Dominican Spanish Is Not "Bad Spanish"
Dominican Spanish Isn't "Bad Spanish" — That Mentality Is Rooted in White Supremacy
"Los Dominicanos y Boricuas no saben cómo hablar" (which translates to "Dominicans and Puerto Ricans don't know how to speak") are piercing words that traditionally stand not as a mere opinion or statement, but as a fact. We are told that the way we speak our colonizer's tongue is incorrect, improper, and distorted, and that it has no space in corporate environments, politics, and high society. In Latin America and in the United States, our Spanish is considered poorly spoken and broken. It is described as "ghetto" and "too Black."
As a Dominican American growing up in Philadelphia, the syntax of my vocabulary was a pressure I felt intensely, a club sandwich divided by two languages, social classes, and cultural worlds. Transitioning from a neighborhood that was majority African American and attending a multicultural school during my preteens that embraced Dominican and Puerto Rican culture entirely to then finding myself in a predominantly white space in high school meant having to understand how to navigate tools like masking and code-switching. These tools were embedded in our upbringing and were needed in order for Black and Brown folks to navigate higher education and career success.
It was during my formative years that I began to understand how linguistic discrimination affected me and how my speech was deemed "inferior" in both worlds.
It was during my formative years that I began to understand how linguistic discrimination affected me and how my speech was deemed "inferior" in both worlds. The characteristics of my particular form of Philadelphia English — one that embodies hood expression, idioms particular to north and northwest Philly, ebonics, and influenced New York and Southern dialects — conflict with the well respected "white Philadelphian dialect." My Dominican Spanish, uniquely formed by my own Spanglish and Cibaeño roots (el Cibao is a region in the Dominican Republic), is famously known for ditching the S, pronouncing Rs with an I, and the erasure of D between vowels. This contrasts with what the Latin American hierarchy insists is "proper Spanish." As a result, my early 20s consisted of code-switching and replacing my "y'all" for "you all" and "¿Cómo tú ta?" for "¿Cómo tú estás?" in institutional and corporate settings — all for the sake of respectability.
For many of us, playing the game of respectability politics and assimilation is a form of survival. We try to present ourselves "correctly," dressing the part or "professionally," avoiding our natural hair textures and subcultural identifiers like tattoos or piercings, all in order to be respected. For me this came at a cost: it meant destroying my hair from heat damage, limiting my style and fashion expression, and completely hiding my identity.
This perception I had of professionalism changed when I started researching the history and evolution of Dominican music, specifically Dominican dembow, and how big of a role industry racism and the use of Dominican phonetics played in its history and the success of an artist. In 2019, I wrote the first historical dive on the genre, where I mentioned that Dominican dembow hasn't made the Latin-music-awards-show circuit yet because of three underlying factors at play: one, the urban Dominican vernacular (el barrio lingo) has little support inside or outside the island; two, the country's socioeconomic situation makes many urban artists focus only on short-term and local success; and three, the government's consistent, aggressive stance against urban music limits wider appeal.
The truth is, ridiculing Dominican Spanish is anti-Black.
The first reason is deeply embedded in prejudice against darker-skinned individuals and urban slang and speech, which is typical of the entire Western hemisphere and its European-model standards. The truth is, ridiculing Dominican Spanish is anti-Black. As sociocritics like Zahira Kelly have mentioned in the past, this specific Spanish is Black vernacular en Español. Stanford University professor Jonathan Rosa has stated that the ongoing stereotypes regarding language and racial categories are simultaneously constructed together. "Language is never too far from the picture when you talk about any racialized population," he told The Nation. "That population's language is always stereotyped as linguistically deficient."
Rooted in inner-island regionality, occupation, colonialism, rebellion, and creativity, I descend from Spanish-speaking revolters, whose tongues bring joy and comedic relief and encourage nonconformity. It speaks in formulated jargon that births cultural-specific street codes, and in turn, it waters our culture — whose music and entertainment is a constant trendsetter. With Jamaican-Panamanians discriminated against for their Caribbean accent, they created the foundation for one of today's most selling genres — reggaeton. The birth of reggaeton was essentially spawned as an act of protest in celebrating Black vernacular in the Spanish language.
Fast-forward to the rise of the pivotal formative years of Dominican dembow, when the music industry advised artists not to sing in Dominican Spanish because their Spanish was not understandable throughout Latin America. This became an ideology many Dominicans themselves came to believe, and it affected their essence — the lyrical palabreo that reflected la calle. This belief was debunked when the use of Dominican Spanish and jargon in commercial music by non-Black Dominicans became trendy. It was as if the industry said, "No, you can't sell your dialect, pero this white non-Dominican can."
To get to a place of inclusion, the Latine community must first accept that the branding of Latinidad created a racist, monolithically incorrect representation that tries to encapsulate 33 countries, various ethnicities, and subcultures.
As a daughter of música de la diáspora, this is upsetting. The power of media globalization and its lack of representation in telenovelas, shows, and music brings forth my question: when will language and race not dictate who gets visibility and proper monetization? To get to a place of inclusion, the Latine community must first accept that the branding of Latinidad created a racist, monolithically incorrect representation that tries to encapsulate 33 countries, various ethnicities, and subcultures. That its lack of inclusion of the plethora of unique dialects particular to regionality and geographic positioning is erasure. It needs to question why certain dialects are considered improper. Latinidad isn't one culture, it's an umbrella term that binds us through the history and aftermath of colonization. We need to accept our multilayered differences while acknowledging that their categorizations are constructed to perpetuate marginalization, racism, and inequality. We need to decolonize linguistic expression and attempt to make sense of our diverse community.
"Nuetro Epañol no eh malo, eh que nuetro Español es negro. And you can't love our culture and not credit the cooks — and myyyyy how that wrist be workin'," says author, poet, and my dear friend Melania Luisa Marte in her poem "Black Spanish." We're not assimilating or code-switching anymore. My Spanish eh mio. It challenges, unapologetically claims space, and powerfully struts through every missing S in my discourse. It will shine in non-Caribbean-led media, despite what commentators and audiences think.