My childhood, as I recall it, is like a puzzle with missing pieces. I cannot paint
a clear image of that childhood, because at my age, much has been forgotten or
perhaps repressed. When I ask my mom for clarity, she refuses to talk about
certain moments in our past. The pain is too much for her to relieve so I don’t
push. Like she often reminds me, “¿De qué sirve recordar el pasado si te va
bien en la vida? (What’s the point of remembering the past when you have a
good life?) Yet, remembering my history is important for my future, regardless
of how old I may be. I am my mother’s legacy and my son is mine. Having
missing fragments of that history, I find it difficult to move forward, learn, and
grow fully. When I try to recall my history I recall struggle and fear, anxiety
and curiosity, music and dancing, family gatherings and one long period of
separation from my mother. I was two years old, but at 44 years of age, I still
carry that trauma with me.
Most people do not remember anything before the age of six, yet, my earliest
memories are from when I was just a toddler. Mamí split from my father and,
for reasons I didn’t know back then, we ended up living in Ecuador for a
couple of years. Guayaquil was blissful but steamy and dark at times. I
remember a great-aunt who had a farm on a cliff overlooking red earthy
pastures. I frolicked in the fields, played with her goats, disdained the chickens
and had a pet piglet. Whenever there was a party which felt like every
weekend, I remember seeing people dressed up as clowns and laughing at the
silly things they would do. I played with other kids, ate “tangos” with them and
in turn they would coil my curls around their fingers and call me “sambita”. I
often got sick while I was there too. The mosquitos in Guayaquil were deadly
in the mid to late 70’s. Too often I have flashbacks of myself sweating
feverishly in a hammock, getting pinched by long needles and sometimes
surrounded by “chamanes” and “curanderas” who slapped me with plants and
smothered me with oils and tobacco smoke. Mamí decided, I would return to
the US, but we could not travel together. I travelled alone.
Whenever I ask her why we were there in the first place, her mood and
expression change. For a long time I never undrstood why but with time I
discovered mamí was in the US undocumented and could not live in the US,
despite having all of her family in the New York, New Jersey areas. All of her
family: brothers, sisters, nephews, father, and me, her only daughter. No one
was left in Ecuador when the family did a massive migration to Nueva York.
Somehow she found herself back in the country she left behind filled with
trauma and educational and economic limitations.
Much of the day we parted is a blur. I do recall it was nighttime. I remember
feeling cold and uncertainty as I cried on the plane. When I arrived at JFK, I
was escorted by the flight attendant who held my hand as walked through long
tunnels, escalators, halls after halls. It was a long cry from the farm and my
piglet. I don’t remember being told what to expect, I just remember the sight
of a huge metal globe where that lady pointed to where I was and where I had
just left. The distance seemed interminable to me. All I wanted was to see my
mother and feel her embrace.
I was taken in by my maternal aunt who lived with her husband, son and dog.
My cousin was one year older and we were thick as thieves. We shared a room,
ate together, played together, even took bubble baths together. He was for all
effects and purposes my big brother, yet, I never felt at home, never a part of
that family. I wasn’t the daughter or the sister, I felt like la recogida. The
longing for my mamí cut deep. She claims it was only two weeks that we were
apart, yet my memory has flashbacks of a birthday in October, snow and a
Christmas tree. I also remember smelling flowers on the front lawn, lots of
rain, Otter Pops (a long-time favorite summer treat) and the family dog Laica,
bearing puppies. That could not have been a two week sleepover at my aunt’s
in Richmond Hill.
Years later, I discovered that during the time I was at my aunt’s home, my
mother was crossing multiple borders from Ecuador to Mexico and into the US.
Her odyssey is what we don’t speak about. My mind doesn’t play tricks on me,
it was longer than a two week stay. The confusion behind my mother’s silence
on the subject, a chapter in our history, perplexed me as a young woman and
does so still as I approach middle-age. However, I understand the hardship, the
danger and the physically arduous journey she endured just to be reunited with
me. As a young child, I never understood any of it, and the trauma of that
separation has stayed with me.
Being separated from my mother because of her immigration status, caused me
to suffer insecurities, night-time fears, separation anxiety and nervous ticks that
I carried throughout childhood and into adolescence. As an adult, I carry
multiple phobias that developed during that plane ride and throughout my stay
in Richmond Hill. Despite all the pain, however, I also developed strength and
resilience. I learned independence and self-reliance at an early age. Above all, I
learned how to be a good daughter to my mother who suffered so much and
who I honor with my accomplishments and the work I do, even though there
are several missing pieces, still….
