Cuál Es Mi Patria?
Written by: Dairanys Grullon-Virgil
As I remember the lyrics of Sonia Silvetre’s song–an interpretation of the poem by Pedro Mil, “Si alguien quiere saber cuál es mi patria,” I found myself asking cuál es mi patria? I recalled the memories of my days back in the Dominican Republic. Since I was two years old and mis abuelos obtained their residency papers in the U.S., for 25 years I have been searching for the meaning of the word patria. As soon as my abuelos took off on the plane to Nueva York, my family’s destiny and mine was traced. Mis abuelos promised that as soon as they started working, they would start to save money to pedirnos so we could join them in the United States. This led me to grow up always thinking that one day I will be living in the United States, where English sounds so cool and people were white and cute. For me, the idea of leaving the island one day meant several things:
#1. I needed to learn English.
#2. I was the girl in the barrio that had family in the United States that not only sent money, clothes, and food, but would also join them there one day.
#3. I attended one of the best private school in the barrio, where English and good behavior were taught. For my mom, it meant that she had to raise her daughter to be well-behaved, with good education, and keep her out of trouble. Otherwise, I might be prevented from going to the U.S.
I remember living in el barrio Villa Juana and on Saturday while I cleaned the house I used to play loud English music: a variety of the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez (who I always thought I would look like as soon as I arrived to the U.S). I remember that I used to record songs on the old-fashion radios whenever the English artists came on. My life was complete the day that Tía gave me for Christmas my own Jennifer Lopez album, Glow. I distanced myself from bachata, salsa, and merengue; in my head I was cooler since I was the girl playing the English music.
At the age of 13, I left the Island on a plane to New York where I would meet mis abuelos, tíos, and primos who were waiting for my family’s arrival. Arriving to the U.S was a victory for the family. The traveling process took eleven years of working hard to save money. Unlike most people, I do not remember the exact day I left the island. All I remember is arriving in the U.S. during the fall, and from then on I became further detached from my place of birth. The first shock was that it was no longer enough to listen to songs by JLo or the Backstreetboys – I had to speak and understand English.
High school in particular was very difficult. I remember Mami and I getting lost on our way to my high school on the first day of school. We were lost in the world of the uptown and downtown trains, and although Tío trained and encouraged us to ask people in case we didn’t know where to go, we still got lost. I arrived in tears to my counselor’s office because we were lost and arrived late. I remember how much I hated how Dominican kids were stereotyped as hicks in my school, not only because they were being judged by outsiders for being Dominicans but also my own judgment of them. I used to think, “I can’t believe everyone thinks that Dominicans are like those kids. I am Dominican and I don’t act or look like them.”
As time progressed, a self-inflicted hatred grew within me to the point that I didn’t want to get to know, be around, or even relate with other Dominican students. I also started to hate the fact that I knew Spanish. One day, a white substitute teacher wrote me up because according to her, I was “talking,” but that was not the case. At the time I felt that my language had failed me and that I needed to discard it since it was no longer useful; I was in a position of needing to defend myself and I was unable to do so. Being in high school without knowing English was very frustrating on so many levels, from failing the English regents several times, to the point of not being sure if I’d graduate on time, to the ESL classes, applying to college, and my own shame of being who I am.
During my high school years, I hated everything related to my Dominicanidad. More than anything, I hated the judgment and lack of understanding from outsiders about the Dominican culture. I hated when I spoke in Spanish to a fellow Latino, some said, “Wow! Y tu eres Dominicana! Tu sabe que ustedes con ese tato y keloke no se quedan!” It’s not that there is something wrong with the tato or keloke, but rather it was the judgment behind it. High school was a period in my life in which I hated being Dominican, because in my head everything related to the Dominican identity was negative. During this time I only wanted to listen to English music, didn’t want to participate in Dominican events at my school, or even think about traveling to the island.
My detachment from the island did not begin in the United States. It started from the moment mis abuelos left in search of the “American Dream.” As a child, I thought that nothing I could do in my tierra would ever get me close to the ideal and luxury of living in the U.S., speaking English, aspiring to look and act white. I realized that when I attended my swearing-in ceremony for the U.S citizenship and they told me, “Now you are a U.S. citizen and renounce loyalty to any other country.” In that moment I thought, “But I am Dominican!” But wait, hadn’t I renounced it a long time ago? Do I know cuál es mi patria?
The hardest thing, even to this day, is that when I feel proud of calling myself Dominican, and honor everything related to it from my Blackness to my perico ripiao, I still feel unsure of cuál es mi Patria, since I never desired, not by choice but circumstances, to embrace or love it. The only time I’ve been back to the island was when I turned 15 years old, and I have not returned since. Sometimes I envy my fellow Dominicans when they talk about their trips back to the island because their description sounds like the song:
Si alguien quiere saber cual es mi patria?
Siga el rastro goteante por el mapa
y su efigie de patas imperfectas.
No pregunte si viene del rocío
o si tiene espirales en las piedras
o si tiene sabor ultramarino
o si el clima le huele en primavera.
No la busque ni alargue las pupilas.
No pregunte por ella.
It feels like they know. It feels like you don’t have to ask them cuál es su patria because they will know. For me, if someone ask me “cuál es mi patria?” I will respond: I am still searching, as I don’t even know myself. Yes I was born in the Dominican Republic, but for me it was a temporary place as I one day knew that I’d move the United States. The immigration process is a very hard one, even if you are privilege enough to enter with papers. The process of migrating to another country becomes part of your identity and aspiration to belong, to be better; it makes your place of birth to look and feel like is not enough.
This piece is in honor of all of the immigrant children whose immigration process began from the moment their families were forced to immigrate in search of a better life. In this process, all your dreams and wishes belonged to a promised land where everything is full of opportunities and triumphs.