Rosario Dawson On When She Knew She'd Adopt a Child: 'That Moment Happened When I Was 5'
Growing up in poverty in New York City, Rosario Dawson didn't have heat, water, or electricity—but she did have loving parents who gave her the strong values she still lives by today.
This week on Parents's podcast We Are Family, the producer, activist, and Mandalorian actor chats with Parents digital content director and host Julia Dennison about growing up with a chosen family and deciding from an early age that she wanted the same thing as an adult and would adopt one day.
"I get that question a lot," says Dawson. "What was that moment when you decided to become a parent and decided to adopt? That moment happened when I was 5."
Dawson reveals that she was just 5 years old when she learned that her dad was not actually her biological father—and how her perspective completely changed from that point on.
"I could have been like all the other kids that I know around the neighborhood who are of single parent homes," she says. "And he married my mom and I was a cute little baby, but what if he hadn't? I'm 5 now? Would someone have wanted to marry my mom with a 5-year-old? And at that age, I remember literally telling my parents I was going to adopt, and I was going to adopt older because it was like, it's so easy for people to want the cute little baby. But what about the kids my age and older, who also need parents?"
That's why, when the opportunity arose, Dawson wanted to "pay it forward" like she felt her dad had and adopted her daughter Isabella, now 18, at 11 years old.
"Family to me is blood or chosen," says Dawson. "It is your community, it is your posse, it is your ride or dies. And I feel very lucky and grateful to have a very big family that encompasses the world."
Check out We Are Family Episode 10 now for more with Dawson on growing up in New York City, adoption, and her decision not to allow her daughter to have a cell phone.
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Rosario Dawson: Hi, my name is Rosario Dawson, and family to me is blood or chosen. It is your community, it is your posse, it is your ride or dies. And I feel very lucky and grateful to have a very big family that encompasses the world.
Julia Dennison: Hello and welcome to We Are Family. I'm here with actor and producer Rosario Dawson. She's known for her roles in Kids, The Mandalorian, Rent, Jane the Virgin, Sin City, and playing Claire Temple in the Marvel Universe. She was born and raised in New York City. She's mom to her adopted daughter, Isabella. Rosario, welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for chatting with us today.
Rosario: Thank you.
Julia: I wanted to start by talking about your background and your upbringing. So you grew up in New York City. Can you talk a little bit about what your childhood was like? Who made up your family when you were a kid?
Rosario: I was born in Coney Island, Brooklyn. My mom was a teenage mom. She got pregnant with me at 16, gave birth to me at 17, and then married my not-biological dad, but my chosen dad, when I was 1 years old when she was 18. When I was first born, I was living with my mom and my grandmother and my mom's brothers. And then my parents moved into Manhattan and my younger brother was born and we moved into a squat on the Lower East Side. And I learned very much about how tenacious my young parents were and their drive to give us access to things they otherwise couldn't have afforded.
You know, that's the place where I got discovered and kind of moved on in life, but still stayed in the neighborhood. I'm on the board of the Lower East Side Girls Club, and I pass it on. My dad didn't technically adopt me, but I ended up adopting because I said I would do so when I was a kid, when I found out he wasn't my biological father, that I was like, well, whoa, I've got to pay this forward. And so my family is a really big mix of people that we've met along our travels and you know, Puerto Rican, Afro-Cuban, Irish, Native American, blood and not. It encompasses a lot of spaces.
Julia: That's awesome. So growing up ... I think I've read that you had, at times, no electricity, no water sometimes. It was a tenement building. Since you didn't have a lot when you were growing up, what mattered most to your family? What were the family values that your parents instilled in you?
Rosario: Well, yeah, when we moved into the squat, there was no heat, water, or electricity. And the people that originally broke into the building were literally using compound buckets for toilets and showering using hydrant water. And being that we were the only family that moved in and my parents didn't want us to be taken by child services, that was something that had to immediately change. So within just several months, we ended up having sewage lines. They put in ... Over the immediate first years, they were changing the windows out, getting ... We didn't have hot water, we boiled the water for our baths, but we at least had running water and all of those things. And it was, just, it was really remarkable to see, from the very beginning, the kind of stuff people threw out. My dad did construction, my mom learned to be a plumber and an electrician. And they would go and get these jobs and they would just gut and just throw everything out.
