Here is the transcript for my interview with Dominican-American student Hilda Fournier. We spoke about issues concerning Dominican identity, compared and contrasted “Dominican-ness” in New York City to Dominican Republic, and she shared her own views on what it means to be Dominican at home and in Upstate, Ny at Suny New Paltz.
Interviewer: I just want to let you know that you know, you already gave me permission to record you, if you change your mind just let me know and after the interview if there’s something you want to remain anonymous or something like that, it’s fine it’s not a problem. So, the topic that I’m covering is Dominican identity and I chose you specifically because you’re someone that I know well and youre in a big school environment and you know, you’re Dominican and I know you study these topics so I know you’ll have some really good insight. This is for my paper for my GS research methods class. Feel free to stop me or if you want to add something else.
H: Okay. Wait, so you’re recording this and is your professor going to hear this?
I: No, no. I’m recording it so that I can write it afterwards. I have to type it up.
H: Oh, okay okay. Is it long?
I: It can be as long as you want it to be or as short as you want it to be. It’s really up to you.
H: Oh ok ok.
I: Okay, so let me know if you want to remain anonymous at the end of the interview, it’s totally fine.
I: You go to DR a lot, what are some of your favorite memories?
H: I don’t know I just really like the fact that when I go to DR there is no drinking age. (laughs) So like whenever I go I’m allowed to like feel like, yeah I’m allowed to do a lot of things and there’s more freedom. I mean, even though there’s more poverty and it’s like more obvious when you go there that there’s not as much money, there’s more freedom to do what you want. Not that people shouldn’t go to school because you know, whatever but you have the choice whether or not you go or not and I guess that, you can do whatever you want. It’s harder to get jobs and live there but it’s also I don’t know.. free.
I: It’s also what?
H: Like, more liberal? I don’t know is that what you call it, that you can just do what you want and stuff.
H: Yeah… I don’t know… it’s really beautiful! (laughs)
I: (laughs) you were born here right you weren’t born in DR?
H: Yeah I was born here, I was born in Harlem and my parents were born in DR so they like migrated? Yeah. From Dominican Republic to here. But my grandma used to travel from DR to here first and then my dad came and then my mom.
I: That’s awesome that you’re grandparents came here first, that’s not the case for a lot of people.
H: yeah I know, only my grandma though because she used to travel to Puerto Rico and stuff so she basically left my dad and my uncles and aunts on my own with my grandfather but he was always working so my aunt basically had to take care of the entire household and she was like probably 20 or something taking care of a bunch of teenagers.
I: How come those members of your family that are still in DR now didn’t choose to migrate here also?
H: Um, they’ve all been here before, like in the US at least once. My uncle, my dads brother he lived here and he goes back like three or four times a year because he wants to live there and retire there. My other uncle who’s my dads brother as well le lives here now and he’s just like working until he saves enough money to go back to Dominican Republic and just live there comfortably. And then my aunt and uncle who came here they decided that they didn’t want to stay because they didn’t like the US and they thought it wasn’t a welcoming country and stuff. As soon as they came here they decided to leave and they said that they don’t like the fact that its not a family environment, you know? You cant just knock on your neighbors door and just walk in or like its not like that here. It’s restricted people are very like “at home” they don’t like being outside, stuff like that.
I: are you speaking about a certain group of people or do you mean in general like all Americans no matter what ethnicity?
H: Idk I think they meant, I mean I’m not speaking for myself, I’m speaking from what they’ve said and I think they were talking about all people in the US.
I: Right. And they migrated from DR right? They weren’t born here?
H: yeah they weren’t born here but they stayed here for 2 months and left right away. They even had their passport and everything and they threw it out.
I: they were really disappointed then. What do you think, or if you know, what was their expectation of here? How do they perceive NYC in DR? Cause it seemed like they were let down completely.
