A young Cuban immigrant, bullied for being different

Alhambra Source collaborated with KQED Public Radio's The California Report to produce an audio version of this piece.

Fernandez (bottom right) with her grandparents, mother, and brother a day before leaving Cuba.

Coming from Cuba to America was not the easiest thing for an 8 year old. Everything changed from one day to the next. At first, going back to school was exciting for me. The fourth grade in a new country, new friends, a brand new life: What more could an 8 year old want?

My second week of school kids put a spider under my desk. My teacher did nothing and let my classmates laugh at me. Later that year someone else put dirty underwear below my desk. That was the beginning of years of torture from classmates.

At first, I hoped for things to get better. But by the sixth grade, I was depressed. I was put in an English as a Second Language classroom. That’s when I stopped speaking in class and restricted my voice to a whisper. Things got even worse the next year. I had no friends at all, and I was getting bullied even more. One girl threw stuff at me, and hurt me. Another called me fat and said I was the ugliest girl she had ever seen and no one was ever going to like me.

Fernandez (center) at age 5 with friends. She was outgoing as a child, her mother says. | Photos courtesy of Jane Fernandez

At this point I was going to my school therapist and speech therapist. But it did not help. In speech therapy, I refused to speak. The teacher would skip me during group exercises and yell at me, asking me why I did not want to talk.  I cried every night. I wanted to move to another school and start over.

Only recently did I learn that kids who bullied me might have had their own problems. Bullies often do it out of their own insecurities, as a way to feel superior and to feel accepted by others, according to a CNN study. The report found many children who are looked at as weak in some way are vulnerable to experiencing some sort of bullying. The study also reported that behavior is contagious; even if a child is not mentally depressed but sees their friends behaving a certain way, in this case being a bully, they will start acting aggressively towards other children as well.

Fernandez (left) with her grandmother at 8th grade graduation from Northrup Elementary School.

In interviews with Alhambra residents, many people told me that they had been bullied because they were looked at as the weak child, either because they were different in size or because they were shy or awkward. Some told their parents about what was going on, and their parents shrugged off the problem, telling them not to pay attention to the bully. One of the residents stood up to his bully once and told him to stop the bullying and to not hurt him anymore, but he still had fear of the outcome after talking to the aggressor.

For me, I learned to defend myself by taking karate. That helped. One day one of the girls pulled me behind a bungalow and swung her fist at my face. But I blocked her and walked away.

Fernandez as a high school student, at age 15. In high school I changed. I got my braces off and wore new glasses and clothes that reflected my tastes.  Changing on the outside helped me to feel different inside. I started talking to people, because this would for sure be a brand new start.  I made friends who weren’t popular, but were more than perfect to me because they actually wanted to be my friends.

At 23, I’m still shy, but I am more confident, and that led me to a wide range of friends — from different 

Fernandez earlier this year recording the broadcast element of this story at KPCC.

ethnic and cultural backgrounds, different tastes and ideas.  I figure I’m better off than the bullies — they were only friends with people just like them.

I realize now that I let the bullies take control of my emotions and lock myself in my own world of not speaking, not having friends, and wishing I was another person — one of the popular kids who I thought had no problems. Although I am still having issues speaking to people and my voice is still soft, I think I finally understand that I was not the one with a problem — I was not the ugliest person the bullies had ever seen, or the dumbest, or anything that they would tell me I was. The bullies were the ones with the real problems. If I had the chance to talk to an 8 year old going through what I went through, I would tell her to be herself. People only bully you because they see weakness and by making you feel less of a person they feel better about themselves. When you are comfortable with who you are, the bullies are the weak ones.

3 thoughts on “A young Cuban immigrant, bullied for being different”

  1. Brave, strong, and insightful.

  2. I was bullied as a child. I was bigger than other kids. In grammer school another boy bullied me as we headed home to same direction but I never told anyone; perhaps that’s why I was shy & lacked self-esteem. In middle school another boy was constantly bullying me, egging me to fight him (he was in a gang & perhaps he had to display his “manhood” or perhaps he was trying to get me into his gang) – which I did’nt. About this time I became interest in sports & got very involved in student leadership & sports. Now as I look back on my life (74 years of age), somehow I was able to not allow that bullying to impact my life.But I feel sorry for young people experiencing bullying with many committing suicide because of the hurt they experience.

  3. Liliana Marquez

    Great job Jane! Thank you for sharing this with us 😀 see you around!

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