Story by: Othanya Garcia and Dorian Block
Photography by: Floor Flurij and Dorian Block
on Floor 18
WATCH A BONUS VIDEO AT THE END!
It is 5 a.m. in the Madison Houses off of 108th Street in Manhattan.
Maria Soledad, age 87, wakes up without an alarm clock. She does her morning exercises, stretching her arms up and touching her toes from her fold-away cot in the living room. The loud rumblings of passing MetroNorth trains are a soundtrack she no longer notices. Her son, Cesar, grand-daughter, Yalitza, and great-grandson, Castiel are still asleep in the apartment’s two bedrooms. Maria’s prayer of the morning is a daily one: "Señor, el día que yo no puedo más, llévame para no ser carga para nadie.” God, the day that I can’t do anything, take me so that I’m not a burden on anyone. It is a resolution as much as it is a prayer.
Maria rinses the rice for her son's lunch and seasons the day’s chicken with Adobo, a condiment alien and inferior to the natural spices she grew and used at her ranch in the Dominican Republic. She works with the dried red beans she soaked and softened overnight, seasoning and stirring them. The rice and chicken for lunch take longer to cook, so she goes on to prepare a hot breakfast, peeling green plantains and frying white cheese, salami, and eggs.
By 6 a.m., Maria turns her attention to her great-grandson Castiel. Castiel is an 18-month-old with tight curls, a big smile and a love for a yellow stuffed gorilla called King Kong. Most weekdays Castiel stays inside the apartment from morning to night. He is mainly Maria’s responsibility. Some mornings, he wakes up with Maria to toddle around as she cooks and sometimes he does not. Her goal is to always have his milk warmed and ready for him when he wakes. "Lo hace crecer fuerte," she says. It will make him grow strong. Once the rice and chicken are ready, Maria packs a portion in a plastic container and leaves it in the refrigerator for Cesar to take to work to microwave during his lunch break.
Cesar is a single parent of Yalitza, 19, and Yalitza is a single mother for her son, Castiel. Cesar is a bright and energetic man who aims to devote his life to God and the church. He is loving, but strict with his daughter. He monitors what clothing Yalitza wears, how she speaks and where she goes. As his mother, Maria is a center of Cesar’s world, and he speaks effusively of her.
“Mi mama es la mejor mama de la bolita del mundo entero. Si se va se muere la mitad conmigo, ella es un apoyo para mi.”
My mom is the best mom of the whole world. When she passes away, a half of me will pass as well. She is a valuable support for me.
Maria has been living in the U.S. for nine years, when she came to help Cesar care for Yalitza, who was 11 years old. As Maria has aged from 78 to 87, she has watched her granddaughter grow from a child into a teenager and now a young mom.
Among Maria's dreams are for Cesar to marry a loyal woman that can, in many ways, take her role.
She also wants her granddaughter to have and pursue educational and professional goals so that life can be less of a struggle. In the meantime, Maria fills in mightily. She prepares their food, washes their clothes, takes care of the baby and tidies the house.
In New York, immigrant grandparents, like Maria, make up 72 percent of grandparents who live with their grandchildren, according to the Center for an Urban Future’s analysis of U.S. Census data. In the U.S. overall, an estimated 4.9 million children live in grandparent-headed households, according to AARP.
For Maria, it is a joy and a sacrifice to be living in the U.S. She would prefer to be at her rural home in the central region of the Dominican Republic where she still owns a ranch, but she is driven to invest in the future of her family.
“Despues que uno tiene hijos, sus problemas lo hacen sufrir. Estoy aqui casi obligada…Yo me siento cansada pero le pido fuerzas al Senor diciendole ‘ayuda que pueda valerme.’”
After one has children, the children’s problems make one suffer. I am almost obliged to be here…I feel tired, but I ask the Lord for strength by saying “help me, so that I can be of value.
In this four-generation household – each member plays a role to survive daily and try to rise out of the poverty. Cesar works full-time for a cleaning service, while Maria holds down the household. Yalitza has been taking classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College on and off and is looking for a job. She aspires to be a teacher. Any step to bring her there seems so costly that it often paralyzes her into indecision.
The whole family sells perfume on the street on weekends to make a little extra cash. Their money pays for the basics, including subsidized rent for their public housing apartment. When they have a little leftover they give a tithe to the small Dominican Church they belong to and send Yalitza to religious camp outings.
