I was raised in the southeast Bronx, the inner city. Although my parents did their best to shield their children from life’s ugly realities, they were not always successful. I witnessed many things, a lot of them violent that most kids outside that environment do not. I do not know why I was fortunate to emerge physically and emotionally unscathed from most of it, but I did…
I was traveling with my husband in the Dominican Republic during one of his many business trips there. He usually traveled alone, but this time he insisted I accompany him, even thought I was battling some kind of upper respiratory infection. I was not happy about the trip and I am sure I was an unpleasant traveling companion.
One morning, my husband surprised me with a car and a driver to drive me around the old city and show me the sights while he attended an all day business meeting. I loved the surprise and everything went well during the excursion until we were in the center of the old city.
Church bells marked the hour; it was noon. I started looking for a place to stop for lunch. Suddenly, I knew something was wrong. The minute I saw the small sign at the entrance of what looked more like a driveway, rather than a street I panicked. The sign said clearly: No Entre. My driver turned into that narrow road, overriding my objections.
Suddenly the car was surrounded. The men wore military uniforms, but they were young, mid teens mostly—the same age I teach; they were armed to the teeth and they moved swiftly. They yanked open the doors to the car and dragged us out. One soldier struck the driver; the old man sank to the ground. When the soldiers encircled me I lost sight of him. Standing in the center of that circle, their rifles facing me like spokes of a wheel, I felt totally alone. More alone than I have ever been. I froze. Colors blurred, sounds were muted and although they spoke Spanish, my native language, I could not understand a word.
One soldier to my left poked me in the arm with his rifle; he wanted me to raise my hands. Another to my right held a handgun up to my head. He cocked the revolver. I could hear the cylinder start to turn and at the same time I also heard sound of a rifle’s bolt sliding into place. My hearing seemed to be incredibly acute, yet although they were yelling at me, I still could not understand their words. As I raised my hands I took a deep breath, waiting for the explosions that would end my life. I heard the driver scream, instead. I was afraid to move, terrified of even breathing. In a split moment I had lost my freedom— captured, trapped. I knew with certainty there was no escape. I could not fight; I could not run. There was no one to help me. I thought of my three young daughters at home and I wondered who would care for them.
I don’t know why I did not speak in Spanish, but as it turned out, instinctively, I did the right thing. “What is wrong? What is happening?” I asked the questions in English. I heard the sounds of my words, eerily calm. So calm, so flat, I did not recognize my own voice. It grew incredibly quiet in that hidden street in the middle of the old city. I became aware of movement to my left, but I did not turn my head to look; I did not want to look. I knew I had to be submissive, no threat, no danger to them, so I looked at the ground. Finally, I heard someone behind me say, “No es ella; ésta es americana.” (It is not she. This one is American.)
I latched onto the word as if a lifeline. “American, yes!” I am an American. American!” I forget how often I repeated those words.
After what seemed to be a long while, the soldiers pushed me toward the car. I was almost afraid to believe they were truly letting me go; my knees buckled as I scrambled inside the car. They driver appeared, blood running down his face. Once seated in the car, I glanced out the window. The soldiers had disappeared into the surrounding buildings. “¡No mire!” the driver ordered. (Don’t look.) “¡Bájese!” (Get down!) And he backed out of the narrow drive. Before the driver dropped me off at the apartment my husband had rented for us, he warned me not to tell anyone.
Everything else about that day was and is still a blur. Too afraid not to do as I was told, I did not tell anyone what had happened. The whole incident took maybe twenty minutes tops.
Thirty years later I still ask the same questions. Who was the woman those men had expected? Or was it me they wanted after all? They had expected a Hispanic woman, but I looked American; I spoke in English. They did not know I am both. I really think my Anglo appearance and my perfect New York accent saved me that day. The last questions are the hardest. Why did they want her? What were they going to do to her? What would they have done to me had I spoken in Spanish? Who had given them their orders? Was the driver involved? …
After so many years, I still cannot tolerate watching violent movies or even reading about violent acts. The feelings I experienced that day come rushing back and they are overpowering still. Feeling absolutely helpless as control over my life was ripped from me was / is terrifying. For this reason, even fictional acts of violence can never be recreational for me. There is no glory in it, no honor, just heart-stopping fear. I had escaped the southeast Bronx. I was just a Long Island housewife then, a mom, a teacher. Things like that don’t ever happen to people like me. Once again I had emerged unscathed from a potentially violent situation— at least physically, but this time not emotionally…
Humans are violent—have always been violent that is a fact I would never dispute. Wartime violence is horrible, which is why we have sanitized it by dropping bombs from high up above so that the combatants can’t see the horrors on the ground below. On TV we have viewed the firing of missiles almost as video games. We support war because we are told our way of life is in danger; our country has also engaged in torture for the same reason. I think that in protecting ourselves, we have become more like the enemy than we would care to admit; therefore we have already lost what we have set out to protect. While that knowledge makes me sad, I don’t know the answer to the dilemma.
What truly makes us human, I believe, is the attempt to control the elemental forces struggling inside us: the Id – the Super Ego; love – hate; rage- serenity; courage – fear. Few succeed in finding perfect balance, but we try. And there is no shame when we slip and fall in the attempt. The shame lies in not striving for balance. Studying Tai Chi I learned that as we approach balance—physical, emotional, spiritual, we come close to the divine that resides at the center of us all, saint and sinner alike. There is a certain fascination for me in the travails of humanity because when we succeed, it is glorious.