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  • Boston immigrants are sharing their personal stories and cultural heritage through storytelling and the arts.

    Hear their stories

Dania Vázquez

Storyteller

Dania Vázquez is Head of School at Margarita Muñiz Academy in Jamaica Plain. She is an advocate for immigrant youth and other marginalized communities in Boston.  

Dania shared her story during "Suitcase Stories: Reflections from the School Year."

Learn about Dania's story

By Dania Vázquez

I gathered my key staff in early March to have a conversation about what we would do if someone with Coronavirus were in the building. Someone said, “Why are you worried about this? This won’t happen.” Ten days later we had to be on lockdown.

March 16: I was rushing the kids in and out of the building, giving them computers and materials. I gathered the teachers and said, “Take your most important stuff, whatever you need. But I think we'll be back, at the latest after April vacation.” Little did we know what we were heading into, not just the uncertainty but the fear.

Time really rolled on, and we had to figure out how to do remote learning. What is that? We were literally building the plane while flying it. At the end of April, I decided to go in the building because I felt like I needed to be there.

I call the building “The Old Lady” because she's in her 50s and we take good care of her. In turn, she takes good care of us and our community. She holds us. And I think that's why I needed to check on everything and be there.

It was so quiet; it was me and a custodian in the building that day. The classrooms felt like “The Twilight Zone.” It was weird, there were still books on the table, stuff everywhere. It was like we were coming back in a few days, but we hadn’t. It was so quiet, cold and dark.

I remember sitting in a room and having flashbacks to my own youth. I grew up as a Latina, as a Puerto Rican, in Washington Heights in New York in the 60s and 70s in a working class family. There were many times that it was paycheck to paycheck. I had my fair share of struggling with my identity and discrimination early on in my life, but this pandemic blew all that out of the water. Whatever I experienced as a young person, my Latino community, my black and brown kids, they were experiencing something that was warp speed; it was just different.

A mother called and asked me for help activating a P-EBT Card. You need a double PhD to make that thing work and get through the bureaucracy. How are people who don’t speak the language supposed to get through that? It’s really infuriating. Another mom called me because she lost her job, she had Coronavirus, and she didn't know what to do because her son, who was my student, was in his room freaking out. That was heartbreaking and we had to together figure out what to do. There was another mother who was in her final term of pregnancy and didn't have food.

And we had phone calls from students who couldn’t believe graduation was not going to be in-person. No one was going to have a regular graduation, but for a Latino kid who is the first in their family to graduate, they are missing that marker, that big event. It was just painful.

My staff are heroes. Not only were they teaching, they also delivered Chromebooks, got food to families, and even figured out housing vouchers. We were doing everything to hold our community.

Then if the trauma of the pandemic wasn’t enough, we had to witness the murder of George Floyd. It challenged all of us to figure out how to hold the community in that moment—with these cascading emotions, in the multiple pandemics, and all through Zoom. It was really challenging, but we found the strength and the resilience to really hold each other, even if it was through a computer.

The fall was confusing: We’re starting, we’re not starting. One of my teachers was so fed up and said, “I need to go see this kid, I'm gonna wear a mask, a gown, and gloves, I swear to God, just let me go see him, I'll stand across the street.” We missed them so much.

Finally, in February high schoolers and certain kids were allowed to come back into the building. It was messy, complicated, and nerve-racking, but it was really joyful. By late March more kids were coming, and we were encouraging others to come, giving them confidence that it was safe.

One morning one of my boys, Emilio, was doing this very happy and jazzy merengue in the hallway. He was dancing all by himself. I asked him what he was doing and he said, “Miss, Miss. I'm waking up.”

I said, `”Yeah, you have pajama pants and a hoodie and chancletas on. Did you just roll out of bed?”

He said, “No Miss, you don't understand. I'm waking up. I've been at home for so long and haven't seen many people. Now I'm here and I feel like I'm waking up.”

That was precious. It inspired me to write a poem. It’s called “Getting Out of Zoom-bie Land.”

Getting Out of Zoom-bie Land
By Dania Vázquez
 
Like the zombie movies
The living come out
Into the sun
Ours has been a crazy
Zoom-bie existence
Real and weird
 
The vaccine spurs hope
Still tentative 
Still scary
As we each crawl out of 
Our dark cocoons.
 
It’s been a slow trickle.
They walk in, hoodies up
Masked up
Saggy pants, heads down.
 
¡Bienvenido!
So good to see you!
A grunt in return
Slow walk to the classroom 
Hunched over staring at the screen
 
A few weeks pass
A few more join
Hoodies slowly come down
A smile appears under the mask 
Long walks outside, lunch in the café
Seniors get to go to Happy!
 
A few more join
¡Ay, sepárense!
Six feet apart!
Where’s Tomas?
Tomas, you have a soccer ball?
 
A few more days pass
The third floor is coming to life
Sounds of voices
Someone zoom teaching
Startled by another who walks by
Water running in the bathroom
Someone opened the hall windows
 
Pull down the old bulletin boards
One made me cry
A relic of a year ago
New cheery colors
New schedules, new lists
Pods - a new zoom-bie vocabulary word
 
The Mother Ship is waking up
We are coming back
At least some
Zoom-bie land still has a grip
Maybe a little less
With each day passing
With each one walking 
Through the doors
 
Eyes connecting
Smiles under the masks
Sounds in the hallways
The sun shining through
The colored windows
 
We are all waking up a little more
We have to do this together
Pulling each other up and out
It’s a slow crawl out of 
Zoom-bie land.

