Before the sunrise, before the birds start chirping, before people go to work, before children go to school, my mother woke up. She went through the six floors of the building we lived in to collect industrial-sized garbage bags. She swept and mopped every floor and took the garbage bags to the curb so the trucks can pick them up. She went back to our apartment, showered, got dressed, and woke her three children for school. Then, she went to her other two jobs as a nanny.
This is the story of a single mother, a new immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She left because she and my father divorced and she wanted to provide a better life for her children. My siblings and I migrated to Brooklyn when I was 7 years old to live with her. We lived in the basement of the building, in a makeshift apartment. The owners of the building let us live there because the super was her friend and my mother worked odd jobs for them in the building.
On weekends, my brother and sister worked in the local supermarket while my Mom worked in the building cleaning and even painting. She left me in our apartment and would go down every hour to check on me. It was during those weekends that I discovered how much I loved to read. Every Friday, I took out as many as 10 books at a time. My biggest fear was that I would run out of books to read and would have to resort to watching TV. The librarians were my best friends. I read anything I could get my hands on and I finished the entire psychology section of the school’s library. I would read any time and anywhere until my eyes couldn’t read anymore—I couldn’t stop reading, it was all I could think about and when I didn’t have anything to read, I would look up words in the dictionary.
I read on the train, on the bus, and I would keep reading even as I walked home. One day my mother saw me reading while crossing the street and got so scared. “Mi hija, you are going to get hit by a car!” Not so long ago, my mother asked me to forgive her for leaving me alone for so long on weekends. “My poor baby! You had to read to keep yourself entertained. I feel like I failed you in some way,” she told me. All I said was, “Mom! I’m at Smith College, I think you did more thank okay.”
When I entered high school, I finally admitted to myself that I was an “illegal alien.” We had overstayed our visa after a lawyer advised my mother to do so, but he only stole her money. I also finally realized what it meant to not have a Social Security Number. I couldn’t get a driver’s license, open a bank account, sign a lease on an apartment, or get a job “on the books.” I also avoided the college counseling office, but during my senior year I was given a stack of applications for colleges and scholarships because I did so well on my exit exams. I started filling them out, until I reached the nine spaces I couldn’t. Sadly, those applications ended in the garbage can. When I graduated, I got a job as a cashier at a supermarket for $6 an hour. I tried to work as many shifts as I could and if anyone called in sick, my boss would call me first. One of my coworkers went on vacation once and I worked from opening until closing for almost two weeks. My feet were swollen and I could barely stand up for too long after, and the extra money I got didn’t even add up to $100. It was just not worth it.
I knew from an early age that I wanted to go to college, but the closest college experience I had were from the characters in the books I read. I would go to college with them, we would take tests together, get annoyed at our roommate, miss our parents, and four years later we had a college degree. One of my coworkers, Chari, went to Kingsborough Community College and I always envied the stories she told about her classes and professors. I even visited the admission office and spoke to a counselor. I left with a packet in my hands and tears in my eyes. As I walked past the cafeteria and saw people studying and eating, I wished I could be sitting there eating with them but without a Social Security Number, I couldn’t apply for much-needed financial aid.
I don’t know when the story-telling started but my mother would come home from work and tell me about something she heard in the news. I remember one of those stories. It was about a young man who was living in the subway tunnels of New York. He was homeless and didn’t have any family. He somehow made it to college. She would also tell me that I had the “raw material” and all I needed was an opportunity. Looking back now, I realize that my mother had been telling me these stories and encouraging me for a long time. She now tells me that she never wanted me to lose hope of being able to go to college someday.
In 2005, after filling out countless applications and spending A LOT of money, we were finally able to apply and get an adjustment of status. We even had to pay more than once because the immigration office “lost” our paperwork and we had to re-apply. But my “green card” was approved a day before my 21st birthday! I applied to Kingsborough Community College as soon as I had my Social Security card in my hand. In the spring 2007 semester, I was the first person in my family to attend college. I was nervous that I wasn’t going to be smart enough but my mother kept insisting that I could do anything with my “raw material,” just like the people in the stories she told me. I also got a job at an appliance store, “on the books” this time.
I treasured every moment I spent in the classroom. I attended nights and weekends because I was working full-time. After my second semester, I was asked to join the Phi Theta Kappa honors society. I tossed the papers on my desk, not interested. My Mom saw these and asked me what they were. I told her and also mentioned that there was a $50 fee I didn’t want to pay. She looked me in the eye and said, “I’m going to give you $50, because you are going to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way and you are going to graduate with every honor you can obtain.” I simply nodded because I had a lump in my throat.
I became very involved in the honors society after I was laid off because they had to cut some jobs. My mother told me not to worry and only focus on being a student; she will take care of the rest. I still don’t know how she scrapes money together to help me out. I became chapter president, and recording secretary of the region of New York. I was very active on campus; I attended conferences, gave speeches, organized events and volunteer programs, and did well in my classes. I went to Austria, Germany, and Costa Rica on scholarship. And one day, I found out about the Ada Comstock Scholars Program at Smith.
There are days when I’m here and I think, “I can’t do it, the work is too much, I’m not smart enough,” and I just have to hear my mother’s voice reminding me that I can do anything with my “raw material.”
If you go to my mother’s house, she will probably offer you a cup of coffee as she tells you a story. She will show you one by one all the diplomas, certificates, medals, plaques, and awards I have received. She will tell you that her daughter is going to graduate from Smith College this May and already has a job lined up. Most importantly, she will tell you that you can go to college, too. She no longer needs to wait to hear stories in the news because now I am her story.