I was the first-born of two girls, so when I came into the world by way of Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, NY there was only Spanish. Mami and Papi hadn’t become fully proficient in English yet and I had no older siblings or cousins to teach me the language.
My first language was Spanish straight through until I entered kindergarten. 90’s VHS video footage of me depict a curly haired little brown girl playing with Mami’s calderos and wooden spoons. I would look straight at the camera and ask my father, “Tu quiere caine?” erasing the /s/ and distorting the /r/ into an /i/ in real Campesina fashion.
For most of my life, I was proud to be Dominicana. I asked my mom to cook me food whenever there was an international potluck at school. I dragged my sister to dance bachata and Perico ripiao with me on the living room floor whenever we had family gatherings. I wore Dominican flag jerseys and repped my flag every opportunity I got. I was aware that I was born in the United States but I was just so proud of my parent’s language and culture that I boasted it every opportunity I had.
I brought D.R.’s flag with me to college. It hung on the wall next to my desk while I sat and watched Family Guy dubbed in Dominican Spanish with my first college boyfriend, also a Dominican. The flag sat over our heads as I listened while he would tell me stories about the *cocolos that always started problems at the parties he went to.
He was the first person to introduce me to that word. Cocolos. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.
Then, I started taking some Black Studies courses and was introduced to the African part of my ancestry for the first time. I discovered that African slave ships were brought to the Dominican Republic and that my people are a toss-up mixture of mulatto and indigenous. Imagine that – I started learning the true history of my people at 19 years old.
Life got a little more complicated for me after that. It was like a blindfold was removed from my eyes.
I couldn’t ignore the blatant colorism taking place around me anymore. The way I had family members who complimented dark skinned women by making them the exception. “Ella es prieta, pero WAO que linda.” The way my then boyfriend curled his lip when he spit out the word “cocolos” in disdain, as though he were cursing them for existing. The way he and his friends started looking at me differently for taking Black studies courses because all of a sudden, they said “I wanted to be Black.”
I should have screamed, “we all got Black in us stupid!” but confrontation and insults have never been my style and I was busy falling out of supposed love.
Today is Dominican Independence Day. Today we celebrate February 27th, 1844 – the day that the Dominican Republic gained autonomy from Haiti.
But what happened after that date?
After only 17 years of independence, general Pedro Santana asked Queen Isabella II of Spain to retake control of the Dominican Republic. In essence, the Dominican Republic was recolonized from 1861-1865. A Dominican insurgency called the Dominican Restoration War was waged between nationalists and Spain.
The war ended August 16th 1865 and is celebrated as a National Holiday in the Dominican Republic called Restoration Day. It is also the day that the president is sworn into office.
I’ve never heard of Restoration Day before today.
During the Dominican Restoration war, Haiti, under the rule of President Fabre Geffrard provided asylum to Dominican families who fled in fear of being enslaved by the Spaniards. President Fabre Ferrard also sent his personal guards and men to help the rebels against the Spanish troops.
I did a lot of reading today. And I understand the corruption and greed that drove a lot of these movements from all directions. But I still am having a hard time shaking off the irony of anti-Blackness and anti-Haitianism that creeps into our bloodlines as Dominicans. If you look closely enough at your family history, I bet you’ll find traces of it there too.
And so I had a hard time today when I was tagged in posts and I saw my people celebrating. Partly because I want to celebrate too. Shoot – in the words of Fernandito Villalona:
Dominican[a] soy/De mis raices nunca voy a olvidarme/Soy de una loma/Y lo llevo en mi sangre
But also because I’m troubled by the fact that as a Dominican American I waved my flag so proudly for so many years on February 27th not truly understanding the history.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate our culture. I mean – I know exactly what the origins of Thanksgiving are and that doesn’t stop me from sitting at a table with my loved ones every year and participating in a gluttonous meal. People all over the country celebrate July 4th, knowing full well that we cannot call this the land of the free when there is so much abuse of power at institutionalized levels. They don’t turn down the BBQ though.
Dominicans are a loving, nurturing, charismatic group of people with rich foods, music, clothing … and also history. All I’m saying is that we need to take the time, especially those of us born here in the U.S. to Dominican immigrants, to learn the history.
I know I still have a lot to learn and I may never fully grasp the complex relationship that maintains the borders of Quisqueya, but I’m hoping that if I choose to have a family, my kids won’t have to wait until they are 19 years old to begin to learn the fullness of their history.
Who knows – maybe we’ll wave our flag on February 27th AND August 16th. I do still love waving my flag.
*Footnotes: Cocolo is a term used in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean to refer to non-Hispanic African descendants or darker-skinned people in general. The term originated in the Dominican Republic, and was historically used to refer to the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean descendants.