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9 dominican creatives on what identity means to them

They sound off on toxic masculinity in the community, Americanization, and celebrating their heritage.

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Mar 20 2018, 10:44pm

Photography Juan Veloz

Although popular media has not always depicted it as such, American identity has never been monolithic. In the last decade, increasingly visible dialogues about the experiences of immigrants and first-generation Americans have shifted societal consciousness, opening up a platform for more nuanced stories to emerge.

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In New York, for instance, Dominican culture thrives. Neighborhoods like Washington Heights, which experienced an influx of Dominican immigrants in the 60s, have come to reflect the identity of the island from which its residents came. From Bachata playing out of open windows to the no-frills local eateries offering a taste of home — or even street hawkers selling tropical fruits — it’s all part of a singular DNA that can only be found in New York’s hybridized neighborhoods.

The chaos of the last election, and the increasingly xenophobic rhetoric it spawned, inspired New York-based, Dominican photographer Juan Veloz to think about how cross-cultural experiences are an integral part of the American tableau. Over six months, Veloz documented how he and nine other Dominican makers interpret their heritage, and its place in the fabric of New York culture amid increased aggression towards immigrants.

Genesis Vega, Model

What does being Dominican-American mean to you?
I came to the United States when I was six years old. Thinking back to my arrival, I had no idea how lucky I was to get here with my mom and siblings and live under one roof. My culture weighs a lot into my personal identity because I had to work so hard to learn English. I didn’t know much of the language when I got here so I was held back in the second grade. It’s tough to get a job in America without knowing English, or if you don’t have a high school diploma. Even though I decided not to pursue college, I was blessed to create opportunities for myself and my brand.

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How do you address identity in relation to the world or spaces you occupy?
Being Afro-Latina, there’s not a lot of representation at the moment. A lot of women who are Dominican don’t identify as Afro-Latina or don’t know what it actually means. I didn’t know what it meant a year ago, and I’m still trying to grasp more of what it means to be Afro-Latina today.

What does your identity mean to you in relation to constructs like gender and sexuality?
I grew up in a Spanish and Pakistani household with my mother and grandmother. My mom was a Jehovah’s Witness so boys were a big no until marriage. Having these experiences, and being raised by women, I grew to view female empowerment as being the only sensible belief system. As I continue to mature, I see how important it is to project my morals and my voice. I refuse to live in a world where hyper-masculine men reign over me, especially when I know I’ve been raised by women who have instilled confidence in me.

How has your relationship with your identity evolved?
I change for the better every day. In fact, it was in curing my insecurities that I realized how to improve my value.

@genvegaa

Louie Vasquez, Model

What does being Dominican-American mean to you? Being Dominican-American means that I have a unique point of view and a second perspective on everything, almost like there’s two of me.

How does your identity show up in your work? I look American AF, so I like to show off my Latino side through the way I dress and my Snapchat videos.

How do you address identity in relation to the world or spaces you occupy? I do it by making changes without permission, without judgement, and without labels.

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What does your identity mean to you in relation to constructs like gender and sexuality? In my world, there is no sexuality or gender.

How has your relationship with your identity evolved? My identity has evolved through my self-expression in clothing. My wardrobe is currently evolving as we speak. BRB.

@typicalvisual

Jovan Sanchez, Abstract Painter

What does being Dominican-American mean to you?
I appreciate my Dominican heritage, but I especially appreciate being a Dominican New Yorker. Sometimes I feel like New York is the only America I know; this city has molded me into the person I am today. I love that Dominican customs are alive and thriving in the city.

How does your identity show up in your work?
My work inherits a rhythm and subtle confidence from my culture. I think that it mostly comes through in my color palette and the motion of my brushstrokes.

How do you address identity in relation to the world or spaces you occupy?
I face adversity because of my Dominican and Cuban heritage, because of my skin color, and because I’m a first-generation American. That is something I’m aware of and have to experience, but I try to stay focused on the positive. I’m lucky enough to live in a progressive city that embraces diversity. The world is catching up, despite all of the issues with Trump. I think we should look at our current situation and still choose to believe we will always overcome negativity and division.

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What does your identity mean to you in relation to constructs like gender and sexuality?
Growing up in Washington Heights, and even in the Dominican Republic, I’ve encountered many aspects of machismo throughout my culture. I personally don’t tap into this trait. I remember my grandmother describing me as too understanding and soft-spoken, as having a feminine touch. In my younger years I was called harsh words because of it. I’ve experienced bullying, predominately by hyper-masculine guys, but my two sisters always had my back... I grew up with powerful women in my life.

How has your relationship with your identity evolved?
I’m more aware of race relations as I get older. I’m also way more in tune with current events because the world feels more complicated than when I was younger.

@jovansanchezstudiodotcom

Monica Veloz, Digital Influencer

What does being Dominican-American mean to you? I identify myself as Afro-Latina, which means I identify with my African roots while at the same time knowing I am Dominican. Being Afro-Latina weighs into my personality because it’s everything I am — from my skin to my Spanglish. Being an Afro-Latina is me.

How do you embody this identity in your work? It’s easy to embody my identity into my work because it is quite literally who I am. Everything I do is a representation of how I embrace my blackness and culture.

