Originally published in the Harvard Educational Review.
I am a Latina of Puerto Rican descent from Newark “Brick City,” New Jersey, a city that has been reviled in the press as well as in academic journals as the archetype of poverty, failing public schools, violence, and hopelessness—a place where one’s dreams cannot come true. Had I internalized these descrip- tors, I would not now be pursuing my doctorate. I am the one who fell through the cracks. The peers I left behind when I went to college were the unfortunate norm in my community. I recognize that my story goes beyond my own expe- riences—it is one of a caring community, a loving family, and the memory of a brother whose life ended too soon. My story would not be complete without them—they provided the cariño, apoyo, y la fuerza that were instrumental for my academic success.
My acceptance to Seton Hall University, “the Hall,” represented a new world for me. I was excited about being the first in my family to receive a college education. Within the gates of the campus environment were luscious grass fields; outside was a community exemplary of upper-middle-class suburban life complete with tree-lined streets, gas street lamps, and million-dollar Tudor and colonial homes. The peace and tranquility were in sharp contrast to my own hometown just a few miles away. It was not easy shuttling back and forth between these two worlds, and I experienced ethnic and racial shock from being in a predominately White and affluent environment. This tension was exacerbated by the academic shock that I experienced. The academic identity that I had spent my high school years creating—that of a diligent, top-ranking high school student—did not provide the smooth transition to my new setting that I had hoped for. The curriculum of the “ghetto schooling” (Anyon, 1997) I received in high school did not parallel that of my White, suburban- educated peers, even though I was in honors classes throughout high school. I struggled with the languages of philosophy, Western world studies, and the literary classics because I had not been adequately prepared for the intensity and demands of college work. For the first time in my life, I was insecure about my academic ability.
Mami and Comunidad
However, I had a refuge. During my freshman and sophomore years, my mom would pick me up from campus every Friday afternoon. On those days, I would take my book bag and weekend bag with me to my afternoon math class that ended at approximately 4:45 p.m. This was perfect timing, because my mom’s work day ended at 4:00 and on her way home she would detour into subur- bia. I believe she enjoyed the trip to the suburbs. She waited patiently in the car at the front entrance of campus until I got out of class. As I sat down in the seat beside her, she would smile and we would exchange a traditional kiss on the cheek, as I asked her for the required Bendicíon. While my mother did not know the intricacies of college life, she believed in the possibilities that an education would afford me. Her presence reminded me of the safety of home and of family.
During my weekends at home, I was jolted back into reality. After just fifteen short minutes, I was back to my neighbors—Black and Puerto Rican families like mine. They were the “working poor” whose earnings from their jobs in the factory, the meat plant, or cleaning houses never seemed to be enough to make ends meet. In spite of their economic hardship, their spirit and strength to survive were exuberant. There was comfort in that weekly dose of reality.
Since I had assignments to complete, I would retreat to the room that I had shared with my sister, Rosa, since I was a young girl. The room would soon become Rosa’s, since my bed was removed during my years away at school. My parents, caught in the frenzy of the weekend, would be going on with their own lives: running errands, cleaning, and occasionally going in to work to take advantage of overtime opportunities. As was customary, on Saturday eve- nings my parents would go into New York City to visit extended family in the Bronx. When I accompanied them on these trips, I often felt guilty that I had taken time away from my studies. After I got home, I would stay up way past midnight working on my homework at the kitchen table. In time, after I had declined their many invitations, my parents no longer invited me to such fam- ily gatherings. They figured that I would be busy with more important school matters. I was conflicted; while I needed to study, I couldn’t help but feel hurt when I was no longer invited to family events.
On Sunday mornings, I would wake up exhausted from my late-night study- ing. By the time I awoke, my mom and Rosa would be in the kitchen drinking
coffee and talking about family events and matters to which I had not been privy during the course of the week. My mother, not wanting to distract me from my studies, would say, “Mija, nada con que te tienes preocupar.” As much as I wanted to know what had occurred, and as much as they tried to recre- ate a scenario or situation for me, it could not compare to having a firsthand account of the experiences. The intricacies of the shared lived experiences were lost in their narratives.
In my junior and senior years of college, my trips home became less fre- quent. Instead of going home every weekend, I only went for holidays and spring breaks. Even then, after a couple of days at home, I found myself ready to return to the comforts and security of life as a college student. The chat- ter that once sounded like comforting music to my ears had become noise—I did not want to hear my parents squabbling over their financial woes and my mother’s anguish over my brother Isaac’s failed attempts to stay out of prison. The Hall became my comfort zone. I longed to be in the security of the aca- demic environment where I did not have to worry about my family. It was a time just for me, when I could control the outcome and where I could escape from reality.
