by Kennys Tejeda
I'm Dominican. Though some would beg to differ.
All my life, people have squinted and sized me up. Silently playing a game of "is he or is he not?" Those who win the game talk to me in Spanish with confidence. Others smile and employ whatever English they possess to ask me a question.
White people, especially children, play a different game—the game of disbelief. The fact that I didn't speak with an accent or in broken English confused them. We live in a world that preaches to be yourself, but if we don't check off the predetermined boxes, we're viewed as strange or out of place. I was like a rare species. "What? You're Spanish!? Speak it!" they would clamor. They'd stare until I amazed them with words they couldn't understand.
I also play a game—the eternal game of catch-up.
As a little boy, I was introverted. A product of "speak only when spoken to." That rule wavered a bit when in the presence of my uncle. Un tiguere de la calle. Fascinated by his swagger, I would try to mimic his energy. It came naturally to him. The Yankees fitted, puffy north face jacket, baggy jeans, and timberlands were his armor. I was a squire hoping to become as confident as him.
I'd tag along to see his girlfriend. Perhaps he took me solely to make himself look exemplary and responsible, but I didn't care. I was just excited to be there. Once when the three of us were watching a show, his girlfriend didn't fathom why a character behaved in a way other than expected based on their appearance. I, the boy genius, said with complete confidence, "Looks can be deceiving." She laughed and blurted, "Yo, he sounds so white." My uncle responded in my defense, "It's the muñequitos that he watches. They're always saying stuff like that." Perplexed, I was unsure how to feel following his comment. I would remember specific phrases when watching television to sound wise. Was the phrase not clever? I was relatively quiet on the bus ride back. I didn't know what to make of their assumptions, causing me to feel stupefied.
As a teenager, I gradually realized that my environment wasn't built for a quiet kid; out of necessity, I became extroverted. Instead of shrugging my shoulders and using indecisiveness as a defense mechanism, I started to say yes to things. A family friend that lived below us collected enough money to bring their son from the Dominican Republic. They asked if I would hang out with the kid, and even though I was terrified, I agreed. Still, a nagging fear derived from my wack-ass Spanish.
In swordplay, the sword is not seen as a tool but as an extension of your arm. I should have applied that concept to my Spanish, but I didn't. I utilized it as a pawn only when there were no other forms of communication. Needless to say, the sword didn't get sharpened often, leaving it muted. The friendship I formed with the boy was full of embarrassment as I stumbled to translate each word. "¿Qué significa eso?" was burned in my head. We were inseparable until his cousins arrived from the Dominican Republic.
The dynamic shifted. He had been here in the U.S. for a couple of years, causing him to feel like the top dog. Although we would all hang out and enjoy each other's company, there were times when I dreaded being around them. I could manage when there was just one person to communicate with, but the patience a group has is thinner than an individual.
One of the primos asked me a question, which threw me. He laughed and said, "Loco, ¿Tu ere Americano o Dominicano? A vece no me recuerdo.” I knew I was being baited. He knew I was born here. Still, I said Dominican to not seem like a punk and not give him the satisfaction. That would be one of the many jabs they'd throw.
Depending on who you ask, I'm now a grown man. My relationship with the language has undoubtedly improved. My sword, although sharp, could still use some refinement. I've come to appreciate the beauty behind speaking the language of my people, Spanish, predominantly Dominican Spanish—fast, wild, and beautiful. Although I remain anxious when I speak it, the more I do, the less fear I have of making mistakes. My ability doesn't define me; it doesn't make me less of who I am. I am Dominican. No one else can validate that besides me.
Kennys Tejeda is a writer, lyricist, and musical artist. He was a former Army National Guardsman and current Firefighter. Kennys currently resides in Salem, Massachusetts. He performs under the pseudonym "Cyan Sueño."