During the fall of 2015 I met Mama, a lovely seventeen-year-old girl who lives in the Bronx. I was fortunate enough to have the brief opportunity to photograph her and gain a glimpse into her life.
Below is an audio slideshow in which you can hear Mama in her own words as well as a short article I wrote about her.
The password to the video is mama.
Mama Makenera has trouble sleeping at night. It’s not for lack of activity during the day. Her weekdays are filled with school, piano lessons, student government, debate team, homework, friends– normal routines for any seventeen-year-old New Yorker. But unlike many other teens, Mama’s responsibilities don’t end there; she is also the primary caretaker for her three younger sisters.
Mama is the third oldest of six girls. Except for one who is away attending college, all live in a modest apartment in the Bronx with their single mother. Mama’s mother works long hours as a home attendant and her eldest sister is taking college courses in addition to working frequent twelve hour shifts. The responsibility of caring for the younger Makeneras, aged fifteen, eleven, and six, has fallen on Mama’s shoulders since she was in sixth grade.
“We’ve always had that mentality– ‘You take care of your sisters’,” Mama says. “We have this joke in my family…we call it terms, like Presidential terms, and my term is almost over because I'm going to college. So once my term is over, my sister who's under me, her term is gonna start and she's gonna have to do what I was doing…it just goes through until there’s no more [kids] to take care of.”
What Mama does extends beyond common sibling duties. In the mornings she wakes her sisters up, makes sure they get dressed, eat, and get to school. This often makes Mama late for her first period class. After she finishes her own school day, Mama picks up Mariam, six, from first grade. Once home she makes sure that everyone does their homework, has dinner, and gets to bed on time. It’s only then, at nine or ten pm, that Mama is able to begin tackling her own assignments. She sees her mother in the evening but has learned not to expect much from her. Since the beginning of her “term”, Mama attends school trips, events, and graduations in place of her mother.
Speaking of Mariam always brings a smile to Mama’s face. “In her I see myself and I see how, in my mind, I’m raising her the way I really wanted to be raised myself,” she says.
These adult responsibilities have affected Mama. She says that she’s always been described as an introvert, but that quality has become more pronounced since she started caring for her sisters. She doesn’t have a lot of friends but says that’s ok. She’s always on a strict schedule.
“You feel like a grown up,” Mama says. “It changes the way you do things, the way you think of things. You don't want to do something too rash…I never want to go more than ten, fifteen minutes away from my house just in case there's an emergency and I need to run home...so it just takes your life and puts it in a little room, and you just gotta work your way and see what you can make out of that little room that you have.”
Mama has been doing her best to make the most out of that little room, but each night she lies awake worrying and wondering what life will be like outside of it. She is anxious to go to college and escape the Bronx, and stressed about SATs and applications. She worries about her youngest sister Mariam, for whom she’s become a surrogate mother, and how she will be affected by Mama’s absence. She’s nervous that she will feel lost at college, not having anyone to look after but herself, and that she will have difficulty making friends.
But Mama is also resilient. And she’s hopeful about what the future holds for her and her sisters. Like every good mother, Mama knows that she must do what’s best for herself so she can continue to be there for her family.