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Sometimes the Way Forward Is To Return To the Beginning

This story is supported by a grant from #BlackinScicomm Week and COMPASS Scicomm. All stories under the brack•ish series can be found here.


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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.


Luisirene prepares to defend her doctorate thesis at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan, New York City (Courtesy of Luisirene Hernandez)

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.


Eliezer Pujols/Unsplash

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