Griselda Rodriguez: The Spirit of Sankofa in a Dominicana
She was finishing up pumping breast milk for her son Talib. Then she dimmed the lights and lit a little bit of sage. Her wall had a print of the map of the continent of Africa, with African fabric and a picture of Sankofa accentuating it. “Sankofa” in the Akan language means that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. She had other images that echoed things, people and places that were a part of her. Suddenly, her office became a sanctuary and intimate setting to share her life with me in it. Dr. Griselda Rodriguez is the director of International Studies Program at the City College of New York (CCNY); that title is just the tip of the iceberg for what this first generation Dominican woman encompasses. She began our conversation by describing how she came to be. Griselda and her identical twin, Miguelina, were born at Bellevue Hospital to their immigrant Dominican mother. They lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan until they were around 5 months old. “She’s undocumented, she’s been in this country for less than two years and couldn’t really cope with raising two young children on her own, so she sent us to the Dominican Republic.”
That separation from her mother had a profound effect on her. It’s been years of healing to recover from that impact on her formative years. From her studies in Kundalini Yoga and birth work, Griselda learned the spiritual and biological significance of the mother-child connection. “Birth to 3 years old is, in yogic philosophy, when my electromagnetic field [and] my aura were being developed and it’s best to be around the mother so that I’m basically reinforced by her. And then psychologically, birth to 5 years is when neurological development happens and having both parents, but especially the mother, is ideal…and I didn’t grow up with my mom in those formative years. My eldest aunt, who I call Mama Cilila, who passed away two years ago: she was my mom. We’re raised by this woman who, in our minds and hearts, is our mother until we’re almost four, and then our biological mother comes and rips us away from who we thought was our mother, and then we had to get adjusted to living with this woman.”
There is an understanding on Griselda’s part of why such a separation had to occur. The harsh realities that immigrants face, in terms of financial stability and adjustment, don’t make Griselda and her sister the first nor last children to go through this. After her mother picked them up from the Dominican Republic, they spent the rest of their lives in Brooklyn. “So we’re one of those rare Dominicans that are not from the Heights. We grew up in the hood of 90s Bedstuy-Brownsville but I always say I grew up in the hood but my house was never hood. We grew up in a very traditional Dominican house without a father, which I kind of appreciate now because I didn’t really experience that very patriarchal oppressive male figure at home.” Her home was a sanctuary with her twin sister and mother. Griselda describes her mother as a wonderful provider, with home-cooked meals, all utilities and bills paid, and special attention to her daughters’ academic success. Her mother’s hard work also afforded Griselda and her sister’s annual trips back to their homeland. “I have a very close tie to Dominican Republic because in addition to living there, my mother made it her business to work really hard during the cold months so that we could spend our summers in DR. So from the time I was five until I was maybe 14, every single summer we spent in Dominican Republic.”
Griselda and her sister went to SUNY Binghamton. Being the first generation to get to the undergraduate level was “an interesting roller-coaster ride,” she mused with a smile remembering what it was like to navigate the U.S college experience. “I always tell this story: My sister and I both went to EOP [Education Opportunity Program] programs through SUNY and she had to do a six week summer program and I only had to a weekend program, so we both ended up being in Binghamton at the same time but my sister had already been there for three weeks.” Miguelina had a list of things for her mother to buy, including a shower caddy. “You know, the little canasta that you put the shampoo [and toiletries] if you walk from your room down the hall to the bathroom. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about, of course my mother didn’t know. We didn’t have people in our family that went to college. So my mother bought her a beach bucket. Oh my god. Literally like one of those little plastic beach buckets with a little pail and she sends me with it, y que sabia yo? I’m just like, she wants a bucket, I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about.” Needless to say, Griselda’s sister was embarrassed but that was just one small example of what it was like to go to college without having had any point of reference.
She went on to Syracuse University and got her Ph.D in Sociology. She completed it in 2010 and has been in the CUNY system since. Her collegiate career taught her many things but some that stand out from her story were her journey into her Black consciousness, and her dissertation work in Dominican Republic. She took a senior African American studies seminar in her undergrad. “The professor suggested I do work on the African presence in the Dominican Republic, and I remember how baffled I was because I didn’t understand that there was that connection. Then I went to Senegal, West Africa to study abroad and that’s when it really hit me like, holy shit, I’m Black.” She became immersed in research about Haiti and the Dominican Republic, citing her focus on the significant role that the island played in forming Black identity on this side of the world. “I started looking at my family and looking about our ways and understanding that there was a little element about who I was and who my family was that was always missing and that I felt like wow, I finally found that little piece of the puzzle that I didn’t understand with regards to my family and it was the fact that they were denied that they were African.”
