by Talia Rodríguez
There are some people who make you braver. Leaders do that, their abilities aren’t really about what they do- it’s about what leaders inspire others to do. That’s the most important part. Tayrin Tapia is one such Puerto Rican leader.
The first leaders of Puerto Rico were called the Caticque or cacica if the ruler was a woman. In the time of the Taino (A direct translation of the word “Taíno” signified “men of the good and noble”), Chiefs were chosen from the nitaínos and generally obtained their power from the maternal line. Our maternal ancestors, literally our ancient mothers were revered. Yet, when the Spanish came, they fell victim to sexual violence, rape, slavery and grew sick. Indigenous queens to disease because of it. The survivors of the genocide? Erased on paper – The 1787 census in Puerto Rico lists 2,300 pure “Indians” in the population, but on the next census, in 1802, not a single “Indian” is listed” – advocates will point out.
Tayrin Tapia’s ancestors were Tainos and they survived. And they went on to have a descendant that would speak to truth, to the legacy of sexual violence in our community. A mother, a businesswoman, an organizer, and an advocate. And most importantly the first Puerto Rican woman I have ever seen in my entire life address a crowd about her lived experience of sexual assault.
Sinvergüenza: without shame, it’s often used a negative term in our dialect but here it’s the appropriate term in a good way. Tayrin breaks barriers. She speaks past the roadblocks that our male dominated culture sets in front of us. She speaks without the shame from others who remain quiet. She speaks with the strength that comes from being unafraid. And that is why she changes the world.
I know she changed my life, in one of the profoundest ways, simply by being unafraid. She started the first, and to my knowledge the only organization -created by a survivor of sexual assault this Latino community has ever seen, Dear Tayrin, she put her name on it. Literally.
For that reason, she inspired me to advocate on behalf of the survivors of human trafficking. And right before I stand up, every time, either in the office or in the community to speak about human trafficking, Tayrin stands up with me in my mind, every time.
Read her interview to learn about a woman who speaks truth to power.
What values were taught in your home?
I was taught that faith, family, and community are at the top of our values list. I was taught that being an independent woman is okay and that it means you have strength. I was taught that being independent doesn’t mean you don’t need a partner but that instead it means you can stand on your own two feet. BUT if a special person comes into your life to help you stand, achieve goals and dreams, well then that is a bonus.
Where were you born?
I was born in Santurce, PR moved to the Bronx, NY at the age of 5 and then to Buffalo, NY at the age of 13. Even though I have moved out of Buffalo a couple of times since then, I call Buffalo my home.
What motivated you to become an advocate?
My own story of being a survivor of child sexual abuse is what motivated me to become an advocate for those who are survivors of sexual abuse. I wanted to be a voice for those who felt voiceless. I am also an advocate in bringing awareness on HIV/AIDS. I became passionate to be an advocate in this field due to my work at Evergreen Health Services. It really helped me open up my eyes on the stigma surrounding this tabooed subject and I wanted to also be a means of support. And last but not least, I am an advocate for our youth – focused on youth development and promoting positive mindsets.
What about your youth made you want to speak up?
During 7th grade, I had a conversation with a friend who had experienced sexual abuse. When I left school that day, I told my then stepmom about it and eventually said “hey, me too”. To my surprise she had no clue which led me to believe, either my dad never told her because he didn’t want to or he didn’t tell her because he didn’t know. That night is when I told my dad for the first time what had happened to me at the age of 5. It is when I first truly spoke my ugly truth.
Did you get any counseling after your parents found out?
No. I don’t think my parents knew how to handle the situation at the time. Especially since it had been years before they found out everything that had transpired. I think they saw this bright kid, always full of energy, always smiling, with good grades and didn’t think it affected me. However, internally it had. And counseling could have possibly been a great way to release any internal struggles I was dealing with at the time. I don’t blame my parents in any way and do not think they were bad parents. They did the best they could.
If you could speak to your younger self today, what would you say?
I would tell my 5-year-old self, it’s okay your older self will protect you. I would tell my 7th grade self, that I am proud of her for speaking up and telling her truth and that she may have to be her own hero. And I would tell my 16-year-old self, that with trauma there comes healing and it’s coming.
When did you start working?
I started working at the age of 11 babysitting for my own babysitter. Then at 12, I got my first job as a grocery bagger at Mets Supermarket in Bronx NY on Saturday’s getting paid whatever the customers paid out in tips. Would make about $15 for a 5-hour shift. I got that job just by showing up on a Saturday (after seeing other kids do it) and said I’m here and ready to bag, Lol. At 13, I moved to Buffalo, and at 14 I got my first job there delivering newspapers door to door for the Buffalo News. I found out about this job through a Buffalo News recruiter who came to the school and talked about the youth opportunities and how to go applying. I remember as a kid, whenever my mom would go to the bank, I would take a lot of the deposit and withdrawal slips. Eventually I had enough to make my own little “cash” box at home. I would pretend I was a cashier or bank teller and have conversations with imaginary customers regarding their transactions. Guess I was always meant to be in business, Lol.
