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Silence is Tradition Voice is Treason

Uninhibited's picture

How can you grow as an individual in a family that has defined your role even before you begin to walk? How do you strip yourself of inhibitions because of whom you are told you are or need to be in order to keep the family together?  What do you do when your responsibility to the world, to your family, and to yourself stand in opposition, ready to battle for the crown? My life since coming to the United States has been a constant push and pull between reaching for new opportunities and holding on to traditions. It has been a constant imagining and reimagining of how I can use voice and silence to define who I am in relation to others.

I come from a place where being a woman and being a daughter is like a prison confining me into tight spaces.  During my visit to Eastern State Penitentiary, I couldn’t help but think that phases of my life were being mirrored in those walls and retold by our tour guide. For most of my life, I had a bag over my head that did not allow me to see the reality of my situation. I didn’t question why my mother gave my father her paycheck every week. I had no doubts as to why boys were allowed to play outside while the girls had to play inside. It never bothered me that I wasn’t taught how to ride a bike or play baseball. I always knew where the authority was, and with this kind of authority, dialogue wasn’t possible. “This is how things are” wasn’t even a thought because I wasn’t aware of the situation. Like a fish in the ocean, I didn’t notice the water. I just existed.

It was traveling to the United States and meeting other families with different power structures that lead me to question my role. I began wondering why my friends in high school could ask their mother’s if they could sleep over each other’s houses because in my house, the question wasn’t even a possibility. Their negotiating skills were foreign to me, from the their ability to question or critique our teachers to their desire to “compromise” with their parents. In my household, my voice was background noise, as Sasha described in her essay. I knew that they could hear me, but they were not listening.  “Tu vives en America pero eres criada en una casa dominicana” my mother used to tell me each time I tried to question her authority “You live in America but you’re being raised in a Dominican household.” I quickly learned that my epiphanies and desire to share my voice stood in direct opposition to the daughter my parents wanted me to grow up to be. My transition to Bryn Mawr was an even more traumatic shift, one in which my family realized that the little girl they tried to contain was beginning to blossom into a fiery young woman, one that even called out racism when it appeared in shopping malls.

It was at Bryn Mawr that I began to choose voice, to lead two lives. Leading two lives seemed like the easiest choice to make. It was one that allowed me to both remain a valued part of my family, to avoid conflict, but to still grow in the ways I wanted to grow. At Bryn Mawr, I had a choice. I could maintain strong ties to aspects of my tradition that I love, such as strong faith and family ties. Yet, at the same time, I was able to choose what I wanted to study (even if it meant being silent about this choice with my family) and choose to make noise when I didn’t agree with something. As the first in my family to go to college, woman or man, this was a difficult choice to make. Like we were told in the Penitentiary, solitary confinement was not only a way to promote repentance, but also to avoid having the prisoners “teach” each other how to be worse criminals. In my case, I wasn’t able to choose voice or silence because I didn’t have anyone that I could mimic, my mothers and aunts were all perfect replicas of patriarchy. As the oldest, I know that my experience could show my sister and cousins that they can still maintain strong ties to family values and also experience growth outside of the confinements set by their roles. However, I wonder how this public display of “new knowledge” will be received by the older generation.

“Tu te vas para la Universidad y regresas una gente nueva” (You go away to school and you return a new person) is what I’m afraid of hearing. I’m afraid of my academic success being used as a weapon to question my loyalty to my blood. As Rigoberta Menchu mentioned in her memoir, when she told her father that she wanted to leave his response was “You’ll forget about our common heritage. If you leave, it will be for good. If you leave our community, I will not support you”(pg. 106). I’m afraid that my father will remind me that he worked hard to raise me but that college has made me forget to be grateful, that all of those well paying internships have gone to my head. I have roles that require me to be silent, not only in relation to conflict, but also in relation to success. I fear that my academic success is being seen as act of treason against tradition. I know that my family always wanted us to get an education, but I don’t think they knew that this education would come with a desire to change the status quo. What is even scarier is that I don’t know if they’d still choose education if it meant changing roles.

How am I silenced? The silence that feels like walls in the penitentiary is not my inability to disagree with my father or to challenge authority; rather it is a silencing of my identity that feels overwhelming. How can I work together, with my little sister and cousins to change this? I think in this case silence speaks louder than words. The year after I came to Bryn Mawr, my cousin also went away to school, completely shocking her mother and father at the distance she’d chosen to place between her and her family. This semester, my little sister went to boarding school for a semester to explore the sciences in Maine. We’ve all taken away our inability to see, we know what it is like to be confined by roles and we’ve chosen to slowly break free. Even if we can’t speak, we will show, that we can choose who we are and still remain intrinsically tied and grateful to the most important people in our journeys.