Why I am “Dominican Abroad” and Not “American Abroad”

What does it mean to be an American? We are a 236-year-old relatively nascent country of immigrants, influenced by cultural values from around the world. Every few decades a new wave of immigrants enter and form their own diaspora communities for a few generations until they slowly assimilate into what we call the American culture; but not before putting a dent into it. Each immigrant wave has, in some way, influenced our current cultural norms as Americans. From what we eat to our religious influences, we are a melange of cultures brought to us by immigrants from around the world.

Today, two centuries later, it’s still hard to qualify the American culture. Americans from Utah, Pennsylvania, California, Texas, Florida, and New York may have completely different political values, religious beliefs, accents, and cultural norms. And understandably so, it is a big country of 323 million people living in distinct communities, climates, and topographies. So the idea of being an American, especially an American New Yorker, feels conflicting, subjective, ever-growing, and transient.

Therefore, to say I’m an American, while true, mostly comes down to my language, media influences (which the rest of the world is also exposed to), nationality/birthplace, and privilege. Being an American, especially a New Yorker means I’m from a cosmopolitan, ever-changing melting pot. And that’s pretty cool and special. But it also doesn’t have a major set of specifically defining qualities other than being broadly general and all-inclusive.

But when I refer to being Dominican, I am not referring to the nationality or any form of blind patriotism, but a unique set of rich cultural perspectives, distinct values (both beneficial and harmful), and closely related influences within one minority group connected to one island.

I have nothing against being an American or Americans. There are many things I’m grateful for about having grown up in the United States; I appreciate many facets of being American. But these are the reasons why my username is not American Abroad; even though I was born and raised in New York City and am a Dominican-American. And below are the reasons why I am @DominicanAbroad….

1) In a world where Dominicans are under-represented, I want to assert our presence and remind the world that we exist. There have been many instances while traveling when other foreign travelers have asked me “Where’s that?” when I mentioned being Dominican. In some parts of the world, not only did locals have no idea that the Dominican Republic exists, but they didn’t understand its geographic location no matter how hard I tried to explain it is between Cuba and Puerto Rico but shares an island with Haiti.

2) To break stereotypes. Whenever I tell people, especially other Latinos that I’m Dominican many have trouble accepting the fact. This is for many reasons but mostly because there is a lot of stereotyping, racism, and classism against Dominicans in the Latino community. Many will assert “But Dominicans are black, and you don’t look black.” Or not knowing that my family is black, “Wow your family must be really rich and racist that you were able to maintain your whiteness down the family line on a black island.” Or worse, they try to “compliment” me by smiling and assuring me that I’m “not like other Dominicans!”

3) To represent all different types of Dominicans. We are more than Cardi B, baseball players, and bachata dancers. As a teenager, I was the soft-spoken and socially awkward Oscar Wao of my Bronx Dominican diaspora community. The nerd who loved to wear black, read books, and draw fanfiction. Just like in every culture and country, though we may belong to the same culture, we are not all the same person. We Dominicans can range from Cardi B to Amelia Vega to a skinny culito seco nerd who can’t dance. Our differences should be recognized and embraced, they should not be a competition or an instrument of rejection and isolation.

4) Because growing up Dominican in the United States is a real phenomenon. Whether it be in Santo Domingo, Madrid, or Washington Heights, Dominicans remain strongly attached to the island, our heritage, language, and culture. This is sometimes to a fault because we may not assimilate to the new host country as quickly as other groups. The Dominican diaspora’s grip on the homeland is so strong, that often our communities will mostly adhere to our customs only. We will only eat our food, speak our language, listen to our music and watch our media even if it’s been decades since leaving the island. So even if we grew up in another country, the Dominican identity will stay with the immigrants and their children often more the new host country’s culture. In fact, even though we’re born and raised in the United States, some of us don’t learn English until we’re well into elementary school.

5) It’s important if you want to understand us. I feel that to fully understand us diaspora kids, you have to understand that many if not most of us were not raised “American”. We are usually raised Dominican. It wasn’t until I was 16 that had my first white friend (if you don’t count my online friends).

After college, I often found myself feeling extremely awkward during conversations at work with my coworkers who continuously made American references and jokes that I didn’t understand. “Sorry, I usually only ever watched Telemundo and Univision at home. I don’t get your American pop culture references at all.”

But they didn’t understand. How could I be so alien to the American culture, if I was born and raised here? My accent is perfectly American. But that’s what being a cultural hybrid and a diaspora first generation immigrant child is like. You’re a product of two worlds.

6) To inspire other underprivileged Dominicans …like me who may have grown up viewing the world and the idea of travel as a far removed notion. I know from experience that seeing others in your community, doing things you thought were not within your reach, can really motivate and inspire a person. We’re lacking that presence in travel. In most of my trips, I have rarely met other Latinos, even from the diaspora. Most travelers were white. Nothing against white people, but our absence is glaring.

