I Was Raised by a Drug Dealing Grandmother ... Her Journey Led Me to Activism

Street Smarts Turned Activism: Being Raised by my Drug Dealing Grandmother
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At the age of four, most children are running blissfully through their bubble of purity, but I was already too familiar with drug distribution. My grandmother's executive decisions were the difference between freedom and incarceration, or rather life or death. 

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On paper, she read as a supervisor in the psychiatric ward at Lincoln Hospital. The teenage mother-turned-activist was known for aiding the community by day; however, by night, her own life was hindered with addiction. My grandmother turned to drugs to cope after suffering with complex skin cancer and her second divorce from a deacon (who slept with nearly half the church). What began as personal use swiftly evolved into selling heroin to support her habit. My earliest memories were of illegal entrepreneurs. I was not around nickel and dime bags but rather bundles. 

I remember my tearful grandmother ridden with dependence. Her formerly curvaceous body was shrinking before my eyes. Still, she was one of the most respected women in our family and neighborhood. Powerful men loved my grandmother because she was efficient and never feared them. She stressed, “These men are made of flesh,” just as she was. And my grandmother backed up all her big boy noise. She faced her consequences with her chin up as they came.

My youthful eyes witnessed good people make poor decisions. They were simply adapting to their environment. Drugs were a means of survival.  Most of the dealers around my grandmother never touched their own product. My family did their finest to shelter me, but I’ve always been profound beyond my years. Children are clever. Many times, I’d play naïve to protect their feelings. I suppose we were attempting to safeguard one another.

Even at her lowest, I admired my grandmother’s intellect. She always told me, “No matter what, do your best.” It didn’t matter that we lived in the Bronx because my potential would take me far. “If you wash the dishes, leave them spotless. If you become a bus driver, know your route by heart. I don’t care, just be your greatest self.” So in her case, if you sell drugs, hustle hard.

Depth was not to be associated with whiteness, in our house, anyway. More than ever, I now understand this lesson’s importance. When my grandmother fought to hold herself together, she kept me together. I never once missed a meal, shower or slept on the street. She made sure I was mannerly and presentable at all times. This is why, as a child, I was confident I would save my hero — and I did, numerous times.

One morning, the police kicked in our door, unbeknownst to my grandmother, I knew exactly where a good portion of the drugs were. I quickly threw them into my Barney backpack, strapped it on my back and sat in the corner pretending I could read. An officer tossed me, “this kid,” into my grandfather’s arms, with his eyes set on my grandmother, and demanded we both leave. The officers tore our well-kept home to shreds and found nothing conspicuous.

The most heartbreaking incident of all was when she got raided. The universe is masterful. Unpredictably, I stayed home sick with a stomach ache. All the same, my grandmother had business to tend to, so I came along. Upon arrival, my grandmother reached in a medicine chest for me, adjacent to a window. Through this window, she saw a truck pull up filled with officers. She raced me across the house to place me as far as she could from harm’s way. She yelled for me not to move. As suspected, the water was cut off in our building, but we always knew to keep the tub full in case there was a raid. So a full bathtub salvaged my world. My grandmother has always been my world. Because of this, a majority of the drugs flushed down the toilet – she ate the remainder.

The officers knew exactly what transpired. However, they arrived 3 seconds too late. It was done. Still, they threw her fragile body against a wall as I watched helpless in horror. My grandmother was drenched in water and I was fearful the officers would break her already diminishing figure. I yelled, “What are you arresting my grandmother for? All she is trying to do is take care of me.” The sergeant in front of me began sobbing, while simultaneously shattering my faultless plea. It was a while before I saw my best friend again.

Nevertheless, her incarceration momentarily rescued my family. If the streets didn’t get to her, the drugs would. In time, my grandmother returned to me, now in Virginia, as herself – beaming, clean and grateful. Rather than allowing shame from her past to silence her, she courageously shared her story. My grandmother became a communal leader for Latinos. She assisted immigrants in acquiring citizenship, healthcare and basic rights every human needs to live.  Also, she revealed her previous relationship hardships with other women, in order to help them overcome domestic abuse. She did not hide her dark times or fear others’ judgment. Instead, she bravely stayed in her truth. Her relatability and limitless parameters to serve enabled her to aid countless victims in need.

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So, it is with remarkable admiration that I write to my idol. You are proof that anyone can rise above any form of adversity. Thank you for giving me your blessing to express a piece of your legacy. Above all, you are loved beyond comprehension. You have been my greatest muse to unapologetically own my identity. Your belief in me has been my reason for everything. It is my esteemed mission to ensure all the suffering wasn’t to no avail. Because of you, resilience is my inheritance.