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Oral history interview conducted by Liza Zapol
March 01, 2013
Call number: 2011.019.042
LIZA ZAPOL: Um, and I'm gonna just begin kind of formally.
CAROLINE FERMIN: Sure.
LIZA ZAPOL: This is Liza Zapol for the Brooklyn Historical Society Project,Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations. It's March 1st, 2013. And we're here -- where are we exactly?
CAROLINE FERMIN: We are at the Church of Saint Luke and Saint Matthew, theEpiscopal Church in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
LIZA ZAPOL: Awesome. And can you introduce yourself?
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yes. My name is Caroline Fermin and I consider myself adancer. And I live here in Fort Greene.
LIZA ZAPOL: Awesome, thanks so much. So um, like I said before we sort ofbegin with a biographical approach. And yeah, feel free to just put the wire to the side or whatever. Um, and so uh, if you can just start by telling me where and when you were born and a little bit about your early childhood memories, perfect. 1:00
CAROLINE FERMIN: Um, I was born in Houston, Texas on [redacted for privacy].Um, and I was born, yes, born in Houston uh, to my mother who is a Houstonian her whole life, a native Texan, and my father who is a native of the Dominican Republic and had moved to Houston for his residency or graduate school or something like this. And they had met and had just gotten married and had me (laughs). I was born nine months after they got married.
LIZA ZAPOL: Wow.
CAROLINE FERMIN: Right on the tail. (laughter) And I grew up in Houston uh, forthe first three years of my life, and stayed often with my grandparents, my mom's parents, my mom's sister and brothers, a pretty large family over there. 2:00My mom is one of five and they have many children, I have many cousins. So I grew up kind of in that family for a while. And then my dad got um, a job at Tulane University in New Orleans. So my little sister was born and right away we moved to New Orleans. And I was raised for the rest of my life in and outside of the city proper, um, so yeah, but we would go back to, to Texas often. It was kind of like a second home. And my mom had like a bumper sticker on her car that said, native Houstonian -- or native Texan, had a flag, very proud of it. So we went back like two or three times a year to visit grandparents, the family. We never had a Christmas at our own house. We always have Christmas with my grandparents. So Texas became like very much part of my 3:00history um, which includes like the rodeo -- I have an uncle actually who rode broncos in the rodeo.
LIZA ZAPOL: Oh my God.
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yeah (laughs). And then later became a welder. (laughs) He,he's not unusual, like the rest of that family wears the um, button-up shirt, the cowboy boots. As you see I'm wearing mine right now. And then the cowboy hat to church every Sunday. So very, very much proud of their Texan heritage, which includes like barbecue and brisket and family and church.
LIZA ZAPOL: Um, and where, what were your earliest memories, where were theythere, were they in New Orleans?
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yeah, I have a few there, um, actually one of the earliest4:00memories I have is with my dad, because OK, this area where we lived in Texas, um, South Houston is very much like a Mexican area. And so I grew up next-door to a Mexican family. They had a little girl my age and we would play together all the time. And I remember like conversing in some Spanish with her. But it's funny because I didn't do it with my father as much. I learned it more from like a Mexican family. And so some of my earliest memories are like playing with this girl Destiny I think was her name in like a kiddy pool in the backyard when it was August, like sweltering. And I also have early memories of my dad teaching me Spanish words. My first word was gato which means cat. So like when I was little, I was speaking in more Spanish and hanging out in 5:00this, this area that had a lot of Mexican influence. Um, and so one of the earliest memories I can remember is going to the Fiesta supermarket, which is the uh, you know like Fairway here, like imagine Fairway but like massive and full of um, Mexican food, like cactuses and yuccas and all kinds of different vegetables and fruits. And it's like a madhouse. I think I remember at the time like the floors being like perhaps saw-dusted down, you know, to keep down -- I think it's since become like upgraded. But I remember like no AC, I remember sweating. I remember my dad taking me in um, just taking me in the shopping cart, I was like sitting in the shopping cart. I remember looking up at all of the, they had strung like party flags throughout the, the supermarket 6:00and just like seeing all the colors and it was so loud and crazy. Just remember that memory.
