From how we present data to how we tell stories – all of it matters.
A Nourishing Conversation with Kat Minaya
I met Kat Minaya in 2010 when we were both students at the University of Chicago. I worked as a Resident Assistant (RA) and Kat was a resident in my dorm. I learned many valuable things from the experience of being an RA, but nothing was more valuable than the friendships I formed with my residents who taught me an immense amount of knowledge and shifted my perspectives. Kat was one of these people. Some of the beliefs I currently hold can be traced back to the many late night conversations I had with Kat about public education, social justice, the immigration experience, poverty, among others.
I recently reconnected with Kat when I interviewed her for this story. Currently, Kat lives in New York City and is a second-year medical school student at Hofstra University.
Kat is a sassy, proud Dominican woman who doesn’t hold back – as she shouldn’t – because she knows, just as I do, that the world needs more of her.
I had the following nourishing conversation with Kat via video chat on a rainy Monday afternoon in January, on Martin Luther King Day, in fact. Kat was sitting in a study room at her school’s library and I was sitting at my kitchen table.
S: Thanks for being here and chatting with me today, especially in the midst of your second-year medical school life.
K: Of course! I am excited about your blog project.
S: So, let’s start with a big question, what is your story?
K: Well…I will start with my birth.
I was born in the northeastern region of the Dominican Republic. My dad had purchased land before we were born – we being my immediate older sister and my younger sister – and he built this tiny little house in the middle of it. He left the rest of the land to be what it was: trees with plantains, oranges, and avocados. That’s where I grew up. The house was, and still is, a tiny home with 3 bedrooms, all one floor. The thing I remember the most about that house was that it had a tin roof, so every time it rained, you would hear the rain so loudly. It just magnified whatever the weather was to exponential levels of cacophony.
My father had been a U.S. citizen for a while. When he had my sisters and me, he was already in his 50’s. He had traveled to America previously and had other children. By the time he had us, he was already a citizen. But my mother wasn’t, so they spent a long time trying to get my mom U.S. citizenship.
My dad and my mom traveled to New York City when I was around four years old, and us kids were left with my grandmother.
Sometime around when I was six years old, my dad came back for us. I remember going to the Consulate (I think), for several meetings to get our passports and other paperwork in order. Then my two sisters and I traveled to New York City.
S: What were the things you saw in NYC that surprised you the most?
K: I was actually mostly surprised at the things that weren’t there – things that I had learned from the media.
I remember getting off the plane, going outside of the airport, and thinking, “but where is the snow?” I was told there would be snow! [This was in September]. When we got to the apartment where we would live for the next 3-4 years, I remember kind of being disappointed that there was only one bedroom and I had to share the living room futon and one closet with my sisters. That sounds awful to say, but I guess my expectations were really high for moving to America.
S: I can definitely relate to that. I know it can sound…awful, but before I immigrated, I also thought every single person had a huge house in the U.S. and was disappointed when I arrived at the apartment where I lived.
K: Yea, that’s what I thought too.
Then there were the things that I did have in the D.R. but didn’t have anymore in New York. For example, in the D.R., I would go outside and pick cilantro for my grandmother so she could make dinner, but I couldn’t do that anymore. I had the outdoors at my disposal, and I suddenly did not here in America, in New York City.
All these tiny little clips of memory are coming back to me now [laughter with nostalgia].
So, I started school in the second grade, even though back in the D.R., I was in the third grade. I guess in the New York school system, my age meant that I should be in the second grade, so they put me in the second grade, and my older sister went into the third grade. My little sister who was in school in the D.R. was not put in school, because she was only three-years-old. I guess that was too young to go to school in America.
My mother was working at the time in a store – all that was sold there was dairy products and a couple of Jewish cultural things, like Matzah.
S: So, it was a Jewish Deli…without the Deli?
K: [laughter] Yea, sort of. It also had Hispanic foods, because it was a mostly Hispanic neighborhood in the Bronx. But Riverdale was right north of us and the owner was Jewish, so it was a conglomeration of two things.
Starting in the second grade, I didn’t know any English. My dad had tried to teach us English, basically right before getting on the plane. I remember the one word that I had committed to memory: butterfly. I knew what a butterfly was, but I didn’t know anything else.
