Today I embarked on a journey of four hours by air and 1745 miles from where I live in the United States to sunny semi-sunny Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (DR).
Needless to say that before I left, I was incredibly excited about what my summer would entail. In the past, I have only studied abroad for short periods of time because the programs I participated in were short and with groups of students at various levels of their university careers. I am not a huge fan of group travel, actually, I do not like it at all, but I like to do things on my own and honestly, being with a group hinders me in that I cannot explore the various aspects of a culture when the itinerary of a study abroad trip is so regulated. Therefore, this year, I designed my own program and made my own connections and arrangements. As a future public health professional, I decided to partake in a clinical internship while incorporating international relations and public health into my program. I decided that three months, more or less, should be enough time to accomplish everything I desire to.
By this point, I know what you’re wondering, “Sneaka, how can you survive without working for three months?” Well, I’m glad you asked! Based on my strong work performance, my mentors offered to become my faculty sponsors and I earned research grants. (For those of you who do not know, FUNDING is a graduate student’s favorite “F word!”) My mentors are funding the research for my thesis, which is the main reason for me wanting to study here. However, I will still be “working” and doing assigned tasks and the typical work of a graduate assistant, i.e. data input, data collection, updating spreadsheets, designing a research study and protocol, and all things related to research. This is not a problem for me, as I will be doing these things for the entire duration of my public health career.
Having mentioned this, I am also currently enrolled in summer school. “Sneaka, how can you study abroad AND take summer classes?” I’m glad you asked! My university is one of the leaders, if not the leading institution for distance education in the state. The beauty of distance education is that you can complete your work from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Isn’t modern technology great? By this point, you’re probably wondering why I am taking summer courses, AND doing an internship, AND doing thesis research, AND taking Spanish courses in the DR. The answer is simple, I am a great multitasker and know how to use rules and regulations to work for my advantage. By staying in the DR for a specified length of time, and taking Spanish courses, and doing an internship, and doing my thesis research, I can complete a semester’s worth of credits through my home institution. To do this takes a lot of reading, but I have done things like this before, which help me complete my degrees and certificates in a timely manner.
Now, back to the main points. This time, I would live with a friend’s girlfriend, a Dominican young lady a year older than myself, and intimately get to know Dominican culture and actually do an in-depth, ethnographic exploration of things that I would not be able to investigate on a traditional study abroad trip. Because I have never been “Black in Latin America,” I wondered what Dominican culture truly was, as the only Dominican I knew was my mentor in the Spanish Interpreting department in the hospital that I volunteered in. She had given me some details about Dominican culture, but not nearly enough.
To this end, everything I had learned about the DR came from the internet. I know what you’re thinking, “You can’t believe everything that you read on the internet.” This is absolutely true, which is why I wanted to find some things out for myself. However, I was surprised at what I had found.
In my various internet searches for all things in and related to the DR, I came across some interesting finds, first, that Dominicans, like native Africans, do NOT particularly care for African Americans. It is possible that the rationale behind this is that we are clamorous and at times, ostentatious when we should be low key, and display our “ethnic” sides when we perceive a threat or must be in defense of something, but that is because we are proud of who we are, how far we have come, what we have earned and achieved, and sometimes must demand the respect that we are owed. I will admit that I can be clamorous, but only in applicable situations, such as discussions with family and friends, defending my rights or opinions, or that of others, or when there is an injustice. I am vocative in these situations because they warrant attention and seriousness, minus the familial and friendly discussions because I’m easily excitable and when I am with my family, we are all rather loud and excitable, but can do this in the home that we own. Similarly, the “ethnic” in me can come out for the aforementioned reasons and yes, this “ethnic” encompasses an eyeball rolling, neck jerking, finger popping young lady who is rather feisty, but will easily come to the defense of herself, her culture, and her people as well as those who do not have a voice. Now, please understand, I know when and when not to act this way. I can act this way with other members of my culture because we have an understanding of what these actions mean and when they are used. I do not do this abroad because I have to act as an ambassador for all Black Americans, especially because in the places that I have been, we (Black Americans) are few and far in between. More or less, I have to be on what you would call “My best behavior.” However, because I have a bachelor’s degree and two certificates, and am currently pursuing two master’s degrees and various certificates, I have enough education to understand that not everyone is culturally competent, many people are ignorant and do not know anything outside of their own environment, and sometimes, people are just not going to like you. I can live with these facts.
I was in disbelief as to what I read. Again, it is possible that Dominicans do not like Blacks (Black Americans) because of the eyeball rolling, neck jerking, and finger popping and because of our loud voices, but then again, I figured that Dominicans are Black and do the same thing as they are Latina, and Latinas, just like Black women, have been cited as feisty, “ethnic” at times, and history has made us a certain way. True, we can change our behaviors, but if we are proud of our cultures, as we both are, why would we change it? I agree that we can “tone this down” and “act like we have some sense,” but again, contrary to common beliefs, we DO know how to act in public. However, in regards to Dominicans not liking Black people, it could be because “Black” is associated with being Haitian, which is something perceived as bad here, but this is a topic that I will further explore more closely about a month into this trip.
