This is America

Original illustration by FSSA senior art student Zelinette Estrada.

We are lead to believe that we have the chance to make our American dream a reality, yet we’re stuck in an ongoing cycle of dependency and prejudice. “Don’t get a job, you’re gonna make your mother lose her food stamps!” “Don’t pursue your career, you’re gonna make too much money and not get government aid for school!” basically, be a slave to the system because you can’t risk your comfort. The government only supports you when you’re impoverished, and once you surpass it by the slightest, they use it as an excuse to stop doing so.

My mother, Rosa Fernandez, had dreams much greater than the ones currently rolling in my head. She was born and raised in a small campo in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic. She lived in a small shack with farm animals and was the eldest daughter of seven children, with two older brothers, and parents working inhumane hours of labor. Because of the fact that she was the eldest daughter, she had to drop out of colegio at the age of 11 to raise her younger siblings and maintain the household. In Dominican culture, especially at the time, women were encouraged to be housewives and learned to care for families and so they matured at a faster rate in order to prepare. The goal was always to marry someone who would support you, so to continue school past the secondaries was uncommon. The boys in the family were babied and given minimal tasks, as well as given the most encouragement to succeed and do something of substance. My mom had to say goodbye to her childhood and instantly become a parental figure. But by the time she turned 15 she was given the opportunity to move into her aunt’s household in Jamaica, Queens, NY.

She felt like her dreams were about to come true. Possibilities were endless – independence, musical success, financial stability and happiness were all waiting in America.

But reality struck instantly. NYC in the mid ’80s was a different place entirely than what we experience today. It was unrecognizable. Graffiti suffocated each train cart, and Times Square was home to drugs and promiscuity—the polar opposite to what it is today. My mother quickly became insecure over the fact that she could not speak English, and since she hadn’t been in school for four years, she deemed herself too “uneducated” to go back to school, especially in America. She assumed it was too prestigious.  She never completed her education, never learned to speak English, and went straight into working.

Her love for music maintained and she went out at night after work for open mics at Latino clubs and bars. Although she couldn’t continue pursuing education, she remained hopeful and happy. She had a few opportunities to model, as she was a tall, slim, white passing Latina. She became popular in her neighborhood for looking different than the other Dominicans, having blonde hair, green eyes, and a fair freckled face.

Sadly, her potential career path abruptly stopped before it could really take flight, as she became pregnant at the age of 19. Opportunities for Latinos in America were slim at the time. She was working an unsustainable job, and being a single mother, meant having to rely on government aid to support her children to the best of her ability. Her goals faded, and her aspirations tunneled into ensuring that her children would never have to struggle.

She fled the Dominican Republic for independence, yet she became a mother within a couple of years of finding her freedom. Although it was saddening, she knew ultimately that loving her children and being a mother brought her genuine joy.

My first few years of life, I assumed we were well off. My mother never let me see her struggle. I thought the frequent trips to getting food stamps or at the Section 8 offices were normal and that everybody else did it. I never had a father around so his absence didn’t affect me. And I was too busy playing outside to realize what was actually occurring in my neighborhood. Then I got older, and I realized that I was seen as a statistic and not a little girl.

I was constantly told to not dream too big. To think realistically. “Look at you. You’re Latina, you’ve got family members involved in criminal activity, you live in a bad neighborhood, we already know how you’re gonna end up.” They’d tell me, even as young as seven, with dreams of pursuing fine arts and music, that I’d “probably end up pregnant before I finished high school.”

But the way they spoke to me didn’t matter, because my identity didn’t matter. The older I grew the more sexualized I became. The more they assumed I’m like every other young woman of color who was a product of her environment. I quickly went from being viewed as a little girl to being viewed as a woman. There was no in-between. I was a fantasy to white men, something they could save and use as a trophy. America didn’t protect girls like me.

American society built these systems to keep people of color trapped in a cycle. It’s a cycle of repeating generational curses, a cycle becoming a statistic, and believing that the only way to survive in a place like America as a person of color is to not risk losing the only support we get – even if it’s minimum, inhumane and unrealistic.

I am now left in the predicament of pursuing my career as an artist, model and designer, or choosing to give up all that I worked for these past years independently to attend college.

I can’t risk making too much money and losing an opportunity others have worked so hard to achieve, but I don’t want to let go of my dreams, that are extremely tangible. I worked hard to become the first short curve model in my agency. I worked hard as an influencer to have the networks to be currently making a clothing brand, and I worked hard spending hours and hours in the studio as a young woman in a predominantly male industry, to make music, where I’m now being offered a very lucrative recording contract.

Do I risk it all to potentially break the generational curse, or do I stay a part of the cycle? Have I achieved the American dream?

– by Jarline Almonte ’19