I lived in Cotui and didn’t leave until about age 14 and a half. That’s where I developed my strongest friendships and ties. These same people are there today—not all of them, but a number of them, so when I return to the DR now, there are some that still call me by my childhood nickname. My middle school and high school friends are today’s professionals—doctors, lawyers, bankers, and business owners—and they’re running the infrastructure of this town. My connections to them as a teenager were very strong and these are the folks that I still keep in touch with—it’s been 50 years!
In many ways, this has served my efforts quite well. I have found myself navigating all the social strata in the town in sort of frighteningly seamless ways. The governor will invite me to the office (it’s a female governor now), so I would be sitting next to her and be asked to speak. That kind of recognition is probably offered to me now because of my age and education in the US and the humanitarian work that I do in the DR. So the ties have in many ways been very easy to maintain. When I return now, I see a lot of them and we will get together.
Returning to the DR
Initially, when I arrived in New York, I didn’t go back to the Dominican Republic until 5 years later and then a couple of years later when I got a job there. After the kids were born, our family visited the Dominican Republic once a year or about once every other year for family vacation. As I became more and more interested in the culture in the 90s, the frequency of my visits increased. The frequency varied depending on what was coming up in what I wanted to do. Now, I go back about 2 or 3 times a year, or every 4 to 5 months.
Returning to the DR always gives me tremendous elation and joy. When I went back for the first time in 1969, it was 95-degree weather, but I felt my entire being saying, “yes, this feels right!” It could be 80% humidity, but my body would still tell me, “this is my culture; this is my environment.”
But returning also made me realize the chaotic nature of the DR, especially for those eking out a living. It was even challenging for those in the middle class. You would find everybody working multiple jobs if they could; some physicians and nurses would even have 2 or 3 jobs. People strove to succeed and survive in a lot of different levels.
Seeing chaos was something that overwhelmed me. It may have been from the Latino experiences in my country and the social values that I had developed being in the American health care sector. Yet my discomfort was not an obstacle that prevented me from proceeding with whatever I wanted to accomplish; it was not something that fazed me. In life, you just have to accomplish in the midst of the chaos.