Date: Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Location: New Hampshire Hall, Dartmouth College
MYY: I really like what you had said about the music reminding you of home. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
MS: Well, I was speaking about the song because it speaks so much of my conundrum with this new culture, which even though I have been…in the Upper Valley alone, I’ve been here longer than anywhere I’ve been for the rest of my life, and yet there’s that, um, melancholic experience of what I…was put in circumstances where I needed to separate from them by coming to New York City. And the melancholy…just the nostalgia that is around not being of any one culture. I’m delighted, and I see the strengths that it’s offered me, but I’m neither of here nor there. I need to invest energy in understanding both cultures all the time…all the time.
MYY: So, you’ve definitely given up a lot, being in New York City. I mean, what do you feel you left behind—you mentioned before that you gave up a lot of things—what do you feel you left behind in the DR coming here?
MS: Well, what I gave up there in the Dominican Republic was a lot more than I have ever given up in New York City. So what I gave up in the Dominican Republic was the sense of discovery of life, of relationships, of people, of people living with basic or no resources whatsoever, and yet having a deep gratitude for life and a joy and celebration for life. Those were the kinds of things I wanted to continue experiencing—how to develop the capacity to celebrate life and yet not be dependent on or attached to anything else. They had a food over their heads; sometimes they weren’t sure where food was coming from, which is how I helped a family of fifteen plus people because having me in their home represented some kind of income for them through my mother. Because my mother they knew would send funds for them to make food so they could feed me. But for the most part, it was uncertain where food would come from…frequently eating what we grew or what we raised. That’s how we lived and eating very very basically, so we’re talking every day, it was rice and beans and maybe every once in a while, we would be able to have some chicken. That was a big deal. Chicken in those times, we had chicken on Sundays—it was a Sunday meal—so the rest of the times we have rice and beans and maybe sardines, you know canned sardines, and maybe cod, and it’s salted in my country, so it’s used by people with limited means. A lot of fried food—fried something…I-I don’t remember everything, but sometimes fried dough was a breakfast, fried dough was dinner. And it wasn’t the fancy fried dough we had here, but it was plain fried dough that they would dip in hot chocolate that they would make with water. Sometimes it was made with milk, and it was not hot chocolate from Hershey’s or the cans, it was pure chocolate from the farms—at that time, they still grew cacao, so the chocolate was made there. I don’t know that my uncle was making it but the people nearby were making the chocolate which he would then buy by little pieces, which my aunt would then use to prepare hot chocolate. So eating was very simple; our nutrition was quite limited—no health services whatsoever until I came to New York City. I had some dental work—somebody looking at my teeth when I was ten—then I had no dental care until almost age fifteen; no, fourteen and a half I came to New York City, and at that point I had to go to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital to get a full physical in order to sign up for school that fall—it was the fall of 1964. So there they discovered that I was positive PPD for TB. It’s not that I had active TB, but I had a form of it and I needed treatment. No one in my country thought about that, never saw a physician. So…but what I gave up in the Dominican Republic was a tremendous amount…was a level of socialization I was already developing as a fourteen-year-old, you know, creating my own peer group, and in many ways, creating dreams about what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. School in my country begins tracking you depending on your strengths; they start tracking you so by the fourth year of high school you have a pretty good idea what profession you want to go into; you begin the profession immediately when you step into college so you don’t have the four-year liberal arts that is required here. If you say you want to become a chemist, you go to college in the university there, and that’s what you would begin studying and fulfilling whatever number of years it would require. So I already had those dreams of what I wanted to do, and much of that gets truncated by my trip to New York City. And yes, New York City offered ample opportunities; I was a foreigner in a foreign land, and there was much to discover, there was much to experience. Um, my mother created us…had a safe place for us to live and worked in a factory, so even orienting me to the city was something not something she could do; she didn’t have luxury of that. She would say “these are the trains that go to this place—in Spanish—and here are ten cents, and this would give you a train ride where you need to go,” so from where I lived, I started in ninth grade in New York City, at the time when I arrived, and I lived on 81st Street, just four blocks from my middle school and I just walked there every day. I had a great time, reading signs, reading…I was very motivated to learn the language. I really, in my country, they claimed they were teaching us some English, but it was useless here. I really had trouble pulling out words that I had learned in my country in class because it was not conversational English. So in New York City, um, what was I telling you…just my effort to learn the language, and that was what I was focused on. My mother, as I mentioned, had a third grade education. She…was learned what she needed to learn of New York City to get around in New York City; essentially, the train ride to the factory was what she learned to do. She had a third grade education so she didn’t know how to read very much. Read—very limited; write—it was very limited writing that she could do. And it was impressive how much she was able to accomplish with just a third grade education. Up to this day, she speaks a little bit of English, but it is not even enough to have a conversation with someone; she knows how to ask questions to get what she needs, but if she gets an elaborate answer, she’ll lose the train of information—she won’t even understand it. So even in that, I mean I have to say the giant leap she made was to come to this country—it was a giant leap. She was doing it…my sense was that she was doing it out of a sense of necessity. She was at that time a single mom with the three of us; the country was very unstable…you know were on the verge of civil war. We had, um, we had, the dictator had been assassinated. So there was a lot going on. Cousins of mine, nephews by marriage—from my mother’s previous marriage—nephews from her partner’s family had been assassinated. And they were engineers or were university students. And many university students in the early 60s were deemed insurgent; they were persecuted, murdered. And I think my mother, seeing that general picture, decided she needed to go. And out of necessity again, had to separate us—sent me to be with her family in the mountains and left my two brothers in La Romana, the town where we had been born.
