Let me start off with a blasphemous admission: I hated the Bronx. [Gasp!] A lot of people love to reminisce about it and proudly cross their arms into an X chanting, “BX!” And while it does give me a warm sense of pride and camaraderie to hear others boast about our roots, when I’ve said I’m from the Bronx, it’s been more of a proud triumph than an ode. The South Bronx wasn’t some romantic story for me, it was… the f*cking South Bronx! So when I finally broke out of the perpetual chains of inner-city living, I thought I was home-free. But to my gradual dismay, getting out was only a quarter of the journey.
When I went to college in rural USA, studied abroad, and entered corporate America, what followed was an entirely different realm and a new set of challenges to which there was no guidebook or paved road for the oldest daughter of Dominican immigrants to follow. Although the hardest part was over, I realized that if I wanted to continue forward, I still had a lot left to learn.
DISCLAIMER: This is not to say that all/only people in the BX have a lot of learning to do. I think people around the world (from a farmer in Wyoming to the royal family) have a lot to learn when they leave their surroundings. It’s a part of life and being human. 😉
Table of Contents
1. Everyone Can’t Come
When everyone is hustling in la lucha together, compassion and helping each other tend to come more naturally. You can relate to one another, and you both have little to lose. However, once you start to grow forward and out, it’s unfortunately hard to stick around the same people as your paths bifurcate.
But I wanted to take everyone with me as I began inching out of the BX. So I eagerly shared all the hustles I had up my sleeve with them, all the ways they could make money on the road, too. Many were not ready or able to. Others needed more help, had lost too much hope, or were uninterested. And for some, it was too late. Especially for many older immigrants, the Bronx WAS their big leap forward. Like my grandmother, who left the rural country (campo) of the DR to set up a life for herself in the Bronx decades ago. The Bronx was her escape from what was her Bronx.
That’s when I realized: Getting out of the ‘hood can be lonely.
And that I couldn’t pour from an empty cup. Like with plane oxygen masks, I had to take care of myself first, even if it clashed against our deep community values. And that realization killed me. I had to continuously learn not to let it turn into guilt.
Besides, they say that leading by example is one of the best ways to help and inspire others. And I hope that one day, I’ll be in a position to really give back effectively.
2. Saying NO
The Bronx helped me further cultivate a beautiful sense of community values and strong hard work ethics. I couldn’t think of anyone in the South Bronx who would ever refuse paid work opportunities. Anything I could do that would earn money legally, and I’d turbo zoom over like the roadrunner. Saying no was a luxury I could not afford since I didn’t know if the next opportunity was tomorrow or next year.
So fast forward to my 20s when I began to have an array of options. I was working a 9-5 corporate job, running an Airbnb empire, being a weekend chef, getting hired as a freelance photographer and caterer, and studying for the LSAT. All at the same time. I couldn’t stop. I was starting to run on fumes, taking on so much that I couldn’t give 100% to anything. Not even my own self-care.
I had to recognize that I had options now and that everything would still be OK if I said no to some things in order to focus on what I could now choose to be the essentials. Life was no longer just continuous survival mode, and I didn’t have to feel guilty about NOT being in la lucha all the time; I could take moments to just enjoy… especially the present.
My Related Blog Post: Dominican Community Values versus American Independence
3. Emotional Regulation: Learning to Pause, Breathe & Listen
In our under-resourced and overcrowded institutions, authority figures were often too overwhelmed to attend to the nuanced needs of individuals. In schools, police stations, on the streets, and even at home, only the utmost critical issues would maybe heed immediate attention; there were just too many big problems all at the same time.
You had to yelp and push in front of the crowd if you wanted to be heard.
But as I grew away from the South Bronx life, I’ve had to learn the opposite of yelping or quickly sputtering to speak my mind before the doors closed on my face. Within newfound spaces, it became possible to wait and think before speaking. To listen to others AND my intuition. To pause and breathe.
All new deep emotional skills that I had to work on honing. And let me tell you, as a Bronx Dominican, it was an ongoing struggle well into my late 20s. When I see Cardi B (also a Bronx Dominican) quickly throwing shoes on TV to defend herself (instead of pausing, breathing, and listening), I want to give her a big hug. Because I get it.
In survival mode, you’re getting by DAY BY DAY. There is no space or time to meditate, no money to pay for therapy, and often it’s driven by an alpha culture that is necessary for survival but also emotionally toxic.
