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Books, a Love of Languages, and School

Luis Guzmán Valerio

My earliest memory in New York: Black faces like none I had ever seen in the Dominican Republic now caring for me while speaking a language I did not understand (possibly African-American Vernacular English). Initially astounded by this cultural shift at such a young age, the exposure to different races and the eventual grasp of the English language created two opposing ideologies for me—English, a world language, and Spanish, the language of my tradition.

While I was in Kindergarten, my mother and her partner at the time, Mario, moved from Manhattan to Elmhurst, Queens, with me in tow. This coward beat her up so severely that she quickly sent me back to the Dominican Republic to be in the care of my grandmother. I had already acquired some English literacy and memorized the alphabet, but learning to read Spanish proved to be complicated. Despotism in the Dominican Republic didn’t end with Trujillo—with fear and the threat of violence, my grandmother made sure I completed my schoolwork as she waved the folded-up correa. “Mira, tú no te vas a parar de ahí hasta que no te aprendas tus clases,” she said as I whimpered at the kitchen table. Sitting inches beside me, she told of how she only attended school until fifth grade, when she had to quit and begin harvesting tobacco to help her mother.

Back in New York, the most septentrional city in the Caribbean, I was again placed in a bilingual class for third grade. I had a chance to talk to the neighbors as I walked to school. From a Haitian neighbor, I learned a few words in Creole. Yes, even here, thousands of miles away from our island, we Dominicans and Haitians find ourselves living in the same city with both Spanish and Creole displayed on trains and train station posters. I had Jewish neighbors and teachers (I converted to Judaism later in life) and was surrounded by immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. I could speak English to people from Greece, Turkey, Haiti, Hungary, China, India, Pakistan, and Guyana. I didn’t know what a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant was until I graduated from high school. Being immersed in and surrounded by different social and ethnic backgrounds made me profoundly aware of my existence.

Throughout high school, I read plenty of Shakespeare every semester in my English classes. On my own, I recall reading Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. And like Oscar Wilde, I was definitely gay! I could certainly appreciate what I read; however, as a bilingual, immigrant young man from the Dominican Republic growing up in multilingual Queens, I did not find myself in the books I read. This led to a lifelong yearning for the literature of the Dominican Republic, a largely marginalized literature, whether I should open up an anthology of world literature in English or the catalog of a major publishing house in the Spanish-speaking world. I’d choose to compose work that differs from the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

After graduating high school, I went through an entire application process for an English major scholarship—I submitted a personal essay and sample research paper, went in for the interview, and was offered the scholarship—which I then declined. To say that I made a mistake by not accepting a scholarship to major in English is inherently paternalistic and colonizing. I’d like to think I didn’t accept the full ride to college because I didn’t want to be like Richard Rodriguez even before I knew who he was. Rodriguez majored in English in college and grad school yet lamented that he benefited from affirmative action. His writing has also been used to support and promote an anti-bilingual education agenda. My main reasoning was that I was not interested in majoring in English because I did not identify with or see myself reflected in English literature; some people—whom I imagine are pro-assimilation—don’t understand that. Still, as much as I appreciate the literature of the United States, I posit that the origins of American literature aren’t entirely English, and I refused to subjugate myself to another four years of a continuation of the high school curriculum reading canon.

The key determining factor, though, was that the urban college I was accepted into didn’t offer housing. I desperately needed to escape the abusive household I had grown up in, where my mother didn’t think twice before savagely striking me with the heel of her shoe. Her then-husband, who had sexually abused me, was camping out on the sofa because they weren’t sleeping together anymore. Majoring in English and studying a modern and classical language should not have been my only option out of abuse and violence. At any rate, students should be able to major in whatever they want in college and be provided with housing.

The FAFSA was the most confusing undertaking I encountered as a senior in high school. My mother’s lack of cooperation made it insurmountable.“Yo no te voy a mantener y pagar todo eso,” my mother dismissively shouted when I approached her with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, making it abundantly clear she wouldn’t support me. I sensed she blamed me for another failed marriage, the looming divorce, and the uncertain economic forecast; prior experience had taught me that if I talked back to my mother, I risked being hit with a belt, a shoe, or a slap in the face. When I approached her with applications for NYU and Columbia, she mocked me for wanting to study at those institutions. “Oh, I want to study at NYU,” she said with a sing-songy, high-pitched, condescending voice. NYU and Columbia also had their own financial aid forms, and she refused to give her detailed financial information, especially her credit card debt, or so she claimed. I finally understood I’d have to figure out how to provide for myself.

The FAFSA asked for my father’s information. My mother and father had never lived together or gotten married. I hadn’t seen him since I was in first or second grade in the Dominican Republic, so putting down his financial information was out of the question. Was I supposed to put down my stepfather’s financial information? My stepfather was unemployed, and we hardly spoke.

The requirement that I include my parents’ financial information on the FAFSA was the biggest obstacle to attending college, and it wasn’t until I was 21 that I could exclude my mother’s financial information from the FAFSA. By then, she was divorced (it wasn’t the first time, either). I was relieved when I finally didn’t have to worry about questions regarding my parents’ income because it exposed that I didn’t have a traditional mom-and-dad type of family, which made me feel that perhaps I didn’t deserve to attend college.

After I graduated from high school, thanks to a friend I met at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, I was able to find work in bookstores. New York still had plenty of bookstores in the 90s. I juggled work and school and figured out how to take out student loans and pay for my own health insurance. Because of my work, I didn’t stop being exposed to books, and I was able to discover authors whose writing I identified with and was enthralled by.

I eventually majored in Modern Languages, completed a second major in Hispanic Studies, and even took one semester of Portuguese. I continued studying Spanish, French, and German as an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico. Looking back, transferring to the University of Puerto Rico when I was 23 was the best decision I ever made. I enjoyed living the life of a student in a dorm and escaping the abusive and dysfunctional household. When my father committed suicide, I converted to Judaism at the Reform synagogue in San Juan, and in doing so, I found a spiritual path that was right for me. When I converted to Judaism, I began studying Hebrew. At the University of Puerto Rico, I received a solid undergraduate education, finished a second undergraduate major, earned an M.A., and added Latin to the list, laying the groundwork for doctoral studies. Ultimately, for my Ph.D., I specialized in Hispanic Linguistics and took classes in Catalan and Galician linguistics.

And the truth is I didn’t just get an education. Being in Puerto Rico allowed me to make friends who have been in my life ever since, to travel back and forth to the Dominican Republic, and become acquainted with the country where I was born and, with that, my extended family. By the time I turned 30, I was ready to return to New York and continue my multilingual fantasy.


Luis Guzmán Valerio was born in Santiago de los Caballeros. He completed his B.A. and M.A. at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, and his MPhil and PhD at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Luis has published literary translations in both online and print publications, including Latin American Literature Today, Delos, Alchemy, Translators’ Corner, B O D Y, FIVE:2:ONE, and Sargasso. His creative writing has appeared in Chiricú Journal and will be featured in the forthcoming DWA Press anthology, ¡Pájaros, lesbianas y queers a volar!. Luis teaches Spanish at LaGuardia Community College and translates for the LaGuardia & Wagner Archives.

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