Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in June 2021 undergraduate student Tommy Teravainen (C‘22) interviewed Belkis Cruz, the administrative assistant of Nativity Preparatory School, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, USA. In this interview, Cruz discusses her experiences with Nativity as both a mother of two alumni and the administrative assistant of the school.
All right. And I could ask follow up questions for clarification. But I have 10 questions. My first one's easy, but could you just tell me a little bit about your personal life, personal background, education, and professional life.
Oh my lord, that’s a long one. I'm originally from the Dominican Republic; I came to this country in 1987. I was pregnant with my first daughter. My mother brought me here along with my brothers and sister. It was very hard because my mother, her sister, and my grandfather, none of them learned English as their second language. My daughter was born premature. So, she was born two days before my first month in this country. And I was by myself in the hospital. And I said I do not want to say I don't want to speak English so I had to do something, I need to know what people are talking about. So a little after, my partner at that time came to the United States. And then when I was pregnant with my third child, my first one was five years old, my second was three, and I was three months pregnant. For my third one, he left the house.
So I finished learning English as a second language. And I did vocational training in record management in a professional school. And then I was working. And then I have four children. My three others have already graduated from college. And my youngest is graduating from high school next year. My entire family is from the Dominican Republic. And I always wanted to be a teacher, so I decided to go back to school a few years ago, part-time for two years. Right now I'm not going back to school because I have to get my son ready to go to college. So I have to decide between me and him. So I just want to hold off on to that. My oldest boy, Harvey, just graduated from Nativity, and Ramsey, my youngest one, is graduating from Nativity. I saw the position posted last year, I applied, and here I am, which I'm very, very happy about. I used to work for Boston Public Schools before that. And before that, I have over 20 years of experience in the medical field as a medical secretary and medical representative. I like to be a little old-fashioned. I like things to be done the best way possible. The world we live in right now is so much different than the one I raised my kids in and the way I was raised, of course. I came here when I was 17. Still it was different.
And so for your kids, what's the breakdown of boys and girls?
I have two girls and two boys.
Also a family of four. I'm the oldest of four, I have two brothers, one little sister.
She's the queen.
Yeah, she’s the princess, I guess.
My oldest one went and my two girls went to a school similar to Nativity, which is a girl’s school called Mother Caroline Academy. It's right in Dorchester. It's like 10 or 12 minutes from here and it’s the sister school of Nativity. My daughters went over there. From there they went to Newton Country Day School and my oldest one graduated from Smith College. My second one graduated from UMass Boston. And then Harvey, after Nativity, went to BC High. Then he went to Framingham State University. And Ramsey is finishing up at Dexter after Nativity. And hopefully I say, he will go even if I have to force him, so I can complete my dream of my job or have them graduate, even though I'm fighting with Harvey for him to finish his master’s. He just goes, “Mommy, you know how much money I owe. You know how much money I will owe if I do that, and that doesn't guarantee me that I'm gonna have a better job with an MBA.” Like it doesn't guarantee you, but it will give you more options. So I'm fighting with him to get his degree. Bay has her master’s. Genesis was studying but had to pay out of pocket, but then the class was expensive, because then she wanted to go to pharmacology school. Yeah, like, either the one here in Boston she was looking at. I think for the one here, the most was six years. And the other one, I don't know if it was in Connecticut or Rhode Island. She was looking at a four-year school. And she was just like, “I don’t know.” When she was 12 years old, she was in a coma and everything. So it was a lot for her to do, even though she was able to do it. She's very smart.
But with an expensive program like that, we don’t have the money. She was the only one who didn't owe anything for school loans. She had an excellent scholarship, and whatever it was, she paid. So I guess she didn’t want any debt. It’s crazy. I remember the first year, I asked my youngest one, and we read it. Then I say, like, what do they mean by giving you a diploma and saying liberal arts? What is that supposed to mean? You went to school for four years and you're gonna come out with something like liberal arts? It's not specific. And then he said to me, just relax. And think about it this way. Think that college, the first four years of college is like a second high school. What do you mean, then, if you want to keep going to determine whether you want to specify in something and then they don't give you any more money, then you have to pay out of pocket. Then I said, “Just think about what I told you.” Then I said to him, “But you don't pay for high school, so you shouldn't pay for the second high school,” and he said, “No, no, I'm not gonna keep talking to you.” Because I say it makes sense if you tell me it is like a second high school. But it is hard, because it is a lot of money.
