¡Donde Cabe Uno, Caben Cinco!
Growing up there was no “This is mine and this is yours.” I grew up with “Eto e’ de to’ el mundo.” Washing the dishes I dirtied and leaving the rest for whoever dirtied them did not exist. I cannot remember where I picked up that last habit but I do remember the pela I got when I first tried this mala costumbre. My baby clothes were hand me downs from my prima, who is 2 years older than me. She wasn’t just my prima but my prima - hermana because she is the daughter of my mother’s sister. Adding the hermana means we too have to treat each other like sisters. It means we share.
There is no having your own bedroom. Except when mami and I moved to Miami. Even then I still slept in her room. When she met her boyfriend, I got sent to sleep in my room and that lasted a couple of weeks before she started letting the girlfriend of her friend’s brother bunk with me. The girlfriend of mami’s friend’s brother later became my hermana, too. At one point, I lived with 3 of mami’s friends. I would imagine them to be my own Las Chicas Del Can. I would watch, in awe, as they got ready to go to el malecón on Saturday nights. The smell of the perfume, the click clack of their heels, the subtle smell of their blow dried hair. “Ay, llevenme por fa” I would pout. Living with all these people felt like an adventure.
I am part of a family that is complex and at times problematic. I am part of family that would go to the end of the world for one another. I am part of a family that adopts friends as part of our family.
My family has lived in the same apartment in Harlem for over 50 years. It is the place where everyone arrives until they get themselves settled. It is the place I went to after I graduated college and lived there for a year until I was able to pay rent on my own. It is the place where my family that resides in the Dominican Republic comes to after they are granted their tourist visas or le dan la residencia.
This apartment is a small two bedroom apartment with one bathroom, no hallway, or space to find “quiet time”. We receive calls every couple of months and it is a loved one excitedly telling us they are coming to Nueva Yol. We receive the call because it is an unspoken fact that they will stay with us. I always ask the same question: “Tia, where are they going to sleep?” and my Grandma responds “A dio, ¿como que a donde? Aquí!” and then my Tia follows up with “Mija, se hace espacio… donde cabe uno, caben cinco.”
You make space. You fill that space.
Those evenings, our apartment turns into a cramped up place with the sofa bed pulled out, a twin size cot we borrow from la vecina, and the bed with as many people as it can fit.
It is nice having our family together, en chercha. Feels like a huge sleepover. Of course, we have the nights where we are ready to have our space again, and then they depart leaving a void in us. I know we are all wishing we could live near each instead of oceans apart.
In 2015, I moved back to NYC after living in the Dominican Republic for a year. I was lucky to move into a room in the apartment of an hermana from my sorority (now TRULY my hermana), who let me pay really cheap rent. I was in an AmeriCorps program receiving a stipend of about $1,000 before taxes. Every month I felt nervous that I would not make it, sort of how I feel these days. I ended up leaving the program and they let me stay in the apartment rent-free. It took some getting used to, they did not sit down with me to have an “ok what now?” conversation or ask for anything in exchange. They simply knew I needed a place to live and would tell me that I was contributing in other non-monetary ways. I felt at home, with family.
I recently moved into my own room after searching for months. I was ecstatic to finally have a space that I could afford, have a bed instead of a mattress, bring to life the decorating ideas I saved to my HGTV pinterest board, and have people stay over. Not in a romantic way, in a “my home, is your home” way. Since moving in, I have had many friends stay over and I feel it is my way of paying it forward for the countless times my family and friends had my back.
They made space. I filled that space.
I dream of one day owning a large apartment and/or house. It is filled with people I love… maybe strangers... de vez en cuando.
Do I love having my own space now? Yes, it is amazing! I also crave communal living. Living with my people, knowing that on any given Saturday morning I can blast a Marc Anthony, Sergio Vargas, Fefita La Grande, Sin Bandera playlist and it becomes the alarm that says “it’s cleaning time!”. On Sunday we practice communal care. When I cook it is for everyone and I no longer have to portion out food for one.
I did not always appreciate the lack of privacy, and use to yearn for a nuclear family equipped with my own room. In hindsight, fuck a nuclear family. My family taught me community, lo que es ayudar al prójimo por que si. My family taught me “¡Donde Cabe Uno, Caben Cinco!”
This essay is part of the the #52Essays2017 writing challenge I am participating in (along with 600+ people) created by the writer Vanessa Mártir as well as my #Breakthrough26 challenge where I do shit that scares me. Woosah!