In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we sat down with Kiare, our very own Customer Experience extraordinaire. Kiare is a first generation New Yorker and the daughter of two Dominican immigrants. She shared her thoughts on the month, her Dominican-American identity, and Hostos Community College, her alma mater and the organization HOLDEN will be donating to this month.
Could you talk a bit about your experience growing up Hispanic in New York City?
For first-generation children like myself and my siblings, it’s a bit tougher because we have to figure everything out by ourselves. Since our parents weren't born here, even though they made so many sacrifices for us to be here, we had to figure everything out on our own. It’s important to not forget where you come from and to stick together as much as you can, because there are a lot of people like you. You don't have to figure everything out alone. All of us were learning English as our second language. It was a very tough upbringing, and not a lot of resources were available to us. It made me stronger in a way, having to figure out things that a lot of people have already figured out because they've had help from their family members.
Do you have a favorite memory from your childhood where you most strongly felt a sense of community?
Dominicans vary in shapes and colors, so it's always fun to get together in the Dominican parade. Even if you don't know each other, everyone welcomes you. There’s nothing like getting dressed up in your colors, and there’s a very big turnout in New York City, which is so heartwarming. It’s great to see more people coming from the Dominican Republic or different countries of Hispanic culture and making their mark in the city and bringing a little piece of their home here. Although they can't bring the entire island with them, it's that little piece of them that they get to bring and share with everyone else.
What are ways that you honor your Dominican culture in your daily life?
I still listen to bachata, merengue, and salsa on Sunday. Anyone who's Dominican will probably do the same on Sundays. It’s a tradition that no one has really said is a tradition, but everyone does it. It's so fun to pick up a broom or a mop and start mopping away to some bachata, and the broom can be your dance partner. I try to include my Dominican culture and not get lost in my American culture, because although I'm American and was born here, I still like to add a little razzle-dazzle of Dominican in there.
Is there a specific thing about Hispanic culture that you want to pass on to your daughter Halo?
I think it's very important for her to learn the history of the Dominican Republic. It wasn't until college that I knew about the Taínos, or Columbus coming in, or settlements. I really want her to know she’s Dominican but also to look at how it was created - our partnership with Haiti and La Hispaniola, which is the island that is shared between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
There's so much depth and pride in being Dominican. She's celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month in her school, and I'm having her wear the Dominican dress with the ruffles (photo below). I want to teach her that you can be proud to be both American and Dominican, and you don't have to choose. You can embrace both. I feel like that wasn't told to me when I was young. I used to always say when I was younger, “I'm an American citizen, so I'm American.” And I remember my aunt telling me, “no you're Dominican.” And I was like, “but I like cheeseburgers and french fries.” And she was like, “you like platanos and salami too, and you can be a Dominican-American and that is perfectly okay. Although you don't live in the Dominican and weren’t born there, you're still Dominican, no matter what.” So I remember that vividly, and I hope that Halo remembers that too.
Do you have any recommendations for good Dominican food in your neighborhood?
La Casa del Mofongo. It has such a welcoming feel. It's as close to Dominican food as you can probably get if it's not being done in your house.
Could you talk about Hostos, the organization you’ve chosen for HOLDEN to support during Hispanic Heritage month? How did you end up there, and what was that experience like for you?
Once I graduated from high school, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I ended up going to BMCC, which is the college downtown by Chambers. Although it's a great school and has a great reputation, I felt like I got lost in the mix. The student population was large, so it was really difficult to unite and relate to other students. Also the teachers would just know me by number and didn't take the time to really learn my name. I felt detached from it and wasn't very motivated to go. I took a year off, and I took a few more years off, and I had Halo.
When I was pregnant with Halo, I decided I wanted to go back to college and go to a school that understood me and embraced me. I wanted a college that had a very strong community. Someone had mentioned Hostos in the Bronx because the Bronx has a large Hispanic population. When I went to Hostos, six months pregnant, I started seeing a lot of people who were like me - a lot of moms, a lot of Dominican people who were just getting to the US three or four years prior to starting college.
Hostos was a very small community. All the teachers knew my name, and we celebrated every culture - not only Dominican culture, but also Puerto Rican, Colombian, and Venezuelan. When you enter, you see Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, two musicians very well known in the Hispanic community. Just like the UN, you see all the flags from the Caribbean and South American countries. I think that that’s what really made me stick through it and graduate in 2020 during quarantine. It was amazing. I always said that I would love to give back to them because they gave me so much. They gave me friends that I get to keep for a lifetime.
They also taught me a lot about my own culture. I learned more about Dominican culture in Hostos than I did at BMCC. Tying that back to the monuments I'd seen in the Dominican Republic was so fulfilling. It was so satisfying, like, “wow I've been in the Dominican Republic, but I didn't know why this highway was called La Independencía and now I know, because of Hostos.” I would love to give back to them as much as I can, since they gave me so much knowledge and a sense of community.
What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?
I feel very strongly about Hispanic Heritage Month because we talk about the contributions we've made, but there are so many people who go so unrecognized. My mom may have not opened up a restaurant or changed the world in a way that people would recognize, but she's changed my world. She changed my siblings' world. Although that's not a contribution to America itself, it's a contribution to us, which will empower us to make more contributions. Although not everyone knows our parents’ names, we do. They made a lot of sacrifices for us to be here. I really do appreciate that.
They came on the yola, the little motor boats with 30 people on them for two weeks with nothing on their backs but themselves. My grandmother didn't know if they were okay - there were no cell phones back in the day. You're relying on letters and maybe a phone call, and it's such a dangerous trip. I think that says so much: you want to come into this country where you don't know anyone and don't know the language, just so that your future children can have a future. I think I owe it to my parents to keep up with Dominican traditions as much as I can. They knew that they could be so much more in this country, and that they needed a little bit of Spanish flavor in this country.
They're troopers, they're very strong, and they definitely did endure racism and injustice a few times. I remember them telling me that they felt like they wanted to give up so many times and go back and it would be easier that way, but I'm so glad that they stuck it out and are here. They're citizens now. Although they don't have a restaurant or a business, they still love this country and do their best and contribute as much as they can. I wasn’t even born yet and they were already setting up a whole place for me to live.
If you'd like to join HOLDEN in supporting Hostos, you can donate here.
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