By Emily del Carmen Ramirez
“Uno, dos, y tres . . .” My father jumps off of the cliff into El Yaque del Norte, with me holding tightly onto his back. My arms tighten around his shoulders as I clasp my hands together.
“Agárrate mi muñeca!” Hold on my baby girl! he yells. I shut my eyes and bury my face in his back. He strengthens his grasp around my ankles, reaffirming my safety. We plunge into the water at full speed. Holding my breath, I open my eyes and he lets me go. The hairs on my arms stand. From twenty feet under, I see the shadows of my family members—abuela, tío, tía, Mami and my nine-year-old brother, Giovanny—waiting for me to surface.
In my country, La República Dominicana, learning to swim is a child’s rite of passage, much like an older girl’s quinceañera. Swimming marks the beginning of the road to independence for a child, just as a fifteen-year-old girl donning her first pair of high heels marks the beginning of womanhood. Today is my time to shine. It is my second baptism, the day that I must emerge from the water all by myself.
Still underwater, I look at my father’s aqua-tinted image as he mouths the word “Ve” Go. A torrent of air bubbles escapes from his mouth. I frantically move my arms and legs, trying to swim up. I watch as he ascends from the water, leaving me to fend for myself.
I begin to panic and slowly sink. My arms and legs flail. The water rushes into my mouth as I gasp for air and all of the sudden, everything turns black. My father carries me to safety and I cough continuously, spitting water on the riverside.
Ten years later I am back at El Yaque del Norte. As I stand atop the cliff, the memories rush back to me. I remember my father’s abandonment underwater, my rite of passage to independence. With one fell swoop, I again jump off the cliff in Jarabacoa, diving headfirst into the river. From twenty feet under, I see my mother and brother, waiting for me to rise.
I remember the moment my father walked out the door to our apartment, six years ago – stark feelings of abandonment. I kick profusely at the water beneath me. I put up a fight against the malevolent water and its attempts to swallow me. I do not relent. I protest its attempts to envelop me, just as I struggled to stay afloat after my father’s departure. Although, my father’s absence put more hours on my mother’s work schedule and catalyzed my brother’s rejection of an education, it motivated me to work hard – to aspire becoming a foreign correspondent, reporting on human rights’ abuses around the world.
I realize that my own plight has inspired me to be a voice for the voiceless.
Because now I have a voice:
I am Malala Yousafzai, yelling as the bullet hits me—demanding education for the women of Pakistan.
I am Pussy Riot, banging on the metal bars of the cell—demanding for the right to speak out.
I am a girl from the Congo, begging for an end to rape, torture and female mutilation—yearning for respect.
I rise to the top and begin to tread water.
Emily del Carmen Ramirez is a class of 2012 mentee alum from Brooklyn, NY.