Yndira Cespedes Gomez
Wednesday, November 30th.
A time when everyone dressed up to travel by plane, especially if flying to New York—that alone was quite an event. I wore a loose brown jacket that ended two centimeters above my knees. Underneath the jacket, I wore a mustard-yellow silk blouse. The memory of my shoes is unclear, but everything I wore was new and made to measure by Fabia, the dressmaker from my neighborhood in Santiago. Of course, my underwear was white and fresh for good luck. The day before, I had gone to the beauty parlor, and my hair was shiny and clean. Other passengers also rose to the occasion. Men wore dress jackets and ties, and women wore colorful dresses, skirts, or pants.
Looking back, I wondered if every woman on that flight disliked Latina as much as I did when I met her.
An American agent handed me a yellow envelope at the United States consulate in the Dominican Republic. Upon my arrival in the United States, I was instructed to deliver the yellow envelope to the customs agent and told that the embassy could withdraw my Visa if the envelope were violated. I followed the instructions to the teeth, and it wasn't me if anyone wanted to risk having their Visa withdrawn.
Such an envelope is given only to the "lucky " ones granted a United States resident visa.
During the flight, holding that envelope made me feel like I was someone important, even though I wasn't sure what it contained. I don't remember who told me—it was probably the lady sitting next to me during the flight—the envelope had my identity documents and nothing else. The lady, also from Santiago, had lived in New York for over 20 years. She had a sense of humor and kept me entertained during the entirety of the flight. She told me about her life in New York, but no one mentioned Latina.
I arrived in New York City at about 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday.
It was a smooth flight, and I enjoyed my first ride on a plane. I was excited, and my excitement had only increased with the first view of New York from the window seat. The aerial view of what I think was Long Island City gave me the impression that I was looking at an architectural model. A view that I had not ever imagined. Each building, each street, each tree, and each light seemed placed in the perfect place. Every time I travel, I schedule my return to New York in the early hours of the night to relive the moment—like all the blessings of the universe got used to light up this city, and I had the privilege to witness it. It felt magical, and I felt welcomed.
Tio Jose and his girlfriend Isa were waiting for me by the customs exit at JFK airport. They yelled, "Here! Here! We are here." I ran to them, and we hugged, kissed, and laughed like little kids. I met Isa on one of her vacation trips to the Dominican Republic, and we developed a close friendship. We later became comadres.
The cold permeated my bones like a swarm of flies. I began shaking, and Isa offered me a coat. The long black wool and heavy jacket became my usual companion during my first winter in New York. On the ride to my new home, an apartment in the Bronx, my uncle played some music on the radio. Isa and he stayed silent while I sat in the back seat, feeling like part of a dream. I was in a bubble of soft and white clouds. My eyes were wide open, notating every detail throughout the foggy window. From that back seat, I first inhaled the New York dry cold and ingested the view of its skyscrapers, landscape, and roads without bumps. Little did I know that I encountered Latina upon my arrival at the Airport. Much less did I know how bumpy our relationship would be.
At first, I overlooked Latina when I encountered her on my arrival in New York City that cold Wednesday night; still, it took me time and years to acknowledge her.
Perhaps I should have recognized her while working at my first job in a Long Island factory. At the factory, none of the jefes looked like me, talked like me, or ate the same food as me. Yet, Latina was always around in every place I went. She would wear costumes and dress up in Latin food, Latin music, Latin clubs, Latin barrios, and bodegas. She spoke Spanish in the hallways of many of the Bronx and Washington Highs buildings I frequently visited. I could hear her talking over WADO or AMOR radio stations and sometimes watch her on Univision.
Though, it wasn't until I started filling out applications to enter college that I noticed her. She was always in the applications in the form of a question, "Are you of Latino (a) origin? " Eric, a Puerto Rican CUNY counselor, was the first to talk to me about Latina. He explained who she was and what her role was. Still, she and I had nothing in common, or so I felt.
