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A Dominican-American Adult CCK on Straddling Culture and Identity

Main photo by Reed Hoffmann

Julio Cesar Castaing is a human resources executive based in New York City. Castaing has lived and worked across the Americas, yet when he thinks of home, what comes to mind is the Dominican Republic — it’s the place where his people are from.

Michele Davenport: Tell us a little about who you are in the world.
Julio Cesar Castaing: My parents are from the Dominican Republic, so I’m first generation American — they came here in the early ’60s. I think of myself as the consummate New Yorker, one who enjoys all the city has to offer — lots of flavor, different folks from all over the globe and it keeps it interesting. I grew up on the Upper West Side with my younger brother William, other siblings and my parents through mid-high school when we moved to [the] Washington Heights section of Manhattan.

MD: Where were you born?
JCC: I was born here and my parents actually met here. They didn’t know each other in the DR, though they lived not far from one another. We grew up in the city and always lived in Spanish-speaking communities. Spanish is my first language, and probably for the first six or seven years, I spoke nothing but Spanish. I remember being in kindergarten or first grade and we had these little plastic canisters where [my teacher] would hold candy. I remember the teacher asking me specifically if I wanted jelly beans. I thought anything that looked like that was an M&M because that’s what we had at home. She put jelly beans in my basket on her desk I thought, “What is this?” You know, I didn’t know what it was, but it was one of the first times that I remember struggling with understanding English, since up to thatpoint everything had been in Spanish.

MD: Tell me a little about your family.
JCC: I have a very large family — three sibling on my mom’s side that were born in the Dominican Republic before she came here. And then, my father had a whole bunch of kids in the Dominican Republic, as well.

MD: Growing up did your family speak English?
JCC: They spoke only Spanish. And when my older siblings on my mom’s side came to New York the first time, around 1968, they went into the same junior high school I eventually went to, as well. That program was bilingual for them. So we were all sort of exposed to both languages.

MD: Did your parents ultimately assimilate to English as their children began speaking it more?
JCC: No, not very much. My parents, as soon as they came to this country, found jobs in places through their friends who were already here or family members that were taking them to their place(s) of employment. It was factory work; my father worked in Chinatown [NYC] at a warehouse delivering food products for restaurants and things like that. But the weren’t forced to speak English because we’ve always lived in Spanish-speaking communities, and they’ve always worked in places where everybody spoke Spanish. My mom is 87 and doesn’t speak English and has lived in New York City for nearly 60 years.

MD: How do you think about your identity?
JCC: I consider myself a Latino who happens to be Black. You know, the whole idea — hold on, although I connect and associate with being African American. I mean if you think about the definition itself, it doesn’t really apply to me; although, I relate and connect to it. But to me, it doesn’t really make sense. What I mean by that is if you do the direct translation, I would be Latino and African (African Latino) with African roots and Latino culture. Although I am American, my family doesn’t consider themselves to be American — they are transplants. They came here and now they are naturalized citizens, but they don’t necessarily associate with being American. They associate with being Dominican; they associate with being Latino. So, by extension, I would be an African Latino.

I consider myself a Latino who happens to be Black.

MD: I thought a moment ago you said you considered yourself an African American; are you saying you do not?
JCC: I do, and I connect with it — that is the term “African American” — but these labels are a very American thing. You go anywhere else in the world and people don’t really think of it this way as a definition. You are Black, Asian, white or whatever. I have traveled to nearly 30 countries, and I’m always viewed as a Black man, no matter where it is I am.

MD: Do you consider yourself to be Dominican American?
JCC: I do.

MD: How do you distinguish between race and culture?
JCC: This is a hard question for me because I associate with so many different cultures and cultural connections. I associate wholeheartedly with Dominican culture when it comes to food and music. If you look at my phone, the last thing I was listening to is meringue — Dominican music. There’s a strong connection for me around music, the food, customs because this is what I grew up with from an early age. I’ve been in English-speaking communities, schools, all sorts of things. My friends, a lot of them lot of them are Latino, but I also have a lot of African-American friends who do things that might be slightly different than Dominicans.

MD: Like what?
JCC: Like food. When it comes to food, I didn’t have grits until I was in my 20s. I didn’t know what a “grit” was … Any Black American with roots from the southern U.S. was likely introduced to grits at an early age. So I associate with different cultural backgrounds —Dominican, Black, American.

