Christina Mendez loves to perform. She’s bubbly and warm. And when your grandfather is the greatest merenguero in Dominican Republic history, it might be safe to say that performing runs deep in your blood. Christina was an aspiring singer as a teenager, performing in the school choir. Interestingly, merengue was never part of her repertoire. Perhaps, because she’s lived her entire life on New York City’s Upper West Side, in a neighborhood where the name Joseito Matteo probably would not have carried much weight.
However, she is quick to point out that if she had grown up just a few blocks north in Washington Heights, the epicenter of Dominican culture, she almost certainly would have been inundated with “free cake, free everything.” At age 92, no other Dominican singer is more revered than Joseito Matteo.
While Christina is exceptionally honored by her family’s musical legacy, “I’m always proud of his (her grandfather’s) success,” she never wanted to ride the coattails of her famous grandfather. She is charting her own course but her journey to the ascendency of Plus Size modeling has taken a few detours.
“When I was in school, I had a problem with cutting class. They couldn’t keep me in school. I was a hot mess. It was hard to control me,” says Christina. It took a clever Spanish teacher, Jose Melendez, to keep her in the Humanities High School building. He tempted her with opportunities to model in after school fashion shows in an effort to keep her and her friends from being truant. Christina describes Mr. Melendez’s approach to the catwalk, “He hit the runway like he was Naomi Campbell; he taught us how to walk the runway.” Christina was hooked and continued to model. Inspired, she graduated from high school and enrolled at Atlanta’s Morris Brown College, one of the United States’ historically black colleges.
As she recounts, Christina selected Morris Brown for two main reasons: First, “I love black people…. I consider myself a Black Latina. I don’t fit the standard look (Latinas in the media). My grandfather is very dark and my mother is very dark. My mother had a lot of issues about being black. She has said statements like, ‘You are light. You are going to get more opportunities.’ And I would say, I love your color. I tan to be your color. You are crazy. You look great.” Second, Christina wanted to live as far away from home as possible, spread her wings and be independent.
After two years at Morris Brown, she became pregnant and headed back to New York City. Her son, Damian, was born in 1997. Two years later, in 1999, while researching preschool options for Damian, Christina received a diagnosis that left her in utter disbelief. She was told her child was autistic, instead of artistic as she had originally understood. The diagnosis was profound, “…..Your child will need constant care, will never speak, never tell you he loves you.”
Fifteen years ago, autism was relatively unknown to the general public. “At that time, I was given the worst case scenario because that’s all that was known about autism,” says Christina. Males were mostly diagnosed with the disease. Today, while autism is still more prevalent in boys, the number of cases of girls diagnosed with the disease is steadily increasing. Currently, according to Christina, one in 66 children are now diagnosed with autism; compared with one in 269 children fifteen years ago.
Although Damian was diagnosed at age 2, it took 4 more years and a visit to a neurologist before Christina sought intervention and support for her son. Her delay in intervening was influenced by her mother and Damian’s father. They both disregarded his initial diagnosis. As an advocate for Autism Speaks, she is a spokesperson for the organization, Christina encourages Latinas to take early diagnosis seriously. “Being Latina, and hearing diagnosis is harder. We come from a real pride culture but the longer we take to accept it, the harder it is to start early intervention. Early intervention is key when their minds are fresh and taking it all in.”
But through it all, Christina is having fun. Her career as a model is blossoming. She ventured into unchartered territory on February 13 during New York Fashion Week. Plus Size Models are not normally in demand during the semi-annual shows. Historically, designers choose straight size models (size 0-2) to show off their clothing lines. Breaking with tradition, one couture designer, Adrian Alicea, selected Christina to walk the runway in a gown designed specifically for her. Describing the garment, she says,“It is red, leather and short and showing a whole lot. Definitely different than what I’m used to. But if you are going to show curves on the runway, show curves. Don’t have me in something frumpy trying to hide, I’m a Plus Size. Just let it all out. And it’s going to be out…all out.” Christina’s hopeful the opportunity she had will open doors for more Plus Size Models.
She dreams of breaking down additional barriers in her profession. After giving birth to her daughter, Cailey, 18 months ago, Christina is ready to show her sexy side. “I’ve always wanted to do lingerie. If Victoria’s Secret had a Plus Size Line, I’d love to do it.
Christina admits that her life has been unconventional. She concedes she may not be the slimmest woman in the room and there are still parts of her body and personality she might like to tweak but she’s comfortable and happy in her skin.
“I blog a lot at Happy Curvy You. I tell young girls and aspiring models not every girl will be discovered at Starbucks. There are a million ways to get to your dreams. Click on the ones (attributes) you do like and turn them up.”
She smiles and laughs, turning it up yet another notch.
From our partners at Los Afro-Latinos