“I wish I had your perfect life.” An Instagram user sent me this message recently. It isn’t the first time someone has sent me some variation of that message. These, coupled with the growing accumulation of other questions and comments from readers and Instagram followers have motivated me to finally clear up a few of the following misconceptions about me, my background, and my travels.
1. My life is as perfect as an Instagram feed.
Gentle reminder: My blog and Instagram feed are like a collage of highlights. My artistic eye pasted into a scrapbook of my favorite photos and words. No one’s life is perfect. No one is free from life’s turbulence. I succeed and fail and get frustrated and feel confused every now and then just like everyone else. Social media is a highlight reel. Besides, my photos and writing aren’t all picture-perfect nor do I intend to portray my travels as all glamorous and easy. I didn’t censor my struggles in the Gobi desert where I almost fainted from dehydration twice and had to eat old mutton every day. And before that, earlier this year, was the time I got super sick in Havana and lost my voice for weeks because of the dust from building demolition. I openly talked about it and even tried to raise awareness about the pervasive use of asbestos in Cuba. I intentionally try to be realistic about both the beauty and blunders of travel (which including travel burnout).
2. I know what I’m doing.
I’m just learning as I go. We all are. I prioritize what I really want and then work really hard for it with passion and dedication. That doesn’t mean I know everything. Nobody does. And it doesn’t mean everything comes to me seamlessly without bumps. However, I do acknowledge my American and light skin privileges.
Fun fact: I read somewhere that some of the world’s top CEOs and Nobel Laureates have admitted that they secretly feel like frauds and often feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. So if you feel this way too, you’re not alone! No one has ever lived the same day twice so each day is a new experience and we’re all learning as we go.
3. I always look as I do in my Instagram pictures
*Insert a Dominican “woooooo!”* No way. I strongly value minimalism and comfort. Monsterville (my friend of 2+ decades) can attest to my strong affinity for dainty/simple things to the point where I don’t care if what I wear has holes in it. I’ve been wearing the same ugly chancletas for 5 years. And this Dominican hair of mine is usually wrapped away in a bun.
4. Curly hair always looks on fleek.
Wooo! On the contrary. Anyone with natural curls knows our hair is anything but predictable. Especially if the air has a drop of humidity. Spoiler: There is a reason I wear hats, hair bands, and caps so often. Curly hair is beautiful but also requires maintenance and special care (my DIY natural hair mask for curly hair). It is alive throughout the day and no two curly hair days will ever look the same. So if you have curly hair and it’s always in a bun–don’t feel bad about it because… me too!
5. I was born in the Dominican Republic.
I was born in the United States and grew up in a Dominican diaspora community full of recent Dominican immigrants until I moved to college. How did this affect my self-identity? Picture someone taking thousands of Mongolians and putting them in a town in Zimbabwe, and this town is distanced from many Zimbabwean “customs” and people. Picture most of those Mongolian immigrants not easily assimilating or being able to grasp the Zimbabwean language. And picture them holding tightly to their Mongolian culture with frequent trips back to Mongolia. Now picture how the kids grow up into adulthood. That’s me! Dominican-American. I have the Dominican accent, I embrace Dominican slang, I cherish our rich cultural values, and I’m also a gringa.
6. English was my first language.
I learned English in elementary school. I still vividly remember being in school and hearing English words and phrases I didn’t understand. Around age 7 my teachers got so frustrated they put me in ESL; a debatable form of exclusion. To this day I still stumble on little things, especially American idioms. “Hit the head on the nail!” or “Take it with a pinch of salt!” I recently realized I was saying and applying the latter incorrectly.
7. My Spanish is 100% fluent and fluid.
In a casual setting in Latin America, no one would guess I am also American. My Dominican accent and my Dominican slang/words sound very fluid and fluent. In fact, some folks abroad refuse to believe I am American until I speak in English. But to me, my Spanish not 100%. At least not professionally. I think almost always in English and I never went to school in Spanish until I was 19 when I studied abroad in Spain for a semester. So if you asked me to write up a professional political speech in Spanish, I would eventually prevail but it would take me much longer than someone who went to school in Spanish.
But I do speak Spanish noticeably better than many first-generation Dominican-Americans because I made it a point to learn to write in Spanish and studied/worked in Spain, Argentina, and Cuba. This is a complex subject for many to express. Especially because some of our parents never finished school in their Latin American countries. So if our parents don’t have a 100% grasp of the language formally, how can we?
8. I travel because I’m rich.
I wish! Almost every single day, someone will ask me “How do you afford to travel so much?” I find this question a little baffling. I would never ask someone how they afforded their car, house, new iPhone, TV, jewelry, dog, children, or weekly manicures. All things that cost the same amount of money as several trips abroad.
Many have directly claimed that I must be very well-off to be able to travel as much as I do. Like I said in number two, I prioritize what I want the most and sacrifice and work really hard for it. Besides, travel does not have to be expensive. Here is how I often travel for free or at an extremely low cost. And, finally, no I don’t get handouts from my family. My family wasn’t wealthy in the Dominican Republic either (a common misconception since I’m light-skinned). We have no fancy passport connections to Europe or government or colonial money. Which leads to my next one…
9. I’m white.
I am repulsed by Latinos/Dominicans who desperately cling to their alleged European ancestry because they’re too ashamed of being black or indigenous. So repulsed that I fervently celebrate and proudly like to point out my non-white ancestry. “But I thought Dominicans were all black?” people say, looking at my skin and features. “You must be from Santiago,” many Dominicans will ask (it’s a city where many lighter-skinned Dominicans live). “Nope, the capital and its outskirts.” I love watching their expressions as I shatter the stereotypes.
My mother is Afro-Latina and my father is a light-skinned Latino. According to 23andme I’m 20% Native American and 30% African and 5% Arab. That means I’m of less European descent than President Obama, whose skin is darker than mine. See, what most people don’t realize is that skin color genes don’t work like putting coffee + milk together and getting a cafe con leche. There is nothing wrong with being white. But being simply labeled white almost discredits the struggles my family and I have had as non-whites. And it is dismissive of my complex and multicultural/multiethnic identity. It also insinuates that a Latina/Dominican can’t look, act, or do the things that I do. Which is further insulting to us Latinas/Dominicans. I have light skin privilege and European descent, which is undeniable. But I’m not white/Caucasian. Don’t dismiss my entirety as white just because I don’t fully fit your Latina stereotype!
10. I have a Cuban boyfriend.
[Insert tired eyeroll] I get this one a lot. From family, co-workers, and other Latinos confused as to why I care so much about Cuba. But no. That’s not where my connection to and passion for Cuba and all things Cuban comes from. I repeat: I have no Cuban lover! But I am taking applications. (I’m kidding!!)