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The First-Generation American’s Responsibility

DOMINICAN PARADE

(Elaine Vilorio)– I sat in a sea of Dominican-American students; they all waved Dominican flags and smiled for the cameras. They were so proud of where they came from. I was too; I am. Still, contrastingly, my face wore irritation. I couldn’t ignore the hypocrisy. Why did we feel pride towards a country for which we have lost faith?

The Dominican consulate in NYC began to give out “Estudiante Meritoria/o” (“Meritorious Student”) awards in 1997. Meant to honor high-achieving first-generation American students of Dominican descent, the award bestows its recipients with an enthusiastic ceremony in Manhattan wherein medals and certificates are distributed. I was deeply honored to be one of this year’s recipients. But, at some point in the event, one of the presenters said something that bothered me. She said something along the lines of, “Continue making your presence known in the United States!” I got what she meant: show the world that Dominicans, and Hispanics for that matter, are capable of attaining the American dream; show the world we are better than stereotypes that suggest we are bereft of success. But, why did we have to continue making our presence known here? What about making ourselves known in the country we left behind? What about completely eliminating the stereotypes by helping the place where they are founded? What about making the American dream possible beyond the United States? These questions are not just for the group of Dominican-American kids in which I found myself. These questions pertain to all first-generation Americans whose parents left behind countries in dire need.

My parents left Dominican Republic for good when I was six going on seven. They loved their country, but not enough to stay. Like many Latin American countries, like many countries we leave behind for the American dream, Dominican Republic is in bad shape. It doesn’t take an extensive analysis of the country’s politics, economy, and overall state to make that observation. People are afraid to walk the streets at night. I’ve had family and friends shot at and robbed in their own backyards. People are devoid of economic opportunity. Shacks made of tin and wood line the highways. More than a third of the country’s population lives in poverty.

When I hear people say they’ve gone to Dominican Republic, my first question is: did you spend all of your time in a vacation resort? The answer is almost always yes. Well, amigo, you haven’t really gone to Dominican Republic. All of the luxury you saw is limited to the resort’s property. Beyond that, it’s not so pretty. People are at the mercy of an egotistical government. According to the 2013 Index of Economic Freedom, “corruption in government ministries, the police force, and the military is believed to have worsened during former President Fernández’s last two terms (2004–2012).” None of this is hot-off-the-press news. It’s been happening for as long as the country has existed. Naturally, my parents wanted better for their children; they came to the only place where that “better” seemed possible.

We are now in a country of ample education and opportunity; for most of us, this means a place our family’s native country was not. Most of us first-generation Americans, then, are the lucky ones. We escaped what some of our cousins and childhood friends did not. Do we not owe them something?

It’s like this: a village of people is very thirsty, as there has been a drought for quite some time. You are ambling about, mouth parched, and stumble across a stream of water. Do you not have a moral duty to share the existence of the stream with the rest of the village? Are you going to keep it all to yourself, claiming you love your village but, eh, whatever? As first-gen kids, we do not fully identify with our parents’ country. We are growing up in the United States; most of us were born here. However, in most cases, we have grown up with two cultures: that of our parents’ country and that of the United States. We are inextricably linked to our family’s motherland. And, we recognize that. Hispanics in particular are very proud of their roots. They attend the Independence Day parades of their respective countries in major American cities and wear t-shirts emboldened with their respective countries’ flags. They are happy to represent their motherlands, but not enough to reach out to them; if we projected the resources and opportunities given to us by the U.S. of A., we could.

I don’t mean to present the United States as a savior nation; it admittedly seems that way, doesn’t it? After all, it was because of the U.S. that Trujillo, the most diabolical political figure of Dominican history, assumed power. It was because of the United States that a lot of other countries got screwed over (and are currently being screwed over). I’m merely suggesting that the noblest ideals we learn here—the ideals of a diverse economic market, of a cohesive justice system, of an opportunistic quality of life—be implemented in the countries our families left for dead. I’m merely suggesting that we first-gen kids be the implementers of those ideals. While Uncle Sam isn’t perfect, he can be a positive role model.

As we wave our flags and smile for the cameras, we should not forget the reason we are in the United States in the first place. Most of us are here because our parents could not contribute to the salvation of a country they love; maybe, equipped with the teachings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we can.

About Elaine Vilorio

"But I'm not a rappa." -Supa Hot Fire

11 comments on “The First-Generation American’s Responsibility

  1. sdsdsadsadas
    August 5, 2013

    Really? You think the US was responsible for Trujillo? That is hilarious.

