by Amanda M. Ortiz
"Speak to me in a language I can understand." Not words of admonishment from a stranger as one might expect, but from the mouth of a four-year-old I'd been speaking to exclusively in Spanish her entire life. A chiquita I adored and who, though not mine, had my blood running through her veins. Blood that signified a shared place of ancestral origin, even if she'd never beheld it with her own eyes or felt it firmly beneath her feet as I had. Those words felt like a slap and, in many ways, still do — jarring, sharp, unexpected. I can still feel the residual sting all these years later, as if physical contact had been made. Words so out of character and clearly not her own: regurgitated from some embittered adult (or multiple) in her life, resentful of the added language she fluidly spoke and understood that did not pertain to them.
A contentious part of Latin American identity because of its link to colonization, for better or for worse, Spanish is a language that has become one of our most widespread commonalities within the region. And regardless of our status, either as recent transplants or generational descendants, when attempting to make a life here in the U.S., we’ve all been forcibly grouped under that linguistic umbrella. So while not speaking Spanish (fluently or otherwise) doesn’t make one any less Latina/o/e/x, being robbed of that very personal choice to explore, embrace, or renounce it is all wrong.
That this was happening before my eyes wasn’t all that surprising, but witnessing the real-time harmful impact of it was: the piggyback gatekeeping from the whitewashed bubble where she was being raised and the white relatives who comprise her other half being imposed on her so soon. It made me sad for her. That part of her identity being actively choked off and set adrift, only further complicated by potentially half-hearted future attempts to reclaim it. This forced assimilation had sunk its claws in early, and she attested to it without even knowing. What would navigating her identity journey look like in the wake of such a turbulent start?
For me, being Dominican has innately come with layers: some vibrant and blithe I've proudly flaunted; others stifling mantles of frustration and inherited shame. It unsettles me that they can all exist at once, and my fruitless attempts to reconcile them have been my cross to bear. But if nothing else, that's the full picture of what my Dominicanness has been and continues to be: reveling in the beauty while contending with the ugly.
How the right sequence of plucked strings can make the requinto in a bachata weep; a cebolla-crowned mangú con los tres golpes (extra queso frito on the side); our rapid-fire Spanish; a morir soñando made just right; talking baseball plays with my dad the day after a major league game; a “Contriclú” (merengue-flavored, of course) vestida de novia (what’s the point of reserving this only for cerveza?); the gliding, next-level footwork during a típico; that first canela-filled bite of a warm majarete dominicano; the resilience of our pueblo. Just a few of my favorite Dominican things. At its best, how can being Dominican not make us want to rep and wave our banderas high? “Dios, Patria, Libertad.” In their purest forms and void of self-serving motives, those declarations on our escudo feel emblazoned on my soul — bound up in orgullo.
Not to be outdone by the radical shifts, the strides that, to me, never seemed remotely possible:
Dominican-authored books popping up on bestseller lists and prominently on display in bookstores. A dream come true for my younger self, the one that endlessly craved and scoured for them at a time when so few were in circulation.
A new generation giving voice to afrolatinidad and its connection to us, challenging long-sown seeds of internalized self-hate and the rampant state of denial of even the darkest amongst us. The lightning bolt: the link to our long-embraced terms of endearment (I'm looking at you, “negro” y “negra”) and the origin of countless of our most-used words (guineo, merengue, ñame, titingó) — exposed and not quite adding up. A godsend, even if long overdue: the early-stage dial-back (fingers crossed) of the unfortunate racial punchline Dominicans have become.
My rizos: altogether shunned and culturally demonized outside of my immediate family for most of my life, now embraced (and coveted!) in recent years. Primas formerly die-hard religious in their weekly visits to the salón (DR’s sweltering humidity be damned), these days taking ownership of and attempting to grow out their “pajón” in posted, curated selfies. Random señoras stopping me on the street to ask for hair tips. Who would’ve thought?! Not even in my wildest dreams.
And then, the underbelly: the festering, destructive parts. The ones either glossed over or hastily buried and locked up tight (and good luck finding that key). Sure, the talk (except from ones that peg them DR’s glory days) of Trujillo’s barbarism: the disappearances, the slaughter of our beloved Hermanas Mirabal. Almost all of us have heard variations of a familiar tale: how Fulano’s cousin only narrowly escaped or was part of the resistance. But then, in the same breath, the downplaying, the condoning, the outright erasure. Like clockwork, the seething dismissal of genocide as porquería. Mentiras.