And so from the very beginning, since I was younger, it was always about hand-me-downs, thrift shopping, upcycling things, repairing, mending stuff, and repurposing stuff. And so whether that was the home around us that we were building very consciously and intentionally, or it was going out and taking advantage of the things that don't cost anything. Like we could go for a walk on FDR drive and see the river. Jump on a train really inexpensively and go out and be on the beach all day. Go camping. That was something we could all do as a family that wasn't super expensive. It created really beautiful memories and had us connected with each other and with the natural world around us in a way that really fed our souls and our spirits.
And so it's just, it's really interesting when I look back on so many of those choices and realize a lot of it came down to the expense, but it wasn't just that. They could have just decided cheap, terrible food and sticking us in front of the TV all day. That also doesn't cost anything. But it was about really being intentional about the experiences we were having and the connections we were developing about the greater world around us and our involvement in it. And it's really beautiful, those life lessons, when I look back.
Julia: I love that so much. I grew up in New York City. My daughter is growing up in New York City. I feel very passionate about raising her in the city and what that means for her. But obviously, you're very passionate about nature and getting outside, and sometimes that's a challenge for kids growing up in urban areas like New York City. What are ways you think that places like New York City could do better by kids when it comes to giving them green spaces and getting them out into nature?
Rosario: You know, it's interesting, you said getting into nature. I'm working with Tom's of Maine on this campaign and their aim is to have 150,000 kids who normally are in green dead zones. So they don't have community parks or community gardens. They don't have really even any trees around. And so they're starved of that connection and that does terrible things to mental health and emotional health and physical well-being.
So I really love that this is a commitment that they're doing for three years, with three million dollars behind it. Working in collaboration with a bunch of organizations and specifically looking to target young people in low-income communities or communities that are green deserts, and trying to get people to know just how valuable it is to start young with our kids being in the outdoors. It does wonders for them emotionally and everything themselves, but also, it creates champions for nature in the future. This is how you get our young climate change activists going, by having them fall in love with Mother Earth and having Mother Earth let them know what they can do in return.
I'm grateful that I had parents who really understood the value and went out of their way to make sure that we had access and a connection there. And I'm so grateful to work with organizations that make the impact because I remember when I was a kid, the reason why we had so many community gardens and those were not lots that were just taken up and put buildings in, it was because of people like Bette Midler. Bette Midler has been fighting for community gardens and spaces in New York City for decades. She's still fighting for those spaces. And she made it possible for me to have that. I want to be able to continue to pay it forward like she did.
Julia: So your daughter, Lola, how old is she now?
Rosario: Not Lola. Lola is definitely one of those things where ... It's so interesting. When I adopted her, I didn't put her name out. It wasn't like I did a press release or anything, and I don't know where it came from, but somebody decided that her name was Lola and then everyone just kept running with it. And I was like, oh, I'm not correcting it because I don't need everybody to know my kid's name. And then as she got older, she was like, "Mom, we go out places and people are like, Lola, Lola. And I don't like this." So I had to finally tell everyone. So her name is Isabella. It's not that far off.
Rosario: So maybe someone heard something kind of strange. But she-
Julia: Oh, Isabella.
Rosario: ... when she was in North Carolina, she went by Bella and now she prefers Isa.
Rosario: Yeah. And so-
Julia: So Isa's how old?
Rosario: She's 18 now. So it's been seven years.
Julia: Oh wow. Oh my goodness.
Rosario: So crazy.
Rosario: Thank you.
Julia: And you adopted her back in 2014. So she was 11 when you adopted her, is that right?
Rosario: She was 11 when she first came to live with us. The adoption finalized when she was ... In 2014. But yeah, she came to live with us in 2011.
Julia: Right. So can you talk a little bit about how she came to live with you? How you knew she was ... You talked about how there wasn't even ever a question that she was your kid when you met her, which is such a beautiful thing. Can you talk about that journey and how you just knew instantly that she was the one?
Rosario: Well, as you know, it's really interesting ... So I'll start with ... I remember when I was 5, and my parents telling me that my dad, Gregory, was not my biological father. And it was like, wait, so then I could have been like all the other kids that I know around the neighborhood who are of single parent homes. And he married my mom and I was a cute little baby, but what if he hadn't? I'm 5 now? Would someone have wanted to marry my mom with a 5-year-old? And at that age, I remember literally telling my parents I was going to adopt, and I was going to adopt older because it was like, it's so easy for people to want the cute little baby. But what about the kids my age and older, who also need parents? Like a lot of the kids that I went to school with in my neighborhood.
