I got into Grad-School…but here is my story

23 Aug

*Originally posted on ChangeAHeart.tumblr.com*

It was a hot summer day when I stepped out of John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. I was supposed to be looking for the familiar face of my father’s cousin but I did not recognize anyone. I was nine years old, holding my father’s hand anxiously. Here I was, the United States, a place that was to my new, permanent, and overwhelming home. On August first I left my mother, my house, and my life back in the Dominican Republic. We were immigrants. I did not know what being an immigrant meant. I only knew what it was to be poor, to struggle for rice on a daily basis. Coming to the United States taught me what it meant not only to be poor, but to be poor and not fit in.


I was amazed by the bright lights and tall building as we drove into the city, it all gave me a sense of hope, as if everything was going to be alright. As summer days passed I focused on learning English and fervently read and studied every book I could find. When my first day of school came and I stepped into the ESL classroom, I was committed to fit in, to succeed. My father would tell me every day: “you will go to college; no matter what happens, you will make it.” However, it was more difficult than I had imagined. I was isolated as the new immigrant student in fourth grade. I was told several times, and still hear this now, that I was unworthy to be in this country: either because my English was not very good or because I was born somewhere else. These experiences left me in despair, feeling isolated, but they taught me to accept all people regardless of their circumstance. Today I can help many of my students deal with discrimination and racism in their schools and community because of my journey. Thankfully, I can also share how I was encouraged and supported by my teachers and my family.


As an immigrant, the most difficult thing is to leave your family behind. Learning English, feeling out of place, or being discriminated, are only additions to the struggle. Many of the people I serve are separated from their families when they immigrate to the United States. I can better connect and serve them because I have had the same experience. They trust me because I understand many of their struggles. They allow me to integrate into their family. Working with the children has reminded me that, at times, we are not able to provide the necessary services because we don’t understand the complexity of being a child immigrant versus an adult immigrant. Being a Hispanic child immigrant is particularly difficult because as you grow up you are “neither here, nor there”. You don’t belong in your native country and you don’t belong in the United States, you are caught in the middle of an ethnic battle. As I work with teachers and other professionals serving children, I share my insights on the struggles and identity issues many of the children face. I hope to share my knowledge and experience with my peers and and community, and provide a different perspective on serving children who live in the margins.


In addition, I want to teach others how to empower children and youth to go to college or have a profession using the children’s culture and family dynamics. When I was in the process of applying to college I remembered my father’s words: “You will make it. Our bed is on the floor and you will make it. We barely have money, but you will make it for your sake and for the sake of our family”. Going to college was going to help me provide for my family and for others, as well as bring honor to my father’s struggles. My father’s constant support, regardless of our circumstance, was my greatest inspiration. Being reminded that I was capable of succeeding regardless of everyone else’s expectation, helped me through four years of college which I completed with honors. My responsibility to my family and community, an essential part of my culture and upbringing, was the defining factor in my success.


My Grandfather’s Undocumented Beginnings: My Documented Struggles

14 Nov

My grandfather crossed the border once. He was undocumented for about 7 years. I remember him telling me stories of his youth, of his family, and his struggles. I remember him telling me about running away from law enforcement back then…he was a type of Trujillo rebel. He was a simple man who sold lottery tickets. He had no formal education but an ability for math that would leave all of us to shame. He crossed to Haiti to avoid death, learned Creole, and changed his last name.  He was undocumented, a foreigner, a man who wanted to survive, who stood up for justice.


He lived to be approximately 113 years old; however none of us are really sure how old he was. He was a dark man of Jewish, Dominican and Haitian descent. He was tall and very strong. My grandfather fell in love with a white woman from the north in the 40s, and it was perfectly fine. She was a tiny woman with jet black hair and a fierce attitude.

I work with undocumented people, I work with documented people, some are 2 years old some are 50. None of them got up one day and decided “hey! I’m going to hop over to the other side, seems like fun”. All of them however, ran away, from death threats by drug lords, ran away with their children after being threatened that they would be abused (if you know what I mean)… I also work with children who, well let’s just say that a 10 year old does not walk hundreds of kilometers by choice or because it’s a good idea.

