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Growing up “Different” is Part of Her Identity

Alessandra Maldonado reflects on her background. PHOTO/ Sandy Mui

By Sandy Mui

Published: November 22nd, 2017

Dressed in a purple, black and white striped t-shirt and jeans, Alessandra Maldonado has most of her tattoos hidden from plain sight. A lavender flower on her lower right arm and a pen on the left side of her left wrist are the only two designs fully visible upon first glance. She rolled down her sock to reveal a tattooed anatomical heart on her left ankle. “It was Friday the 13th and me and my friend were bored, and it was $30,” Maldonado said.

Then, she pushed up her left sleeve to uncover an inked Italian playing card called “settebelle.” “Basically, if you have this card in any game you play in the Italian deck, you win,” Maldonado added. “And if you have this card, you’re golden; you’re all set.”

The Brooklyn College student has four more tattoos: a rocket ship on her left hip, two hands holding the universe on her right rib cage, an Audre Lorde quote: “I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor,” running down her back, and another quote: “I never did understand the duality of art and reality,” from The 1975’s song “Loving Someone” on the inside of her upper left arm. While she is unbothered by these engravings, her family (though only her mother’s side) does not approve of them.

“It’s just like decoration, and my mom sees it as like scars,” said Maldonado, 19. She admitted her family does not know about half of her tattoos, and she has even been wearing long-sleeved clothing at home to wait for the right time to break the “settebelle” tattoo to them.

Ignoring the norm, as well as believing and doing the complete opposite of what was expected of her given her upbringing, is exactly how Maldonado has lived her life.

Standing and speaking confidently under the sunlight on the BC campus, Maldonado glows with a fierce aura. The sun’s gleam on her shoulder-length hair makes it appear brown – its actual color – though in areas with darker lighting, it appears pitch black, the same color as her intricately shaded eyebrows. Even her smile – a smirk, at best – cannot take attention away from her intense gaze, which is only further enhanced by her drawn out eyebrows.

A lifelong Brooklynite from Dyker Heights and the daughter of immigrant parents, Maldonado comes from two families of vastly different ethnicities, and her pale skin tone will occasionally lead to incorrect assumptions about her ethnicity. Her mother was born in Italy and came to America at the age of six, while her father arrived in New York from Puerto Rico at the age of two.

When Maldonado was four years old, her parents separated (they never married), and she lived with her mom ever since. As a result, for most of her life, Maldonado was raised in a much more Italian household. However, while she was exposed to largely one culture in her life, Italians and Puerto Ricans are both historically religious groups of people, which is another way Maldonado diverges from the stereotypical tale. Though being raised as Catholic and having attended Fontbonne Hall Academy, a Catholic high school in Brooklyn, Maldonado is an atheist. Ironically enough, it was actually her high school homeroom teacher, Leonard Bellinger, who led to her dismissal of religion.

“His biggest thing was to ‘question everything,’” she said. “I felt like up until that point, up until hearing him say that, I kind of just took things for what they were… hearing him say that, it kind of just made me realize that I don’t have to believe in everything.” Bellinger’s quote serves as Maldonado’s life’s philosophy to this day and has also played a huge role in her desire to become a journalist.

On top of her lack of association with religion, Maldonado realized that “different” did not really belong at Fontbonne. “In Catholic school, everyone has to be the same person,” she said. “It was always same uniform, certain type of hair, like there’s really no individuality. And I feel like that’s what kind of made me break away from it.”

Breaking away from this homogeneity was not easy. At Fontbonne, Maldonado suffered from anxiety and depression, which she realized was a legitimate issue in her sophomore year of high school. She partially attributed this to the rigid environment she was in, but admitted she has not looked into her past too deeply.

“I did my own thing all the time,” Maldonado said about her time at Fontbonne. “Nobody made me feel bad for it, at least in front of me, but I could always tell that I was just super different from other people.”

Still, Maldonado did not find it difficult to make friends who were supportive and had similar interests. She is still best friends with a few of them to this day. To get through her high school years, Maldonado relied on a close group of friends, including Annamarie Fabbricatore, who she met through a mutual friend in her freshman year of high school.

