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What It Was Like to Be a Teen With Cerebral Palsy in the Dominican Republic

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Please read Part 1 of this story here.

The big date was fast approaching. In two more years I would be turning 15, a significant age for a girl in Hispanic culture. Very slowly my childhood was slipping into the past. Soon I would become a señorita. No more playing with dolls. Despite the changes my body started to experience, I would not be like the rest of the señoritas from my town.

The other girls my age had an active lifestyle. They attended high school and had friends. Las señoritas would go out in groups to the movies, to the clubs, and for walks in the park. They also had overnights at their friends’ homes. They had enamorados too, guys who flirted with them. At 9:30 a.m. on their day off from school, I would see las señoritas pass by my house on their way back from the colmado (grocery store). They were doing mandados (errands) for their mothers. They carried brown bags full of rice, oil, beans, onion and pepper. A little earlier they had gone to the Mercado (market) to buy fresh meat for la comida (lunch,) the heavy meal of the day.

Las señoritas wore ponytails, shorts, make-up and T-shirts showing their belly. The sun, along with the warm temperature, made their brown skin gleam as they swung their hips when they walked. They sang aloud to the hottest pop songs of the time. Across the street were los pretendientes (guys who hope to become a girl’s boyfriend or husband) who flirted with the girls: “Mamacita, que Buena estas,” (You’re hot.) They blew kisses to las señoritas. The girls kept walking and tried to ignore the guys.

I didn’t walk to the stores. I didn’t wear shorts. I just wore skirts or dresses to cover my knees. None of the boys blew kisses at me. My hips didn’t move the same way as the hips of las señoritas.

Once the señoritas from next-door arrived home, they started helping their mothers with heavy housework. These girls cleaned the house, mopped the floor, and washed clothes by hand for their parents and the younger children. They also cooked lunch. Since they were señoritas, they must share housework and show their parents that when the time came to be married, they were ready to meet the expectations imposed by society on their gender: To take care of their house and kids, and be a good partner to their husbands.

I didn’t meet any of those expectations. I didn’t have any friends to go out with. I didn’t go to school. I didn’t walk by myself to the grocery stores or carry heavy bags of food. I didn’t cook heavy meals for my family. I didn’t mop the floor or wash the clothes by hand. I was different.

In those days, stereotypes were still strong in the Dominican Republic. There was a perception that people with disabilities were worthless. Every time I walked along the streets, people asked my parents what was “wrong” with me. ¿Ella Hablá? ¿Ella entiende cuando le hablán? Que pena? (Does she talk? Does she understand what others are saying to her? Poor thing.)

I disliked hearing the same questions and expressions of pity over and over again. Even though my family treated me with love and respect, society pushed me to the side because I was different. Besides dealing with the same issues that most teens face in terms of identity and physical changes, I also had to deal with physical limitations and social rejection due to my cerebral palsy.

As a teenager in my town I never fit in, a circumstance that started in my childhood. When I was a little girl, I didn’t have the opportunity to attend school. Special education didn’t exist in the country back then. Even though I wanted to attend school, I couldn’t. All this turmoil from childhood was quietly building up inside of me. Once I reached the teen years, I became even more aware of prejudice against people with disabilities.

I was 13 years old when my life started to go down a dark road. I had no idea where to turn. Should I go right or left? I felt hopeless. Depression set in. I didn’t know what to expect in the future. I had no idea how my life would be once I reached adulthood. The main role for a female was to marry, have kids, and take care of a partner. These goals seemed unreachable for me. I didn’t meet the criteria. In my depressed state, I was focused on everything I believed I couldn’t accomplish.

My mother was very concerned about my well-being. One day I heard her talking on the phone with my father, telling him her worries regarding my emotional state. Dad had moved to New York City to find work, due to the financial hardship in the DR. Dad asked Mom to put me on the phone. He told me to take care of myself and to try to do something I enjoyed. Hearing Mom tell Dad her concerns for me, and hearing Dad trying to console me reminded me of how much I was loved by my parents. That made a huge difference. I felt like I was worth something as a person. Life had meaning. The dark road of my teen years started to get brighter each day.

After my conversation with Dad, Mom and Soris, Mom’s sister, who was like a big sister to me, I was motivated to find something to do, since I was home all day. I helped out more around the house, swept the backyard, and became more active at home. Feeling loved by my family and like I had worth as a person helped me to recover from depression.

The biggest day of my teen years finally arrived. On August 15, 1987 I turned 15 years old. I was now a señorita. I didn’t have the big quinceañera birthday party, traditional in Hispanic cultures. I wished for one, the way I saw it in the telenovelas (soap operas). Usually the parents host a big party for the quinceañera, inviting relatives and friends. The night of the party, the quinceañera wears a pink or white long gown and a crown. She dances with her father to the traditional quinceañera song, “El Vals de la Mariposa”(Butterfly Waltz).

Even though my parents didn’t host a quinceañera party for me I had a nice 15th birthday, which I will always remember. It was the first time I got so many birthday gifts. Soris bought me a pink and a white cake decorated with a small pink flower on the top. Dad’s younger brother gave me a black and white teddy bear.

My parents bought me a nice bouquet of yellow, red, and white flowers. Mom made me a pink outfit. Pink symbolized being a female, but also being a girl who is turning into a woman. That day, Dad called me from New York to wish me a happy birthday, which made the day complete.

During these years, it was hard for me to accept that I had cerebral palsy and couldn’t have the kind of life the other girls had, but the love and support of my family was infinitely stronger than any form of prejudice or ignorance I was forced to confront every day.

Juana Ortiz’s book “I Made It” is available at and on Amazon.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to your teenaged self when you were struggling to accept your differences. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 13, 2016
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