4. Handling a Fear of Failure
Growing up with limited resources, the fear of failure can be particularly strong because the stakes are higher. But that same fear of failure can loom just as much after you move out of the hood because there’s not much to fall back on if things go awry. If you accidentally slip or fail, there is no suburban home to come back to with a guest house or basement to sleep in while you try again for round two. The pressure to succeed, and succeed far, stays with you for many years because there’s little to no safety net.
How did I handle this anxiety? I slowly learned to set up my own backup systems for peace of mind:
- Always making sure I have X amount of money in the bank no matter what
- Getting life insurance while in college (best rates) to help my family out in case something happens to me
- Signing up for apartment and travel insurance
- Maxing out my 401k for retirement (matching is amazing)
- Building and maintaining a healthy support system
- Getting a GOOD therapist – I strongly believe everyone could benefit from this.
And the most important thing to remember? If things really do take a bad turn, I’ve made it this far. Hopefully, I can propel myself out of whatever wild obstacles life could throw at me next.
5. Finding Out Who I am Outside of Surviving
In college, I pushed aside my penchant for creativity and hit pause on my writing and art. I traded it in for a degree and career path that I knew was more financially secure and stable. The luxurious pursuit of art was too risky. Us first-generation kids are branded by the hot iron rod of family’s expectations, most of whom left everything behind for a better chance at living. So we neglect to discover who we are and what we want.
But what about after we reach a sufficient amount of safe padding? When we are no longer so busy trying to fulfill basic needs? Once I hit that point, I realized that this could finally be the time and space to allow my creative soul to explore its curiosities and dig up/pursue my passions!
6. Building Physical Strength & Nutrition from Scratch
Man, this one still gets me mad. Picture this, it’s 2005, and you’re walking home from school in the Bronx. NO after-school programs, no gym class, no sports, no creative outlets, just walking home to sit around for the rest of the day. That’s how our time outside of school was spent. In captivity. And on the way home? KFC, Crispy Kreme, Pizza Hut, Twinkies, etc. That is our nutrition growing up. A one-way express lane to diabetes and dialysis.
What else does that do to our physical bodies? To our foundational strengths? To our backs and muscles as we age into adulthood? The result is a slew of health issues such as obesity, triggered autoimmune diseases, and physical disabilities.
I had to wait until I was older to realize what was happening with my body. It’s not that I was weak or frail. It’s that I never did a sport as a kid! No dance class. No hanging out with friends outside. We barely moved! We were simply locked away in an apartment building!
Today, I have the privilege to pay coaches, trainers, and physical therapists to help me improve my strength from scratch. I call it remedial muscle building. Especially us girls/women from inner cities (who didn’t at least have basketball or baseball), we’re starting at a below-zero level on foundational strength. And I’ve had to work hard to reprogram my eating habits away from fried food and sweets to more nutritious whole foods (which I know is also a problem worldwide).
7. Releasing Poverty Mentality
Poverty mentality is a response to being in survival mode for so long. You believe that resources are limited and hard to come by. And you may subconsciously believe that everything is a fight or struggle (en la lucha). So you may:
- Hoard things
- Fear spending money on non-essentials even when you get out of poverty (so you don’t invest in your health, physical training, therapy, coaching, etc)
- Have anxiety that one day you’ll lose everything (hence the fear of spending money above) because we didn’t grow up with safety blankets
- Be afraid to enjoy things and rest.
- Not invest in the future because you’re still conditioned by survival mode’s right-now-mentality (even though now you have options)
- Pay less for products and services of low quality (even though now you can afford to pay more), which can often end up costing you more in the long run.
- Don’t tend to your nutritional health.
- Have a limiting fear of failure.
- Making 85k a year but still unable to spend an extra $20 for comfortable seats at a performance venue and then having to stand in the back of the bar with an obstructed view, and now your back hurts from standing.
- Not investing in things that make your life easier
- Working harder instead of smarter (coaches help with this).
- Don’t trust that people can coach you and think they’re actually trying to take your money (valid fear with all the fraud/scams we saw growing up, lol. But with some research, you can find valuable coaches!)
- What Growing Up in the Hood Taught Me
- The Power of Habit
- Codependent No More
- The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self
- I Will Teach You to Be Rich
- The School of Greatness
Are you from a similar place that you left? Did you break free from a long term circumstance? What are some lessons that you had to learn, let go of, or accept? Or some internal things you had to re-wire in yourself later on? Share your story below in the comment section and let’s start a conversation!