Julissa & Carol
1. Where are you from? What do you do?
Born in the Dominican Republic! Specifically Cotui, La Mata. I am currently a Project Coordinator.
I am from a town called Cotui in El Cibao, Dominican Republic. I was born there and raised in The Bronx, NYC for most of my life. So you can say I'm a Dominican immigrant from The Bronx. I'm currently a full-time student for a Master's degree program. Before that, I was a middle school art teacher for several years.
2. When did you become aware that you were Dominican?
I don't believe there was ever a time I wasn't aware I was Dominican. From a very young age, my parents always made sure to tell me and sister that we were born in D.R, especially moving to the U.S. I was lucky enough to have lived there during my youth, so I had a chance to experience D.R. firsthand and not just a destination for vacations.
In all honesty, there was never a time I became aware that I was Dominican. From very young, my parents told my sister and I how we had all immigrated from D.R. Though I grew up most of my life going to school with Dominican-Americans, this wasn't an identity I ever felt like it was mine to claim. Especially after getting older, realizing I was an undocumented immigrant, forgetting or becoming aware that I was Dominican wasn't even an option. Even if I considered New York home, I knew I was considered a foreigner here.
There was a time, however, when I did become aware of what it was like to live like a Dominican. When I was seven years old, my sister and I had the opportunity to go back and live there for three years while my parents got more settled in New York. I lived on the island that had seen me come to the world; the one that had raised my parents. I was able to go to school there, see the importance of family over work, climb trees to pick fresh mangos and guayabas. Enjoy the year-long summer with our tanned skin and scraped knees from all the playing. When I was there, I knew I was home.
3. Tell me about a time that someone asked you where you were from, you responded and their response was “Oh, you’re Dominican?” How did you feel?
I ALWAYS get "Oh, you're Dominican?" People are in complete shock because I’m fair skinned with blonde hair and green eyes. I feel two different emotions when asked this. Firstly, I feel pride because it shows that my country has people of different color, shapes and sizes. We’re not just one mold. I'm glad I’m the person who makes them think twice before assuming anything about another person’s background.
I also feel sad. When someone asks me this, I feel like I'm being stripped from my identity. As if their confusion makes me have to prove that I am in fact Dominican. Not just to them, but to myself.
Just recently, a few weeks ago, one of my students heard me speak Spanish to another coworker. Immediately, she looked at me and said "You speak Spanish?" Are you Dominican?!". To which, I answered with a huge smile, “I was born there and everything." My student got up her seat said, "I'm Dominican, too!" lifted up her hands and, I kid you not, started dancing. I stood there cracking up! This has happened to me many times working in a predominately Dominican neighborhood. I love these moments and feel so proud of being Dominican when a student asks me.
When I was in middle school, all of my teachers were either White or Black. I never knew of any teacher of mine who was Dominican. I never saw my teachers shop in our neighborhood supermarkets, speak my first language or look like me. So I take great pride when I share with my students. I hope this influences them to think "If my teacher, who is Dominican, can go to college and get a good job, I can too!" Representation makes a world of a difference in how we see ourselves.
4A. Do you think your culture and upbringing affect your work and personal life?
I think everyone's culture and upbringing affect their work and personal life. For me it does so in the conversations I have with colleagues and friends about my heritage. It brings light into D.R, my people, culture, the differences in have lived there and now living here. It always goes back to the shock value of me being Dominican but opens up for great conversations.
Absolutely, just in conversation, Spanglish is my language of choice. At work, I hope that I'm a positive representation for my students. When I have conversations with coworkers, I know I bring a different insight from many of them. I try to advocate for my students with my first-hand experience of growing up in an immigrant household in New York City.
In my personal life, I can't separate my Dominican-ness from how I am. I love to laugh loud, dance merengue and bachata, and make a good moro con habichuela. Though I have friends from different ethnic backgrounds, I’m comforted by being around my Dominican friends. I mean, being able to chat with friends for hours while enjoying some Juan Luis Guerra in the background drinking cafecito is a taste of home.
4B. What have you helped your non-Dominican coworkers understand about your immigrant students?
I’ve had a few conversations with co-workers who tend to generalize our student’s experience. Some simply do it out of ignorance, so I’ve approached them with gentleness, not trying to accuse them. One specific example I can share was how a coworker once said our kid’s parents are not as invested in their children’s education. I challenged him, in how most parents have to work long hours, some even two jobs, to make sure they make ends meet and provide for their children. A lack of attendance in a parent meeting doesn’t always equate a lack of interest. I know I had the space and respect to challenge my co-worker because I was a peer but also because I was a product of a Dominican-immigrant upbringing in the NYC public school system. I enjoyed having conversations like these because It reminded me I was more than an educator, I was an advocate as well.
5A. Do you look like your parents? If you have siblings, do they look similar to them?
We have some similar features, but I don't really look like my parents or sister. My dad is Morenito with black hair and brown eyes, my mom is olive skin with brown hair and light brown eyes, and my sister is Morenita with black hair and brown eyes. I'm fair skinned with blonde hair and green eyes, lol. But I'm an identical copy of my grandmother, who birthed my Morenito dad!!! And she was born and raised in D.R too. Like I said, all colors, shapes and sizes.
Yes, I look like both of my parents. I have my mom's eyes, smile, petite size; my dad's tan skinned, dark eyes, curly hair. I have one older sister who looks nothing like my parents. She actually looks like my grandmother; who is very light skinned, with blue eyes. She's my sister from both mom and dad, but people always have a hard time believing that's my real sister. I like our contrast though, we call each other cafe y leche.
6. Are you represented in mainstream Latina culture? If not, why?
No, I’m too "White." I'm not what someone thinks a typical Latina looks like and I believe it’s what keeps feeding this limited conception of what a Dominican is. Because I’m not portrayed as much, people always question my identity when they see me or hear me speak Spanish. They just assume im European. They only show one side of Latinas and that is neither too white nor too black. They only want us in the middle kinda. “They” being the media.
I think the representation in mainstream is very limited. I'd be lying if I said there is none, I can think of the Dominican actress Zoe Saldana. But apart from that? Not many more come to mind. So, sadly the representation is scarce, in the entertainment industry at least. In the mainstream, Latinas are bunched up into one category. I like that we're fluid, being able to represent other Latino cultures that are not our own, but I'd love to see more Dominican women in the media represented as smart and educated, in specifically Dominican roles.
I will say that social media has given a platform for Dominican influencers, making it more accessible for Dominican women seeking representation.
7. What are three things you associate with Dominican culture? It can be any three words!
Un buen mangu!
Juan Luis Guerra
Tambora y Guira