*This is an excerpt of a memoir with a working title: “Full of Grace: On Becoming Latina”
Profe as a toddler, wearing a beautiful red lace dress her mother sewed for her to wear on her trip from Ecuador to the US. This photo was taken a couple of days before they separated. Red is an apt color. A favorite of Profe’s as it is the color of fear and fearlessness, struggle and survivance.
Graciela M. Báez (Profe) (BHSEC Queens)
My parents left their home country, their family, and friends all to give me and my brother a
better future. I can’t imagine myself leaving my home, my family, everything I’ve ever known
to go to a place where more resources seem to be given. But sometimes it is necessary. It is
the American Dream that drives many to want to offer a better future for their family.
Ironically, you have to leave your family to provide them with a better future. Yet these same
immigrant families are imposed to live with fear in a country where their hard work and
presence is neglected. As a child of immigrant parents, I grew up with the struggle of equally
embracing the culture I was born into and the culture my parents grew up with. Being born
into a country where my other culture isn’t completely accepted is difficult but being able to
embrace these two cultures makes me a proud Mexican-American.
Kimberly Muñoz (BHSEC Queens)
My identity is a blend of sugar and spice, if asked where I come from my response is… I
grew up in a little place called Bushwick where there is eager and danger, blinded ego and
violence. But also a haven of people that reminisce on the days where there was no bullets or
sirens, just the aroma of sweet love and silence. When I am asked about my ethnicity my
response is… I am mixed with habichuela and orchata, arroz con gandules y dulces, as well
as the desire of a better life in search for more, my people have been oppressed and it is time
to say no more. I am Latino.
David Sauceda (BHSEC Queens)
As the train moves past 125th street, the faces of my community become more familiar: the
Latina with whom I never fail to exchange smiles, the Albanian man who lives in my
building, and my dominican friend’s father from down the block. Even among strangers, I
recognize the tired eyes that blink open and closed and reflect similar experiences of the
immigrant struggle. In my Bronx community, restlessness is second nature–sustaining a life
in this country is a process that requires time, strength, and determination like no other.
Unparalleled grit stays sturdy in the face of marginalization that leaves its traces throughout:
aged subway stations, bumpy roads and underfunded schools. Leaving this Bronx bubble, I
notice the growing disparities in my city that have awakened my desire to represent my
community. I’ve broken the umbrella of naiveté of childhood and have started to pinpoint
the faulty parts of my built environment, aspiring to replace them with limitless
My home is this plurality of identities spread across 75-miles of pride amidst the
hardship. Writing our presence in the blank pages of history, immigrants have helped enrich
the Bronx streets with hip hop, graffiti art and Latin jazz. The search for these vibrant
origins has led me to uncover the transformative voices of the artistic past. From High
Bridge to the lower tip of Yonkers, I am one Bronxite curator improving the sturdiness of
equity in the shiny glass cases of enduring artistic contributions.
Jean Tobar (BHSEC Queens)
You know you’re a first-generation Latinx (a child of immigrant Latin American parents)
You have to empty out your oven because it’s used for storing your pots and pans.
The jar of danish cookies is filled with thread, yarn, and needles.
Your mom pierced your ears the minute you came out the womb.
You and your cousins all have the same red bracelet.
You have a bunch of jewelry with your name on it.
Your mom always hit you with “te callas o te callo”.
You’ve received the “cuando yo me muera” speech a thousand times.
You wake up to music on a Saturday and know you have to clean.
Your abuelita has rosarios hanging over her bed.
You know the Caso Cerrado theme song by heart.
The only butter you use is Country Crock.
When you had to translate legal documents for your parents when you were 8.
When you’re parents pronounce Wendys like Güendys.
You have to greet every single person at a party.
Your abuela swore “Vicks Vaporub” fixed everything.
You couldn’t go to McDonalds because “hay comida en la casa”.
You know the universal meaning and purpose of chancleta.
You learn how to lie, especially about the boyfriend you don’t have permission to
Growing up, mom sewed all of your clothes.
La Fuerza Unida
My eyes slowly peel away from the dance floor to my phone. It’s 1:49 am. Only 11 more
minutes until the quince ends. My eyelids feel heavy, but not as heavy as the burdens my
parents carry on their shoulders, as they left everything in Mexico and forcibly moved to
New York. I look at them. It seems like in this split second they can’t feel it. It has creeped
back into the shadows of their minds, waiting for the next moment of peace they have in
order to drown them with memories of their past. My brother is sleeping on two chairs. He
hates being away from WiFi and his PS4, so he just spent the night whining. I personally
love parties like these. The music shakes your soul, the sweaty bodies are freed from the
shackles life has placed on them, the intimate dancing makes you feel alive and lustful. I
wish I could join but I don’t know how to dance any hispanic dances. I have learned the
basics of each dance but I still lack the flavor, the passion. I don’t want to disrespect this
form of art; I don’t want to bring any more shame. Someone’s weird uncle walked up to me
and invited me to dance. I just sat and shook my head no. He kept talking but all I could do
was continue shaking my head left and right. I didn’t know how to tell him I can’t speak
spanish, so I didn’t.