What advice would you give to other Latinas who want their voice to be heard in their community?
Always follow your heart, always question anything that doesn’t seem right or doesn’t make sense, and don’t be afraid of being the person who rebels to go against the grain. We need people like you to pave ways.
What was the moment you were inspired to take control of your future?
I guess this question I can apply to both my personal and professional life. When it comes to my personal life, I feel as though I finally took full control the moment I told my story of child sexual abuse to my father. That became the turning point where I decided that my voice mattered. It’s when I realized that even though my ugly truth would hurt to hear, it was one that needed to be told in order for healing to begin.
When it comes to my professional career, I have always been a Jane of all trades. I have succeeded in the healthcare, finance and non-for-profit industries. In every single industry I moved up to some kind of management position. However, it wasn’t until the end of my 20’s that the game changed. In May of 2012, I founded my own non-for-profit called Dear Tayrin, to raise awareness on sexual abuse while empowering those victimized. It was something that came from within me, the want to help at least one person. And from there I hosted the first awareness event; and then the first annual fundraiser; and then it proceeded onto creating other events throughout the year that assisted in bringing healing for those struggling to deal with the aftermath. I still continue to work in the finance business as a Director of Operations but my passion lies in helping my community and being a voice for those who feel voiceless and for those who didn’t make it.
What is your theory on human potential?
My theory is that everyone has the potential to be their best self. However, everyone has their own unique idea or mindset of what it means to be at their best. Therefore, one cannot say you are not doing your best because maybe that person truly feels that they are. We all have our own paths, our own blueprint, our own journey to reach our highest potential. Some of us show it through gifts and talents, where others may just show it by being an engaged parent.
As for me, I believe I still have ways to go to reach my own “best” potential but I’m also the type of person that strives daily to reach new goals both personally and professionally. But it’s important for others to know that if you’re not that type of person, that’s okay too.
What was your experience like as a student?
I started school in Bronx, NY on 183rd Avenue at the age of 6 and knew NO English. I had just moved to NYC with my mom from Puerto Rico. I learned English through school and by talking to my cousins at home. Children absorb much at that age and I was eager not only to learn but to understand what everyone else was saying, Lol. From there, we moved to a better part of the Bronx in Bedford Park. My experience in elementary school was a good one. I had teachers that were committed to educating us. The school itself was very diverse and inclusive. During 7th grade, I went to live with my father in PR for half the year and that was a challenge. No longer knowing Spanish like before and going back to an all-Spanish school was difficult but I was up for it. I moved back to NYC 6 months later but then in 9th grade we moved back to PR for a full year. I once again faced the language barrier issues but the teachers were accommodating and helpful. I have also always been resourceful, so when I felt as though I wasn’t being helped – I found it. High school was back in NY, proud graduate of Lafayette High School. Biggest hurdle in HS was navigating life as a teenager. Went to college for one year because I chose work before school. No bueno. However, choosing work before school allowed me to get hands on experience. It wasn’t until 2019 that I decided to go back to school full time to earn my Associates degree first. And sure enough after spring, summer, fall and spring semester again – back to back- I graduated with my Associates of Science degree in Business, Economics and Management. The online experience was a self-motivation challenge but well worth it.
What advice could you give other single moms or single parent households on navigating motherhood/parenthood while still aspiring to make dreams your reality?
Well, first of all, it’s not easy and no one EVER said it is going to be easy. Once you have accepted that, it’s just a tad easier to manage things. Organization, time management, and making sure you are taking time for yourself and your dreams is vital. I think as mothers or parents, we will put ourselves last and make LOTS of sacrifices to make sure our kids have what they need and want. Therefore, our dreams, needs and wants go on the back burner. But having an unhappy mom or dad, is not good for the home. It’s important for everyone that the mom/dad also have their own individual time and identity. It’s important that they too are in a happy place. When your kids see you reaching for goals or they see your work ethic in the pursuit of your dreams, it motivates and inspires them to put their best foot forward as well. They will mirror you in many ways and who doesn’t want their kids to mirror the best of them?? Right?? So, making sure that you are taking time for yourself is important if not the most important part AND communicating with your kids because.
Talia Rodriguez is a bi-racial, bi-cultural, and bi-lingual Latina from Buffalo. Ms. Rodriguez’s mission is to write about Latina’s, who have shaped the face of our city and our region. It is Ms. Rodriguez’s believes that our own people should inspire us and in telling our collective stories, we push our community forward. Ms. Rodriguez is a community advocate and organizer. She is a 5th generation West Sider, a graduate of SUNY Buffalo Law School, and an avid baseball fan. She lives on the West Side with her young son A.J… Ms. Rodriguez sits on the board of several organizations including the Belle Center, where she attended daycare. Ms. Rodriguez loves art, music, food, and her neighbors.