Interviewed by Ivanna Machuca
Podcast by Leah Shaw
Ivanna Machuca had only known Pedro Batista a few months, working together as baggage department for Delta Airlines at JFK Airport. One day at lunch he told her a couple of stories about his life growing up in Washington Heights.
“I thought his past life was interesting,” she said. He told her about the time when he was a young teenager and became involved with a prominent local street gang. “I never knew someone in a gang before,” she said.
So when the time came to do an oral history for her Feature Writing class with Prof. Jessica Siegel, she thought of Batista.
She told him she had to find someone to interview. He said okay.
“I was surprised that he agreed to do it,” she said six months later. “And he told me he was surprised that I chose him.”
Batista and Machuca talked for over two hours.
“I’m a lot more quiet,” Machuca said. Even though she came prepared with questions, “he basically started the conversation.”
Batista told stories of being used in his early teens by the Latin Kings to run errands for them, joining the gang and his life on the streets. He also described high school, continually skipping classes but passing his Regents exams with the highest marks until at 18 he made it his business to do the work in his classes. “The principal kicked me out,” as he told Machuca. The principal called him into her office and told him “you have no more classes to pass, you’re graduating.”
But Batista also related stories about his growing up in Dominican Republic where he was raised by his aunts and grandmother, his mother having moved to the U.S. when he was 2. “I was passed around among different aunts, uncles and grandmother,” he said. He didn’t meet his mother until he was 5 years old.
“As I grew up, I didn’t really know what a mother was,” he said. “I knew there was a mother figure around. All I knew there was a shadow sending stuff from the U.S.—toys, clothes. I never knew who this person was.”
When he was brought to the U.S. by his uncle and delivered to his mother’s apartment, “I almost picked the lock,” he said. “I had to get to know this person who was a stranger to me. . . .My aunts and grandmother were my mother.”
The situation with his father, who he had only met a couple of times, played out somewhat differently. When he was 19, his father was dying of cancer and asked him to come to the Dominican Republic to see him.
“I saw a guy who in pictures had been healthy, rotting away in his bed,” he recalled. “They’re wiping him. They’re washing him. He was dying.” He stayed for a week.
The experience changed him, he told Machuca. “A few days later, I lay in my bed. I put myself in his shoes. What if that’s me? What if I had kids and never got to know them? What if I end up sick and lave nothing behind and my kids don’t want anything to do with me?”
“I thought about it. If I don’t change the way I act, the way I live, I could end up like him.”
For Machuca, “once he started talking, everything stopped. My attention was focused on him.” In thinking back about the interview, she said, “A lot of stuff about his life, he had figured out what happened to him. He had thought a lot about his experiences.”