I’m not sure what people’s opinions are about these children, about these mothers and fathers. Well, I know what people think…and it scares me. I’m not a politician but I am a social servant, and all I can say is that we all deserve a chance. That because of our humanity we are IMAGE-bearers, a reflection of God and his love. That we all have needs, we all have struggles, some of us are fighting to survive the violent deaths that hangs over our heads. We are fighting to survive something we did not bring upon ourselves, something others’ evil has brought upon us.

H (15)When I was 9, I was told I had no worth, I was not worthy of being anyones friend, I didn’t speak English. The lack of that ability and a card that said “Resident Alien” reduced me to less than human. It reduced me to being unlovable by those who had a BLUE passport and had been born into an English-speaking world. My human dignity was measured by these external expressions, not by my inherent value or my desire to learn English and be an American. I felt like my grandfather, who was pushed out of his own home by the threat of death or jail, due to the evil that surrounded his city. I felt powerless, being pushed to a place that promised beauty, education and a bright future, but met me with discrimination, and a false god who was only on the side of Americans. 10314580_10154175314870444_4778690694548604931_n

But let me say that I did eventually find beauty. I found beauty in my teachers, in the diversity of my classrooms and of my city. I found freedom, in actually having dreams, of having better a life. We have experienced so many blessings in a country that is filled with wonderful people, people who love and nurture, who extend a hand to each other. And while we have also experienced darkness, we recognize that darkness is everywhere, and that we must work to lean in and let love overcome.

My goal is not to change everyone’s mind, to manipulate people with sentimentality. My goal is to challenge all of us to educate ourselves; to go beyond our cultural, religious and political bubbles, and learn about other’s situation from their perspective. I educate children as they begin integrating into American society, but I also encourage them to maintain the values of their culture. I invite you to submerge yourselves in the beauty of diversity and not see it as a threat but as an opportunity to share life with another IMAGE-bearer. To be open to learning about each other and loving each other regardless of the differences. At the end of the day we all depend on each other, and have a responsibility to each other. This is a call to love and understanding, a call out of ignorance and into the light of unity for the justice of all.

Unveiling Grace: Unexpected Vessels

12 Nov

Let me just say that the unveiling of grace, the concept of finding grace in unlikely places, has been difficult to grasp in the last month. I have been having a hard time seeing God in the children, in the work I am doing. Where is God in all of this? Where is the grace?

So, Saturday I went to the Children’s Museum.

Whenever there are children who will be receiving tutoring I have to do a home visit. I had never done a home visit before; I thought it was something that Social Workers do. I decided it was necessary for the parents and volunteers to speak before the children started the program. So, I had my first two home visits back to back on a Friday afternoon. It turned into more than a home visit, it turned into a conversation between people reflecting God. We spoke about fears and expectations, the parents shared their experience in the U.S. and the difficulties of being an immigrant regardless of documentation. They shared their desire to learn English and have English-speaking jobs. I also learned about the bullying, the name calling and the discrimination of two beautiful and wonderful children.

At hat moment I decided we were going to the Museum.

4 weeks later I was waiting at Wood Street Station at 11am, anxious and excited to meet the children. At the same time, a sense of indifference overcame me. The museum would do nothing for me, it was just another mundane place to visit, but it might inspire the children, I was doing a good job… I’ve spoken about this before, the pride we take when serving the poor, the belief that we have something they need but we cannot receive anything from them. That’s exactly what happened. I thought only I had something to offer, the children were young and afraid, they couldn’t give me anything I needed.


Then, as we moved from floor to floor and we explored the Water art, the Mechanics section, and finally the Science and Craft section, I realized I was slowly being challenged and transformed by these children. Seeing them explore every artifact and game with such wonder, building cars and houses and connecting circuits to transmit power, humbled me. That day I was reminded that God is very much alive in the poor and brokenhearted, that grace can be unveiled in the smile of a child, in the struggle a child. Particularly, that grace is visible in an 11 year old boy who gets garbage and food thrown at school every day and is told to back to his country. A child who is able to dream and wonder of being a scientist and is working hard to become one. One who shares his love and joy with whomever is around, who has more faith and hope that I could ever dream of. In essence, that God’s grace can transform us as it is poured out by the most unexpected vessels.