My friend N and I were students at Manhattan Community College at the time. On a break between classes one day, two good-looking FBI agents approached us while eating at Taco Bell across the Federal Plaza Building in downtown Manhattan. The first sentence out of one of their mouth was, "Are you girl Latinas?" And without any of us answering, the second male said, "We love Latinas. Latinas are so hot." That was the first time I met Latina face to face, and I didn't like her.
I was Dominican and nothing else.
In the Dominican Republic, no one ever called me Latina. Who she thought she was to brand me like a cow. Because of her, and for others, I stopped being a human being, a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, a niece, and a cousin., I became an adjective, a noun. She wouldn't let me be. She was with me everywhere. Latina became an annoyance. She made me a person I didn't know or want to be. Latina insisted on labeling me and subjecting me to a stereotype.
Soon, she took over me entirely as I started exploring places and seeking jobs outside the so-called hoods. Yes, she was part of me, and I was part of her, but she wasn't me, and I wasn't her. There was more to each of us. However, others refused to see it, giving her a higher value than me.
I could feel it in my skin as my mother got constant rejections trying to rent an apartment in neighborhoods where Latina was not well received. Or when I went with my family to downtown restaurants, we were seated at the back of the room or close to the bathrooms. Or when I have a friend riding me to my Grand Concourse apartment and hesitating to get out of his car for fear of being mugged.
Latina, the Anglo concept, stole mi YO, and she was not related to me. She, the Anglo concept, thought she could define all the women in my life and me and put us all in the same cell to suffocate us. To make us incapable of having values, intelligence, and worthiness without knowing us.
All of it confused me. Latina made me invisible, trapped me like a ham in a plastic container, and subjected me to a political and social perception that didn't represent my values or my reality. Latina wanted me to take responsibility for the actions and behaviors, positives and negatives, of individuals I knew nothing about. And if I'm honest, I didn't care for any of it.
My parents had worked hard to cultivate my sense of identity, and now Latina, a political and social concept, wanted to redefine all of it, all of me. Such a concept would silently and rigorously set limits to my way of life, such as where I could live, study, work, and with whom I could interact, among many other things. My unique and individual characteristics became one of many spices that lost their aroma when mixed in the American melting pot. And I blamed it on Latina.
Being a Latina in the streets of New York has always been complicated for me, perhaps even more, when I didn't allow others to define me or tell me how to live my life due to my mother tongue and geographical origin. To qualify a noun, an adjective to characterize me or box me up was not part of the dream I packed in my luggage to bring with me when I left Santiago to move to the Bronx, New York. I disliked the most when someone told me, "You don't behave like a Latina," or "You are more intelligent than the average Latina," and expected to take the statement as a compliment. I didn't want a relationship with Latina, but I had no reason to dismiss her. So, I began correcting anyone who addressed me as Latina.
Though my relationship with Latina probably started when I got the American resident Visa, I was perhaps already described as a Latina in the documents I was carrying in the yellow envelope. I only became aware of her and her concept on the streets of New York as I tried to assimilate the American culture and seek a college education to accomplish the American dream.
Our relationship has never been friendly but turbulent. Still, today, when I get called Latina and my identity gets ignored, I feel prejudged and invisible. A reality I didn't count on when I arrived in New York, and I felt welcome by the aerial view of the city and also by the hugs and kisses I received from my uncle Jose and his girlfriend K on a cold Wednesday afternoon. I was naive, and I expected my road to be free of bumps as the roads from the Airport to the Bronx.
I recognize that Latina and I can't exist without the other in American society. However, that doesn't justify allowing the American culture to use a noun or an adjective to label and characterize my community and me for social and political isolation. Or worse, to tell me what my place in this society and this world should be. I feel proud of my identity, Dominican roots, Spanish as my first language, and my assimilated American culture. I am me, with two names and two surnames, and I am responsible for my own merits and flows.
My name is Yndira, and I am Dominican.
Yndira Cespedes Gomez (Santiago, Dominican Republic) is a poet, woman, and lover of life. She is the author of Aprendí a Callar, published in the book De Eso Se No Se Habla (2023) by the Dominican Writers Association. Yndira continues working and shaping her debut collection of prose, scouring her childhood experiences as she continues working to improve her writing skills.