    • sajjieboy
      August 5, 2013

      Fact remains that a lot of nations have been exploited and ruined by the US’s foreign policy.

      • sdsdsadsadas
        August 5, 2013

        That doesnt mean you get a free pass to rewrite history any way you like.

      • Elaine Vilorio
        August 5, 2013

        Thanks for bringing the spotlight on this matter. I’m not rewriting history. I’m maintaining that Trujillo was able to gain a foothold in the political arena because of the United States. I’m not claiming the U.S. was single-handedly responsible for the Trujillo Era.

        The U.S. occupied Dominican Republic from 1916-24. In 1918, Trujillo joined the National Police, which was a military body headed by the United States Marines. There, he was able to get his training and move up the ranks (funny how familiar that sounds, doesn’t it?). The Marines left in 1924, by which time Trujillo oversaw the National Police as its commander. Trujillo assumed the presidency-turned-dictatorship in 1930 in a rigged election. In the first half of the Trujillo Era, the United States tolerated Trujillo, turning their heads away when they saw the rights and lives of the Dominican people exterminated. According to UCLA history professor Robin Lauren (a scholar who specializes in Dominican history), the U.S. continually cooperated with Trujillo to protect its interests in the Cold War. That is, so long as Trujillo didn’t cry communism, he had a friend in the American circle, bribing those American officials who felt a bit queasy at his activities. There’s a popular but unconfirmed quote attributed to Secretary of State Cordell Hull (1933-1944): “Trujillo may be a son-of-a-bitch but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.” In the latter half of the Trujillo Era, the U.S. finally couldn’t take it anymore. It’s confirmed the CIA supported El Jefe’s assassination in 1961.

    • Carlos
      August 10, 2013

      If you don’t know so then it must have been you, really?

  2. sdsdsadsadas
    August 7, 2013

    “I’m not claiming the U.S. was single-handedly responsible for the Trujillo Era.”

    “After all, it was because of the U.S. that Trujillo, the most diabolical political figure of Dominican history, assumed power. ”

    Not so sure I believe you. Yes, I know his back ground but its far from the “US came and put him in power” type situation you describe in the article.

    • Elaine Vilorio
      August 9, 2013

      I heavily believed the Marines-sanctioned training he received helped him assume power. Obviously, it’s not as simple as the U.S. being the sole contributing factor to Trujillo’s climb to the top. I’m not saying it’s exclusively the U.S.’s fault. The whole point of the statement in question, as sajjieboy points out, is to acknowledge the U.S. has negatively impacted other nations, Dominican Republic included, in big ways.

      Clarity is important. That written, I appreciate your concerns about the way I wrote what I wrote. Next time, I will surely convey my thoughts in a more effective manner.

  3. ymartin
    August 7, 2013

    Yes, in many ways, we first-gen Americans are indeed “the lucky ones.” But this country does not have “ample education and opportunity” for everyone due to structural inequalities that persist. I worry that thinking of America as the land of opportunity can then lead to accusing those who have “failed” to achieve such opportunity as indolent.

    i liked a lot of what you had to say. excited to see what you write next.

    • Elaine Vilorio
      August 9, 2013

      I understand your worry. Thank you for expressing those very insightful points and kind words.

      I’m not so naïve as to think the U.S. perfect; I just believe it has more opportunities than most places. As such, we should reap as much benefit as possible and project it to where it’s needed (i.e. our family’s less stable home country, if that’s the type of home country you claim). Admittedly, pegging first-generation Americans with the requirement to succeed just because they managed to escape their said less stable countries can amount to pressure. My suggestion stemmed from my frustration with what I perceived as hypocrisy. People say they’re so proud of where they’re from, and that’s all they do. They say it. They don’t show it by attempting to extinguish the problem that caused them to leave their beloved country in the first place. I don’t quite know what I want to do with my life, but it might possibly involve giving back to a place my family has left to rot. Dominican Republic is in a very bad way, and I feel grateful I escaped what I could have become: a kid with very little chances. As such, I personally feel morally compelled to encourage positive change there.

  4. Sharline Dominguez
    October 7, 2013

    As a first- generation college student/ Dominicana at Amherst, I was deeply touched by this article. I was able to relate to a lot of what you were saying about first- gen students feeling pressured to succeed in every imaginable way because our parents basically sacrificed everything they had back in the D.R to make sure we lived well. I also agree that we not only owe it to our parents, but to our own native countries that are suffering politically, socially and economically. It’s so easy for us to forget about where we came from and what we believe in when attending an elite school like Amherst. Keep writing Elaine!

  5. Pingback: Dominican Solidarity at Harvard | AC VOICE

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