My school had two second-grade classrooms. Neither had bilingual teachers. But the majority of the kids I went to school with were either Hispanic immigrants or Black. Probably a good 50% of the students did not have the English language skills they needed to be in these classrooms. Looking back, that was kind of astonishing and probably would be illegal now.
S: Or so we hope.
K: Yea, exactly.
“Looking back, that was kind of astonishing and probably would be illegal now.”
I remember sitting in the room and being super intimidated by everything and everyone. I remember my teacher putting down sheets of really pretty notebook covers that you would put on your notebook to personalize it. I had no idea what she was saying when she pointed and probably asked me to pick one. The kid sitting across from me told me in broken Spanish, “’coge una” – I was so nervous, so I just picked the first one. I didn’t even look at it, because I was too nervous. It wasn’t until a week later that I saw every girl had really pretty covers and mine was just this plain beige one with tiny little flowers on it and it was upsetting.
That anxiety and that level of intimidation kind of put me in a weird place.
My mom had these books for learning English, like “English Grammar!” and this other one titled “English in Spanish.” I saw these lying around and she wasn’t using them so I picked them up, the seven-year-old me.
I took these books to school and would go through all the exercises during recess.
K: Yea, I was social. [laughter]
S: [laughter] And disciplined.
K: Yea…but out of fear, you know? I didn’t want to be misunderstood, and I didn’t want to continue to misunderstand people.
“I didn’t want to be misunderstood, and I didn’t want to continue to misunderstand people.”
I guess it paid off. By the end of second grade, my teacher told us to go through our notebooks to see where we started in the beginning of the year and reflect on how much we had learned. The beginning of my notebook didn’t have much in it, but by the end, I had relatively good grammar for a second-grader and was writing full paragraphs.
It goes to show that out of fear, you can do a lot.
I fell in love with reading at that point. I remember getting books from my third-grade teacher. She said, your peers aren’t reading these books yet, but I think you are at the level where you can read them. I would read them and enjoy them and she would give me more books. I loved going to the library.
“It goes to show that out of fear,
you can do a lot.”
Eventually, my interests shifted a little. I got far more interested in math. By the time high school rolled around, I was doing a lot more math than reading.
In 8th grade, I had taken what they call math A, a combination of algebra and geometry. My school was a 6-12 grade school, so you would think that if you took a certain level of classes in the 8th grade, it would follow you through 9th grade and you wouldn’t have to take it again. But that wasn’t what happened to me and my friends. Those of us who had taken Math A in 8th grade were placed in it again in 9th grade.
That made me angry and despondent in math, and I started to hate everything about school. I hated adults and how they didn’t value our opinions.
So, I made as much noise as I possibly could. And out of spite, my math teacher in the 9th grade said ok, fine, you can take the math A test and we will see how well you do. She was challenging me to take the test when, in her eyes, I hadn’t learned that level of math.
So I took the test.
And I passed it. I did really well actually.
“I made as much noise as I possibly could.”
S: You show ‘em gurl!
K: [laughs] Yea, and it wasn’t just me. There were a few other kids who were in my class that did the same thing. My school had to create a whole new class for all those 9th graders who passed the math A test. And now we were in a new math teacher’s class – a teacher who saw something in me.
I attribute getting into college to my interests in math and being in this teacher’s class.
When I was graduating high school, he said, you know, I am a New York City Teaching Fellow. I was only supposed to teach for two years but I needed to see you graduate, so I stuck around for my third year.
Yea…I am going to cry now…
Anyways…I had so much attitude as a 9th grader to fight and get this class.
S: Was it because you were driven and maybe from the teenage angst?
K: Probably, yea, so much attitude!
S: And also because you are Dominican?
K: [laughter] That definitely adds to it. I am not gonna deny that at all!
That teacher noticed me likely because I was very vocal and very much present. He helped me apply to many summer programs. The group of us in his math class had gotten smaller over time, and by the time we were all applying to colleges, it was only four girls and two boys. He helped everyone apply to college, but he really took the six of us under his wing. He wrote us all letters of recommendation. In fact, he wrote such good letters that four of us got into NYU – mind you, no one from my school gets into anywhere good.
“I attribute getting into college to my interests in math and being in this teacher’s class.”
