Photographer & Mental Health Advocate


La isla, bonita.

So many people ask me, "What ethnicity are you?" and the usual response I say is "Italian & Puerto Rican." I can't deny that when I say I'm Puerto Rican, I feel like a fake. Most of my life I was taught not to embrace my Puerto Rican heritage, assimilation was a huge subject when I was born. Speaking Spanish was wrong and I had to learn something else, like French or Italian. I don't blame my family for not allowing me to embrace my Boricua (Spanish) side because it was a different time period and I know they were doing what they thought was right. 

But I can't help but wonder who I would have been if I was able to accept that I was Boricua. Like many stories, I was raised by my powerful mother and no father (going to use this term because it's easier than spelling out sperm donor every time). When they say it takes a village to raise a child, they don't lie. I was raised by so many people and my beautiful mother, but I never knew who my father was. To this day, I have never met him or saw him and I'm finally okay with that fact. As you get older, you realize what truly is important and it's how you view yourself. 

I've always felt like an incomplete puzzle, trying to find pieces to who I was to see myself whole. When I was younger, I thought finding my father's side would have helped but in reality it didn't. I met my oldest sister on Facebook but it was too late and she passed away in a motorcycle accident. Nicasia's passing frightened me and reminded me that it would be easier to not know, whether that is wrong or right doesn't matter to me anymore. Now I understand that my missing pieces can be filled with what I want, more laughter, more love, not with a person or people who don't care of my existence. 

I was scared for this trip, like I was doing something wrong to hurt my mother, it felt like I was betraying her because I wanted to see the place where I was born, the place she left to get away from. I remember when I was a teen and I would ask her about my father and his family and she would yell at me, like I was a stranger asking her for money. The hatred in her responses made me stop asking. Being older though, she knew I was going to go on this trip with her blessings or without. I'm happy to say, I got her blessings and even had her wanting me to meet my family from there.

But this trip was for me, not to meet people that never cared about me until now. This trip was to see my culture, the place I was born, the island I took my first breath on. It was hard though, plane rides are never easy for me because I was a child who was greatly impacted by 9/11. So when I travel, it's more than just vacation, it's me growing into a stronger woman each and every time and I fight one of the hardest triggers I face.

I didn't want my anxiety to stop me from going back to my isla, so Brian and I did what we needed. I took my medication and accepted my fear; I cried so much and then everything else is a blur. When I awoke, we were on my birth island, Puerto Rico. It felt like a dream which I know was probably due to my medication but let's just say it was because of the excitement I felt. 

I don't want to bore you all on everything I did there but I would like to say that the bed and breakfast Brian and I stayed at was magical. The Dreamcatcher is not like any other place, if you want to truly immerse yourself with the island, do not stay at a hotel. I was able to hear Coquis (Frogs from Puerto Rico) every night, they were my white noise and a beautiful reminder of my grandpa who has been in heaven for almost 5 years now. There was no T.V and the scent of flowers where everywhere. 

I did so much that I normally would pass up on, I traveled 2 hours to the country side, made friends with our tour guide and explored a tropical forest filled with wonderment and two beautiful waterfalls. I climbed up the tallest one and jumped down from it and I even swam underwater to a hidden, tiny cave. I touched nature, I danced in her, I grew and found beauty in myself. No one was worried about how they looked there, they were too mesmerized by the beauty that surrounded us and how we were just visitors. It was fun being able to sit back and get lost from the world. Our phones didn't work for hours and for once, I was perfectly fine with that because time didn't exists to me. I wanted to make sure I absorbed each and every wonder to keep for a rainy day when I'd feel weak and hopeless.

If you were to tell me that I could still live my life with a mental illness and be an explorer, I'd laugh at you. Yea, I was scared for a lot of this trip, the unknown is a frightening notion but I felt connected, like me and the island were long lost friends. It's hard to even fathom the emotions that I was feeling throughout this whole trip. So many people go on vacation to get away from their everyday lives but I was going to find myself, to cry, to be angry and to learn. I never want to be someone who needs to go on vacation because their life sucks, no, I want to go on vacation because it helps me grow and find beauty in my fear and home in the unfamiliar.

I don't hold any regrets or resentment towards my father and his family nor my mother. I got to prove to all of them that I am more powerful, more courageous and more determined than my fears or their limitations. I love my mother even more now because I saw where she lived when she held me so safely in her womb. She was young and I'm sure afraid at the age of 24, away from home and her own family. I am so proud of her and everything she has done and still will do, she is my hero and seeing the woman she is becoming for herself, all I can say is "finally". For my father and his family, I respect them all enough to understand why they did what they had to but I'm beyond that, and I'm not missing anything. If they want to be in my life, they have to make the effort.

As for me, I'm truly proud of myself and I cannot thank Brian enough for being there for me, not only as a fiancé but as a friend. Without his help, I'd still be planning this trip, probably too afraid to click that "book it" button. I know who I am now and I guess I always knew but to be able to find a part of me in such an unfamiliar place was exciting. I will be back, eager to learn more about who I am and my culture. I guess I am stronger than I knew and braver than I thought. Hello world, this anxiety warrior can't wait to meet you. 

Until then,

xoxo Jacklyn

Henna by: Swati Rastogi

Braids by: Mama Lune

Photography by: Brian

Outfits: American Eagle

Swim suits: American Eagle, Myra Swim, Asos