trying to figure her out and understand her. I think I finally begin to get—you go to a city like New York City—as a teenager, there wasn’t any time to contemplate my purpose for being there. It was survival. It was clear to me that it was survival I have to go for: learn the language, get an education, figure out the city, find ways to be safe in spite of the muggings—it was survival. So… and she didn’t teach me any of that; the city did. The city taught me a lot also. I think the difference for me in New York City at that point…at age…by the time I go to Washington Heights, um, Washington High School, by that time, cause I think I only spent a year at the middle school. By that time, by the time I head to high school the following year in ’65—it was ’65—um, I just met up with some really good mentors, and I already had an ability to establish mentoring relationships with adults because I was doing that in that town—the subsistence farming town—I was doing that as a young girl, in my town, of creating—I didn’t know what that was, I didn’t use that term—creating trusting relationships. So I already had the skills to do that, and in the high school, found ways of or was fortunate enough to meet adults who would mentor me. In high school, that made all the difference. It was the 60s; there were drugs coming in, there was crime coming in. There was a lot going on in New York City, and certainly in my high school. I had no interest in any of that—I had no interest, you know. I was very focused on getting an education. I wanted to go into medicine; I still had wishes of the things I wanted to accomplish, so uh…I think that the mentoring adults, the teachers, saw that in me, and brought me under their wings. That made all the difference.
MYY: What made you decide—I know you said when you started out in the Dominican that you were interested in health care or in medicine. What made you decide to…?
MS: Well in the DR, it was this interest in—you know, it is hard to know right now what my thinking was, but it was service to others. As a child, I had a very….empathic relationship with everything around me, so um, that quality was always there; I recall it as a child. So it was interest in serving others, and then it was fascination. I was fascinated by science and fascinated by how it explained things, how it explained function, how it explained existence. All of those things fascinated me. So um, I-I would be very excited to see experiments in biology and microbiology, and you know, as I studied more, um, and I think if it hadn’t been a move to this country, today I would be a doctor in my country, without any question, without any question.
MYY: So why didn’t you pursue becoming a doctor when you went to New York?
MS: Um, it was the environment I was in. Ummm, I pursued it and I was discouraged very strongly. I was discouraged because I didn’t speak the language. I was discouraged because, you know there weren’t mechanisms for kids like myself; there weren’t mechanisms in place to guide us. The systems that were in place were to track us into, I don’t know, technical jobs. So even though I was voicing that I was being told that I couldn’t because I wasn’t able to speak the language adequately, that I couldn’t do well on the exams, and you know, there would be many reasons that would be voiced to me by the teachers and it was frustrating to me because I didn’t believe it. But there was nothing else I could resort to. It wasn’t the age of computers. I didn’t know how to research or look up opportunities for um, you know, for foreigners, so I relied on the guidance counselors to tell me. So this one teacher saw my interest in health care, and what she did was, at about age fifteen, fifteen? Eh, yeah, sixteen—I had been in the country for only two years—um, or a year and a half. She connected me with St. Luke’s Hospital at Columbia University, and took me there. And I met with a chief dietician. And this teacher thought I would be very good at nutrition and dietary (laughs) and um, so, you know, she connected me with them. She was also my home economics teacher. That was a big thing for girls in New York City public schools—home economics, you know—to learn how to cook and to learn how to do things, you know. So I’m sure that was why she was thinking nutrition; she was a home economics teacher. And um, for me, I was like, well sure, I’ll try that—I was willing to try anything. But with the skills that I had, I found ways to explore further, so while I was there, yes, I worked in the kitchen washing dishes, but very quickly, my supervisors saw my abilities, and they would ask me to be in charge of menus, filling out the menus for the patients, so I got to be on the floors to see the patients and be in a hospital environment. From there, the director of the department saw my interest in… I had very strong secretarial skills; I was taking steno, I was taking typing—I typed like a madwoman; I still type like a madwoman. You know, so… I was developing all those skills in high school because they were trying to track me, what do they call it, I think it was called a commercial diploma or something, a commercial skills diploma or something. And uh, so it was, for me, I was learning skills I knew would last, that I knew I could use. At the hospital, uh, I think it was the head of the department saw my abilities and asked me to be… his secretary took a leave for three months, and he asked me to be his secretary. And very quickly jumped to a whole different level…
MYY: Oh, wow.
MS: …and you know, did that and got to know the hospital even better, and out of that, applied to nursing school.
MYY: So when did you actually apply to nursing school?
