The First-Generation American’s Responsibility


(Elaine Vilorio)– I sat in a sea of Dominican-American students; they all waved Dominican flags and smiled for the cameras. They were so proud of where they came from. I was too; I am. Still, contrastingly, my face wore irritation. I couldn’t ignore the hypocrisy. Why did we feel pride towards a country for which we have lost faith?

The Dominican consulate in NYC began to give out “Estudiante Meritoria/o” (“Meritorious Student”) awards in 1997. Meant to honor high-achieving first-generation American students of Dominican descent, the award bestows its recipients with an enthusiastic ceremony in Manhattan wherein medals and certificates are distributed. I was deeply honored to be one of this year’s recipients. But, at some point in the event, one of the presenters said something that bothered me. She said something along the lines of, “Continue making your presence known in the United States!” I got what she meant: show the world that Dominicans, and Hispanics for that matter, are capable of attaining the American dream; show the world we are better than stereotypes that suggest we are bereft of success. But, why did we have to continue making our presence known here? What about making ourselves known in the country we left behind? What about completely eliminating the stereotypes by helping the place where they are founded? What about making the American dream possible beyond the United States? These questions are not just for the group of Dominican-American kids in which I found myself. These questions pertain to all first-generation Americans whose parents left behind countries in dire need.

My parents left Dominican Republic for good when I was six going on seven. They loved their country, but not enough to stay. Like many Latin American countries, like many countries we leave behind for the American dream, Dominican Republic is in bad shape. It doesn’t take an extensive analysis of the country’s politics, economy, and overall state to make that observation. People are afraid to walk the streets at night. I’ve had family and friends shot at and robbed in their own backyards. People are devoid of economic opportunity. Shacks made of tin and wood line the highways. More than a third of the country’s population lives in poverty.

When I hear people say they’ve gone to Dominican Republic, my first question is: did you spend all of your time in a vacation resort? The answer is almost always yes. Well, amigo, you haven’t really gone to Dominican Republic. All of the luxury you saw is limited to the resort’s property. Beyond that, it’s not so pretty. People are at the mercy of an egotistical government. According to the 2013 Index of Economic Freedom, “corruption in government ministries, the police force, and the military is believed to have worsened during former President Fernández’s last two terms (2004–2012).” None of this is hot-off-the-press news. It’s been happening for as long as the country has existed. Naturally, my parents wanted better for their children; they came to the only place where that “better” seemed possible.

We are now in a country of ample education and opportunity; for most of us, this means a place our family’s native country was not. Most of us first-generation Americans, then, are the lucky ones. We escaped what some of our cousins and childhood friends did not. Do we not owe them something?

It’s like this: a village of people is very thirsty, as there has been a drought for quite some time. You are ambling about, mouth parched, and stumble across a stream of water. Do you not have a moral duty to share the existence of the stream with the rest of the village? Are you going to keep it all to yourself, claiming you love your village but, eh, whatever? As first-gen kids, we do not fully identify with our parents’ country. We are growing up in the United States; most of us were born here. However, in most cases, we have grown up with two cultures: that of our parents’ country and that of the United States. We are inextricably linked to our family’s motherland. And, we recognize that. Hispanics in particular are very proud of their roots. They attend the Independence Day parades of their respective countries in major American cities and wear t-shirts emboldened with their respective countries’ flags. They are happy to represent their motherlands, but not enough to reach out to them; if we projected the resources and opportunities given to us by the U.S. of A., we could.

I don’t mean to present the United States as a savior nation; it admittedly seems that way, doesn’t it? After all, it was because of the U.S. that Trujillo, the most diabolical political figure of Dominican history, assumed power. It was because of the United States that a lot of other countries got screwed over (and are currently being screwed over). I’m merely suggesting that the noblest ideals we learn here—the ideals of a diverse economic market, of a cohesive justice system, of an opportunistic quality of life—be implemented in the countries our families left for dead. I’m merely suggesting that we first-gen kids be the implementers of those ideals. While Uncle Sam isn’t perfect, he can be a positive role model.

As we wave our flags and smile for the cameras, we should not forget the reason we are in the United States in the first place. Most of us are here because our parents could not contribute to the salvation of a country they love; maybe, equipped with the teachings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we can.