Since I was a little girl, I would constantly find myself watching my mother. I would observe her facial expressions and actions, intent on being just like her in the future.
Here is a scene from my childhood:
As I sat in my living room waiting for My Little Pony to come on the screen, I snuggle into the plastic covered couch. I begin to pet the fur on the miniscule kitten my father has always set milk for. Her coat is white and very soft; her body heat radiates warmth against my pajama pants. I pull the fleece blanket over the kitten and me. Behind us in the kitchen, I have been hearing my mother’s constant yelling at my brother for almost two hours since 8 P.M. My mother, a firm woman, makes sure my older brother gets his penmanship homework flawless.
“Giovanny, no es así, haz lo otro vez!” Giovanny it’s not that way, do it again.
She hits the seven-year-old with a wooden pencil across his knuckles, causing him to cry, tears running down his cheek. To me, they resembled the rushing current of el Rio de Jarabacoa in the Dominican Republic, both being strong and continuously flowing.
With me, though, she was gentler. Every day as she would put on my dress and fix my hair with a comb that seemed as though it would tear every strand of hair off my toddler head, she would repeat, “Uno debe de tratar lo más posible a ser perfecto, tenemos que seguir las huellas que hiso el Señor Jesús,” We must try to be perfect in every way; we have to follow Jesus’ footprints. She dressed me as a doll every morning, only to find that I would destroy her masterpiece by the end of the day.
Now, sitting on the sofa directly in front of the TV-set in my pastel green colored living room, I see the reflection of my brother’s tears through the glass screen in the brief moment when it turns black. My show begins.
Behind me, my mother continues reprimanding my brother.
The seven year old boy, with limbs too long for a child of his age and thick black hair growing out of his head, begins to act as though he had been raised by animals. My brother and I both knew that if you stomped your foot, yelled, and acted the exact opposite of what my mother raised you to be – a well behaved child who would make other parents envy her – the pink mark of her sturdy and forceful fingertips would be seen across your face for hours.
“Why isn’t Emily doing this? I want to watch Power Rangers! Mami this isn’t fair!” says my older brother.
I hear my brother yell in agony as my Mother pulls his ears, her long finger nails leaving dents on my brother’s earlobes in the shape of crescents.
My mother says: “Eso es lo que te mereces por ser un niño molestoso. Ahora escríbelo perfectamente.” That’s what you deserved for being a bothersome child. Now, write it perfectly.
Quickly, my brother gets back to practicing script with my mother seated in front of him. Tears slip one by one from his eyes, leaving a constellation of tear drops on his notebook. With a pencil in one hand, he traces his name over and over on the 1-inch line, intent on making every curve correctly proportional to the line.
Giovanny trembles as my mother excuses herself from the kitchen table, making the wooden chair screech against the waxed tile floors, to walk to the sink. The flip and flop of my mother’s sandals overpowers the sound of the running faucet while she wets a white towel with warm water.
When the kitten escapes from my lap, she runs across the tiled kitchen floors, under the table where my brother works. My bare feet hit the carpeted living room floors as I scurry after her into the linoleum kitchen, the change in temperature of the floor sending chills throughout my body. Hidden under the table, I grasp my pet’s tail and pull her near me, holding her against my chest, and calmly petting her head, reassuring her that her safety was guaranteed in my four-year-old arms.
My mother looks down at me from above the kitchen table as I smoothed the kitten’s fur out, her eyes welling with the love of her children. She turns to Giovanny, who has now stopped working, and pulls him into her lap, letting him settle in her arms.
She places the warm moist towel around his knuckles and tells him that it is only a matter a time before his education catches up to her limited one.
This memory brings up many more for me, but person it reminds me the most of is my mother. Ever since I was young, my mother, Eulalia Espinal, has been both my mother and father figure.
At seventeen, she was a model: slim and tall, white with long black hair, and translucent hazel eyes that made you feel like you were sinking. She always stood straight, with the posture of a princess and the skill set of a handy man. Till this day she tells me thirty years ago, she would get hollers from men she walked by. Business men, lawyers, hombres educados.
Being both elegant and mighty, she managed to scare both my brother and I. When she gave you a look, it was enough to send shivers down your back, even at the age of seven. She made sure we knew to obey her orders and for the rest of the day we worked as hard as we could. All my life I was aware to never provoke my mother; because if I did, I would only be putting myself into deep trouble.
Mami came to the United States at the age of seventeen, heartbroken from leaving behind all the previous relationships that she held near to her heart from la Republica. The very day she stepped into the wondrous country of the United States of America, she began to see opportunity flash before her eyes. But the part of the story she tells me most emphatically about is what she asked her father once she stepped foot into the JFK airport.
