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My Abuela's Unwavering Faith Carried Me from Drugs to a Degree
At just shy of 21, I moved to New York City with a stack of well-worn books, a need for independence and a fantasy of becoming a writer. It was 1995 and I had dropped out of community college across the river in New Jersey, more interested in going to raves than studying all night. I thought school might not be for me.
But there was one person in my life who never questioned whether I would go to college, she just wanted to know when.
“Cuando te vas al colegio?” my maternal grandmother, Lala, would ask. “Lala” because I could not yet pronounce Abuela as a toddler. With Lala it was never “will you go to college,” it was always “when will you go to college?”
“Es sólo cuestión de tiempo.” It’s only a matter of time. Somehow she didn’t care about my previous thwarted attempts.
Lala taught me Spanish while my younger twin brothers perfected their secret twin gibberish. She taught me how to cook and clean. She taught me how she set her shoulder-length blond hair in rollers each night, how she washed her face with cold cream. She was beauty with a dash of Lucille Ball-type silliness, piercing perfectionism, and the smell of Jean Naté body splash. I was a student of Lala and her ways.
Lala was the one who, with my grandfather, moved 5,534 miles north to New Jersey to live with me and my family, leaving the seaside chocolate store she named after me, Carlita, in Mar de Plata, Argentina, after we emigrated to the United States. She was the one who learned to speak English while wearing a silk neckerchief with her polyester uniform while working at a McDonald’s, a Presbyterian Church and, later, while selling food at a counter at BJ’s Wholesale Club. She was the one who learned how to drive on Route 1, terrified alongside the tractor-trailers, so that she could pick up me and my brothers from school each day.
Lala was the Latin Martha Stewart. She could make a gourmet meal out of scant ingredients and beautifully decorate the house or clothe us — and all of my Barbies — with just a bit of fabric and her sewing machine. My Halloween costumes, never store-bought, won awards.
In Lala, I saw a drive born of a woman worth far more than the sixth grade level of education she achieved before leaving school to help raise her six siblings. In Lala, I saw a woman who met life as it unfolded in front of her, whether it was what she had planned or not.
Despite her example, two years after moving to the city I was still spinning out of control, having traded raves for increasingly solitary nights numbing out on cocaine. My life had become very small: waking up thinking about using, manipulating people to use more, feeling remorse and making plans and big promises to stop, only to wake up the next day and repeat the pattern. The drugs quieted the voice in me that said I might be able to be better, be smarter, achieve more in my life. I wanted to hide from the idea that I’d soon have to grow up and become responsible for my own life, not just blame everyone for where it was not going.
I’d regularly make self improvement lists that started: “#1: Go back to school,” but put off the goal until a friend suggested over drinks (at an East Village bar where she taught me how to do quadratic equations on cocktail napkins) that I should take classes with her at a community college downtown. “You’d kill it,” she said. I quickly dismissed her assessment, but ultimately enrolled.
Her investment in me felt like something I wanted to repay.
When I told my grandmother, she came to visit. My apartment was as messy as my life when she arrived at my fifth floor walk-up apartment uptown in Yorkville, but she walked with purpose across the grimy kitchen floor and piles of unwashed laundry toward the electric typewriter on my table.
“Estas estudiando,” she said, her brown eyes smiling with pride. You’re studying.
When she smiled at me, I felt I could be the person she was able to see. She never questioned my life or drug use, she treated me as if I was living the life I should be. I took her around my neighborhood, proudly showing her Gracie Mansion and the East River. On the steps of the Met, we ate a hot pretzel from a cart. I told her about my classmates and reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
“Education means emancipation,” Douglass wrote, I told her, translating into broken Spanish. “It means light and liberty.”
She nodded yes.
The next morning, when I went to class she got on her hands and knees and washed the floor of my kitchen and organized my apartment. When I came home, my windows were open and a breeze moved air through the rooms. I felt equal parts shame and inspiration. Her investment in me felt like something I wanted to repay.
It took me months after her visit to stop using drugs, but I ultimately hit a spiritual and emotional bottom that spring, holed up in my apartment after drugging and drinking. I’d spent the night obsessively highlighting passages in a book about addiction called 1-800-COCAINE, seeing myself in all of the pages while staring at my untouched electric typewriter. I’d hung my grandmother’s knitted afghan on my window to keep the sunlight out and neighbors from seeing in, yet pinpoints of light shone through the colorful patchwork of squares. By morning, I started seeing the reality of the damaging life I was living and asked for help. Hours later I was moving home to my mother and grandmother’s basement, the start of an 18-month-era I lovingly call “New Jersey Bootcamp.” In that basement, my grandmother’s apartment when I was a young girl, I began learning how to be an adult.
When I finally returned to the city, I busily focused on work and 12 Step meetings and a plan to graduate from school by age 30, expecting to apply to only one school where I thought I might actually get accepted. I felt pressure to quickly check the item off my list of things I was late in achieving.
Fortunately, a friend convinced me to slow down, dream bigger and apply to three schools instead.
“When you get in, you’ll thank me,” she said, crossing her arms across her chest and scrunching her face when I rolled my eyes. There it was again, “when,” cuando? It felt like a dare.
Fulfilling the order she mandated, I applied to Columbia (never gonna happen); Eugene Lang (pretty please); and Baruch (my “safety school”).
I got into Columbia.
I got into Eugene Lang.
I was waitlisted for Baruch.
When I stood in front of my mailbox, holding my acceptance letter from Columbia, a heat spread from my throat and chest to my thighs. I could feel myself changing. I gave myself permission to be ambitious; it was an alchemical rush.
From that point on, things took on a certain velocity. I was riding on the power of my grandmother’s dreams and new sense of belief. I believed because she believed. And when I graduated with my first degree, months before my 30th birthday, my grandmother was by my side, beautiful bright skin and a smile that told the world, “por supuesto ella graduo.” Of course she graduated.
Lala has been gone for more than a decade now. I have both achieved more than I ever thought possible and have also lived through new hardships that have threatened to wear away my sense of self and strength. But in the moments when I still find myself grasping for my grandmother’s vision of me I can hear her voice asking “cuando?” and I take a minute to collect myself and respond, Ahora, Lala, ahora. The time is now.
We're honored to have Carla join us at TueNight's Birthday Bash, where she took the stage to share her incredible story.