LaGuardia Community College 2002-03 Common Reading
Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican

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Esmeralda Santiago. 1998. Almost A Woman. Perseus Books.

"The Social Worker's Visit." p. 135 - 137.

Mami worked until a few months before she was due, and then we humbled ourselves at the welfare office. After we explained the situation, the social worker came to the apartment unannounced to make sure Don Carlos wasn't hiding behind the shower curtain or in the closets.

Because we hadn't been warned, the apartment was the familiar chaotic mess I found comfortable but embarrassing, because I knew people shouldn't live like that. The beds were not neat, because they served as seats when we watched television or did our homework. The dishes hadn't been washed, because it was my turn and I always waited until the last minute if I couldn't bribe one of my siblings to do them. Marni hadn't been to the laundrornat, so there was a pile of soiled clothes spilling out of the hamper. The bathroom was adorned with drying bras, panties, and stockings, as well as with a few hand-washed shirts and blouses on hangers. Franky's nose was snotty, and no one had helped him clean it. Marni's back ached and she'd been in bed all day, one of the reasons the apartment was such a mess. Tata's bones hurt, so she'd begun to drink early and now sat in the kitchen smoking, her caramel eyes on the doughy social worker who went from room to room opening cabinets and drawers.

While the social worker was there, we were subdued, afraid to look at her, as if we'd done algo and she'd caught us. Mami trailed her, with me and Delsa to interpret. The kids sat on their beds pretending to read because, while I translated for Mami in the kitchen, Delsa ran back to warn them to behave. Don Julio was due any minute, and we worried that the social worker would think he lived with us, which he didn't. Even so, it felt as if he shouldn't visit, as if we shouldn't know any men.

The social worker was thorough. She wrote cryptic shorthand symbols in a pad, pushed her glasses up, opened the refrigerator, made a note, checked inside the oven. When she asked questions, we weren't sure if she was making conversation or if she was trying to trap us into admitting there was a man under the bed or behind a door, even though we knew there wasn't one.

Once the social worker left, the apartment looked smaller and meaner than before she came. There was a dead roach in the corner. The trash barrel was full. Grease congealed on the dirty dishes. The walls had peeling paint, dark wood showed under the torn linoleum. The ill-fitting secondhand curtains were too heavy for the rods. Everything looked worse, which, I supposed, made us look as if we really needed the help.

The noncommittal social worker was the first American to see the way we lived, her visit an invasion of what little privacy we had. It stressed just how dependent we were on the opinion of a total stranger, who didn't speak our language, whose life was clearly better than ours. Otherwise, how could she pass judgment on it? I seethed, but I had no outlet for my rage, for the feeling that so long as I lived protected by Mami, my destiny lay in the bands of others whose power was absolute. If not hers, then the welfare department's. I closed myself off in my room and cried into my pillow, while my family joked and laughed and imitated the social worker's nasal voice, the way she peeked inside the cabinet under the sink, as if a man could fit there. It was not funny anymore to laugh at ourselves or at people who held our fate in their hands. It was pathetic.

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