Last month, I experienced one of the proudest moments ever as I watched my niece Ashley graduate from university. [She’s only seven years younger than I am, so we’re close – almost more like sisters than aunt|niece.]
The most touching moment of the entire weekend was when Ash delivered her speech as the selected student speaker for the school’s multicultural graduation (also known as Kushinda or Ritos de Pasaje). Homegirl stood up there, spoke like a boss, and absolutely crushed it.
The auditorium was dark and silent—save for my dramatic sobs—while the spotlight set on Ashley. She explained to a room packed with hundreds of people what this milestone meant to her personally and to our family. Her voice began to quiver as she shared that her mom (aka my sister) lived a reality that is so prevalent among young Latinas: teen motherhood. The audience comforted her with applause and cheers, and Ash continued to speak openly about how our society doesn’t expect much from teen mothers, especially those of color, but that my sister worked her ass off so that her kid wouldn’t become another statistic.
On that stage, Ashley proudly donned her Latin American-designed sash and colorful stoles from her Hispanic-heritage fraternity (of which, she was president). She spoke beautifully and bravely about her accomplishments as a young Latina. It was quite evident to everyone in that room that her background played a major role in shaping who she is.
In the few weeks since Ashley’s graduation, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my own identity.
If you hadn’t gathered yet, I too am Hispanic. My mother was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. My father was born in Cuba. While I don’t identify much with my Cuban side, I relate strongly to being Dominican. I speak Dominican-influenced Spanish, devour Dominican food on the reg, and follow Dominican traditions.
In middle school and perhaps even in high school, I was really proud of my heritage, and I cared a lot about identifying as a Latina. But over time, being bicultural became an exhausting thing to be. It felt like something I had to prove rather than something I just … was.
I don’t “look” Hispanic, and a lot of people don’t realize that Hispanics come in all colors and hair types. I grew tired of having to explain why I “look African-American,” and why I don’t resemble Sofia Vergara or Shakira or America Ferrera. I also came to resent my English-sounding last name, and having to discuss how imperialism works. And finally, I didn’t want to have to discuss why I lacked an accent, while the rest of my family had one.
You see—I’ve been to Dominican hair salons in Harlem where overzealous patrons had no idea I spoke Spanish, and tried to “translate” what the hair stylists were saying to me. I grew tired of having to say, “Actually, I speak Spanish better than you do. You don’t need to play translator.” I’ve also been in Non-Hispanic Black hair salons, where the stylist spoke poorly about Dominican women and their hair care rituals. It’s easier to just stay quiet, and nod along.
It was all exhausting. So, I tried to blend in as much as possible. This is really hard to write and shameful to admit, but I’ve often pretended that I don’t speak Spanish in social settings, so I wouldn’t have to get into a conversation about where I learned it. In fact, when I order food at a Latin American restaurant, I tend to adopt an American accent instead of speaking normally, e.g. asking for a “kay-suh-dee-yuh” rather than a “quesadilla.”
I’ve never gone out of my way to hide anything, but unless it comes up, I don’t feel the need to share that I am a Spanish-speaking, “Caso Cerrado”-loving, mamajuana-drinking bicultural lady. But I’ve realized something the last few weeks: As much as I’d like to make life easier on a day-to-day basis, I’m doing a disservice to myself and to those around me by not openly embracing that I’m bicultural.
Being Dominican-American really does define a major part of who I am: Even though the current U.S. “leader” is a gross troll, I still believe in the American Dream. My mom came of age in the DR during a civil war, and she’s managed to make it here and give her daughters as much as possible. I also believe in the concept of family first, over the needs of the individual. And I definitely believe in Clorox-ing the heck out of my house + overcoming every cold with Vivaporú (but those are stories for another day).
Why am I (over)sharing all this shit? I want to spend more time exploring what it means to be a multicultural millennial in this country, and what brands, leaders and institutions can do to better connect with different groups. It’s something I’ve always held near and dear to my heart, and I finally feel brave enough to delve into these topics. This is it, folks! Or, in the words of my Cuban idol …