Hi, I’m Cleyvis Natera, a writer (currently working on my first novel, Neruda on the Park) and co-founder of two festivals, Love As A Kind of Cure and the Toni Morrison Festival. I love to read and I’m an avid runner—I’ve completed marathons, half-marathons, even a couple of triathlons. I’m a mom to two young children (Penelope is five years old and Julian is seven) and wife to a really smart and handsome guy! As an immigrant from the Dominican Republic to New York City and a lifelong globetrotter, travel is one of my passions, but has also made me vulnerable to countless acts of racism in many forms and places.
The first time I boarded a plane, no one asked for my consent. At ten years old, the decision to take my siblings and me away from all we knew in the Dominican Republic—to live permanently in the United States—was made by Mami, who’d been toiling for years in New York City to afford us a “better life,” and Papi, who would remain behind. In the years that followed, I fell in love with reading. The hunger for travel happened almost simultaneously. Reading about far away places ignited a craving to see those places for myself and as a teenager, growing up with very little money, I daydreamed constantly about what it would be like to live a life without boundaries. I imagined a life where what was true, and beautiful, revealed itself in landscapes I’d yet to see.
Studying abroad was a lot more lonely than I anticipated. Over on Marylebone Road, I lived across the street from Madame Tussaud’s, walking distance from the gorgeous greenery of Regent’s Park, in the heart of London. The lonely part kicked in when I first arrived at my dorm. The building reminded me of nothing less than the projects across the street from my rent controlled apartment in Harlem. Did I really cross an ocean for this? To enter the building, there was a set of iron-gates, a security guard, and an unreliable elevator that always smelled like mothballs.
The security guard, an elderly woman named Margaret, struck up a conversation as soon as she heard my unusual accent. Where are you from, she asked. I told her New York City, from Harlem and right away she said, West Side Story? I laughed, told her, No, I’d never seen the movie. She asked, But you’re Puerto Rican? I explained that it was nearby, my island, but no. I’m Dominican, I said. Are you sure? she asked, touching my skin through a tiny partition in her tiny, metal cube. Such pretty black skin, she said. I smiled when she did it. No need to cause a fuss. She meant well, I was sure.
Then there was the time I actually saw Naomi Campbell, gliding down a street in Ana Capri, Italy. My friends and I had just spent the day at the Blue Grotto, a gorgeous sea cave on the coast of the island of Capri—and were still awed by its beauty. The sun that filtered into the cave made the seawater reflect stunning hues of blue in the space above and around us. Some of the tourists were encouraged to swim in the cave, but I was too nervous to do so. That evening, we settled into a simple dinner at the summit of the small island of Capri and ate the most delicious fish I’ve ever eaten in my life.
The entire trip, from Rome to Pompeii, we’d been purposefully avoiding the discussion about the obvious hostility we felt at restaurants, in the streets. It was an odd feeling, since most of us had, by then, traveled to enough places abroad to know the difference between a persistent anti-Americanism and the other thing – the way a collective people look on as if you’re not welcomed on their land. We avoided the conversation because we were determined to enjoy our trip, enjoy the world. But still, the sense of unease heightened, each time we were out and about. After the best fish meal of my life, we wandered about, looking for ice cream or cute men. I mean, there must be at least a handful of hot Italians who would find us exquisite, no?
At the ice cream shop we heard an excited commotion, and we went to see what it was about. There she was, in the flesh: Naomi Campbell. She laughed, holding hands with the kind of handsome man we each thought we deserved, and waved at the adoring crowd of dozens of people who followed her, snapping pictures. We joined the procession. But after a hundred yards we stopped. Simultaneously, each of us realized it was insane to follow a woman who was out for an evening stroll with her beau, simply because she was famous. The crowd of folks went on without us, their excited laughter echoing loudly, erotic enthusiasm in its undertones, reached us as we settled on a nearby bench and ate our gelato.
Moments later, we finally spoke about the sense of unease that had settled over us on that trip. Days earlier, we’d witnessed aggressive displays of racism against African immigrants on a bus, and none of us had done anything about it but pretend we didn’t hear, staring out the windows. We’d gotten stuck in Sorrento, missed a bus and, stranded, tried to find a place to sleep. We’d been directed by a kind local to a convent that rented rooms—assured they always had space for tourists. We knocked, heard someone on the other side, who looked through a peephole and then refused to open the door to us. By the time we participated in the ogling of that beautiful black woman, we’d quietly settled into the other side of belonging. To become a real global citizen, to navigate the rules of true cultural competency, somehow translated into choosing not to confront ugly truths directly—to choose a certain level of complicity disguised as opposition to the ethnocentric lens.