LIZA ZAPOL: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
CAROLINE FERMIN: It's like literally one of my earliest memories. Um, and thenI remember (clears throat) I remember moving, I remember moving to New Orleans, getting in the car, like the moving van. And we got a house, we had lived in the city, so now we have a house in Louisiana, had a lot of like land. And I remember getting out and just like freaking out with my little sister, she's tiny, tiny. I was just like running around like crazy and so excited to see trees and flowers and bushes and um, there was just a feeling of like living in a, like anything could happen. Like I lived in a storybook, like it was like a 7:00secret garden kind of feeling. Very different than like the city where we had come from. Um, and so I basically spent the majority of my childhood outside, um, living like in a tree-house my dad built us, with my sister (clears throat) like riding our bikes and um, hanging outside. And then this was all before I like went to school, real school. And then going to real school, I remember like had a really hard time going to school. Um, because I was very shy but also because I was like suddenly very aware that I didn't look like everyone. Whereas when I was back in Houston, my next-door neighbor was even darker than me and, you know, spoke the same language as my father. And so here in this um, it was like a small community outside of New Orleans. It used to be like a 8:00vacationing area for like wealthier New Orleanians called Mandeville. And then has since become a town in its own right, but has maintained kind of that demographic. And there was not a great deal of diversity. And recently, I've been looking back at my childhood realizing how, how much I like wanted to see someone that looked like me, um, and I had -- so I had this hard time at school feeling, feeling different and I was on the bus coming home from school. I think I was probably five or six, like very little. And this boy, he wasn't being mean, but I took it as mean. I took it as aggression toward me. He asked the, "Why is your hair so puffy?" And I, I was like, I started to cry a little 9:00bit. He was like, "It looks like an afro." And I had never heard that word. I didn't know what that was. Um, I just started crying because I thought it was like an insult, wasn't sure (laughs). And then simultaneously, or maybe it was a few days later, I might've compiled these two memories together, but another boy was like, "What's wrong with your lips? Why are your lips so big?" And I had never been like aware of my lips. But they were really, they were just very confused as to why -- and I wasn't black. Like there was definitely African-American students, very few, like three maybe in the whole grade level. But I didn't look like that. I looked, they were like, something different about you. Something looks weird about you. And I just, that was like the beginning of being really, really self-conscious. I always wanted like a swingy 10:00ponytail. I was like obsessed with this ponytail idea, because all the girls were like very preppie, very um, you know, cheerleader-based, football cheerleader kind of school. So all the girls always did their hair in like bows, like ribbon. And (laughing) like, my poor hair, and my poor mom too, like she didn't know how to deal with my hair. She would like brush it for me, and of course that just makes it all the more wild (laughing). Um, and so just it was literally like a giant poof, crackly and dry. And we were using regular products from like the Kmart which don't work on my hair. And I would just come to school and try to put a ribbon in my hair, and just stare longingly at the backs of other girls' (laughing) ponytails. It was like an obsession. The hair was a big thing for me, huge thing for me, growing up.
LIZA ZAPOL: And how, how did you um, what, those stories about what happened to11:00you on the bus and with these boys, did you talk about that with your parents, do you remember conversations about that?
CAROLINE FERMIN: I did, I did. I told my mom that she told me I had an afro. Iwas like so mad as if it was a bad word. She was like, "Oh, that's just a hairstyle." I was like, what? So she showed me some pictures. And she showed me a picture of my dad in the '70s who had picked out his hair, you know, was wearing like a chain and had a guitar, you know (laughs) going through this kind of hippie phase. But he had a little picked out hairdo. She's like, "Look, your dad has something that looks like an afro." That didn't really make me feel better (laughs) as it does when you're a kid. Um, and then they would just, my parents were very, very good about telling us to just, you know, if they're gonna be mean to you, then they're not your friend. Because we would have like, quote-unquote "friends" that would say those kinds of things to us. They would, then they're not your friend. You don't have to spend time with 12:00them. They, both my parents really tried to instill in us to be like proud. My dad would be like, "You should be really proud about who you are," and, when you go outside, he would like say silly things like, "You can get a tan and they can't get a tan," like silly things to make us feel better. You know, my mom would say like, "People kill for curls. People would love to have your hair." It must've been sinking in, because I never felt so horrible about myself that I like would do something to myself. But it didn't sink in as much as I wanted it to as a kid. I still felt weird. And, interestingly, felt all the more awkward because my little sister turned out looking very different as happens, I notice 13:00with mixed kids (coughs). She ended up having fairer skin and more European like face, facial features, and her hair was like my mom's, like very soft and straight almost. She had the ponytail (laughs). So and then my brother came along when I was like eight or nine, and he also looked much more like my mom. But I definitely had more of the, my dad's family. So then that was also very aware, because people never taunted my sister for the same reasons they taunted me.