Growing up, I shared numerous childhood memories with my brother Isaac. Isaac was the big brother I knew would always protect me. We spent many days running through the neighborhood. The empty lots were our playground, and the mattresses there served as our trampolines. Isaac, our brother José, and I would shoot a basketball against the makeshift hoop in the nearby alley. We hung out with school friends on the stoops of their buildings, watched TV, and played hooky from school.
However, the moments that we shared as we moved into adulthood became few and far between because I became a “school kid” in contrast to the “street kid” that Isaac had become (Flores-González, 2002). Isaac dropped out of high school after his freshman year and in the subsequent years became deeply enmeshed in the street culture of the mid-1980s. This was the beginning of the crack epidemic in Newark and in many ’hoods in America. For too many Black and Latino young males in these communities, including Isaac, the lure of the streets was difficult to resist. He became one of the casualties.
Isaac began to live the life of a local street hustler—selling and using drugs and living in and out of prison for most of the year. Isaac went from stealing cars as a teenager to selling drugs and being involved in other criminal activi- ties. This continued as he moved into adulthood and correspondingly went from local juvenile detention centers to Rikers Island.
While he was just a number within prison walls, to our family he remained the oldest son, the firstborn, the big brother, the protector—un hombre. Dur- ing my visits to the prison, he would recommend ointments for the acne that he noticed on my face and warn me against the less than innocuous intentions of young men. Prison had not destroyed his loyalty to the ethos of Latino mas- culinity. In letters that we exchanged between visits, he wrote about the GED classes that he was taking, his plans for college work, and for a changed life on his release. Those plans never came to fruition.
Ironically, we didn’t interact much when Isaac was home from prison. Once home, the way he enacted the big brother role was much more sporadic and unpredictable. Though I was only home for a day and a half during my visits, this was more than enough time for me. It hurts to say that I was afraid of my own brother. He had become a person I did not recognize. Isaac would come home high. This made me uncomfortable. On the nights that Isaac would come home early, he would quietly go into his room, which was next to mine, and just watch TV. I felt anxious when I sensed his footsteps or the sound of the TV in his room. I don’t really know why I was so scared of him. Perhaps it was because I did not know what the effects of whatever drugs he was on at the time would be, and I was afraid that he would turn violent. He never did.
I cling to one particular memory of my brother. During this time, our neigh- borhood consisted of multifamily homes located across the street from light industrial factories. The bus stop, several blocks away, was a popular spot for prostitutes. Assuming his role as my protector, Isaac walked me to the bus stop. On our way, we came across one of his male friends whom I had not previously met. Isaac’s friend continued to glance in my direction while he spoke to my brother. Noticing this, Isaac “got loud” and went as far as to physically threaten his friend for looking at me. I recall Isaac telling him that I wouldn’t want a “hoodlum like him” because I was in college. My brother felt that I was too good for his friend, that—unlike him or his friend—I belonged to a higher class. We lived in two different worlds. Perhaps for my brother, I epitomized his unrealized greatness. I would never know. It is this memory that I choose to embrace and hold onto after his violent death a year before I graduated from college. During that week in October 1994, I buried my big brother. Two days later I was back at school.
A New Community
Back on campus, the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and the Puerto Rican Institute (PRI) served as social and emotional sanctuaries for me. As a first-generation, low-income student with “tremendous talent” but inadequate test scores, I was accepted to the Hall through EOP. The EOP program pro- vided students like me with a web of support services for academic success. The PRI afforded me academic and financial support as well as space, for the first time in my life, to truly explore and embrace my ethnic heritage. Through the PRI, I learned of a course on the history of Puerto Rico taught by the direc- tor of the program, my college mentor. Puerto Rico was never mentioned in any of my high school history classes. While I identified as Puerto Rican, the only knowledge I had of Puerto Rico was based on family traditions and prac- tices. These included foods like arroz con gandules and pernil for special occa- sions, the pulsating African rhythms of salsa, the island’s sparkling beaches, the Spanish language, and the customary family greeting and farewell of a kiss on the cheek and la Bendición. Through the course, I learned about the richness of the triad of my ethnic roots—African, Taíno, and Spanish—the political movements for independence from U.S. colonization, and the accom- plishments of Puerto Rican artists, scholars, and politicians. This experience engendered a strong sense of Puerto Rican identity in me. I was ecstatic to learn so much about my own history. The PRI made additional opportunities available to me that enriched my cultural awakening. During the first semes- ter of my sophomore year, I participated in an exchange program at the Inter- american University in San German, Puerto Rico. In the years that followed, I attended conferences and events sponsored by Puerto Rican organizations such as the National Puerto Rican Coalition in Washington, DC, and Aspira, Inc. The professional Puerto Ricans with whom I interacted at these confer- ences became models of “possible selves” for me (Yowell, 2000).