MD: Where and when in your life did you have to choose [an identity]?
JCC: At the airport when going through Customs — I have an American passport. All of that identity stuff goes out the window because it’s 90 percent American. I speak English, I look like I’m from America, I have a blue passport. So there’s no confusion about being American. That’s one area.

MD: What makes you uniquely you?
JCC: I developed a sensibility to try to understand what I don’t understand. Take my mother for instance — if we go to a fancy restaurant, she’s going to ask for rice and beans because that’s what she believes everyone should eat, and that’s a good meal for her. I’ve learned to appreciate that, which is different than where I come from. In school, I had been called all kinds of names, so once I figured out how to kind of put those things into perspective, it was better.

MD: You’ve been called all kinds of names about what?
JCC: Black people would call me names — I’d call them my friends! The kids I went to school with who were for the most part lighter-skinned Latinos would make fun of the fact that I was so dark. In fact, one guy would call me
“Brillo Pad” because my hair was woolly — that was the fourth grade.

MD: How did those experiences affect you?
JCC: At an early age, it would mess with my self-esteem because I always felt like an outcast, like I was too dark and didn’t fit in. I felt like all the cute girls would like the other guys and not me. So, the one way that I would get beyond that was that I had to be better at something. So I did well in school and sports.

MD: Do you remember when that notion of having to “be better” really sunk in?
JCC: No, I don’t remember. I think part of it was just in my nature to be competitive. I’ve never been one who’d talk smack, but I’d excel so I could be better, not by talking but by showing. Those things happened when I was a kid, and I didn’t really make sense of it. It did impact me and how I felt. So even in to high school, I know people who continue to make a distinction between light- and dark-skinned people.

MD: Dominicans – more so than others?
JCC: Yes, I think so. They are a lot less apologetic. Whether or not that’s true, [it’s been my experience].

JCC: Back to what makes me unique: Having a sensibility from both painful and good experiences over the years. I am very accepting, very accepting — I’m a lot more open-minded. I have moments when I could be angry about things, some of the injustices on people who are dark. For example, recently in the Dominican Republic, there are Haitians doing the work no one else wants to do, and many Dominicans don’t want them there. [Dominicans] will take any opportunity to knock them down. Somebody will make reference about the current political stance and economics, but they lose sense of the fact they are just people who are looking for a better way. I think my experiences have made me more empathetic about that kind of thing.

Be comfortable with who you are, no matter your age, and be comfortable with where you come from. You don’t have to make a choice.

MD: How does your family in the DR view you?
JCC: My Dominican relatives consider those of us born here to be American, so my siblings born in the DR are considered Dominican. No matter how much we look alike or have shared American experiences, we are viewed differently. They know we are Dominicans and they make a point to say that, but I think they almost have an expectation of us being American, so maybe not eating the same foods they would normally eat when we are not around because they are catering to us.

MD: Give me an example.
JCC: Like platanos — I love platanos and would love to have them when there, and I know they eat them all the time when we are not around. But when we’re there, they may serve goat or fish and it’s a big production. They will normally eat fish, but when we’re there, my cousin will go through a lot of effort to get a big fish and make it fancy with spices (and insist on you eating all of it)! My family there was really poor, and when I was young, they would make special allowances to make sure the American relatives were comfortable when we would visit. We used to go there, and they basically had built their home, and then, you walk into the backyard, basically tin roof and they had walls and stuff. Even going through all of that, they would boil the water so we could have warm water for our bucket bath.

MD: You’re enjoying a great career; went to college. How and where has straddling [cultures] impacted you professionally?
JCC: I think that corporate America makes this a big issue. I think this whole notion of African American, Asian American, Pacific Islander, etc. is so they can categorize, so they can put forth affirmative action plans. I wasn’t around when affirmative action plans existed, but I can’t imagine why corporations would want to label people. So being able to check a box for nomenclature could sometimes be an advantageous thing depending on what the organization is trying to accomplish. I think the reality is that it hasn’t made a difference to be one or the other. You’re Black or you’re Latino. I don’t think people are seeing you as a hybrid.

MD: What box do you check?
JCC: I check the Latino box. When they ask for my race, I check Black because Latino is my culture and it isn’t a race. They force this on you and want you to think about this a certain way. It’s not always that clear. Your race could be Black, but your culture could be white. I happen to be Black, and I own that and I’m proud of that, but my culture is Dominican.

MD: What advice would you give to the next generation?
JCC: Be comfortable with who you are, no matter your age, and be comfortable with where you come from. You don’t have to make a choice.

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