7) Because now I don’t have to remind people that I’m Dominican. Ahhh, this one is a personal treat. Now, very rarely do I hear, “You’re Puerto Rican, right? Oops no that’s the other island. Cuban?! Oh… wait you look… Colombian?” I have saved myself from hundreds of those cringe-inducing scenarios thanks to @DominicanAbroad. What a relief!

8) People of color often see more shades of gray when we travel. To quote TemporaryProvisions because “People of color are often better equipped to approach other countries with a nuanced perspective and an understanding of their complexities and histories.” As I mentioned in my about me, while studying in Spain at 19 years old, I noticed how different my travel experiences, as a racially ambiguous American Latina, was to those of my non-immigrant less culturally diverse friends. Ethnic minorities, especially of immigrant parents, I realized, have a different way of processing multicultural interactions and adapting to different environments. Realizing this contrast, I’ve decided to share my unique and multicultural perspective on unique places and experiences.

9) To connect with other like-minded Dominicans. We Dominicans come from every walk and shape of life and are scattered around the world. I recognize being born and raised in the United States affords me certain privileges that a Dominican born and living on the island does not have. But we are connected by our cultural identity, values, humor, history, and influences which come from the same source: being Dominican.

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21 thoughts on “Why I am “Dominican Abroad” and Not “American Abroad”

  1. Sarah says:

    What a wonderful perspective. It’s great to use your travels – a time when you yourself are exploring new places – as an opportunity to educate others about your own background and culture.

  2. Angie Drake says:

    I enjoy reading conversations about what it means to be American. I named my own blog Not Your Average American because my family heard again and again that we were not what people expected when they heard the word American. The more we traveled, especially in South America, the more we realized that although people love to stereotype the idea of the average American, that person does not really exist. And every time we fail to lay claim to the name because of discomfort, we ironically add to the idea that only certain Americans can own it. I hope you will call yourself American in the future and explain that both your Dominican and United Statesian roots lay claim to the name. After all, both countries are part of the grand continents called the Americas.

  3. Mariele Veri says:

    I love this. As a fellow Dominican, I identify with a lot of the points you make here and appreciate you voice very much. Looking forward to more posts on this topic!

  4. Nicole says:

    As a Jamaican-American I whole heartedly agree with this. Despite being born in America, my Jamaican influence has made me the person I am today. When abroad, I love telling people about Jamaica because many know little to nothing about it Growing up in the US, many people had preconceived opinions of the place. Some people didn’t believe I was Jamaican because in their words Jamaicans are “dark skin and crusty looking” (whatever that means ????). My mom is light skin and people used to be like “she’s not from Jamaica. She’s too light she must be from Jamaica, New York” I always found those statements quite ironic bc those same people knew of Bob Marley (his father is a white Jamaican)).
    Also the motto of Jamaica is “out of many one people” which implies that there’s different backgrounds of people coexisting together. My mom’s friend’s husband is a Jamaican of India. descent. People are always surprised when they hear him speak bc they expect an Indian accent to come out of his mouth, not Patois. People are so mine blown when they see people of European, South and East Asian decent speak patois because they don’t know the roles they played during colonialism/migration. I also love referring people to this video: https://youtu.be/tN_zDgVzyqo

    If it wasn’t my looks it was my lifestyle that didn’t fit their mold of how Jamaicans should be
    “aren’t you supposed to have dreadlocks?”
    “Do you smoke weed”
    Little do most people know is that Rastafarianism only only makes up less than 10% of the population in Jamaica. Most Jamaicans practice some form of Christianity.

    I saw a video a little over a week ago about a Jamaican-Canadian and how he views his national identities when he’s at home or traveling. To him, he always said when in Canada, he says he’s from Jamaica . When abroad, he says he’s from Canada.

    The nuances of being multi-national are just so interesting. We can literally code switch whenever we please.

    • Isabelle says:

      So funny, I can completely relate. There’s a saying in Spanish “ni de aqui ni de alla” It means.. not from here nor from there. Kind of how he switches which identity to say when he travels. Code-switching is a FASCINATING topic that needs to be explored more! Have you seen the Key & Peele skits about how they change up their accents depending on who they are around?

      Thanks for the vids! I’ll check them out shortly 🙂

  5. Michelle says:

    I’m always very interested to read about different perspectives – sometimes it feels like 90% of travel blogs out there are written by white North Americans/Western Europeans/Aussies. As a Singaporean Chinese, I can kinda sorta relate to what you say about having different travel experiences (“No, no soy de China. Ni Corea. Ni Japón…”). Think it’s great that you’re providing a fresh perspective in an extremely saturated niche!

  6. Arielle says:

    Number 5! A lot of my friends who’s parents are immigrants to the US don’t know a lot of common English idioms, because their parents never used them growing up. Or one friend, who’s mother is Mexican and father is Spanish, would say, “Kill one bird with two stones” well into adulthood because that’s what her mother thought the expression was. It’s always good to be reminded what you take for granted, and what you can continue to share with your friends.