LIZA ZAPOL: Mm-hmm. So how did you guys -- did you ever talk about that as a family?
CAROLINE FERMIN: Sometimes, we were really, my family was really open, againjust my dad as a Dominican, just like everything is kind of like blah, out in the open and for everyone to share. Case in point like we would be watching 14:00National Geographic -- my dad is a scientist. We'd be watching National Geographic or whatever television on TV, Discovery. And we'd be watching like animals mating. And be like, "Ew, what's happening?" And he's like, "Well, the male is putting his penis in the female," (laughs) we were like little and he's just very like blunt like this. So very little was taboo at our table, and I say table because we actually had dinner together every single night. Um, we would wait for everyone to come home and have dinner together. And that's usually where we rehashed all the, all the stuff from the day and my dad be like, "Someone cut me off on the way to work," and moan about the traffic. You know, we would take our turns telling about school and this teacher and this kid, everyone would offer like advice. So dinner is usually around the table we would just throw everything out and talk about it. We, we would mention like, 15:00it was always a point of reference, be like oh, Juliana's got your mom's, your mom's hair, you know, you've got my legs, like you can jump really high. My mom would always tell me, "You have my eyes." We'd always talk about which parts we thought came from where. And, and even like if it wasn't from them, my dad would say, "You look just like my, my great aunt," take out pictures to point or ditto my grandma on the other side would insist that I looked like someone from their side of the family, my mom's side. Very much like a, always trying to figure out where we came from I guess (laughs) look-wise.
LIZA ZAPOL: It sounds like a very close family too.
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: What brought -- why did, why do you think your parents lived orchose to live in Mandeville in that part --
CAROLINE FERMIN: That's a really good question (laughs). Um, I think my dad16:00really, my dad grew up in the Dominican Republic extremely poor. Um, really, really poor. And my mom also pretty poor, like they both came -- well my mom came from a farm family and my dad oh, some of my earliest childhood memories if you want to know are listening to my dad tell me how he used to like forage for food for three days and like what it was like the first time he got shoes. He can remember like getting shoes when he was, you know, a little kid or age six years old like strapping boxes to his feet so he could push the pedals on a truck and like drive a truck. Um, they didn't have like a four-walled house growing up. They had three walls, like a shack.
LIZA ZAPOL: Wow.
CAROLINE FERMIN: He was like extremely poor. It was, you know, coming out of17:00from under the dictator Trujillo at the time and the family just lived in the mountains and then eventually came down to the cities. So he really I think wanted the American dream. He really subscribed to it for a really long time. And when the opportunity came to upgrade or advance, he really would. And he would often moan about like keeping up with the Joneses and say like, "Oh I don't do that," but he, was like totally his MO for a while. Like he always wished he had a nicer car, and he always wished he could belong to the country club and play golf and um, always trying to like keep up with the perceived kind of deficit that he felt he had. And this lasted throughout our whole childhood until recently, when he kind of his realized for himself that he doesn't need to do that for himself anymore. But I think that's why they chose to live in this 18:00-- there's like great schools there, you know, like top-of-the-line schools which I know is important. And lots of space. He really wanted us to be able to run around like he had as a kid, my mom as well wanted kind of like a community feeling. But to be honest, the longer we lived there and the more the community developed, the more we hated it as a family. Um, and they, the whole family didn't want to move. I had already moved here to New York. They just really hated it, the whole energy had become less community-like and more frenetic. Trees are becoming chopped down and parks were being closed and just it was getting rough. But neither of them were gonna up and leave. And then Hurricane Katrina hit, and my dad lost his job and the, the house was OK, but 19:00the property was ruined, all of our, the magic garden that I had grown up with was like devas-- flattened, gone. Um, it was really sad for us. And devastating for my dad obviously to have lost his job, he's the sole provider for our family growing up. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. So um, he had to look for another job. He was tenured, he was a tenured professor at Tulane. Let him go after the hurricane. They let a lot of, just everything went crazy. And it was just, we were not the people that stayed. My family was not part of the group that stayed after Katrina to rebuild, they left. And my dad got a job in Tuskegee and Tuskegee University and they live now in that area of Alabama, and are much happier, much happier. My little brother got a chance to 20:00go to high school in a like racially and socially diverse high school, and is like much happier. And so we kind of look back at Katrina as like this force that pushed us out of a place that wasn't helping our family grow.
LIZA ZAPOL: Mm-hmm.
CAROLINE FERMIN: And now they're in a place where they're around morelike-minded people, huh.
