The Ghetto Ain’t Forever
Bonita didn’t belong in the ghetto from the beginning, she recalls. She was timid and preferred to read about the concrete jungle, rather than survive in it. Bonita’s light hair made her stand out in her own family, where everyone was stout and dark. Bonita was tall and muy flaca. As for her fair skin, her father always joked she must have gotten it from the postman.
“Wha’choo lookin’ at, blanca?” the hood boys asked as she walked to school every day.
“A whole lot of nothing,” she’d reply. Bonita enunciated her gs.
Bonita’s mother placed a book in Bonita’s hands. There was a beautiful picture of a gate and a garden on the cover of the book. Bonita wanted to know where it led. Bonita’s mother told her it was the way out of the ghetto. Bonita began to read.
When her friends started smoking weed in the fifth grade, Bonita’s mother allowed Bonita to take the bus by herself for the first time. Bonita wanted nothing more than to go to the library every couple of days to spend time with her real friends, like Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. They didn’t get all glassy-eyed and left her alone. They were always there, faithfully.
“Don’t let no drugs take away your dreams, muñeca,” her mother would insist. “The ghetto ain’t forever.”
Bonita would pause her fight with the dragons long enough to smile at her mother’s gentle inspiration, but her heart was only filled with the knight’s love for the princess he was rescuing. Outside, life was as grey as the cement that made up the blocks Bonita lived in, so she forged ahead, page by lonesome page.
Bonita’s best friend, Lola, dropped out of school in 9th grade because Juan wouldn’t use condoms. Cute as he was, un muñeco Alejandro was not. Bonita went over less and less, especially after she met Anne Rice and Stephen King. Her new friends showed her worlds she hadn’t seen before. She then fell in love with an older alcoholic with a dark side. Edgar Allan Poe showed Bonita prose she hadn’t experienced before. Bonita was inspired; she put pen to paper and learned to fly faster than the bullets from the guns the boys liked to tote to school.
“Don’t let no man take away your dreams, ángel,” her mother would tell her. “The ghetto ain’t forever.”
As a gift for her quinceañera, the bullets that riddled her little cousin in the drive-by didn’t kill him. Bonita spent that year reading all of Shakespeare’s sonnets to Mateo as she pushed him around in the wheelchair he would now call home. So he wasn’t un ángel; Saint Giles Abbot still heard a prayer from Bonita every night. Bonita even wrote her own prayers, believing deeply in the power of creation. She recited them until her knees ached. Mateo grew stronger in body and heart.
“Don’t let no foolish violence take away your dreams, mi vida,” her mother would remind her. “The ghetto ain’t forever.”
Bonita thought because Tito was older, he was more mature. His voice was like velvet against her skin when he read her poetry aloud. Like moth to flame, Bonita was drawn to the ink on his arms, the slouch in his walk. But when she said no, he said yes and she only had Dean Koontz to lean on when the Christian woman told her she would burn in hell for what she was doing. There would be no vida coming from her belly. Before Bonita had a chance to tell her mother that the books she’d been reading were just too sad for her to stop the tears from falling like rain, Bonita’s father was the one who turned out to have a broken heart. The doctors could not save him. Bonita was already wrapped in blackness for the double funeral in her soul.
“Don’t let no death take away your dreams, mi cariña,” her mother would sob. “The ghetto ain’t forever.”
The following year, Bonita’s oldest sister was a heavenly vision in white. Bonita beamed in the pictures, elated for her hermana. Melissa had met Ronald while working as a cleaning woman for his father’s law firm. The groom’s hands fluttered like doves around Melissa, inspiring a chapbook that Bonita presented to Melissa as a gift for their first wedding anniversary. Swollen with child, Melissa looked terrible in black and blue.
“I can’t leave,” Melissa confided in Bonita. “I signed a prenup; I won’t get a penny.”
Bonita prepared her room to make space for the baby. The apartment would be cramped with her sister back home with them again. Bonita simply stacked her books underneath the crib. Melissa’s husband may not have shown her a gentle hand, but Bonita made it up with muchos cariños for her little niece.
“Don’t let no money troubles take away your dreams, mi reina,” her mother would lecture. “The ghetto ain’t forever.”
“Senioritis” was not in Bonita’s vernacular that year, but “Would you like fries with that?” was. Like a gazelle in the wild surrounded by lions, Bonita propelled herself through school during the day. Afterward, she donned her uniform and worked for the pebbles she turned over to her mother. At night, she wrote. And read. And wrote. And read. And wrote.
Like leaves blown by the wind, Bonita’s hands shook when the letter came.
“Congratulations on your acceptance…”
The rest of the letter blurred through Bonita’s falling tears, fuller than they’d ever been.
Blurred the world as the years passed.
Blurred her vision as they were doing now.
As the valedictorian speech winds down, Bonita snaps out of her reverie. She smiles around her Ivy League graduating class and takes a deep breath, finally feeling the crown that her mother had put upon her head so long ago.
“So don’t let nothin’ take away your dreams, my royal subjects,” she concludes. “‘Cause the ghetto ain’t forever.”