Griselda did her graduate research in the Dominican Republic from about 2005 to 2009, spending every summer there and deepening her connection. Griselda went into Syracuse wanting to do education and nearly left after a year. One of her mentors inspired her to change course. “I took her class on Black women and domestic workers and then on sex tourism. She saw something in me. She said, ‘you have a really interesting insight, especially being Dominican, you should get a Ph.D in Sociology,’ she encouraged me, I applied. She was one of the ones who helped me understand that as a Black Dominican woman, it was my duty to do work to enhance my and other people’s understanding of what that is.” Through this experience, Griselda realized how her identity as a Black woman was a shared one around the world. Her dissertation was rooted in understanding how being Black shapes the experiences of Dominican women within the labor market. “What I found was that being Black and being a woman in DR often means that you’re going to be the bottom of the barrel. It’s intentional. Most Black Dominican women do very similar things in the service sector. You clean other people’s houses, take care of other people’s children, sleep with men or women, clean the streets, serve coffee in corporations…” Her specific work looked at how aid from the United States and the World Bank comes into the Dominican Republic and pimps these structures that exploit Black Dominican women. She interviewed women and went all over the eastern part of the island by public transportation, shocking her family and breaking the mold of what a woman was thought to be able to do. “I saw my younger cousins paying attention to that as well.”
As faculty and staff at CCNY, Griselda continues to be a role model for younger people of the Diaspora. “I didn’t set out to be a role model but apparently based on what my colleagues tell me and seeing that students take me really seriously, I don’t take that lightly. I’m very humbled by it.” She is blessed to be able to see the effects of her work manifest in her students. “I just saw a student randomly in the back stair case last week. She was picking up her tickets for graduation. She was in my class two years ago and she said, ‘Doctor G, your class really had an impact on me.’” Griselda works now with a more diverse student body as the director of International Studies; she remembers what it was like to have mostly Dominican students when she taught a Dominican Heritage class. “I found that either students loved me or they hated me. They loved me because they appreciated the teachings I was presenting to them. They brought them new insight about themselves, their family and their world. In other cases, students didn’t really vibe with me because I was challenging their very existence. I found that a little bit more with students that were fresher from DR – those that still had those engrained doctrines of what it means to be Dominican. I would challenge them and they would just not want to associate themselves anymore with my class.” She is steadily planting these seeds nonetheless and knows her work is important.
With her training in Kundalini, Griselda’s connection to her spirit sustains her transformative work. She also embraces West African-derived traditions and is no stranger to its presence, growing up with her mother practicing Las 21 Divisiones. “How we make sense of that connection depends on where we were raised, what country we come from, what experiences we’ve had, but I think the most important thing I respect in people is just that honoring that we’re all God and that we should be treated as that. Of course my family and other people think that yo lo que hago es brujeria. Sometimes I dress in all white. It’s so powerful because people are either like, ‘wow!’ or people are like, ‘what are you doing?!’; it really scares people. I feel very powerful when I wear all white and I feel like I take that wherever I go. I feel like these [institutions of higher learning] can make us feel disempowered and crazy; [this is] the only way I can avoid feeling that way.”
Another extension of her identity is her journey in birth work. Griselda began her certification as a doula in 2012. “I feel like I’m one of those people that can say that I was born to do this type of work. I can’t tell you why or how but it just comes so instinctively and naturally.” She has a chapter coming out in a book by Black Women Birthing Justice in October. In the chapter she wrote about her first experience with birth at eight years old. “My godmother’s daughter was having a baby. They didn’t speak English and we were next door neighbors so they [told me to] call the ambulance. She’s there in active labor, I’m looking at her paralyzed and my godmother is [instructing me], ‘Dile que ella esta…’ I feel like that left something in my psyche [because] I had never seen a woman like that before. Especially being Dominican we’re always like, ‘don’t make too much noise…’ and to see her electric and wild in her power while she was laboring, it did something to me. I mostly have worked with first generation Dominican women having babies. That’s been very important for me and interesting because I see how easy we’ve been conditioned to give our power away so I’m glad that I’m a doula.”
Her Black consciousness came into conflict with her mother due to Griselda’s partner being African-American. “My mother cried the day after or a few days later. She said, ‘porque tu me eta haciendo esto? Tu ere una muchacha preparada, tu ere tan bonita, tu te puede conseguir el hombre que tu quiera.’ You’ve seen my mom. Not that it would make it any better but I think psychologically if my mom were like phenotypically White or even lighter skinned, I’d be like, all right… you’ve been positioned in society a certain way that makes you feel above but… she [has dark skin] and she has this complex.” At the time when her mother met her partner, Griselda was diving into this work and understanding the African presence in DR so she understood the legacy that she was coming from. “It was rough. I mean, I would say, I brought him around the family starting about 2002, and it took like a good three to four years for me to feel really comfortable when he was around my family. My sister always jokes with me, she’s like, ‘You kinda got the ball rolling’ ‘cause now several of my cousins are with other Afro-descendant men or women. My family has already been through the ringer with me that now it’s okay. Now in family gatherings, you have the old school family and then the newer generation. We’re like the United Nations, but it’s mostly Black, it’s mostly African, because then my sister was dating a Dominican who was [phenotypically dark] and my mother was just like, ‘You girls are going to drive me crazy.’”
