“Mi hija,” my mother would say whenever I got caught doing something I shouldn’t be doing, “Be a leader, not a follower. Tienes que ser un ejemplo para tu hermano y tus amigos (You need to be an example to your brother and your friends).”
She would tell stories of her childhood in the Dominican Republic, her immigration to the United States in the ‘80s, meeting, marrying, and divorcing my father. All with the focus on leadership. It was something I could not comprehend as a child. She led by example so that I would do the same.
She was the eldest girl of 14 brothers and sisters, the fifth child, and she was motherless at the age of 6. Raised at the hands of her elder brothers while my grandfather worked the fields of the family farm in a small mountain community more than a day’s walk to the nearest town, she learned to be tough physically, mentally, and emotionally. She came to the U.S. at the age of 21 with an 8th grade education and a small understanding of the English language. She’s been a domestic worker more than half her life, helping to put half of her siblings through college, keeping a stable roof over her kids’ heads, helping me through college, and helping my brother with his education. She has been a surrogate mother to almost 100 children as a nanny, a teacher in Sabbath School, and she has “adopted” a few teens along the way.
How did she lead? She did not let tragedy define her life path. She did not let a lack of a “proper education” stop her from being successful. She found mentors to teach her English, navigate her new homeland, and, find a level of financial stability that would have taken her much longer to achieve on her own. She did not shy away from struggle, and she would accept no failures, especially from herself. She was vocal when she disagreed with someone, and never let anyone put her down for her thoughts or perspective. She made her voice not only heard, but matter to those listening. In my family, my mama is not someone anyone wants to go head to head with and will more than likely take the mantle of lead matriarch in a few more decades.
Hers is not an original story, but I am proudly biased when I say it is my favorite. Latinx families have leaders from all over Latin America who have come to this country to show their loved ones that success and a happy, peaceful life are possible. They have instilled in us, the first generation, a desire to work hard, a pride in our culture, and the will to be examples to others.
I am a powerful, black DominiRican (Dominican/Puerto Rican) woman. It is not just strength that defines me. My power also comes from the wisdom passed from my mother, from her stories. It comes from watching her, and watching other Latinx mothers fight for better lives for their children regardless of the lack of resources available. My power is seizing opportunities, making impossible goals and meeting them, and pushing through any struggles I face without fear. And if I should ever fail, it’s a learning experience for when I try again.
As a child, when my mother would be, week in and week out (I got in trouble a lot), to be a leader and not a follower, I would roll my eyes. Today, I take her words to heart. I look to see how my life and my actions can a guide to those around me. In doing so, regardless of my position in life, I am leading by example.