Your kids all sound very smart and talented.
They’re good kids. They may get on my nerves, but they’re good kids.
My next question for you is what brought you and your family to Nativity in the first place?
Well, Harvey is the third one. Nativity didn't have a fourth grade. Actually my son Ramsey is the first class of the fourth grade in Nativity. When Harvey was here from fifth grade to eighth grade in 1996, I was working as a medical assistant in Brookline, and one of my classmates was already in her fifties. She had two kids, a boy and a girl. I remember her name is Cheryl. She said to me, “Oh, you have your kids, why don't you put them in the school that my daughter went and my son went to?” And I said “Yeah, what's the name?” She wrote it down. Of course, Nativity Prep School and Mother Caroline Academy. My oldest was Genesis. When I called Mother Caroline, they told me they only take applications in January. That's when he sent me to Nativity. I just folded the little piece of paper. I kept it in my purse for the longest time to call back to Nativity. So when it was time, Harvey didn't have the time to come here to the fifth grade yet. But my nephew was. So I talked to my sister and my brother-in-law, and they were unsure, but they sent them to summer camp for this and that. But finally, my nephew came over here. He's the class of Fernando, Julio Cabral. And he actually is the first one from the family to graduate, he went to Nativity, BC High, and he graduated from the school on Huntington Avenue.
The university on Huntington Avenue is Northeastern University. He went to Northeastern. And I always say that if my kids have to go to public school, of course they would go, but I find that there are so many intelligent kids, and they don't have a good program academically in the Boston Public School System. And you will compare 30 kids in a classroom versus 15. You know, and now I know my kids can have a better opportunity. And I remember a kid asked me at one point, “Mommy, why do you want us to go to all of this school?” And I said to her, “Because you are a smart kid, you deserve to have a better education.” And if I can find ways to get that, I look for them. I remember, they didn't provide transportation at that time. There was no lunch provided, so I talked to a lot of my friends. If I talked about the school, the first thing they would say is, “Oh, no, if they don't give lunch or they don't give transportation it is too much work.” The second thing was, “All girls or all boys?” they would ask, but you know, and that’s why they went to Nativity.
That story of holding onto that piece of paper in your purse is very powerful.
It was, I don’t know, I lost track of her. So I graduated as a medical assistant, and I lost track of her. And I don't know where she went, but I'm always grateful for her and I always have her in my heart. Because she shared that information. She was happy with the education that her kids had received. She just did the same thing that I would have done. I believe when her son went to Nativity, it was when Nativity was across from Ruggles Station (it used to be in that area). I believe Mother Caroline also was in a different location than the one now. Pauline, one of my English teachers when I learned English, when I learned English as a second language. She was working at Mother Caroline Academy, and she was the director of the adult education because they were giving adult programs to the parents of the kids.
Okay, next one.
Awesome, next one for you is, I know, we've already talked about it a little bit. How long have you been working here? And what are the responsibilities of your current role?
I've been working at Nativity, I'll tell you right now. I can say 10 months, I started on August 13, 2020. Actually, on Sunday it will have been 10 months. And when the teachers take attendance, I put in the same amount, which is our system. I also, for parents, if I have to follow up, or they have to come in, I send messages to the parent if they need to. I answer the phone. I answer the door. I also order the school lunches and the snacks for the students. I order the water and the supplies. Sometimes I will have nothing to do. I'm not a very technological person, I guess I'm still learning this stuff. I just help as much as I can, whenever I can and when they need it.
And what is the community of parents and families of Nativity students like? What's the community like?
