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Essay: What I left behind, a fresh look at ‘mi tierra’

A bittersweet visit to the Dominican Republic evokes memories, nostalgia.

I just came back from a vacation to the Dominican Republic, the country where I was born.

In Santo Domingo, alive with the smells and sounds I grew up appreciating from afar, I felt a keen sense of loss.

When I left home, I was only 8 years old. My memories are snapshots -- of riding in the back of my abuelo’s blue Ford pickup on our way to church and escaping during sermons to buy snowcones. Playing in yards full of fruit trees. The smells of frying fish and fresh lime on the beach, the taste of salt in the air. I remember mosquito nets, the sound the dried corn made in the bowl as my abuela shook it to bring all the chickens running and the adrenaline of racing down a hill on a palm frond.

My parents were doctors with family and friends close by. But they looked beyond themselves, to their three children. Where was greater opportunity? So we left, looking forward, not back.

I’ve returned just six times in 28 years.

I grew up in the States, connected to my heritage by my curly hair, brown skin and native tongue. I listened to my parents play Juan Luis Guerra, but I didn’t truly hear the lyrics. Now, I understand the feeling behind the words when he sings, Visa Para un Sueño.

Everywhere I looked, back on the island, I saw what I missed out on.

Everyday foods there are special indulgences here. The city pulsates -- with car horns, a man selling produce over a speaker, bachata music playing at the bodega.

Men pulled big nets out of the Caribbean, set against a vivid sunset. Joggers and skaters at Mirador park stopped to buy coconuts, and young and old congregated over a beer or a game of dominoes.

I’m a tourist now, a visitor in her own land. But Gloria Estefan’s hit song Mi Tierra played in my head.

La tierra donde naciste no la puedes olvidar

Porque tiene tus raíces y lo que dejas atrás

The land where you were born, she sings, you can never forget, for it holds your roots and what you left behind.

I wouldn’t be who I am if I had never left, and yet, I am who I am because of where I come from.

This culture is imprinted on me, and this time, I left longing to return. I want to see it all again, as if for the first time.

Seeds for sale at a roadside stall in Santo Domingo.
Tito is a coquero (coconut vendor) who sells coconuts at the Mirador park in Santo Domingo.
William sells larimar at Mercado Modelo. Larimar is a bright turquoise stone mined in the Barahona region of the country. It's commonly set on sterling silver and is popular with tourists.
Flamboyant Royal Poinciana trees are commonplace on country fields and city parks. They are iconic symbols of Dominican Republic and are often depicted in artwork.
Children are silhouetted against the Alcazar de Colon in Ciudad Colonial, Santo Domingo.
A thunderstorm brews over Playa Coson, Las Terrenas.
Fishing boats in Los Haitises National Park.
Fresh fish is stocked in a cooler to sell or fry and serve.
Clothes dry on a line at the ranger station of Los Haitises National Park.
The view from below in a cave in Los Haitises National Park.
My son, Evan, floats on the surface of the waters of Coson Bay at dusk. Returning with my family feels like coming full circle.