Growing up on the North Shore in the 1990s, I rarely encountered people who looked like me in positions of power. I kept searching for experiences and stories that resonated with mine. But in the mainstream media, academic settings, public health spaces, cultural institutions, and among leaders in government and in the private sector, I was not exposed to a Black Latina I could identify with.
So, I turned to the role models around me to find the guidance and inspiration I needed: the mujeres (and some men) I engaged with daily — the women who raised me, and whom I witnessed simultaneously batallando con la vida (battling with life) and celebrating the joy of existing.
As a formerly undocumented immigrant, an English language learner, and a Black Latina, I was often told that I didn’t belong — not necessarily verbally, but by how I was “partially included,” or entirely excluded. My predetermined place didn’t include much power. Unspoken labels followed me everywhere; stereotypes introduced me even before I opened my mouth. If I did get the courage to speak, my meaning was often misconstrued because of my thick Dominican accent. I was labeled as the overworked Latina who knew her place, minded her own business, and was compliant. Or I was the sassy, loud, spicy Latina who was careless and funny but not well respected. Not many chances to be the educated, professional, in-charge jefa I aspired to be.
But the power of my mother’s example shaped me. At an early age in the Dominican Republic, she managed to head out to the city alone and be the first in her family to attend college, become independent, and rise in her career. She wanted more for herself and her family, and constantly pushed boundaries. As a white-passing Dominican, she married my Black Dominican dad, defying what folks at the time thought of “mejorando la raza” — in essence, making the race whiter and therefore “better.” She proudly navigated upper middle-class Dominican society with her three Black children, instilling greatness, pride, and ambition in us. She elevated how we saw ourselves, even when she’d be asked if those were “the kids of the ‘help.’”
Before we left our lives there to start over in the United States, both my parents were established professionals. My dad was the editor in chief of a Dominican national newspaper, and my mom was one of few women leaders in the garment industry. She had launched her own clothing line and managed factories with more than 200 employees. She’d say, “Si no sé, me lo invento, y en el camino averiguaremos.” (“If I don’t know, I’ll make it up, and we’ll find out along the way.”) Mami showed me the courage to start, even though I sometimes didn’t feel entirely ready. Her outlook and reassurance that “las cosas van a estar bien” (everything will be OK) helped us so much when things became more challenging here.
Mami had such a positive attitude. When at age 15, I was scrubbing toilets alongside her, working as housekeepers paid minimum wage under the table, or standing in line at the food pantry, she had a way of making it feel fun. Her work ethic and perseverance rubbed off on me. A few years later, despite her broken English and a résumé that didn’t mean a peep here, she secured a job at a high-end store on Newbury Street, and before long was running the alterations department. Customers sought her out for constructing elaborate formal gowns, and, alongside my dad, she put us three kids through college.
Today, 18 years after Mami passed on, I embody in flesh, soul, mind, and spirit an educated Afro-Latina boss who shows up as the most authentic version of myself I have ever been. Getting to this place has taken profound soul-searching and serious combatting with impostor syndrome.
For a while, I navigated different spaces and situations by constantly code-switching, altering the way I presented myself and aspects of my personality to have a better chance of “fitting in” — a reflection of the colonized society I grew up in, where adhering closely to your white European heritage made life easier for you. But once in graduate school in New York City, I realized I couldn’t suppress my roots, presence, or essence. A professor and adviser, the only woman of color in my program, challenged me to think independently and embrace all of the identities I embody. My true self started to emerge naturally, and it felt powerful to embrace it.
My personal story, one of the many immigrant stories that make up Massachusetts, drives me. The stories of my parents and my family are full of disadvantages and inequities, but are also a driving force of immense hope, resilience, and joy. And pulling me forward is a vision for the future of my Black children, first-generation Afro-Dominicans in this country.
Rosario Ubiera-Minaya, formerly executive director of Amplify Latinx, is the new executive director of RAW Art Works in Lynn.