MYY: Can you tell me a little bit more about your mother’s migration experience? How did she get here and prepare for her trip?
MS: By the time she was preparing for her trip, I wasn’t with her anymore. I think she sent…she must have sent in you know, split up our family sometime in ’62 and flew to the US. I think it was it ’62; it could have been in ’61. Trujillo was assassinated I believe that was 1960. And you can check on that, but I believe it might have been in 1960. Kennedy might be—was Kennedy 1961? So Trujillo might have been 1960. And so that intervening year and half, there was a lot in terms of my mother’s planning and communicating by letter, ‘cause it was the only form of communication. We didn’t have a phone in my home, we didn’t have TV—you know, we didn’t have these things. So there was a lot going on in her planning that I had no awareness, you know, barely ten or eleven years old. I had no awareness of what she was planning or what she was doing. All I know was that a point came when she said that she was going to leave and she was sending me to Cotui. That’s all I know. I don’t remember what she said about…maybe she said she would send for me. I just remember being sent to this town where I had no electricity, I had no power, the home had no water. It was a dirt floor, a thatched roof—it was a place that I would visit during school vacation, and it would look very interesting to me when my brothers and I visited because it was on the mountains, and my town, La Romana, was on the coast, so that made it very interesting to me, but I never imagined that I was going to live there.
MYY: So you mentioned your mom came here illegally—do you know how she planned that process and how she actually came?
MS: I think she somehow, she may have purchased a visa. That was the illegal part of it. She didn’t go through a complete process, and I don’t know the details of that. She may have purchased a visa, and I just remember something about photos of her in Halifax, Canada, so that might have been where she came in, and then coming to the US in a bus. It’s all I…those are the fragments that I have, and hearing a year, a year and a half later that she now had her green card—hearing from my uncle that she now had her green card, which allowed her to send for us, and that was her goal; I mean, she left for that goal in mind, that she would send for us. It was just hard for me to retain when and how and how long I would be in Cotui.
MYY: How did you feel initially when you found out initially that she was going to the United States and that she would leave you with relatives?
MS: I wasn’t upset. I think I was too young to really grasp what was going on, so I knew living in Cotui was very difficult. It wasn’t her leaving that upset me most, but the conditions I was living in. I came from living from very good conditions in La Romana—you know, very comfortable home, maids…I would spend all day with nuns, then I would come home to sleep; I attended church a great deal, and to now being in a subsistence farming environment, with fifteen, sixteen other people in this thatched roof two bedroom home, and we were all on top of each other all the time, so that upset me most, because there was so much pestilence I wasn’t used to and dirt and poor hygiene conditions—I wasn’t used to…I wasn’t familiar with any of that, you know…to have to deal with parasites, you know, left and right I had parasites all the time, left and right I had parasites. So it was all these things that I was unfamiliar with all the time that became traumatic to me.
MYY: Right. So you had your chance to come to United States, how did you prepare for it in particular? Did your mom come get you, or how was that process like?
MS: I don’t have strong recollection of the whole process, other than at some point, there were friends of my mother who either picked me up at Cotui, or I was sent by bus from Cotui to the capital to Santo Domingo and they met up with me and they took me to the consulate, then I had a visa. That photo that you see that I took with my brothers…so somebody took me there, an adult took me to La Romana to say goodbye to my brothers and then the next day, I had a flight. I was you know, I’m sure the ticket counter was Pan Am—I remember it was Pan Am—um, brought over to the flight attendant who then took charge of my travel, and I arrived at JFK. I still in fact, have a photo of the passport…so I will try to bring that the next time so you can see that.
MYY: And when you left, how did people react when people found that either you were leaving, or your mom was leaving—how did people feel about that in your community?