H: Yeah, it’s funny ‘cause there’s this movie called Barbuena en Nueva York and its like, about a guy that comes from DR to the US ‘cause there’s this guy that tells him, “Oh come, you’re gonna make a lot of money it rains dollar bills in NY, there’s so much money everywhere.” And I felt like they were thinking the same thing like, “it’s so easy to get a job, you can get whatever you want, it’s such a nice place.” And they came to the US and they were in Washington Heights which is a low-income area and there’s no jobs for them because they just got here and it’s a mess and they were probably like okay this is not what I was expecting and it’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be and that’s why I think, personally, that its way easier over there because people work and basically they work like 5 days a week because weekends are always off, no one works and it’s just party time and people can work as long as they want. Its not like corportate where you have to work 8 hours a day or something, its not paid by hours you know? It’s a different system how everything works over there. I don’t know. I guess they thought it was the same.
I: Yeah, and you know, between you guys theres different generations like your mom and dad who came from DR to Washington heights and then you who were born here. Obviously you guys are going to have different experiences in NYC, you and your parents and there’s a certain level of “Dominicaness”. What would you say is the main difference with the “NY experience” between you andn your parents if there is one?
H: hmm.. the main difference is probably that as soon as they got here they had to work and were working their butts off, they didn’t live comfortably. Being in NY they didn’t automatically have a comfortable living situation. They weren’t in a comfortable household or anything like they were living with my grandma in a one bedroom apartment which is like, very uncomfortable. And I mean, I grew up with everything already set. I mean they had been here for years already after I like became aware of what was around me and stuff. So I feel like the whole living situation was the biggest difference and I just didn’t experience it that way. For me it’s been easier because when they had me they were already living in a three bedroom apartment and we were like comfortable and they had good jobs and everything. And for them it wasn’t like that when they first arrived, so theres like a big difference economically and just lifestyle wise.
I: have your parents ever mentioned having any sort of issues with racism in NY?
H: My dad always said not in NY well im not sure. well in Puerto Rico where he lived for 7 years he said that a lot of Puerto Ricans would discriminate against him and like, cause hes really dark skin. Cause he’s like… I’m a mix between my mom and dad, my mom is really light skin and my dad is really dark and my dad would be discriminated upon like “pietro, Moreno” and that’s why to this day whenever someone calls him Moreno he gets really offended cause I guess it’s like a trigger word for him, cause it brings back bad memories? And um he said when he first came to NY and he didn’t know English a lot of people wouldn’t speak to him, because he didn’t know English. Even people you could tell were Hispanic and he said they would just be like no were, going to ignore you and if he were walking downtown and he was lost that’s how it used to be. Until like, now I’m not sure if he does experience it but before he did a lot. He’s been here for like 37 years in the US so it’s been a long time.
I: Did your parents choose your location of residence for a reason?
H: Im not really sure, probably. Because the majority of the people that live in Washington heights are Dominicans. I’ve lived there my whole life, like Im going to be 20 and we’ve lived there since I was 4. My dad said hes always lived in Washington Heights too so im not really sure why the decision but um maybe family? I’m guessing, like this is my input on it: since there was such a large number of Dominicans in Washington heights my grandma probably got connections there and that’s how it started people just following whoever they know.
I: mhmm. We’ve been talking about race but we really haven’t gotten into it yet. How has been your experience as a Dominican? How would you describe yourself? There are so many terms that like we use in DR and that we use here like you said, we use, “Morena, prieta, negro, india” Like you know what I mean? We use so many different names for different colors of skin and now theres this new thing that I recently been hearing a lot about and it’s the term Afro-latina. Would you consider yourself one?
H: ah.. I personally do consider myself an Afro-Latina cause basically the Caribbean was founded by a mix of African and Europeans and all this random stuff and I consider myself that like sometimes people like to joke around and I’m like, “Oh im black” and they’re like, “yeah okay, you’re Hispanic” and Im like okay.. whatever you say because you know more than me and where I come from… But yeah um I consider myself that but um I don’t like the fact that people go around calling eachother by skin color, like “morena” and “that india, or blanquita” and all that stuff because I feel like usually the people who are doing the name calling are usually your skin color or lighter or whatever and I feel like it’s a way for them to separate themselves from you. Im not sure if making fun of you or either um … I don’t know.. but basically what they’re doing is separating who they are and saying “oh I don’t identify as a black person or as a morena, prieta, whatever, that’s YOU.” They’re like downgrading you by saying that because there’s this thing in Caribbean countries where the darker you are the worse you are so they always tend to point out people that are darker. They always have to make it a thing to point them out like “oh look at this Moreno” or “look at this prieto” instead of just saying your name or something you know?