So where is God in all of this? He’s staring at me right in the face, wanting to be known in the mundane work I do, in the children who have been destroyed by so much pain and yet restored by Hope and Love.  Where is the grace? In the unexpected places, in the people and the work that I feel overwhelmed by at times. The grace is in the reality that we are all image bearers, seeking to restore and to be restored. Graces are new every day, but we must be willing to unveil them and discover the magnificence of God’s love through the vessels that everyone overlooks, the poor


Defeat is inevitable, now GET UP!

2 Oct

I find myself thinking I can change the world, I certainly felt this way when I joined Change A Heart. But since I’ve begun my placement at Casa San Jose, I’ve felt more defeated than I had expected.

Let me back up a little and explain how this placement thing works….

The format of the program connects each volunteer with a non-profit organization in the Pittsburgh area. My site is Casa San Jose, a resource center for Latino immigrants. I am the Director and Coordinator of After School Bilingual programs including an Educational Enrichment Program for K-First graders and a Secondary Mentoring program for teens. I am also the Volunteer Coordinator for all the other programs we have. For the past 3 weeks I have been doing mostly administrative things and not so much one-one work with the clients. I’ve been developing this after-school program, meeting with university officials, creating partnerships, and so forth.


I’ve also been accompanying people to court, helping abused women, meeting unaccompanied minors, and helping people get their library cards. In the midst of so much busyness I have felt tired and defeated, frustrated and overwhelmed by the needs of the Latino community in Pittsburgh. I can truly say I was sheltered back in New York. While I know the difficulties of being an immigrant, the people I work with have it ten times worse. Hospitals have no translators, many schools do not have people to translate registration, DACA kids are having trouble getting promised money for college, and people don’t know the community exists. People have been surprised when I tell them that there are Latinos in Pittsburgh; and of course you’ll never find them Downtown. They are scared and cautious to come out in public. They are looked down upon and judged, they are vulnerable and poor. They need help.


I think the greatest issue is the misconception that people cross over because they “felt like it” or because they are criminals. There is a real crisis going on in Latina America right now. According to information provided by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 6,800 children in Fiscal Year: 2004-2011 have crossed, 14,000 in FY: 2013, 24,000 in FY: 2013, and the 60,000 expected in FY 2014 have already been exceeded.  30% are coming from Honduras, 26% from El Salvador, 37% from Guatemala,  3% from Mexico and 2% Ecuador. The main reasons for migration are: flee community violence, escape poverty and hunger, reunify with family in U.S. (safe place), education and employment opportunities, escape situations of family breakdown, abuse, abandonment. Flight from violence seems to be the primary reason children mention (gangs, community violence, lack of ability of government to protect its citizens). Children report being victims of extortion, rape, and are targeted to join the gangs.

My work at Casa San Jose is a difficult one. I get frustrated many times because of people’s lack of understanding and sensitivity. However, I am recognizing that this is an opportunity in which a small thing can cause a big impact. I sat down as a panelist, representing the Latino community, for Cultural Competency, to a group of AmeriCorps students and the Department of Human Services. I think it begins there, with education, awareness and sensitivity, not only from the non-immigrants, but also from the immigrants. We must be open to each other, to loving each other.
And regardless of my frustration and my defeat, I need to rise up. I cannot let these frustrations and road blocks hold me back. i have two options, either stay down, lamenting how devastating the people’s situation is, or GET UP and actually do something about it…like getting a 4 year old a library card so he and his mom can start learning English.


As St. Francis said: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible”. I pray that God teaches me to be sensitive to others and their struggles, specially in community, so then I can teach the children i work with how to be sensitive and love those who live in ignorance. I also pray that God’s love overflows the work we are doing and transforms the hearts and lives of the people we are working with. While it might seem much to ask, it is possible. Today as i sat waiting for the train reading over some registration papers for the After-School program, a little girl said “I have one of those, my name is ***”. She happened to be one of my 1st graders who will start their program with me very soon. She sat next to me in the train and showed me how she’s starting to read in English. She’s excited for the program! She wants to go back and learn more! That is all I need. One child, one soul, inspired to do great things, to learn and persevere. A soul willing to fight for itself, to show God’s love embodied in their innocence and curiosity.

Lord, make us humble instruments of your peace.

