As I was growing up in a community of color in the Bronx, I felt assured of my self-identity in large part because everyone around me identified in a similar way. I grew up with many other children of immigrants, and when asked where we were from, we understood it as an inquiry into our ethnic origins and seldom took offense to it.
“I’m Nicaraguan and Black.”
“I’m Puerto Rican.”
We always answered with pride.
I remember visiting my parents’ native Dominican Republic as a child. I was enchanted by this strange yet familiar place. We always stayed in my grandparents’ home in a Santiago barrio called Nibaje, in the very home where my father and many of his siblings were born. This was home but not home. The foods that I enjoyed back in New York tasted different; the cadence of that familiar Dominican accent was unfamiliar. It was home in the way we recognize a great-grandparent as family; we may not know them in the way we know our parents and grandparents, but we have a deep affection for them. We look at them in awe, with an understanding that they hold a part of our history we may never know, that they are part of the reason we exist in the first place. In the weeks we’d spend on the island, I’d grow to love its summer heat, the midafternoon breezes, the mango trees, and the kids playing in the streets and wearing little more than flip-flops. I loved the way my feet felt when they touched the cold, ceramic tile floors of my grandparents’ home, and how most people in the neighborhood left their doors unlocked.
Anytime English slipped and we were in the presence of local kids, their frowns and rightful reminders to speak only in Spanish snapped us right back into reality.
During these trips, I learned about the way my parents grew up and more about the country’s history. But most importantly, I was confronted by what made me different from the local, native-born Dominican kids I played with. Back home, we were used to code-switching: English amongst one another and Spanish with our parents, aunts, and uncles. But anytime English slipped and we were in the presence of local kids, their frowns and rightful reminders to speak only in Spanish snapped us right back into reality. And that helped me understand the ways that being from New York City really shaped who I was.
In 2009, I traveled to Malaysia as part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program. The goal of the program in Malaysia was to facilitate a cultural exchange and to help students improve their English with native speakers in their classrooms.
If the Dominican Republic helped me shape my identity as a Dominican American, Malaysia helped me understand how you’re not always viewed the way you view yourself. When I arrived in the conservative east-coast state of Terengganu, I quickly learned that the only people who the Malaysians viewed as “Americans” were white Americans—and the blonder, the better. So where did that leave me?
Terengganu is a largely rural state on Malaysia’s east coast that borders the South China Sea. It’s off of the tourist path; most foreigners only pass through it en route to the many beautiful islands off the coast. And whatever the locals knew about American culture they gleaned from our cultural exports: music and movies.
I learned what my students meant when they said “American.” Americans, I learned, were mostly white and Christian. American women were thought to be “sexy,” a term which carried very negative connotations in this mostly traditional society: promiscuous, loose, immoral. My students also knew about Black and brown Americans. But we, too, were reduced to stereotypes introduced by media: “gangsters” and “rappers.” When I explained that I was Latina, the closest points of reference they had were Jennifer Lopez and Mexican telenovelas (Rosalinda, which starred Mexican entertainer Thalía, was a favorite). And Americans, in general, were thought to be rich.
I wasn’t just the first American they’d ever met; I was the first Latina they’d ever met.
I illustrated racial diversity in the US by comparing it to racial diversity in Malaysia (Muslim Malays are the dominant racial group, followed by ethnic Chinese, then ethnic Indians, and several indigenous groups). In one presentation, I showed my Malaysian students pictures of my family and had to explain how I came out so fair skinned when they pointed out how different I looked from my Afro-Dominican grandparents (it turns out explaining mixed race through generations and phenotype is pretty hard). It was important to me that they knew about my background because I wanted them to see me for who I was and not through stereotypes they’d internalized from seeing bad American television. They’d ask me about my hair, my culture, and my customs. I wasn’t just the first American they’d ever met; I was the first Latina they’d ever met. I initially tried to separate these two parts of my identity in the hopes that it would make it easier to explain what it was like to be a Westerner, but it became very evident that I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t be one without the other. I am both Latina and American; my experiences as a Latina and as an American are shaped by one another. I grew up in a neighborhood of immigrants and their children, and my American-ness is inextricably linked to the immigrant experience.
Having to explain things about who I was and where I was from—the Bronx, what “ethnic minority groups” meant, what it meant to be a Latina, the daughter of immigrants, race, and even the Dominican Republic—prepared me to have deeper conversations with people. I was honoring parts of my identity and history that I may have not focused on as much before having to exercise this in Terengganu.
I did a lot of growing up in Malaysia. I learned that respecting the dominant culture and its practices meant evolving as a person. I became aware of the privileges I exhibited due to colorism both at home and abroad. Colorism was prevalent in Malay culture as well, with fairer skin considered more desirable. This was confirmed by the proliferation of skin-whitening products that were advertised everywhere and on sale in stores. I learned that I had my own prejudices, and that confronting them and questioning my own beliefs was the only way to begin dismantling them. I learned to enjoy things for what they were and not be so serious or strong in my convictions, especially if they prevented me from connecting with others. More than anything, I learned that there was still so much to learn.
I had to explain over and over again about my ancestry and where I grew up. All of these encounters left me wondering if identity was fixed. Given how outside perceptions of who I was and where I fit in the world were as tangible as the experiences that led me to ascribe my own identity in the first place, how much of identity was chosen and how much of it was assigned? In more familiar environments, I took my identity for granted. I could see—but didn’t have an in-depth understanding of—my own privileges that came with being able to travel the world. I was still an American living in Malaysia, just like the rest of my white counterparts, and I was seen as every bit as foreign and different as they were.
It took many more years of traveling to become used to these outside perceptions. Trips to Central and South America were among my favorite; there was nothing quite like seamlessly and comfortably speaking Spanish with locals, which helped me navigate my way around these very different locales. I’d always get asked where I was from—“I’m Dominican from New York,” I would answer. I didn’t shy away from these encounters or opportunities to talk about them.
Finding elements of my identity in different places connected me to the universal human experience and, at the very least, gave me a way to connect to others and make my own culture relatable to theirs. And in that sense, I was never truly unmoored.
This was in a barrio in Santiago. We always stayed at my grandparents’ house. It was the house my father was born in.