Author: Danette Berrios, Pima Community College
The water aggressively gushes out arching over the street from the fire hydrant and all we hear is the squishy squeaks of our rubber suecos (which essentially are fake crocs from the dollar store) and the screams of every kid on the block running through the neighborhood sprinkler with glee. That is until the firemen show up depending on whether someone called to complain and shut it off. Denise! Luisito! Now that this is over let’s get Abuelita to take us to the park, yells Anacaona. They don’t even bother drying off and just head over with her to St.Mary’s, one of a myriad of public parks, our kingdom to rule for the day. We loved all the parks but St. Mary’s took the cake and here’s why; there was this gigantic rock that was the equivalent of a mountain here, all the kids slid down the shiny smooth rock- so much more exhilarating than the actual slide on the playground. Once we got to the bottom there was a steep hill of bushy bright green grass we’d roll down. Almost as if the objective was, “Get as dirty as we can” because every time we’d get home at the end of the day the suecos would come off and you could see the dirt imprints from the exposed holes in the rubber clogs. This was your typical summer day in the South Bronx when everybody and their mother was outside, you couldn’t escape the smoky aroma of a grill if you tried, music and hydrant streams were flowing on every street.
My siblings and I spent most of our younger days, especially in the summer with our Abuelita Rosa. At the time it didn’t phase us that part of our daily routine when in her care was making it to her methadone program because the doors closed precisely at noon and it was all the way across town 164th St to the 149th area. It was just part of the adventure of the day and we weren’t yet capable of understanding her personal struggles. Besides, we’d always get to split a gooey grilled steak and cheese on a hero between the 4 of them from the bodega and spend the rest of the day in another nearby kingdom. The walks and bus ride back home when the sun was fading away were always longer but thankfully she always was equipped with re-filled frozen water bottles wrapped in paper towels in her bag for the walks.
She had a sidekick most of those years, Carlos- they were never officially married nonetheless he treated us as his own grandbabies. He was our favorite person to spend time with because it was like having another kid around, unphased by the 40 oz in the brown paper bag he always had in hand. We used to color his shitty jail tattoo’s in with markers. I remember my favorite being one of a ship with pebbles from the flintstones aboard because I knew how special it was to him, pebbles reminded him of his estranged daughter in Puerto Rico he hadn’t seen in many years. Maybe that’s why he cherished spending time with us so much. Our all-time favorite memory with Carlos was a time there was a snowstorm bad enough we had to stay home from school which obviously meant we’d spend the day playing outside. There was a set of cement steps outside of our apartment and on the outside of the railings, there was cobblestone laid out in a way that formed ramps alongside the steps. We set up a mattress all the way at the bottom to prevent us from sliding into the street and would sled down the ramps on trash can lids for hours until we couldn’t feel our extremities and resembled Rudolph in the nose.
Abuela and Carlos took turns picking us up from school. There was, without fail, every day, the $1 coco-cherry-mango-rainbow Italian ice cart on the corner strategically placed for younglings to see then ask for so they always made sure to scrounge up $2 from somewhere just in case. We however never asked unless they offered- we understood the predicament we were in from a very young age. Grandma was working basically free of charge raising us plus using the little bit of financial help she received to care for us. Depending on how rough the month was we’d have to make occasional pit stops at pawn shops. It always broke our heart to see her pawn jewelry that was so vividly ingrained in our memory as characterizing features of her just to make ends meet. I couldn’t fathom the thought of anyone else wearing that chain with a gold cross and mini Egyptian pharaoh pendant but she always figured out a way to make the money back and repossess her belongings.
Throughout elementary school, it started becoming quite apparent that well, we were poor. Our mother worked for a moving company and when she was lucky she’d get a rich snobby NYC customer who either tips generously amongst the crew or gives away unwanted furniture. It was never an easy feat for those occasions though, anyone moving within the big apple was most likely in or moving to a building with no working elevator and definitely always over 10 stories up. Still, with food stamps, housing assistance, a disability check received for Luisito’s autism, inconsistent child support payments, and working full time didn’t seem to always be enough. Times, where candles made due for light or boiling water to mix with the cold and bathe, were no stranger to us.
I had this best friend that lived in a gated set of buildings across the street, Camila. Her mother always had her in extracurriculars like ballet classes and all types of after-school activities. For some time Abuelita Rosa started babysitting Camila additionally to her usual crowd for some extra cash on the side. So after school, we’d walk to pick her up (stop at a park for a bit of course) and get home so abuelita can make us something to eat. I always wondered why I couldn’t just go with Camila to these programs and classes we picked her up from and knew that eventually, we’d grow apart because of these differences. I figured out that having siblings meant it’s an all of us or none of us scenario every time and it simply wasn’t affordable.
I began to feel like I was missing out on something in life but the more I was exposed to other friends of different backgrounds the more I understood a lot of us were in the same boat. Always worried that rent would increase or the copious amounts of bills piling up would make our family homeless, wearing high waters because we couldn’t get back to school shopping just yet, making sure to eat at school every day because there were days you’d get home and have Cup of Noodles or nothing at all. There were good days and bad ones but as a kid, you don’t know how to fantasize about a future you have no means of obtaining. Things like owning a home with a white picket fence, attending college, and driving a fiery red fox body convertible mustang having all seemed like things we just saw on TV. Basically, if you weren’t born into money already there was no way to make it out of the system.
In fifth grade, my perspective on that began to change when I met Ms. Melanie Rivera. This year changed how I felt about school completely. It went from being a place of discomfort and fear due to English being my second language to my escape from the worries the world brought me. So much so that when I was struggling at home or didn’t feel safe I’d call or text her because she gave all her students an outlet of communication. For Hispanic heritage month, she arranged to have a potluck in class as a reward for completing our project which was to find someone within our community who was Hispanic/Latino and interview them to write about how they contribute to the community. We also learned all about Justice Sonia Sotomayor, about how through her perseverance and hard work she became the first Latina U.S supreme court justice. Who was raised in the same South Bronx we were being brought up in with the same struggling parents hustling to lay the stepping stone for a better future. We wrote her a letter as a class sharing how inspiring she was to us all. Ms. Rivera found a way to mail it to her and in response she invited us to the Supreme Court to tour and meet with her in a courtroom. It was the first time we’d ever ridden in a coach bus or traveled so far out of the Bronx into another state.
Meeting Sonia felt like meeting a superhero in real life. Something about crossing state lines and the magic of the day altogether, made me realize that I would one day make it out of poverty. It wouldn’t be an easy journey whatsoever but it was ultimately my decision not to let any influencing factors affect me. Ana, short for Anacaona which means golden flower in the Taino language. Named after the golden flower queen, a chietess of her tribe, poet, composer, and most importantly warrior against Spanish invaders in her time. I was to bloom into a golden flower regardless of what came my way.