Dominican families are drastically and unnecessarily massive. I have many cousins that I've lost count of. If you're my mom's grandmother's cousin's cousin's cousin, we're family. Technically, if we grew up being neighbors in "el campo," we're cousins. If we are the only Dominicans in the room in any part of the world, we automatically become family. Being born to Dominican parents is like signing a contract stating that you abide by these terms. We're all one big family. We feel like home to each other. However, this can mean many different things to us as individual members of our community. For some, this could mean they are always surrounded by people, have a place to have a nice cup of coffee, and gossip about everyone they know. For others, it can mean free childcare for their kids because they'd be with family. The unlucky ones (mostly young females) fall into the hands of a deceptively caring male relative who is somehow always around.
I didn't fully know what it meant to be a Dominican in the U.S. I wasn't good at being Dominican to begin with. I was always the girl locked in her room painting or reading poesias. I'd never drank Presidente beer or was dancing at every party. I was not allowed to curse. Ever. Not even one of grandma's signature “¡Coooño!” out of frustration. But when I moved to the U.S., though it took me a few years, I had to relearn myself and stand firm in my roots because a “Dominican immigrant" was all I was to Americans.
By the time I was in high school, depression and low self-esteem defined me and every experience I had. Mental health was not a thing; it was nothing. You never heard of it, or, at least, I never did. My parents never taught me about mental health. My mother was doing her best with what she had. My father, too busy cheating. And everybody else, from teachers to caregivers, was hiding behind the stigmas and taboos.
I suffered from severe depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and looking back, I can see how everything affected me and how it all continued to show up in the different aspects of my life. The transition of moving to a new country was brutal, considering that I already came with many complexities. I was the oversensitive child, or as many loved to describe me, the problematic one who can never stay quiet or doesn't know her place. I was put in an environment that wasn't designed for me, which gave my depression dominance over me. My high school years were consumed by solely focusing on trying to Americanize myself with the goal of fitting in. I didn't play any sports, participate in any extracurricular activities, or do any of the significant senior year events I was expected to. Perish the thought that I take my eyes away from the English language for two seconds.
In college, while having to figure it all out by myself, I could not turn to my mother for help. As the eldest daughter, I was basically the manager of her life. My high school counselor was unhelpful. He offered his time to the students who really had a chance at going to college. I also needed to keep up with who I was becoming. I didn't know who this new me was or if I liked myself. Obtaining a college degree was not a near-death experience, although, at times, it felt like it. What was formidable was accepting the success that came after.
As I entered the workplace, I never felt deserving of the place or position that I'd reached. It always felt like everything I worked so hard for was handed to me. It didn't matter how successful my campaigns at work were, I was made to feel like I needed to prove myself each time. It's a horrible feeling to be sitting in a meeting room full of white colleagues and thinking you don't belong. They deserved to be there, but I didn't. I constantly had to fight the urge to feel like I didn't deserve to be there because I wasn't smart enough. Especially when they would act surprised and highly proud of me when I just did the job I was hired to do, even after I was there for a few years. I've moved from job to job, hoping to not be the only POC in the room. I got tired of trying to fit in places where I was not even wanted. I made a commitment to myself to start creating spaces for my communities where we are wanted, celebrated, and appreciated.
You could say I made it. But was that really the case when my mental health kept pulling me down and down, lower than rock bottom? I was working excessively but never felt proud of myself, and I never rested because that was for the weak and irresponsible. I was surviving. You know, we as a community take great pride in merely surviving—we're too strong, too powerful, and too independent for anything to bring us down. But I learned that it was okay to be soft. It's okay to be brought down sometimes. We have room for softness, for rest, for healing in us, and not for just surviving. I don't want to be in survival mode anymore. I want to overcome my pain. I refuse to be defined by it. I want to thrive.
I'm thankful for the brave and inspiring people in our community who began to be vocal about mental health. They started conversations about our well-being, which helped me understand that I was never alone.
Let me tell you why therapy has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. This is where I've learned to sit with depression and where I’ve had to admit that I was not even close to having it together. However, that's the easy part. The agonizing part is that accepting my most profound hurt came with accepting that people I’ve loved my whole life caused me deep pain. To accept that I was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, I needed to accept that my uncle (whom I loved and admired) was a sexual abuser. To admit that I was tired and exhausted and had been carrying too much meant I needed to admit that the caregivers in my life used me and made me responsible for things a child should never be concerned with.
Tonight, I'm lost in my own head like any other day, surrounded by my apartment and all the things I've put in it: my beautiful art, books by Latina authors, and everything that makes me feel alive. I'm accompanied by my dog babies, who have taken over my apartment: one is an angel, and the other is the biggest spoiled brat you'll ever meet. I'm sitting on the kitchen floor, trying (maybe for the first time) not to tune out my body. I'm trying to hear it cry out to be seen and heard. Why am I feeling like my world is falling apart if, at least on paper, my life has never been so together? I have the life, love, and career I have always longed for.
I am what they call a Latin success story, but it's never felt like a success story. I always need it to go further, working hard for the next thing that will add value to my life and make my family proud. I always felt the need to show my mother that abandoning her dream in D.R. was worth it.
I learned in therapy to sit and listen to my body. So, I’ve given myself permission to grieve. To show up for myself the same way I've shown up for others. To sit with the discomfort. I'm grieving because at twenty-seven years old, I realized that at six years old, I didn't have anyone in such a large family that felt safe enough for me to confide in, despite the belief that growing up with a family that loves you means they’re always there. It's not easy to celebrate my big college career when I've always felt alone in my pain.
When I finally decided to share my struggles, I didn't want to bring any burden on my family. I hoped to share the weight of carrying so much for so long. But I hear six-year-old me saying, “I told you so,” because they all decided that it was too heavy and uncomfortable. For most, I became just the girl who was abused. When I tell them I'm going to therapy, others act like I killed someone. "¿Qué? ¿Terapia?" "Tú estás loca." Meanwhile, I’ve helped them through their problems with what I’ve learned in therapy. The irony. They didn’t know how to help me, but they didn’t want me to seek the help I needed because it made the family look bad. They weren’t interested to know about my experience—it was too important to them to be strong.
I tried your way of letting everything slide. I tried your way to stay silent to keep the peace. I tried your way to keep my business between me and my pillowcase, and I lost myself.
For the first time in my life, I like myself. I love how I show up in the world and in my community and how I show up for myself. I know my value isn't defined by how much I've accomplished. I long to feel alive. I crave softness and tenderness because I’ve had to show up with armor my entire life. For me, this is the true American Dream.
Sindy Feliz left the Dominican Republic at fourteen for Paterson, NJ. Her bachelor's degree in fine arts has allowed her to work alongside great artists and express herself through her work. Though having written from a young age, writing professionally led her back to the joy of writing. Recognizing literature’s value in our community, she believes our cultures are carried in the hands of artists. She’s the author of If I Denounce My Accent and is a woman with many dreams and hopes for the world (as well as for every young woman like her).