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Dawson was born in New York City. Her mother, Isabel Celeste, is a writer and singer who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent. Isabel was sixteen years old when Rosario was born; she never married Rosario’s biological father, Patrick C. Harris.
When Rosario was one year old, her mother married Greg Dawson, a construction worker, who “loved and raised Rosario as his own daughter”. Dawson stated, “He’s always been my dad”. Dawson has a half-brother, Clay, who is four years younger. Isabel and Greg divorced in 2001. Dawson lived in Garland, Texas for a year and went to Garland High School.
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At the age of 21, Isabel moved the family into an abandoned building squat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she and her husband renovated an apartment and installed the plumbing and electrical wiring for the building, creating affordable housing where Rosario and Clay would grow up. Dawson has cited this part of her history when explaining how she learned that, “If you wanted something better, you had to do it all yourself.