The clock strikes 2. My parents walk towards me after dominating the dance floor as the DJ
played the final song. Their smiles change. The happiness has evaporated from their lips
(unlike their sweat) and now they’re just forcibly holding up the corners of their mouths.
Was it a coincidence that this happened when they looked at me?. I fall and shrink back into
my seat as they creep closer to me.
I’m sorry. I know you never expected to have two heavily Americanized children. I’m sorry if I’ve made you
feel like you guys haven’t done enough to teach us about our Mexican culture. That’s all on me. I’m sorry I
have taken all these resources here for granted. You couldn’t make it past 5th grade because your family
needed you to work and make money instead. And you, who was at the top of your class in high school, had
it all go downhill once you got pregnant with me. Now look at me; failing my exams, turning in my
homework late or not at all. I’m sorry for the disgrace I’ve brought upon your name. I should be doing
better. You guys deserve better.
“Melissa, estás bien? Porque estás llorando?”
“I just yawned really wide. I’m super tired.”
“Despierta a tu hermana mientras llamo un taxi. Okay?”
You would think it’s great to be Mexican-American, and it is! It truly is such a beautiful
experience I have the pleasure of partaking in. The only problem is finding the balance
between your two cultures. I haven’t quite mastered it yet. I hope I do soon though.
Melissa Benitez (BHSEC Queens)
Living in America knowing what my parents have endured throughout their lives has
undeniably shaped me into the person I am today. I grew up knowing how much of a
determined, strong, and independent woman my mother is, characteristics rooted in her
culture and life in her home country; it’s something that has persistently motivated me to be
the self-assured and self-reliant person I am, just like her. My father has experienced
unbelievable encounters in his incredible life, which have proved to me what true care and
dedication can ultimately become, one of the many reasons I am diligent and committed in
everything I do. My parent’s lives in their native countries and in America have not just
taught me lessons I couldn’t have possibly learned elsewhere, but they have inspired and
molded me into the person I am today, and for that, I am forever grateful.
Mona Shadded (BHSEC Queens)
I enjoy the fact that I am Ecuadorian because there is an undeniable appreciation that I have
for my heritage. I am grateful that I am surrounded by a community that is not afraid to
express their Latinx culture no matter the situation. Most people I have encountered are
embarrassed when they tell someone they are Latinx, with fear of being pitied or judged. We
cannot change how societies view us, but we can change what we feel about ourselves. It is
important to understand that there is nothing you can do to change who you are and where
you come from. Once you begin to accept who you are, wonderful doors of admiration for
your culture open up.
Daisy Palaguachi (BHSEC Queens)
Maybe it was the smell of freshly baked, the kind that you wish you could taste, or maybe it
was the people shouting whether they wanted ciabatta or pan frances, paria cheese or
mantecoso cheese, olives or milk, huachana sausage or chorizo. Perhaps it is both, and many
more things, what makes a bakery in Peru what it is. I’ve moved to different cities,
provinces, and neighborhoods, but it was always the same chaotic environment. That and
the fact that there was always a kid in the front selling tamales (which angered the owner of
the bakery since it was clear competition for their business). The moment I turned 8 it was
safe enough for me to go out every morning to buy daily bread by myself. This was a big
responsibility. Breakfast was awaiting at home and everyone was expecting you to bring the
correct amount and type of bread. Mornings were always dark and foggy, especially in Lima,
which is why they refer to it as the Grey City. Besides trying to not get myself crushed by the
very impatient people in the bakery, I also had to make sure the busy workers get me the
amount of bread I paid for. This somehow taught me to stand up for myself, not only for
bread, but for many other things that became important to me as I grew older, especially
when I came to America.
Maria Ceballos (BHSEC Queens)
My dad’s experience of going to America was difficult in the sense that he was the only one
out of his nine siblings to go to college. He fought hard to receive a good education, but like
I said before, it was difficult. He worked hard in school, went to Canada, learned French and
got a job in New York. He worked hard to achieve his dreams of coming to America.
Fernanda De Jesus (BHSEC Queens)
Updates Every Sunday