by Dhayana Alejandrina
Part I: Papi y Mami
By the time I was born, I had three grown brothers; the youngest was fourteen years older than me. I wasn’t exactly planned, but I sure as hell was the girl my parents were waiting for—la princesa de la casa. And as you know, being the only girl, my parents were very protective of me–especially papi.
My parents made my childhood one to remember. Papi showed me over ten albums filled with pictures of me that he took over the years; everything from my first Christmas to me on the bed surrounded by a circle of birthday gifts and even me haciendo pipi en la bacinilla. He didn't miss a thing.
Mami revealed, “Tu hermano Rafael estaba tan celoso que ni salir contigo quería cuando eras una bebe.” Rafael was the youngest before I was born, and of course, I dethroned him; now, we both laugh about it all the time.
We lived en el Simon Bolivar, a couple blocks from El Capotillo. Mami y papi kept a close eye on me porque habían demasiado tiguere en la calle, pero yo no era fácil tampoco. I attended El Politectico Nuestra Señora del Carmen, which was run by nuns. Cuando saliamos para recreo, los vendedores entraban al patio y to’ el mundo iba huyendo para comprar morir soñando con un completo de yaniqueque porque se vendian rapido.
Attending a Catholic school was one of my fondest childhood memories because we were all great students with a hint of naughtiness. My girlfriends and I had a group called “Las Picositas.” We did everything together, including being reprimanded for the silliest things like passing notes in class, getting caught kissing, running late to class from recreo, or almost getting caught sneaking into the nun’s living room. Other than that, I was an A+ student and a good girl who knew how to disguise the other side of her.
Growing up in a traditional Dominican household was a novela with plot twists and never-ending lessons on “how to be a woman.” Por ejemplo, I was expected to fold my brothers’ clothes and help clean up after them sin quejas. But guess what? I complained. I’d sometimes refuse and say to papi, “Pero porque es que yo siempre tengo que limpiar las cosas cuando ellos también tienen manos?” Papi respondió, “Porque ahora eres la mujer de la casa y esas son responsabilidades que tienes que aprender.”
This was around 2007 when my parents divorced—after 33 years of marriage—and mami immigrated to the United States. That part of my life was challenging as a young girl discovering herself without a mother figure. Those years were hard for papi too, as he tried to understand the void mami left and recognize my need for an honest expression of emotions. He created a space where I could speak my mind, ask questions, and even disagree with his views, which for a Dominican dad, is a big deal.
Papi always had a strong sense of purpose—not a small-talk kind of guy. He would sit with me en la galeria and ask me questions like, “Gordita, what are things you value most in life right now? (I was eight years old, already self-reflecting). That is the environment papi created. He knew the world wasn't easy for women, and he wanted to make sure that I learned how to respect myself and be respected by others.
I never gave papi the details about los pretendientes que yo tenia. Me acuerdo las veces que llegaba a casa de la escuela y le decia, “Gordo, un muchacho me tiro un papel, dique una carta de amor jaja.” Y los dos nos reiamos a carcajadas. As jodon as he was, Papi always made me feel seen, and I learned to value his straightforwardness as a sign of respect and honesty. I knew a side of him that others didn't—the side that was sensitive, open, and vulnerable.
I observed as papi undertook the “not-so-traditional” tasks of Dominican men—papi cooked, cleaned, washed clothes, and was skillful at ironing his suits. You would never catch papi wearing shorts outside; he wore business casual clothes or jeans. Papi is a philosopher and creative writer. My favorite days were when we would sit under Mango trees in La Caleta or en el Barrio drinking café while talking about history, life, religion, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He loved his work, and so did mami. My childhood memories with papi were mainly of the outdoors, playing volleyball, going to Boca Chica, and eating fruits under a tree.
Mami was more lenient than papi when it came to giving me permission to socialize or entertain the thought of getting tattoos; because God forbid I mention a tattoo to papi. She embodies an aura that captures those around her and has a heart that overflows with love. She never hesitates to help others, and her love feels like a gentle embrace on the darkest night.
The amount of admiration, respect, and love I have for her is beyond this human form. Mami speaks her mind very loudly; sometimes, I have to remind her not to get us in trouble. Mami never denies a good bachata—ella es una tolete de mujer. Mami traveled 7,499 from Pennsylvania to Okinawa, Japan, to visit me while not fluent in English.
