Similar to the wide array of skin colors shared by those of African or Latin American descent, Dominicans come in many shades of brown. As a very brown skinned young lady, whose skin color falls just past the middle point on the wide spectrum in this country, I am frequently mistaken for Dominican here. In the United States, I often automatically feel a sense of comfort and familiarity whenever I see a person who shares my brown skin, regardless of a difference in shade. Having gone to predominately white and wealthy schools throughout the majority of my life, where I have not always felt I belong, I have a deep appreciation for being around people who resemble me and my family or share similarities in history. I chose to study with the CIEE Service-Learning program in the Dominican Republic because it would offer me a very special experience. Not only does this program give me the chance to build on my service learning experience, improve my Spanish, and challenge myself academically, professionally, and personally, but it also provides the uncommon opportunity to spend four months continuing my higher education in a place concentrated with people of color.
Here in the DR, I am a morena (a female with brown skin). While my white peers in the program stick out as gringos (white Americans), I stick out as the morena amongst the gringos, sometimes confusing Dominican observers. During the first weekend here, I was in a store with my friend Eve, a white American with blonde hair. She asked the sales clerk if they had any other sizes of this cute shirt she liked and instead of responding to her, he answered only to me, without bothering to look in her direction. This was the first of many similar occurrences; when I am out with my CIEE-Service Learning peers, often Dominicans will choose to speak exclusively to me, assuming I would understand Spanish the best, when really I am no better than anyone in my group. In fact, about two and a half weeks into my time here there were a few sequential days where the language barrier made me feel extremely frustrated and a bit discouraged, especially with the pressure of people assuming I was fluent. I had felt the strongest disconnect from people who look like me that I had ever felt. Those few days I even felt like I would be letting strangers down by not being able to fully understand their rapid dialect or express myself as eloquently as I would have liked.
Very recently, within the past few days; however, I have experienced a shift in attitude, choosing not to view myself as the morena disconnected. I realized it was silly to choose to feel disconnected just because I am not fluent in the language spoken here, when, everyday, I am in the best possible situation to improve my abilities. Whether it be in a concho (the popular form of public transportation cars in Santiago), a store, the University, or amongst the teachers with whom I work, I now look forward to talking instead of trying to avoid it. I have learned I do not have to be embarrassed by making mistakes; messing up is okay as long as I am trying. In fact, when I tell strangers that I from the States and learning Spanish they are happy to continue talking with me to help! I realize that many Dominicans want to connect, regardless of my proficiency in the language. Perhaps our similar features and the probability of having shared ancestry provide a natural desire to connect, despite the differences in our recent backgrounds. While there was that brief moment that I felt more disconnected from people who look like me than I had ever felt, it has diminished rapidly. Similar to how I feel when I see people whom resemble me at home, I am able to feel connected to many Dominicans I see here; a refreshing comfort as the only student of color in the program. I am a proud morena.
George Washington University