She turned and asked, “Papa, puedo ir a la escuela aquí en los estados unidos?” Father, may I start school here in the U.S.
He declined her request instantaneously and stated that being educated was for men. The response still shocks me today because I cannot imagine my grandfather as being sexist. But from what I have observed now from tutoring my mother for the GED, it is true; my mother still has the education of an elementary school student.
Hearing stories about my mother’s past makes me realize why she has always been so difficult on her children in regards to education. In my mother’s eyes, education is the only way to set your future in this society. In her eyes, a college diploma is the only means to success. But this thirst for education and success, has taken a toll on my older brother throughout his life. He grew to resent her aggressiveness about his schoolwork. In fact, there was a point in my life when everything he did was malicious to my mother’s physical and emotional health.
Here is another scene from my youth, about three years ago.
“Santa Maria, madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros los pecadores, ahora y…” I watch the rosary fall as my mother hits the wall.
“Praying won’t do anything!” yells my brother, Giovanny, hovering over my mother as she kneels in front of the statue of Immaculate Mary.
I sit on the sofa in the living room teary eyed and focus on my math homework.
“Dios es quien te va a salvar,” my mother cries.
I glance to my left and notice the black and blue bruises on her skin from the previous day when my brother pushed her into a door. My heart dissolves as the face of the strongest woman I know sinks into an abyss of vulnerability.
I try to continue concentrating on math, but quickly surrender to the Picoult novel on the coffee table. Unlike my brother who had dropped out of school, at that point, I have always been a diligent student and for most of my life, literature has been my haven, a refuge in which my problems faded against scenes in the novels I read. My brother, in combat to my mother’s reluctant hope for his education, took to drugs and partying – straying away from what she wanted for her children.
Now, despite my mother’s unceasing cries and pleas for God, I step into an entirely new world; the scene around me transfiguring into the school grounds of the massacre in Nineteen Minutes. I become Josie, the protagonist, and walk the halls of Sterling High School, a knot coiling in my stomach.
I empathized with the character’s conflicts. I understood how alone helplessness could feel; the feelings of desperation and confusion were vivid when Josie’s fingertips grasped the pistol, shooting her boyfriend.
In middle school, before my mother clocked out as a home attendant, I volunteered at the retirement center, anxiously awaiting the daily visits to my grandmother at the Methodist Hospital. In an effort to escape the sight of dozens of tubes protruding out of my grandmother’s body, I slipped into the Barnes and Noble next door to read the novels on display.
My grandmother’s returns from the Methodist were the worst days. They were the days when my brother’s anger reached its climax. These days, my fingers constantly dialed 911, in fear that one day my mother would end up hospitalized.
One night, things spiraled out of control when he grabbed the handle of a sizzling hot oil pan, threatening to burn my mother. Seconds into a panic attack, my chest constricted, and I gasped for the dissipating air, my tear-drenched shirt glued to my body. While my mother resisted my brother’s attempts, I intervened by doing the only thing I could. I dialed 911.
The detectives broke in as my brother ran out. That night, Giovanny was sent to Central Bookings, where he was detained for a couple of days.
After he’d gone, my mother and I prayed and cried together. I listened as she repeated, “Si no fuera por ti, mija, yo me tirare del rufo.” If it weren’t for you, my child, I would jump off the roof.
Since then, my brother has gotten back on track. My mother’s perseverance and efforts to not give up on him, made him realize the value of education. Giovanny understood that my mother’s efforts were not in vain. He asked for help and my mother got it for him, under one condition – he continues his education and becomes a nurse, like he has always wanted.
As for me: today, I am 16 years of age; a young woman who has been taught by a traditional Dominican mother the Catholic faith, the woman’s role in a household, and the way to love and respect a human being without judgment. Through Eulalia Espinal’s aspirations, I have become Emily del Carmen Ramirez, a diligent and industrious student, a woman who aims to become a writer, and a humanitarian who through organizations like the American Red Cross and Amnesty International betters the lives of dozens.
My mother’s desire for her children’s education was what helped me conquer all of the adversities in my life. Her dream of a higher education for herself—crushed that day at JFK airport years ago–has been rooted and transcribed in both me and my brother, in very different ways.
Giovanny is now attending a local university and has recently been accepted into the nursing program and I am graduating high school from a top tier magnet school in New York City.
I am currently applying to college and know that the day my mother watches me walk down the aisles of a prestigious university, a graduation cap hiding my brown curls, and diploma in my right hand, her stunning hazel eyes will light up, tears racing down her cheeks to reach her jaw lines, mascara running and perfectly placed makeup ruining, is the day I will turn to her, and say:
“Mami, ya soy una mujer educada.”
Emily Ramirez, Age 17, Grade 12, Brooklyn Technical High School, Gold Key