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Sometimes women face the courage to do something unimaginable that changes their life. This is the story of Altagracia—Stay tune for more in my upcoming book, Nideaquínideallá, I’m from the Borderlands: A Goddess Journey from Trauma to Rebirth.

I met Altagracia in a community literacy class that met regularly on P.S. 182 in Washington Heights, the largest Dominican community in northern Manhattan. Mayra, one of my colleagues from the Women’s Collective, invited me one night. We walked together into a classroom of ten to twelve women who sat in school benches in a circle. Mayra introduced me to the group as a researcher from Argentina who was writing a book on women’s migration. That night, Altagracia’s narration stood out because of the added dangers posed by crossing the Mona Canal, one of deepest passages in the world, in a small boat.

“When I climbed on that yola all I could think about was my children. I did it for them,” Altagracia said as tears fell down her cheek. The women in the room nodded in empathy. During the seventies and eighties, it took an average of eight years for most women to reunite their families; their migratory journeys becoming a leap of faith into the underworld.

“It was about fifty of us,” Altagracia continued. “By the last day, there was little food and water. We had been at sea for four days waiting for the right moment to sneak passed the Coast Guard watches. It was so scary to be in that boat. Sharks were surrounding us and the Captain asked the women whether anyone of us had the menstrual cycle. We all said no but he was suspicious. He kept looking at me for any signs of blood.”

My eyes widened. I had heard of Captains who threw menstruating women off the board to avoid sharks.

“There was a baby in the crowd who kept crying and the Captain told the mother to nurse him and make him stop. Two men suggested that we all nursed as well because soon we would have no food or water, but the other women didn’t allow it.” Altagracia’s voice trembled.

“After four days at sea, the Captain announced we were almost at shore and we had to jump.” Altagracia fidgeted with her fingers. “So when he said jump, I did. The weight of the plastic bag with a change of clothes pulled me down and then up. When my head was above water I could see the lights ahead of us and I swam towards them, hoping I would soon reach the shore.” Her eyebrows rose as if looking for an act of faith. Then she continued.

“One of the men swimming next to me was drowning and he tried to grab my leg. I held on to my bag to stay afloat but I kept sinking with his weight. I thought that was the end of the trip, and my family would read about me in the papers. Then I saw my friend pulled out a knife and he threatened him. He let go of my leg, and I grasped for some air. I was so tired. I didn’t think I could swim all the way to the shore.” Altagracia’s hands fidgeted with her hair.

“The ocean led us into the beach shore of a condominium complex and I hid in a back yard. It was just the two of us now. Everyone else had run in different directions. I must have dozed off when the voice of a woman woke me up.”

“Wake up, wake up. You can’t stay here. I could be fined for hiding illegals,” She said in a Puerto Rican accent, rolling the r’s.

“Please help us,” I said as I lifted my hands begging. She frowned, but something made her change her mind and she took pity on us.

“Okay, you can spend the night, but you have to leave by dawn. I’ll bring out some food and blankets. There is a shed in the back.”

“My heart stopped pounding. I knew we would be safe. The next day we wandered around the streets of the town of Cabo Rojo. The idea was to blend in with the locals and pretend we were tourists. I had a few dollars and I invited my friend for breakfast. As soon as we saw a public phone, he made a call and his cousin picked us up an hour later. We both had a plane ticket to New York where our families were waiting. That night I dreamt about my children and when I woke up I knew I had done the right thing.”

“Why?” I asked while I wiped my tears.

Altagracia responded. “I couldn’t pay for my children’s books, shoes or school uniforms. My husband migrated but he couldn’t send any money. I worked hard but it wasn’t enough to pay for rent and food. If I had stayed we would still be poor. Being afraid was not an option.”

When women immigrate, we change our cycles and natural rhythms; we may be inundated by a sense of loss or transformation. It takes a while to get back in our two feet, especially if one’s identity depends on official documentation issued by the country we migrate to. This is the story of Paulina—an excerpt from my upcoming book, Nideaquínideallá, I’m From the Borderlands: A Goddess Journey from Trama to Rebirth.

“Bwak, bwak,” two hens greeted me when I walked into Paulina’s apartment in Washington Heights, a charming, old Jewish neighborhood that became the largest Dominican neighborhood in the United States in less than two decades.

“I still look for eggs every morning, as if I was back in Santo Domingo,” said Paulina, waving at the hens to go to their nest.

“Would you like some coffee?” Paulina stood in the kitchen door and finished pulling her dark hair in a pony tale.

“Yes, please.”

She tucked a red shirt into her tight pants up and we both sat on the couch. Paulina was a short immigrant woman in her late thirties, with African features and a light complexion. She spoke in a soft voice, but unlike other women I met, she switched back and forth from English to Spanish with ease. Still, she had a nostalgic expression in her eyes. I pulled out the tape-recorder and placed it next to the flowered sugar jar. There were some papers on the table and she moved them to make room for us.

“Those are the papers I need to fill out and take to city court,” her hands moved with hesitation, “Now that I’m documented I want to change my name back to Rosa. Paulina was my phantom name.” She paused and added. “Paulina was that brave woman who came to the United States, and Rosa, that young girl who stayed behind in Santo Domingo.”

“Can you tell me more about that young girl?” I didn’t want to lose that window into her past even though it was a hospital visit. We had a questionnaire to fill out but I wanted to know more about Paulina’s migratory journey.

“Oh, it was a long time ago, early seventies. I grew up with both my parents and twelve siblings in a small isolated town outside of Moca, a rural place in the Cibao region. We lived off the land and grew tobacco, cocoa, potatoes, and other vegetables. We also harvested many fruits that grew in the Caribbean like mangos, avocados, and pana or grapefruit bread. Those were the good old days. Everyone knew each other and looked after each other.”

“What motivated you to migrate to the United States?”

“I lived in the capital city with my first husband. I was working in one of those factories that exported the clothes back to the United States. I wasn’t doing well with my husband so I decided to get a divorce and I moved back with my parents. Everyone thought I was a bad wife and mother.”

I nodded in empathy. “Did that help you to make the decision to migrate?”

“I suppose. It was my father’s idea, and I went along.” Her fingers fidgeted. “I always thought it was my destiny to travel.”

“How so?”

“Well.” She leaned forward and hesitated to tell me. “When I got to the airport, I stood there without knowing what to do, as if I had arrived at another planet. My passport photo didn’t even look like me. I traveled with a machete, with someone else’s I.D. card. I think I got in because of my own ignorance, or immigration didn’t care and let me in. After you pay for the trip you don’t think about anything else except getting here.”

Her face lit up. “I still save as a memento the same pillowcase I brought with me with a blouse, a skirt, and some panties.” Her hands touched mine. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. “It takes courage to leave your family behind, not knowing when you’ll see them again.”

My heart contracted.

She added, “It was like telling the world, here I am.”

[Disclaimer: The stories in this Blog do not coincide with the women in the pictures. Names have been changed. I am solely responsible for the facts gathered and on which the stories and images are based. Nonfiction narrative asserts descriptions understood to be factual and may incorporate fictional elements to clarify and enhance them.]