I will say it is very diverse. Our students are diverse from all over. I can say that for a lot of different countries, especially immigrant families, from Dominican Republic, also Central America, Africa, African American, Puerto Rican. I believe that Nativity is diverse. But if we're going to compare percentages of diversity between students and staff, or the faculty, maybe the diversity of the percentage is not the same. But I always say that doesn't mean that you can not give or deliver a good job or perform the job the right way.
Did you have a close relationship with any of the other parents and families?
I actually came in a very weird year, I'll say, because it was in the middle of the [COVID-19] pandemic. I remember I started in August. We opened the doors in September and by the beginning of November everybody was already in remote learning because the number of cases were going up. I don't have that much of a close relationship with parents to be honest. Some of them I still don't know like I have to. But I think I know the fourth grade the best. But I know one mother of a sixth grader and a seventh grade parent. One of the eighth graders is my nephew. But he's just another student when I’m here. So yeah, I'm looking forward to a better year so that we can have more opportunities to come together and do more stuff.
This year is very, very tough. We can imagine how it was in some of the parents and families, especially with having the kids at home.
At some points it had looked like we were living in another galaxy, I don’t know, everything is so different. Yeah, it is really challenging. And besides the pandemic, it’s also been challenging, because to this day with all of these electronic games and all of this, there is already a distance in communication within households. And the pandemic came in, and I guess that is now a bigger social distance, or family distance because of the COVID.
My next question for you is how does Nativity incorporate the interests and needs of parents and families into the education that they offer to the students here?
You want me to answer as a parent, or as an administrator or employee of Nativity?
Why not both?
I will say Nativity is one of the best schools in the Boston area that has the access, that always gives the opportunity to families to get a better education, especially since the world requires a student to be more prepared, with technology changing so much. But that doesn't mean that you can always rely on technology; you need the skills that you need to get to those points to develop whatever it is that you need. It's challenging when, on one hand, you want to provide those benefits, and then on the other hand, you don't have the cooperation or the support that you are looking for sometimes with the families. I bet at some point, families probably will say I don't have the support for Nativity. I sense that things have changed a lot since my kids were here. I'm old-fashioned and I believe we need to give out a little more responsibilities. You can always come out with the strategies on how to put that on the table. This is what you signed up for. This is the same thing we expect from a student, we expect the same thing from parents. The same way you are expecting us to give your kids the education they deserve. But it goes both ways.
Just in the fact that in choosing a school for your kids, and then finding the school for your kids, you're already putting in work to get them a better education. So I can definitely understand what you mean.
Yeah, it's right there. We have a student handout that you need to read. And it's hard because life is challenging. I will say, the same way you will have your child, because what I was seeing lately, compared to when I was here, is that this is not a public school, Boston Public School, that you just take your child, they take transportation, and whatever, you probably don't go to the meetings, you probably don't do this. Yes, there are times that the parents are working. But there are times when the parents are not working; they just choose not to do this and not to do that. And it is hard in a way and a challenging thing, because you depend on the computer. But it's also easy to say, “Oh, I didn't get an email. Oh, I have a problem with my internet!” And you have to take it because there is no way for you to prove whether the person is lying or not. It is so sad if that's the case, because then you’re showing your children that it's okay to lie. To say, “Oh, the internet is having problems, just the internet is having problems,” because everything is on the internet. It’s hard and you have to define the process. We have a few kids that you cannot communicate with the parents. It’s just hard.
My next question for you is can you describe any ways how Nativity advances or supports a commitment to doing justice?
We have a lot of diverse speakers during the month of February, during the Dr. Martin Luther King celebrations. We also have something for the Hispanic celebration month. In all these ways the school counselors are always sending information on how to approach the kids. Some of the commentary, some books that I remember. Mrs. Rustenburg, she ordered a lot of books talking about social justice and diversity, so I believe that Nativity’s on the right track. There is always room to improve, and there is always a little more that everyone and every company can do about it.
And related to that, could you think of any type of specific changes that you would like to see in school to help support a commitment to doing justice or supporting social justice?
