The American Son
By: Karina Siurano
I wasn’t prepared for news like this, not now, not here in Washington Square Park while walking my dog. No one seemed to notice the expressionless man too numbed to feel, whose world came to a halt by one voicemail. “Your father has been shot” my mother’s voice repeated in my mind, the sound of her whimpering voice struggling to deliver bad news was difficult for me to stomach. You would assume a son would rush to his father’s side, hold his hand and pray that he would be alright. But not me; instead I have chosen this bench surrounded by strangers who did not know me and couldn’t care less. I never thought that something like this would happen to a father like mine.
He had raised me with an iron fist; however, his methods never seemed to work. I wasn’t the rough and tumble type but rather a sensitive kid who was not into sports at all. My father was a risk taker; his personal courage and determination was what led him here in the first place. I know his story well: “The Rise of Ramon Castillo”, the humble beginnings and struggles of my father were told to me a gazillion times. He would say “I came to this country con siete pesos in my pocket, on the coldest day of winter, sin un coat, ó guantes to keep me warm”. I grew tired of hearing his story and I eventually stopped listening. Despite all, here I am, thinking back, trying to bring back memories I had fought so hard to suppress.
He arrived in New York City in the late 1970’s, strong as an ox ready to pave his way towards a new life. Hard work and persistence led my father to owning a business and a modest home in Jackson Heights, Queens. In spite of all the success my father earned in America, my relationship with him was always rocky. My father was strict and had expected my sister and me to honor his expectations and acquire his disciplined qualities. At home, we weren’t allowed to speak English. Preserving our language and heritage was extremely important for my father. “English is for outside, somos Dominicanos – en está casa se habla español. No English here.”, he would often say. I resented my father’s rigid ways and as I grew older, I pulled away from him and the culture he tried so hard to instill in me. It’s incredible how tragedy sometimes brings out long forgotten memories, the painful ones you try so hard to forget. Is it a way to prove how strong you are or a way to take a jab at your weakened heart?
I managed to get into my car to see my father at the hospital. On my drive there, I thought of the time, when Freddie and his punk friends had attacked me. I was walking home from school when I heard Freddie say, “Yo get that maricón.” I looked back and noticed that Freddie was pointing at me. I ran like a deer being chased by hunters. The boys surrounded me when I tried to cross the boulevard. Freddie pushed me to the ground and the boys all dove into action, kicking and punching me. I felt the blows, but what was worse for me was the public humiliation. I tried to shield my face, but the more I shielded, the harder they hit. The beat down went on for a few minutes, but for me it felt like eternity. From a distance I heard someone yell, “Llamen a la policia!” and Freddie and his stooges scattered like rats, leaving me on the cracked concrete pavement.
I knew that there was something wrong with me. That day, I realized I had to become someone I wasn’t in order to save my own skin. I was a good looking kid, with brown hair and hazel eyes attracting girls like bees to honey. So I played the game and became a playa, pursuing girls all the time. I was “El Matatan de las mujeres”, seducing multiple girls with my so-called “sex appeal”. However, my heart couldn’t be fooled and I found myself drowning in my own fears and shame. The great pretender played the part but deep inside I was miserable.
“Hay mijo, que te pasó?!” Ma let out a high-pitched scream when she saw me walk into the house. My father was in the living room reading his newspaper. He placed his cigar down on the ashtray observing quietly from his recliner. I sat down on the couch while Ma got ice for my face. “Who did this to you?” my father demanded. There was absolutely no way I was telling him the truth. “Some kid tried to steal my sneakers, so I fought back,” was the macho thing to say. “Good, you stood up for yourself! That pendejo won’t mess with you again.” My father placed his cigar in his mouth. I knew my Father was angry that he wasn’t there no child of his would be mistaken for a
Today I feel the way my father felt so many years ago. Sorrow turned into rage at the thought of some punk violating my father that way. His attacker is somewhere out there, and is most likely spending my father’s hard earned money on booze or drugs. Our lives have been altered and maybe my dad’s life is now at risk over their self-indulgence. I hope the cops find him so I can spit in his face. I parked my car a few blocks away from the hospital. Maybe the walk would help me clear my head. Guilt creeps into my mind, when I remembered how I’d wish my father would disappear- the way Tia Fina’s husband did when I was a kid. Tia Fina stormed into our house hollering at the top of her lungs, “Hay Juana! Me dejo, Juana!” I watched her collapse on the kitchen floor turning as limp as a noodle, while I ate my Farina. My mother nervously tried to calm her down fanning her with a kitchen towel. “Hay Juana. Manolo left me for another woman. What am I going to do?” I quietly listened wishing my father would do the same. Instead my old man stuck around like a nail on a wall, annoying the shit out of me.
It had been over a year since I had quit smoking, but I ended up taking a drag of a cigarette I had bought from a bodega. My hands trembled while I took deep puffs out of the cigarette. I felt relaxed instantly. There I stood in the front entrance of the hospital surrendered to an addiction I fought so long to overcome. I stared at the entrance of the hospital not ready to enter. How I can face my father after not speaking to him for so long?
