“No Me Cierres la Puerta!” Community vs. Independence: Conflicting Multicultural Values

A woman sitting on a rock ground overlooking mountains of haiti

One of the loveliest but trickiest things about growing up both Dominican and American is balancing and integrating our close-knit community values with the concept of independence, introversion, and boundaries. In many, if not most cultures around the world, setting certain boundaries (like even just closing your bedroom door) can be considered rude, dismissive and/or selfish. Especially for a woman. And sometimes, you can’t close that door even if you wanted to because you don’t own a lock or you’re sharing a room with other family members… In some parts of the world, personal space can be a foreign concept or a luxury item.

But doesn’t it feel nice to give and to share? To walk into a Dominican, Cuban or Brazilian home and be greeted with arms wide open as families welcome you in and break bread with you? Often dropping everything at the last minute to tend to your presence. If you’re sick, if someone passed away, if you’ve given birth… The close-knit community often keeps everyone safe, supported in some way, and connected. But these values are more than a delight, often they are also a necessity for surviving. When you’re from a less privileged background and you have a community like this where people help each other out and subsequentially know each other’s business, you don’t complain, you give thanks. Sharing the harvest from your backyard or your leftover food with your neighbor, helping each other with child-rearing, living with your parents to take care of them even as a married adult, and/or taking part in many other ways to support each other isn’t just how you love but also how you sustain each other.

It’s made me realize that introversion, independence, and/or setting boundaries is actually a privilege afforded to those who have the money/power for space, independence, and even individuality because they don’t have to rely on others (at least as much).

Don’t get me wrong, community values can be more than a necessity to survive. Staying connected despite how big the family grows and spreads around the world, maintaining consciousness of our traditions and history due to these close-knit community values is profound. There can also be a lot of power and personal development in community/collectives that is often lost in many more capitalist/individualistic cultures. I’ve met 4 of my great grandparents and it feels as if I’ve time-traveled through them. I’ve connected to my roots and heritage in deeply transformative ways that I can’t qualify into words. Though sometimes I want to run and hide in a cave for some me-time during long or high energy giant family reunions, I’m also immensely grateful.

But on the other side of my “multiculture”, there’s an almost contradicting concept that’s more elusive and often frowned upon by many around the world: the breath of fresh air from the freedom that comes with independence, individualism, and/or a nourishing solitude… as well as the other types of personal and emotional development that can also come from that.

And when these two values from different world views (collective vs. individual) converge, how do you balance them from clashing?

Fun fact: Did you know there is no word for privacy in Japanese? They use an English word and slapped a Japanese accent on it: Puraibashī. 

This isn’t just in Latino or non-Western cultures, I’ve been a participant observer of these distinct cultural values around the world even in some pockets of American culture. When I moved out of the Bronx where there are a lot of strong community values, I was thrilled (to say the least) but also felt a pang of guilt. I wanted everyone to come with me too. Because often when you gain a skill, advantage or triumph, the community expects you to turn back and share. Which is great… until you realize that too much of that and you slide right back down because eventually, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Often moving up (or forward) is lonely in general but especially from a place with tight community/collective values.

Perhaps too much of either side (individual vs. collective) can be suffocating for many people. If you’re naturally more sensitive or introverted, it can really hurt to hold the pressure of your community on your back. And when your independence becomes draining isolation, or you have no family/community support, that can also weigh heavily as well. I’ve met westerners who have moved to the Dominican Republic because they loved and preferred the extroverted community values. And I’ve met Cubans in the U.S. who rejoice over not having to bend over backwards for their neighbor anymore.

I can’t say if one is right over the other but I think the key difference is that some of us have the option to choose to lean towards one way over the other.

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3 thoughts on ““No Me Cierres la Puerta!” Community vs. Independence: Conflicting Multicultural Values

  1. Cade Johnson says:

    Brilliant. I am a gringo living in the DR for a decade now. This is a very insightful article! My wife and I live in a small, rural community near Altamira. We were amazed to be warmly invited into the community from our first day visiting, and even after ten years it is still sort of unreal. We love our neighbors, but we have never been able to achieve the open warmth that they have all the time for us. We try to compensate in other ways but it isn’t the same. Maybe we are slowly learning?

  2. Another Dominican-American from NYC says:

    Thanks for this article. So important to speak up about our culture. I taught this stuff for years and it still needs reviewing. Did you know that only recently did we get a word approved by the Real Academia Espanola for ‘privacy’ in Spanish? Our equivalent actually is more akin to ‘deprived’. Privado still means both private and deprived. Someone wanting privacy is someone being deprived of others. Go figure. I keep both sentiments active for the word. It is hard, if not impossible to be bi-cultural. Deep down, I am my mother’s culture: Pure Dominica, born and bred.

    • Isabelle says:

      Wow, that’s such great insight about the word private having been more akin to deprived. That made me laugh (and want to cry a little) at the same time. So interesting and says a lot. Thanks for sharing!

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