So, my uncle ended up marrying a woman who had two children and one of those children was my daughter's mom. So when they got divorced ... I had known her when we were kids and we were young cousins together by marriage. When they divorced, we lost contact with them. And she came back around when she was in her late teens, now a mom herself, and a little girl named Isabella. So I got to meet Isabella when she was a baby and then her mom disappeared and left and we didn't see or hear from her for years.
And when she contacted us a couple years later and said, "Hey, long time, no speak. I'm kind of going through a hard time. If you could give me some support with my kids." And of course my mom and I were like, of course, and you know, how's Isabella? And she's like, "Oh no, not Isabella. Isabella has been in foster care for years. I'm talking about my other kids." And we were like, what?
So apparently she had pretty much been taken into foster care right after we had seen her when she was a baby. And then she'd come out for a little bit and ended up right back in there again. And we did not know. We found the place where she was and contacted them and let them know, listen, we are not blood family, but we are family. And if anything happens and she's ever up for adoption, let us know. At the time she was supposed to be adopted by her foster family that she had been with for two years. And then they called us back a year later and said, "Actually, that family is not going to adopt her. Are you still interested?"
And then we started the whole process and started to visit with her. So it was really, really special in so many different ways because I did get to hold her as a baby.
Julia: That's so wonderful.
Rosario: And she looks just like my mom. The big curly hair. She's tall, Isabella is taller than me now. I'm surrounded by giants. She's named after my grandmother, so my grandmother was Isabel. My mom's Isabel Celeste, I'm Rosario Isabel. And then Isa is Isabella because her mom loved my grandmother and that time when her mom was married to my uncle. And when she had her daughter, decided to name her after my grandmother. So it's just crazy that this kid on so many levels is mine. Because I know I get that question a lot—what was that moment when you decided to become a parent and decided to adopt? That moment happened when I was 5. But as I got older, I wasn't so interested in the whole adoption process in the same way as I really ... Orphanages and things that I'd visited over the years, I felt to be a very Western idea.
And most of the time in communities that I work in, in, say, Africa, throughout Ghana and Sierra Leone, the community absorbs children. We don't just put them in a box and then when they age out at 18, then they have no resources and no community. That's such a not-healthy way of doing things. So I thought it was just going to be about sponsoring. So I started sponsoring a family in Sierra Leone. I thought, I'll mentor kids. I worked with Lower East Side Girls Club, that'll be my way of giving back to young people who need more support.
And then God is good all the time and said, but you're actually also going to be an official mom. And this little girl belongs as a real part of our family. She should not be out there all on her own. And it's just been really, really amazing since.
Julia: That is so moving. Does she have any kind of relationship with her biological mom at this point?
Rosario: We've had a chance to talk to her a couple times early on, but she kind of disappeared again. So we absolutely would love to be able to have that, especially because Isabella has siblings. And so we just know ... That's part of our conversation regularly of like, just being prepared. She feels like an only child, but technically, she's really not. She's got several siblings and just to really take this time to really work on herself and her own trauma and her challenges, because at some point those other family members are going to be there. And it's really important to be able to be open to that experience when it comes, but that's not your responsibility. Her responsibility is to really heal herself and the generational trauma we've all ... Because I've got trauma from growing up in my biological family. Our growing up stories are all very different, but often times have a lot of things in common. And so these past couple of years, she's taught me so much about transforming and developing the benefits of therapy and being really conscious and intentional about self-care and boundaries. And it's just been really, really powerful and beautiful how much we've all grown together and I'm excited for however she wants to use that in the world moving forward, whether it is getting more in contact with some of that blood family or creating her own family or whatever it is she wants to do. Just so that ... Whatever the negatives of our past, we don't just keep perpetuating. That we really are fortified with what we can create.
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Julia: Right. It's so much for a young person to carry and it sounds like she's just very capable and wonderful. And you two sound so lovely together as mother-daughter. 11 ... Tween, teenage years can be challenging, obviously, for all families. I have a 5-year-old, so I'm always like, what do I need to be prepared for?
Rosario: All the things!
