About a month ago, I had the privilege to have been chosen by La Pluma Y La Tinta to read at their event, “Island Living: Tales from the Caribbean to NYC” as a part of Pen America’s Lit Crawl NYC 2018. For the event, I had to share a piece that embodied life on an island, life by the water. I grew up by the Hudson River. Those who know it, know that it’s not exactly the most poetic body of water.
So I wrote about the very first time I went to my family’s home country: the Dominican Republic. I wanted to share my piece with you all too, maybe some of you can relate. It’s called Native.
Even though it was my first time, it felt like I was returning
But I learned the differences
between me and this place
me and the mountains in Santiago
a place that was always in sight, yet always out of my reach
I remembered my grandmother telling me of her house at the top of a hill and when it rained, it flooded, taking down plants and chairs and all that the skies had the power to take
Our concerns were more:
“You cannot take out your phone para nada, for nothing.”
“You cannot go out at night.”
“Never go out alone.”
“Only speak Spanish.”
Common sense, if you’re not from there. This was home, but they know what you are when they see you. Americana. Some say you can tell by the reservation in our step. Skin unexposed to the earth as it comes.
And they’ll stare
See if you are made of the same blood
If your mother raised you right
If you are tough like they have had to be
Before I flew out, all my father kept wishing for me to see was the real Dominican Republic, the campos. He wished to go with me, so we can see it together. Something of a pilgrimage, of a place he had not known for 35 years, a place that somehow stayed the same without him. He wanted to show me the way people lived. Houses probably no bigger than a modest studio here, but made of wood and tin roofs, grounds that bred life, hands that knew work.
Everything he told me about waited for me, the day we went to Santo Domingo. Waiting for our bus to the capital city, I tapped my pen on the bare page of my journal, open on top of my bookbag, held tight on my lap. That was one thing that did console me in my time away: writing. I forced a relaxed composure, the exhausting act of trying to look like I belonged. As bright yellow buses pulled in and out of the parking area next to the station, picking up and dropping off those who lived there (and you could tell cuz they’d float off the bus, nothing in tow, walking as if they hadn’t just traveled in heat for hours) and tourists walked off stiff, clutching their bags. I resented that I was like them, foreign, without a clue.
When we finally get on the bus and drive deeper into the countryside, up and up miles of dry roads, cows, colmados where the people snacked and talked of their days, and endless green, we stop. Outside of my window, is a clearing. A clearing where the land dipped far into the earth and the palm trees followed. Engulfed within the town of trees and bushes were little boxes capped with the tin roofs I’d been told about. And by those boxes were the people. Some cleaning, others tending to their chickens, some just sitting, gazing into the trees, up at the lilac sky, the sky we shared. And I wondered what they were thinking about. Whether they yearned, whether the sky was always this full of feeling. I wondered if they were content.
Later that day, I wrote feverishly, and without a second thought, all of it was in Spanish. It reminded me of where I was, and how lucky I had been: to learn about my roots, the ones that lined the land beneath me, intertwining like veins. Every sentence weighed heavy on my tongue as I read the words back to myself. A part of me finally felt extracted, the weighty sap of it expanding and sticking to the five-by-six inch pages, commanding effort just to turn them.
When I made it back to Harlem, nothing here had changed. But something about having been home on our island, a country of givers, of humility, of lightness, I knew I had to bring some of it back here. And on days when I forget, I scramble back to the hurried scribbles in my journal, touching the marks on the now-imprinted pages, hungry for a sense of self—for a voice native to a distant mountain range.