I: Do you think that that also exists in NYC? As much as it does in DR? or do you feel it’s stronger in one place than the other?
H: I feel like it does exist but with the older generation of people.
I: here in the city?
H: Yeah because I feel like younger people especially like our age, they tend to call you that but de cariño they’re like, “oh morenita, wassup?” They talk you like that but when people are older and do it they go like, “ey morena” and like pointing it out, “hey black” like I got to point it out that you’re black for no apparent reason but like I don’t know I notice that, theres like a difference between a generation because now that im older and I see people around me that are that age and shit talking about race and stuff they seem to be careless about what color skin their friends are and then people that are older always have to be like, “I don’t want you to marry someone that’s dark skin, no dañe la raza” all this stuff its like the older people because I guess they have it engraved in them because its still those times of when racism was really obvious all the time and discrimination. I guess that’s why, the time difference and stuff.
I: So the older people that youre talking about these are people that are born in DR right? The ones that have these strong views. Now why do you think that in a country like DR where the majority of people are dark skinned why do you think theres so much racism why do you think they want to strive to be “White” or Blanca. What is the necessity, the need? Why do they need all these code names?
H: Yeah I feel like, hmm.. one of the reasons why I think is because uh wait.. I forgot how to word this (laughs) wait… (silence) damn that’s a toughy. I guess its because the whole thing about, first of all we were conquered by people who were white and those were the people that were always in power and seeing as how they were the ones that had money and power and respect we wanna strive to be like them. Its like we wont identify with our African roots because its like a sin, “oh no” even though during those times being one drop of African automatically made you Black. Even if you looked white. Its just a issue with power like who’s in power. Now it doesn’t really matter because people.. uh I don’t know how to explain it. I see it as our generation we don’t care because were like okay it doesn’t matter if your black or white whatever that’s how our generation sees it but their generation they’ve been going through so much rasism and discrimination during the older ages that they still see it as race is an important factor to where you are politically and economically. And I feel theyre ashamed to say theyre connected to people that were once slaves that were considered nothing to others.
I: Do you think DR as a nation are still trying to keep this ideology alive?
H: I feel like as a whole, a lot of the older generations tend to do that. They’re always like “vamo’ levantar la raza and marry lighter skinned people” and also just discriminating against Haitians that’s the thing over there and it just happens so constantly and it’s like you’re just insulting someone because they’re darker than you and its like, the whole country or I cant speak for everyone but the majority of the people that I’ve seen have done things like that before where they just discriminate upon people that are darker. Its just a thing that they’re keeping alive through their experiences and how they grew up.
I: Right. And now that we focused a lot on DR and you gave me your opinions as a Dominican-American lets move towards NYC which is obviously your area of expertise since you’ve lived here your whole life (hilda giggles) Do you feel there are societal pressures that Dominican-Americans face today?
H: Can you rephrase the question?
I: In terms of identity do you feel like the experience of racism from lighter skinned people
H: oh yeah yeah. When I lived in the city for me I thought I looked Dominican or I thought that was “a look” now that I’m in college and Ive been around a majority of people that are White I’ve realized that there isn’t a “look” for Dominican or a look for whatever country. People tend to look similar but there’s so many different colors especially in Dominican Republic there’s so many different.. hues of people thatyou cant really say if you look Dominican or not because people here think I’m Black like from Africa and they’re like “oh you’re black, are you like Black & White?” like that’s what people automatically assume and I’m just like “I’m Dominican.” And anways, Black & White are races… so I don’t know, I don’t believe in race so yeah… But yeah I feel like people automatically assume I’m Black just because I’m darker skinned and they don’t think I’m from the Caribbean because of this image that’s like put on who’s a Latina/Hispanic person because of TV and all that stuff. They always make it seem like Paulina Rubio type of people. (laughs)
I: yeah that’s what I was going to ask you, what is the image that they have of Latinas then?