“We would always have long conversations about how we were feeling, what we struggled with [and what we] were going through,” said Fabbricatore, 20, now a junior at Brooklyn College. “[Alessandra] was one of the few people I could have an actual meaningful and intelligent conversation with.”

Maldonado graduated from Fontbonne in 2015 and was then able to escape the uniformity of Catholic school, once she enrolled at Brooklyn College. She began her college career at the University at Albany, a school in the State University of New York (SUNY), but transferred to BC after one semester. “I hated it because it was just trees and nothing,” Maldonado remarked about Albany.

As one of 11 public senior colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY), BC is well-known for its diversity and welcoming environment to individuals from all backgrounds, which Maldonado appreciates. “I could probably come in tomorrow with banana yellow hair, and nobody would question it,” she said. “I mean, I wouldn’t because I would look terrible with banana yellow hair, but nobody would really care.”

At the same time, however, after high school was over, Maldonado came to another important realization about her identity. The buried tattoos are not the only aspects of her life that Maldonado has kept private from her family. Growing up in a religious and traditional household, Maldonado has been hesitant to tell her parents about her pansexuality—having the capability to be attracted to others regardless of their gender identity or biological sex.

“I just feel like if I told [my parents], they really, really wouldn’t understand,” she said. “Not even that they wouldn’t accept me, but they just wouldn’t understand, and it would just be such a difficult conversation to have.”

As far as she knows, only one of her family members – a female cousin – has come out to her parents about her sexual orientation. Even though this took place six or seven years ago and Maldonado’s cousin is now in her mid-20s, her cousin’s parents still have a hard time coping with it. “We’re both the black sheep of the family,” Maldonado said with a slight laugh, trying to come up with the right words to simultaneously describe the two of them and the seriousness of the situation.

While Maldonado has yet to come out to her parents, she has told all of her friends, who have accepted her for who she is. Lindsey Fallon, Maldonado’s best friend since fourth grade, was the first person to find out from Maldonado. “I’m not religious either, so I was relieved that I was able to talk about the fucked up system,” said Fallon, 20, now a student at St. Francis College. “When she told me about her sexuality, I was happy for her, and it made us closer.”

Fabbricatore, like Fallon and Maldonado, is also not religious and said she discusses complex subjects, like sexuality and lack of belief in religion, with Maldonado all the time. “I don’t believe religion or sexuality should change your view on someone because if that’s the case, you have never accepted that person in the first place,” Fabbricatore added.

Most importantly, though it was difficult at first, Maldonado has embraced all of her differences as part of her identity. “I guess I wasn’t necessarily wholly accepting of everything when I was younger because I didn’t even realize everything and what I believed in,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was as a person, and you have to learn to accept things… if you can’t accept it yourself, then it’s going to be harder for other people to because then you’re making it seem like there is something wrong with you.”

At Brooklyn College, Maldonado majors in Journalism and Media Studies. She is unsure of which particular area she would like to cover in journalism, but is fascinated by documentary filmmaking for its visual factor. “I want to be able to [make films] for people and show them that this is happening, that we should actually care about this and not what Kim Kardashian is doing on a Tuesday morning,” she said.

Maldonado especially looks up to Laura Poitras, an American director and producer of documentary films. Poitras’ work – which includes co-producing Citizenfour, a documentary about Edward Snowden – has made her a high-profile subject for government surveillance. The filmmaker has often been detained for hours and interrogated upon reentering or leaving the United States. “[That’s] the level I’m trying to be at,” Maldonado said.

The 19-year-old also attributes her career interests to her family, even though her family is traditional. “They’ve always emphasized the idea of speaking truth to power,” Maldonado said. “I was raised by my mother to be a strong woman and to always stand up for what I believe in.”

This mindset, as well as her experiences, have contributed to the individual she is today, which she has no problem with.

“I love who I am,” Maldonado said with a sly smile. “I think I’m a pretty awesome person. I’m hilarious too.”

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