Celebrating the wrong independence day as our official one: a misplaced commitment to ignoring documented history in unwavering allegiance to the actual colonizer and its henchmen. The same ones that annihilated the likes of our isla’s legendary Anacaona. Honing and revamping the very tools of subjugation they used on us to strip legitimate Dominicans of their citizenship and neighbors of their rights, their dignity, all in the name of some counterfeit nationalism. Witnessing the patriotas (those upstanding enforcers) hurl “haitiana” at my mom as an insult. Too many Dominicans keeping on in their shameless boasting of all this, loud and proud. But what's to be proud of in any of that? Still, let’s continue to deny, deny, deny. Let’s try to bury it even deeper, push it as far down as it will go. Let’s keep vilifying those who bring it to light as “anti-Dominican.” “Traitors.” Let’s allow it to cleave and calcify divisions within our families and our community. Let's keep allowing that hatred and ignorance to spill over into subsequent generations — a disgraceful inheritance.
I’ve been denied Dominican citizenship twice now in the span of almost two decades. All requisite boxes checked, all documentation in hand. My supposed birthright, according to the Dominican constitution, repeatedly withheld, but these days featured front and center on the consulate’s homepage. Doble nacionalidad being handed out to the diaspora like candy (if you meet the criteria written in invisible ink or grease enough palms, that is). A newly brimming bandwagon.
“Ni de aquí, ni de allá,” that limbo existence that’s always been my inescapable reality. Being treated by Dominicans in DR and stateside like I’m not Dominican enough or, somehow, not the right kind (whatever that means). The rude awakening in my earliest years that country of citizenship or where you're born is not synonymous with homeland; confronting that very American reflex that brands people as “other,” “foreign,” and “alien” in these United States of my birth. It’s all made the word “home” hard to define. It’s prompted an unending search for some semblance of it elsewhere, in the hopes that it exists — that I’ll someday find it or it will find me. It's made postponing return trips to DR after childhood my subconscious coping mechanism until the years have stacked on top of each other. Belonging in the places I’m supposedly meant to has never been seamless. My gatekeepers have worn different faces than those of that now nearly-grown chiquita I once nurtured, but they’ve all had the same MO.
There's a shirt I bought back in college that I still rock when I'm in high spirits. At the time, it felt like one of the coolest things I owned. It boldly reads: “I am the Dominican Dream.” Though I've always felt proud wearing it, I'd be lying if I said that declaration always felt true. And yet, me being that dream has been real whether or not I've known or believed it. It's been true even before I learned to assert my power and decide for myself what it meant and how I embody it, while spurning all the opposition and hypocrisy. It’s been real not because I've achieved some lofty level of bragging rights or status, but because my right to exist is what my raíces fought and often gave their lives for, even if they couldn’t envision that bigger picture in the midst of their struggle. And so, I owe it to them to take my existence a step further: to tap into every part of my being so that I can lay claim to what they were denied and find a way to thrive. To carve out a place for myself with my own two hands, if need be, where one might not readily exist.
That means writing, creating, and telling my stories and truth in a blend of my first language and my adopted ones. It means not second-guessing my ability to speak any of them and learning from (and laughing at when I can manage it) my occasional fumbles. It means recognizing that there is no person who can or has the actual power or whom I'll permit to dictate to me the alleged “rules” of authenticity. No matter who tries to say otherwise, that official stamp of approval simply doesn't exist. Dominicanness is as much mine as it belongs to any Dominican. It means I have a say, and I will use my voice at every opportunity to declare and redefine and challenge what it supposedly means to be Dominican. You can take it or leave it, hate it or love it, but if there's one thing I know in my marrow, it's this: dominicana de pura cepa sí soy.
Amanda M. Ortiz is a NY-born-and-bred, first-generation writer. Pursuing degrees in international affairs and Latin American studies sparked a commitment to peacebuilding and remembrance initiatives in post-genocide societies (particularly Hispaniola) that has yet to diminish. Her writing is a space of candid cultural, ancestral, and personal reflection, previously published by Dominican Writers Association. In addition to Spanish, she is fluent in Portuguese with a deep love for Brasil. Her writing, travels, book adventures, and editing pursuits are chronicled on Instagram: @amopalabras and Twitter: @amo_palabras