Julia: So, yeah. How has it ... And it also obviously, Kids. I mean, you starred in Kids. And I feel like that is such a bleak ... Think, that was the original, bleak imagery of how bad teenage-hood can potentially be. How has it been for you with Isabella? And what are the things that you'd like to do to bond as mother-daughter?
Rosario: Well, you think about that, going to Kids, right? Like that was latchkey kids in New York who are unsupervised. And this is what happens when you're not engaged in your kids' lives and you're not someone they can trust and they can go to. That you have healthy boundaries with and that they don't feel respected by you. I think this generation in particular is really the first generation that's growing up not expecting to grow up into an adult world, but actually feeling a lot of pressure to be on top of it at a young age. We watched our parents' TV shows and movies. We listened to the music that they did. We had to live by their rules. These kids are online, they've got 24-hour channels dedicated to them. It's not just Saturday morning cartoons like I did. And then I watched telenovelas and soap operas with my grandma, because it was an adult world. It's just a very different thing. And the expectation and the pressure they have on themselves is so huge and them going through .... I can be like, oh, I recognize that hormonal shift in energy, but it's still not the same. It really isn't. You know? And I think that these kids really, really need to have people in their corner because they live in a whole other dimension. Online space is literally a new dimension and there are so many parents who are so clueless and it's basically like you're going, go ahead, go sign up online and walk down that dark alley by yourself. I'm not going to pay any attention to you. What are you doing? Right. So we really need to be engaged with them and have them want to trust us to tell us what they're experiencing on that, and every other space.
Julia: Totally. I feel like as kids, we were able to leave school behind. They never get to leave school behind. It is always in their phone and always challenging them. So I have high hopes for this generation though, because they seem so awesome and so together and so with it and so happy to change the world. So keeping my fingers crossed for that. I wanted to ask you, how has your attitude to family changed now that you've had your daughter?
Rosario: Yeah, I mean, going back to what we were just talking about, these kids are also looking at themselves all day long. And they're looking at themselves with filters and like one of the things that was really important for me was not allowing my daughter to have a cell phone. She just wasn't allowed. We were living in LA. I'm like, you're being driven everywhere. You're always supervised, basically, to some capacity. It's not the same thing where I begged my parents for a beeper and had quarters in my pockets to use the payphone because I was a latchkey kid. That's not necessary. And with all the stuff that she had gone through and the challenges she particularly faced because of her childhood, it didn't seem like the right thing to do to have my kid disappear into a phone. And not only just disappear into it in a way that would have prevented us from engaging and developing a relationship because we didn't have those 11 years previous, to feel like ... It's a privilege to get annoyed with ... Be annoyed with your family and feel like it's redundant. You know what I mean? That means you've spent time with each other. We were still getting to know each other.
So it was like, I don't want anything getting in between that process. And also, you're still developing and development shouldn't happen online. You can present yourself online, but first you got to get to know yourself. And so it's been really, really powerful. Of course, there was pushback on that, but I think, especially watching films like The Social Dilemma and having really clear conversations. I read my friend, Jim Steyer's book, Talking Back to Facebook, and what brain development looks like from infancy through teenage years.
This is a huge human experiment that we're going on. We have always learned three-dimensionally, and now, everyone's learning on a screen. That's wild. We have no idea what the implications are for that. So this campaign that I'm a part of, the therapy that I do with my daughter that is specifically around being outdoors, working with animals, being in the sunshine, getting your hands in the dirt, all of those things, I'm super intentional about from the collaborations that I am to the kind of stuff that I do outdoors with my daughter, to make sure that those types of connections that are ancient. Our selves, our body knows it. We have the systems in place to really connect and be bettered when we are engaged in that way.
And I want that for her, for her future, you know? And I want her to have a beautiful, healthy future because young people like her are invested and being the climate change activists that we needed yesterday. Because it's going to take all of us to make the difference, to make this a more equitable world and healthier and safer world.
Julia: That is a beautiful way to finish. Rosario Dawson, thank you so much for coming on We Are Family. It's been so great to talk to you. And all the love and blessings to your family.
Rosario: Blessings to you as well and your little one. Be prepared for those hormones. It's going to be fun!
Julia: Thanks so much for listening to my conversation with Rosario Dawson. What a great lesson in how family activities don't need to cost a whole lot of money.
Come back next time when I'll be talking to the first ever African American principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland.
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