“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 this week. These, coupled with the growing accumulation of other questions and comments from readers and Instagram followers has motivated me to finally clear up a few of the following misconceptions about me, my background, and my travels.
1. My life is perfect like the pictures.
Gentle reminder: This is my blogging and photography. It’s my artistic eye pasted into a collage of photos and words. My life is far from perfect. 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.
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 real about both the beauty and real struggles of travel. (Related: My post on travel burn out)
2. I totally know what I’m doing.
I’m just learning as I go with passion, hard work, and resilience. I prioritize what I really want and then work really hard and smart for it. That doesn’t mean I know everything. And it doesn’t mean everything comes to me seamlessly without bumps. Fun fact: I read somewhere that some of the world top CEOs have said that they secretly feel like frauds and like they don’t know what they’re doing. So maybe feeling lost isn’t as uncommon or bad it seems.
3. I always look as poised and prepared as I do in my pictures.
*Insert a Dominican “woooooo!”* No way. Sometimes I do, often I don’t. Everything in moderation. Monsterville (my friend of 2+ decades) can attest to my strong affinity for minimalism and simple things to the point where I don’t care if what I wear has holes in it.
4. My hair always looks on fleek.
Wooo! On the contrary. Anyone with Dominican curls knows our hair is always anything but predictable. Especially if the air has a drop of humidity. Spoiler: There is a reason I wear hats and caps so often.
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 white Americans and putting them in a town in the Dominican Republic, and this town is distanced from many Dominican “customs” and people. Picture most of those Americans immigrants not easily assimilating or being able to grasp the Spanish language. And picture them holding tightly to their American culture with frequent trips back to the United States. Now picture what the kids come out like into adulthood. That’s me in reverse! Dominican-American.
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 American. My Spanish accent and my words sound very fluid and fluent. In fact, some Latinos abroad refuse to believe I am American until I speak in English. But to me, my Spanish not 100%. At least not professionally or “neutrally.”
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? And then again, what is “formal” and “100%” Spanish?
8. 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, child, or weekly manicures. All things that cost the same amount of money as several trips abroad.
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 probably 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, that is undeniable. But I’m not white/Caucasian. You could say about 40% of European descent, but don’t dismiss my entirety as white just because I don’t fully fit your latina stereotype!
10. I have a Cuban boyfriend.
[Insert my classic 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.