This was such an amazing book! Thank you for picking it for the book
club. I love it and I’ve loved reading everyone’s stories on the blog.
Lately I’ve been in search of art and literature that I can find solace in when faced with the cruel realities of the world. The Notion of Family has, without a doubt, been, simultaneously, the most painful yet comforting book I’ve yet come across. Ms. Frazier’s sincere and unapologetic look into her community, family, and personal life deeply resonates with me. The manner in which she documents and displays her pain and sadness is in direct opposition to how I handle everything about myself but her story has profoundly inspired me in so many different ways. I’ve long felt my mission in life was to help make the world a better place for the most vulnerable members of society. Yet I’ve now come to the realization that unless I stop running from my reality and confront my past directly I can never truly make an impact on other people’s lives.
Me and Mom in the Phase Pg 13
This image of LaToya and her mother really speaks to me. The beautifully adorned surroundings, Mrs. Frazier’s countenance and LaToya, ghost-like, almost as if she’s hiding waiting for you to find her…
Truthfully the thing that struck me most from LaToya’s story was the progression of her relationship with her mother through art. Their relationship seemed distant at first but through creating photographs of one another and the world around them, they seem to get closer. I’ve never doubted that my mother loves me but I have always been conscious of the fact that their is a distance between us. I know it’s my fault: I’m too afraid to let anyone in. I’m afraid that people, even my own family, won’t like who I really am if they got to know me.
There is also an uglier truth hiding underneath: I’m afraid of what I may find out about her. My mother left the Dominican Republic when she was my age, 22 years-old, and left behind everyone she loved – her mother, her grandmother – and came to the United States in search of a better life for herself and everyone she left behind. Lured with the lie of the American Dream, she arrived in a country where she worked like a slave to make the rich richer, where she and other immigrants like her were treated like shit for having the audacity to not speak English, and for committing the crime of being brown and poor. Through all of this she had to stay brave for her three kids, while facing the unknown – all alone. I’m afraid of what I may find if I tear down that wall between us. All I wanted growing up was to preserve the idealized image of myself that she still somehow held onto. I wanted her to believe I was happy and had tons of friends and was doing so well in school because I figured the reality of my life would make her feel like all that she suffered was for nothing.
Between my background and my foreground I am not sure where I stand. Impacted by the Cosby effect society looked away in contempt while the Reagan administration sent its troops, cops, and K-9s to raid my home and classroom. pg 64
Growing up I mastered the art of hiding. A child of the Dominican diaspora, poor, underprivileged: all I inherited, unrequested, beat me down and imprisoned me to the point where I genuinely felt like my life had no value and I came to believe I had nothing to offer the world. Friends, family, and most frighteningly, myself – I’ve spent my brief lifetime hiding who I truly am. I was a shy and quiet kid from the start and I learned, as all children do, primarily through observing all that surrounded me. Hyper-aware of the world around me, I internalized everything – for better or worse.
I was born and raised in Bushwick back when it was still the very opposite of cool and trendy. The conditions were all too similar to the images I saw of Braddock – broken down and destitute. Almost everyone I knew was stuck under similar conditions: we were all poor, people of color, living in dilapidated, rat-infested houses on both section 8 and welfare, slaving away at minimum wage jobs with little to show for it. It was bleak but in spite of all of this the community still found a way to thrive and unite. This was especially true for my family. It was just my mom, my two older brothers and myself and there was so much love and unity- we had each other and that’s all we needed to be happy. It truly was wonderful but of course it didn’t last.
As children you can’t understand why things are the way they are. All I knew was I was I was poor and I had been taught by the media, through politicians, and even right in my underfunded classrooms at school to buy into the acerbic lie of the “American Dream” – anyone, no matter what race or class or gender can be whatever they want to be if they just work hard enough, and if you’re poor it’s you’re own fault for being lazy and a burden on society. I learned that lesson very early on.
Everyone I knew at school was in similar situations but even by those standards I was still weird and poor. I always felt like I didn’t belong. I’ve always felt like a stranger, like an Other: I was an other in America, my brown skin, Dominican heritage and socioeconomic background made sure of that; I was an other in DR, since I was born and raised in the states I was way too gringa and Americanized to really relate to and communicate with my relatives (including my father) who were still over there; and I was an Other at school with my peers, whom with I shared a somewhat similar background but still saw me as an oddity, someone to either ignore entirely or just laugh at. I remember being seven and utterly hating everything about myself: my hair, my brown skin, my dark eyes, my shyness, the fact that I was dirt poor. I didn’t see anyone like me in television, movies or in the books I cherished so much. I had nothing and no one I could turn to for solace. I hated myself and desperately wanted to be someone else. I felt I couldn’t turn my to my mother because I didn’t want to hurt her with the reality of who I was and how I felt. I wanted, and still want, to protect her. But I was drowning and I desperately needed
someone, anyone to help me. As a preteen I remember trying to talk to my friends about all I was going through and I remember being mocked and bullied for it. Reflecting on her own experiences growing up, my fellow independent Michelle McCleary wrote this:
I had also begun to learn an ugly truth: You don’t talk about your suffering because no one wants to hear about it and no one really cares.
This ugly truth is one I learned early as well. It taunted me: you are alone.
By high school I had completely retreated from everyone around me. I didn’t even bother with friendships: I was a loner, I barely came to school because I realized that the public inner-city schools I had attended all my life were deliberately set up to fail us and for us to fail, completing our role at the bottom of the capitalism totem pole. I had no friends, and I knew I wouldn’t amount to anything so I saw no point in being there. My classmates made the best of their situation and found comfort in their shared experiences. Meanwhile I was left alone. I was alone at school and I was alone within my family, I became a total stranger – a ghost of who I used to be.
I’m twenty-two now and still in Bushwick. Realtors have slapped band-aids on the broken down houses and have long begun marketing the influx of white young professionals and coffee shops as “trendy” and labeling the remnants of the community us poor people of color built up around us as “authentic”. Even still, everywhere you look the effects of systematic racism are loud and clear. Slowly but surely everything I’ve known is being phased out but I’m still here, living
on the same block I’ve lived all my life with my family. But I am different now. I’ve learned so much and I see things in a new light. I am not powerless and I have so much to offer the world. I can help the vulnerable people and change the world for the better. I’m so grateful to have been able to hear LaToya and Braddock’s story. I have been forever changed by The Notion of Family.
A fire has been awoken inside of me that has laid dormant for far too long. It’s time I stop hiding myself away from the world around me and, most importantly, the people I love. Beyond the words I cannot find and the things I’m afraid to say, art can succeed where words have failed. I realize now I can begin to tear down the walls of secrecy between my mother and myself. We can reclaim both of our stories through the process of creation, like LaToya and her mother.
Growing up I wanted desperately to disappear but I’ve learned now that there is no comfort in alienation. I must stop allowing capitalism and systematic racism to write my story for me. I must regain my agency and make my story my own and I want to thank Ms. Frazier for showing me that I too can do this through art, something I already love so very much.
Juliana Francisco is an activist with the New York City Independence Clubs. She is a 2015 recipient of the Nicholas S. Johnson Independent Spirit Award for outstanding volunteerism.