The first time I saw merengue being performed on American television was in 2010 when Shakira performed her single “Loca” on the David Letterman show. I remember watching this performance and feeling annoyed by it. I’ve been a Shakira fan since her Pies Descalzos days, so I couldn’t figure out why I was hating on her so hard when she performed this hit song. “I should be happy! El merengue se va a volver famoso,” I remember thinking. Now, years later, I understand why I was so irritated.
In a recent viral video, Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg explained what cultural appropriation is in the context of White Americans appropriating Black culture. She explains that, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” Furthermore, Susan Scafidi, the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, explains that cultural appropriation is “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”
The reason why I felt upset over Shakira’s rendition of merengue was because she appropriated the rhythm that is so important to Dominicans. Though a lot of people will try to say that Shakira is in her right to perform a merengue song because it’s cultural exchange (she did work with Dominican artist El Cata for this song), Shakira is a White-passing Latina. Pero no solo eso, she is a White-passing Latina who over the past years has dyed her hair, changed her image and made her way into the American mainstream.
The contributions of male merengueros are often highlighted in this genre, while women like Milly Quezada or Fefita La Grande are dismissed. So, the first time that I saw merengue on American TV shouldn’t have been through Shakira.
Lo peor es que she’s not the only mainstream Latina using Dominican culture to boost her presence. Thalia, another White-passing Latina, sang a bachata song several years ago when Aventura was still Aventura. In 2013, she did a bachata collaboration with Prince Royce. I remember Dominicans criticizing her the first time around, “ella no sabe bailar bachata,” they’d say. As someone who struggled with embarrassment over dancing “brincando” during my preteen years, I can tell you that bachata is not something everyone can easily master. Call me conservative, pero eso se lleva en la sangre. You can’t just be a bachata star from one day to the next—why not get la veterana Alexandra Cabrera Cruz to be in your single? I’m also surprised an article hasn’t come out á la Forbes saying “Bachata’s Unlikely New Star: Thalia.”
In this image, we can see how the invisibility of marginalized groups is not only affecting Dominicanas based on their gender, but even the men who we more often celebrate based on their skin color and proximity to whiteness. Vargas wrote, “Once a genre is commercialized, usually the marginalized are stripped away of the genre they created in the first place. It’s happened in the States and in Latin America. Add reggaetón, among many others, to that. And people say racism and colorism doesn’t exist. I said it before, appropriation does not stop at the border.” Romeo Santos is leading in the popularization of bachata, yet even he might become a victim of its whitewashing. Like my mom once told me, “La felicidad del pobre dura poco.”
Until recently, bachata was stigmatized for being popular among lower-class Dominicans, but I guess now it’s popular among everyone right? It only took a lot of gringo recognition for the Dominican government to finally recognize it.
But cultural appropriation of Dominican culture doesn’t end with music, examples of this phenomenon exist everywhere. I’d argue that the main drivers of Dominican cultural appropriation are not just the rise in the population of Dominicans in cities like New York, but also gentrification. The fascination over bodegas can be interpreted as an act of cultural appropriation that has resulted directly from white newcomers moving into our neighborhoods. From Tumblr pages about bodega cats, to their mention in Taylor Swift’s video on NYC Vocabulary, the craze for bodegas is suddenly everywhere. But this means we’re popular, right? Hashtag support small businesses? No. Actually, gentrification is driving bodegas right out of those neighborhoods. This article highlights how many businesses, including a bodega that had been open for over 25 year, have closed due to restaurants and bars taking up their space. Bodegas have been a source of income for Dominican and Puerto Rican families since as early as the 1960’s; it’s the place to get things like dulce de leche and alcanfor that not all supermarkets sell. Yet now these same bodegas that Taylor Swift said “are our friends” have to fight to stay open. Bodegas are your friend Taylor, but are you their friend?
And I don’t even wanna talk about people being like “Oh, I’ve been to the Dominican,” when I mention my ethnicity. These are the folks that suddenly pretend to know everything because they happened to have spent a weekend on a resort and maybe even go on a bus tour to visit the “rural areas”—osea el campo. “Yeah, Dominicans are very nice people,” they’ll say. Ay please! As if we’re some science project they can master by just spending a week en el país. And let’s not ignore that similarly to bodegas, these dollars come at a price. With tourism, that price is what Dominican economists call a paradox where smaller communities are often excluded from the economic benefits of the incoming hotels as well as the growing sexual exploitation of minors (see more here). It seems that the only place where Dominicanas are celebrated is in tourism ads as props. Just see the intro to this video:
For Dominicans in the United States, our costumbres have special meaning to us. They keep us connected to our culture, and essentially they are us. To the White women who suddenly wanted to learn everything about a tubi because Rihanna was bold enough to don one at the 2013 AMA’s, these things are a trend. For us, they are a part of our struggle, resistance, celebration, and self-sustainability. Reading a Junot Diaz book, shopping at bodegas, visiting our country or singing bachata or merengue doesn’t instantly make you a representative of our culture. And if you think I’m exaggerating, ta’ bien. But remember, Shakira did get a copyright lawsuit for that merengue song.
With the number of Dominicans continuing to grow in the city, we’re bound to have others want to join in the fun that is Dominicanidad. Da pena that we can’t even share our culture without the fear of seeing someone co-opt our customs for their own self-serving purposes. Even within Dominicanidad, folks who are behind many of our dishes and rhythms are stripped of their credibility based on their skin color, class and/or gender. Amandla Stenberg explains in her video that appropriation “occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they’re partaking in.” If someone is willing to partake in Dominican culture without being willing to give due credit to the communities with Afro-indigenous roots who created it, then they’re are essentially adding to the marginalization of these communities.