H: I don’t know, I feel like its kind of like exotic.. uhh ..girl who has a curvy body and has nice like not super straight hair but wavy not curly how I have it not like afro-ish, afro hair, obviously not dark skin. I’m thinking someone that’s tan, I don’t know, when I think of a Hispanic girl I think of Eva Mendes (chuckles) that’s the look I think automatically when they say “oh Latina? You don’t look Latina?” And I think “oh cause I don’t look like Eva Mendes, it’s fine, I understand” yeah…
I: How do you feel as a Dominican on campus vs. as a Dominican in Washington Heights can you explain the experiences in both areas?
H: um, differences. Back home, back in the city, I feel more comfortable talking in Spanish and stuff and I don’t know I feel like there’s certain things that I can do over there that if I were to do here people would be like “who are you what are you doing?”
I: like what?
H: Like I can’t play Bachata in a party and start dancing to it because people would say “what you’re listening to is weird” or something like that you know? Like my group of friends they listen to it they’re okay with it but like I mean lets say I’m in a random house and say, “lets listen to some bachata” I wouldn’t want to do that because no one listens to that. I feel like the language is different, I cant speak Spanglish that much and talk in Spanish around people. I’m taking Spanish classes and I feel comfortable in because I feel like it’s my environment even though the majority of people there aren’t Dominican and stuff but I still feel like back home, its more like a comfort zone for me where here I feel like its something new its new every time, new experiences.
I: right, and do you feel that you’re assimilating a bit to the dominant culture on campus
H: like to the way they are and stuff?
H: hmm, im not really sure. I think Im still like myself, like same person. I mean my attitude has changed a lot and like the way I think or how I identify myself because I never thought of the term afro-caribbean or afro-latina before till recently so I feel like not the campus itself is changing me but just the things I’m learning. But the way people are here I don’t think its affected me that much. Just like my music choices have changed but not that ive left behind anything its just that I’m mixing everything up: I’m listening to a whole bunch of different things, doing a whole bunch of things that I never did before. I’ve learned new things and I haven’t forgotten of everything that brought me here.
-skype call dropped-
I: sorry it froze
H: I was like damn fail was it that bad? (laughter)
I: (laughter) dique never picking up your phone call again, thanks. (laughter) Um can you tell me some things that you do as a Dominican-American that regular Dominicans don’t do and things you both do.
H: I feel like the whole language thing is one of the biggest thing that is different. Like I speak Spanglish so I obviously mix up words when I speak sometimes they don’t do that at all. And also when I try to speak Spanish I try to speak it as properly as possible but when they speak it they just speak it like I don’t know uh cutting up words. I don’t want to say they speak slang but they have a different accent and they speak it in a different way than I do. And also, hmm, I feel like theyre less interested in education and more interested in money. I noticed that me and other people that are like my age and Hispanic we’re really into our studies and college and we go away to college and were okay with going away. Meanwhile theyre more like, after high school, work and you cant go away to college because you cant leave your family. Its like they’re really like closed. Not close minded but they don’t want to go out, out of their bubble. That’s what you call it. They just want to stay together and work and try to focus on that. Does that make sense?
I: yeah it makes sense. What are some common thoughts you feel people have about Dominicans?
H: People always say we’re really loud and I don’t know.. what else? Oh they say we have like big butts (laughs) I don’t know stuff like that. The Dominican stereotype stuff like that.
I: What does it mean to be Dominican to you?
H: Being Dominican… lets see. This feels like one of those movie things at the end where they put the quote, haha. I don’t think uh this is hard. Okay I feel like I don’t want to say being Dominican means this, this, and that because I feel like there’s so many different types of Dominican. And just my experiences I can’t say it’s everyone else’s. But for myself it means being able to go home and listen to merengue with your family and have a couple of drinks and relax and tell stories and just like you know its like I forget about my worries when I’m around my Dominican people (smiles) but then yeah like to me it just means happiness and enjoying life, that’s what Dominican is. Tu sabe
I: Can you describe the typical Dominican person?