LIZA ZAPOL: What an interesting way to see that, that change and that shift.
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yeah, it took so long, Katrina was how long ago.
LIZA ZAPOL: 2006.
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yeah, it's really been, it wasn't like that for a while, reallyboth my parents I think went into a pretty deep depression. My dad lost all his research, you know. Tough times. But now for sure, they're all happier, my mom, my brother, my dad. My sister still lives outside of Mandeville and still 21:00teaches there. And she still struggles, she just, the culture there is hard for her. But she's, she's adapting.
LIZA ZAPOL: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Um, can we go back to when you were um, kind ofgrowing -- you were just going to school, kind of you were starting --
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: -- kind of realizing, feeling different and, did, in what ways --you know how did you feel in school itself? Did you feel like the teachers also kind of helped or --
CAROLINE FERMIN: Oh God, no. Interestingly enough, and I, a lot of my memoriesabout these kinds of things happened later, because I think that's when I started to put two-and-two together. But like when I was a little kid (ringing sound) the, the KKK was operating in my area, and in different, you know, areas 22:00outside of Mandeville. And my dad wouldn't go like hiking with us or like tubing down the river, because he didn't want to like encounter -- it was scary. I remember David Duke was the politician at the time, kind of aligned with racial tensions. And I remember my dad just like, and my mom, this is not good. Like if he wins this election, we're gonna leave Louisiana. I didn't have any like racially diverse friends. I only had white New Orleanian friends. So I didn't have anyone to talk to about this. But I remember being like frightened, like frightened any time I saw like a David Duke sticker or like I saw my friends' parents had one on their car, like I just remember being scared to like literally to death. I was like, they're gonna take my dad, so scared. 23:00
LIZA ZAPOL: So how did you know to be scared, like?
CAROLINE FERMIN: Because of, because of my dad and my mom telling me like whatthey represented. And, and being aware, like telling us to be aware that, just to be careful, because like we were, we were different and, and it was mostly not us, like the kids, because it was my dad. He would get pulled over a ton, like a ton, he was always getting pulled over, and let go, pulled over and let go. Because, you know, wanting to make trouble with him. So he, he was definitely racially profiled a lot in our community. You know, people would ask him if they had, if he had a number for his gardening service, of his lawn service. He's like, I have a PhD, I speak five languages. Like no (laughs) you know, like we were, we would encounter this kind of ignorance a lot. So when I 24:00was a little kid, I think it was just after hearing my parents. But as I got older and I saw, yes, teachers, like aligning with certain politicians that had been aligned in the past with racial um, tensions and, and uh, I had a teacher once like use a slang term for Hispanics, in high school, like in a discussion, a high school discussion. And like, like panicked, I like didn't know what to do. And I just stood up in the middle of the class and was like, "You can't call people that." And he was like so embarrassed. But like, what? (laughs) So yeah, you know, certain teachers were amazing and very you know democratic in terms of how they treated their students, and I guess I was never treated differently by teachers. But definitely they would say things and I would be like, that's not what I heard at home. You know, like this is the way um, this 25:00is the way the world works. And I would be like, my dad has a different perspective. He would always say, you know, Americans do this, that or the other. And um, I always looked on America and an American culture with like an outside eye, because our, our dad trained us to do that. Like we would say, I need that Barbie, or like I need this. And, you don't need that. You need food, you need water. You need family, but you don't need, and I'll tell you why, and he'll tell us, you know, like every dad does, like when I was a kid. But his when I was a kid stories are really crazy. Or we would sit down to eat and, be like, "I'm starving," and he would bang the table and be like, "You're not starving, you're hungry." We were like, ah! (laughs) He's right. So yeah, 26:00I often had like a different view than the teachers even.
LIZA ZAPOL: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, but it's interesting that then you also say youstood up and said something.
CAROLINE FERMIN: In high school.
LIZA ZAPOL: What, yeah, what, what in what drove you to speak up at that moment?
