You've ever been on vacation in a third-world country? As you walk around and enjoy it, you ever see yourself in those kids that walk up to you asking for $. In those teenagers? In those adults? You ever asked: "Why me?" Ever felt guilty about the hotel you're staying in. The restaurant you're eating in. Once you walk out, they are asking if you have leftovers. If you have any change. In 2014,
I was in a boat in Cartagena, Colombia headed to Playa Blanca. I was the only dark skin tourist on the boat. On the way to that playa, the captain mentioned that a group from the neighboring coastal island would likely approach in a makeshift boat asking for food or money. I naturally think sea, boat, and asking for $ translates to adults. The people who approached us weren't adults though. They were 4 kids. All shirtless in the hot, Cartagena sun. All my complexion or lighter. Not one of them was older than 8. When they approached, almost everyone on that boat clutched their belongings. I had nothing to fear. I saw a reflection of myself.
They asked in that Columbian sing-songy accent: "Si tienen algo de comer o dinero y lo puedes compartir lo apreciamos [if you have $ or anything to eat to give we'd appreciate it]." When you compare them to American kids, I doubt that any 8-year-old could row a boat into the middle of the ocean. I doubt any 8-year-old could swim to shore if a boat capsized. I doubt many 8-year-old's have to ask a stranger for food or money. Every time they boarded that boat it wasn't for fun, it was for survival. The idea of losing their lives was secondary. When I go to DR and impoverished kids approach barefoot asking for $ to eat I ask myself the same question. And sometimes I give but most times I don't because like any Dominican will tell you: "Si le dar a uno, le vas tener que dar a todos [if you give to one you'll have to give to all]." What you see above was my passport picture when I was a child. Those children looked like me. They may never know what a passport is. They may only know what something as near as Brazil or Puerto Rico looks like through pictures, YouTube, and television. Their vacation will only be as real as their imagination.
They may never attend a live concert unless it's that concert DVD many Latino parents play from beginning to end on the TV en la sala [living room]. But most importantly, that kid pictured was born with a chance. Many of those kids aren't. What I've accomplished in my life? It's not a matter of if they will be able to but will they get the opportunity to. There's a difference. This is a story about two cousins who may not always come together but are essential to each other. Perspective and Gratitude. Perspective = A particular attitude toward or way of regarding something. Gratitude = The quality of being thankful. I remember growing up at home. We weren't poor. We were working class. Don't confuse that with the middle class either. My parents busted their ass. My dad was a talk radio host in DR growing up but color prevented him from moving as high as he wanted. So when he came to the US he didn't wake up every day to hop on the radio station. He woke up every day to drive a yellow cab for 10 hours for 35 years of his life. Took the 1 train on Dyckman at 5 am when the worst of the worst was on there and came back home at 5 pm. My mom came from DR in her teens, learned English late, and was able to go to college and get a degree. My dad paid her way through college because "she was younger, she had more of a chance than he did." My mom's had a successful career and is at the finish line of retirement. I remember one morning I woke up for school and was about to shower. And when I got in the shower there was this thin bar of soap. Like, real thin. If you grew up in the hood, you know what that thin bar of soap looks like. It's enough to shower with but not enough to feel like you showered at the same time. I guess my parents forgot to buy a new pack. I don't know what got into me that morning but I was so pissed at the sight of it that I said something that to this day I regret. "Ah, pue ustedes creen que estamos en Santo Domingo." Aka: "Oh, you guys think we must be in DR." Basically, equating a thin bar of soap to their upbringing in a third world country. I said without saying: "This is some poor shit" as if we were rich.
My dad was this close to pulling the Correa (belt) but he didn’t. I acted like it never happened. My parents didn’t grow up like me and my sister. Stability was a word they learned in their 20s. Stability was a word we were born with. When I graduated elementary, I was able to go on high school tours. I had my pick. When I messed up all of HS, I still had the chance to redeem myself and go to college. When I wanted that reversible black and yellow BEAR coat they asked me months in advance so they could save. When I wanted to go to ball camps in South Jersey, they found a way to send me. When I went to college, I switched majors all the time. I just couldn’t figure it out. But even figuring it out is a privilege. I was able to play with my life in a way my parents never could. In a way kids in the US even can’t. When a boy who looks like me in DR’s dreams of playing baseball ends, it’s either construction or a colmado. When a woman hopes to be a news anchor she has to have the right skin and the right hair texture. When I leave vacation, I spend hours on the flight back thinking of how I can help. What can I do to give back? What can I contribute? And in the end, I NEVER DO SHIT. I never send a $. I never send clothes. I never contribute to a mission. The same dude who feels sorry for the person who looks like me in Cartagena, automatically questions why the one who looks like me in NYC is in the situation they are in. Moral of the story: A lot of us on this app act like we don’t have full of shit syndrome. And you can read this and think you aren’t but you are JUST LIKE ME. And you don’t want to smell it on yourself. I could have easily ended this post on some quarantine/be grateful tip but in some ways I’m still the same guy who complained about that bar of soap 20 years ago.
Social media excerpts by Claudio E. Cabrera in anticipation of his forthcoming book “Y Tu Eres Dominicano/a”. Follow Claudio on Instagram at @claudio.e.cabrera