I was born in New York City, but in the 3rd grade, I moved over 2500 kilometers (1500 miles) to the Dominican Republic (D.R.), which shares the Caribbean island of Kiskeya (or Hispaniola) with Haiti.
My parents chose to raise me in their native country so I would grow close to my cultural identity. I grew up in Santo Domingo Este on the outskirts of the capital city. It was the early 90s and Santo Domingo Este had started developing. Small communities like my neighborhood popped up between large undeveloped plots of land. Family is very tight-knit in our culture; I grew up surrounded by my grandmother, uncle, and cousins. My uncle used the plot in our backyard for farming. We had many tropical fruit trees such as acerola cherries, guava, and passion fruit. My uncle also raised rabbits, ducks, and chickens. These early experiences shaped my interest in nature and biology.
Although this sounds idyllic, about 30% of the country at the time lived in poverty. This made survival in the DR very difficult for many. For this reason, many chose to leave the country. I watched most people from my childhood emigrate until it was my turn. I saw that given my socioeconomic background, I had no opportunities in the D.R. but in the States, my talents and hard work would be appreciated and rewarded.
I traded my lifestyle in communion with nature for the sterile white halls of a research lab. I traded my spirituality for the belief in anything that could be empirically tested.
I moved back to New York for college, to receive an education that was not available in the D.R. I wanted to be a biomedical researcher to help understand and cure diseases. I was fortunate that my university has a very diverse student and faculty body where I fit right in as a Latinx Black and Indigenous Person of Color. It was easy to adapt to life in the U.S. I immersed myself in my studies. I felt the obligation to reward my parents’ sacrifice and dedication by being a stellar student, and I eventually earned my way to a doctorate at an Ivy League institution.
I started to occupy spaces where people from my background are historically excluded. It became a space where I did not feel free to express myself. I had to change the way I dressed and spoke. I would go so long without speaking Spanish, that I sometimes struggled to find words around my family. In that same way, I also let go of other parts of my personality. I traded my lifestyle in communion with nature for the sterile white halls of a research lab. I traded my spirituality for the belief in anything that could be empirically tested. I allowed science to separate me from my spirituality. I had stopped praying, I had stopped listening to God, I allowed my faith to cool. Between labs, independent research, and a taxing class load I had no time to return to the D.R.; work became a yearly excuse to not go to the D.R. until I didn’t return anymore. I drifted away from Kiskeya and with it, part of myself. I could only reminisce about the D.R. that I had frozen in time and romanticized. I looked back fondly at my small neighborhood, where everyone knew each other and treated one another with warmth.
After 11 years in the U.S., I finished my Ph.D. and returned to the D.R. I wanted a well-deserved break after years of hard work. I also wanted to be with my family to grieve the passing of my grandmother a month before my thesis defense.
As soon as I landed, I went to my small neighborhood church where my devout grandmother would pray. There, I prayed and thanked God for the serendipity of returning back home and would mean for my personal growth. At that point, I recognized I had been detached from my identity but little did I know how significant this return to my culture would be.
In the Dominican Republic, I felt nourished physically and spiritually. I spent actual time with my family. I learned more about my father and sister and how much they had grown and experienced since I last lived with them. I played chess with my father and accompanied my sister to her first weeks at college.
For the first time in years, I felt I had none of the looming responsibilities of experimental time points or microscopy or data to analyze that had been constantly overhanging for so many years. I entertained myself by finding new hobbies. I started gardening by planting anything I ate that had seeds: I planted tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and many more. It’s easy for plants to grow in the sunlight of the tropics. I enjoyed sitting in the colmados (the Dominican version of a bodega) listening to music while making new friends. I enjoyed learning about people’s experiences and the history of the D.R.; I felt I was catching up with all I had missed. I started planting anything I ate that had seeds like tomatoes, peppers, papaya, and eggplant. I visited several virgin beaches and parts of the countryside I did not know before. I also got to visit all the different neighborhoods in Santo Domingo with their Caribbean color, while devouring all the Dominican street food — yaroa, chicharron, and chimichurri — that I could find.
I decided to stay in the D.R. as I looked online for work in the U.S.; while my job hunt stateside slugged without a set strategy, I found an exciting opportunity to work in the inaugural team of the first nuclear reactor in the DR so I decided to extend my stay. Earning a doctorate required tenacity, but surviving the developing world with a small wage was another level.
Living in the D.R. sobered my romantic vision of the country I held in my memory. Most STEM professionals earn a low wage because scientific funding is low. For these reasons, many talented STEM professionals leave the country. This brain drain perpetuates global inequality. The D.R. exploded in economic growth but lagged on sustainability. Water and electricity are still unreliable, while public transportation is rudimentary. Compared to the US, I experienced a general lack of security. Dominican society has yet to make the strides for human rights that are already weaved in the culture of the developed world. For instance, it is socially acceptable to be an outspoken misogynist and homophobe. This greater survival challenge has made me more alert, more shrewd, and more resourceful.
I learned first hand the struggles of many young Dominicans, not just in science. I was here for the historical protests when our elections were abruptly ended. The protests were against corruption by the party that had governed the country for 16 years. Politicians took unfair advantage of their positions to fill their pockets while hurting the public. One corruption example is the Odebrecht case which is still open and has resonated throughout Latin America. The protests made everyone more conscious about the importance of their vote. After the protests, Dominicans, including myself, showed up to vote despite fears at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The country has flaws, but it also has untapped potential. Here, I have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use not only my vote but my work to contribute to the future looks of my country.
The country has flaws, but it also has untapped potential. Here, I have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use not only my vote but my work to contribute to the future looks of my country. And soon, the doors started opening up. I wrote two grants for my employer when applications opened. I taught at one of the top universities in the D.R. When I did not feel challenged enough, I started to create opportunities for myself. I co-created an app and did two independent consulting projects. I also started a social media science communication project. And if I ever had a doubt, I always look to my two bosses, the one when I taught at the Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo and the one at the nuclear pharmacy as people with doctorates who chose to stay and innovate.
Because I was thrown into a new environment where my Ph.D. had little use, I reevaluated where I place my worth and from where do I get fulfillment. I recognized that my strengths and interests are at the intersection of science and business, which I wouldn’t have known had necessity not brought me out of my comfort zone. My time here deepened my understanding of my national and family history and how it affects my place in the world today. I have become much closer to my family after a long separation and made lifelong friends; I feel much more emotionally supported and less alone than I did in graduate school.
Prayer again became an everyday part of my life. I learned to appreciate the particularities of Dominican spirituality and how our Native and Black ancestors embedded their beliefs in our local version of Catholicism.
Spiritually, I gained more stillness and the faith that everything will work out for the best. I became more aligned with my values, which prioritize my joy and my relationships over work. Prayer again became an everyday part of my life. I learned to appreciate the particularities of Dominican spirituality and how our Native and Black ancestors embedded their beliefs in our local version of Catholicism. I still enjoy visiting my grandmother’s small church for religious festivities, but I’ve also visited the countryside, where our traditions are deeper, and religion is celebrated with drums, dancing, and chanting.
That’s why I recommend anyone who’s lost to make the journey back home.