When I was younger, I often exoticized the island of my parents’ and grandparents’ home as a “Caribbean paradise”—a place where I would get away from the grey weather and grey buildings of Nueva York, or “real life.” I fell into the very trap that Caribbean scholars like Stuart Hall have long rejected: an idea of the Caribbean as a mythologized home that is, in many ways, inherited.
Even now, la isla is the place I wish I could always be when I don’t want to be here—a return to a home that was never truly mine. But it always feels like the version of la isla I’ve grown up with, the way I’ve constructed it, is an imaginary homeland—a figment of my imagination, the Dominican Republic of my mind.
Unlike my parents or grandparents, I never lived in DR, only spending summers and any other vacation we could afford. I considered the island my second home, but I never spent more than three months there. I was a privileged summer dominicana who spent the whole day doing nothing: reading a book for school or sitting under the avocado tree in my grandparents’ backyard and looking up at the sun, taking baños de manguera and eating mangos.
My cousins and I would ride our bikes through the streets of El Ensueño, the barrio where my grandparents still live, and play hopscotch with kids from the neighborhood—people who lived there and people like us who were visiting family for the summer. Our grandmother would call us back home for dinner when the sun began to set. Then we’d concoct the night's festivities: movies, games, or corralling our grandparents into getting Helados Bon, the best ice cream spot (especially for kids looking for a sugar high) in Santiago.
I was idealizing DR as a place of paradise without realizing how: 1) that wasn’t the reality of most people living on the island, and 2) I was replicating a colonial fantasy—a warm, palm tree-filled summer escape from the frigid, concrete streets of the city. It’s funny and fitting that my maternal grandparents’ neighborhood is called “El Ensueño”: the daydream. Looking back, it all feels like an endless daydream—one I never wanted to leave. I guess that’s why the island always felt like an escape. I’ve fed into my fantasy of the Dominican Republic my whole life. I know better now.
The first thing all my grandparents did after they saved up enough money working in the city was retire to the island. And it’s through their lived experiences, deciding to come to New York and then move back, that I’ve constructed my imaginary homeland.
Quite the opposite of my Dominican Daydream, home in New York never looked like a white picket fence, a big yard, and a happy family like the American Dream declares. For most of my early childhood, home was a one-bedroom apartment shared with my single mother, who gave my brother and me everything she never had, siempre con el ensueño of the day she’d return to her island home.
My whole life, I’ve lived in the same thirty-block radius between the two northernmost neighborhoods in Manhattan: Washington Heights and Inwood. A place where you hear heavily accented English, extremely fast Spanish, and—my personal favorite—the hybrid tongue, Spanglish. Even when I wish to leave, it is the place I always return to. But whenever I step outside of Uptown, my perspective on the rest of the city is entirely different: it’s a strange, new, exciting, yet frightening world. Just one stop below 125th Street makes me feel an uncomfortable sense of not belonging. The city transforms into a very different, very white world in a hundred blocks.
Straddling the two places I’ve called home has also come with straddling the hyphenated identity of Dominican-American. The ni de aqui, ni de allá dilemma I imagine many Dominican-Yorks of the diaspora must feel. I remember being in middle school and getting called a “coconut”: brown on the outside and white on the inside. “You talk like a white person and like white person things.” I was ten and didn’t know what that meant, except that some other Black and Brown students had been called “coconut” and “Oreo,” too.
But really, the only exposure I’d had to (non-Latinx) white people was through my teachers. Although I’m now cognizant of the whiteness within the Latinx/o/a community, the concept of whiteness back then was foreign to me. They were people on billboards and TV screens, instructors and administrators, the fancy people going to work on the train.
I presumed my peers meant that because I didn’t curse or use too much slang and liked music by white artists (but really, what ten-year-old girl in 2009 wasn’t listening to Miley Cyrus?), I was also partaking in whiteness. And while I wasn’t sure why these kids called me a coconut, I felt as if whatever I was would never be enough to fit into the Black and Brown school I attended. It wasn’t enough for my relatives in the Dominican Republic, who called me “gringa,” either. So, I toned it down on the white music, started using more slang, stopped talking about the books I liked reading, and tried as hard as possible to fit in.
I’ve been performing my Brownness, dominicanidad, bilingualism, and hyphenated identity for much of my life. But performing my identity to call these spaces home meant I placed myself in the in-between, trying to belong to something I never could.
My problem with the in-between, this notion of ni de aqui, ni de allá, is that it’s not enough space to capture the realities of the diasporic existence—it still requires a costly subscription to fixed and imposed categories that are strictly black and white. It requires us to stay locked into preconceived notions of nationalism, race, gender, etc.
The in-between positions a dual identity (Dominican-American, for example) as two opposite forces held lightly together by the flimsy thread of a hyphen. The hyphen doesn’t allow me to create my own space that isn’t solely based on fixed notions of old and new homes or old and new identities.
After many years of performing my identity and this nagging sense of unbelonging, it wasn’t until recently that I no longer relegate myself, my family, dominicanos, and other diasporic communities to these in-between spaces that were never made for us to begin with. Doing so would mean inserting ourselves into one that does not belong to us, never did, and never will—and why would we want it to?
Gianna Baez (she/ella) is a proud dominicana from Washington Heights/Inwood. A social media manager by day and storyteller by night, Gianna is a multi-genre writer whose work largely explores identity, gender, diasporas, and conceptions of home. She reads to learn and writes to remember. Her dream is to one day publish a book. About what? She’s still figuring that out…