I was born in Yonkers, New York, near the Bronx. My parents had immigrated from the Dominican Republic, my father in the 1960s and my mother in the 1970s. Both came from a rural community named La Cidra, where people live by subsistence farming. Their drinking water comes from rivers, creeks, and rain. There is no electricity, no sewage system, and many of the residents still ride horses and donkeys.
In Yonkers, my father was a construction worker, while my mother stayed home and cared for my older sister and me. Through hard work they managed to send us children to the nearby Catholic school. We were, after all, Catholic, and our parents raised us in the faith. I recall my mother returning home on Thursday nights after volunteering at Bingo Night at our school and kissing us as we lay in bed half asleep. She volunteered because this work helped to pay our school tuition.
As a child, I didn’t understand what this faith I was being taught was all about, or why it was important. My faith was very simple: I believed in Christ and acknowledged that Mary was my spiritual mother; that was all there was to it.
During the years of our early schooling, the neighborhood changed. Hip hop would blast through the street at all hours, and drug dealers sold their wares in broad daylight. There was an unspoken agreement between the drug dealers and the residents: the people of the community would turn a blind eye to the dealers, and the dealers would leave them alone, even acting pleasantly toward the residents. I recall seeing them helping to carry grocery bags for elderly women and wish them a good night. All this was ordinary fare in my childhood, although now, as an adult, I feel a deep sadness for children who must grow up in such an environment.
As I grew older, I became enamored of hip hop music, and my childhood friends ranged from honors students to drug dealers. My father started traveling back to the Dominican Republic for six months at a time, leaving my mother to earn a living and raise their children alone. The result was that the only male role models I had were the men I saw on television and the drug dealers on the street. My heart told me that what the drug dealers were doing was wrong, and an older neighbor kid, who lived downstairs from us, would urge me to stay upstairs and away from them.
A man by the name of Anthony Fellicisimo, who was once a Franciscan seminarian, took it upon himself to try to help the kids in our community. He started a youth group called the Shepherd’s Place. Tony, as we called him, would go into the worst neighborhoods to teach the youth of God’s love. I cherish that man dearly, because of what he did for us kids. Tony was spit on, had knives pulled on him; he was humiliated and insulted; but he kept trying to help the youth. He was a father figure to many who did not have a father at home.
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