MS: When I was leaving for the United States, I was very upset, because now, after the initial six to eight months of difficulty, and not really liking the environment I was in, I now had to say goodbye to a peer group that I had established. And um…you know, I had good friends. In fact, during my time in La Romana with the nuns, I really didn’t have good friends, maybe one friend. I developed a lot of friendships in Cotui, primarily through school, and because I was a teenager at that point. It was very, very difficult to leave. In fact, if I had had a choice—because I obviously didn’t have a choice as an adolescent, as a minor, I probably would have stayed, because I now had grown accustomed to what the expectations were and what I had to do there. By age 14, I was already being held responsible for participating in and preparing the meals—the main meal there was at noon; I was responsible for keeping the house tidy—making beds and washing clothes in the river, because that’s where we had to walk—it was about 8 kilometers to walk to the river to wash clothes and so I had grown accustomed to those expectations and the hard work they had to do—digging for potatoes, digging for peanuts, you know, the hard work they had to do for our root vegetables we were going to have for dinner. I was fine. I had a lot of fun with my friends; we did a lot of dancing at that age; in fact, where I was developed my love of dancing was in Cotui, with dear friends, so yeah, I did not want to leave.
MYY: What was a public conception of New York City or of the United States in Cotui or in a La Romana; as a child, did you think about going to the United States? Did you have any desire to go there at all?
MS: I was a little bit, um, well I had to go to New York City, because my mother sent for me, but I didn’t really know what it would be like. I arrived in a very lovely environment, which was brownstones in 81st Street in New York City on the West Side. That was a very pleasant environment; I didn’t know about the rest of New York City. It’s then my growing up years that I discovered that crime, that I discovered the drugs, that I discovered the challenging things for someone growing up in New York City. Um, so I really didn’t have a conception of what New York City would be like, but I was much like, oh, it’s the United States; it’s another country. At that point, I was very engrossed, having completed the first year of high school in Cotui—I was very much engrossed in World History, in Dominican history, and in fact, really didn’t know much about American history other than when Kennedy was assassinated, so I really know much American history.
MYY: Just as a clarification, I know you mentioned when you came here, you were in the ninth grade. Is that still middle school?
MS: That was still middle school in New York City. Yeah, yeah, I mean they had middle school which was seventh, eighth and ninth at that time, in 1964. Seventh, eighth, and ninth.
MYY: For me, it was sixth, seventh, eighth, so it was a little bit confusing.
MS: Yeah, so then it was seventh, eighth and ninth.
MYY: And then it was also four years of high school?
MS: No, then three years of high school. So ninth grade, and then I went to high school for three years, you know, tenth, eleventh, twelfth.
MYY: Okay, I see. Was that the same in the Dominican Republic as well?
MS: Oh no, our system was very different our educational system. So, um, it’s divided up, so I don’t know exactly. (interrupted by phone call)
MYY: So, my last question for you today is whether you have any regrets coming to the United States, leaving from the Dominican Republic?
MS: Hmmmm… (thinks for a couple seconds) That’s difficult to answer because I—what I left behind was a lifestyle that I would no longer have again, which was quite difficult. It was a very difficult lifestyle. But coming to another culture has represented an enormous amount of opportunities. Limitations—yes, because I came not speaking the language, and there were what students like myself, with students like myself, there would be very limited opportunities with what we could do or hope to do. There weren’t any special ESL programs; there were really no programs that could help me get up to speed with the language. I was up to speed with the academics—I had done algebra, I had done geometry already, the required courses in ninth grade in the Dominican Republic, but not knowing the language, it was difficult for me to explain all of that. And I didn’t know what former basic testing they were doing. They must have done some type of basic testing to determine my placement. But all I remember was being placed in—you know, I came to the Dominican Republic with very strong self-esteem, and being placed in the US in remedial courses where I felt I was being treated as someone from a different culture and not very smart, and I was considered very smart in my high school, very sharp, and-and really have it together, to an environment where I am now being labeled in a way that is limiting and dumbing me down. So I felt very dumped down, you know, dumped down those first couple years, which in some ways, helped me pick up the language. I had to, in some ways, apply myself as best as I could to learn the language. And I feel, by the time I’m finishing high school four years later, three years later, well ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth—I’m proficient with the language, and yet there are all kinds of judgments that are still being made about my ability to succeed in the sciences, or succeed in what I was interested in. The high school was aiming me in the direction of technical programs and secretarial programs, so no one really…I didn’t know how much time they were taking to see my aptitude, because I don’t remember taking strong aptitude tests to determine what I was placed in. So what I did in secretarial school—I completed all the requirements, I mean I call it commercial high school diploma—it was in high school, but the concentration was commercial. I don’t know what that meant besides they wanted me to be a secretary. So I just became a strong typist and strong with steno, and remember at high school during graduation and I was called to the front, and I was given an award called the B’nai B’rith Award, and I don’t even remember what that award was for, but it may have been for “accomplished student,” or “accomplished foreign student”—I should look that up sometime. But I remember having that award, and by then, by graduation from high school, it was clear that I was going into the sciences, but in a different direction than I had imagined and had anticipated, and I go into nursing school.
MYY: Great! So, I think that’s it for today. You have to go, so thanks so much for coming today!
MS: You’re welcome, you’re welcome.
MYY: And we’ll continue the conversation again next time.