Learning to define and accept myself
by Dayhana Altagracia Ray
Throughout my life, I lived in the in-between. Feeling that a part of me belonged while the other did not, unable to feel complete. Growing up, I was not Dominican enough or American enough for others. A constant reminder that I could never belong and was always othered, no matter how hard I tried to fit in. I attempted to hide parts of myself in order to fit in, yet these attempts left me disconnected from myself.
The eldest child of a single immigrant mother, at home, I spoke Spanish and ate appetizing Dominican food. Outside my home, I lived a different life. From an early age, I knew I was that kid who grew up far removed from the motherland. Unable to experience a Dominican summer with all my cousins. I spent my summers playing at the park, hanging out on the stoop, or enjoying the water from the open fire hydrant. Although I enjoyed my summer breaks, I felt a twinge of sadness because I had never returned to my motherland since immigrating to the US. A part of me left behind.
As many immigrant kids did, I attempted my shot at assimilation to ensure I could fit in. I didn't speak Spanish outside my house and barely listened to Spanish music. I mostly listened to hip-hop, R&B, and Rap (I could sing all of Mary J’s great hits if you let me). I struggled to find my footing, struggled to let my true self shine for fear of not being accepted. I felt that I was living in a shell made for someone else, but I was able to fit in just enough. I found comfort and safety in doing this for many years. However, in the end, my attempts at assimilation only further disconnected me from my true self. Navigating back to myself has proven to be a challenging and rewarding journey.
As I got older and experienced new people, I had to navigate the curiosity of others. This was when the questions began. “Where are you from?” I would proudly declare I am Dominican. However, people would not accept my response; they’d flat-out tell me, “No way!” This generated so much anger my blood would boil (a feeling I later became too familiar with), “How dare they deny my identity.”
I received comments such as “No way you weren't born here, you don't have a Spanish accent” or “Your English is perfect.” As if this is the qualification to be “American enough.” The first time I told someone I was born in the Dominican Republic, they said, “No way! You can't be Dominican; all Dominicans are black. You are too white to be Dominican.” All external reminders that I was different didn't fit into their perceived boxes, and a nudge to return to my shell. I learned to find comfort in living in my shell. To hide parts of me to avoid the ever-lurking feeling of the in-between whispering that I didn’t belong anywhere.
The first time I visited the Dominican Republic, I was 13 years old. I had lived almost ten years away from my birthplace. My Spanish was rusty, but my excitement about visiting the motherland overshadowed my insecurities. I told myself, finally, a place where my identity wouldn't be denied or questioned, and I would finally fit in (right?).
The excitement quickly faded the moment I stepped out of the Motoconcho. “Llegaron los Americanos,” many proclaimed. What a weird statement because in the U.S., I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t American. “Mira la gringa,” someone blurted at me. I had never heard this, so I smiled shyly and made a mental note to ask my mom what the heck that meant.
Though we were welcomed with open arms and excitement, I quickly noticed assumptions were made that I spoke no Spanish or would follow gender norms. I struggled to understand the lingo. So many jokes flew over my head, but I made my attempts and laughed when everyone else did. The excitement I once felt dissipated quickly, the nagging feeling that I could not fit here either.
When I finally asked my mom what gringa meant, she told me it meant white girl. I was confused and angry, The same anger I felt when people denied my Dominicanness. I knew I was light-skinned, but I knew I was not white. She made attempts to explain, yet I was not in a place to receive. It did not ease the anger and sadness I felt. I was the girl who grew up in America with rusty Spanish. Despite my many attempts at connecting with other family members, I always felt that I was just la gringa cousin.
All these experiences took a toll on my mental health. I disconnected from myself to fit into a more palatable shell which raised the least amount of questions. I now know that a sense of belonging is needed to develop a healthy view of self. Yet I lacked that feeling of belonging during pivotal points in my life. Feeling that I did not belong impacted my self-esteem, feeling that I wasn’t enough. I began to seek out groups and people to try and fit in. Despite my many attempts, I still felt that my attempts were futile. I didn’t know who I was, I was lost. Looking back, I can see those typical signs of depression and anxiety. I struggled with indecisiveness, negative self-image, and fear of rejection.
As I continued to navigate life, I learned to live behind the mask of happiness. I felt a deep sadness but smiled because no one wants a sad friend. I was that nice girl, the one who did not stir up any trouble or conflict, the one who went along with what everyone else did and would put others before herself. Contouring myself to be a fun and happy friend, no matter what it cost me. Invalidating myself and minimizing my feelings. I had no sense of boundaries and would always say yes, even if it inconvenienced me, because “hey, others need me.” Living in the in-between left me yearning to fit in. I developed poor boundaries and a fear of rejection.
These lived experiences shaped who I am today, but they do not define the person I am. Living in the in-between is part of my story. I can now hold these experiences with compassion and grace. As a reminder that my younger self was doing the best she could. I’ve realized that owning and celebrating my unique identity is crucial to coming home to myself.
As a Dominican woman raised in the United States, I take pride in my cultura, language, history, and people. I have learned that I cannot let other people define who I am; I get to reclaim my power and define myself on my terms. I have learned to set healthy boundaries with others without the fear of rejection. I have learned to value my perception over the opinion of others. I have learned to cultivate a supportive community accepting of my true self. I have learned to love myself despite fighting so hard to assimilate. Although I did not grow up in the Dominican Republic, I have learned to claim my roots and culture. Most importantly, I have learned to love myself.
Dayhana A. Ray is a storyteller, spaceholder, and healer. As a multi-passionate creative, she is passionate about supporting BIPOC womxn to connect to their mind, body, and spirit. As a reconnecting Taíno, she integrates indigenous teaching into her work. Dayhana was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City. Dayhana graduated from Syracuse University with her bachelor's in psychology and obtained her master's in counseling from Mercy College. As the owner of Rays of Light Wellness, she offers telehealth therapy to residents in North Carolina and coaching to people in and outside of North Carolina. In her spare time, she enjoys gardening, caring for her many plant babies, and being in nature.