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yeah. I think, well in high school, I started, I applied to goto this performing arts high school in New Orleans. (makes angelic tone) aaaahhhh, (laughs) like the heavens opened for Caroline. And I got in and it's this um, beautiful school called NOCCA, New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. And they have drama and they have dance and they have music and um, voice and I think art, yup, they have visual art. And they had just built this new facility on the Mississippi River across from the French Quarter, kind of the warehouse-y area. And just going there for the audition was mind-blowing, and 27:00just uh, the feel, it felt like getting into a comfortable bed, you're like, I made it. I'm so much more comfortable here. Partially because of the arts, but mostly because of the demographic, because like everyone was just more worldly, like the first question wasn't, what are you? Like what race are you, but was like, what instrument do you play?, or do you want to come see this concert later? We never even talked about -- sometimes, sometimes people did, but mostly out of curiosity, you know, at that age. But I think going to that school bolstered my self-esteem like 1000% and driving into the city every single day, spending more time in the city, um, spending more time with all 28:00different kinds of, of races and people and just a breath of fresh air from like the claustrophobia of the suburban lifestyle where I had been.
LIZA ZAPOL: Mm-hmm.
CAROLINE FERMIN: And so then I would spend half the day in the morning at thispublic school in Mandeville and half the day at this um, arts school. So I did my academics in the morning and art in the evenings or afternoons. And it was during that time that I started to like mouth off sometimes (laughs) to the teachers or like um, talk back to, to students or, or even just be able to like talk about myself to students. I would say I was more aggressive than assertive at the time. I was either like roll over and play dead or very aggressive.
LIZA ZAPOL: Can you tell me a story about an interaction with a faculty member29:00or student at that time?
CAROLINE FERMIN: Let me think. Well there was one, I guess it's not about racebut more just about like feeling more powerful. Um, the, the, I was very good at school, very good at school. I loved school, especially science. (clears throat) And so my physics teacher was kind of, like taking favor in me and really, you know, I was in the AP physics or whatever. Kind of I think grooming me to, to go into more science outside of high school. And I didn't realize this at the time, I think now I would have but (laughs) you know, by the end of the year he was like, "So which schools have you applied for?" And I listed all these conservatories. And he was like, "You're gonna waste your time becoming a dancer?" And like the old me would've started crying, like I had a nickname in school, crybaby, because I cried all the time. But the new me that 30:00was like a little more aggressive, I was like, "I'm not wasting my time. I'm gonna move to New York City." (laughs) I'm getting out of here. And like essentially shut it down, shut down the conversation. And now I look back and I feel kind of bad, because he meant well (laughs). But yeah, I remember that being like monumental in my mind, was like I stood up to my teacher.
LIZA ZAPOL: (laughs) Talk to me about the strain of, of becoming an artist, youknow, becoming a dancer. When did you discover, you know, discover dance?
CAROLINE FERMIN: I was dancing when I was three. My mom just stuck me in it,because little girls do dance. And but I actually liked it, and my parents actually were really good about um, letting us do whatever we wanted in terms of extra-curriculars. We didn't have to do anything, but they wanted us to be doing something. So, you know, my sister was like, "I don't want to do anything," they're like you have to pick one thing at least. But my, every 31:00year, when they asked me like what do you want to do this year, I was like dance, dance, dance, dance. And then for a while it was girl scouts, girl scouts, girl scouts (laughs). And then it got too hard to do both and my mom made me choose. She was like, "You have to choose one or the other because I can't drive you around everywhere." I remember like mulling it over for like hours in my room, like really choosing dance (laughs) over girl scouts. Isn't that funny.
LIZA ZAPOL: Probably a hard decision at that moment, you know.
CAROLINE FERMIN: It was so hard.
LIZA ZAPOL: Because it's like peer, the peer --
CAROLINE FERMIN: The peer group, exactly, and that's where all the prettyponytails lived. Um, although in the south, or at least in this area, dance was very cool, I mean it was OK to be a dancer and people were like, oh, how many turns can you do. The dance team at school or the cheerleaders at school be 32:00like, can you show us how to do a whatever step? I'd be like sure (laughs). But um, but I think what happened, what happened to me when I started doing art is I just started getting like another perspective of like how the world could function. And I felt like my friends were not doing that. And what the result was, was that I had very little social life. I had my friends at dance. But like I can't tell you the name of a friend. I can tell you one, Stephanie Geauthreaux (laughs) that I had in school that I still have today. But the rest were like I couldn't be fr-- I felt like I couldn't, I had nothing in common with them. I never dated anyone in school, ever, I didn't have one date. I like couldn't abide the boys, I was just like, what? You know, like drinking 33:00beer and playing football and it just wasn't my style. And there was no other alternative. So it was really suffocating for me, and like I often felt really lonely. Um, I just wasn't interested in the same things everyone else. And again, because it was such a homogenous place, yeah. But it wasn't all sad, like I had my friends at dance.
