Making Work Visible
City University of New York / Labor Arts
2023 Contest Winners
“Suenas como gringo.” (You sound white). Nothing was more annoying than hearing that after talking about anything with my family. It was like being told that even though you came from the same family, and have the same blood coursing through your veins you’re still not like us. Well then what the hell am I going to have to do in order to prove to you that I’m hispanic? I mean you guys were the ones who told me to study hard so that I’d do well in my classes, and now you’re shaming me for it? I thought the point was to be able to do as much as I could with what you guys gave me? If it weren’t for my stubborn nature I’d have given up a long time ago. The funniest part of this was they hadn’t even put in the effort to teach me Spanish and left me in the hands of Spanish teachers that studied Spanish instead of living it.
Little did they know that I had more faith in my ability to learn than anything else. Since I loved music I figured this was a good place to start. Romeo Santos, Prince Royce, . Soon I’d start looking into shows in Spanish as a means of building more of a base. I’d just look for any chance to sharpen my skills in conversation. While my family was surprised that I’d been able to learn any Spanish at all I kept using every conversation as another step in an infinite stairway to mastering the language I now have a newfound appreciation for. It was satisfying to watch them look at me curiously when I’d respond to them in Spanish as if I’d done the impossible. The glass wall that I once felt trapped behind had several cracks in it.
“¿Todavía estás estudiando y durmiendo en esa universidad?” (Are you still studying at that university?)
I’d casually respond, “Si, todavía estoy en la universidad hasta el 14 de agosto.” ( Yes I’m still staying and studying at the university until the 14th of August.)
They never directly acknowledged how far I’d come, it was always more of a slight look in my direction just letting me know that they knew what was going on. While I’m not at the place I’d like to be at yet as I still find myself sometimes confusing my thoughts with one another I still am very proud of all the work I put into making it as far as I have.
Then I had a job that made all of the work I’d put into learning this language worth more than any amount of money. Over this past summer I worked as a summer camp counselor in the Bronx River area. Of course I had a lot of fun with all of the kids at my job but there were two that I’d bonded with more than the rest in a way that none of the others could. Two Ecuadorian boys named Dylan and Jordan, both no older than 9 years old.
“H-Hi Mr.I-Isaac M-My name is Dylan and T-This is Jordan, he d-doesn’t know English so I-I can translate for him”. That sentence alone took him at least 30 seconds. Not to mention the stress that held his face captive. As if he’d be berated for not saying his sentence properly.
¿Hablas Español Dylan? (Do you Speak Spanish Dylan?). Suddenly I felt as if I’d relieved him of a massive burden that no one else could see him and I.
“Sí profesor, nosotros hablamos español”. He said as a smile quickly overtook his formerly stressed expression.
With each day I had the chance to sharpen my Spanish skills with them. If there were any issues between them and other students who didn’t speak spanish I’d continue to be there to clarify them. To know that me being there was the difference between them having a good or bad experience meant everything to me.
White and Black linoleum floors. Four Fold-up tables that are covered in uno-cards, connectable toys and bits, all glistening highlighter yellows and greens and oranges. The screeching of 15 different chairs. All across the floor.
“Everyone, let’s start cleaning up the toys.” Two children continue to play as if I’d said nothing at all.
“Hey Mr.Isaac said it’s time to clean up!”
“Why won’t you listen?” Asks another. Quickly I came over to prevent the kids from getting into a fight.
“Por Favor limpies los juguetes, ya es la hora de irnos a casa.”
“Oh okay Profesor.”
They respond as they quickly place their toys in the bin. The two boys join the rest of the class quickly picking everything up, and back in place. 9 year old shoes squeak across the floor. The sunlight pierces my line of sight to remind me that the day still stands. My headaches remind me of how much sleep I need.
So now I’m here at this new place in my life where I have so many decisions to make as to who I want to become and I think about how this language that I know has been a part of that. This language has allowed me to become more connected with the family I once felt very estranged from. I wonder if my view of myself has changed due to how capable I am of speaking this language. Thinking about the new group I’ve practically forced myself to be a part of out of spite doesn’t seem to have noticed that I’m like the rest of them. Sure I look like them, laugh like them, joke like them, dance like them. Regardless I wasn’t brought in like them, I wasn’t invited. Does that mean I wanted it more than them?
Does that grant me a deeper appreciation for being a part of the group? It feels like I’ve had to fight for every single piece of my identity since the very start. Is there some sort of threshold that I’m supposed to reach before I finally belong among them? Maybe I should stop asking myself to reach for feelings that aren’t even there and just learn to enjoy my progress. Maybe I shouldn’t pursue goals for the sake of having some security. I’m still young and trying to find my own way in the world so maybe this feeling of being anxious isn’t exactly bad for me.
Maybe one day when I become grown up I’ll look back and miss the suspense that came with lacking experience. I do think I’ve gotten much more than I care to admit from pursuing the wrong goals. Maybe the goals themselves weren’t wrong, I think it was wrong of me to want a specific outcome. I don’t I’m looking to be accepted by them anymore, my family that is. I think I’ve grown to accept where I am in my life as who I am. This isn’t to say that I’m gonna try to go full independent, and that I’m going to forget about trying to assimilate myself into other groups entirely. Rather I think that it’s time for me to start exploring my interests on my own terms rather than deciding to reshape myself for the sake of the opinions of others. Life is far too short to be living for others when there isn’t anything you’ll be getting in return for your efforts.
At first when I began my college experience I’d found that I now had the chance to become this entirely new person who didn’t have to do or be anything for the sake of the approval of others. What exactly does this mean? Well, for starters the metaphysical shackles that had left their marks on many of my mannerisms had begun to break apart. The young man who’d been conditioned to submit himself beneath others as to not bother them, had been reborn. While he wasn’t too sure as to who he’d decide to become, he was very happy with the fact that he would be getting the chance to make this choice.
Choice, decisions, freedom. All of these had originally been quite foreign to me for quite basically my whole life. The big question being where it all started.
Alas we come full circle, back to where it all started, or should I say where I started. You could’ve probably deduced that my family is one that tends to overexert their expectations of others with little regard as to how it might affect them or their self esteem. Their constant chirping I heard and verbal jabs thrown forced me into a state of constant approval seeking. Something that I struggle with to this day. This isn’t to say I resent them. No, not all. Rather I like to think that there is something that I’ve gotten from all of this, that being perspective. A lens that many aren’t privy to. One that some go their entire life without. I don’t necessarily consider my experience in itself to be particularly unique, what I feel is being trapped in this purgatory of ideas and cultures isn’t such a curse. Rather I’d been paralyzed due to the fact that I had more choices than I could handle at the time. I now recognize the amount of choice not as something to be overwhelmed by, on the contrary it is a beautiful blessing that allows me to see more of the world than I could have ever hoped for.