In Christ,


When What You Desired Was Not What You Expected, It Came As Disguised Joy

5 Sep

You know that moment when you think you had it all figured out? When you thought that Community, Spirituality, Service and Simplicity were a piece of cake? Well there is also that moment when you realize that you were all wrong. That:

  • Living with three men sometimes lets you feeling a bit alone, wanting that female company.
  • On your second day of work you arrive home, frustrated with the system and injustice, after spending 3 hours in Family Court.
  • Although you setup a prayer space, spiritual practice remains pretty damn hard.
  • Living on a budget might seem okay, but then there is Starbucks…IMG_1905

My Community House “La Fuerza” – Ryan, Luke, Mike & Me

This first week as a full time volunteer I’ve found myself asking “what the hell am I doing here?” many times. I keep on asking myself: why I made this decision? or if it was the right one? I mean why would I do this? Is it false humility? Am I trying to prove somethings?

You many ask why all the questions? Why not just talk about how fulfilling and beautiful service is? Well, believe it or not I am human, and as I learn to accept my fragility and mortality, I realize that I need to ask these questions. I cannot speak of fulfillment when I am still discovering why I need fulfillment. It is important that when you make any decision in life you ask yourself the most mundane AND deepest questions. This will help you discover your intentions, your heart, your motivations. I didn’t ask these questions before I began Change A Heart. Now, I am questioning myself more deeply because I am actually experiencing what it’s like. The most important question is: whether this is worth it regardless of the challenges.


Today I started to realize that it is more important to overcome these difficulties with a joyful spirit, than to let them drown you. We must never dwell on the bad, we can analyze it and learn from it, but always light up the darkness with the joy around you. The Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumman Communities are an example of that joy that can overcome darkness. They have set up prayer partners for each volunteer, and just invited us to a BBQ to hang out with out prayer sisters. They also keep us encouraged by sending us notes and mail; we will visit them once a month as well. There are other types of joy, like today when one of my community members, Samantha, brought me all her old piano books because she saw me trying to play.

10387550_10154569316295444_2831874760833704952_nAlthough I might have been frustrated in Family Court, my client felt more confident because I was there. And I had three great guys waiting for me at home, ready to hear how my day went, ready to offer their support.  We prayed and shared a meal; it gave me much needed peace. I was also given my own independent project as Head Coordinator for After School Program for latino immigrants in grade school. I will be able to tailor an entire program to help these children and their parents; what a joy!

Regardless of the difficulties, volunteering is a joy. It is the joy of suffering, of suffering when others suffer, of using that suffering to bring justice. Dwell on the joy of service, move forward, learn, experience, love and enjoy! No bad day beats my wonderful community and support group. No troublesome day at work can take away the joy of serving. Particularly, serving one hundred homeless people and low-income families with Miss Nancy  on Labor day. No struggle beats God’s presence in the work that we are doing.


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When What You Desired Isn’t What You Expected.

29 Aug

“We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.” ― St. Francis of Assisi

How do you do it?

Before I started the Change A Heart program I was very restless, both spiritually and mentally. For years I had developed an idea of what I was supposed to do with my life. The typical 5-year plan was my guide throughout High School and college; but things weren’t working out as I expected them to. The opportunities I thought I had were suddenly covered by road blocks; I was not sure where I was or where I was going. I then decided that I needed to re-group, I needed to find joy and it was not in my 5-year plan.  So I decided to give a year of my life, to take the risk of rejecting a job offer in my field, to move to a new city, live simply and with strangers. 


When I decided to join Change A Heart I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, I was completely wrong. This has been one of the most challenging weeks of my life, and I think that this is exactly what I needed. When I arrived the awkwardness of living in community, learning I was living with three guys, that things will be just a little different than I expected, expanded as I was challenged to take time for myself. When we gather together we are asked to sit in silence, to breathe and meditate. These are the things I’ve always wanted to have in my life, those little moments of active peace in which I could experience God. And yet, this has been the most challenging part of my first week in Pittsburgh. My community cares for me and thats hard to accept. I am realizing that though we are strangers to each other, we are willing to love and cherish each other, not with our own love, but with the love of Christ.


