How do you define “Dominican?” Is it eating huevos fritos and mangu every morning? It is having big, curly hair and a big ass, that can dance bachata, merengue, and salsa flawlessly? Is it having every Aventura album in your car, along with that little Dominican flag hanging from your rear view mirror? At my 23 years of life, I have struggled a lot with never feeling “Dominican” enough. Sometimes I think about that sentence and laugh. “There is no such thing as being ‘Dominican’ enough.” Yet, after spending so much of my life thinking this way, it is a hard feeling to escape. I’ve spent many parties in a corner, not dancing due to feeling like my “bachata dancing” was not good enough. I’ve spent so much time straightening my hair, because in its natural state, it did not have the texture like the other Dominican girls. I’ve spent so much time looking for ways to practice my Spanish, afraid that my English would overpower my skills, even though I could read, write, and speak Spanish since I was young. Struggling with my identity was not always something in the front of my mind; it was more like the little voice at the back of my head telling me, no matter what I did; it was not “genuine” enough.
I was born to two Dominican immigrants in Queens, New York. My two older sisters were also born in Dominican Republic. From birth, I was already different from my family. When I was 4, my family moved back to the Dominican Republic where I went to kindergarten and first grade. Although I don’t remember school, I do remember my family members always referring to me as the “gringa” or “Americana.” When I moved back to the states, I went to a public school in Brooklyn, and spent two years in ESL classes. In the third grade, I moved to regular classes where most of my classmates were black. At this time, I did not really identify myself with anything. I never had to. No one cared back then what you were, they just wanted to be your friend.
I moved to Pennsylvania before 5th grade, and made friends with three girls; one black, one white, and one Dominican/Puerto Rican. Our backgrounds were so diverse, yet it never made a difference in our friendships. We always enjoyed learning and immersing ourselves in each other’s cultures. No one would bring up the fact that we were all difference ethnicities, and even if they did, we did not care. It was not until high school that I began to struggle with my Dominican identity.
When I started high school, there was a large group of Dominican kids that always hung out together. Growing up with such diverse friends, I wanted to see what it was like to immerse myself among people from the same background as me. However, upon hanging out with these Dominicans, who I believed were the same as me, I never felt more different. I felt as if I was always competing to prove my Dominicanness. Suddenly, my perfect English, wavy hair, and yellow complexion was not enough for me to gain access into this “Dominican” crowd. I felt self-conscious of my Spanish, as it was weighed down by the lack of Dominican words I remembered, and the tangs of my American accent seeping in. I wasn’t akin to this new Dominican slang, as my parents did not speak like that at home. I hated when people said my Spanish was not “Dominican” enough. I hated when people told me “I can tell you were born here” meaning the United States. These kids would brag about returning to DR every year, as where I could only count on one hand the times I had traveled there. I did not know how to cook rice and beans, I couldn’t really dance, and I did not look like the rest of these Dominican girls. I had no cute curls, and no big butt; just bigger breasts, and a flat ass. I just wanted to belong but was left felling more left out.
Although I long distanced myself from this Dominican crowd (the next year in fact,) and graduated high school, the insecurities never left me. I recently traveled to the Dominican Republic and still felt myself feeling inadequate. I was self-conscious when I spoke, fearing someone would call out how imperfect my Spanish was. I tried to stay in the sun as much as possible, in the hopes of tanning, and looking more like the rest of my mother’s family. I did leave my hair as it was though. After not having a single curl in 23 years, I knew this was a long lost battle. I still had family members refer to me as “la gringa,” and had people joke about how my American citizenship should be used to bring someone to the states.
Now that I am older, I know better than anyone that my “Dominicaness” is something I do not have to prove to anyone. I know that the blood that runs through my veins is Dominican, regardless of where I was born, how I speak, what I do, and what I eat. I won’t lie to you and say that I don’t still wish I had the big curly hair, and the cooking skills handed down by 20 Dominican abuelas; because I do. I still feel down sometimes when I compare myself to other Dominicans. I know I’m not the only Dominican born American, or Latina born American that struggles with identity. As a culture, Latinos are so proud of our heritage, so much so that sometimes certain groups think there are certain “requirements” that deem you, “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban, Latino/a” enough. It is a struggle many of us deal with. We just have to remember that nothing and nobody can define us. We are who we say we are, we do not have to prove it to anyone.