There’s nothing better than the feeling of going home and walking down Dyckman Street. Being welcomed back by endless streams of bachata blasting from people’s windows, the guitar and güira married in harmony. Thinking the que lo que primo shouted across the street was meant for you — here, everyone calls everyone primo or prima. Seeing plátanos, verdes y maduros, outside every bodega, wondering which kind will be frying when you get back home. And greeting everyone you know with an ¡hola vecina! regardless of whether or not you’re actually neighbors. My whole life I’ve lived in the same thirty-block radius between the two northernmost neighborhoods in Manhattan: Washington Heights and Inwood. A place where you hear heavily accented English, extremely fast Spanish, and — my personal favorite — the hybrid tongue: Spanglish. And whether you’re on 181st or 207th, you’ll always find smells of home and a bustling of all shades of brown.
The population of Dominican people in New York is almost 800,000, out of the almost two million Dominicans in the USA. The biggest concentration of Dominicans, followed by the Bronx, is precisely located from 145th St. to 220th St. To me, the tip of Manhattan has always been what New Yorkers are now starting to dub “Little Dominican Republic.” I’ve always had the comfort of knowing that my family is one of the thousands of Dominican-Yorks uptown trying to carve out a home away from home. But I recognize it is no easy task, making a home.
My grandparents grew up in the Dominican Republic, an island known for paradise, a place I could only call home during summer breaks. And while Americans of their generation were born into the terror of World War II, they were born into the terror of Rafael Trujillo, whose dictatorship spanned over 30 years, from 1930 to 1961. As many people did during Trujillo’s dictatorship, my grandparents fled the first chance they got to Nueva York, hoping to find employment and U.S. passports, leaving their children behind for fear of uncertainty in a foreign country. When mis abuelos moved here, they had one goal: ensure that their children, and their grandchildren, could one day establish themselves, and their homes, here, too. But when my parents finally came to New York in the 1990s, becoming American didn’t mean they wanted to forget where they came from.
Had these two generations of Baez and Filpos not uprooted their lives to come to uptown Manhattan, I’m not sure if I would have ever felt at home in the U.S., a country where a hyphenated identity complicates how I view myself and my place in two completely different worlds. Dominican-American is an identity that doesn’t guarantee my citizenship and belonging, regardless of my U.S. passport. This became clear to me my first year at Yale. One day at lunch, I was talking about how excited I was to go back home for Thanksgiving break — reminiscing on what a Dominican Thanksgiving is like — when this guy smirked and asked “Oh yea, you live uptown New York, in the ghetto right? What’s that like?” Anger, rage and a reluctant speechlessness washed over me. I couldn’t believe that a stranger, knowing nothing about where I’m from, had said such a comment so casually. I wanted to go off on him, but as he continued to talk about something else, I realized it wouldn’t even be worth my time.
This wasn’t the first, and certainly not the last time, where individuals have intentionally, or even unintentionally, put me down, condescended me, or fetishized who I am and where I’m from. It’s embedded in questions like “But where are you really from?” and comments like “I wish I were as tan you.” It underlies people’s surprised tone every time I say I go to Yale — “Good for you,” they say. In such instances, I always think about when I was learning to drive. My mom taught me that the most important rule of the road is awareness: you have to be aware of your surroundings, of what you do, because you can never anticipate what anyone else will do. I carry these words with me as I navigate meeting some people who know nothing about me, and others who think they know enough. I cannot be responsible for people’s unawareness of what they say and how they treat and view others. I can only be responsible for myself. And as I drive through spaces that tokenize, racialize, fetishize and diminish me and where I’m from, I choose to think about Dyckman. The bachata, the platános and the sea of smiles: some toothless, others golden, but all genuine.
Gianna Baez | firstname.lastname@example.org