In my 23 years of living, there have been many things that I have not been sure of, but my Dominican identity was surely not one of them. I grew up in Washington Heights in Manhattan, known as the Little Dominican Republic of New York City. Many outside New York probably learned about it after watching In The Heights. My family immersed themselves in Dominican culture, and up until I was 13 years old I had attended schools where the majority of kids were black and brown. My neighbors and friends were people of color, and in my little bubble I thought to myself, “this is just how the world is.”
I remember as a kid being angry at the word “minority.” Something about it felt incorrect and degrading because there was nothing minimal about who I was, or friends, my family, and my neighbors. I came from a world where I saw us everywhere. How are we the minority? But this changed when I turned 12, I quickly saw that not only were we the minority, but we were seen as minor, as not good enough at first glance.
At 12 years old my eldest brother along with my middle school counselor applied for me to attend The Rudolf Steiner School. a private school in the Upper East Side, an affluent neighborhood in Manhattan. Upon visiting the high school, I hated it. Nothing that I saw was familiar to me, the neighborhood didn’t have a bodega in sight, the children spoke about traveling the world every summer, the teachers were white, the students were white, and I didn’t understand the curriculum. However, like every parental figure in Washington Heights who saw the same cycle of teenage pregnancy or falling into the wrong crowd, my brother and mother saw Rudolf Steiner as an opportunity for me. They saw this as a chance for me to get away from the so-called hood and surround myself with people whose wealth secured their spot in places where succeeding was not optional. To my family, I hit the jackpot with a scholarship offer that covered 85 percent of tuition costs, but honestly, I was scared.
On my first day of school, I met my classmates, and as my eyes scanned the room, I counted the number of students of color in my hand: seven. By the end of my senior year, that number would be reduced to five. Yet, we were the most racially diverse class in the entire high school. Another freshman who had spoken to me when I first visited the school introduced me to two other students that were also new to Steiner. They spoke about what they did that summer. One of them said they spent their summer on a farm in another country, and the other two traveled to Europe. I would later find out they did that every summer. They turned to me and asked what I did over the summer. I said, “I just stayed home and hung out with friends.”
The most recent amount of traveling that I had done was go to Six Flags in New Jersey with my brother. I quickly realized that the lifestyle that these kids had was not even a thought in my head growing up, partly because it was unattainable to me. I never thought about traveling out of the country, going skiing, or going to Broadway musicals. We were all the same age, but it was clear to me that their experiences were lifetimes ahead of mine. I knew that my single mother, who had come to the U.S. on welfare and now had the luxury of being able to afford her daughter’s tuition every semester, would not be able to attain this lifestyle no matter how many overtime hours she worked. Coming from an immigrant family surrounded by people like me, I recall this as the first instance where I felt poor.
My circle of friends became more diverse as the majority of students of color banded together. I am not sure if what made us close was that we were non-white, but we bonded instantly. My circle of friends in high school are still some of my best friends today, giving me ten years of friendship that I will always cherish. Unfortunately, the happiness that I felt at the beginning of Freshman year would slowly fade as rumors started flying around about comments that some of my white classmates had said about me.
Words like, “ghetto”, “hood rat” and “ratchet” were used to describe me along with occasional slut shaming. I would hear my white classmates mimic my speech every time I used a form of ebonics paired up with what I hadn’t known then was an interpretation of a Spanish accent. The slut shaming came as a surprise to me, I was a virgin and had my first real kiss in eighth grade. Later on, I would find out that someone who I entrusted this information with, had exaggerated it all over the school to make it seem like my sexual experiences were much more extreme.
The bullying wouldn’t stop until my senior year, as white students constantly targeted me for minuscule reasons. When I was a junior, a freshman reached out to me via Instagram direct message to inform me that a group of girls were making posts about me on their private Instagram. She showed me the posts where the girls were calling me names like cunt, bitch, and using my slanted eyes as a reason to call me Asian as an insult. They wrote paragraphs about me, where others would join in. I had never spoken to any of these girls in my life. When scrolling through the posts I saw that the racism and name-calling were due to one of the girls saying I had looked at them wrong. I was older now so this petty drama made me laugh as I showed my friends the posts. It didn’t hurt me because I was used to being judged without people ever taking the time to speak to me let alone get to know me. This incident was an example of what at that point had been my relationship with the white students in my school: Being judged before ever being approached.
The curriculum was hard to adapt to as I had come from a public school education. All of the students of color had come from a public school education as well. However, as I realized that the curriculum was at a much more advanced level and the majority of students had quickly caught on because they had been at the school since they were in first grade, I gradually gave up. Sitting in classes where I was slow to understand what was being taught made me feel dumb and insecure so I thought if I didn’t try, then there was no finding out if I was dumb. As a result of this, my grades started falling and my brother did not hide his disappointment. I was ruining what could have been an opportunity that would set me up for instant success, but my family failed to understand that placing kids in environments where they are misunderstood can cause them to rebel. I was placed on academic probation multiple times, yet I saw no effort from my teachers in trying to find the root of my academic problems.
In junior year I had gotten my act together and put in the effort because I wanted to get into a good college. That semester my GPA was 3.6 and the semester after that it was 3.7. I was proud of myself but also wondered if I had gone to public school, maybe I would have tried earlier and avoided the mistakes that I committed at the beginning of high school.
Although I prided myself on remaining strong throughout my high school career, there were moments when I thought something was wrong with me. Back home, explaining my struggles seemed pointless as my family always asked, “there are people who would kill for this. Why are you being so ungrateful?’ My immigrant family couldn’t and would never understand these struggles. To be in heavily white spaces and feel othered constantly was an experience that I would have to navigate alone.
However, despite the struggles, I stayed true to who I was. Similarly to when I had realized Washington Heights was its own little bubble, the Upper East Side was as well. It mimicked a huge part of a world where racism and misogyny existed and prepared me for that from the start. Growing up in Washington Heights and having my culture be deeply ingrained in who I was was what I believed held me back from letting the bullying truly affect me. I was always sure of who I was culturally and ethnically, and the pride that came along with it was embedded into me since I was born. No one could take that away. Commuting to my one-bedroom apartment where I lived with my abuela, Nena, and brother, Pavel, in the Heights had never brought me shame, only relief. It was home.