Griselda and her partner, Idris, welcomed their son Talib into the world last August. Her pregnancy and birth have left a tremendous impact on her. “A woman who is allowed to give birth the way she wants to can go into a level of herself that nothing else could let her reach. I loved being pregnant. I feel like we live in such an anti-woman, woman hating, sex-hating, pregnant hating, mother hating culture that a lot of times I [expressed] that, and especially women [responded], ‘you crazy!’ I loved being pregnant. I loved seeing my body change, I loved feeling my breasts getting bigger, him getting bigger, kicking me, my feet swelling and being in tune.” Griselda made up her mind that she was going to carry this baby very differently from how she and her sister were carried. “My mother cried a lot when she carried us. It was a traumatic birth. She had to be hospitalized a month before because my sister had a heart murmur. We were identical so we were in one sack but we were in a way where I was perpendicular; I was over my sister and I was compressing her umbilical cord. Her oxygen level was low so they had to monitor my mother for a month.” Her mother had to have a C-section. Griselda decided to do it differently. She described herself as a happy warrior, determined to be at peace and in tune throughout her pregnancy. “I was very vigilant about the thoughts I carried, the things I said, the people I was around, even the stuff I ate. At first I wanted to have a midwife in a hospital, and then a birth center. Then I went to a birth center and thought it was still medicalized. Then I met Ina May Gaskin last year and she said, why don’t you just have a home birth?”
“It was amazing. It was my husband, my twin sister, my comadre, my sorority sister, the midwife and two doulas. One of the [doulas] was your traditional doula, the other one was a spiritual doula. We had a birth altar. She was in front of the birth altar praying and meditating. I was one of those women: I was a day short of 42 weeks and I had the baby at home.” Her mother wasn’t very thrilled about the idea of giving birth at home because she, like many women, understands that birth is when the veil between life and death is very thin. “My mother had seen a lot of causalities in el campo, with women dying or the baby dying because there was no access to medical care and she had that vision of home birth. But when I told her, una partera comes in with her supplies, she was a little more at ease.” Griselda’s mother opted to not go to the birth but gave amazing support from the moment Griselda was postpartum. “He was born at around 3:30am and my mom was there before 5 o’clock con una olla de sopa de gallina.” Griselda’s family made sure she had what is called la cuarentena. Cuarentena is a period of approximately 40 days, or six weeks, during which the new mom is solely dedicated to breastfeeding, bonding with and taking care of her baby and herself. During this time, other members of the family pitch in to cook, clean, and take care of other children, if there are any.
“For those 40 days, I was home. If I went outside for whatever, my head was wrapped. I didn’t wash my hair, I didn’t paint my nails, I didn’t wash dishes, I didn’t sweep, I didn’t do anything. My sister, my mother, the spiritual doula…somebody was always there. Somebody was always there cooking and cleaning.” Griselda’s home birth experience made her an even more passionate advocate for natural birth than before. The chapter of motherhood in her life has also had an impact on her personality. “I’m more patient. In one I can say I’m more patient because I see [a person], I [remember] a woman labored to bring [them] here – whether it’s C-section, medicated, at home or hospital. Because, if I hurt your feelings, how would your mother feel?” On the other end, she has very little patience for other things. Having a new human being she is now responsible for makes her understand there’s a lot of love and light in this world to worry about those who don’t support that. “Motherhood is amazing. I just feel I’ve been initiated into this tribe of [mothers]. I did something that humans need to live. I produced another human being and I feel with always having been a feminist, I have really low tolerance for [patriarchal] bullshit. How are you going to disrespect me, a woman, when you need us?”
With all her experiences from being a first generation Dominican in the Diaspora to the journey she has embarked on as a mother, Griselda has strived to just be herself. Her closing words to other folks in the Dominican Diaspora on how to navigate this experience: “You just have to be sincere with yourself. As new age, first generation U.S born and bred Dominican youth, that level of self-sincerity is going to be very different from what their parents expect them. And I feel like too many people are dying, physically or metaphysically, because we’re just all trying to fit into these boxes that weren’t made for us at all.” Griselda embodies the concept of Sankofa, having gone back in her personal and professional work to get knowledge that is rightfully hers to share with the world.