I grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in the 1980s, in what felt like a forgotten neighborhood. Abandoned buildings loomed over piles of garbage and rubble. Playgrounds were overrun by drug dealers. But for me, Bushwick was a place imbued with my culture. There were piragua carts with multicolored umbrellas selling shaved ice on every corner. The bodeguero Miguel gave my mother credit when our food stamps ran out. The Puerto Rican flag hung from almost every window.
My mother migrated from Honduras to New York in 1971. When I was 2 years old my mother met and fell in love with another woman, Millie, which was then widely considered taboo. Two years later we all moved into a two-bedroom railroad-style apartment. The paint cracked and peeled off the walls, but we always had food on the table, even if it was white rice, fried eggs and canned corned beef. I spent most of my time then in our backyard, climbing the plum tree and telling myself stories.
My life took a turn at 13 when my social studies teacher saw promise in me and suggested I take part in A Better Chance, a program that places low-income minority students in top schools around the country. I applied and was offered a four-year scholarship to attend a boarding-school-type program at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts.
Millie’s brother drove me to school in a beat-up blue Pentecostal church van. I remember gazing out the window in awe as gorgeous mansions with perfect manicured lawns came into view. I moved into a four-story house with other students complete with a study and fireplace. It felt like I was living in an episode of The Facts of Life.
But I soon realized that I was different. My guidance counselor would often pull me aside and tell me I was “too loud” and “too much.” My classmates would chant “Tawk, Rosie, tawk!” as I’d walk down the hallways, my eyes glued to the ground. Rosie Perez as Tina in the 1989 film “Do The Right Thing” was the only exposure to a Latina many of my classmates had ever had.
Growing up, I’d read the “Sweet Valley High” series, Encyclopedia Brown mysteries and all the Judy Blume books. The characters in them didn’t look like me, but I was too young to understand the difference or know it could matter. One day in my junior year, I was reading on the mezzanine overlooking the cafeteria, when my English professor, Mr. Goddard, approached me. “You should read this,” he said and handed me “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.” My eyes stopped at the writer’s name, Julia Alvarez. “That’s a Spanish name,” I thought.
I saw myself reflected in the story of the Garcia sisters, who had fled to the United States from the Dominican Republic with their parents. They went to boarding school and, like me, had trouble fitting in. It began to dawn on me that there must be other writers like Ms. Alvarez out there. I asked teachers for recommendations and dug through the library shelves on campus.
Later I would discover the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Sandra Cisneros. What was missing for me was the narrative of the Latina who left the ’hood to pursue an education only to find that she no longer fit in anywhere. I was too loud at boarding school and a sellout in the place I had once called home.
For years I’d chronicle my joys and heartbreaks in journals and scribble down poems on napkins at bars. On weekends I’d go to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I was in awe of the poets who read their work aloud. I longed to be that brave. I was the only one of my siblings to graduate from college. That distinction came with the expectation that I’d get a job that offered a steady paycheck and a 401(k).
When I learned I was pregnant in 2003, something inside me shifted. I wanted my daughter to learn by watching her mamá that she could live out her dreams. I dusted off my journals and wrote throughout my pregnancy. My first novel, “A Woman’s Cry,” was published in 2007, three years after she was born. After my novel was published I sought out other writers of color. At last I found a place where I felt I belonged.
My mother still lives in the same apartment in Bushwick. The neighborhood is no longer reminiscent of a war zone. Children and families gather in the parks we had never dared to step into. The piragueros are all but gone. The Puerto Rican flag isn’t as prominent as it used to be. The neighborhood I knew has mostly faded out of view.
Reading books by Latina writers helped me recapture a pride in my culture that goes beyond my old neighborhood. They taught me that these gritty corners of the world can be beautiful. That our stories are worthy of being told.
I buy my daughter, who is now 15 years old, books by writers like Elizabeth Acevedo, Jacqueline Woodson and Gabby Rivera. I teach writing in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. I know from experience that when children see positive images of themselves reflected in front of the classroom, in books and on the big screen, it can make all the difference. This is how change happens, and it’s how we create a country in which all of us feel we belong. One story at a time.