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 Welfare Office." p. 18 - 21.

One day Mami told me I couldn't go to school because I had to go somewhere with her. "Don't start with your questions," she warned, as I opened my mouth.

We took two buses, walked several blocks to a tired brick building with wire screens on the windows. Inside, the waiting area was crowded with women on orange plastic chairs, each holding a sheaf of papers. A counter divided the room, and behind it, three rows of gray metal desks were littered with stacks of folders, brochures, printed forms, and other papers.

APPLICATION FOR PUBLIC ASSISTANCE, the top of the forms declared, DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE: AID TO FAMILIES WITH DEPENDENT CHILDREN (AFDC). "Here," Mami handed me a pen, "fill them out in your best handwriting."

"But what's it for?"

"So we can get help until I find another job." she spoke in a whisper, looking right and left for eavesdroppers.

I filled out the forms as best I could, leaving the spaces blank when I didn't understand the question.

As the morning wore on, more women arrived, some dragging children, others alone. It was easy to pick out those who'd been to the welfare office before. They sauntered in, scanned the room to assess how many had arrived before them, went up to the receptionist, took the forms, filled them out quickly --- as if the questions and answers were memorized. The women new to welfare hesitated at the door, looked right and left until they spotted the reception desk, walked in as if prodded. They beseeched the receptionist with their eyes, tried to tell their story. She interrupted them with a wave of the hand; passed over forms; gave instructions to fill them out, have a seat, wait --- always in the same words, as if she didn't want to bother thinking up new ways to say the same thing.

I hadn't brought a book, so I looked around. Mami elbowed me to stop staring. I immediately dropped my gaze to the floor. As I was about to complain that I was hungry, men and women straggled in through a back door and took seats at the desks behind the counter.

When it was our turn, the social worker led us to the far end of the office. He was a portly man with hair so black it must have been either dyed or a wig. He took the forms I'd filled out, scratched checks next to some of the squares, tapped the empty spaces. He spoke to Mami, who turned to me as if I knew what he'd said. He repeated his question in my direction, and I focused on the way his lips moved, his expression, the tone of voice, but had no idea what he was asking.

"I don't know," I said to Mami.

She clicked her tongue. 'Plis, no spik inglis,' she smiled prettily at the social worker.

He asked his question again, pointed at the blank spaces.

"I think he wants the names and birth dates of the kids," I interpreted. Mami pulled our birth certificates from her purse, stretched each in front of him as he wrote down the information.

"Tell him" Mami said to me, "that I got leyof."

"My mother leyof," I translated.

"Tell him," she said, "that the factory closed. They moved to another state. I don't have any money for rent or food." She blushed, spoke quickly, softly. "I want to work, tell him that,' she said in a louder voice. "Cerraron la fabrica," she repeated.

"Fabric no," I said. "She work wants."

The man's eyes crinkled, his jowls shook as he nodded encouragement. But I had no more words for him. But I had no more words for him. He wrote on the papers, looked at Mami. She turned to me.

"Tell him I don't want my children to suffer. Tell him I need help until the factory opens again or until I can find another job. Did you tell him I want to work?"

I nodded, but I wasn't certain that the social worker understand me. "My mother, she work want. Fabric close," I explained to the social worker, my hands moving in front of me like La Muda's. "She no can work fabric no. Babies suffer. She little help she no lay off no more." I was exhausted, my palms were sweaty, my head ached as I probed for words, my jaw tightened with the effort to pronounce them. I searched frantically for the right combination of words, the ones that said what Mami meant, to convince this man that she was not asking for aid because she was lazy but because circumstances forced her. Mami was a proud woman, and I knew how difficult it was for her to seek help from anyone, especially a stranger. I wanted to let him know that she must have been desperate to have come to this place.

I struggled through the rest of the interview, my meager English vocabulary strained to the limit. When it was over, the social worker stood up, shook Mami's hand, shook mine, and said what I understood to mean he'd get back to us.

We walked out of the office in silence, Mami's back so straight and stiff she might have been wearing a corset. I, on the other hand, tensed into myself, panicked that I'd failed as a translator, that we wouldn't get help, that because of me, we wouldn't have a place to live or food to eat.

"You did a good job" Mami reassured me in front of Tata and Don Julio that night. "You know a lot of English.'

"It's easier for kids" Don Julio mumbled between sips of beer. "They pick up the language like that." He snapped his fingers.

I was grateful for Mami's faith in me but couldn't relax until we heard from the welfare office. A few days later our application was approved. By then I'd decided that even when it seemed that my head couldn't hold that many new words inside it, I had to learn English well enough never again to be caught between languages.

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