Interview: Nuyorican Dreamer

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Robert Torres is a Puerto Rican immigrant raised in New York—a "Nuyorican" in street speak—who excelled at school and got out of the ghetto. His brothers and sisters are Nuyoricans who did not.

Over the years, the thirtysomething Torres' successes—he's a Brown University graduate who's been a teacher, a Teach for America executive, and a co-director of the Learning Project charter school in Manhattan—alienated him from his younger siblings—Tati, Beatriz, Danny, and Milly—and his mother, Marta. Wanting to offer them a big-picture view of their situation—and wanting to give a national audience some true-to-life images of Puerto Ricans in America—he and a filmmaker friend, Laurie Collyer, decided to make a documentary about the family.

The resulting film, Nuyorican Dream, competed at this year's Sundance Film Festival and will make its television debut on HBO in October. It follows the family from 1994 to 1999, during which time Tati and Beatriz, both mothers in their late 20s, struggle with heroin addiction as 23-year-old Danny drifts in and out of jail. We see Torres working the equation from both ends, trying to instill a sense of possibility and responsibility among family members who've fallen through the cracks as well as to kids just approaching the edge, including his preteen sister, Milly, and students at his charter school.

Managing Editor Samantha Stainburn recently spoke with Torres, now the education director for Clearpool Inc., a nonprofit group that operates educational camps in rural New York and will open a dual-campus charter school in Brooklyn and Carmel, New York, in September.

Q: What happens in the mind of a child who grows up in poverty?

A: I think you are unable to see beyond the limitations that are created for you because of poverty. In addition, you are dependent on some system to help sustain yourself, usually welfare. Self-actualization becomes impossible in many ways because you don't have a sense of vision for what the world could be. You don't dream, and your sense of desire is limited.

Q:What can educators do to help low-income Latino students succeed?
A: I feel somewhat uncomfortable answering that question just for Latino kids or just for low-income kids because the need to develop a sense of possibility for students is not limited to poor communities. In American schools, kids from all backgrounds are not challenged to understand that it's their passions and interests that are, in fact, most important. Schools should be nurturing environments where you're loved and encouraged to become all that you can be. We should engage kids in learning that is completely driven by what they bring to school and give them opportunities to develop interests as well. However, it's difficult for teachers to do this by themselves. Many teachers are working within schools that are measured by how well kids walk in a straight line—right after lunch, announcements are made about Miss Johnson's lines and how great they were. It's incumbent upon leaders to establish risk-taking cultures in their schools and to think critically about what they're doing to instill in kids a sense of responsibility, a sense of possibility, a sense of rigor, and a sense of life.

Q: Did any teachers help you along the way?

A: From kindergarten to the end of 8th grade, it was pretty bleak. I had no significant relationships with teachers. Teachers were definitely just doing their job: People came to school, there were 40-minute periods, and teachers left at 3. Finally, in 8th grade, I was placed in an advanced class, and the teachers worked with the gifted kids differently. They had different relationships, ones where the kids were constantly probed in terms of what fascinated them. In high school, I was inundated with support from teachers. My life is where it is today because of them; they're why I'm in education. I went to John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, and some teachers there became surrogate mothers to me. It's an alternative progressive high school. They didn't give normal grades, and the report cards—my mom didn't know how to decipher them. So I had teachers who, at the end of each quarter, wanted to see my report card. I would go running to them. And the conversation about college started really early.

Q: At one point in the film, you consider leaving education because the pay is so low. How do you think educators should be compensated?

A: At the Learning Project school, my teachers were always on call. A kid would call on a Sunday at 9 p.m. for whatever reason. And I never knew of a situation where teachers weren't glad to get a call. If you're working like that, you should be compensated as a doctor who keeps the same kind of hours and is on call for patients. Teaching is really a care-taking relationship. You have to be there, and you have to show that you're there. The more that you are there, the more trust develops, and hence the greater access you have to the kid's mind, and the more you can understand what is it that will make life extremely exciting for this child.

Q:You spent the spring and summer promoting Nuyorican Dream at film festivals, sometimes with members of your family. What was that like?

A: At the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York in June, someone asked Tati—who was very, very close to me growing up—to reflect on our childhood and her relationship to me: At which point did she start to veer in one direction and I go a different direction? She said that she didn't feel confident as a kid in school and in social circles and that I was really different from her in that way, that I was all about books. It was mostly her lack of self-confidence that made her not want to stay in school. She said she's very excited about Nuyorican Dream because she feels like she's given power by it; it helps her understand what was happening back then. And the audience loved that. It was just so amazing for her to say things like that and get affirmation from the audience. That kind of analysis is what I want to provoke with the movie.

Q: How has making this film affected your life?

A: The whole issue of accepting one's past—accepting one's shame and embracing it, and understanding that that's necessary to get to another level of being—has become possible for me and for my family through making this film. Tati is doing remarkably well: She's been drug-free for about a year, she got married again, and she's living happily ever after on Staten Island. And Milly, who's 15, is having an extraordinarily different experience growing up compared to my siblings and me because of this film. And my mom is thinking about writing her life story. So I really do believe that when we embrace these things that are so difficult, we get to higher levels.

Vol. 12, Issue 1, Page 20

Published in Print: August 1, 2000, as Interview: Nuyorican Dreamer
Web Resources
  • Read a synopsis of the film, provided by the Sundance Festival. Includes a link to the director, Laurie Collyer.
  • In a July 2000 review of Nuyorican Dream, LA Weekly calls the film "ambitious and often heartbreaking."
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