By Danielle DeJesus as told to Katarina Hybenova. Edited for clarity and length. Photographs by Danielle DeJesus
I was conceived during a one-night stand on Wilson Avenue between George and Noll streets – now there is a café in that building, but it used to be a botanica.
My mom was 42 and my dad was 25. They were going to hang out with friends and smoke some weed, but the friends never showed up.
When my mom found out she was pregnant, my dad told her: ‘You can keep it if you want to but don’t count on me. You know who I am. I am not going to be able to be here.’ My mom said, ‘I’m 42, I’m not married; I’m not with anybody; I’m going to keep it.’
And here I am!
They were going to name me ‘Ruby’ because the couch was red!
My dad has really never been around – he’s a convicted felon and a drug addict — but the family from his side has been really really close to me. I learned Spanish from my grandma on my dad’s side. Many Newyoricans don’t even speak Spanish.
“We played in the middle of the ghetto until 11 p.m. as seven- and eight-year olds. Nothing ever happened to us. We were never kidnapped, raped, or shot. It was our everyday life.”
Growing up, little kids from the neighborhood and I were always outside, playing in the yards, running around the streets. There used to be an empty lot on Knickerbocker – now there is a house – full of gutted abandoned cars, old mattresses, garbage, and furniture people didn’t want. I was the only girl in a group of guys. We climbed into one of the cars and played a game where I was the mother of the kids and one boy was the father. He’s now a drug dealer. I put my feet on the dashboard in the passenger seat and he asked: ‘So where are we going to drive today?’ Then we would stack the mattresses on top of each other, climb the car and jump down. Those mattresses probably came from a crack house or were full of bed bugs and shit, but we didn’t think about that. After dark, drug dealers would meet there and be like, ‘Alright, kids, time to go.’ We knew the drug dealers, they were familiar, and so we were not scared but we listened. We didn’t have to come home for dinner at seven o’clock or anything like that. We played in the middle of the ghetto until 11 p.m. as seven- and eight-year olds. Nothing ever happened to us. We were never kidnapped, raped, or shot. It was our everyday life.
“In high school, we went for a field trip to Rikers Island. They told us not to wear any gang colors like red or blue, and not to wear any bandanas or Jordan sneakers — they could rob us there.”
When I was in high school, all the kids went in different directions. Some became drug dealers, girls got pregnant… Once we went for a field trip to Rikers Island. My memories of that place are so vivid I could smell them, but I’ll spare you the details. They told us not to wear any gang colors for the trip like red or blue, and not to wear any bandanas or Jordan sneakers – they would rob you there. They showed us weapons the prisoners made from wire hangers.
I went to visit my dad in prison with my grandma and my aunt when I was 12. All the visiting families were standing behind big metal bars all squeezed together, the prisoners on the other side, and when they opened people were so happy, showing babies, hugging, crying… And then my father came out; he looked so different; real tough, real hard.
But he is also a really good magician. Guards in prison would give him extra privileges because he would do really cool magic tricks for the inmates. He’s extremely talented. My artistic talents I got from him. So I’m like, ‘Thank you for this brain, Dad.’ I think I’ll make a documentary about him one day.
“Police in prison would give my dad extra privileges because he would do really cool magic tricks for the inmates.”
Do you know where The Bushwick Collective has their Block Party on St. Nicholas and Cypress? There used to be a big sweater factory. Nobody but immigrants worked there – mostly Latinos, Russians and Polish. My mom used to work there. I used to go there with her every morning at six o’clock; she would let me sleep on a stack of fabrics until it was time to go to school. I remember the musty smell and the drone sound of machines that was putting me to sleep. My mom would to give me the crayons they used for fabric marking so that I could draw but it only came in four colors: yellow, red, blue and white, so my palette was limited.
The factory closed when I was in high school. I remember that year was really hard and my mom bought me really ugly clothes and sneakers. I told her: “I can’t believe you’re going to send me to school like this.” That’s when I got my first job and I haven’t stopped working since.
“I applied to all of the New York City high schools with an art program but I didn’t have anyone to tell me: ‘This is what you need for a portfolio,’ nobody to push me and motivate me. Every single school rejected me.”
I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember. When I was little I used to draw Puerto Rican flags, and when I was in high school I realized I wanted to be an artist. I applied to all of the New York City high schools with an art program, but I didn’t have anyone to tell me: ‘This is what you need for a portfolio.’ Every single school rejected me. According to my friend and myself I drew well, but that was all I got. My grades weren’t great either. I was always a teacher’s pet, and they would pass me because they liked me but the subjects would never stick. The only things that always stuck were sports and art. Eventually, I got accepted into Washington Irving’s art program in the city, but they didn’t even require a portfolio, they just accepted everybody because it was one of New York’s worst high schools.
After all this rejection, it was really hard for me to get back to drawing. In my first year I drew because we had to, but my heart wasn’t there. In the tenth grade I picked up a camera instead. The school had this beautiful darkroom that nobody was using, so I was like, ‘I want to learn everything! Printing, developing film, everything.’
“I failed some classes because I never made it to the first period. There was a huge line for a metal detector and 13 stories in the school building you had to climb up.”
I didn’t apply for college. I didn’t really care what I was going to do. But I met a guy who was an inspiration to me. He went to Hofstra University and I suddenly felt like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ We broke up but I have to admit he really changed my life. I mean it was my own work but he gave me the drive.
I applied to FIT for photography but didn’t get in. Next year, I applied again and got rejected again. So I went to a community college for a year, brought my GPA up, and then applied to FIT again. Guess what? I got rejected again. However, I met my mentor who told me to take a couple of classes at FIT and pay out of pocket, and that spring I was finally accepted!
About seven years ago while at FIT I began photographing my neighborhood. I didn’t want to show it to anybody at school because everybody was middle class, nobody was poor like me. I didn’t want them to know I was from Bushwick. I would just say, ‘I’m from Brooklyn.’ Bushwick was slowly changing, but it still had a bad reputation. In my junior year of college I finally showed my hood at a class portfolio review. One of the professors really liked it and encouraged me to continue. I’ve been working on my Bushwick project since then.
I’m always coming back to Bushwick, even though I moved to Elmhurst, where I have an apartment and a studio. In Bushwick, there’s no way I’d be able to afford both. Now I sort of understand why all those people came to Bushwick in the first place… I used to be so angry about it.
Danielle DeJesus was born at Woodhull Medical Center in 1987. In March this year, she had a solo exhibition at The Living Gallery in Bushwick titled “Made in Bushwick”; in June she was invited to paint at The Bushwick Collective. She currently lives in Queens working in photography, painting, as well as her specialty—Etch A Sketch.