by Luis Torres

Everyone belongs to a culture, but does your culture belong to you? I am Dominican—a dancer, a swift mover of feet—or is that just my mother? The Dominican Republic is 1,649 miles too far; I cannot affect it, or be affected by it. Yet, on my Common Application to college, I still bubbled in “Hispanic or Latino.”

On June 29th, 2010, I left John F. Kennedy Airport for the land of ancestors; these ancestors may or may not have been my own. I traveled with a group of fifteen people, and this would not be my first visit to the Dominican Republic. But it would be the most memorable. The flight was set for the brink of dawn. I arrived at JFK airport while the skies were still swallowed by darkness. A few hours later, the plane roared into the light-filled sky. I left the dark, confined environment that I knew in Spanish Harlem for the lit environment of La Hispaniola, where people practiced forms of public embrace other than “daps,” our ghetto version of a handshake.

As opposed to the cold greetings common throughout the streets of Spanish Harlem, the natives of the Dominican Republic welcomed one another with kisses on the cheek. Witnessing the natives address each other made me realize that people back home weren’t so welcoming to newcomers. Why is it that these people who have nothing, as compared to most Americans, act quickly to help others? In the Big Apple, people are solely concerned with their own personal fulfillment; we’ve been taught to be the best. Not many people think to help others become their best.

In the Dominican Republic, I was embraced as family, not as a tourist. Was it because I, too, was Dominican? No. The rest of my Global Teens traveling group contained a total of zero Latinos, and they were embraced as I was.  Yet, as a Dominican, I found myself translating every conversation needed in order to fulfill our goal for the following three weeks: advocating for human rights, in particular the right for children to receive an education. Despite the fact that there was a language barrier, it did not stop everyone from trying to mingle with each other, even if it was through simple hand gestures. Sure, I helped translate, but it was the conversations that I did not help translate that made a group of culturally diverse people form as family.

Although I am of Dominican descent, most people would say that I don’t look it. Dominicans have a dark skin tone and rough facial features. I stood pale, with a face that looked as if I’d never worked a day in my life. My appearance didn’t speak of troubles, but that didn’t mean I hadn’t had my fair share. I lived in the John Adams projects in the South Bronx, where I slept on a cold floor for most of my pre-teen years, but this was no struggle compared to that of the native Dominicans. They have struggled for everything they call their own, no matter how small or irrelevant it may have seemed to someone who possessed the freedom to choose from an assortment of beneficial options. Many of the opportunities that have presented themselves to me have been overlooked, but that would not be the case for those who are born into the harsh living conditions of the Dominican Republic. They’d see my chances for an education, and a life different from what I was initially born into, as gifts.

I didn’t visit the Dominican Republic to compare myself to its people: I, the child of my Dominican mother, and them, native Dominicans. I was there to paint a school that was soon to fall apart, no matter how colorful we made it. The vibrant array of paint that once covered the walls of the school was chipping. Desks were rusty and grew closer to collapsing with each person who sat at them. There was work to be done.

We transformed the school that the children adored into a beautiful mess. Strokes of paint washed our differences away. What differences were these? As Americans, we have all the opportunity in the world; these children do not. Through this project, we all began to work for one purpose: to give these children a glimpse of opportunity and hope. We sprinkled the room with their alphabet, which contains a couple more letters than our own. We painted murals on the walls of each classroom, but most important, we painted smiles on the faces of the children who occupied the school. I remember one distinct mural which illustrated the bright lights of Times Square, a place I grew bored of. But Times Square is a place these children will only dream of. These children did not look like the children we see every day in the United States; rather, they looked like children who belong on a sponsorship commercial. They lacked personal hygiene, but I hugged them anyway.

The children gathered at the school’s gate, simply to stare in awe, their eyes wide open, waiting to leap through the gate and take a look. Their smiles brightened such a damaged community. They loved their “new” school, and I fell in love with the feeling that I may have changed a young child’s life. I have never been so eager to learn as those children were that day. Education is something I’ve taken for granted; meanwhile, these children don’t have anything they could possibly take for granted. At home I had never acknowledged that not all children go to school Monday through Friday. I only went to school because I thought it was something I had to do, not something I wanted to do. On the other hand, the Dominican children were eager to attend school, hence they yelled “Gracias” about a dozen times to each of us as we finished painting their school and hopped on the bus headed to our comfy hotel, where we complained about the lack of hot water. Then again, we had the luxury of a shower.

This feeling of accomplishment resonated within me throughout the following days. Unfortunately, it did not last very long. It was our last project of the trip, and we set out to visit the Bateys, the Dominican sugar plants. What I saw there altered my thoughts about what is truly meaningful in life. I stepped off the bus onto dirt-filled paths. Luckily, I had worn sneakers. The native Dominicans did not. I also had a shirt on my back, a luxury I never thought twice about. I could see their struggle; they wore it on their faces, hands, and malnourished bodies. Children ran around naked, and families would roast peanuts in pans that looked older than I was, just to make it through the week. The feeling I fell in love with as a result of painting the children’s school vanished. That warmth was replaced with disgust.

Looking back on that day, I ask myself why I didn’t take off my shirt and shoes and hand them to the Dominicans. Instead, even now, I worry about purchasing new-edition Jordan’s that will turn heads when I’m walking around Spanish Harlem. Those kids worry about survival. Their next meal is uncertain. But I, on the other hand, with one swipe of my Eagle One Card, can indulge in gluttony.

This is the truth, not the ugly truth, but the real truth: Poverty is cyclical. Poor parents breed poor children who mature, and they start a poor family of their own. But this is not an excuse to lose hope. It is an excuse to have more hope. We must all believe in something, whether that is a higher being, parents, friends, or family. To most of those naked children, the sugar plant is all they believe in, and hoping to achieve something more than the sugar plant is unfathomable. If they could have my opportunity, they would take advantage of it in ways I never will. The journey that commenced only three weeks before ended with this realization.

My flight was boarding, and it was time to go back to Spanish Harlem. But Harlem was no longer my “home.” It was my home away from home. I had become a part of the Dominican culture. I did not want to leave because I was unsatisfied with the meaningless amount of work I had done. Sure, I smacked some paint on a school that needed it, but did I really make a difference?  Or was my work just a front? We made the school look nice on the outside, but what good does that do if the proper opportunities aren’t dished out on the inside? Here, in the United States of America, opportunity is dished out for lunch. The next time I go back to the land of my ancestors, the paint on that school will most likely have been washed away. I did not make a lasting impact, and I realized that ever more as I trekked through the poverty stricken Bateys. Had I been one of those children lacking clothing, I might have lost hope in life. But the children who are experiencing this deep poverty as we speak have not lost hope. They smile, and smile, and then smile some more. For them, I smile.

What do I truly have to be upset about? Not getting that “A” I wanted on my lab report? These worries are miniscule. The only things worth losing sleep over are those children. They walk barefoot and shirtless through my dreams. If only it were just a dream, maybe I wouldn’t wake up in a cold sweat. If only they could live vicariously through me, enjoying my luxuries, my education, and my care-free attitude. Would I dare change places with such a child?

My life would be such a change for them, but I’d say they’re brave enough to accept change; they’re braver than I am. I am linked to these children through our common culture. One’s culture is only truly yours after you’ve experienced it. My culture now belongs to me. I affected an island that sits 1,649 miles away. Whether or not my impact is everlasting does not matter because I succeeded in giving hope to the children of the island that gave me life. I repaint smiles on the faces of those children through the swift movement of my feet. To pay homage to the Dominican Republic, I dance.