My childhood with mami was memorable. There was a time when she became incensed because I couldn't cook like our neighbor’s daughter. She would plead with me to help her cook, but I was simply not interested. She’d frendziedly insist, “Si tu ni puede pelar un plátano, yo no se como te vas a casar.” Other times she would randomly tell me to get ready and surprise me with a trip to the park and then Helados Bon after. She always went above and beyond to ensure her children had what they needed—I'm grateful to be her daughter.
When mami puts her mind to something, she follows through. Two years ago she told me, “Dhayana, yo voy a comprarme un terreno en Santo Domingo y construiré una casa. Me lo merezco, y con Dios por delante, lo haré.” Today she has a beautiful two-bedroom, two-bathroom home with an ebano verde arbol outside.
Mami is the kind of woman who welcomes everyone with the same respect and love as her family, and of course, siempre te pregunta si tienes hambre. No matter the years, she’s always been young at heart, and I admire the balance between her feminine and masculine energy.
Dominican mothers, our mothers, are a blessing. Born from fertile black soil, with a love as fierce as nature’s, yet still gentle and calming. She often tells me, “Eres mi fortaleza, y te admiro por lo fuerte y buena que eres. Yo haria lo que sea por ti mija.” But little does she know, my watery heart and courage come from her, for I am a reflection of her, my grandmother, and all the women in my family.
Part II: Hello, Sexuality.
The first time I was exposed to porn, I was eleven. My brothers did a lousy job hiding their “secret files” in the computer without a password. I was speechless, yet this was the start of a different kind of curiosity.
I don't recall my parents ever having “the talk” with me; solo papi diciéndome, “Las mujeres respetuosas no andan en la calle enseñando el cuerpo.” Or how mami pointed out the young girls becoming pregnant as an attempt to salvage my future. And so, from there on, I kept my curiosities and sexuality-related experiences hidden, porque la niña de la casa no se porta mal, se porta decentemente.
I had already become “una señorita,” so mami made sure I knew not to do something stupid—and I didn’t (besides the times I said I was going to my friends and would meet with my little boyfriends or going to church but leaving mid sermon para darme par de besitos atras de la iglesia—I hope God has forgiven those indiscretions by now).
La mayoría de experiencias que tuve no fueron al punto de perder mi virginidad—bueno solo dos—pero si yo fuese a contarle a mis padres las mentiras que dije, creo que le darian un ataque al corazón. Y aunque me confesaba con el padre, aun habian cosas que fueron dificiles de mencionar ya que yo misma me sentia culpable, o temía a ser de alguna manera juzgada.
Part III: El Pecado de Un Beso
I shared the upstairs bedroom with my parents. The room was spacious, divided by two wide caoba dressers and a white desk, with cement floors, light steel blue walls, and a zinc roof that felt like the sky was falling when it rained. My side of the room had Animaniacs curtains, a barbie area with a pink vintage convertible and mansion house, and a desk filled with Disney souvenirs from my aunts, books, pictures, and a heart lock diary I protected with my life.
The memory of that Saturday afternoon lingers vividly. Looking at my new Backstreet Boys poster and listening to my iPod (that’s how I learned English pronunciation, even though I had no clue what the words meant), we laughed and joked, pretending that we spoke fluent English. Then suddenly, small hands held mine, not too tight, but gently. For a split second, what felt unusual, began to feel natural.
There were no words or hesitation as she placed a kiss upon my strawberry lips, waiting to be met with the same feelings. And I, holding her hands, allowed my lips to soften on hers. After our lips parted and our eyes met, I saw a smile form along her face. Without asking questions, we knew this experience was our secret and that, perhaps, no one would understand. My first kiss wasn't el morenito chulo with the big bicicleta; it was her.
I was too young to process what this meant, what turmoil this could create if our parents found out or if there’d be consequences. That kind of queer behavior was not going to fly with our parents and certainly not with the Dominican catholic community—which claims not to be judgmental.
At that time, I knew of family members who were queer, but the way in which others referred to them struck fear in my heart. I often thought to myself, “Would God not love me anymore? Am I dirty for what I feel? And so I buried this secret deep down, refusing to acknowledge it. Fear consumed a part of me that so desperately wanted to be loved, seen, and accepted. As I rest my heart on this memory, I've realized that I still need to give my sexuality the acceptance it deserves. I am not two different people; I am not two lives, I am not two different energies—I am one.
Part III: Still Hiding
It took thirteen years to confess to mami the identity of my first-kiss, and with that, my sexuality. Cuando le conté, ella me pregunto: “Pero porque no me dijiste lo que sentias desde pequeña?” A lo cual le respondi: “Porque tenia miedo a ser juzgada, de decepcionar, de no ser la hija perfecta que todos piensan que soy.”
