(This story was originally published in La Galería Magazine)
Damaris Castillo was 14 when she arrived in New York City.
“I found everything strange, ugly,” she recalls. “There were a lot of burnt buildings.” Well over 1,000 miles away was Licey al Medio, Dominican Republic, where her family originally took shape. It was a place that would continue to pull Castillo in through the next four decades. But, like many Dominicans in the late 1970s, she found herself in this new, gritty city in search of a better life. Una vida mejor.
At 53 years old, Castillo’s mind can still travel to that time when she first met Brooklyn, NY. It was where she first felt cold – a stark difference from the scorching heat in her native country.
“Oh my God,” Castillo says, gasping as she remembers facing the bitter cold for the first time. “I put on too many clothes before going outside.”
On her daily subway commute to school, she clung onto a small paper. On it were all the stops that led to hers.
“My brother wrote the stops for me,” she recalls. “I had never ridden a train before. All the stops were written on a paper and I would look to see if I was going the right way.” A ver si iba bien.
High school was difficult for Castillo because she didn’t know English.
“It was ‘78 and there weren’t many Latinos in school yet… uno llega aqui sin poder decir nada,” Castillo says. “There was only one Latino in my class and he acted like he didn’t know Spanish. Everyone spoke English… it was very difficult in that era, not like now where there are even bilingual professors.”
Castillo’s voice turns serious. Las drogas.
“I would see drugs at school,” she says. “Now, yes, they’re using drugs in the Dominican Republic but in my country back then I didn’t know what drugs were.”
She recalls seeing other students in the hallways, snorting cocaine and smoking.
“Olian raro – they smelled strange,” she says. “I felt so sad seeing people use that… I don’t know… I knew it was bad.”
Castillo and her siblings (there are ten in total) were taught by their father to be careful when walking in the streets.
“Things were more dangerous then. I looked in all directions. My father showed us that you had to look in all directions to avoid a hold-up,” she says. “He told us if someone in a car got close to you, or called you, to not go to them.”
Keep walking, she was told. Ignore them. Life still happens, though. Years later as she stood outside P.S. 316, her children’s school, Castillo was held up at gunpoint by a man.
“He said ‘Give me your purse’ and I gave him my purse,” she says calmly. “He put it (the gun) on my head.”
It took time to heal. But, Castillo insists, there are good things about New York.
“Tengo muchas memorias,” she says. Many memories.
She met her husband at a party in Brooklyn, and their two children were later born.
“In that time, people lived in cramped apartments but held many parties. They would move the sofas and all the furniture into one room. They would clean the sala and everything,” she says, her mouth stretching into a nostalgic smile. “Asi se hacian los parties buenisimo.”
Life got better in her second year in Nueva Yol. More Latinos started arriving. Brooklyn became less strange.
Fast forward nearly four decades and Castillo now lives in Florida with her husband. Though New York had its good things, the couple wanted a warmer climate and more moments of peace. Una vida mejor. Castillo says she still misses her native country. Time away has never changed that. She still misses her Licey al Medio.
“You always miss your country… it’s something that pulls you. Te jala,” she says. “When I retire, I would like to spend two or three months there and to also live here because my children are here and, maybe one day, I’ll have grandchildren.”
Castillo says she has achieved everything she has wanted.
“Mis hijos estudiaron, gracias a Dios. I have a home, I have good health,” she says. “My son joined the Navy, my daughter is a journalist.”
There’s also the business she owns with her husband.
“Faja’ como una esclavita pero ‘ta bien,” she says, her voice trailing into laughter.
Una vida mejor.