A look back into the beginning of my identity estrangement and cultural displacement as
a first-generation Dominican American.
"Yo! That is why you got that blue passport; you ain't even Dominican!”
I never thought of myself as “different” until playing with my group of cousins, as we always did in the hallways of my grandmother’s apartment in Washington Heights; after another random argument over whatever topic children fight about, I was shocked by the realization that I was, in fact, different. That day, in defense of his sister, whom I had just fist-fought with (as children do), my older male cousin, who was visibly angry and was for sure not going to be outdone by a girl, let alone a younger girl, decided to hit me with that comeback.
Amongst the OOOs, OHs, and laughter that broke out after his remark, I was not even pressed, mostly because I did not even know what he meant. It was not until later, when topics changed and everyone had moved on, that I attempted to gather my thoughts. My 7- or 8-year-old brain was confused: “There's a difference?” I questioned repeatedly: “I’m not Dominican? What is he talking about?”
Fast forward to our annual family trip to the DR every September. I am standing by my father’s side, holding his hand in the middle of the busy airport, and there it was, in his other hand, the difference—a particularly important stack of little books. The only thing he held, besides me, were those four little books. He was the keeper and protector of the family’s passports, any other important documents, and overall, us. From conversations and observation, my young mind concluded that they were official documents that established who we were. Three were red, but mine was blue.
The difference was so bold and obvious that it completely blurred out everything else. They held some sort of secret that I was not in on (yet), but somehow everyone else knew. This was big enough for my cousin to use as an insult and, at the same time, significant enough for my mother to proudly proclaim to new acquaintances, “No, esa nació aquí, esa e Americana.”
Evidence that I was different and that this difference mattered to other people continued to appear as time progressed, and my father decided he was moving his family down south. I was again reminded that I was different, this time even more different than I was on my New York City block, with my cousins and friends, even more different than the blue passport thing haunting me. I had to explain what a “Dominican” was because the children in Palm Beach County, Florida, only knew that people could be black or white, and if you were not that, then you were Mexican or Puerto Rican or, in other words, not American.
On my first day of third grade, I was dressed at my best —as Mami always made sure we were no matter where we went—a peach dress, hand-sewn by my mother, with lace that matched not only the dress but la’ media’ también. I would bet money that my underwear had lace to match, too, because, truth be told, they all did. Everybody else was in school uniform. I stood out like a haystack in the middle of the city.
The moment I sat in the classroom, a girl behind me reached into my pelo derizado and gave it a firm tug, quietly asking, “Is that a weave?” “A what? I do not even know what that is!” I thought internally but externally responded with a fast and firm “No!” along with a strong roll of my eyes and neck to let her know que conmigo no se juega, as I had learned from Mami. At recess, when they all crowded around to ask the new girl questions, I was prepared for any question about me, what I liked, disliked, or about New York City.
I was not about to be clowned as the new girl, but when one of the girls blurted out “Ya momma white?” I was confused, completely thrown for a loop. I responded: “No, she’s blacker than you,” stating what was obvious to me, all while trying to make sense of her question. She quickly added, “Your daddy?” And then someone else added, even faster, for clarification: “We know you mixed, but what is you?”
MIXED, WHAT!? Even though my brain was confused by the unexpected line of questioning, I knew I was not mixed. At the time, I could not grasp the potential combinations of what this could mean. All I knew was what I had to proudly proclaim: “I’m Dominican,” and there was not a drop of doubt on my tongue. I thought my answer would clear everything up and I would be “normal” like everyone else, and before I could even say another word, a boy in the back hollered out, “What’s that?”.
Everything from “What y’all speak? Where is that? What y’all eat?” to “You came here on a boat?” Someone chimed in: “I seen her momma in the office. She pretty, but her daddy looks white.” With every question, the concept of what a Dominican was and whether I was a valid person worthy of friendship or ridicule depended on my answers at that moment. As an adult, I still can't find the words to describe that kind of pressure.
The last question, which seemed to be the final stamp of approval, came from another older boy: “You was born there?” At that exact moment, a fact came out from my lips, one I knew to be true but had never given much thought to: “I was born in New York City.” And when I was done saying the words, my brain clicked, and my blue passport made sense. I gave my final answer: “I’m Dominican, but I was born here.”
I am Dominican, but I was born in New York. That was always my answer whenever my peers or even adults I encountered quickly decided that I was different and would ask, “Where are you from?” A question that, to this day, rubs me the wrong way. I always thought that the way I looked or spoke gave me away. These questions only added to my confusion because I was just another shade added to their spectrum of black; to me, I look like everybody else. Others even described me as “she black, she just high yellow.”
My English had no accent (just a New York dialect), so when I would share that English is my second language and that I learned it in kindergarten, after school (there was no curriculum back then), and that my teacher was a very dedicated African American, gentle giant of a woman named Ms. Monroe, at Manhattan Christian Academy. I was always called a liar (by adults, no less). The disbelief was visible, and I was perplexing to them. I challenged their assurance that they could easily pick out the immigrants from the pack, so I was positive that I talked like everybody else (minus the NY thing).
It did not matter where I was, up north, down south, in the States, or in the DR, who or what I was always came with an asterisk next to it, and the meaning of that asterisk depended on whom you asked. There was no box for me, even though I could toggle back and forth between languages effortlessly without missing a beat. No matter who I was or where I was, I was always different.
The idea that I did not fully belong was the only constant. Allá, en la isla, me decían “Dominican York” y lo que nunca falta: “Tú no ere Dominicana,” statements that, even if they were said in a playful manner, cut my young heart open in a way that is difficult to explain. Other people questioning and trying to define who and what I was (in terms of labels and boxes) followed me through my military career, where I encountered what I call “el otro nivel” other Latin and Caribbean people explaining what a Dominican is but only in a way that validated their proximity to whiteness.
I never shy away from a healthy discussion about nationality, culture, identity, or race, although I do think twice when answering these questions because even though I know my answers, who I am, and my truth, these concepts are not always clear to others. I am more interested in the “why” of the person wanting to know more than I am in giving them my answer.
As an adult, I wanted to completely hide my passport when I traveled on my own. I did not know whether to be proud or ashamed of it, so I chose and purchased a purple cover; nobody else cared, but it meant something to me: Blue and red mixed.
As a first-generation Dominican American, I’ve been afforded the most precious pass, more valuable than any color passport I could have ever had, because I am good on any MLK Blvd or Manuel Ubaldo Gomez St. With another generation after me, I can see that my experience, and life itself, is like a bridge, pa lo que no saben y lo que preguntan “¿qué fue lo que dijo?”
Hoy puedo decir con orgullo que no soy ni de aquí ni de allá. Soy la unión entre lo que paso y todo lo que viene. Soy como un puente, que toy aquí y que ta allá también. You know, como el George Washington Bridge o el Puente de Samaná. Un puente donde los inmigrantes y la segunda generación se juntan. porque cuando tamo todo junto hablando, I hold every conversation twice; I make sure to point out to my elders that the fruit of their labors in coming here is visible with every achievement of my children, nieces, nephews, second cousins and their children.
Danice De La Cruz is an insight coach that helps individuals harness their resiliency. With more than 15 years of experience as a nurse in the healthcare field. She has guided numerous individuals on their pathway home through liberation and love while teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Skills as a Center for Mind Body Medicine facilitator, meditation, yoga instructor, y ahora dique Writer. Connect with Danice (and all she offers) virtually: @thefourthspace.