By Kelley Davis
Crystal “LaLa” Porrata sits on the cracked porch of her row home in north Camden, New Jersey. Looking to the bodega on the corner, her dark, red tinted hair lashes in the wind like a whip. Car alarms ring. A dirt bike zips by.
“I don’t wanna live in Camden forever,” Porrata said.
“It’s so loud.”
Porrata has lived in Camden forever — well, all 18 years of her life. She’s lived in the same house, on the same street. Now, in her senior year of high school, she’s reached the milestone of graduation and the realization that her life can change.
College is her way off this block.
Porrata’s nickname suits her. She’s silly, playful and childlike. She flips her hair and waves her hands as she talks. Often, she’s smiling and cracking jokes. In her own little world, she blissfuly ignores the chaos.
Porrata’s home is cozy and filled with the sounds of her mother, grandmother and two younger cousins who the family adopted after their mother went to prison. Her mother’s voice echoes from upstairs as she talks on the phone and the kitchen rings with the stirring of pots where her grandmother, or abuela, cooks.
Right now, LaLa only has three things on her mind: prom, graduation and college.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, with her chin rested on her hands, she looks up to the imaginary thought bubble forming above her head.
“Next week I’m going to get my dress. I want somethin’ different, you know?”
Another thought bubble immediately forms, interrupting her, as her daydream skips to graduation. She’s got it all mapped out— her party, her outfit and even the food.
Graduating from Camden Academy charter high school “is gonna be a relief,” she said as the rhythm of Bachata music from the bodega next door faintly thumps through the living room.
Porrata’s proud to be included in Camden’s slow climbing graduation rate which in the past, has faced more drop outs than diplomas. The Camden City’s high school graduation rate has risen from 49 to 64 percent since 2012 while the dropout rate fell five points, according to a 2016 press release from the Camden City School District.
The charter school is a big difference from her old school, Woodrow Wilson High School.
“At Wilson, it’s like you can’t find any space, they just put you anywhere. You’re on top of each other. People always fighting and yelling.”
The constant fights and distractions make it hard to learn, she said.
Camden Academy, where she’s studied for the last year, “is more strict” and future focused, with the goal being graduation and college preparation.
The transition from high school to college seems a little scary, Porrata said.
“It’s starting all over but I gotta do what I gotta do. I’m kinda nervous, but I’ll be OK,” she said, nodding her head, assuring herself.
Porrata follows the clamour of pots and pans into the kitchen where her abuela cooks chicken and rice. LaLa squeezes her abuela’s shoulders, teasing. She laughs and hugs her.
Her abuela, Elena Lopez, looked to her and said, “You graduate – you don’t do it for me, you do it for you, to better you self, you life.”
“If you don’t go to college, you spend life cleaning toilets, sweeping floors and no one respects you,” Lopez said with a heavy Puerto Rican accent.
“Or, you end up like your father.”
Porrata’s father, 50-year old Vicente Porrata, is serving up to 10 years in prison on racketeering and drug trafficking chargers.
“I miss my dad,” Porrata said.
“But, that’s what happens,” she said, shrugging.
Her father has spent more time in prison than out, causing strain on their close relationship. She loves him but hates that “he doesn’t learn.”
She shows me old pictures of her dad stored on her phone. In one photo, they’re hugging and smiling, and so is she now, until the curve of her smile slowly flattens. She exits the gallery.
The story of her father represents a larger narrative of Camden, where these relationships are typical, she said.
“People here are — they’re crazy.”
Porrata always feels on guard– watching who’s around or what someone’s saying. People are always in the street yelling. Last year, the bodega next to her house was shot at. Twice.
Sometimes you just want to “stay inside, lock the doors and close the windows, hide under the table. I don’t want to live like that,” Porrata said.
Hopefully she doesn’t have to, said Nina France, Merchantville resident and family friend who has known Porrata since she was born.
“I’m excited for her,” said France.
“Graduating is very big accomplishment. There’s a lot of obstacles growing up in Camden, between the school system, the crime and all the distractions.”
When Porrata visits, “I swear, sometimes she just comes over and sits in the living room with nothing on. No TV or anything, she just enjoys the quiet. She’ll come in and say ‘You hear that?’ and smile,” she said.
“LaLa’s a very kindhearted girl and a good natured, humble person. You never see her in a bad mood. She’s always positive and goofy.”
Porrata’s heart has driven her to become a nurse.
A few years ago, doctors diagnosed her grandfather, Tito Lopez, with cancer. Porrata watched him grow sick and spent every day caring for him at home until he died.
“LaLa’s got a big heart,” said LaLa’s mother, Yvonne Montenez. “That’s what makes her so special. She cares for everyone,” she said.
When asked what her dream is, Porrata leans back and pauses. Her thought bubble appears again.
“I never really thought about my dream.”
Maybe travel, she said. See some place new.
Finally, she finds the answer.
“I just want to live somewhere that’s calm and quiet,” she said, looking off.
“Peaceful. Where in the morning all you hear is the birds chirping and at night the bugs. That’s it.”
Here’s a silly video with LaLa called “A short visit with LaLa.”
LaLa lives in a noisy house in a noisy neighborhood. All she wants is a little peace and quiet.
This is what a typical day looks like for her: looking for the remote and bothering her abuela.