How do you address identity in relation to the world or spaces you occupy? I think it's important to embrace your identity, especially in times like today. Unfortunately being Afro-Latina is very foreign to many. I think it’s time we change that.

What does your identity mean to you in relation to constructs like gender and sexuality? My identity means self-expression, it means being one with who I am regardless of gender or sexuality.

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How has your relationship with your identity evolved? My relationship with my identity has changed as I’ve learned more about where I come from, and learned to embrace every single inch of my history. Today I make sure the people I meet know that Afro-Latinas exist. I am determined to continue that conversation.

@monicastylemuse

Alberto Vargas, Photographer

What does being Dominican-American mean to you?
Being Dominican is part of my personality, interests, and tastes in life. My identity gave me a starting place, and a whole tribe of people to relate to. I’m proud of being of Dominican heritage because of the hard work my parents went through to get here. Having a big family taught me about community, loyalty, and respect. These things are crucial to my character, and I directly attribute them to growing up in a Dominican household. I learned at a very young age that we were different. Our culture, humor, music, food, even our birthday parties were different than everyone else’s. My parents taught me to proudly answer “Dominicano” when asked about my nationality.

How does your identity show up in your work?
I fell in love with photography in the Dominican Republic. The country and its people will always be a subject in my work. I’ve also been documenting my family since I was a kid, and will continue to do so in the coming years. Focusing on the contrast of the lifestyles in New York versus the Dominican Republic.

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How do you address identity in relation to the world or spaces you occupy?
I must acknowledge the xenophobia, racism, and misogyny in the Dominican community and set an example for current and future generations. I’m learning how to celebrate my culture while dismantling the toxic behaviors in it.

What does your identity mean to you in relation to constructs like gender and sexuality?
My upbringing promoted dancing and socializing, which helped me grow as a person. I was a shy kid, learning how to dance merengue and bachata boosted my confidence in social situations. In my experience, Dominican culture is very contradicting when it comes to gender and sexual fluidity. I feel like many Dominican people are comfortable with exhibiting behaviors considered “gender fluid,” but don’t ever attempt to acknowledge their discrimination towards LGBTQ people. I’m still unlearning the toxic behaviors attached to the “hombre de la casa” role.

How has your relationship with your identity evolved?
I’ve become more aware of my American privilege. I’m exploring how I can use it to help my community. Dominicans have a lot of catching up to do in terms of representation in American media and art. I’ve grown more of a dependency on the DR, the longer I spend away the more lost I feel. I plan on living and working from the island in the near future.

@avargasphoto

Uzumaki Cepeda, Artist

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What does being Dominican-American mean to you?
Being Dominican-American means everything to me. I’m the first generation of my family to be born in America. My mom was in an arranged marriage and came from the island with my dad who was illegal. He ended up getting deported, so my mom really gave up everything so I could live this life. The way that I’ve come up as an artist and my experience with being a millennial here, my mom didn’t have that privilege; that weighs into every aspect of my life.

How do you embody this identity in your work?
I embody it in my work by creating safe spaces and only photographing black and brown people. I feel like my point of view comes from my island, and the knowledge that colorism and racism exist there. I can remember the struggles my parents went through because of the systematic racism that has tainted the way so many Dominicans think about themselves.

How do you address identity in relation to the world or spaces you occupy?
When I address my identity, I do so as an Afro-Dominican. In times like these, I try even harder to be openly proud of my brownness. I also make it known that I’m proud of my island, especially now that we’re living with a racist president. All of these other racists in the woodwork are proud to be out now, so it’s a very important time for everyone to be an activist in any way they can. I address my identity through my art in the same way someone might address theirs through writing or community organizing, or even dance.

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What does your identity mean to you in relation to constructs like gender and sexuality?
I think the history of colonization has impacted us beyond racism. There is a lot of homophobia and transphobia in our community. My mom was alive during a time when they would kill an openly gay person and no one would give a fuck. I feel like I’m here to break those barriers. My identity — and what it means to me as a bisexual and Dominican — allows me to see just how much homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny have impacted the people around me. It’s important to address it because it causes so much damage. That’s why I think it’s so important that I be proud of my sexuality and embrace it.

How has your relationship with your identity evolved?
When I was younger I didn’t realize how much social constructs had been pushed onto me. Other Dominicans would say stuff about bad hair and good hair, and always refer to curly hair as being the “bad hair.” The racism goes so deep that it’s actually incorporated into our language. I am light-skinned, but I would see my darker cousins and my uncles go through these crazy hardships compared my other family members who were more racially ambiguous. We’re a whole island filled with people of color but you still have people saying I’m not black. Because of that, my identity has evolved in a way that has led me to be more proud of my African roots. I feel like I’m still evolving every day and trying my best to educate the people around me.

@uzumaki.gallery

Roxanne Tineo, Fine Artist

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What does being Dominican-American mean to you?
It means a person who has a Dominican background, but was born and raised in the US. To be honest, my Spanish is terrible, but I love and appreciate my culture and traditions. I was born and raised in New York City where I was surrounded by family who spoke to me in English 95% of the time. I do understand Spanish, but I cannot have a full-blown conversation. My mom came to New York when she was two years old, so she is fluent in Spanish and English. My father came to New York when he was 18 years old. His English isn't fluent, but he will do his best to converse with anyone who speaks to him in English.