It would be nice to have more involvement for the faculty with maybe a workshop once a month or something, regarding different aspects of how to make social justice more available, for it to be more than a word. For the students, maybe something that they can relate more to in music or maybe in social studies, more to the curriculum.
Now, another question for you is, how has Nativity’s Jesuit Catholic identity impacted you and your family?
I am from the Dominican Republic, which is very religious, and now I have been out of the country for 22 years and a lot of things have changed. I know when I grew up, America was a very religious country, especially Catholic. I would consider myself Catholic. It's one of the best things that I could have my kids come into. You take religion as well as math and science. And it's been a blessing to have that in our education.
It seems like a great Catholic education at that.
Then the amazing thing is that you don't have to be a particular religion to be here. It is a gift offered to everyone without accounting for their religion, because you don't have to agree with that person, but you can respect that.
And what have been some of the greatest challenges for your kids while they were here? And also for you in your current role?
The biggest challenge for me in my current job would be the computer. You can say “Do a slideshow” to me, and I am going to look at you like you have two heads. Because I have no clue how to do a slideshow. Can we just have something simpler? Technology is definitely the biggest challenge for me.
Challenging for my kids? Sometimes it’s a struggle. I struggled sometimes to have my kids be able to bring lunch here. Even to buy them in the right clothes, the clothes that they need. Because if you want me to pay $100 per sneaker, that's not something that you need, that’s something that you want. Because a $20 pair of sneakers can do the same thing as the other one. I mean, you just need to be nice and hygienic and you don't need to spend a lot of money for that.
So you have a difficult challenge, because I'm a single mother running from one place to another, and working. One of the biggest challenges, especially with Ramsey when he was here, used to be me attending events and stuff like that. I was in school, I had a full-time job, and then I had to go to school from six to nine, and the meetings were at 6:00 p.m. So it was hard. Sometimes I couldn't be at the interviews for high school because I had to be at work and not all jobs give you the time off.
My dream is to become a benefactor of Nativity Prep and Mother Caroline. Smith College or Newton Country Day, I don't feel like they need me to be a benefactor, they already got money. When my daughter went to Newton Country Day, as a mother, it was very challenging, and she was sad. At the same time, my daughters went to school, the first day of school. And I didn't have any money to buy them nothing new. Except for the pencils and some of the utensils that they need to go to school. And I remember it was a very white, rich school and not very diverse. But I always, always remember that even when my kids had to go to Boston Public School, I said to them that you are going to school to learn what the teacher is teaching. You don't go to school to pay attention to the student that is telling you that you have the same clothes as the day before, or that you have no nice sneakers that are in style. Because that’s not what is going to make you ready for tomorrow's work. And I always try to afford, like today, I'm proud that if my daughter wants to spend $100 on a purse, it’s because she has another $100 in her savings. If she wants to do that, she can do that. And if she doesn't want to do that, she knows the same thing as my other kids, and for me that is what is valuable. Because you can have a $1,000 outfit and I can have a $100 outfit and I probably can go to the same place as you, and if you know how to have manners and be humble, that’s what is most valuable for a person. And like I said before, if you don’t agree with a person but you respect that, it can really go a long way and life is more beautiful, well, life is beautiful in general.
Words to live by.
Yeah, when you hear people saying this world is crazy, the world is just doing what needs to be done, it is the people that make it complicated. My daughter Genesis, she also likes cooking. And she had a magazine, I remember when she was going to high school, and she said she was going to go to Johnson and Wales. But she didn't end up going there. But she bakes really good. You'd have to leave the kitchen for herself all day long. But she's a good baker.
And another question I have for you: did your children receive any help from the Graduate Support office after they graduated from Nativity?
Yes, actually they helped me out a long time ago with Ramsey. And I was behind on payments for Dexter. And they actually helped me; even though I have this new job, I'm still behind on a lot of stuff. I worked two jobs. And then Ramsey also—besides the economic help financially—Ramsey had a very hard time in the first year of Dexter, to the point that his grades were really low. And he was on academic probation. And I met with Nora. And the bus driver was always really nice to Ramsey. And even though it's not in Boston, they would come here, and then he would come over here and he would study. Yeah, they do help.
It's awesome that they were able to help out with the payments for school. Because I know when I was in private school, too, that's something that my family also struggled with every single year. Even with scholarships and financial aid, it is still challenging.
Yeah. But, I do have to recognize that society, and the way that life is going with the knowledge, even though he doesn't want to feel left out, it can happen and it’s right there. Because even here with this school, you have to live in Boston, and you have to make a certain amount of income. Then you see other kids then you say and you can tell who's struggling with this whole system. And sometimes parents, if they have $100 or $200, instead of saving, they spend their money buying the most expensive pair of sneakers because the kids have to come to school showing that to feel that I'm in the same group or I belong here. And it's hard, because maybe those $200 is what you’re missing to complete your payment or something like that. It's like a puzzle.
Like I say, I have one more to go, who is looking into college now. And I remember that you mentioned going to boarding school for high school. I remember when they were interviewing my daughters, and my son, I said, “Nobody is going to boarding school. He can wait until college.” And I remember one time I said, “Wow, the only way I would consider boarding school would be if they give 100% scholarship.” But it was funny. They didn't go to any boarding schools. Even with Ramsey, I'm telling him not to go that far away because the farther you go for college, you know, the more money you spend. I remember I told Genesis, you know what, if there is public transportation, you're going to be taking that bus to go. I'm not a big fan of driving on the highway. If it is the street, you can drive all you want. I don’t like speed. The closer you are the better. He's looking for a college with technology. Yeah so he wants to go into computers, computer science, computer lab, or something. So let's see how it goes.
There are a lot of good schools for technology just in Boston, so it should work out hopefully.
Genesis, she didn’t like MIT and she didn't apply for Harvard, because she said it is overrated. And she applied for MIT for a second because she wanted to do chemical engineering. And then like I said, when she was about to graduate, she ended up saying that she wants to change her major to pharmacology and I'm telling everybody my daughter is graduating for chemical engineering. She finished and now she has a good job, so I cannot complain.
I hear chemical engineering is extremely hard. I have a friend from high school who studies it. Your daughter must be very, very smart.
Genesis, yeah. Even though like I said, she will say otherwise, but Genesis, she's very smart. And she reads. Oh my Lord. I can't remember how many books she read in 2020. But 2019, it was December 31st and she was reading, And she said I want to finish before midnight. And so I was like, okay, what number is that? And she said book number 110. So I didn't know what was the amount she read for 2020. I believe that has probably helped her a lot with her sickness after, because the last diagnosis that the doctor gave her was that the left side of her brain was inactive, and I believe her reading helped a lot. Yeah, she was able to go to high school, middle school because it happened to be that when she was getting out of rehab, they said that she needed to go, that the teacher needed to relieve her at least 20 minutes or 15 minutes before the class because she wasn't walking properly, so to move from one classroom to another. So that was when they called me from Mother Caroline Academy accepting her into the fifth grade where she didn't have to move classrooms. It was the teacher who moved. So she didn't need the 15 minutes, because the class time is 45 minutes. Imagine if you had to leave the class 20 minutes early, because of her condition? So it was a miracle that she was selected. Then she finished Mother Caroline. She finished high school and she finished college.
Wow, amazing. And we're down to my last question. All right. I know you've already said that one of your goals is to be a benefactor of this school someday, but what are your other goals just personally and with your family and here as well?
Well believe it or not, I like to study, so I hope I can finish my bachelor's and I always have since I was a little girl in my country. I wanted to be a teacher, so my dream is to finish my bachelors. So I don’t know, maybe one day I can be a teacher. I was already in charge of an after school YMCA program. So I can say I was a teacher for a little bit. My dream is also to buy a house. And then I want to grow as much as I can, personally, professionally. Be able to be a better human being for society, and for my grandchildren.
Wow, well, It sounds like you already are amazing.
Awesome. That's all I have for you. Thank you for sharing all that with me and for speaking with me today.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my family’s story.