My neighborhood could best be described as a place where if you hear the name, you immediately look at someone a little differently. The people are darker, the accents are thicker, and money is less evident. Kids run through the streets wearing clothes either too baggy or too tight, and while walking on the sidewalk it is expected to get honked at by a group of guys in a loud cantankerous Honda Civic. It’s loud, due to the abundance of people, and noisy, due to the freight train that passes through and blasts its horn. This is Haverstraw.
Most people speak Spanish, a language I’ve never understood. I grew up listening to words race through people’s mouths like a motor, flowing through their tongues so quickly and easily that I could feel the passion of their emotions. I always wished that I could understand. After watching Aladdin I would constantly think that one of my wishes would be to understand my native tongue and be able to communicate with my neighbors. The people that were supposed to be my sisters and brothers from my country. The country I could never assimilate in. Not that I wanted to. I blame my grandmother. She never taught my mom how to speak Spanish, who never taught me. And because of her decision I stood one step further from being able to fully belong in the neighborhood.
I mean, I did feel like I belonged, but I was always on the brink of acceptance no matter how hard I tried. I wasn’t the typical Hispanic girl getting on the bus going to school. My mother would never allow me to fall in line behind those who had no moral steering. No. I was always too smart, too weird, to ever be one of the South Pole wearing, slicked baby haired girls. I read Harry Potter, had an incredible imagination, always got good grades, and never disobeyed my mother. Instead of playing all day in the park during the summer I was sent away to visit relatives, and given large workbooks to complete. Everyone else was allowed to walk to the McDonald’s up the hill or buy a limbe from the house down the street, but I wasn’t. I was always enrolled in activities, always doing something that separated me from the other kids. I was always different.
I looked different too. Instead of having mocha skin and curly ringlets of dark hair like my mother, I was paler with straight brown hair that turned blonde at the tips in the summer. I was born with a variation in my eye so a triangle of color in my left eye was green compared to brown everywhere else. People looked at me and expected a privileged child, one who didn’t grow up in a house that was quite literally falling apart. Then they would glance at my last name and realize Soto, a Puerto Rican name. But no, she must only be half. Her mother must be white. Wrong.
I AM one of them. I do live on those streets.
I lived with my mother and my uncle, in the house that they themselves had grown up in. A townhouse, once big and spacious with three floors, but as time went on, falling apart by the seams. The roof on the third floor was caving in slowly, the bathrooms didn’t fully work, and I could never bring anyone over to play. My mother and I did move to an apartment when I was 13, but the townhouse was essentially my place of origin, the house I always placed myself into in dreams and memories. It was a part of me.
I felt like I was living in such a different family situation than everyone that I knew. My parents had divorced when I was young, my mother taking primary custody because my father was in the military and constantly traveling. Many of my friends did have absent fathers, but the fact that I was an only child living with my mom and uncle seemed like a different situation to me. We didn’t really have family that we talked to often, and a lot of the time I was raised by my uncle when my mom was busy working or going to school. My uncle was only sixteen years older than me, and on the outside was a G-Unit wearing, cornrow wanting, night shift working older brother who would tease me endlessly. But through the years he would cook me dinner on different nights, always go out of the way to get me something, and take my side on useless arguments with my mom. We were our own little family in the house, as dysfunctional as it was. It gave me comfort to know that I at least had two people in my life that were constant and always caring. A lot of change happened through the years.
Through my uncle we also became close friends with the Canjuras down the street, essentially the headquarters of the neighborhood. They had four kids of all different ages around my uncle, and through the years became the family that always kept their door open to everyone who wanted to come in. They were El Salvadorian, loving, and extremely cheeky. They did a lot for my mother and I; watching me when she had to work, having someone pick me up when I had no ride, or even just inviting us over to their house for every holiday and never letting us leave. Of course they loved to gossip about everyone and had no shame about anything, but that was their way. Through the parties, drinking, and wild stories they were my extended family. I knew that every tease was done with love (even though they tried to corrupt me like crazy), and in their house the neighborhood grew closer. Even though I was an only child and completely different from their delinquent ways, I still had a family and neighborhood of sisters and brothers that I could count on to be there for me. As a neighborhood we were bonded as one through 65 Coolidge Street, and never thought it weird to just walk through the door randomly to say hi or yell from the street into their window. Sometimes I wondered how the Canjuras could stand everyone always taking up their house with space as well as drama, but then again we kind of all were family.
