Updated: Sep 19
Jennifer Elsie Boone
My palms filled with sweat, my face warmed with embarrassment, and a mixture of fury and confusion filled my chest after she yelled, “Really, Jenny!? You’re such a gringa!” To this day, I can’t recall what Spanish word I mispronounced or failed to roll my R’s on appropriately, but the act thereafter is what remains permanent. The act of being called out, mocked, and ridiculed for my lack of Dominicanness.
As the years passed, and with every trip down south to Miami from the Bronx, I noticed how culturally different I was raised by my cousins, even though we are both first-generation Americans. I always attributed it to both of their parents being from Santo Domingo. In contrast, my father comes from Saint Kitts, another conundrum in itself, as I am always presented with a “WHERE’S THAT?” having to locate, define, or defend the small and often overshadowed island.
Growing up, and even now as an adult, I’ve grappled with this idea of not being enough: not part of “la cultura” enough, Dominican enough, or Latina enough. To top it all off, my physical features sometimes made any association with being Dominican a bit more ambiguous and would contribute to my bouts of what I felt was discrimination during high school. I often felt “othered” by my non-Latinas when my background was revealed, and I wasn’t viewed as one hundred percent Black or West Indian.
On the flip side, I distinctly noticed the difference in how the white Puerto Rican girls con “ojos claros” who didn’t speak or understand any Spanish were welcomed with open arms compared to me, who, although limited in my ability to respond verbally, understood conversations well. I often imagined that if I had a Spanish last name, long flowing hair, or at least hair that didn’t need to be tamed every 6-8 weeks with a rizada, I would have had a different experience, especially attending a school where 80% of the population was Latin. I would never have wished to be lighter in complexion because I love my skin color, feeling I am a perfect blend between my mother’s brown with red undertones and my father’s dark hues.
Gringa is a word that I’ve grown up to know as a term used to describe a white American person from the States, so the fact that my cousin used this as a reaction, albeit joking, was as equally confusing as it was offensive. I felt the only way to help alleviate this was to improve my Spanish, and so after college, I looked for various opportunities to live and work in the Dominican Republic because, unfortunately, I did not have a second passport, a Dominican passport, to afford me to just show up and stay as long as I pleased.
I was sick to my stomach when I couldn’t find any opportunities, knowing that opting to live and work in another country would impact my accent, inflections, and dichos. It would add another layer of culture to my already convoluted identity- although I’d learn later as I matured, this is not a bad thing. Nonetheless, somewhere was better than nowhere, and the opportunity to teach in Colombia kept popping up. I was not interested in going to Colombia at all, as I preferred to at least go to a country that would have some similarities to Dominican culture, like Puerto Rico or Cuba, but again, finding opportunities in the Antilles was bleak, and at the time, I was not interested in enrolling in a university to study as I had just graduated. Looking back, however, that probably would have been a better option. So, I signed up for the program in Colombia and spent one year there.
What I discovered living there was how Latina I actually was compared to the other volunteers in the program, who had to acclimate themselves to an entirely new culture. Discovering what’s inside sancocho, learning how to use a pilón to mash garlic, eating twelve grapes at midnight for the New Year, having your nap interrupted by the yells of the aguacate man or the blaring sounds of Reggaeton or Salsa music, and many other dynamics of Latin culture was interesting or complex to them, very familiar to me. IT WAS A PART OF ME. I even internally rolled my eyes at a meeting I attended once with the true gringas of my program, who vented and complained about the machismo they’ve encountered in the country. While it was a complete culture shock for them, I know dealing with this type of culture, unfortunately, is a means of survival for many women, not only in the Latin culture but for many women in the islands throughout the Caribbean and non-western cultures.
In spite of the many familiarities, my passport, place of birth, and limited Spanish, I was initially labeled as a “gringa” by the Colombians. Even after explaining, “No, no, tengo raíces Dominicana por parte de mi mamá,” I was considered less Latina because it is still considered to be North America, a land which is white, which is wealth, which is privilege, a colonizer of cultures, of tongues, of bodies, and wombs.
The cleaning lady of my shared apartment in Barranquilla fell into the category of those who misunderstood, taking ownership of how I am supposed to make my tostones, cutting them into disgustingly huge pieces. I followed right behind her, cutting them into smaller ones. I began to fry, and she imposed on me again, taking them out too early before they were supposed to turn to their golden yellow. In my defense and frustrated, I tell her: “Disculpa, pero yo sé cocinarlos como se hacen en la isla de mi mamá.” Who was she to attempt to teach me how to make something that my abuela taught me long before I was allowed to cook alone in the kitchen? I politely asked her to move and let me finish cooking my food, but it was with much hesitation and a watchful eye that she resumed the cleaning.
While eating my tostones, I texted the group chat with my mom, tía, and primas, venting about my experience, and they responded with laughing emojis and jokes about the lady’s tostone takeover. I did get a good laugh, but after I finished eating and washed the dishes, I returned to my bedroom and lay on my bed facing up at the ceiling, with a teardrop running down the side of my cheek. If Spanish was my first language or I hadn’t been born in the United States but in Santo Domingo, like the rest of my cousins, this lady wouldn’t have even dared to touch my plátano. But then again, if I were born in Santo Domingo or spoke Spanish with full fluency, I wouldn’t even be in this flipping country.
These thoughts, along with so many others, flooded my mind at the moment, the constant questioning of my identity or how my life would have been different if my childhood mirrored my cousins’. I also had the thought that perhaps I was being too serious. Maybe the cleaning lady just wanted to help, not that she didn’t think I was capable or that she felt my American-born nationality was an indication thereof. Her job was to support precisely what she was doing.
Although my upbringing did not reflect a hyper-Dominican patriotism, it doesn’t negate the fact that I am Dominican even if por parte de mi mama and that ancestral blood did not change when I was born, whether it was on the island or not. Yes, my Spanish may not flow like agua, and my double R’s and Ñ’s are pronounced with a flat tongue, but it doesn’t take away from who I am. So, now, instead of remaining in an offensive silence if someone attempts to call me gringa, no matter which part of Latin America I am in, I make it a point to correct them and let them know my cultural identity in spite of the fact that I own a little blue book; instead, I can laugh it off and say “No me llames gringa, no soy gringa.”
Jennifer Elsie Boone is a Caribbean-American writer from the Bronx. As a 1st-generation American whose parents reign from the islands of the Dominican Republic and Saint Kitts, Jennifer uses her multi-cultural background to her advantage to create stories that represent herself, her family, and her people, using it as a means of cultural and individual preservation. As an avid African and Latin diaspora traveler, Jennifer uses her real-life experiences to enhance her storytelling, adding diversity and depth to her characters and setting. She is currently writing her first book, a story of cultural reclamation and spiritual revolution, set to be published in 2024.