Updated: Apr 14, 2022
I first realized how powerful the United States was around the time my two front teeth came back in. A new, long-limbed student glided into our classroom at my elementary school in Salcedo, D.R. He was a “Dominican York” kid—the son of Dominicans living in New York. Another classmate whispered in my ear, “See how big he is? Americans are stronger and smarter than us because we grow up eating plantains and they grow up eating conflé.”
Back then, cornflakes were cost-prohibitive in the Dominican Republic, except for rich families. Plantains, rice, and beans were the base of our diets. Everybody “knew” that plantains contained a substance that made you dumb—yet the people making these claims didn’t stop eating them. A simple glance at the side of a Frosted Flakes box would reveal the extensive list of vitamins the cereal contained—subtypes of B vitamins I didn’t even know existed back then. If the list of nutrients didn’t sell it, the ads with the Tiger would. Anyone who wanted their sports team to win had to eat Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. No wonder people from the US always won the Olympics while the D.R. rarely ever won anything. American athletes had Frosted Flakes for breakfast.
I tease David, my American-born, over six-foot-tall husband all the time about it (I would say my “gringo” husband, but he hates that word). “Of course you are taller and stronger than me,” I tell him. “That’s because you grew up eating cornflakes.”
I’ve been an official American now for almost a decade and living in the US for two—yet old habits are hard to break. I’m far from feeling like the “real American” David is. It’s not about my DNA, my tanned skin, or my accent. It’s about an intangible sense of privilege and pride that had been unknown to me, until I heard the words “pursuit of happiness.” I burst into tears the first time I grasped those words. I was studying for my naturalization exam. I had just left my then-husband after years of mistreatment, and still struggled with guilt of “giving up on him” and asking for a divorce. It was mind-blowing to think that in this country, seeking out my own happiness was not an act of selfishness but a constitutional right.
Even as a little girl, I knew what the word “American” meant. It meant: Be careful. This guy may look harmless, with his red-burnt skin, his goofy shorts, and his tendency to overpay, but if you lay a finger on him, he’ll go to his consulate, summon the US Army, and you’ll pay with your blood. In summary: Don’t mess with this one, someone has his back.
What a wonderful and enviable thing to imagine! The Dominican government had NOBODY’s back. Are you kidding me? I grew up scared of policemen because everyone knew they were the first suspects when a crime had occurred. After a lifetime of tasting presidential corruption and government abuse, my naturalization felt as though I were a battered child who had been rescued from a violent home, and brought to live with rich, adoptive parents. I felt grateful, cautious, and very out of place. I had to overcome decades of belonging to the oppressed group and prove I deserved my membership to this new family—this exclusive club of The Winners of History.
I must clarify that my husband David is not an average American. He has traveled extensively and acquired cosmopolitan tastes. (Proof of that? He married me!) Still, he is the best exponent of American ideals. I call it “the cornflakes personality.” Other experts call it “the syndrome of growing up hearing that your country put people on the moon,” or “the syndrome of we have more missiles than all of you.”
1- The Cornflakes Personality is pure Self-Confidence.
Once, I bought a TV. Right after unboxing it, I found a crack in the screen. The idea of having to return it to the store made my insides twist with anxiety. My hands trembled as I repacked it in its box. What if they didn’t believe me when I said that it was already cracked? What if they said, “you broke it and now you’re trying to make us refund you. Shame on you!” To make things worse, I couldn’t find the receipt. I was sure the store would refuse to give me credit or an exchange, even if I brought the credit card I used to buy it.
My palms were sweaty against the steering wheel as I drove to Wal-Mart. I felt nauseous as I waited in line at customer service, listening to the dinging of cashier registers and the murmur of busy shoppers. I couldn’t make eye contact with the clerk as I explained the situation. I expected her at any moment to scold me, or to at least interrogate me. “Can you prove you didn’t do something to mess it up, drop it on the floor or hit it with a baseball bat?” Luckily, she didn’t ask any of those questions and the exchange went smoothly.
Excerpt from Ni De Aqui Ni de Alla Anthology