I also read that a woman named Kara had a bad experience in the DR with racism and struggled with her black identity. In her blog entry entitled Black Travel: Prieta: Dark, Black, and American in the Dominican Republic, Kara talks about her trip to the DR and how she was harassed in the streets and how the entire experience became a test of her psychological and spiritual strength. She felt that she was disrespected and discriminated against on a daily basis. I feel saddened by this, as I would love for everyone to have a pleasant experience abroad. I would hate for anyone to let ignorance get in the way of enjoying an experience or making them feel insecure. Some say that “No one can make you feel insecure or inferior without your consent.” However, many people have not experienced racism and discrimination to the extent that it interferes with their daily lives. For now, I can only pray that I do not have a similar experience.
Another thing that I found interesting was that Dominicans, like Black women, are more or less obsessed with beauty and cannot come out of the house a certain way. I am sure the media has done an excellent job of portraying Black and Latina women with rollers in their hair and scarves and bandanas on their heads and wearing nighttime attire when they are out in public. This does happen, but usually in older populations of women who are on their porches or walking around in their neighborhoods. You rarely see this in public, unless, of course, you are going to your local Wal-Mart, which proves, as some may say, that God has a sense of humor!
We (Blacks and Latinas) both wear hair that did not grow from our scalps, but was made in China and imported from Brazil, India and Malaysia. These are “extensions” as they are called outside of minority communities, although non-minorities wear them too, so do not be fooled. Similarly, we chemically process our hair to make it straight and easier to manage. Some may call this “a learned rejection of all things black,” but I have to disagree. My hair is relaxed and I like it this way because I can spend less time styling it because I work and go to school full time. It is not because I think natural hair is bad, or those who have natural hair have “bad or nappy hair,” but I do not know how to maintain natural hair and have not had natural hair since I was a child. Don’t get me wrong, natural hair is beautiful and there is a lot you can do with it, but truth be told, I considered going natural but did not want to do “the big chop,” however, I am interested in thicker hair, so this is something that I may consider but for now, this is unimportant. An article in the Miami Herald entitled A Rising Voice: Afro-Latin Americans Part 2: The Dominican Republic’s Black Denial has noted that Dominicans have the opinion that “Black things are always associated with being undesirable and unattractive,” and “Straight hair looks more elegant and professional,” and “One drop of white blood through my veins means that I am white, black.” Though everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I think it is sad that they feel this way, although the Trujillo regime and the Haitian domination of the Dominican side of the island are to blame for these ancestral wounds that are hard to heal. All I can say is that “My Black is beautiful!”
I am interested in Obstetrics and Gynecology, as well as human behavior in the aspects of public health and health disparities. Therefore, when I came across a documentary about prostitution in the DR a few years ago, I was shocked that “Pay for Play” was common as a means to feed families, support children, and basically make a living. This is not something that I had considered as an option for a career, so to speak, for others. I knew that it was common everywhere, but I figured that it was not spoken about in public and was kept in secret. Although this is not necessarily the case in the DR, I do commend these women for making the effort to provide for their (mainly fatherless) families, but due to the socioeconomic status of many Dominicans, as many live below the poverty line, women are often forced to resort to this type of work to survive. I sympathize with these women, I really do, as there are not as many opportunities for them to work, attend schools, whether secondary or post-secondary, or to obtain a non-life threatening way to survive. Commonly known as “the world’s oldest profession,” prostitution is common here because it is not illegal. As HIV/AIDS is prevalent among prostitutes, the “public health” in me seeks a culturally competent way to provide non-coercive education and preventive birth control and safety mechanisms to these women. This could be my next intervention project for my Ethnic Health and Health Disparities component of my MPH (Master’s in Public Health) degree. If I have the opportunity, I will definitely do it, upon IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval, of course.
Lastly, everyone who has seriously studied Spanish knows that the Spanish that you learn is Castilian Spanish, which is derived from Spain. This is the Spanish that you speak when in Spain. However, in the event that you travel to a Spanish speaking country other than Spain and begin to speak Spanish, everyone will know that you’re a “gringo,” or outsider. You have to “get hip to the lingo,” so to speak. Therefore, in preparation, I looked to one of my favorite websites, Youtube, to learn about Dominican Spanish and the Dominican language. I am very thankful to Sir Nube Negra for teaching me Dominican greetings and a very useful, yet universal Dominican word, coño. True, I can speak Spanish, but what I learned in the textbook was different from what I learned in Guatemala and Mexico. I am anxious to embark on a journey of learning a new type of Spanish and a new culture.
When I arrived in the DR, I was overwhelmed with excitement. I did not know what to expect, aside from crowding and lots of brown-skinned Caribbean people. Before arriving here, I did not know the city would be as modern as it is. There were lots of American restaurants and wi-fi connections and mobile phones, and Asian and European automobiles. For a second, I had forgotten that I was staying in the capital city and not in the countryside. I had also forgotten that this is a “tourist hotspot” and that there is a mixture of foreigners, gringos, and natives here. I look forward to what tomorrow holds.