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Jessica Pimentel on Her Dominican Background

Jessica Pimentel: "I'm Proud to Be Part of a Culture With Limitless Diversity and Passion"

Jessica Pimentel is one of the stars of Orange Is the New Black.

Every immigration story is unique and complex but most share one common thread: They all have a hope and a dream to make your lives better. The same applies to my family.

My family is very close-knit. When my grandmother's oldest daughter got married and moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic with her new husband, it was very hard on my grandmother to be separated from her. After some time, my grandmother was encouraged to join her daughter here in New York as there seemed to be many opportunities for the family to thrive and grow here. Five out of her six children would end up moving to the United States soon after. My mother, who was 13 at the time, was one of them.

I still cannot imagine what it must have been like for someone so young to give up everything she knew and move to a place thousands of miles away with a completely different language, culture, and climate. But my mother and her brothers and sisters all managed to overcome these obstacles with great courage, pursue their dreams, get higher education, choose the careers they wanted, and start families. I am grateful for their sacrifice which, in turn, put me in a position to be able to follow my dreams to their fullest. Many of the amazing experiences and unique opportunities of my life came from being a native New Yorker. Growing up in a city where anything is possible and everything is at your fingertips. This is the place of dreams.

Although we are all very proud Americans, our culture remains a staple in our daily lives. Spanish and English were spoken interchangeably in the home and a favorite ritual of ours was getting together to watch famous Latin telenovelas and our favorite family show which aired every Saturday night, called Sábado Gigante, that would feature musicians, artists and actors from Latin American countries on a weekly basis.

When we were with my grandmother we mostly watched television in Spanish. It took me a very long time to find out that Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson movies were not in Spanish — I still find it strange to this day when I hear them in English. I also didn't find out until I was about nine that baseball commentary was in English because my uncle would turn down the volume and put on the Spanish radio.

Being a very musical family, we loved to sing and have dance parties at home to the latest and classic merengue hits. It is almost imperative if you want to join my family that you can dance a mean merengue. Our daily meals were very traditional and for the most part still are. We all still consider it an honor when you get a batch of my aunt's sazón to keep in your freezer for cooking. We always knew what time of year it was by what was hiding in the freezer. For example, Easter time meant habichuelas con dulce and at Christmas time you'd find a gigantic batch of pasteles that we would have to claim lest they be eaten by someone else. Simple traditional home remedies for coughs, colds, aches and pains, skin care, and injuries were always on the ready and used more often than over the counter pharmaceuticals.

I loved that we always go there first. That we trust a tradition taught to us by our ancestors going back hundreds and thousands of years. We use words we think are Spanish but are actually from our native tribes. We have rhythms in our music from African shores played over instruments from Europe, fused and compounded by the ancient spirit of the people of the Americas. That we have this is the most important part of being Latina to me, especially a Dominican one. It's about knowing that who we are now is an amalgamation of many cultures and ideas. It's knowing that my family looks like a rainbow and currently spans all the races. We may not all look alike and yet we all say we are the same, and there is something in our smile that always gives it away. It's having pride in the place your family comes from, but still feeling a sense of camaraderie with millions of people from many countries you may have never been to because of one simple thing. I am Latinx.

I am proud to be part of a culture with limitless diversity and passion. Where the pride of a mass culture is greater than where you, your parents or grandparents were born. It's greater than the language you speak or where you live now. It is something that lives in your spirit and spirit has no borders or names or colors. This is how I have always felt. Being Latina didn't exclude me from other cultures but made me embrace them all because it took so many cultures to make us who we are.

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