Alright (My Identity in Passing)

Jose Vilson Jose, Race

The last time I went to the Dominican Day Parade, my youthful naiveté gave way for a conservatism I didn’t quite understand in myself. The schools of ostensibly hypermasculine Dominican men highlighting their hair and tightening their shirts threw me off. The crowds of voluptuous Dominican women wearing sexier varieties of the Dominican flag strapped across their tops and bottoms were distracting at first, but ultimately uninviting to a younger me who, from a hood lens, saw that sort of energy as plastic and unnecessary in his life. I also hated the obsession with the flags sans any context for the pride by which so many of us held this red, blue, and white rectangle so dear.

But that was me back then. Now, I’m less in my feelings about this.

One of the critical elements of our identities is the cultural signifiers we attach to what we deem to be that culture. In my case, it’s my family, and the three parts I don’t talk about enough: my mother’s side, my father’s side, and my stepfather’s side. My mother’s side had a different version of what it meant to be Dominican than my stepfather’s side, and my father’s side was what I knew about being Haitian. Anything I understood about those cultures were seen through generational lenses of the interactions I had with all of them.

That’s why, with all the opportunities I’ve had this summer to help others explore their identities and develop themselves as teachers, I too had all these synapses that didn’t connect in how I viewed the world culturally. And I had to do with through three passings.

I remember a small house on Courtelyou Rd. in Brooklyn where my father dropped me off once a year for a few days, floors creaking under my feet as I played with my Haitian sisters and cousins. The blanks in my memory match the long conversations I didn’t understand because I never spoke a lick of Creole or even French. My grandma Jeannine Vilson (RIP, two weeks ago) owned this house, made me this plate of rice, beans, and chicken with a little kick and I told her I didn’t like it. She was a bit angered by it, and so was everyone else. My father drove me back annoyed at me for having said that aloud, which was OK because I wasn’t going to see him for another year anyways.

Years later, I adapted because my generation in that family truly became like family because we forced each other to do so. I remember my grandmother making the same plate again 20 years later after we reunited and me making her smile by devouring it like a champ. Praise be.

I remember meeting Yvee Francois (RIP, last month) for the first time in Miami in an officer’s uniform. I’d never been in the back of a cop car before, much less a cop’s car. She welcomed me with open arms even after she found out that my sister (her daughter) and I were born months apart. We had some good conversations about life and the choices we all make as a result. Whenever I visited her, she seemed to have anywhere between three to eight children in her care at a time (she had only two children). Family and friends gravitated to her effervescent nature and boisterous laugh from across the street.

She treated me like one of her own. That meant a lot since I couldn’t keep up with her conversations with my father (RIP, two years ago). Praise be.

I remember Carlos Balbi (RIP, two days ago) as a young boy whose round stomach belied his athleticism. He, like so many Balbis including my younger brother, had trophies upon trophies for swimming, track, soccer, and any number of sports you don’t assume Lower East Side kids can do. He had seen things that no one should have to see, and been in situations that might have shaken a man with less resilience. But he did. He always had a dap and a hug for his family, and he couldn’t stay mad for long periods of time. Which was true until the very last Facebook post he put up, tubes running out of his body and a smirk on his face. He asked for a kidney on there as readily as he might a cigarette or a Coke.

Too few folks took his query seriously because he had a knack for keeping people smiling. Praise be.

So I went to the Dominican Day parade this morning with this in my mind, Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez and legendary merengue artist Johnny Ventura on specially made floats above me, Orange is the New Black‘s Jessica Pimentel riding at the top of a whip. Red, blue, and white covered Fifth Avenue enough to scare the (mostly white) bystanders away from the pandemonium that is Dominicans convening to celebrate their culture. Our Syracuse contingency had old school music to the front, new school music to the back, and we kept our walking and dancing up in the rhythm of both.

I celebrated today not because I have some allegiance to the island of Quisqueya or rep for DR so hard. I found myself in the parade because these memories reminded me to celebrate life, as my grandma had or my “Miami-mom” would. Our lives are composed of all the memories we have of these people along with the memories we make for self. These symbols have often represented oppression, strife, and distance, but they can also represent unity, family, and, and lifelong connection. Those are all parts of the me I had to learn to love, too. I’ve been teaching other teachers how to love and accept their layers all summer long.

After coming off the parade route, I took off my Syracuse/Dominican Republic shirt holding my breath for my cousin’s funeral that I had to attend an hour later. On the car ride over, I kept thinking, “This is how Carlos would have done it, right?” As I walked in and saw his well-dressed cadaver, a Dominican flag hung over the open door of the casket. Got it.

I keep my head up high
I cross my heart and hope to die
Lovin’ me is complicated
Too afraid, a lot of changes
I’m alright, and you’re a favorite
Dark nights in my prayers …

photo c/o