LIZA ZAPOL: Right, yeah, so talk to me about, I mean that sounds like,that's also the time of like puberty and everything.
CAROLINE FERMIN: Oh my God (laughs) oh my God, exactly.
LIZA ZAPOL: So like what was that like also being as, a, a dancer at thattime too?
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yeah, good Lord (laughs).
LIZA ZAPOL: Any stories about that.
CAROLINE FERMIN: I, I was trained mostly in ballet, like strict ballet. And um,Russian Bolshoi, this guy from the Bolshoi was my teacher, Mr. Constantin Apetrei. And he was a wonderful inspiring teacher. He like made dancing fun 34:00and it was about like what you were feeling and like if you could jump higher and -- it was just like so wonderful to go to class. I mean if you danced for him and you didn't enjoy yourself I don't know what was wrong with you (laughs). Um, gonna say something about his wife but I don't want to (laughs). She was the opposite, let's just say that.
LIZA ZAPOL: And she was also a teacher.
CAROLINE FERMIN: She was also a teacher. And she actually contributed for me atthe time, I don't know what she's like now, me feeling bad about my body in the stereotypical dancer kind of way. I was always very skinny, but my but also like athletic. And dancers are often willowy and I was like athletic, like a big knees, big bones and sharp elbows and I was kind of like a stick figure and 35:00you wanted to be more of the shape of an S, you know, like ugh. And my feet, my feet were like a constant source of anguish, feet and hair. My feet were like kind of like big fishes, like flappin' around (laughs). And um, in dance you want to have like these really supple archy feet, which I did not have. And I would get constantly, like they would tell you things like put your feet under the couch at night and like let the weight push your feet down to make an arch. And like sleep in a split. Awful, awful thing. When you're watching TV, have someone put a dictionary on your like knees to like, like --
LIZA ZAPOL: And did everyone get this or they were particularly --
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yup, everyone, but I got a lot, I got a lot bombarded at me,um, because I think they saw a lot of potential in me and wanted me to like 36:00succeed. But like my body just like not made for that, for that level of ballet. I can do ballet just fine, but I'm not gonna get hired to be in a, a company that's looking for a certain aesthetic that my body just doesn't have. I also interestingly became more aware of my Dominican heritage when I would look at my body in the mirror. My calves, I was like obsessed with the fact that my calves were really high on the back of my legs. And my muscles were like, like rounder shaped rather than elongated. Like my butt was really high and like I had like a more barrel-chested ribs. And I, n-- none of the other girls looked like that. They had like um, smaller ribcages and you just like stare at yourself in the mirror all day and you start to notice that like 37:00everyone has similarities that like you don't have. And I remember one time um, an African-American girl came to class, and I was like, oh! We have a similar body type, and it was like, eye-opening. And then again when I went to school in New Orleans and started dancing with other types of girls and guys, I realized like where my body type comes from. Because the truth is like very different body types. (clears throat) And not everyone, but I always struggled with, and was like weirdly obsessed with wanting to have a more European body.
LIZA ZAPOL: Mm-hmm.
CAROLINE FERMIN: More European-style body. But I remained like the best jumperand the fastest runner in school and in dance class. Like I had a lot of stamina and I was like, could jump really high. Um, but I didn't have those pretty feet (laughs). 38:00
LIZA ZAPOL: You mentioned before, you can jump high because you have yourfather's legs.
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yes, exactly, exactly. Which he was always very proud of(laughs). And yeah, and then, you know, I'm now doing modern dance, which is better suited for my body, and I feel more comfortable. But at the time, just like I was obsessed with trying to make it as a ballet dancer. And often, ballet dancers make it very young. A lot of them are like dancing professionally in high school, or don't go to college and go right into a company. I was like really wanting that to be my path in life. So I had this like crazy focus um, that other students didn't have. Like there was a prom, and I literally could've cared less about prom. I didn't go to any of my proms, um, or I never went to a school dance. I went to maybe one or two and never went back, because no one danced (laughs). It's like no one's dancing. 39:00
LIZA ZAPOL: Right, right. Like I'm a dancer, this isn't dancing (laughs).
CAROLINE FERMIN: Um, I was always, I always felt so at odds with, with schooland I felt, I like would have fantasies of me dancing and then having all the kids from school come and watch and be like, wow, she's so good. Like that was my fantasy when I was going through puberty.
LIZA ZAPOL: Were there other moments where you could share that?