H:Uh depends where they live
I: Washington Heights wise
H: Okay(smiling) Washington Heights is playing merengue really loud on Sunday mornings while cleaning or bachata or something and like drinking some brugal (laughs) like I don’t know, playing Dominos outside, that’s a male thing. Just uh cooking, early dinners like at 12 in the afternoon (shared laughter) yeah like I don’t know that’s basically how I see it, having fun on the weekends on the time. There’s no boring weekend when you’re a Dominican in Washington Heights. (shared laughter)
I: yeah that’s true, can you describe to me the typical Dominican American in Washington Heights?
H: Uh Dominican American.. In Washington Heights I feel like it’s the same thing because you’re in an area that’s like majority Dominican so you are Dominican. To them there is no Dominican American you do the same things. But once you’re out of there you start realizing “Oh Im not the same I have different background and stuff” but I feel like when youre a Dominican-American in Washington Heights youre automatically Dominican, it’s the same thing.
I: Can you elaborate when you said when you leave its something else?
H: Oh, that when you leave theres not that many Dominicans you realize how much of a Dominican you are once you’re not near Dominicans. You’re like damn there’s no bachata I feel like dancing for some reason (shared laughter) and I don’t know, you really miss it and stuff. Cause I know when I first left Washington Heights and I came to college the first semester I was completely fine the second one I was like listening to freaking Juan Luis Guerra by myself in my headphones tryna’ like dance in my head or something so my roommate wont think Im crazy (laughs) I’m like aw damn I miss DR so bad I just wanna go back. (laughs) I want to go visit my family and stuff and go to the beach, hahah.
I: That’s funny. Um do you notice a difference with Dominicans that remain in college in NYC vs. the ones that go away?
H: Um… when people remain in the city, maybe it depends on what school they go to but I feel like many of them don’t learn about identifying as African like they don’t learn as much of the history as other people do and I feel like they don’t realize how good they have it when theyre around the people that are their ethnicity because they’re still around them, they haven’t left the bubble. They haven’t left that and they haven’t left their comfort zone so they’re still the same person, in a way. I left my comfort zone and I’m sad but when I go home I appreciate it more. But they live there so its like whatever Im used to it it’s the same thing all the time.
I: and how important is it to learn about their history like you said?
H: I think its really important because you need to know where you come from and why we are the way we are. Why there are so many shades of Dominican and why everyone looks different, why our hair looks a certain way and whatever. And people seem so scared or Im not sure if they are or not but it seems like theyre so scared of finding out where they came from cause they’re scared of the truth. Like I said it before, Dominicans don’t want to admit they have African roots a lot of them so they decide to make fun of those who you can see it through their face automatically. “Oh these people are African or Haitian or something” so its like, important to know that but a lot of people are too scared to figure it out. I think it’s a big thing.
I: Is there anything else you’d like to add or that you feel is important to Dominican identity?
H: I think you should talk about the roles men and women play and the difference between them. It’s a big difference from how it is in DR to how it is over here in NYC.
I: Do you wanna talk about that a little bit?
H: Well when I go to DR I notice a lot of the men work and the women are at home cooking they have the more caretaking job they cook for everyone, take care of the old people, the young people, the men sit while the women serve them and so on. And then here Ive notice that a lot of the mothers take the working role and they work outside of the home. It’s like having two jobs, they work inside and outside the home because they have to take care of their children and then they come back and they work outside and also the father figure sometimes has to take the mother role and take care of the children. I grew up with my dad being the one to cook and clean and pick me up from school while my mom worked. So its such a big difference between DR and here, the gender roles.
I: and why do you think that’s important to my research?
H: I don’t know I feel like its good to analyze what roles the women and men play in society and how where you live affects it. Its like having twins and having them in two different countries and seeing how it affects them.
I: Is that all you wanted to add?
I: Thank you so much Hilda, you’re awesome.
H: no problem J
I: there might be a time where I might have to email you and ask you to elaborate. Just wanted to let you know and ask if that’s okay
H: yeah no problem, you can do that.
I: you brought up a lot of interesting ideas and I’m really excited to work on this paper.
H: no problem Jen, anytime! Send me a copy of the paper when you’re done!