From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

The Hardest Lesson

When I was five years old, my mother and father moved to the South Bronx, New York, leaving me in the care of my grandmother in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Although we were poor and food was scarce, I lived an idyllic life with my grandmother and my tíos and tías and cousins, surrounded by the loving faces of my extended family, emerald green oceans, trips to the countryside, to El Yunque, little kids’ games and bedtime stories. I missed my mother and father, especially my mother, but I never wanted to leave the island. I was happy and loved, and I felt safe there.

When I turned eight, my mother wrote to my grandmother and asked her to send me to New York. She and my father were managing to scrape out a living, had a small apartment in a stable neighborhood and were making progress. It was time for me to join them, and so I went, sadly leaving behind the only world I knew.

When I got to the South Bronx, my mother enrolled me in the public elementary school, and although I didn’t speak a word of English, I found myself stuffed into overcrowded classes of English-speaking children and teachers. Luckily, there were some other Puerto Rican kids, although they were very different from me, most of them having been born in the United States and speaking much more English than Spanish. But they were able to communicate with me, and the little conversations that we shared at recess really kept me going. I was scared and I felt alone, like nobody else in the world had ever gone through what I was going through. My parents weren’t any help since they didn’t speak much English. In fact, they were pressuring me to learn the language so that I could help them handle daily transactions that had to be carried out in a language they didn’t speak. It was a tough time, and I remember it very well.

A month after I started school, things started to get better. I was beginning to understand some English, I had made a few friends, and I was feeling a little more at home in my new surroundings. But that was about to change. One day, as we were getting our daily math lesson, I felt the kid behind me nudging me on the back. When I turned slightly to see what he wanted, he stuck out his hand and showed me a small piece of paper that was sloppily folded into a little square. I understood that he wanted me to take the paper from him, so I did, and I put it on my desk. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the teacher had observed the passing of the “note,” and she was quickly standing over me at my desk.

I remember feeling scared and small as my tall, blonde teacher reached down and grabbed the folded paper out of my hand. Mrs. Jones’s face turned red and her squinted eyes seemed to get smaller and smaller as she glared at me. Although I couldn’t really understand the fast string of staccato words that came out of her mouth, I did hear her call me a “Dirty Puerto Rican.” I didn’t understand the word “dirty,” but whatever it was, it felt like an accusation. And I had no idea what I had done to earn my teacher’s wrath.

The next thing I knew, Mrs. Jones yanked me up in front of the class and announced that I was being sent home. Soon my mother appeared, and I watched as she came in through the hall door and started making her way toward me. I was so relieved to see her that I ran as fast as I could and buried myself in her waist, holding on to her desperately. But my sense of security was quickly shattered as she pushed me from her, unfastening my grip on her waist and staring down at me with fiery eyes. My mother’s face was redder and angrier than the teacher’s; she was furious and didn’t ask me any questions. I could see her eyes filling with tears although she was trying hard to blink them back.

Por qué lo hiciste?” she screamed at me, demanding to know why I had done what I had “done.” I knew it had something to do with the paper that the teacher had snatched off my desk, but I didn’t know how to begin to answer her. And then, without another word, she slapped me in the face, hard.

I felt so betrayed by her and so humiliated in front of my classmates. I ran out of the room and hid under the water fountain down the hall. My mother came out and found me, wiped my tears, hugged me and took me home.

When we got there, she asked me why I had been so foolish as to pass around a note with filthy words on it. This was the first clue I had about what had happened and why I had gotten into trouble! It didn’t help me feel any better about things. I hadn’t even opened the note, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have understood any of the cuss words that the boy behind me had written on the paper. I didn’t even know bad words in Spanish, let alone in English!

When I explained to my mother exactly what had happened, she was filled with sadness and remorse; she explained that a lot of people in New York didn’t like Puerto Ricans, and that I would have to be careful about that. She said that in order to avoid these “problems,” I would have to behave better than the Anglo kids. I would have to look cleaner, neater and more decent than them, always speak properly and only when spoken to, and never bring suspicion on myself or my family. How I missed my life on the island right then.

Looking back on this incident as a grown woman, I understand what my mother was trying to do for me. Although she definitely made the wrong choice that day, I’ve come to understand that “choices” don’t come easily when people are living under stress. I was also able to understand that my mother did what she did, ironically, to try to protect me. She wanted Mrs. Jones and the class to know that I came from a “good” Puerto Rican family, and that I would be disciplined harshly by her if I crossed any lines. My mother meant well; she just didn’t have the resources to make a better choice.

Racism is evil. It isn’t something that anyone should have to put up with. It is one of the ultimate injustices of life. But still, I am grateful that my mother set me straight at a very early age so that I could better deal with the life that she and my father had chosen for me. I learned so much from that one experience and from others that followed, and I have become much better equipped than my parents to struggle for myself and my family. As a Latina, as an American and a Nuyorican, I always remember that my greatest resource is believing in myself, believing in us, in our inherent dignity, and in our right to live and thrive in this country.

It’s a life worth struggling for.

Caroline C. Sánchez

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