Maria returns to the Dominican Republic which she still calls “home” for several months every winter to see her friends, her family, her community and her farm. She can not stay long because she has to maintain her residency in the U.S. She says it is hard for her to see any other place as home, having lived in the Dominican Republic her entire life. Cesar and Yalitza cobble together food and childcare while she is gone.
Forty-six percent of older New Yorkers were born in another country. Their experience is highly variable and largely dependent on when they arrived. Maria moved here past working age and past a time when building a community or learning to speak English felt possible. The average older immigrant has less wealth, lower income, poorer health, fewer savings and smaller retirement benefits than the average native-born senior. Maria, for example, has no access to social security because she never worked in the U.S.
On most mornings, each family member eats breakfast separately. Cesar eats first, while Maria finishes preparing his lunch. After he leaves for work, Maria sits down at a white table cornered next to a window that overlooks the train tracks 18 floors below. She eats the plantains, cheese, and salami, leaving some for her granddaughter, when she wakes up. She cleans the dishes and washes clothes with Castiel at her feet.
Yalitza has asked Maria to take Castiel with her when she goes to the Dominican Republic again this fall. Yalitza knows how attached her son is to his great-grandmother, and she is overwhelmed by imagining how to care for him alone. She says that Castiel tends to cry more often without Maria there and that Maria has taught her not to raise her voice at him, but that sometimes she doesn’t know how to otherwise get him to listen. Yalitza does not have any friends who are pregnant or who have kids. She introduced the idea of bringing Castiel to the Dominican Republic to Maria and has been pushing for it months in advance.
“While grandma is here it’s not hard, but it’s hard to get adjusted when she’s gone,” she said.
Maria lives 18 floors up.
One summer afternoon during Maria’s first year living in the U.S., Maria, Cesar, and Yalitza (then 11 years old) were coming home from church and a shopping trip with arms full of groceries. They quickly learned from a small crowd outside their building that the building’s two elevators had broken down. Again.
This was the third time this had happened in a short while, and they assumed from the other experiences that it would take a long time to fix.
They decided to slowly climb the flights. Cesar and Yalitza took rests and breathed heavily. They passed other residents panting and stopping on platforms. And yet Maria marched ahead, up 17 flights.
Back in the Dominican Republic, Maria was known to climb trees well after her hair turned gray. Yalitza speaks of watching her grandmother in amazement as she climbed to the very top of a guava tree, an orange tree, and a shorter cherry tree to reach the best fruits. Maria would also regularly climb on top of her house to cover the roof and adapt to changing weather. Around age 70, Maria stopped, because Cesar asked her to and reasoned that he didn’t want her to fall or break a bone.
On the day they hiked the stairs, the whole family made it up to the their floor, but the experience scarred even the hardy tree climber, leading her to avoid going downstairs and outside alone.
Further experiences heightened this fear. Several times, Maria got stuck inside one of the elevators that had jammed. As the elevator attempted to go up, it switched directions suddenly, dropping down and staying on a lower floor for what felt to her like an exasperatingly long time, even though she is told it was a few minutes. Then there are the regular pools of urine which require Maria to exercise her puddle jumping skills. And the stories from neighbors she knows who were mugged in the elevator.
But recently, her biggest fear is the possibility of being stuck for hours in the elevator with Castiel alone.
During the week, Maria lives her life almost entirely inside her apartment, out of fear that she will get stuck at the bottom or inside the elevator with a baby. She doesn’t feel comfortable asking neighbors for help. She and Castiel breathe fresh air only on weekends and occasional weekdays when Yalitza or Cesar are around to accompany them.
Castiel scoots along linoleum floor and watches a tablet for much of the day. This is a dramatic contrast to Maria’s farm in the Dominican Republic where children roam free alongside the chickens they eat for dinner.
“Aqui no se va a ningun lado,” she said of the Madison Houses. In this place, one does not go anywhere.
Maria was born in 1928 on a ranch with no electricity or running water in a small neighborhood called Canca La Piedra Tamboril in Santiago, Dominican Republic.
A nearby river was a center for her daily social life, and for cleaning and playing.
“Yo me levantaba bajo matas de fruta y comia cajui…pelaba gallinas para comer.”
