Guadalupe “Lupe” Altagracias was 15 when she landed in Manhattan from the Dominican Republic. It was the cusp of the 1960s, and her father, a natty tailor, was a rebel against a horrifying regime. He led the family flight, but the safety of their destination couldn’t erase the years of growing up during bloody civil unrest. My young mother witnessed things that none of us should, and she was determined that this country was going to change everything—if not for her, then for her children.
A Latina Tiger Mom is not an easy parent. It’s safe to say that because I inherited her tenacity, my mother and I locked horns, often. (In my twenties, she delivered to me this doozy: “I could never break you.” I took it as a compliment.) But there is no doubt that although her formal education stopped with a G.E.D. in her 30s, Lupe was a true architect. She won her success by getting her children ready to “suck the marrow out of life.”
Ten years after she passed away from colon cancer, I continue to work on a book with stories of life according to Lupe. In the meantime, consider this brief peek at the best advice from my mother as a belated “Gracias” to this force of nature:
1. Are you an “A” or are you a “B?”
Report card time meant no tolerance for anything but the first letter of the alphabet: “A.” When I dared to get the second letter, my mom would deliver in her saucy accent, “If ju think ju are a B, be a B. If ju think ju are an A, be an A.”
It was brilliant. She was teaching one of the biggest tenets of success in psychological research: personal agency and an internal locus of control.
Though I’m not so strident with my own daughter, point well taken.
2. “Was there a gun to your head?!”
Abuelo, my grandfather (and my mother’s father), was kidnapped and tortured before making it to the U.S. His experience provided my mother with many colorful (and scarring) images to pull out of her pocket when she wanted to deliver a clincher.
Does anyone really make you do something? We always have choices, even when we may not like those choices. Understanding this empowers you to be “the master of your destiny.” Plus, you’re less likely to give someone the power to make you miserable. You are not a prisoner.
3. “White people do not have a monopoly on speaking well.”
As Latinos of African descent, my immediate family and I had to deal with some heavy things when we moved from Harlem to New Hampshire as kids (our dad got a job transfer and my mom got her house and proverbial picket fence). One challenge was returning to New York to visit our family and being teased, “You talk white!” along with the more passive-aggressive sentiment from Granite Staters: “You speak really well!” I should have shrugged it off, but as a kid, it hurt.
My mom’s tidbit of wisdom was bigger than assimilation. Lupe was giving me permission to cross the tracks, so to speak: To transcend the low expectations put on minorities from people on both sides. We were just as good as anyone else—in between tribes maybe, but still able to reach for the stars.
4. “There is no competition. You are your only competition.”
Lupe hated to detect even a whiff of peer envy coming off me, particularly if it was academic or class envy. She’d cut the green beast down quickly. “You want that? Get it yourself.”
She believed that making comparisons, looking over your shoulder, or pining for greener grass was bullshit. After all, “You can’t change them. You can only change yourself.” Brilliant. As a result, for me, it’s been blinders on and head down since middle school.
5. “Everything is temporary.”
Usually as impatient as a drill sergeant, my mother would philosophize about the power of time when I would wallow at some bad turn of events: “You think I got here in one day?!”
Um, no señora.
6. “So what. You scrub toilets.”
Ma believed in the dignity of work. And though her aspirations were high, we were not to think that if times got tough we were above scrubbing toilets.
She knew that the man mopping the floor was not worth less than the man who owned the building. After all, it would only be a temporary stop on the way up.
7. “You never know who will be your boss someday.”
When I started my first job out of college, Lupe was loaded with her usual advice, some of it too specific to be constructive (“Sound happier when you answer the phone!”). But this one was a sappy nugget and I lived it.
From the lady who emptied our garbage every day to the company president, I heeded her advice to treat everyone with respect—though less out of “What’s in it for me” and more out of being reminded that, “But for the grace of God go I.” A couple of decades later, I can assure you that people don’t forget. And neither do I.
8. “You never know who is going to see you.”
Yes, I’m a feminist. I understand that makeup and blow-outs aren’t for everyone. But Dios help me, I come from a long line of strong women who never left the house without mascara.
Some women find grooming oppressive, but we were raised to find it fortifying and fun. I see no weakness in traditional femininity or sprucing up to look your best, and neither did Lupe. As women of color know particularly, putting your best self forward can move mountains of bias.
9. “They can take everything from you, but they cannot take your education.”
Being raised during a revolution means never leaving that spirit behind. Lupe believed that education was something that once attained, was never lost. Sure, she sometimes tied diplomas too tightly to self-worth, but I took her point to mean that material things are ephemeral and impermanent.
Your degree may not guarantee a job, but you should know that it’s an asset that was earned with work and can’t be revoked. Your mind is yours and yours alone.
10. “You want to know what happens when you do that?”
There is both comedy and wisdom in tragedy. From stories of garish childhood accidents she witnessed (“…and then his head came off!”) to grisly tales of being raised in a tropical land (to this day, for me, soil under the nails means getting worms), Lupe’s horror stories gave me respect for the impermanence of life and made me vigilant.
Mostly, they reminded me of the luck of my birth. I had a very different and much easier upbringing than Lupe did. I never take that for granted. It could have been worse. There could have been scorpions in my laundry.