“It was here that I feel in many ways I gained the skills to find my way in NYC.”
I wasn’t really upset that my mother was leaving me. I think I was too young to really grasp what was going on. What I did know, though, was that living in Cotui was very difficult. So it wasn’t her leaving that upset me most, but the conditions in which I would be living. I came from living in very good conditions in La Romana: I had a comfortable home and maids; I would spend all day with nuns, then I would come home to sleep; and I attended church a great deal. Now I was being thrown into a subsistence farming environment, with fifteen or sixteen other people in a thatched-roof two-bedroom home, and we were all on top of each other all the time; there was so much pestilence and dirt and poor hygiene conditions I wasn’t used to. Cotui was a backwards town—it had no electricity, no power (they had a power plant), no refrigeration, and our home had no water. 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, but I never imagined that I was going to live there. All these things that I was unfamiliar with became traumatic to me.
My mother sent me to live with her brother, who shared a house with seven children and adopted children, parents and grandparents. All in all, there were 17 of us in this tiny house. 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 again, there was a tremendous amount of pestilence—bugs, bed bugs, all kinds of things. And my uncle slaughtered pigs, right there in the house and he also baked and sold bread. That was a very, very difficult environment with very poor health conditions. 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.
I was one of 3 girls, and even though I was 12, I was expected to know how to cook, how to go to the river to wash everyone’s clothing, and how to use an iron (the old heavy ones). 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 so began a life of self-teaching; in many ways, I feel like they contributed to my own capacity development, skills, and how to get around and manage in a difficult environment. I had to learn to dig potatoes and dig peanuts; I had to learn the difference between coffee and cacao and how to shuck the coffee. This was all village-type life, so it was very old, traditional equipment that they used for everything. We cooked on four stones with live fire. 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—just imagine all the hard work we had to do for the root vegetables we were going to have for dinner. Basically, I had to learn to carry on my responsibilities as a 12-year-old. There were a lot of kids growing up together and very little adult supervision. But at age 7 or 8, you were expected to be a contributing member of that family. It was here that I feel in many ways I gained the skills to find my way in New York City.