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Essay: ‘What are you?’ and why the question — and answer — matters

Cat Rigdon (front) of Cedars Union gives a tour of the organization to Dallas Morning News Arts Access reporters Samantha Guzman (front left), Elizabeth Myong (center left) and Michelle Aslam on Friday, March 31, 2023 at Cedars Union in Dallas.
Shafkat Anowar/Dallas Morning News
Cat Rigdon (front) of Cedars Union gives a tour of the organization to Dallas Morning News Arts Access reporters Samantha Guzman (front left), Elizabeth Myong (center left) and Michelle Aslam on Friday, March 31, 2023 at Cedars Union in Dallas.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a librarian when I grew up. That’s how much I loved books. I loved books so much I would beg my mom to let me stay up past my bedtime to read just one more. As a busy mom of two, sometimes my mom would try to skip over a couple of pages of a story she would read to me at bedtime to get me to bed quicker. But it never worked. I always caught her and said, “That’s not how the story goes” and she’d have to start all over again. I guess I was destined to become a storyteller.

Even though I’ve always loved stories, growing up I found it difficult to find any stories to relate to. I am the proud daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Growing up in Grand Prairie, there wasn’t really anyone who looked like me. But more than that there wasn’t anyone that understood the complexity of my cultural heritage.

People would often ask me, “What are you?” because they couldn’t figure out which box I fit into. Depending on how I wore my hair, what time of year it was or whichever way the wind blew impacted how people saw me.

People couldn’t understand how my family ate tostones and not tortillas. On the playground, kids would call me “sunflower head” to describe the kinky, frizz that framed my face after sweating in the Texas sun. People couldn’t understand how that hair texture could match with my skin. It was as if I was a study in contradictions.

At home, when I asked my parents how to respond to this question, to them it was simple. “We are Dominican,” they said. As immigrants to this country, they refused to be stripped of their cultural heritage and be lumped into the monolithic soup many people of color are thrown into. Their language, their customs, their food were unique and something to be proud of. They held on tight, for fear of being erased.

But for me, answering that question wasn’t so easy. I knew their answer didn’t satisfy the kids on the playground. It wasn’t one of the boxes they understood. To be honest, it was hard for me to understand, too. It took decades for me to learn the vast history of my ancestry, and I’m still learning today. So I’ve always struggled with how the world sees me versus how I see myself. I would brace myself for “the question.” I was desperate for stories I could point to, people I could point to in books, television, music and film to say, “Hey! I’m like them! I matter, too!” But I rarely found them. Oh, if only I had Cardi B back then.

When I was a kid, I hated myself and the way I looked. I never felt comfortable in my own skin. I wanted so desperately to fit into a neat little box, to be able to answer that question in a way that seemed to satisfy anyone who asked. But as I grew older, I realized there is nothing wrong with me, but there is something wrong with a system that puts that much pressure on a child to feel seen.

In the Dominican Republic you will often find these beautiful, intricately painted, hand crafted dolls that are made without faces. They’re called muñecas sin rostro, and they signify the mixture of Indigenous, African and Latinx blood that make up the Dominican identity. They don’t have a face because there is no one face that makes you Dominican. I love these dolls because they celebrate that it’s OK to be more than one thing. You don’t have to check one box, you can check many.

Munecas sin rostro from the Dominican Republic.
Samantha Guzman
Munecas sin rostro from the Dominican Republic.

As a child, I felt like my and my parents’ experiences were so different. The reality is we were both craving complexity. To be seen as full people, who love, laugh and cry just like anyone else, but who also have some bomb ass cultural heritage.

That craving for complexity is what drives me and my work as a journalist. I believe strongly in the power of storytelling. Telling stories has the power to bring people together, to help us understand one another better, to make us feel seen.

Getting to tell stories is a privilege I’m immensely grateful for. But it also comes with great responsibility. Whose voices we choose to amplify sends a larger message to the world about who we think matters. And it’s not just who we tell stories about, it’s also how we frame and tell those stories that matter. I know as a little brown girl desperate to find stories, I didn’t always feel like my voice mattered. I know as immigrants my parents didn’t always feel like their voices mattered. And I know we aren’t alone. Members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities are often made to feel like their voices don’t matter, too.

All of our voices do matter, and I look forward to celebrating the vast, complex colorful range of voices that exist in North Texas as the editor of Arts Access, an arts journalism partnership powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA. For me, Arts Access is ultimately about giving others the opportunity to be seen in full color. So that the next person out there searching for a story to relate to doesn’t have to look so hard for affirmation that they matter.

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Samantha Guzman is the coordinating editor of Arts Access, a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA expanding arts coverage in the Dallas-Fort Worth area through the lens of equity and access.