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November 26, 2009
Five years ago, I spent Thanksgiving back in Sacramento, CA. I had only lived in New York for four months but was already struggling with my new reality; I needed to escape for a while. What I am remembering right now is the conflicting ball of feelings that I had during that Thanksgiving -- happiness, extreme loneliness, low self worth, optimism and fear. THE BEGINNING I moved from Bushwick to Washington Heights in 2004. At the time, I certainly did not factor in how race, culture and coastal perceptions would affect my life. In retrospect, I probably should have considered these things, but at the time my only focus was getting the hell out of California. When I finally arrived to my "dream city,"Â I had no idea what to expect and was shocked to discover how segregated New York was.Â I had never lived in an ethnic enclave before, not to the degree that exists in New York. I am Chicana, yes, but it was still an adjustment to move from homogenized little Sacramento to a neighborhood that was entirely Dominican. There was a Jewish community near the synagogue but these two groups rarely mixed (it might be different now).
Five years later, I have come full circle.
A lot of things have changed -- I have advanced professionally and New York feels more like home than Cali, even though I still don't "feel" like a "New Yorker" and probably never will. I have my favorite places to go in the city.
However, eerily similar to my first few months in NY, is my living situation: I am in another cultural enclave Â - the mostly African American (and "Spanish") South Bronx. Once again, I am welcomed by many locals, although cultural tensions are often strained. I will be called "Mami" (the affectionate local term towards anyone who looks remotely "Spanish") and "white bitch" in the same week, on the same block.
I didn't move here in search of the "SoBro" that the New York Times trend-pieces describe, but to be closer to friends, save money and to have more space for my creative projects. I am in the process of moving into a loft space in the "artsy" Mott Haven clock tower building near the Bruckner Gallery & Cafe. I now realize that my own privilege allows me the freedom to move around as I please. I am grateful for that.
New York has helped me to find myself on different levels; as a media professional, student, artist, youth advocate and a light skinned Chicana (along with the cultural pros/cons of that).
After I hit "publish" on this post, I am taking the long trip to Jersey City to visit my former roommate, now great friend, where she will be serving up a delicious Thanksgiving meal. She lives in an enormous house with her boyfriend and good friend, where she uses the first floor to work on her fashion and accessories line. I'll be able to see our mutual friend Tomas again, the artist who did the tattoo on my back.
Life is not perfect and it never will be. This is now easier for me to accept -- the good with the bad, the uncertainty, learning to be patient and to continue to hope, dream and scheme.
I leave you with a video diary entry I made of myself in Washington Heights five years ago. It makes me happy to see that even in the midst of my confusion and frustration in a new world, there were still moments of joy and optimism.
Happy Day of Thanks
Cultural gentrification (a term I learned in New York) involves those not from a long standing community moving into that area and then changing it, for better or for worse -- often, it's both. I realize now that I was part of the gentrification that is slowly but steadily happening right now in Washington Heights, although my contribution was different; I was a middle class Latina -- who spoke little Spanish and had never met someone who was Dominican -- who moved into a working class Dominican neighborhood, where (at the time) Spanish was the primarily language. It was a huge culture shock for me.
At the time, I was renting a tiny room in Washington Heights for $400 per month. This included free laundry service, room service and dinner each day. It also included a Dominican family of three who, although very nice to me, fought constantly, spent most of the time hanging out in their underwear and didn't seem to mind the endless stream of cockroaches that paraded through the kitchen. I would turn the light on to get a glass of water and for an instant, the wall would turn from black to white as they scuttled into cracks behind the fridge. I ordered a lot of Chinese food in those days. My unstable emotional state oddly matched my physical reality; One evening, the entire bathroom ceiling caved in. I woke up to see what had happened and found myself peering up into a gaping void in where the ceiling used to be, surrounded by rubble and grime, only to find another face peering down at me. It took almost a week for the unscrupulous super to take care of it while we borrowed our neighbor's bathroom and (most horrifying) a communal bucket. I started going to bars and staying out late; when I went home with people, it was (at first) just to use their bathroom. Luckily, I didn't have a lot of free time to spend at the apartment Â -- I had two internships and a part time night job as a transcriptionist for a reality show called Home Delivery. Craigslist was my savior (I found my casting and film editing internships there); without it and other internet resources, I probably would have never left California. It was somewhat comforting to have a place to go, where I could start a task and finish it and feel like all the anguish and uncertainty might just be worth it in the long run. I felt like I didn't fit in anywhere, I had no friends and my "dream city" was feeling like a treacherous, unchartered galaxy, and me without a map. As soon as I could, I went back to CA to decompress. When I returned to New York from that first Thanksgiving back in Sacramento, I made up my mind to find ways to feel less like an alien on a new planet. I invited a friend from Cali who was moving to New York to be my roommate (gentrification!).
Together, we rented a three bedroom palace (comparably) a few blocks away, still in Washington Heights. My roommate, also Chicana, was outgoing and had a lot of free time on her hands so we started to meet people from the neighborhood. After a while, I didn't feel so completely alone. Having a roommate my own age helped. So did realizing that my Spanish was improving, locals were starting to recognize me as part of the blur in their day to day lives and I was surprised and amused to learn that people thought we were white.
My form of cultural gentrification included teaching the local drug dealers how to play chess -- they taught my roommate and I how to break into the building when we lost our keys. I would go to the movies with a local boy who was as obsessed with film as he was with impossibly huge jeans. My roommate and I were shocked and disgusted to learn how our new friends despised the recent influx of immigrant Mexicans into the community. In their minds, Mexicans were at the bottom of the cultural food chain. They didn't "belong" in The Heights. I saw Dominican teens knocking Mexican delivery boys off their bikes and stealing from them. Our friends from the neighborhood somehow didn't see us in the same way, were were "different." Perhaps it was our "white girl" accents, or my mohawk, but our "Spanish" was - to them - an exotic, bizarre sort that insulated us from their judgements. In our case, being different was a good thing.
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