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When I Lost My Spanish

by Eddie A. Castro, Jr.

Sometimes, I ask myself who I am, even though I know the answer. Dominican, right? Of course! It is not that simple, though. Born and raised in The Bronx, I am physically no different than if I had been born in the Dominican Republic. But for a while, I could not shake the feeling that I was not Dominican enough for some people.

I grew up speaking only Spanish. My thoughts were in Spanish. The only English I knew was from TV and cartoons. But my father’s successful businesses of bodegas and supermarkets eventually meant a nice home in the suburbs, away from all my other family in the city. The fincas my aunts and uncles grew up on were traded in for the concrete jungles of Washington Heights and The Bronx, where the unofficial language has been Spanish for a long time. And off I went to private school for proper assimilation.

It was only in the third grade that I realized I had not spoken Spanish for years. I still remember clearly how I could not form the simplest of words. I could barely roll my Rs. I still understood it without question, especially when I made my parents mad (it is funny how my full name will always sound entirely Dominican-accented to me.) Even as an eight-year-old boy, though, I knew this was a big deal.

That was the first time I felt a certain kind of shame. I had lost a part of who I was.

Ultimately, I blame myself. Even as a kid, I knew it was my own fault. I did not keep up with it. I was learning English, so everything I knew was in English. Spanish was now a secondary part of who I was. I traded in Sabado Gigante for video games. Reading books took over from time spent playing dominoes with abuela. There was even a time when I could no longer stand the taste of rice and beans anymore. That was all old stuff, and I wanted something new.

My mother always wanted the best for me and my sisters. She wanted us to have the best education possible and have real jobs, not the kind she and my father had to suffer through their first few years in the US. From her perspective, I do not know if what she saw was considered ‘progress’ or ‘acclimation.’ But here I was, this skinny little brown kid who started playing basketball and video games all the time. It is definitely not how her own brothers grew up. Wasn’t she afraid I would lose touch with who I was supposed to be? Or was she okay if I left that behind in the name of integration into this country’s culture?

The only Dominican culture I knew was in the home. My parents. My grandma. The occasional visits to family in the city. It was nowhere else except maybe when the radio played merengue. There were no Dominicans on TV. We were the only Hispanics in our neighborhood. At school, I was one of maybe two or three Hispanics. Sometimes, I was mistaken for being a black kid. Nobody knew what a Dominican was. I guess, back in the 80s, there were not enough Dominican baseball players yet. I would explain where the country was, “In the Caribbean.” Blank faces. “The same island as Haiti.” Still nothing. “We’re right next to Puerto Rico.” Eyes lit up, “Oh! Ok! I guess there are not a lot of you guys here then.” Further shame. Our existence was only validated via tertiary knowledge of another island and people.

It was not until high school that it bothered me. If random people did not bother to acknowledge or understand who you were, that is one thing. But in high school, back in The Bronx, I was finally in school with other Hispanics. Mostly Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. It was there that I truly noticed what the Dominican accent was. It stood out because I was not just hearing family speak in Spanish. And they sounded different from the Puerto Ricans speaking Spanish. But when I tried speaking it back, I was exposed. If I ever felt like a ‘fake Dominican,’ it was back then. It did not matter how much mangú de plátano I ate or how loudly I spoke. My broken Spanish gave me away. Now, my own people did not accept me.

Everyone has their path to discovering who they are. To be the best possible version of yourself, you must constantly improve and grow. You do not know where the journey ends, but you should know where it began: at your lowest point. Accepting who you are is the first step. I do not care if people do not consider me a ‘real’ Dominican. What does that even mean?

I will probably never speak as fluently as my parents do, but that is okay. They passed on to me the desire to be better to not give up. I paid my own way through college not just because I knew that was what they wanted from me but because that is what I wanted from myself. I proudly wore a sash with the Dominican flag over my robe when I graduated from film school. Their sacrifices do not have to mean giving up any bit of my culture or who I am. It is taking the best of all worlds around me.

My Dominican heritage lies with my family. It is my childhood and how I grew up—hearing my full name aloud in Spanish when I needed to learn a lesson. It is watching the Yankees with my father. It is asking for bendición whenever I see abuela. It is telling my mom, “I love you,” every time I say goodbye.

Growing up outside of the island does not diminish my Dominican heritage. The question of who I am is not easily answered. I am a unique blend of customs, food, music, dance, and the fluent use of Spanish. When the day comes that I have my own kids, I will pass on this legacy to my children so that they can appreciate their origins. They will learn about the sacrifices made and the journey that led me to become who I am today, and all the rice and beans along the way.

 

Eddie Castro, a Bronx and Yonkers native, was raised by Dominican immigrants. As a child, he often indulged in his imaginative tendencies by crafting stories. However, as he grew older, his interest in filmmaking and passionate love for movies led him to pursue a degree in Film School at Brooklyn College. Through this, Eddie discovered his newfound love for directing and acting and continues to work on his own projects while assisting others. His ultimate aspiration is to shed light on Hispanic stories, particularly those of the Dominican Republic.

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