  7. A Nomad on the Loose says:

    Loved the read and your reasons, even though I take the opposite approach. I am always American first, of Chinese descent. I am constantly bombarded by questions of where I’m really from (even in China)
    as if Americans can only be white. [Recent episode in Shanghai with two new white American friends: vendor asks where they’re from, then asks me. When I say we’re all American, she goes: but you don’t look like them.]
    So for me, claiming my Americanness first is a way to remind people that the United States is a diverse nation of immigrants, not a nation of only white people (esp. in today’s political environment!)

  8. Kareemah Ashiru says:

    You write so eloquently Isabelle and I always enjoy reading what you have to say <3 I agree with this post. That's the beauty of being an American with other nationalities. You get the opportunity to choose what culture you feel closer or familiar to. For me being from 3 Nationalities and I also add being Muslim as well (because that is another way of life), I get to be fluid with my identities and it allows me to connect with so many people. When I'm abroad, I generally say that I'm American because I want people to remember that America is not White or just Christian. If I meet a Nigerian abroad or visit Nigeria, I will most likely say I'm Nigerian to connect with that person or the people. For me being American is being a product of different cultures. This doesn't mean I throw my other identities. If you get to know me and my family you will also see our Nigerian side infused with the American hybrid.lol. When we go abroad, we each have our personal goals or mission of what we want to represent. For me, it is to highlight the diversity of America and how it's just not one narrative. Thanks for your post 🙂

  9. Dany says:

    I loved reading this. It made me thing of an American-Italian I met on the road in the USA. He was sad because he said that he still didn’t know his place in the world. I wish he could read your article, especially when you say it’s all about your perspective, values and influences!

  10. Elizabeth Aldrich says:

    This is beautiful! So well said and really interesting to read. Hahaha #7, just living in Costa Rica and not even being Costa Rican, I get so annoyed at people when I travel and tell them I live in Costa Rica… “How is life in Puerto Rico?”, “What’s it like living on an island?”…smh. Anyway, fantastic post! Thank you for sharing this!

  11. Priscilla Blossom says:

    I love this. Thanks for adding me on FB and allowing me to find your blog (which is awesome, btw! Def something to aspire to). Growing up in Miami, I always just said I was Nicaraguan, or Nica-Mex (my father was born in Mexico but raised in Nicaragua, so I’ve always been more culturally Nicaraguan). I knew I was “American” because I was born in this country, but I’ve never felt like I was “from here” if that makes sense. Appreciate this perspective and that we, as children of immigrants, can still “claim” the country our families are from, regardless of what others might think.

    • Isabelle says:

      Hey thank you so much for the kind words and checking out my writing! I see you a lot on the same circles of writing and had to reach out! :-3 and wow I can’t imagine what it must be like to be of THREE cultures. Ans yes it’s a gift and a curse to be caught in the middle of two… three world’s. Some people say ni de aquí ni de allá. I say que soy de aquí y de allá! Hmph.

  12. Constance says:

    This was such a great read, loved reading about your viewpoints on being a Dominican first and American second. I totally feel ya on #5, I was pretty much raised Chinese even though I was born in NYC and grew up in CA. I, too, grew up watching the Chinese channels and had no idea what the hell “Friends” was til more recently.

  13. geralrod25 says:

    Loved your blog.But i dont know, i’ve never run into any Latin american that has ever thought that Dominicans are black.Not to deny your experience, but much of the people in the island are, while afro-descendants not black looking(and “blacks” tend to actually be mulatto not AA looking.), indeed your appearance is not rare at all in DR and there are even significant numbers of whites(Spanish-looking ones not anglo ones.).Dominicans are pretty new in america and are very small hence the under-representation and the still lack of broad Assimilation(it took more than five decades for Italian-Americans to Assimilate)you notice.nonetheless,the seem to be making strideslike tom perez in the dnc and adriano espaillat etc.I would love to get your take on my views.bye.

  14. Miss Footloose says:

    While reading your post it occurred to me how I also look at nationality and cultural heritage as very different concepts. I’m Dutch, married to a (white) American (even his great-grandparents were born in the US, so he has no specific ethnic identity). I’ve never lived again in my native country after we were married, but I still am Dutch, feel Dutch, not American. Having lived as an expat in 8 different countries has given me an understanding of how strong ethnic identity is, and that “assimilation” into a new country or culture is never total. You never ‘escape’ your basic cultural heritage. I love my expat life, and love the diversity in the world.

  15. Carolina says:

    I can relate to this article and trust me in this one…this is so me! I’m also a Dominican born and raised in the USA, but I was raised more Dominican than American. My parents raised us like we lived there and not here. I have had some people say “you’re not Dominican because you were born here.” Being Dominican is how I identify myself, which is something I don’t need to argue with people. Regardless what my birth certificate say or whatever, I am Dominican. “Los Dominicanos nacemos donde se nos da la gana.” Being Dominican is not going to the parade yelling “Yo soy Dominicano!” It is a lot more than that. When I have my children someday, they will learn about the Dominican culture. Thank you for this article.

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