I would wake up under trees with fruit and would eat nuts and later skin chickens for food, Maria said.
Maria closes her eyes when describing red sapodillas, which rained down from trees.
Maria remembers the era of the Trujillo regime because it pervaded her entire childhood and early adulthood. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo was a brutal Dominican dictator from 1930 to 1961 who spurred anti-Haitian sentiment and assassination as well as violent punishment for those against his regime.
Maria said her father had to escape to a nearby mountain due to communal whistle-blowing of his anti-Trujillista views. Maria recalls her father being told by a messenger to hide because they were searching to kill him and she remembers his response: “Dile a el que me lo haga!” or “Tell Trujillo himself to kill me.” At one point he had his eyes blindfolded to be killed, but a friend of Maria’s father told the killer, “El no es el hombre,” or “He is not the man.” After that relief, Maria’s father was told to run away and hide as soon as possible.
As her story goes:
“My father rode on a little horse from Cotui to Canca la Piedra Tamboril where he slept and yet was still persecuted. I was ten years old (1938) when this happened. My father would tell me and my 14 siblings to say we did not know anything if people asked where he was. In Canca he was still being searched after, but my mother’s home was up in a hidden hill. Therefore, a man helped my father flee to Bonao with all of us. With all of our belongings, we traveled on foot to Bonao. We then spent a night at a friend’s house in La Vega where we were fed and my 1 year old sibling was given milk. Once we arrived to Bonao, a friend let us borrow his ranch where we worked the field and gave a box of rice if we produced enough.”
The terror continued into Maria’s adulthood. Her brother-in-law was murdered because he demanded rights for laborers. Maria said she was forced to hang Trujillo’s photos in the living room of her house and knew that wherever she went people were recording conversations to track any anti-Trujillo comment said.
Proudly, Maria states that her father lived to 108 and her mother up to 90, both living to see the end of Trujillo.
“Nosotros vivimos de largo” We live long.
Decades afterward, Maria describes the ranch where she has lived for 54 years in La Rosa Duarte, Los Mina as feeling peaceful and route, despite the pervasive poverty and frequent theft. Even thieves respect the elders (“the little robbers know me since I saw them grow up”). Doors are open for neighbors to chat, share food, to watch over one another’s kids or offer tea and medicine to someone who is sick.
Maria knows that some of her comfort in the community comes from having lived her entire life there. She doesn’t even know how to go about getting behind the closed doors of her neighbors in the Madison Houses or how to make friends for Castiel. She finds it perplexing how people tend to keep to themselves in New York and not say "good morning."
Maria’s best exchange in nearly a decade was with two neighbors in her building who she met by chance.
The two neighbors here in New York rescued me when Cesar went to work and took the keys with him, leaving me and Castiel locked out. The neighbors told me, “What are you doing outside if you don’t know anyone?” I am grateful for them because they called my son and he was able to come back and open the door for me and Castiel. So now, we say hi whenever we run into each other. They live upstairs, and I give my hello.
This is NY where people are more quiet, she said.
In July, Maria received sad news. Her niece called to tell her that her sister died.
Maria’s younger sister had suffered from Alzheimer’s for several years and was living in a nursing home in Massachusetts. Maria felt sadness and some relief.
“Yo lo que doleria en el mundo es que maten a una gente. Ella murio en su casa y con sus hijos. Tuvo 12 hijos. Ella me aconsejaba. Yo duraba un mes con mi hermana aunque ella no salia ni hablaba bien. Cuando las lagrimas quieren salir que se dejan."
“What would hurt the most in the world is if a person is killed. My sister died at home and with the her children. She had twelve of children. She served as a great adviser for me. Once she couldn’t go outside or speak well, I stayed (in Boston) to take care of her. When the tears want to come out you have to let them.”
Maria took a nap in the afternoon, exhausted from sadness and release after many years of her sister’s sickness. Yalitza cooked dinner to help her grandmother.
Maria sat with a tissue in hand, the MetroNorth train rumblings filling her silence. She said that she wants to die in her home in the Dominican Republic not in an American hospital or nursing home. She has her residency to live in the U.S. so she can care for her children and receive good, free medication that is too expensive for her in the Dominican Republic, but her heart is not here.