CAROLINE FERMIN: No, unless they like sought out coming to the Nutcracker, whichlike none of them did. Maybe occasionally I would see people drug there by their families, be like, hi Caroline. But I would say like for me, it started my dedication started paying off in high school, when it was clear that I was having these opportunities and experiences that other people weren't, like getting to go into the city everyday and um, applying for schools far away, like 40:00literally I wish I had a statistic for you, I feel like 75% of the kids went to school in state.
LIZA ZAPOL: Mmm, mm-hmm.
CAROLINE FERMIN: And I was like, I think I'm going to New York City. I was likean immediate, you know, curiosity, like everyone was like, wow, she's leaving the small town. And then I got into Juilliard and it was just like then everyone wanted to talk to me, then everyone wanted to like (laughing) be my friend and, yeah --
LIZA ZAPOL: How did that feel?
CAROLINE FERMIN: At that point I think I was older, so I didn't really care. Iwas like, sure, I'll talk to you, but I didn't make any pretenses that they were my friends all of the sudden. And a lot of these people um, try to find me on Facebook now and (laughs) they're all like, wow, what are you doing and um, I 41:00guess yeah, for the time there was a little bitterness, but not really. I was just happy to be leaving.
LIZA ZAPOL: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
CAROLINE FERMIN: That area.
LIZA ZAPOL: And, you know, in terms of dance, did you have a sense of otherdance traditions in, you know, in New Orleans or anything?
CAROLINE FERMIN: Oy, yeah, not really.
LIZA ZAPOL: I mean you grew up in ballet.
CAROLINE FERMIN: It was like ballet, ballet, and it was either ballet or danceteam, you know, competition, like miniskirts and sparkles, which was like so not, I don't think my parents would've let me dress like that (laughing). I also wasn't interested, so conservative and like disciplined. But, but I guess when I started spending more time in the city and meeting friends, um, going to see Mardi Gras parades, they have these people called the Mardi Gras Indians, 42:00it's this incredible tradition where you, these "tribes" quote-unquote um, dress in these elaborate costumes that they spend all year creating with feathers and sequins, always very bright, humungous headdresses, like think like a human peacock, like incredible, just so beautiful. And they have battles, they have like dance battles. Incredible, they have dance battles, like that's when I was like wow, other kind of dance. Um, and then at the high school we had to take um, African dance and we would have to take, think we took some like ballroom type dance and we would have um, traveling shows, like whoever was in town performing with New Orleans Ballet, they would come and do a master class, so we were exposed to like tons of different kinds of dance, so I'm eternally grateful 43:00for that experience. But it really didn't happen, other dance styles, until -- no, there was one time, actually, and this was the time I realized I didn't want to do ballet anymore. There was this um, little theatre in a neighboring town, and a traveling Russian group was coming to perform like a Russian dance company. And they did like traditional folkloric Russian dance.
LIZA ZAPOL: What did it look like?
CAROLINE FERMIN: The men were just doing those like barrel turns and circles allacross the stage, like super athletic, there was lots of like, huh! and clapping and like it was like so fiery and exciting. And then the women were just as fiery as the men, which was what got my attention, because I always wanted to do the men's variations in ballet, because they get to jump and that's what I was good at. Um, and I was like, ah, here's a dance style where the women are doing 44:00just as much fun stuff as the men. And it kind of planted the seed that like maybe ballet is not the only way. But I remember that show vividly, the Russian dance troupe.
LIZA ZAPOL: That was like in middle school at some point.
CAROLINE FERMIN: I think it was like junior high, I was probably like 13 or 14.I was just like blown away, like my jaw was on my chest (laughs) so incredible.
LIZA ZAPOL: That's interesting, in terms of like there's another way or someother kind of --
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yeah, yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: -- thing for me.
CAROLINE FERMIN: And my dad too was, he's very like into culture. He especiallylikes classical art forms, so he was very supportive of like my ballet training and um, he never had the like you need to be a doctor or you need to make more money. The message that was always driven home was, are you happy, then keep 45:00doing it. If you're not happy, change to something else. So he really encouraged me and once he found out I was listening to classical music obviously for ballet, he would take me to like string quartets in the city or orchestra concerts. That also, I mean I have very vivid memories of these cultural outings, because they were so much what I wanted (laughs) they were so much what I wanted.
LIZA ZAPOL: And how did that feel going to those kind of events with your dad?
