When my sister and I left the island in 1990, we had been waiting for our visas and green cards to be approved since I could remember. That blasted residencia was the one thing that kept us from finally living with Mami in the US. The day we got the news that we would leave within a few days felt like Christmas. The TV-kind of Christmas, where you get presents and drink hot chocolate, and decorate a tree.
In my mind, once I learned we would be leaving, I was out of there before we even packed. I was a year and a half when Mami got her tourist visa and started to build a life for herself and our entire family in this country. My sister, who, up to that point, had been using me as a punching bag, was four. I had lived my whole life without my mother and grew up wistfully imagining what it would be like to be loved by her every day.
I had never felt so free as I peered out the airplane window, amazed to see clouds beneath me. I could hardly contain my excitement as my mother pointed out the state of New Jersey from the seat next to me. The wait was unbearable. I wanted to see my new home, which I was certain would be a mansion. I leaned back and smiled to myself. Once this plane landed, my new life would begin. I would have things. Things I would not have to share or ‘inherit.’
I would have my own bedroom with a TV, go shopping, and eat at restaurants. I would work hard to learn English and read as many books as possible. My mother did not know much about me, and I wanted to impress her with my intellect, which was all I had to impress her with, after all. I used to write her letters telling her how I was at the top of my class, year after year.
She would write back and tell me how proud she was. I did not want her to know how I would sneak away to be alone in the woods, so I would not be yelled at for existing or be beaten for forgetting one thing or another. She did not know that I would stop speaking for days on end and nobody would notice. Those bouts of unbearable sadness would stay with my beloved guayaba tree, which I would cry to. No, not this time. I was eleven and would be starting 7th grade, a full year ahead of my peers. That is what I wanted Mami to know about.
I would endure no more beatings from whoever felt the need to enseñarme a respetar. No more needing to avoid all the fulanos that had followed me since the age of four so they could touch me or have me touch them. My grandmother would have to choose another grandchild to let out her frustrations on. My mother had finally come to rescue me after ten long years. Years marked by sporadic visits and gut-wrenching goodbyes.
It did not take long after we had arrived to realize that life would be nothing like I had imagined or dreamed of. Instead of my own room, I slept on a bed with my mother and four-year-old brother. My new home was certainly nothing to scoff at, especially compared to our house in Monciόn—just not the mansion I had made up in my mind.
My mother was not the cosmopolitan lady of the world I had made her out to be. Not the almost mythical figure of my dreams. She worked as a cashier at Sears and knew just enough English to get by. She was also not the nurturing presence I had longed for. She was funny, witty, and fun. She was all those things. It turned out that she knew little about being a parent, however. She was aloof, detached. But she certainly knew how to play all the Dominican hits I was accustomed to: entra pa dentro, ¡Muchacha ‘el diablo!, ¡No me vengas a joder! A que te rompo la boca, and many more.
As time went on, I retreated into myself more and more. I adjusted to my new reality, taking the good with the bad. I dedicated myself to cutting all ties to my former life in DR. I wrote no letters; I sent no pictures. I avoided conversations with all family members not already in the US. I quickly picked up English, and once I felt comfortable, I spoke primarily in English. But that also meant that I was now the house interpreter.
I would walk in from school to find my mother on the phone with some company or another, saying to them, “hol on, I put my dotter,” and I would have to figure out who, what, when, and where. Being put on the spot constantly felt traumatizing for a shy kid. It was even worse whenever I was “loaned out” to family members to translate at lawyers’ and doctors’ offices. There was always some outrage that I had to convey: “¡díselo así mismo, como yo te toy diciendo!”
I often tried to soften the ridiculousness of what I was expected to tell these professionals, but I lacked the proper language at my age. It was a kind of stress that I could barely identify, let alone escape from.
The anger and resentment did not start until I was about fourteen. I rebelled against all responsibility and obligation to anyone. Tio Antonio would have to figure out why they took away his food stamps on his own. El primo can ask someone else to read him the latest letter from immigration. They would have to deal with it because I felt Mami routinely failed at the most basic parenting duties.
She managed a household with four kids, worked, and provided. We always had health insurance and food on the table. I inherited those traits from her, and I am proud of that. But when it came to things like parent/teacher conferences, she would be a no-show. She skipped my 8th-grade graduation. I would make my own doctor’s appointments and sign permission slips.
I stopped caring about school, grades, or anything I once thought essential to make my mother love me. I never doubted that she loved me, but not how I needed it to be. I knew that if the habichuelas estaban blanditas, and the carne sazonada, all would be well. If my little brother were fed, cleaned, and doted on by my sisters and me (my Dominicans know how these moms are with their sons, especially if they are the baby), we would get a pizza on the weekends. Extra cheese if the house was spotless. At sixteen, I started seeing a therapist after school. I now had a name for what I was attempting to do. Boundaries.
Whenever this time in my life comes up in my current therapy sessions, I still struggle with guilt. Guilt because I should have been cool with helping my family, especially after all the sacrifices they made to get us to the US and all the opportunities I have been fortunate to have. Guilt because my mother has done her best with what she knew and inherited from her upbringing.
Yet, I kept needing more. I have to say she has since grown as a person and even as a mother. I have made her proud, and that feels good. But I have also learned to honor the little girl who grew up in these two worlds, with trauma from each one. It is never lost on me that I was born and partially raised in one of the most beautiful places on earth, yet I correlate it with pain and suffering.
I have not set foot on my island since I left in 1990. I know that if I expect to heal fully, I will have to go back one day. On the flip side, I came of age in this country. With all its paradoxes, its conflicting promises of freedom while providing little to its most vulnerable, its beauty and its darkness, its kindness, and its cruelty. The thing about these two realities is that I do not have to choose which one is me. I am both. Merengue and Hip Hop, una bachatica, and some rock power ballads. R&B and perico ripiao. Mangú and mashed potatoes, cheese steaks, and chimis. Jane Austin and Salomé Ureña. I am all that.
Yajaira Torres is a Dominican-American aspiring author. She has no published works at this time, but critically acclaimed, nonetheless. Her family and friends have given rave reviews of her short stories, and she considers this a success. By day, she’s a construction safety manager. By night, she unravels the pains of her childhood in the Dominican Republic, works on healing her inner child, and uses pen and paper to reconcile all that this work entails. She lives in NJ, where no one pumps their own gas, and constantly brags about it. Yajaira is the proud owner of many, many, many books. Her wife and kids are her greatest loves.