The reactions I've received after telling a fellow Dominican I've only been to the DR twice have been almost as harsh if not worse than when a fellow Latino discovers I'm not fluent in Spanish. Almost immediately I'm told I'm not Latina enough.
I don't know what it means to grow up spending all my summers in Dominican Republic, bringing back Brugal or dulces de leche to friends and family in New York City. I didn't get to experience buying 50 cent ices from the doña down the street or motorbike ride with my third and fourth cousins. So how Dominican can I really be, right?
These are the kinds of things I was constantly ridiculed for while growing up. I know now as an adult that not being fluent enough in Spanish or having only visited the Dominican Republic twice doesn't make me any less Latina than anyone else. But when I was a young teen it did take a toll on my self-esteem and identity.
What a lot of these folks don't know, is that my two Dominican parents migrated to the States when they were young kids and as a result that had a huge impact on how my siblings and I were raised. My judgmental critics also don't know that I speak broken Spanish because I didn't grow up speaking to my parents in Spanish. They assume it’s because I didn’t want to learn.
While my parents did try to instill a strong sense of Dominican pride in us, they allowed us to respond to them in English because they were afraid of us not fitting in. Both my parents were teased and bullied in junior high school for having heavy accents, so it's natural that they didn't want the same for their kids.
As we got older they recognized the importance of us being fluent in two languages and the importance of us being more in touch with our roots, which is why I speak it a lot better than I did when I was younger.
So when I told my mom I had no interest in having a Quinceaña or sweet sixteen party, she suggested a trip to the Dominican Republic instead. I was constantly asking about the island and my family over there, and she thought it would be a great opportunity for me to learn more about my culture. It was hands down one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. I even promised myself I would go again and that I would remain in touch with my relatives, but life of course got in the way.
My focus after high school was my journalism-career dreams and traveling with friends. So the next couple of summers consisted of magazine internships, intensive summer courses, and a few vacays here and there with my besties or my then boyfriend.
But now that my 30th birthday is nearing, the Dominican Republic has been on my mind again. My 87-year-old grandmother is getting older and, though she visits the DR almost every year, soon she won't be able to travel as often. She's the only close family member I have that would be able to connect me with all my relatives on the island. Not only is it important for me to reconnect with family, but also to reconnect with my roots. I want to be able to tell my future kids more about their ancestors and the wonderful little island they came from. It's like the famous James Burke quote goes: "You can only know where you're going if you know where you've been."