I grew up in Haverstraw, fully believing that the world was what I was seeing. That it was normal to hear music blasting from every car window, for people to just sit in front of their houses talking to those on the streets, to know everyone’s stories, everyone’s life. Then I travelled to other neighborhoods, neighborhoods with houses separated by lawns and fences, and people that took their kids to soccer practice and play dates. They had a pool in their backyard, they said hello to their neighbors but nothing more, they had a minivan. Everything was so quiet, everything so perfect.
And somehow I never fully understood. Was this how people really lived? Was this how normal people lived? To me, the houses in a friend’s neighborhood seemed so rich and grand, with their spare rooms and families complete with a mother, a father, and a 50-inch flat screen. Or was I just used to living in a place where you had to fight for a fan because there was never any air conditioning? Which was better? Minivan, Honda Civic. Country, Reggaeton. Organic, fried. Light skin, brown skin.
I would always think about it. Would this place of serenity and clean lines be a better fit for me? I mean my skin was light, I didn’t act obnoxious and loud, I felt pulled towards knowledge, not drinking and drugs. Was this the place to be?
I explored, going to different friends houses, travelling to different places, seeing what it was really like to live differently; to live far from the poignant streets and lifestyle of my neighborhood. I loved it. I loved to learn about the different things you can do in life, the paths that were there for you to walk on. The places you could go, the people you could see. I was not forced to stay in the confines of my block, to only have aspirations that included a party next week and a full time job. Who knew? Who knew worlds like this existed? That I could become a part of them, that I could belong in one of them. It was staggering, to say the least.
But despite the fact that I felt pulled to a life far from Gurnee Avenue, the culture I had left behind still lingered, laying dormant in my soul waiting to emerge. I wasn’t the girl to paint herself green for Saint Patrick’s day, the girl who eagerly awaited her 16th birthday so that she could have Sweet 16. No matter how much I tried I was still that blatant “Latino” girl with skin too light, and a mind too curious.
I think it all came down to a minor instance, a moment that I will never forget. I was travelling through Italy with a friend and we had stopped at a cameo factory to see a craftsman at work. We were looking at the cameos in awe, noting their beauty and intricacy. I stopped to look at one that almost looked like an egg, and excitedly told my friend that it looked like the ring that Selena wore in her movie. When I looked at my friend, she had a puzzled look and asked who Selena was. I stopped, and in awe asked again. She didn’t know her. For the rest of the day I was in shock of this minor difference. When I was younger, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was mine as well as so many other girls in my neighborhoods idol. We all adored her, listened to her music, danced to her songs, and pretended that we were the woman on stage wearing a purple sparkly jumpsuit. How had my friend never heard of Selena’s magic? How had she never experienced the twang of pain when hearing about her tragic death? I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand how such a poignant point in my childhood that I thought was felt by all, was apparently only felt by me and those in Haverstraw. This is what made me different.
I knew that I was different from then on because I may always be that girl who likes to read and write, who always obeys their mother, who likes nature and hiking, who sometimes feels weird and awkward and far away, and who loves to imagine big things in life. I may be all of these things. But underneath these things, lying so far beneath sometimes that I can never find it, I will always be Latina. Spanish may not be my first language, I may never be able to cook arroz con pollo or pernil with as much grace as other women, never talk with as much attitude or be instantly recognized as one from my own race, but these roots that I have are a part of me, stuck permanently to my heart and soul forever. I will always be that girl from Haverstraw. The one who wasn’t like everyone else but still was. The girl who would now embrace everything about her.
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