My EOP and PRI mentors recognized my academic and leadership poten- tial when self-doubt clouded my vision of what I could accomplish. This was especially crucial during the second semester of my sophomore year when the time came to declare my major. As a graduate of Stevens Technical Enrich- ment Program (STEP), an Upward Bound program at a prestigious engineer- ing school, I had excelled in high school math and science. Feeling confident about my aptitude in math, I completed the forms to declare it my major. But my excitement would be short-lived. The chair of the department made sure of that; my entry into the program was based on his approval. Not only was his presence physically intimidating, but, since he was a math professor, I felt I was intellectually inferior to him. Nevertheless, I naively thought that he would simply sign the form and welcome me to the department. Not so! I handed him the form and he reviewed it. He then asked me what year I was in. I obedi- ently replied. He then asked me if I knew that I would have to spend an addi- tional four years at the university to complete the major. I stood there and did not reply. I sensed his apprehension and disapproval. It did not matter to me if I spent another five years at the Hall—I wanted to continue to experience the excitement that I felt studying math at STEP. As I stood there, I felt my eyes begin to well up with tears, and I lowered my gaze from him to the floor. Feel- ing lost and alone, I ran across campus to the EOP office. There my adviser placed her signature on the form and congratulated me. That day I vowed that I would graduate with a math degree and resolved that the professors who did not believe in my potential could not and would not discourage me but instead would fuel my tenacity to succeed.
Because my family, mentors, and advisers provided me with unconditional and unequivocal support, advice, and guidance, I felt an enormous pressure not to disappoint them. I felt privileged to have an opportunity that no one
else in my family and so few in my community had experienced. I excelled so that I could make them proud. I had to honor the promise and possibility that they saw in me. My drive for academic success was fueled by their enthu- siasm and support for my accomplishments. I secured a place on the Dean’s List semester after semester. I became a resident assistant, joined a Latina sorority as well as academic and cultural organizations, and was inducted into academic honor societies. By graduation, five years after entering the Hall, I was recognized for my academic as well as leadership achievements and was selected for a prestigious national graduate fellowship. These successes led me to challenge myself even further and let me know that not only did I belong there, but I was an integral member of a new community—a new reality.
I also excelled for my mother, who did what she could to support my aca- demic endeavors—making her weekly trip to the university to pick me up from school, providing me with a quiet workspace at the kitchen table, letting me sleep late on weekends, and packing a weekly bag of groceries. These offer- ings, together with the $100 she scraped together at the beginning of each semester, supplemented me in ways she didn’t know.
The academic culture in which I was immersed provided me a window into my own identity as a Puerto Rican woman from urban America. This window was in sharp contrast to the lens of deficiency propagated in the academy about my culture, my people, and my hometown. I have been able to weave together my personal reality through my pursuit to embrace scholarship in the name of service and social justice.1 I honor the struggle and resilience of the residents of a tough, strong, and enduring Brick City, of the Puerto Rican community, as well as the unrealized promise of Isaac and other victims of the streets.
1. Currently, it is the memory of my brother Isaac that influences my research interests as a doctoral student at New York University. Much of the work I do focuses on the educa- tional challenges confronting Latino males. Specifically, I am interested in how interre- lated identities such as race, class, and gender inform the academic identities of Latino males in urban schools. I wonder if Isaac fell victim to dominant, stereotypical concep- tions of Latino masculinity, violence, dominance, and bravado attitudes that perhaps influenced his academic disposition. Would his identification as a “school kid” pose a threat to his identity as a young Latino man growing up in the ’hood?
Anyon, J. (1997). Ghetto schooling: A political economy of urban educational reform. New York: Teachers College Press.
Flores-González, N. (2002). School kids/street kids: Identity development in Latino students. New York: Teachers College Press.
Yowell, C. M. (2000). Possible selves and future orientation: Exploring hopes and fears of Latino boys and girls. Journal of Early Adolescence, 20(3), 245–280.
Harvard Educational Review
Though writing this essay was painful for me, the process provided the space to grieve my brother’s death for the first time in fifteen years. It has been challenging to publicly share the details of my brother’s life and death, but I hope that in telling his story, in some small way, I have expressed the significant influence he has had on my life and have honored his memory.
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