Magdalena, 38 at the time of this interview, learned to read at 28, while in a recovery program for substance abuse. She first became involved with The Literacy Project through a Community Leadership Institute, and later decided to attend GED classes.
I speak two languages and I traveled from New York City to Puerto Rico. And so I spoke Spanish one minute and the next minute I was speaking English. Because of this speaking two languages, teachers would suggest to my parents that I be put in a special education class. And my parents didn’t go for it, and I’m really happy for that. I sat in the back. Didn’t ask any questions. Didn’t say what I didn’t know. I was just pushed to the next level without being asked if I understood or not. I was being promoted. And I didn’t understand it then. I still don’t understand it now.
It was difficult for me. I mean, I have siblings as well, and I would ask them for help. And everyone was too busy to help me. And so I stopped asking.
Every summer we would go [to Puerto Rico] and we would stay for two or three months. And I remember us being there for nearly three years at one time. Between five and eight, I believe. And they asked me to teach the kids over there how to speak English. I was being encouraged there by, “You have this gift, you can speak English, give this to us.” And over here, I felt as though my gift in Spanish wasn’t appreciated. “We don’t speak that language here.”
We did a lot of church going in Puerto Rico. Catholics. I felt as though we were mandated to go to church. I wanted to hang out on the tree and eat mangos. And my mother used to dress me up, “Come on, we’re going to church.” And I go, “OK, I’ll be outside.” And here I am with my dress on, ready to go to church, and I’m climbing the tree. I come back and I’m all dirty. So I get in trouble of course.
My cousin in Puerto Rico was a nun. Her name is Lily. And she was a nun. And watching my cousin and how, all nuns are supposed to be this way. She was so to herself and so quiet, and when men spoke or her father spoke or her brothers spoke, she was silent. And maybe she was just praying to the gods, I don’t know. But I saw myself as a girl, and I didn’t want to be that way. I wanted to learn how to be…to be able to express. Somehow, I became Lily in my own way.
I got promoted [to high school], and I was in a different district. I really liked that because it had the pool. My goal there was to be the best swimmer and to be the first Puerto Rican woman, first Puerto Rican girl, at the time, from Spanish Harlem, to be in the Olympics. And that was my dream. I was really good at it. [High school] is where I found that coach. The coach who encouraged me. Because I had the ability and he would state that to me. And I remember him saying to us not to drink or drug, because our dreams will be shattered. Try to stay away from drinking and drugging because our dreams will be shattered. I’ll never forget that.
I started, I mean, I started dibbing and dabbing, maybe when I was fifteen. Because I was invincible. Or I thought I was. It didn’t pertain to me, what he had said. But I heard it so loudly in my ear. The words that he said. They rang really loudly in my ear. I guess that was my message and I didn’t get it. I had regrets for quite a few years until I, entering recovery, I grieved it a lot. My swimming career. And today I still have his voice in my head.
My dad passed away at the age of seventeen. My dad passed and I dropped out. Nothing mattered anymore. And I remember my younger brother and I, we went and buried my dad in Puerto Rico. …And we cried. And that was it. I didn’t cry anymore. I didn’t cry anymore after that. About anything.
And then at the age of eighteen, I found the coolest thing, which was really sociable, and it was okay by society to have a couple of drinks here and there. And then it wasn’t a couple of drinks anymore. I drank for ten, eleven years. Not every day. Later on it became almost every day. But I stopped feeling. I stopped smiling.
In 1995, I got help and I was sent to a rehab. Smithers Rehab. 93rd and Madison Avenue in New York City. I look at this and I go, “Well, I always wanted a big house. But I must be careful what I wish for, I guess.” But it was a gift, it was a blessing, and I was just finally done.
My mother has always taken care of me. She’s 75 years old. Beautiful woman, and I couldn’t see that before. I was full of rage and resentment. Throughout my years of being so angry, I was forgetting all these beautiful parts of my life as a child, being taken care of. They’re coming back. Being able to see that is a really cool place to be. I’m liking me for who am I, and I’m loving my mother for the woman she has been and she is today, so it’s pretty cool.
I’ve come to know many loving people here in Greenfield. I do consider this home because of these people. I have a bigger group of people in NYC and they’re from all different walks of life. And sometimes I just miss the variety, the colors. Here in Greenfield, I’m getting in touch with this other side. I knew about poverty with Blacks and Hispanics, I come from that place. But I would read about, I began to read about Caucasians and the poverty, and the lack of education. Being in NYC, I didn’t see that, Caucasians that I knew came from an educated place. Have money or pretended to have money. And when I got here, I actually saw it. I see it. And I’m learning, it isn’t just because I’m Hispanic. That we all hurt, and we all need help. So being in Greenfield opened that, that door for me, and allowed me to see the reality of it. So I’m really grateful to Greenfield. I’m grateful.
My upbringing didn’t allow me to share what I thought. Didn’t allow me to share with you that I didn’t understand. Didn’t allow me to tell you that I think I’m going really nuts here and I need your help. So I’m still mending from that. I always thought that there was something wrong with me. And what I’m learning now is that there’s really nothing wrong with me. I just need to practice these things.
It’s not a part – I should say, it wasn’t a part of my life to sit down and study and ask for help, and to tell you that I don’t know. So I’m learning that now. And there are moments where it’s really difficult to say, “I need help. I don’t understand.” I’m slowly learning that, and Joe and Louise, they make that possible. Like, they encourage me. And I don’t know if it’s been there before, but I know I feel it now. The encouragement of people. So I like The Literacy Project. I like that you guys have been around for twenty years. I hope you guys have a hundred more. I’m just hoping not to be here!