Maria’s tears are dried up by laughter, as she watches a pantless Castiel lift his yellow stuffed King Kong gorilla over his head and spin around in circles. The boy always makes her smile.
She recently told Yalitza that she will not take Castiel with her when she returns to the Dominican Republic for several months this fall. It is not safe to have an American boy at home with people assuming he comes with money, she said. And equally as important, she thinks Castiel should be in the same home as his mother, even if Maria is the caregiver he knows. Maria hopes that she has been an example to Yalitza of how a mother should take care of her children.
By 2012, there were 762,000 Dominicans in New York, the largest immigrant group in the city.
And Washington Heights has been the center of New York’s Dominican community since the fall of the Trujillo regime in the 1960s. Many of the Dominicans who arrived 50 years ago are now aging, and the combined community district of Washington Heights and Inwood saw a 63 percent growth in older Caribbeans from 2000 to 2010. Four out of five seniors in the community district defined as Washington Heights/Inwood are immigrants, mostly Dominican.
On Saturdays, Maria and Cesar sell perfume on a fold-away table at 181st Street, the central artery of the neighborhood. The street is lined with small businesses and vendors on the sidewalk, selling food, jewelry, accessories, largely designer knock offs.
Maria’s calls are distinctive, provocative and humorous:
"Nosotras somos mujeres de trabajo!" Me and the women in my family are women of work!
"Ay que negociar mientras tiene los 5 sentidos!" One has to do business while one still has the five senses!"
Or the more direct: "A veinte a veinte muchacha! Vendo gafa y reloj." $20, $20 girl! I also sell sunglasses and watches!
People pass as if they haven’t noticed.
Maria has been an entrepreneur all her life. In the Dominican Republic, she made money selling ice cream, high-quality avocadoes and anything she could find that someone would pay for to pay for her own food. When her husband died when her children were young, she washed clothing for cents in return and rented out half of her ranch.
"Uno tiene que estar en movimiento. En todas partes hay que trabajar," she said.
“One has to be active; everywhere you go work needs to get done.”
She also says that being consistently poor has been the largest sadness of her life.
On many Saturdays, Cesar and Maria bring home only $20 or a little more, after six hours of selling. For Maria, something is something and it makes her feel valuable. Her prayer to God is fulfilled for another day.
On the weekend the family also does their grocery shopping in the neighborhood, at the Compare Foods on 207th Street. They have familiar Dominican ingredients, the prices are good and because parking is easier. Grocery store options in East Harlem are limited.
On Saturday, the whole family also goes to church in the neighborhood.
Maria was raised Catholic but as an adult became Protestant. Cesar, her son, has become a church leader, first at a Pentecostal Church in the Bronx and now at Yashua Roca Eterna de Salvacion, a non-denominational protestant church led by several Dominican families in Inwood, just north of Washington Heights.
Yashua Roca is a tiny, intimate church, where everyone knows everyone. The congregation of 20-30 people meets inside the Church of Dyckman, Mount Washington Presbyterian, a stone church with elaborate stained glass, which rents out its space to several organizations. When Yashua Roca meets there is enough space for one or two people to have their own whole pew.
Services are in the evening and often go late into the night. They are conducted in Spanish and mix modern salsa and bachata with traditional prayer. There are tambourines, claves, dancing feet, swaying hips and shouts of praise.
On a recent night at church following her sister’s death, Maria is just as active as those one, two and three generations younger than her, playing a tambourine and dancing to the music. As is her usual routine, she sits on the left aisle, middle row, and everyone greets with her smiles and kisses. She stays on the edge because she enjoys dancing outside the aisle where there is more space.
One of Maria’s favorite rituals comes at the beginning of every service. All members hold hands, close their eyes in unison, and pray for God’s direction and favor.
Maria is well-respected for being the eldest member of the Church with an impeccable weekly attendance record. Cesar is one of the pastors who occasionally preaches and routinely prays for newcomers, the sick, and regular Church members. The family also regularly attends a church in the Bronx on Sundays.
At the end of the service Maria is patient as Cesar prays for people or speaks with fellow members. The Service extends to midnight, and Maria and her family return home.
And then it happened.
Three months after we began to follow Maria, life changed. Cesar has a surprise announcement for his family. He is getting married. He has met a woman online. She is from the Dominican Republic, and he has spent time with her in person there since they met six months ago. Cesar says that she is strong and committed to taking care of a household, which reminds him of his mom.
