Sunday, 5 October 2014

Reclaiming Quisqueya: My Experience at the 4th Annual National Dominican Student Conference

It has been a little over 24 hours since I have return back to my home from Cornell, and I can still feel the effects of having spent the weekend being inspired. I was not expecting to have such a positive experience. In fact, I wasn’t expecting much of anything. I was more excited to see my fellow panelists Vanessa Martir and Alicia Anabel Santos, who I had known before arriving to the conference. Before I continue, I want to share a bit about who I am to better explain why this weekend had such an impact on me.

My parents were both born and raised in the Dominican Republic. They moved to New York shortly after they were married and their three children, myself, my brother and sister, were born in the Bronx. Growing up, the only connection I had to my Dominican culture was through my family. We spoke Spanish the majority of the time. My mother would cook foods native to her upbringing, such as mangu, rice, beans and meat, stews and soups of all kinds and so forth. My extended family got together often to dance the night away to old school bachata, merengue and perico ripiao. From this description, one could assume that I was very rooted in my Dominican identity.

As I grew up, the community I grew up in had a bigger influence on me than my childhood. I was in a predominantly Puerto Rican and African American community, and so as I got into school, I was influenced greatly by the friends I had, the church I was part of and my interactions in my neighborhood. I don’t remember when I began to feel this way, but I never quite felt Dominican at that time. That sentiment stayed with me for a long time. I felt like I didn’t fit the Dominican woman stereotype. I was darker and less stylish than the Dominican females I encountered in my high school years, which was the first time I was exposed to more Dominicans outside of my family. I did not feel accepted by them; I didn’t seem to get what being from Quisqueya meant, I didn’t always understand how to joke around in Spanish, I had issues keeping up with the latest bachata hits because of my immersion into the world of rock, alternative and pop music and wasn’t as familiar with the motherland as the girls who were privileged enough to take trips every summer there.

A resentment of sorts began to develop in me from dealing with some arrogance and condescending energy in my adolescence. Once I got to college, cut off my hair, and hung out with the artists and poets on campus, I further alienated myself from the Latino community in school. The Latino students on my campus were predominantly Dominican. I realize now that part of it was my own resentment and feelings of being rejected that fed this separation. The other part was my willingness to experience the world outside of just a Latino circle and way of perceiving reality. I then resolved to just cultivate my connection to the poetry community and the Puerto Rican culture I was more familiar with.

A couple of months prior to the conference, Vanessa and I were having a conversation late at night. She paused in mid-conversation and told me that I had to visit the Dominican Republic; I had told her earlier that I hadn’t visited the island in 13 years. I got defensive and told her I had no desire to visit, and then expressed how I didn’t really feel connected to the island. I got to the point of anger with her as she told me how important it was for me to visit and to come to terms with this dissonance in my life.

My anger turned into inward reflection as the weeks went by. I had never, until that point, examined why I felt the way I did about my heritage. I wrote a bit about it after that conversation but left the writing to the wayside. The opportunity came to be a panelist for the conference after Vanessa recommended Alicia and I for the “Pelo Bueno, Pelo Malo” workshop. Since the topic was one that was personal to me, I took the chance and agreed to be a panelist. At this point, I was still not very excited about the conference, still holding onto my resentment.

My resentment began to melt after I left the first event Friday night of the conference. Carolina was driving me to my accommodations and I began to talk about my feelings of alienation with being Dominican. She just listened to what I was saying, and it was one of the first times I had expressed it out loud. Then, on Saturday, the “Moving Mountains” workshop set the tone for my change of heart. That workshop was utterly inspiring, as I heard the accomplishments and efforts of Dominican professionals who were giving back to their communities both in the United States and back in the Dominican Republic. I felt myself feel proud and happy for their stories and experiences, and suddenly felt for the first time in a very long time the urge to go visit D.R.

The workshop I was a panelist on was great. I was so excited to share my story with the audience and also hear the experiences of the other panelists and students in the crowd. I believe it was at this workshop that the idea of claiming one’s own Dominican-ness, as I heard some other students who felt the same type of struggle. When we had some time to network and have down time before the banquet, I spent the time speaking to Jennifer, a student from my alma mater, SUNY New Paltz. I elaborated more about how I had felt about being alienated and the overwhelming positivity that I had felt all weekend from everyone present. The banquet sealed the entire experience for me. I danced the night away and had a great time.

I came home inspired and finally ready to claim my Dominican-ness. I am working on this newfound positivity I feel towards my motherland. Vanessa was right. It was important for me to reconnect with the Dominican Republic. I feel a certain emptiness that I’ve felt in my life beginning to fill after this weekend. I thanked the organizers of the conference at Cornell and gave many, many hugs on Sunday out of the gratitude that I felt and still feel for the life-changing experience I had this past weekend. I must have thanked Vanessa as well about a dozen times for opening my eyes to the resentment I was not dealing with. I am finally able to claim my Dominican-ness, in my own way. In a way that is all my own. It feels good to not resent my heritage anymore. I can’t wait until I am able to book a flight to Dominican Republic!

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