I am remembering now that 9th grade wasn’t the only time I had to ask for the things that students tend to get elsewhere – elsewhere in schools that are not under-resourced, inner-city public schools.
As juniors in high school [11th grade], a small group of us were told that we had exhausted all that our school had to offer academically. We were told that we would, as though this was our prize, get to come in senior year for only three class periods. I was thinking, but what about AP classes?
In a different neighborhood and at a different school, the parents would be outraged and would make a big stink about cutting their children’s education short. But we knew we had to advocate for ourselves, as our parents didn’t even have the slightest idea what AP courses were. It took lots of tantrums, lots of meetings, lots of letters, and finally we were able to make the school pay for four teachers to be trained in teaching AP courses over the summer. I took all four AP’s, and I am fairly certain taking these courses not only helped me get into college but also helped me stay in college. The skills I learned in those classrooms were the ones I took to college to help me graduate.
“In a different neighborhood and at a different school, the parents would be outraged…but we knew we had to advocate for ourselves.”
In my senior year in high school, I got into several colleges. I was shocked. I was completely shocked, and I thought, there is no way. They had all made mistakes. Don’t they know what they are doing? Don’t they know who I am? [laughter].
I ended up choosing UChicago because first, it was the best school I had gotten into, second, they gave me all of tuition and housing – a full ride. The third reason was my letter of acceptance. I am not sure if you remember your letter. When I read mine, I was surprised to see what they were looking for. It said the standard congratulations, you have been accepted, and then it said something along the lines of, we tend to take people who have the passion, the willingness, and the drive to one day change the world.
I thought, that’s totally me. I want to one day change the world.
S: I remember my letter too, and I was drawn by emphasis on the love for learning and the life of the mind.
K: Yea, they are really good at writing those letters. They should stick with those letters though and not the one they sent out a few months ago.
S: [laughs] I was just about to make a sarcastic comment about it!
K: So, college was really hard. I remember spending my first year questioning the choices I had made every day. I remember looking at places to transfer to. I found it to be a completely different place with completely different expectations of me. I wasn’t as happy as I wanted to be.
I think that stemmed a lot from seeing so many people, so many brilliant people, sitting next to me, in my general chemistry course and my calculus course, and having a really easy time with the material. But I would go home or go to the library every day and put in the hours, and I still didn’t do as well as them. That made me really frustrated.
S: Do you think your frustration with UChicago was also because you didn’t find people with experiences similar to yours?
K: It was definitely partly that. But I think it is harder here at medical school. I think I was lucky at UChicago to find a few people who not only had been through similar experiences, but also were very supportive. Over time, I got to make more friends who had similar experiences.
After graduating from college, I did Teach for America in the Bronx, while getting my Master’s degree through Fordham, a degree in adolescent education.
I taught in the Bronx where almost every kid was an immigrant. I taught a lot of my classes in Spanish. Most of my kids were from South America, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. I had a sprinkling of West African, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani kids in my AP Biology class.
A lot of these kids have so much working against them.
Regardless of when you immigrated here, you have to pass the English Regents test in order to graduate from high school. To me, that is incredibly unfair. Just because you can’t speak English, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be able to graduate from high school. If you can do the math, the science, and the history in whatever language you speak, that should be enough to allow you to graduate. But that isn’t the case. There was one girl who was in my class during my second year teaching. She had just gotten to New York a week before school started, and she was of the age to be graduating that year. But she didn’t speak a lick of English. So, I sat with her after school, even though I was her science teacher, I helped her with her English. We worked really, really hard, and she graduated on time! I was very proud of her.
“A lot of these kids have so much working against them.”
S: Wow. That is amazing!
Did you find any challenges during your time at Teach for America that you didn’t expect going into it?
K: I actually expected there to be more people going into TFA that had experiences similar to mine…like they themselves were taught by TFA teachers, or had come from under-resourced schools and are now doing it to give back to the community. But that’s not what I found at all. In fact, the majority of people doing TFA aren’t those people. They are people who want to take time off before their career and want to maybe pad their resumes a bit.
I think those people who stick around learn to love teaching and learn to advocate for children in the ways they deserve. But I think going in, people didn’t realize what they were getting into.