De Dania Vázquez

A principios de marzo, reuní al personal clave para conversar sobre lo que haríamos en caso de que hubiera una persona con coronavirus en el edificio. Alguien dijo: “¿Por qué te preocupas por eso? No sucederá”. ¿Y saben qué? Diez días después, comenzó la cuarentena.

El 16 de marzo: Ayudé a los niños a entrar y salir del edificio, y les dí computadoras y materiales. También reuní a los maestros y dije: “Llévense lo más importante, lo que necesiten. Pero creo que volveremos, como mucho, después de las vacaciones de abril”. Lejos estábamos de saber que nos dirigíamos no solo a la incertidumbre, sino también al miedo.

El tiempo pasó volando y tuvimos que aprender a enseñar de manera remota. Tuvimos que improvisar sobre la marcha. Se nos indicó que no deberíamos estar en el edificio. Pero para finales de abril, decidí regresar al edificio porque sentía que debía estar ahí.

Lo [al edificio] llamo “El viejo amigo”, porque tiene alrededor de 50 años y lo cuidamos mucho. Él también nos cuida a nosotros y a la comunidad. Nos contiene. Creo que por eso necesité verificar todo y estar allí.

Estaba todo muy tranquilo, muy silencioso; estaba sola con un custodio ese día. Los salones de clases parecían “La dimensión desconocida”. Fue raro; aún había libros en la mesa, cosas por todas partes. Parecía que regresaríamos en pocos días, pero no fue así. Estaba todo muy silencioso, frío y oscuro.

 Recuerdo que me senté en una sala y recordé mi juventud. Crecí en una familia latina, puertorriqueña, de clase obrera en Washington Heights, en Nueva York, en las décadas de 1960 y 1970. Por momentos, vivíamos con lo justo. De joven tuve problemas de identidad y discriminación, pero esta pandemia lo superó todo. Sea lo que sea que yo haya experimentado de joven, mi comunidad latina, mis estudiantes negros y mestizos estan pasando por algo a máxima velocidad, algo muy diferente. 

Por ejemplo, recibí una llamada de una madre que me pidió ayuda para activar una tarjeta P-EBT. Resulta que se requieren dos doctorados para lograr que funcione y superar la burocracia. ¿Cómo se supone que lo logren las personas que no hablan el idioma? Es realmente exasperante. Otra madre me llamó porque había perdido el trabajo, tenía coronavirus y no sabía qué hacer porque su hijo, quien era mi estudiante, estaba en su habitación con crisis nerviosa. Eso fue desgarrador, y tuvimos que determinar juntas qué hacer. Había otra madre que estaba en las últimas semanas de embarazo y no tenía comida. 

Y recibimos llamadas de estudiantes que no podían creer que la graduación no sería en persona. Nadie tuvo una graduación normal [este año pasado], pero, para los jóvenes latinos quienes son los primeros de la familia en graduarse, perderse ese hito, ese gran acontecimiento, es doloroso.

Tengo que decir que los integrantes del personal son héroes. No solo daban clase, sino que también entregaban Chromebooks, llevaban alimentos a las familias e incluso resolvían el tema de los cupones de vivienda. Hicimos todo lo posible por sostener a la comunidad. 

Luego, como si el trauma de la pandemia no fuera suficiente, tuvimos que vivir el asesinato de George Floyd. Eso nos hizo cuestionar cómo brindar soporte a la comunidad en ese momento, ante la catarata de emociones, en medio de la pandemia y todo a través de Zoom. Fue algo realmente desafiante, pero encontramos la fuerza y la resiliencia para brindar el apoyo a la comunidad, aunque sea a través de una computadora. 

El otoño fue confuso: ¿Daríamos clases en persona o no daríamos clases en persona? Uno de los maestros estaba tan harto que dijo: “Tengo que ir a ver a este niño; usaré una máscara, una bata y guantes; lo juro, pero déjenme ir a verlo; me quedaré en la vereda de enfrente”. Los extrañábamos mucho.

Por fin, en febrero, los estudiantes de preparatoria y determinados niños pudieron regresar al edificio. Fue algo desorganizado, complicado y estresante, pero a la vez fue alegre. Para finales de marzo, más niños regresaban y estabamos alentando a otros a regresar, al darles la seguridad de que no les pasaría nada malo. 

Una mañana, uno de mis niños, Emilio, bailaba un merengue alegre y jazzero en el pasillo. Bailaba solo. Le pregunté qué hacía y me dijo: “Señorita, señorita, me estoy despertando”.

Y le dije: “Sí, tienes los pantalones del pijama, una sudadera con capucha y las chancletas puestas. ¿Te caíste de la cama?”.

Él dijo: “No, señorita, no entiende. Me estoy despertando. Estuve en casa tanto tiempo que no he visto a muchas personas. Ahora estoy aquí y siento que me estoy despertando”.

Eso fue hermoso. Me inspiró a escribir un poema. Se llama “Salir de la tierra de zoombis”.

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