Meeting Mom for the First Time
Pedro Batista, who grew up in Paradero, Navarrete, a small town in the Dominican Republic, didn’t meet his mother until he was 5 years old and sent to live with her in New York.
He was raised by his aunts and grandmother after his mother left when he was 2. Like so many immigrants, she felt she could make a better life for herself and her son by leaving everything she knew in the D.R. and coming to the U.S.
“As I grew up, I didn’t really know what a mother was,” he said. “I knew there was a mother figure around. All I knew there was a shadow sending stuff from the U.S.—toys, clothes.”
When he was five, he was brought to the U.S. by his uncle and delivered to his mother’s apartment. “I almost picked the lock,” he said. “I had to get to know this person who was a stranger to me…My aunts and grandmother were my mother.” It took time—and getting to know each other—for him to accept her as his mother.
The situation with his father, whom he had only met a couple of times, played out somewhat differently. When he was 19, his father was dying of cancer and asked him to come to the Dominican Republic to see him.
“I saw a guy who in pictures had been healthy, rotting away in his bed,” Batista recalled. “They’re wiping him. They’re washing him. He was dying.” He stayed for a week.
The experience changed him, he told Ivanna Machuca, the Brooklyn College student who works with him at the Delta Airlines baggage department at JFK, who interviewed him. “A few days later, I lay in my bed. I put myself in his shoes,” Batista said. “What if that’s me? What if I had kids and never got to know them? What if I end up sick and leave nothing behind and my kids don’t want anything to do with me? I thought about it. If I don’t change the way I act, the way I live, I could end up like him.”
Batista described his childhood and teenage years in Washington Heights, getting involved with a street gang, but also getting into drawing both in school and outside.
“I started drawing little cartoons when I was 9 years old in 4th grade,” he said. “Kids wanted me to draw different versions for them.” He soon moved on to drawing naked women, which all the boys wanted copies of. His 9th grade art teacher recognized his talent and wanted to get him to apply for a scholarship to an art school. “‘Who draws as a career?’ I thought. I lost out on a lot of opportunities by me being on the streets.”
As he got older, he began thinking about friends that he knew from the streets. “Not a lot of guys from my neighborhood made it out of the neighborhood,” Batista said. “I lost a lot of friends because of the streets.”
He eventually graduated from high school after five years. He passed all his Regents exams, without much studying, and when the principal looked over his transcript, she said, “Oh, my God, you graduated.”
“She was happy to get me out of there,” he said. He went on to get two associate degrees.
Batista, who now lives in Harlem, mourns the gentrification of Washington Heights. “Our small immigrant communities are being forced out due to increasing rents,” he said. “Walking through the same streets now all you see is forgotten history.”
One of the remaining signposts for him is the habichuelas con dulce (sweet bean pudding) vendor on 182nd Street and St. Nicholas Ave. “Each spoonful has a way of bringing me back to my childhood,” he said.
When Machuca approached him to do the oral history, “I didn’t see it as much more than her school project,” he said. “But she got me to open up and it took us back in time, sharing my memories along the way. She earned my trust and friendship.”