How do you embody this identity in your work?
I appreciate the culture and history of the Dominican Republic, which inspires me to paint these multi-colored curvaceous women.

How do you address what your identity means in relation to the world or spaces you occupy? Particularly in times like these.
As an artist, I paint these colorful curvy women which are a representation of who I am; they also resemble the traditional faceless Dominican dolls known as Muñeca Limé or Muñeca sin cara. I use my creativity to express who I am becoming with the understanding of my Dominican-American heritage.

What does your identity mean to you in relation to constructs like gender and sexuality?
My identity is very important to me because I represent women like myself: curvy, empowered women filled with love. I am happy and comfortable with my body. My natural “Coke bottle” figure has been sexualized for decades. I’ve learned to keep my guard up, put my foot down, be aggressive, and embrace what God has given me. I will check anyone who tries to disrespect me in any way. I don't play that shit.

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How has your relationship with your identity evolved?
I've learned to love and embrace myself by focusing on the things that make me happy. It is a formula to longevity, success, and happiness. I see growth every day, which means that I wake up every day in a great mood because God gave me another day to add to my wisdom and knowledge.

@ohyesitsroxanne

Christopher Ferreiras - Poet

What does being Dominican-American mean to you?
I was born into a Dominican body on American soil; I don't think there's any way being Dominican doesn't shape or inform who I am. For me, it mostly means family over everything, but it is also my address; it is the first door strangers knock on when they can't place me. America really has this thing for labels, so in a way it means I need to wear that address like a name tag. That puts me in a position where I am representative of my culture whether I like it or not. If I fuck up, I lowkey fuck it up for the rest of us. If I do good, I guess I do OK for us too.

How do you embody this identity in your work?
More than identity, I'd say history inspires my voice in writing and drawing. I can't even fully understand or express it to be honest, but it's powerful, mysterious, and subconscious. Spanish taught me English, so I was sensitive to the shape of language in a way that non-bilingual kids weren't. I saw vowels as direction for sounding out words - it taught me to spell, to pronounce, to take my time playing with a word's shape. All of this taught me how to write poems, and it taught me how to do art too. As a line artist, I'm learning that I don't only draw from what I've seen or practiced, but from the ancient bloodlines and ancestries that channel through me.

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How do you address identity in relation to the world or spaces you occupy?
With honesty, patience, and empathy. By owning the truth of my Dominican experience as valid and valuable, without exploiting it just to fit someone else's mold or definition of what it means or looks like to them. But also trying to understand how others question my identity, where that comes from, and how I can more precisely get through to them with tact.

What does your identity mean to you in relation to constructs like gender and sexuality?
I think being Dominican, among all cultural definitions, is more like a direction. As long as I am true to my own experience, and aware of others' experiences, I not only challenge current narratives of "the Dominican experience," but add to them as well. I didn't look or sound like a lot of the people I grew up with but that didn't make me feel different until they pointed it out. In time it made me feel like I wasn't "Dominican enough," so I got hyper-aware of myself as a political body. It made me question my own privilege as a white-passing hetero-male, and the fetishes that come with being a light-skinned Dominican-American. It made me aware of my own potential for entitlement and toxic masculinity. It also made me aware of my fear of fatherhood by way of my dad's absence.

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How has your relationship with your identity evolved?
There was a season I couldn't face my curly hair, and the season I embraced it. There was a season I couldn't stand what I grew up eating, and seasons I was nostalgic for it. There was a season Bachata annoyed the shit out of me, and a season I began singing along. There was a season I didn't care to declare myself as Dominican, and a season where I learned to revel in it on my own terms. Today, I'm interested in how I can draw those terms for myself, and tell a story more familiar than strange.

@itscarus

Juan Veloz, Photographer

What does being Dominican-American mean to you?
Being Dominican-American means I'm unstoppable. Anything I put my mind to I will achieve it. In my opinion, there’s nothing better than being a Dominican man who speaks fluent English and Spanish.

How do you embody this identity in your work?
I incorporate the rawness and authenticity that comes from my identity into my work. I think referencing my culture helps me create my best images. I like to listen to Fefita La Grande’s “O Te Menea O Te Apea” before every shoot — it gets me in a mood of happiness and creativity.

How do you address identity in relation to the world or spaces you occupy?
Social media is such a great outlet to let the world know more about your roots. I love posting about my family, and sharing videos of my crazy, super loving Dominican household. I've had situations where people have been confused about why I speak Spanish because of my skintone. My response is always, “Dominicans come in different shades.”

What does your identity mean to you in relation to constructs like gender and sexuality?
I see past gender and sexuality. I feel like both things are something we keep on having to let people know before anything else. We should create, start a conversation with our work, and keep it pushing.

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How has your relationship with your identity evolved?
Mainly I've grown to protect my culture and treat it like a newborn baby.

@jveloz

This article originally appeared on i-D US.

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