Visiting the Dominican Republic as an Adult Helped Me Understand My Father's Sacrifices

Before 2018, my relationship with the Dominican Republic was complicated. Unlike many first-generation Dominican Americans who spend all their summers on the island, I had limited contact with my father's homeland after early childhood. My family's financial constraints meant we couldn't afford frequent trips, and this lack of connection was heightened by the distinct contrast between my life in the United States and the stories I heard about my father's life on the island.

I was born in New York, but when I was three months old, my grandparents took me to the Dominican Republic. My earliest and most cherished memories are with my grandfather, who I believed for the longest time was my father. He was kind and stern, and he was my best friend. I eagerly awaited his return from work each day, finding solace in his presence and recounting my day's events to him. He would listen and laugh, making me feel heard and loved. I remember we sat on the porch one night, and he made me a paper plane that soared under the sky filled with stars. Another time, he had my picture printed in the local newspaper for my birthday, making me feel like the most important person in the world.

For the first six years of my life, I only spoke Spanish and lived a privileged life in the capital with my grandparents, siblings, and a household full of pets. But my ideal childhood was abruptly interrupted when my grandmother fell ill during a visit to New York City. That's when I met my biological father, a cab driver who worked tirelessly to provide for us but whom I hardly saw. Our living conditions were cramped, and the contrast between my life in the Dominican Republic and in New York was striking. My father's long hours meant I barely saw him, and when I did, it was mostly on weekends.

Despite living in the same household, I knew very little about my father. Our interactions were limited, and I resented his simplicity and his apparent lack of ambition. He never explained his actions, like why he sent money back to the Dominican Republic despite our own financial struggles. My stepmother's frequent arguments with him about money only fueled my own confusion and resentment. I couldn't understand why we were barely getting by while other cab drivers seemed to be doing much better.

My father's commitment to his family in the Dominican Republic meant we never traveled outside New York. My idea of a road trip was a visit to Coney Island or a rare family trip to McDonald's. These outings were precious to me because they were some of the few times I actually got to spend with my father. Despite our proximity, I felt I didn't know him. He was a mystery to me, a man who seemed more interested in watching Animal Planet than engaging with his children.

When my grandfather came to visit after my grandmother died, I hoped he would take me back with him. But he didn't. The man who once made me feel like the most important person in the world left without fulfilling my hopes. As time passed, I heard about my father's family in the Dominican Republic but never visited. My father, one of 13 siblings, was the family's chosen one, the one who received a visa to come to the United States because he was seen as the most capable of providing for the family.

In 2018, everything changed. I went to the Dominican Republic that summer to act in the film "De Lo Mio." It was my first trip back in years, and I was filming only 40 minutes away from where my father grew up, in a small town called Tenare. When my father's family came to see me, they brought ice-cold "Vestida De Novia" Presidente beer and ate freshly cooked food sold by the roadside with me. It all felt like we had known each other our whole lives. The bond of family was immediate and strong. I felt an overwhelming sense of connection and belonging that I had never felt before.

I learned more about my father's upbringing by visiting my grandmother's house in Tenare. They told me about his life in La Loma, the wooden house by the river, and the sacrifices he made to support his family. I saw firsthand the poverty they endured, far worse than anything I experienced in the United States. My father's hard work funded his siblings' education and provided clean water for his village. I finally understood why he sent money back home and saw him as the hero he was to his family.

During my visit, I also noticed the similarities between my father and me. My family pointed out mannerisms and traits we shared, and I realized how much of him was in me. His relationship with money — prioritizing helping others over accumulating wealth — began to make sense. This trip gave me a new perspective on my father and my heritage. It made me appreciate the privileges I have as an American and the importance of staying connected to my roots.

Connecting with the island and my culture has become crucial for me. It's a way to honor my father's sacrifices and understand my identity. For many first-gen and second-gen Latines, connecting with their parents' native land provides a sense of belonging and helps them appreciate their heritage. My journey to the Dominican Republic taught me that true happiness comes from community and family, not material wealth. It's a lesson I carry with me and strive to embody through my work in comedy and music, connecting with others and celebrating our shared humanity.

Sasha Merci is a first-generation Dominican American actor, comedian, and viral digital creator. She showcases over a decade of diverse experience in entertainment with roles in films like "Righteous Thieves" and "De Lo Mio," along with collaborations with renowned brands such as Target and Bumble. She shares her Bronx roots and passion for Latine culture by being vocal about mental health and navigating comedy.