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The Trials and Tribulations of Being First-Generation American

by Nathalie Peña

We all go through some form of an identity crisis, first-generation Americans, however, can go through many during even just their adolescence. Take me, a Dominican American woman who has lived in “Little Dominican Republic” aka Washington Heights for her whole life. I’ve lived in this cultural bubble of tight community bonds, loud music that’s more soothing than annoying, familiar elder faces hanging outside bodegas/salones/barberías, and other faces that have known me since I was a baby. 

Even with this tight community that has seen me grow up, I couldn’t find myself to feel as connected to it as much as I should have. My major identity crisis was never feeling Dominican enough. I always considered myself the black sheep in the family – not feeling comfortable speaking Spanish to my own relatives because I was so used to speaking fluent English, not having bachata as my go-to music of choice, refusing to dance at family gatherings, and opting to be a soft-spoken person unlike the loud personalities Dominicans are usually known to exude. 

For other first-generation Americans this might sound all too familiar – When you feel like you don’t fit inside the cultural box you were born into, feeling more American than *insert family ethnicity here* your parents are proud to call home. You might think this means you’re turning against your family and the homeland they left in order to have a better life for you and others that come after them (this first-gen definitely thinks this once in a while). If you’re like me and can speak the native tongue of those that raised you, but easily get embarrassed to do so because of having an “American” accent or not using the right words, remember that you might sound better than you think. Props to you if you are bilingual! It’s a skill so many want and struggle to achieve. 

Probably the most relatable experience for first-generation Americans is trying to stray away from familial comfort zones. You know the struggles our grandparents and parents went through to come to this country to make sure we would become more successful? Well now it’s time for us to rise to the occasion and show them that those struggles weren’t gone through in vain. 

We’re usually expected to get good grades, go to college (maybe even get a scholarship on the way) and get a stable job, and that’s the extent of our success – a clear corporate ladder to follow. 

Luckily my family never put that pressure on me because naturally I loved working hard in school and knew I wanted to go to college. But once I got into a stable job, conversations always became about how work was going. Then, when I finally quit my job to pursue something I was passionate about, they were confused. No matter my unconventional step, I always received support (but still with some initial trepidation and disagreement). Others don’t face this same luxury though. 

Some immigrant families with good intentions choose to control what dreams their kids should follow, like becoming a doctor or lawyer, so that they live in a stable home with stable finances. This comes from a tight bubble of comfort zones that I’ve seen growing up in my own neighborhood, a neighborhood filled with people that have never moved anywhere else or worked anywhere else because they’re afraid to leave a community they worked so hard to build. These comfort zones are easily pushed down to first-gens who are encouraged to follow the standard climb to success that doesn’t necessarily always lead to happiness. 

Now onto what not only first-gens face, but what many people of color face – navigating white spaces. Whether it’s in professional settings like an office/networking event or even to a normal outing like a workout class, it can be really noticeable (immediately) that you’re the odd one out. You could be the most confident of people but when you’re the only Latinx or Asian person in a room, it can still cause discomfort or even annoyance. Why does no one else look like me here? 

I’ve been through this in countless yoga classes, networking events, and even college classes. What does keep me going to those spaces though is, well I have to or I would have failed a class, but also the more I go the more empowered I feel and the more I will see people like me starting to go. Don’t wait to follow someone else in. That won’t change your situation or help other first-gens down the line. Just because you’re the only you in the room, doesn’t mean you’re always being judged or looked down on. It means you were brave enough to enter the space, and now you have the power to help other first-gens enter it too. 

What I have to constantly remind myself when I don’t feel like I’m representing my culture as much as other Domincans, is that there isn’t a person within a culture that is one and the same from another. There is so much diversity within it. Because of my Latina background, so many of my relatives look different from one another, so why can’t we all act different too? Also, listen to those random stories that your abuela randomly reminisces on and share it with your friends, partners, etc. You might end up learning something about why you’re who you are today. Visit the homeland with relatives or on your own to really immerse yourself in how your elders grew up to appreciate what you have now. And like Cardi B in Vogue’s 73 questions, never forget where you came from. 

For any of you who feel pressured to live up to your family’s expectations – whether they set it on you or you set it on yourself – show them how hard you work to achieve what YOU want to pursue. Show them how happy it makes you. And if they still don’t support your outlook on success, do it anyway and let them see the results for themselves. It can actually motivate them to think outside of the box and try something new and scary too. 

There is so much beauty in being first-generation American. We are surrounded by different languages, different lifestyles, and music, and we have the power to help break barriers for our parents/grandparents who still may not speak English and have a set-in-stone outlook on life. We’re lucky enough to have more freedom than our elders had which comes with a lot of responsibility, but look at it as excitement for how we can continue growing for ourselves and for what our culture fought for.

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