Tu tienes comida en la casa? Dime si no tienes para decirle a Titina o a Mercede que te den cincuenta pesos pa’ que hagas una compra. Immediately, after we say hello and ask each other how we’re doing, Mami still asks me if I have food to eat. Thirty years ago, my parents bought a house and moved to New Jersey while I stayed in New York City and became a single parent.
Mami has always been that caring and nurturing mother who worries about her children’s wellbeing. She will give us the food on her plate and empty her bank account to ensure that we were fine. She always fusses over us and makes sure we have everything we need. Mami was born in Pedregal, a campo of the municipality of San Jose de las Matas. This beautiful town is situated outside of Santiago and is surrounded by rivers and waterfalls flowing down from the mountains. She was the youngest daughter of Papa Joaquin and Mama Nina. They were humble folks but had land with a flowing stream, mangoes, orange, and coconut trees. Mami grew up with 9 siblings in a small house on the flat part of the land. The house was made of wood which was painted green and had a zinc roof and a wraparound galeria. As soon as you opened the front door there was a living room followed by two small bedrooms with a small window in each room. The meals were cooked in the fogon on the side of the house. The food cooks slowly over a fogon and it gives it an exceptionally good flavor. To shower they had to go to the back of the house and get water from the tanque using a bucket and stand behind a wooden wall that Papa put up. The letrina was in the back of the house and when it got filled up Papa would seal it closed and start a new one. I visited the house where Mami grew up when I was a young girl and remember thinking what a magical place it was. Mami tells the story of how she had to share a pair of shoes with her sisters when she was a little girl and that she only got to use them on Sundays to go to church. Mami only went to the third grade because the other school was in San Jose de las Matas and it was too far for her to walk to every day. She did learn to read and write, and today she is an avid reader of the bible. Once she immigrated to New York, Mami and some of her siblings built their homes on the land which they inherited from my grandparents.
Mami immigrated to the United States at the age of twenty-one. She arrived in Queens, New York, and quickly became pregnant with my brother and thirteen months later I was born. My mother always tells the story of the day I was born. As soon as she arrived at the hospital and before she was taken to the delivery room she was already pushing me out. Tu si saliste fácil, ni tuve que empujarte, she tells me with a big smile from ear to ear. Yo creo que fue ma dificul llevarte pa la casa que parirte, she recalls playfully. Las calles estaban llenecita de nieve tanto que los carros no podían pasar. Eh ma ni los trenes estaban trabajando. She says that my father had to wrap me up tightly and bundle me up under blankets and walk through the train tracks on a snowy February day. Back in those days it snowed were mountains formed in the streets and the streets became a winter wonderland.
Mami has always been the most nurturing of mothers. To this day whenever she comes to my house or I visit her, she wakes up at the crack of dawn to make avena for us. Mami makes the best avena Dominicana with the perfect consistency and the right amount of sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla extract. And while you're drinking your avena sitting at the kitchen table she’s already talking about dinner. Y qué quieren comer pa la cena. My sister and I are always break out in laughter and say dianche mami we aren’t even done having breakfast and you’re already talking about dinner. She starts to boil the beans and seasons the meat or chicken before she peals the platanos for lunch. Then when dinner is done and we eat she has a plate for everyone else outside the house. La vecina, el sobrino con la mujer, and anyone else that comes along gets some of Mami’s rice and beans.
Mami was a shrewd businesswoman in her younger years. She has always had the pulse of her people and knew exactly what they wanted. In the 1980’s she had a tienda in our apartment. She sold both new and used clothing. She got the used clothing from the trapera factories that my father’s mother and sisters worked at. The new clothing, she bought at a few spots. She had first dibs at Nino Fashion on Broadway whenever they received their shipment of jeans. She would buy them in bulk and pay wholesale prices for Jordache, Filippo Totti , Gloria Vanderbilt, and the Bubble Gum jeans. Mami also dragged us down to Orchard Street where she bargained with Hasidic Jews for blusas, camisas, y poloches. I remember her walking into the shopping area set up with stalls like she owned the place and go up to the vendors and asked how much for this or that? If they told her a price she didn’t like she’d say that’s too much and start walking away knowing they wouldn’t let her walk too far before calling her back. I learned these negotiation skills from my mama and have applied them many times, not only when making purchases but also when dealing with people. On Saturdays, our apartment was always filled with customers coming in and trying on clothing and having a cafecito while they negotiated on prices with Mami. She had her steady customers porque ella fiaba mucho y rebajaba los precios. Aveces tenia que salir a la calle e ir a mucho apartamentos para cobrarle a la gente. One time a man followed her, and she was sure he was trying to rob her, but she hid from him and he wasn’t able to steal her money
My mother is a woman of faith and is devoted to the word of God y la vigencita. When my parents moved to New Jersey thirty years ago, Mami was involved en la Renovación Carismática. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal is a section within the Catholic Church that they center on the bible and is similar to the Pentecostal religion in that the focus is on the devotees’ relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. When she lived in Inwood she was one of the founding members at the grupo Carismatico that met in the reception hall of Good Shepherd. My parents and other couples in the family went to marriage retreats while the children went to youth retreats at St Pius in the Bronx. Mami was very active in New York City attending the weekly prayer groups and monthly retreats. She longed for this in New Jersey and felt empty without her group where they read the bible and sang songs to praise the Lord. Mami had a dream one night where God spoke to her. When she woke up she went to the bible to read the verse that came to her in the dream. The verse was “Graba en tu corazón los mandamientos que yo te entrego hoy,repíteselos a tus hijos, habla de ellos tanto en casa como cuando estés de viaje, cuando te acuestes y cuando te levantes. Grábalos en tu mano como una señal y póntelos en la frente como tu distintivo; escríbelos en los postes de tu puerta y a la entrada de tus ciudades en Deuteronomio 6:6-9. Shortly after this dream, she founded a group at her local church in New Jersey porque le hace falta la oración en grupo. The group is going strong for thirty years now and there are usually about 80 people in attendance every Thursday night. She has organized hundreds of Sunday retreats where she always has special guests, food for about 200 people and where she and others lead prayers. A guest at one of the retiros was Angelito Villalona, the brother of Fernandito. Mami has managed to sustain the group and organize the Latino community in the town where she lives to continue their faith. She also collects money and donates it to families in need. If a woman is giving birth, she gets them many of the essential items or if someone needs some money for medicine or to pay a bill because they didn’t make enough money that month then she will help them out. Lately, because of the pandemic, she started doing Facebook live videos where she leads people in prayer. Her last live video reached over 800 people.
Mami is still a caring and nurturing woman who still wants to provide for her adult children and those around her. We talk every day on the phone; at least five times daily. She still asks me if I have enough food to eat and if I need her to send me some money.
Marilyn Ramirez is a second-generation immigrant born and raised in Inwood, NYC. She studied at Fordham University where she double majored in economics and Latin American and Latino Studies. She took courses that focused on Latinx literature and culture which led her to obtain her master's degree in sociology. It was in these classes that she was exposed to the works of Josefina Baez, Julia Álvarez, Junot Diaz, Alejo Carpentier, and other writers that spoke to her own lived experience. She went on to work with Dr. Ramona Hernandez and collaborated with her on various studies on the Dominican population in the United States.
Marilyn is an educator in Washington Heights. She received her master of science in education and specialized in bilingual special education. She currently teaches in a high school in Washington Heights. She lives in the Bronx but is in the process of moving back to Inwood with her two teenage children. She has an adult son and a granddaughter who spends the summers with her. Her passions include spending time with her family, reading, and playing capoeira. @marilynwritenow