I joined Change A Heart not just to serve people. I came here seeking joy, trying to find God, and I am slowly encountering that, and for some reason it scares the hell out of me. It scared me that I was filled with joy when we served with Miss Nancy at the Boulevard of the Allies, when we fed and clothed 200 or so homeless people and low-income families. It scared me that I was attracted to the work this 70 year old in high heels has been doing for the past 20 years. That I joined her prayer of “loaves and fishes, Lord” when we were running out of lunches. It makes me wonder what does this say about me? Is God trying to tell me something? What I am supposed to do? These questions I am willing to explore with the help of God and my community. While we are still in that awkward getting-to-know-each-other phase, I am confident that with the help of God and the prayers of the Sisters of St. Francis, we will thrive and be who God has called us to be, individually and communally. The sweetness and love we have received from the sisters has captivated me and I feel compelled to preach the gospel as they do: only using words when necessary. With this Franciscan mindset I pray to preach to my spirit, my community, the birds, the trees and all creation, to preach that God loves us all, especially the poor. 

We are all in need of the love of God, we are all searching for something greater, for a connection with our true essence: the breath of Life. I am hesitant and even a bit frightened but I am willing to take the risk to love strangers and be loved by strangers, to become their sister and they my brethren, to love the poor as God loves them.

Here is to a year of transition, love, forgiveness, and trust into the arms of God through service and simplicity.

If only “just having faith” actually worked…

7 Aug

Hello beautiful people,

Yesterday I watched one of those independent and sentimental movies. The story is about two orphan girls who live on their own after their mother dies of cancer. The eldest stopped believing in God after her prayers for her mother to survive were not answered. After, their teacher finds out about their secret and runs after the youngest girl who is very upset about her mother. The teacher is hit by a car and ends up in a coma. The teacher’s husband and young girl are convinced that God will heal the teacher; the eldest sister is convinced that he won’t. Towards the end of the film the youngest sister starts praying for a miracle, she convinces her sister to join. The eldest girl prays to God fervently, she says that if God doesn’t heal the teacher she will definitely know that He doesn’t exist. She then exclaims “I am stepping out in faith” (whatever that means) and that He must heal the teacher, if He doesn’t, it means that He does not love her. As expected the teacher wakes up. The End.

I must admit the movie made me shed some tears; however, at the end I was puzzled by the message of this movie. Was it about the faithfulness of God? or how we try to manipulate God to justify our faith? I don’t believe God answers prayers. I believe he listens to them and acts according to His will. He listens to our supplication, He gives us comfort and love, but He doesn’t answer them. If he did, this would be a very confusing world, more than what it already is. I am not saying that “miracles” don’t happen, they happen every day. Waking up is a miracle, science is a miracle, life is a miracle. A miracle is God’s hand at work in a situation. But we live in a world of free will, of violence, of diseases. God brings love, comfort, and hope that LOVE can overcome evil – that is the greatest miracle embodied in Christ.

When people say “just have faith and it’ll happen”, well what the hell is that supposed to mean? How do I have faith? What does it look like? Is having faith having all my prayers answered? Manipulating God into giving me what I want so he can prove His love for me? Well if you’re a Christian you should know that God already proved His love to us, to the entire world, not just the well-behaved Christians. Faith is a conviction and gift as much as it is a choice. Four years ago a very special little girl was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 6. I prayed so hard, we all prayed so hard. When she got better we all said “God is so good”. Then, one day the doctors send her home. She was going to die and they couldn’t save her. She died less than 25 days after her 8th birthday.

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Today Pamela would have been ten years old. It wasn’t fair! but it was not God’s fault. People can’t say that we didn’t have faith that she would get better, we did. Things happen, unexplainable unfair things happen. Faith is choosing to believe in something that sometimes doesn’t make sense, to accept that our Faith is mysterious and complicated. That life happens and God is constantly involved in aiding us through the difficulties. So when people say just have faith, I tell them: “No! don’t JUST have faith, have courage, have will, have hope, have love!. Remember that we are all prone to pain but we cannot exchange favors with God to make it go away. That’s not how it works.” Remember that we are physical, emotional and spiritual beings. Remember that hope is not just expecting a better world to come, a paradise, that’s just a reward. Hope is expecting a better world here. That when others suffer people rise up to help them overcome that suffering, to ease the pain. That God actively empowers us to actively love our neighbor, to be whom we were created to be.