Cesar’s other women – his mother and daughter – are cautious. Maria is afraid that his new wife will not take care of the house. Maria does not know how his new wife will treat Yalitza and Castiel. She is afraid that Cesar does not know her well enough.
At the same time, this is the answer to her prayers.
“Ojala que salga buena la esposa. La soledad no es buena, yo siempre he querido que el tuviera su pareja. El ha estado soltero desde antes que naciera Yalitza.”
I hope that it goes well with the wife. To be alone isn’t good. I have always wanted him to have a partner. He has been single since before Yalitza was born.
She says that she does not want to interfere in a marriage and that couples should not be disturbed by the presence of “the mother-in-law.”
Yalitza is disappointed that she doesn’t know her father’s future wife better.
She says that the news motivates her to live her life more independently. She has applied for work. She has looked into a local daycare for Castiel. She had planned to start school in the fall, but feels that she can’t since her grandmother and father will be gone for a month for the wedding. She would like to move out on her own.
On a September evening, a week before the departure, Maria’s daughter Ysis is visiting from Miami to see her mother before she leaves the country.
Castiel is playing with his new prized possession, a police car that he can sit in and roll around the living room. King Kong had to recently go missing to be cleaned and dried.
Castiel has begun to talk. He says “Yali” to call his mother.
“Castiel, donde esta tu nariz?” Castiel where is your nose? Yalitza calls on Castiel to demonstrate his tricks.
Castiel turns two next week, but his grandfather and great-grandmother will already be in the Dominican Republic preparing for the wedding.
Maria is excited to see her sisters at home and to relax. She says she will return to the U.S. in February – she has to retain her residency status – but she does not know yet where she will stay. Possibly in Florida, since Cesar’s wife will now be living in New York, on the 18th floor.
She wonders aloud whether her job may be done.
It is a rainy October evening in Los Mina, Dominican Republic.
Maria talks by phone from her daughter Carmelina’s front porch. She sounds relaxed and elated.
She is very pleased with her new daughter-in-law, and believes she is a good person with good intentions. Years of worry have been lifted from Maria’s chest.
Surprisingly, Castiel – now 2-years-old - is also at her feet. Maria said that she wanted to give Yalitza some space to focus on finding jobs and going on interviews in New York, so she took Castiel with her to the Dominican Republic and is caring for him alone for nearly two months. Castiel will fly back to New York with Cesar and his new wife in November.
Castiel has been bathing in the river and wandering the house and ranch with King Kong in hand. He loves to help mash things with a Dominican pestle. He has become more mischievous since he turned 2.
Maria is trying to keep Castiel home most of the time, concerned for his safety.
I don't let him go out because it is a huge risk and danger to walk around with an American child; people will assume you have money and do dangerous things to harm your family. Also, there are so many people on motorcycles now and they don't respect the traffic lights.
Since returning to the Dominican Republic, Maria wakes up later and doesn’t attend church as often, but she still cooks and goes shopping for herself, her daughter and Castiel. She sometimes cook meals for the pastor of the local church.
In her month away from New York, Maria has also made a big decision. After nine years of primarily living in the U.S., she is going to change her residency status – traveling to the U.S. on a visa, instead of as a resident. She says it is too expensive to have to travel back and forth to New York every six months, as her current status demands (“Un platano aqui cuesta 25 pesos!” One plantain here costs 25 cents (50 American cents), she says, demonstrating the expenses of life).
When asked how she will feel being away from Castiel, she says “Yo lo veo por fotos.” I will view him in photos. And he will be with his mother.
She would rather instead talk about gardening and the fruit bursting forth from her trees. "Que estan floreciendo las de mango y guanabana." They are blooming with mango and guava.
And then she returns to her decision to stay in the Dominican Republic.
"No quiero que me quemen. Uno muero solo en Nueva York. En Los Mina, tengo 54 anios conociendo mis vecinos. NY no es mio. Seguro que si si estuviera joven."
“I don't want to be cremated (because it is too expensive to be buried in the U.S. or sent back to the Dominican Republic). A person dies alone in New York,” she said. “In Los Mina, I have 54 years knowing my neighbors. New York is not mine. Perhaps it could have been, if I were young.”