by Edwina Valerio
“No te preocupes, no van a ser bebes para siempre. Las cosas se pondrán mejor” is what my mom would say to her sister whenever they felt stressed about dropping my cousins and me off with a babysitter at 6 a.m. in the Bronx.
Fast forward fifteen, twenty years later, and that young girl who was being woken up at 5 a.m. to be ready, out of the house, and situated at her babysitter’s house across the street all by 6 a.m. is now a college graduate still waking up early (though not 5 a.m. early anymore), heading to her job, wondering, Will things get better? And if so, when?
All my life, I’ve seen Má go through things that no woman should endure with her head and hopes high, no matter the outcome. The first half of your life, you’re telling yourself things will get better once you graduate high school and start college because you “know” they will. Who would’ve known watching all of the battles Má went through would only prepare you for your own? Like her, you’ve been following Má’s footsteps and fighting your way through life with various obstacles. And although that path isn’t the same, the struggle/fight still feels the same.
At such a young age, you’re helping your mom navigate NYC, helping with groceries and laundry, and translating every legal document that comes her way. You want to help Má in any way possible because nobody else was, and you feel like it is your duty, even if that means that you’re asking the grown man or lady at the cash register why the cans of beans didn’t come out discounted as advertised, all before the age of thirteen.
The time finally arrives to start the college process, and, as a first-time college attendee, you’re beyond excited about what life has to offer. And that’s when you first realize that life doesn’t offer much and there’s a chance college isn’t made for everyone. It makes you wonder: Is college for me? Má didn’t raise a quitter, but she did raise a bit of an overthinker.
Who would’ve thought your first battle would be that you’d no longer be considered a dependent at the age of eighteen (while others your generation didn’t have that problem, you were expected NEVER to ask, “Why me?”), and now you’re required to pay taxes. All while barely making any money for yourself, maintaining a “college fund,” and helping around the house in the hopes that you’re making your mother proud.
“Sabes que tenemos que ir a la iglesia si esto se resuelve,” Má told you when she witnessed your first anxiety attack your senior year of college because you thought you wouldn’t finish college due to one class. All these years while in school, you’re struggling every day, and not a day goes by that you don’t wish Má could help you with some assignments. But the most she can do is give support, even if that means emotional or financial (Má learned the hard way always to stay financially safe). The fighter in you can’t give up.
The fighter in you has already overcome too many obstacles—to now all of a sudden say you can’t continue to fight? No. We have reached January 2019, and God has decided he wanted this day for YOU and only YOU. And guess who the only individuals in your celebratory corner are? Má and your lovely little sister. For years, Má has seen you fight many battles, and although you probably thought you would never reach the end, Má always knew you would because, like she always said, “Eres fuerte y luchas como tu abuela.”
“Yo sé que la universidad no es fácil y quiero agradecer a Dios todos los dias por mantener su mano sobre ti.” While Má prays for your safety and happiness, you pray for nothing but the same and even more for her. We are now post-graduation. You land a good job, and why do you feel things have yet to improve? Why do you feel like you’re not doing enough in life? Or is that just you?
And that’s when Má reminds you of her life in the Dominican Republic. And she reminds you that for the first time in her years of living and visiting the island, she never experienced the peace and tranquility she enjoyed while visiting with you and your little sister. You often forget that you’ve helped your mom in so many ways, that little gestures like booking an entire family trip (resort, visiting family in the inner cities/campo, tourist attractions) are something she adores because that isn’t something she’s ever experienced before due to her rough upbringing, like so many Dominicans her age.
Some days are up, and some days are down, but every day you’re forever thankful that your parents migrated to the United States because you know your life would not have been the same if they had never left. Since you’re technically considered an American Dominican, you know that many back on the island might consider your life a “gringa way of living” when, in reality, it’s not. You’ve just been given the privilege that has allowed you to get an education and do extracurricular activities (like being on a coed swim team), all while having a “normal” childhood. And when you compare situations, you can only be thankful knowing that those small advantages life has handed you in the Bronx probably can’t be found in the Dominican Republic, especially as a woman.
Being a woman isn’t easy, and when you add “American Dominican” to that title, the battle now splits in two: the American patriarchal system and the Dominican machismo culture. From a young age, you have only heard “no” or “yo mando en esta casa y lo que yo digo va,” but how long will you continue to listen? Do you have to be considered disobedient o a tener mal de respeto in order to grow? Probably, but what will it cost you?
Can it cause a semi-strained relationship between you and your traditional Dominican dad because you know if you had been born a boy, this conversation wouldn’t be happening (he may still be a traditional father, but he does, at least, try to remain in contact with you and your little sister)? But it’s okay—you’re built like your grandmother Felicia. And just as Pá would describe her, you’re a fighter who gets things done one way or another.
Do all these battles mean something in the long run? Or is all this for nothing? Because Má says all the time, “Dios te lo vas a multiplicar y te vas a pagar para todo un día.” And every day, you’re hoping for that day to come. And until it does, the young girl who would wake up at 5 a.m. in the Bronx will continue to wake up early, fight her way up in this patriarchal work system, fight her way to achieve her goals/dreams, and fight her way back to the Dominican Republic so she can wake up to the wonderful Caribbean sun that her family once left behind in search of a better life.
Edwina Valerio is a proud New York-born, Bronx-raised American Dominican. She is a retired competitive swimmer, a Hunter College alumna, and the eldest daughter of Dominican parents who immigrated in the late 80s from Puerto Plata in search of a better future for themselves and their future families. Edwina loves to travel and try new things, not limited to new foods and experiences. She owes her optimistic, “glass half full” way of looking at life and habit of taking chances to her parents. She strives to make a difference (big or small) in an effort to make them proud, no matter the circumstance.