Our estrangement stemmed from my decision in pursuing a career in dance. At the age of fourteen, I saw The Nutcracker on a school trip. I was mesmerized by the dancers’ grace and posture. Their ability to defy gravity, telling a story with their bodies and the movement, drew me in like a kid after candy. I felt within my soul that I belonged on that stage. That fateful day led me to train on free scholarships. I worked hard, ate healthy and listened to my mentors carefully. I walked out of my house everyday with my ballet shoes tucked inside my school bag. Not telling my parents what I was doing after school, I made up excuses each time I was late for dinner. When I danced I felt strong, in control and free. I no longer had to hide. I was no longer the pretender but the real Diego. In the dance world I was accepted, but eventually in order to grow as a dancer professionally, I had to tell my parents.
My father was sitting in his recliner watching the Yankees play the Red Sox holding a beer in his hand. I entered the living room in a tizzy, waving my acceptance letter from The Julliard School in my hand. I was excited. All those years of working hard had finally bared fruit.Telling my narrow minded father was terrifying for me. “Pa, I got into The Julliard School.” Hoping my father would focus on my excitement and not the name of the school, I continued the hoopla of jumping up and down. My father’s face lit up like a candle in the dark. I saw pride in my old man’s face, the way he saw my sister, another one of his children on their way to college.
You see, my sister Lucy had raised the bar very high. She was a graduate of Duke University. The big shot principal is working her way up the educational ladder. My father’s pride and joy, the perfect example of a good daughter. Dad constantly bragged about her to anyone that would listen. He spoke about her as if she was the last Coca-Cola in the desert. The trophy kid, squeaky clean Lucy did everything right! My father did not know much about American colleges but he expected my sister and me to focus on careers that would provide stability, wealth and integrity.
“Is this school an engineering school?” he asked happily. “Es una buena carrera m’ijo.” I took a deep breath… the excitement is over. Time for the truth. “No, it’s a school for the arts”, I replied smiling from ear to ear. “Que? No entiendo”, he said, taking a sip from his beer while lowering the sound from the T.V. I now have my father’s full attention. “Well, I am hoping for a degree in fine arts.” He stared at me blankly, waiting for me to spit it out. “Ballet, Pa. I’m a great dancer.” I smiled sheepishly. “Are you out of your fucking mind pendejo?!” He slammed his beer into the wall and rose from his recliner like a giant. “You will have no decent job with this basura career!”
“You want to be like me, selling potato chips at a grocery store?!” My father was furious. He was pounding his chest and punching the walls. I have never seen him this upset before. He was completely out of his mind. “I’m sorry. This is what I want. Please respect my decision.” This time I had enough courage to hold my head up high and stare my father in the eyes. “Estupido!, Idiota! I did not work my ass off in this country to end up with a son that wants to dance like a girl!” By this time my mother walked into the living room wearing rolos in her hair, smelling like cilantro and garlic.
“Bajen la voz, los vecinos can hear you,” she said softly. “Juana, this is the son you gave me? One with no balls?” My father turns his anger towards my mother, blaming her for the way I turned out to be. “Es tu culpa Juana!You have always kept this maldito muchacho under your skirt. Now look at him, a good for nothing pendejo.” I stared at him with hate in my eyes. There he was blaming everyone, excluding himself from the equation. I should have taken that time to ruffle his feathers some more and reveal that I was GAY! But news like that would have given my old man a fucking heart attack. By this time my father had his hands wrapped around my neck ready to take me out. Ma was crying and begging him to let me go. I pushed my father away from me. “Stop telling me what to do. I’m not Lucy, I won’t be your puppet. I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want!” I felt a sharp sting on the left side of my face – my father sucker punched me. “Que verguenza! You are a disgrace to this family. Don’t bring your sister into this!”
“Te odio! I fucking hate you!” I told my father while I wept uncontrollably. “Mal agradecido. Largate de aqui…GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE!” My father stomps up the stairs towards my room. My mother ran after him losing one or two rolos along the way. “Ramon por favor, what are you doing? Estas loco! You can’t kick him out, he’s your son!” I started packing my things. I could hear my father breathing like a heated dragon. I grabbed my gym bag and headed down the stairs. “If you walk out that door, don’t ever come back. You are no longer my son.” Those were the last words my father said to me.
I knew that someday I would have to face my father again. In my mind it would have happened under my terms, but under these circumstances what would I say to him? How do I make things good again?
About the author: I was born in San Francisco de Macoris, Dominican Republic. I immigrated to Crown Heights, Brooklyn New York when I was eighteen months old. My father instilled in me the art of storytelling. He shared so many stories with me when I was a little girl that I eventually became a storyteller and in time gave this gift to my two children. I have been active in the field of education and youth development for over fourteen years. I love exposing my students to the performing arts and have helped many students discover talents they never knew they had! I live in Brooklyn, New York with my husband, son and daughter.