Another thing I didn’t expect was to be told about myself. The entire summer before you start your first year teaching, you are in an orientation program. They spend the first week telling you about the kinds of stories you would come across, the kinds of children you will be teaching, and the kinds of challenges that the kids have on a day-to-day basis.
That was my story.
It wasn’t surprising for me to hear what the life of an inner-city kid was like, but my peers were surprised.
We did an activity at one point where we wrote our own story and shared it with other people in the room. All the stories I heard were like “I had a really hard time learning to swim” or “I had to choose between the piano and the violin.”
K: That’s not to say that they aren’t valuable…but…
S: [laughs] Yea, I hear ya.
After TFA, you started medical school. You mentioned earlier that it is harder than UChicago, why do you feel that?
“I think [the teachers] who stick around learn to love teaching and learn to advocate for children in the ways they deserve. But I think going [into Teach for America], people didn’t realize what they were getting into.”
K: So…Long Island [where Hofstra Medical School is located] – a lot of people say it is diverse, but it is “diverse” like Chicago is. Yes, it is “diverse,” but everybody is separated into their own space. You have parts where majority immigrants and Black people live and these areas are poorer. And then you have other areas of the North Shore.
A couple of months ago, my friends and I were driving somewhere and as we drove through the North Shore, I looked around and was in so much shock. I was about to cry. These houses were…basically, they were The Great Gatsby – these ginormous estates that are like castles and two people live in them.
“[Long Island] is ‘diverse,’ but everybody
is separated into their own space.”
To me, the question is always how do you spend your money this way when ten miles south of you, people are hungry and people are struggling. That is not to say that I want rich people to give away their hard-earned money…
S: …Sometimes hard-earned, but oftentimes not, let’s be honest
K: Yea, it’s like, look around.
Recently, I was talking to a security guard at my school and we ended up having a conversation about privilege. He used to be a cop, and when he was working for the force, he used to patrol in the South Bronx and Harlem. He said he saw the same people every day, standing around the corner or walking the streets and not doing anything with their time.
I asked him lots of questions. “What do you think put someone in that situation?” “Do you think they prefer that over having a job?” He said they were deadbeat, lazy, and they wanted the government to pay for everything.
I didn’t know what to say. There is so much out there that determines where people end up in life. A lot of the people in the areas where he patrolled…they had the teachers in schools that told them they would never amount to anything; and they had the people at home who, first of all, may or may not even be there, and if they were there, they didn’t or couldn’t say “I expect you to go to college,” because they didn’t go to college. And then there is the police who assumes, because of skin color, that they must be doing something wrong; and then job prospects – employers see a last name and think this person likely has an accent, so…fuck that…
There are so many factors that put you on a corner of a block for the rest of your life. And he doesn’t see that. So many people I now go to school with don’t see that, and that makes it really hard.
There is also the amount of wealth that some people’s families have been able to build over time and how little everyone else has been able to build. African-Americans have been so held back from everything that the amount of generational wealth they have is not enough to do the things that other people are able to do. Many of my classmates will probably inherit the homes that their parents have and probably some other assets too, but there is a large group of people, myself included, who will inherit our parents’ debt.
“Many of my classmates will probably inherit the homes that their parents have…but there is a large group of people, myself included, who will inherit our parents’ debt.”
And it is not for lack of trying that immigrant parents and African-American parents tend to hand down debt and not wealth.
My mother tried to go back to school countless times. She is still in school now. It is really hard to go back to school as an immigrant because of lack of language skills, lack of understanding of how education works in America, the need to put your kids through school, the lack of money, etc.
My mom now works as a medical assistant, long after her start as a cashier at that grocery store in the Bronx. She, in fact, had dreams of becoming a physician herself, but enough obstacles stood in the way to prevent that. So, I take a lot of issue when people say immigrants are lazy – immigrants are likely the hardest working people in America: working minimum wage jobs for too many hours a day but only to have enough to feed the family for 3/4 of the month.
So many people don’t understand this at my medical school.
Lately I have also been getting angrier at my professors. Long Island has a large Jewish population, and most of the people who work here are of Jewish descent. In classes, when professors are trying to explain important concepts, they would often use analogies. If the professor is Jewish, the analogy would be some kind of obscure Jewish thing. So, I would think, well, that went over my head – I could go learn about Jewish customs and traditions, but you know, I’ve got medical school too. So, pick one.
