“I can be successful at ______________ even though the people at the top don’t look like me.”
One of my favorite quotes as heard this past Saturday at a forum on Dominican identity in Washington Heights, NYC, appropriately named, Quisqueya Heights.
The event was carefully coordinated by a friend of mine, Kaity Modesto. Kaity was motivated to create a dialogue where the topics of her college thesis paper on Dominican identity and the love of her neighborhood could be discussed. The panel also included: Juan Camilo - founder of Dyckman Beer Co., Jose Batista-Ayala - actor and producer of FRiENDAMiGO, Rosanny Cuello Ventura - scholar and educator in Washington Heights, and Led Black - Creator and Chief Editor of Uptown Collective and moderator of the event.
The symposium highlighted many things - many that resonated with me, a Dominican who was born and raised in Washington Heights.
The Heights’ population is majorly Dominican, either born or by descent. The neighborhood, which stretches from 155th street to Inwood, was reviewed as a not-so-desirable place to be in the 1990’s, but an up and coming neighborhood in the new millennium. Led asked the panelists questions which they all answered according to their specialities in regards to the neighborhood. There were phrases that stuck with the audience and caused the Q&A portion to escalate quicker than you can say DIMELO. There were also quotes that stuck with me.
“…being wedged between two islands…"
"We start at lower expectations because of who we are…"
"Done is better than perfect.”
“…there’s something wrong with the way we speak Spanish…”
“…scared to share ideas because we’re scared to seem crazy…”
“Life has been my best teacher.”
“I was waiting for the perfect part, but I had to create my own.”
Being caught between DR that made you and NYC that raised you can be both a beautiful and terrifying place to be. Whether you were born here or there, everything about Washington Heights wants to keep you down. Humbled. Grounded to what you already know. An attendee regarded the panelists as “one in a million” because of their accomplishments as Dominicans from The Heights. That comment struck the room. There were those that agreed saying that they stand out like sore thumbs in a town where nothing good stems from. The panelists disagreed, exclaiming that they were just as much products of their environments as the rest of them. What sets them apart is their drive and motivation to be better than they’re expected to be. Piggybacking off their statement was a high school female, former student of guest, Rosanny. “All you have to do is put your mind to it,” she said, speaking about her journey from “the ghetto in DR” to the top of her class with the help of her teacher.
Being expected to fail because of your genetic make-up and the neighborhood you’re from is all too familiar to me. My parents, much like many Uptown parents, moved us out of Washington Heights for a “better life.” My first day of sophomore year at a predominately white high school in New Jersey felt like my first day at the circus. Not only was I the new girl in school, but I was the new Dominican girl from The Heights. Besides being asked if I did drugs or have ever been in a gang, I was asked why I dressed and spoke the way I did. I was even asked if I was placed in my honors classes correctly. It occurred to me that I wasn’t expected to fail, I just wasn’t expected to succeed. Because I was different. Because I was Dominican.
“I am Jose above all, I’m not just Dominican,” stated panelist Jose during one of his answers. That afternoon urged us all to say the same. To be above low expectations. To go for our dreams and aspire to be more. To write that script. To get that diploma. To start that company. “Share your vision. The world will conspire to help you achieve it.” Thank you, Kaity. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Congratulations on a very successful event, and like Led said, to the first and ANNUAL Quisqueya Heights.
The event was held at the Word Up Bookstore - a super cute, quaint, local, non-profit business that houses books that cater to all ages and interests. If you have a stack lying around, they take donations!