Beyond the Zip Code of My Hometown

As I am packing for Las Vegas (well as I struggle to pack for Vegas) I can’t help but think about the days when I’d write in my journal and daydream about seeing the world, okay, mostly about seeing New York City, and eventually it expanded to include more of the world around me.

Like many of my peers, I grew up in a single-mother household in the inner city of Paterson (first industrial city in America known for its production of silk!) and traveling was just not an option for a mother of two who was trying to keep a roof over our heads, our stomachs fed, and our backs covered. My mom has been helping me lately with my traveling logistics–dropping me off at the train station or soon, the airport–and I can not help but feel a bit of guilt. My mom said to me when she found out I was going to Vegas that it was always a dream of hers to visit Las Vegas, to see the strip, to see the bright lights. Like many first generation college students, I recognize the privilege I have, the access and opportunities that were never made available to my mother.

Last week when I was traveling to Boston, the reality of my life left me feeling a bit overwhelmed and super grateful. I get to travel to different places, share my story in the hopes that it helps someone else, and I get to see parts of the country my mom has only ever seen on TV. In the last few years I have had the opportunity to visit Nashville, Washington, D.C., the Bay Area (got to live there for a summer too!) Boston, Philadelphia, Rochester,Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and in a few weeks I will be off to Albany for the first time.

The plan is to visit more cities in the years to come, as I hope to continue to fabulously speak to audiences across the nation. As a kid I would write in my journal a lot, talking about my future and while the little writer in me always knew I would grow up to be a storyteller, I don’t think he had the capacity to imagine how it would unfold. Super grateful for the opportunities I receive and while I always encourage folks to think beyond the city limits of the place they grew up, I don’t want people to forget where they come from.

I never want to forget the guy I saw shooting up in the hallway of my apartment building. I never want to forget the drug dealers I’d see on the corner of my block on my way to school. I never want to forget the ladies working the street late at night near the McDonalds. I never want to forget the joy I felt when the fire pump was opened and the street corner became our very own water park. I never want to forget the neighborhood abuela who sat out on the porch and kept her eye on us. I never want to forget the fear I felt walking around at night as someone who was obviously different. I never want to forget about the lives lost to senseless gun violence. I never want to forget the amazing teachers I had in school and how they invested so much of their time and resources to helping me learn. I never want to forget the city that taught me the importance of being street smart.

While my mother and I moved out of Paterson a few years ago, we recognize how just a few blocks away from our “suburb” home is a row of houses that have been boarded up and abandoned in the City my mother has called her home for most of her life. I am proud to have been raised in Paterson, New Jersey. I am also thankful for the opportunity to see the world beyond the zip code of where I grew up.

Take some time to reflect about your hometown and all the ways it made you who you are today.