by Caroline Melendez
To me, visiting New York always felt like some sort of rite of passage. Born in The Heights and moving to New Jersey when I was just two felt a bit como un robo. My family worked so hard to get into this country, so to my parents, leaving un barrio malo was the most important feat, especially with my mother pregnant with my brother.
My grandfather had sixteen kids, nine of whom were with my grandmother—though she didn't birth them all, they were all her children. Mamá had nine children she birthed: four girls and five boys. She took her four girls and moved to New York, leaving her five prepubescent boys with their eldest brother, who was already married and had children of his own.
Mamá and Papá left their five babies for ten years while they worked to get enough money to bring the rest of their children. This country's immigration process continues to baffle me. My family was full of the most Catholic people I've ever seen. To this day, I have yet to meet anyone as by the book as Mamá. Coming here without papers was out of the question for her: "Si es ilegal, no es como Dios quiere." So, she and my grandfather sacrificed their family. I live my life according to their tenacious example. To this day, visiting Abuela's old block on Havemayer Street in Williamsburg still gives me so much comfort, though it's hardly recognizable with the gentrified apartments and the new restaurant where the bodega used to be. New York felt like the closest I would ever be to the Dominican Republic.
When I was born, my parents lived in the apartment building that straddles the George Washington Bridge off St. Nicholas Avenue. When I drive into New York and pass under the apartments, I always point out, "These are the apartments we lived in," though I have no actual memory of living there. I have this unexplained urge to let everyone know these are my people because these people were my tethers to who I was as una dominicana. That is until they fell in love working at Zabar's, surrounded by rich white people and barely making enough money for rent. They did what they could to move us to New Jersey into a house they could call their own.
I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood: a town next door to Newark and about twenty minutes from Paterson, the mecca of New Jersey Dominicans. Though it was predominantly white, I was surrounded by a lot of diversity, but one group was particularly absent: Dominicans. For a long time, my family was the only Dominican family in the school. So, visiting my cousins, tios, and abuelos in New York every Sunday felt oddly fulfilling, like I belonged. When elementary school began teaching Spanish, I could not contain my excitement. In a school district where the majority of the Latino population was Puerto Rican, and most did not speak the language, I had to let it be known que yo hablaba el idioma. My family, seeing The Bronx, Brooklyn, Washington Heights, and Queens on Sundays, and the incredibly imperfect Spanish I spoke were always what made me feel closest to my Dominican culture. To most—because I grew up in a multicultural, though predominantly white, area—I could not possibly know what it was to be Dominican. Fighting for myself within my own culture, internally fighting to prove that I am worthy of the Dominican title in a world full of blanquitos, and fighting to prove my identity, was honestly exhausting.
I identified as a "no sabo" kid, even though my Spanish is pretty fluent (yet highly imperfect). I don't know how many can relate, but the horrible flood of shame I felt when saying the incorrect word when speaking Spanish still feels almost debilitating. I cannot express how many times I will be speaking to a native speaker and think: "I'm killing this right now!" Only to then say the wrong word. It makes me want never to speak again. But knowing Spanish, as broken as mine, has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Being bilingual is one of my most prized attributes. My husband—a half-Salvadorian, half-American man also coming to terms with navigating his own identity—doesn't speak Spanish and has always struggled with the idea of learning due to the embarrassment he felt growing up as a Latino who didn't speak the language.
I have always envied all the Dominicans I hear saying that going to DR feels like going home. To me, going to DR feels foreign. I fear every day that my children will not experience Spanish the way I did, and I pray I am able to give my future children the beautiful gift of being bilingual. Still, it was difficult for me. I did not visit the Dominican Republic until I was sixteen years old and felt like a fish out of water, leading to guilt for feeling like a tourist. My family, visiting New York, and my passable, average Spanish are my ties to my culture. These small, maybe insignificant experiences are my Dominican identity. And as minor as they may seem, to me, they are everything.
Caroline Melendez is a first-generation Dominican-American, New Jersey native. Embracing cultures while continuing to have ties to her roots, Caroline continues to learn and grow while on her own path. Caroline's writing touches on growing up outside of what she considers a Dominican-American experience, her family's journey to America, and navigating her identity while paving her way in American society continues to be a feat.