If you’re from New York, you may recognize the name Washington Heights. That was where my dad and his family lived. My dad would tell me and my siblings about his life growing up in Washington Heights. He shared a lot about the neighborhood, the community and most of all when he became an adult he couldn’t wait to move out of there. Recently, my dad took my sister to Washington Heights and he shared with me how his old neighborhood has changed since the last time he was there. 

What was it like to see your childhood home after all these years?
“Although it’s been over 30 years since my return it was as though I never left. While looking at all the changes and admiring the renovations, I looked at the fire escape outside our old 2nd floor apartment and I instantly thought of my mother and how she would always sit by the window until I got home, regardless of how late it was.” 

I love to hear stories about my dad’s childhood, even the ones that weren’t always so happy because it made me feel proud of the kind, family orientated, hilarious man my dad is today. 

What was it like to be able to share that experience with your daughter?
“It was a nice experience to share with my family. I always told them stories about my upbringing and often elaborated on the bad times, however once there I could only remember the good and found myself contently smiling uncontrollably, as were they. Despite the hardships of growing up in an impecunious household, we were all happy, I had forgotten about that until I revisited the old stomping grounds.” 

I’m happy that my sister got the opportunity to visit the place where our dad shared so many great memories with our grandparents and all our aunts and uncles. My favorite stories from my dad’s childhood were always the ones where he’d talk about his siblings. I loved hearing about how their house was always filled with their friends, cousins, and neighbors that would come over. There was always music, and people playing dominos, or having conversations while coffee and dessert would be served. Although it was chaotic sometimes, the house was always filled with laughter, life and love. 

Looking at the neighborhood atmosphere now versus back then what has changed?
“It looked a lot cleaner, and the presence of drug selling was now nonexistent. It was really nice to see that there were no signs of gang involvement, which was not the case while I was growing up there. Growing up in that community wasn’t easy and although there was a lot of crime, hardship, and far too much violence for a growing boy to witness. There was also love, pride, lots of laughter, compassion, conviction in God, and goodwill.”

Picturing my dad growing up in a tough neighborhood like Washington Heights in the 70s and the 80s is difficult especially when he mentions the drug selling and gang involvement that surrounded the community. No child should ever have to grow up seeing that stuff but, thankfully my dad had his mom, his older siblings, and his teachers to help him stay on track and pursue his education which led him to have many great opportunities. 

Being a Latino from a tough neighborhood, did you ever feel stereotyped or judged?
“I’ll never forget the time I was denied a good job because, and I quote, “You look the part, and your qualifications are there but you sound too much like a Puerto Rican from the Bronx”.  Not sure if I remember that so vividly because it was so dramatic to me or because I hate that I felt the response was acceptable. My diction was that of a person from the Bronx therefore despite my qualifications, the prospect was that I had no fortitude and I was unfit to be productive.”

One of the lessons that I’ve taken away from hearing my dad’s stories growing up is to never let where you’ve grown up define where your life can take you. Though my dad came from a tough neighborhood, he never let that stop him from leaving Washington Heights to make a better life for himself. Another lesson his stories have taught me as I’ve grown up is to always be proud of who you are and never let others say what does or doesn’t make you Latin. 

Did you see the movie In The Heights and was it similar to your experiences growing up?
I did see the movie, and I enjoyed it very much.  It being a musical made it different from when I was growing up there in that everyone wasn’t singing and dancing. However, he captured the essence of the neighborhood in that there was genial support of one another. The movie West Side Story was more in line with what I remember Washington Heights to be, however In The Heights was a much better movie.” 

Getting to speak with my dad about his experience coming back to Washington Heights after all these years was very special to me. Seeing Washington Heights through his eyes was like seeing his stories come to life. I can’t wait to visit Washington Heights with him and the rest of my siblings and see it all for myself!

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Madison-Taylor Hernandez
Madison-Taylor is a Senior Writer at TodoWafi. She grew up in a Puerto Rican family and is passionate about the culture, music/arts, and literature of the Latin Community. Her hopes for the future are to work for a book publishing company and achieve her dream of bringing stories to life.