Ella tiernamente me aseguro, “Mi niña, eso nunca me impediria amarte, nunca”
But let’s face it, coming out to Dominican parents is daunting—especially if you’re the only girl. My dread of being outcasted kept me from telling the one person who I knew would never turn their back on me a secret that weighed heavily on my chest. Freshly heartbroken when I disclosed to mami, I remember being on the phone telling her how conflicted I felt about my emotions and who I was. I longed to be embraced by her warm hugs, with my head on her heart, letting the tears fall where I knew they would be safe, like a Deja Vu from the childhood years I spent without her—a nurturing mother figure, a home within a home, a safety net for me to land on.
After bestowing onto me words of comfort, that only a mother could, she asked, “Dhayana, tu crees que yo te juzgaría por esto, tu mama? Deberías haberme dicho amor.” The truth is, I hid many of my fears and pains from mami because, during the early years of our immigration, I became her strength, joy, and best friend. I felt the pain of her struggle as an immigrant mother trying to do her best to give her daughter the future she didn't have. I saw what weary factory working hands looked like and recall the numerous times I cleaned hotels and offices with her. “I can’t worry my mother,” I’d think to myself. Still, I, too, needed her the way she needed me.
For this and many more reasons, the world forced me to grow up fast—becoming my mom’s emotional support, carrying the guilt of being the only one with a better opportunity than my brothers, and feeling alone in a country that already looked at me as an outsider—stepping into a role that I was not meant to have, yet. But I wasn't ready to tell her that.
Los viejos de nosotros crecieron con padres estrictos y con perspectivas muy limitadas; lo cual les hace difícil entender las experiencias de nuestra generación. Nuestra generación son los cuales estamos enseñando a nuestros padres a amarse a si mismos, a enfrentar el trauma de sus niñeces, a aprender usar su pelo natural sin sentirse “fea o feo,” y mas. Es algo especial, pero tambien fuerte—el tener que entender a nuestros padres como seres humanos y al mismo tiempo encontrarnos a nosotros mismos en un mundo tan complejo, pero bello. Y esto, es el balance de la vida; encontrar compasion por otros y por uno mismo en situaciones dificiles.
To this day, the only person in my immediate family who doesn't know that I am bisexual is papi. This creates the question of whether I need his acceptance, too. I often imagine the worst reaction when truly, I have nothing to fear. Still, daddy’s little girl is not exactly what he imagines and is not at all perfect. I’m a complex human being trying to love herself in a world that feels uncaring. Perhaps revealing my truth will result in my family members questioning me; como si yo estuviera desacata. Too many times I saw los cueros del barrio being treated like dirt and the abuelitas cristianas siendo las que mas mierda hablaban. Pero no se supone que amemos a todos igualmente?
The Dominican culture we love can also make us feel worried. But how long can I live putting the opinions of others before the love and acceptance I must give to myself? That question haunts me, and at the same time, I recognize that some journeys require us to sit with our fears and give them a name. That we get our hands dirty digging deep to pull the dead roots and plant new ones. We fight the inner battle before expecting anyone to fight it for us.
That is where I am right now; trying to let go of wanting others to accept me before I accept myself. A fear that can cause separation, depression, and loneliness, but that will not weaken my spirit. For I must love every single part of me wholeheartedly and without shame. I know what it takes to live in my vessel, to breathe from my lungs, to love fully, to hold someone close when they are in pain, to put myself out in the world even when my bones shake, to acknowledge every day is a gift, to build a safe haven within. I know what it takes to be me, to live life unapologetically.
For the Reader
If, while reading my story, any part of it reflected your past or current journey, I pray that you continue to pour love, gentleness, and joy into your heart. I pray that you never feel as though you need to change who you are to deserve respect, grace, and understanding. I pray that you have people in your life that love you unconditionally and make you feel safe enough to express your truth. I pray that you wake up every morning and remember that no one else is like you in this world and your life is worth living.
Dhayana Alejandrina is a poet, storyteller, and writing mentor from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. She performed her initial open mic in Okinawa, Japan, where she resided for four years. Her literary work scours inner growth, devotion, and spiritual healing. The Dominican Writers Association, Al Día Newspaper, the Kindness Book by UNESCO MGIEP, Penguin India Publishing, and many others have published her. Dhayana published her first collection of variant prose and poetry, Agridulce, which shines the light on the importance of acknowledging our emotions and experiences as a path to self-awareness and discovery. To learn more about Dominican writer Dhayana Alejandrina, visit her website https://dhayana-alejandrina.square.site.