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.