MS: Well, I started working at the hospital at age 16 and I graduated from the hospital age 18. So 16 and 18 I was working at the hospital. I was working at the hospital part-time and in high school, I worked every summer, full-time, um, until I started nursing school in the fall of 2008 [two-thousand and eight], I mean 2000 [two-thousand], (laughs) in the fall of 1968, so yeah, yeah. And applied to nursing school, and at that time, there was a big rave about associate degree programs, so I thought, “oh that’s a quick way to you know, start working, and you know, have a full-time job. And at that point, my mother was saying things like “if you want to fund yourself through college, cause she was hearing me talk about college, and she didn’t know what it all quite meant,” but she would say, “if you want to fund yourself through college, I think you better start working, you know, get yourself a full-time job,” cause I was working part-time, hours here and hours there, with the hospital. So, I-I just went to financial aid and got loans, and started the associate’s degree program for nursing. Again, I was fascinated by biology, microbiology, all of the sciences. I do remember that—I had very high grades in all the sciences—I loved them! And anatomy and physiology… I still remember so many things from those classes. And we’re talking about 1968! Um, but, at some point, so I graduated 1970 from the two-year program, but somehow didn’t continuing pursuing the interest in medicine; I pretty much stayed in uh… and some of it might have been resignation that the system wasn’t sit up for somebody like me….um, I had my struggles, definitely, as a teenager in a different culture, and um, so by the time I’m graduating from nursing school, I was determined to go back to my country. So I had only been in the US less than four years…let’s see 64 to 70, so five and half years, I had been in the country. Five and half years, so I’m already deciding to go back to the Dominican Republic.
MYY: Did you go back?
MS: I did, I did. And uh, it took me a couple of years. I decided to get my National Board Licensing as an RN. I worked for about two years at St. Luke’s hospital, where I started at 16 in the kitchen. And by 1973, I was hired by a Canadian company in the Dominican Republic to help them open a new medical center as their nursing director—I was only 23. And I said I would do it. So I had a lot of skills—part of it might have been because I was foolish—crazy to assume such a high level of responsibility, but I was-I was fearless. I was interested in being in my country. So I went back. And by that time, I had already met American men and men from other countries. One American man was, had finished medical school at Columbia. And I had met him at St. Luke’s Hospital, so he was an intern, interning his first year there, um, and I was a nurse. And I was already an intensive care nurse. I was going into nursing and I was already hitting the ground running. I wasn’t going to be working on a regular floor for the rest of my life, I knew I was gonna keep moving. So I went into intensive care, became a head nurse, supervisor—I was just moving, I was just moving in the profession. I went to the Dominican Republican and by then I knew these guys here and um, worked there for a year. And what I found was, having removed myself from the culture, it was a bit jarring to go back. I had been away five and half, you know, six years, and uh…the level of independence, initiative, self-sufficiency that I had developed in this culture was not valued or… was seen with suspicion in my country.
MYY: Can you elaborate on what you mean by suspicion?
MS: Young women belonged to a family—young women belonged to a family. They were not to be independent professionals carrying on a lifestyle with their own home. So there I rented a home; I shared it with other young women who were teachers and I was very independent-minded. I had acquired values and further skills in this country that were actually a liability for me in country—in my culture, in my culture. So very quickly, it was clear to me that the DR was not a place where I was gonna get established, unless I went back to school there—and I wasn’t ready to do that. I didn’t have the resources to go to school, to go into medicine for example. I, um, knew this man, um, we already were seeing each other, and traveling and meeting each other in different places in the Caribbean, um, so I came back to the US. So by age 24, in 1974, I came back to the US. And went back to St. Luke’s Hospital to work as a nurse in intensive care, and then decided to pursue my baccalaureate, so that’s when I went to Long Island University and completed the two years for the baccalaureate, and then continued on to Columbia Teacher’s College for my Masters.
MYY: Wow, what did you pursue your Masters degree in?
MS: It was Nursing Education. It was called then, “Staff Development,” but it was uh, a part of Nursing Education. And the idea was, I think I took one or two courses to continue on to an M.Ed. So the idea then was for me to continue on to an M.Ed., but at the point then after I graduated, John was already a practicing attending, and he was offered a position up here.
MYY: In Hanover? Is it at DHMC?
MS: Oh, it was through the College. Yeah, yeah,
MYY: That’s amazing.
MS: So that’s how time went. So all of a sudden, I found myself, sort of cultural interruption. I did spend those…’74 to 1980 in New York City again, but it was very focused on education, very focused on work, and um, you know, you know I had thoughts about an M.Ed., and M.Ed.D., and had plans for that. But then we got married, and I came up here in 1980. And then, at that point, I had to re-establish myself professionally, so I had to invest time in that. And uh, having jobs here, and um, learning the culture again…a whole new culture–a whole new social structure and environment. New England—I-I, it’s a wonderful place, but I hadn’t really appreciated how limiting it would be for me. Yeah, yeah.
MYY: Great. I think it is a quarter to seven.
MS: She’ll be there.
MYY: And I’ll let you go. And perhaps we can meet again.
MS: Why don’t you write to me and we can continue the conversation, and you can see what you else you want to ask.
MYY: I had a whole list of questions, and now I have even more!
MYY: Well thank you so much for meeting with me today. It was a real pleasure.