CAROLINE FERMIN: Oh man, I felt so cool (laughs) I felt so cool. That was likeprobably some of the only times I let him like, I, I feigned friendship with him, because I was so embarrassed of him basically, as most kids are, but I, we had a special aversion to him because he represented the otherness that's so dangerous when you're a kid. Like he would pick us up from school in a very 46:00cheap car, because we had not that much money, and um, it would be blasting salsa music, the windows down. And he's wearing some like crazy getup and we would like ashen-faced, just like get into the car, so embarrassed. We literally ride through town, my sister and I, slouched under the windows, so no one would see us with him. So embarrassed of my dad for a period of time.
LIZA ZAPOL: And how did that change, so these moments when you would go out tothe --
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yeah, yeah, I don't know, because then he, no one was watchingI guess. And we were in the city. Really made a big difference. I, I've been really interested as to like, I've always had this like dream of living in a city. But even just talking to you right now, it's starting to make more (laughing) sense, like I see why. It's always represented like freedom and 47:00equality and just like a chance to be yourself. There's too many people around for them to care about you. You can just do your own thing and um, yeah, I just loved going there. I loved watching the, the city lights go by as we drove home. I was like ah, just represented like space, yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: And then so now you're, you know, you're on your way to New York (laughs).
CAROLINE FERMIN: Yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: And you've made this commitment to be a dancer and um, so talk to meabout that transition, life on your own.
CAROLINE FERMIN: Oh my God, so hard. Was so not ready for it. Yeah, so Iwanted to be like in a city. I wanted to be a dancer. And then I got here and I was so overwhelmed by like the homeless population and the obvious poverty 48:00that in my country club town was like hidden away in back streets that no one ever had to go down. But here you were forced to look at it. You know, a lot more people 49:00 50:00 51:00 52:00 53:00 54:00 55:00 56:00 57:00 58:00 59:00 60:00 61:00 62:00 63:00 64:00 65:00 66:00 67:00 68:00 69:00 70:00 71:00 72:00 73:00 74:00 75:00 76:00 77:00 78:00 79:00 80:00 81:00 82:00 83:00 84:00 85:00 86:00 87:00 88:00 89:00 90:00 91:00 92:00 93:00 94:00 95:00 96:00 97:00 98:00 99:00 100:00 101:00 102:00 103:00 104:00 105:00 106:00 107:00 108:00 109:00 110:00 111:00 112:00 113:00 114:00 115:00 116:00 117:00 118:00 119:00 120:00 121:00 122:00 123:00 124:00 125:00 126:00 127:00 128:00 129:00 130:00
Oral History Interview with Caroline Fermin
Caroline Fermin is a 28 year-old dancer in Brooklyn. She was born in Houston, Texas and grew up outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. Her mother is a native Houstonian, and her father is a scientist, originally from the Dominican Republic. Caroline attended the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, and later attended the Juilliard School (BFA). She currently dances with Gallim Dance.
In this interview, Caroline talks about her memories of Houston. Texan traditions in her mother's family. Speaking Spanish as a child. Moving to Mandeville, Louisiana (a suburb of New Orleans). Experiencing difference and prejudice from peers at school regarding her physical appearance. Stories about hair. How her family deals with prejudice and difference. Siblings and different appearances in a mixed family. Father's background in the Dominican Republic, poor under Trujillo. Family's experiences with Hurricane Katrina and moving to Mississippi.
Memories of the Klu Klux Klan and fears about David Duke. Father being racially profiled. Encountering ignorance in teachers and family members. Learning how to speak to and counter ignorance.
Becoming a ballet dancer. Deciding between peers and art. Sense of her body and puberty, and a "different" body from a ballet ideal. Stories about feedback from teachers and peers. Mardi Gras parades and other dance traditions from ballet- learning that she was a better jumper than others.
Father representing the "other." Discusses her relationship to cities and urban, mixed culture vs. suburban, conformist culture.
Moving to New York for Juilliard. Meeting her father's family in Queens, fear of not belonging, being an outsider. Search for identity. Understanding what it means to be bi-racial, memories of standard tests as a child, census taking, felt like picking sides between her parents. Confronting prejudice in her family, with her cousins, finding language to discuss with them. Confronting her own prejudices about race. Becoming a resident advisor at Juilliard and learning the language to discuss inherent prejudices, acceptance and diversity.
CitationFermin, Caroline, Oral history interview conducted by Liza Zapol, March 01, 2013, Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection, 2011.019.042; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Fermin, Caroline
- Dominican Americans
- Interracial marriage
- Racially mixed families
- Racially mixed people
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Fort Greene (New York, N.Y.)
- New Orleans (La.)
Finding AidCrossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection