Strawberry Mansion

For the street slang contest.
Sofia is a second generation Puerto-Rican American with big dreams of being the first in her family to go to a college. Not just any college though, but University of Pennsylvania. An Ivy League. Unfortunately, she lives in one of the worst areas of Philadelphia, where drugs and gang violence are rampant. Will her dreams give way to crime?

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1. Strawberry Mansion

"Puta madre." 

Yeah, so it's easier to swear when people don't know what you're sayin'. I learnt that one pretty darn fast, that one time when in second grade everyone was all,

"Oooh you a pain in the you know what!"

And I was all,

"You mean ass," all pointedly and stuff and everyone went

"Oohh you said a bad word!" And then I got suspended at the age of eight and when I came home, oh damn, the disappointment in my papi's eyes were enough, tougher than any whip or punishment. He worked every day in a small factory, makin' barely enough money and still smiled and believed. Bless his soul.

"Mija, you're going to school to be better. Be a lawyer, una abogada. Make enough to get yourself out of here and never look back." 

My father rarely spoke Spanish to me. He never spoke about Puerto Rico. He studied english in his free time, and was pretty good at it, I think. When I was ten, we had enough to buy a house instead, here in Strawberry Mansion. Damn, when I was little, I used to think that we were gonna live in a strawberry or something.

But I'm gettin' a bit off track now. All you need to know about me is I'm Second Gen. Stuck in the middle between Puerto Rico and America. Yeah, most second gens in this area get wrapped up in las drogas and narcotraficantes and the gangs but I don't. I try to keep my nose clean. Just mind my own business. Keep your head down, chica. Don't be a chola, watch your back. A misstep means a punch in the face, maybe even worse.

It honestly ain't too easy. Like just now, when I turned the damn corner of twenty-ninth and Diamond, and there was El Jefe hangin' around as usual. His black eyes stare into mine. He knows. The back of my neck bristles, dammit, I should have taken up Raul's offer to walk with me, sure he's a beanpole of a kid, but at least I wouldn't be alone and vulnerable.

Puta madre.

"Ay, Mamita, c'mere."

I walk faster.

"Oye, mami! You sure you don't want to stop?" 

He laughs, forcedly. I can feel his stare in my back, sweat dribbling down from nerves. It's only a matter of time before he takes what he wants, El Jefe don't take no for an answer. That's why I never yell back at him,

"Don't call me Mami no more! Me llamo Sofia."

I simply walk even faster, short of running. You run, they run after you, bad things happen. Keep your head down. The books in my backpack slam against my back with each step, proof of my crime. Knowledge.

Papi's words ring in my head.

"Mija, no te preocupes. You're different, you want different things, it's ok. Working hard is a blessing. Don't bother people and they won't bother you."

I snort. Here, wanting an education is a crime. I got punched in the face last month, busted my lip and needed stitches from the nurse. All for reading during lunch and this girl thought I was making fun of here. How was I s'posed to know she couldn't read? Dammit, we're in high school.

I weave through the neighborhood. People sittin' on porches, watching, waiting for something. I still haven't figured out what they're waitin' for. Strawberry Mansion. The name implies wealth, yeah? Wrong. This is known as one of the worse areas in Philly. Gunshots every week in the night, it's part of life, I don't even flinch 'nymore.

I'm a weed though.

I took the Septa to Center City one time, for a break. Damn, it was nice. White kids, everywhere were decked in flowing clothes and things. Things I can't have because the money from workin' at the Seven Eleven go to the mortgage.

Those kids, they're flowers.

Beautiful, but weak, reliant on the constant stream of nutrients from mommy and daddy. They couldn't stand one day in my neighborhood. Call it jealousy, I don't care, but I'm tough. Ugly, stringy like a weed, peeking up from the cracks in the pavement that I step over.

Graffiti peeks out of a window, illegible scrawls marking a territory. Everything's abandoned, left to rot. When I was little, I used to think it all the buildings just needed a new coat of paint, but now I know you can't fix somethin' if the foundation's crumbling.

I pass another row of abandoned houses. They're falling to pieces. Everything here is old, too old and no one takes care of it. No one takes care of nuthin', just wait for it to crumble.

I skip up the row of steps, avoiding the third one 'cuz it's just a board now, and take the key from around my neck to unlock the door. 

For now, I'm safe at home. Until a guy decides to come in and rob us like the Joneses next door, or until a stray shot goes through the window and through my head like Felicia across the street.

I unzip my bag and pull out the borrowed, tattered copy of The Princeton Review SAT Test Prep. Now, I am not just a dirty street spic. I am equal to those kids on the center street, if not better.

I self score meticulously without cheating. Which word best completes the sentence? Anachronistic, correct. Good. Tallying it all up, I've scored just over 670 on Critical Reading. I frown. Not good enough. I need to study harder, stop lapsing back into slang, otherwise I won't stand a chance. I need to speak properly, write properly in school, but on the streets I need to hide it, talk like a dumb kid to protect myself. 'Nunciate wrongly, don't not forget to use double negatives.

Why?

If you're smart, you're condescending, fresh. Ignorance rules, let it because if you don't, you die. Simple as that.

I'm gonna go to University of Pennsylvania, be a business major and make a cool million. I'll buy Papi and hermanita a house in a nicer neighborhood that we can live together in, and then I'll spend the rest cleaning up the streets here in Strawberry Mansion. A stupid dream, maybe, a fruitless dream, maybe, but it's what I want to do. I screw up my face. First I have to take this damn SAT. And get over 2100. With my math skills, it's not gunna be easy, but I sharpen my pencil and get ready to try again.

 

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