There was also another incident. We had a speaker coming in for a lecture, and she was talking about the word gap. She was explaining how children from lower socioeconomic class families hear fewer words than children from higher class families. This woman was presenting the data as an unfortunate reality that can’t be fixed: the word gap exists and that is that.
I was sitting there, thinking, this isn’t something we should accept.
She was talking to a class that had people like me in it.
I come from a place where I shouldn’t even be here right now – here in medical school. In all reality, if your data is true, I should have never made it here. If your data is representative of all that is out there, I should have never made it this far.
There were other people in the classroom who didn’t know about these other realities, about my reality. And they were taking it at face value and they were learning that Black children will never amount to anything, that Dominican children will never amount to anything, because of the word gap.
“I was sitting there, thinking, this isn’t something we should accept…If your data is representative of all that is out there, I should have never made it this far.”
I also read this other study that said children of lower class families hear more negative words than children of higher class families. They heard negative words like “stop” and “hold your hands still,” while richer children heard “good job” and such.
S: You know what is sad? People will take that study and conclude that poor parents are bad parents, instead of looking for root causes that actually contribute to this. A lot of legislation is informed by these kinds of simple conclusions that are not grounded in critical thinking or in reality.
K: Yea. And this study said that it wasn’t just the parents, but also at school the kids heard more discouraging words.
S: Yea, wow. I imagine it’s difficult to sit through lectures like that.
K: Yea. I try to make as much noise as possible, but it’s hard.
S: Thanks for sharing your story.
Let’s switch gears for a bit and talk about your values. What do you know to be true?
“Right now, what I know to be true is that we are still persecuting people for their beliefs, even though we all came to this country searching not to be.”
K: What do I know to be true…hm, well, this is stemming from our current political climate…This country was built on the idea of freedom from persecution. The reason people came over was to be free from persecution for their beliefs. That is how America as a nation was built.
And here we are in 2017, we are still asking not to be persecuted for our beliefs. Why can’t people do what they believe to be true on their own terms and not have to justify what they believe to anyone else?
Right now, what I know to be true is that we are still persecuting people for their beliefs, even though we all came to this country searching not to be.
S: What are the most important things you have “unlearned?”
K: I was raised somewhere in between Catholicism and the Pentecostal branch of Christianity. Both of these believe very strictly in certain things that maybe now the Pope is more tolerant about. I kind of unlearned all these things that religion has taught me. I was taught and pretty much held a deep, moral belief, without explanation, that this is the right thing. I believed that abortion was wrong; I believed that women should wear skirts and not pants.
Though I am still a spiritual person now, I don’t subscribe to a lot of the beliefs dictated by religion. And I think that is ok.
S: What do you want to learn next?
K: One thing that struck me after the [U.S. 2016 Presidential] election was that…people voted for Trump. There are people who were dissatisfied enough with their country that they voted for Trump.
What I am trying really hard to do right now is to understand the problems that are being voiced, to listen to these problems, and not to weigh them, not to say that these problems are more or less important than others, but rather to ask how can we work to better both of our worlds, given that we have to live in the same country and we have to be governed by the same people.
“What I am trying really hard to do right now is to understand the problems that are being voiced, to listen to these problems, and not to weigh them…but rather to ask how can we work to better both of our worlds.”
I am working really hard to put myself in other people’s shoes. I keep looking up articles and blogs that people have written about the problems they have faced, about why they voted for Trump. What’s hard for me is that oftentimes they talk about things in a way that is discouraging to me; they believe in certain things that I can’t condone.
But there are snippets in there, that I can say, this piece I can hold on to; I can understand this.
That is a place where I can start. I think if more people did that – try to understand more stories from the other side – we would all be in a better place.
S: Yea, definitely. A while ago, I went to Angela Davis’s talk. She said that we must understand that a lot of Trump supporters in rural areas are victims of the same oppressive and capitalistic machine that communities of color and immigrant communities experience in cities. Our lived experiences may be different, but we are victims of the same oppressive machine that, at its core, is trying to divide up the 99% into different factions so that we can never vote together to shift power.
Recognizing that was really important for me.
K: Yea definitely. I would have loved to hear her speak.