There were four of us on that trip to Buenos Aires—all in our twenties, all with wild curly hair that sprung toward the sky like sun rays. The day we visited the Iguazu Falls was so foggy we didn’t realize its enormity. Bigger than the Niagara Falls, the tourist guide insisted. We promised to go back the next day. That evening, at dinner, I discovered the wonder that is Malbec. I, someone who seldom ate beef, marveled at the taste of a simply grilled steak. What was this wonder? The streets in Buenos Aires were wide, majestic, and reminded me of my time studying abroad in London. Look, I said to my friends, pointing at a gorgeous archway as we sped to a nightclub in a taxi—this part reminds me of Washington Square Park. The taxi driver asked us where we were from. We said Dominican Republic because we’d learned early on that trip that people had a problem with Americans. He kept staring at us through the rearview mirror, so much so that we worried about his ability to drive us safely to our destination—we were eager to drop it hot and pick it back up. What are you staring at, I said, finally, in a flirty tone I reserved for handsome taxi drivers. He said some nice things about how unusual it was, to have a group of beautiful women in his car. But there was something thick in his voice, as he craned his neck toward us at the sound of our laughter. It’s your hair, he said. I can’t get over it.
We were happy to be abroad, away from work, traveling to places we had only dreamed of as kids. What about our hair, I said, flipping my mane of curls dramatically. All your hair is just like pubic hair, he said. It was quiet, awkward for a minute, and then one of us laughed, then all of us laughed. We shook our head at him, thinking, What an odd thing to say. We laughed because we were sure he didn’t mean it the way it sounded—aggressive, violent. He couldn’t possibly have meant us any harm.
When an airline announced roundtrip tickets to Beijing that cost a couple hundred dollars, my best friend Angel called me with the quickness. We have to go, he said. Hell yes, I said. Of course, the trip was insane—just as it would be when you planned to travel across the world for a long weekend. We calculated we’d be back home before our bodies could get over the jet lag from the first leg of the trip. Angel’s hotel points paid for a fancy room, and I did my best to pay for our meals. When we were offered fried cricket at an open market, I declined. I couldn’t help but stare at the locals, relishing an insect pierced through its center with a stick, oddly reminiscent of candied apples.
The thing people don’t tell you about the Great Wall of China is that it truly is an awesome sight to behold. When I’d seen it in pictures, it seemed comprehensible. In person, it was anything but. Angel mentioned people were staring at us, and I laughed right in his face. Get over yourself, I said, reminding myself of how I’d been the one staring at locals because they were eating what I considered to be weird food. At the time, Angel and I were both training for marathons, and so we thought, What the hell, let’s walk as far as we could. And so we climbed stairs, and walked, and walked, and walked. I was struck by how few tourists there were. When I mentioned it to our guide, he said people came from all over the country–that this place was a destination for locals, a bucket list item, if you will. I nodded, appreciating the instinct to enjoy what is yours, to not let it be devoured by outsiders. By then I’d been living in NYC over two decades, and still had never visited the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building.
To be honest, it took a while before I realized how many people were discretely taking pictures of us as we stopped to catch our breath, as we paused to look beyond the structure we stood on–so much concrete and neat bricks to the greenery, it cleaved on either side. When it became unmistakable that people were really photographing us, I smiled wide and posed for their pictures like I was a supermodel. I shrugged at Angel, when he gave me a disturbed glance. It gave me pause, acknowledging for a moment the way those eyes lingered on us; the fascination hinted at a lack of comprehension at our shared humanity. It’s fine, I said, shrugging it off, not sure what to do with the feeling otherwise. We’re exotic to them, I said, laughing. Angel hadn’t been with me in Italy, on the day when dozens of people followed Naomi Campbell and took pictures without her consent. I quietly reminded myself of the reason we’d decided to not follow the crowd. To gawk at a person, to objectify them, had felt like a trespass then. But in that moment, on the Great Wall of China, I told myself the behavior of the locals was excusable. If they’d never seen anyone like us their entire lives, there was little harm in a desire to have a souvenir to show others. To show off. Surely, they meant it as a compliment. If there’s no intention to harm, what’s the issue?
On what would be our last family vacation abroad before the pandemic, we lounged for days on end at a four-star, all-inclusive resort in Riviera Maya. Throughout our stay, patrons and staff alike stared at us—puzzled perhaps that we were the only Black family at the resort. During our last night, we decided to go to one of the fancy restaurants, the kind that required a reservation. The kids behaved unexpectedly well, and I enjoyed a glass of wine, already missing the hot sun, the time away from work. As we waited for our dinner, a large family sat at the table next to us, and the mother came over to our table—What a gorgeous boy, she said, I’ve been staring at him all day—and patted my son on the head, feeling his hair between her fingers. You can’t touch him, I told her, kindly but firmly. She pulled her hand as if she’d been burned. And instead of apologizing, or even asking why her touch bothered me, she went and sat next to her husband, complaining loudly at my rudeness. The entire dinner, she shot me outraged looks, pouty and childishly.
Modeling freedom means I use my voice not just to enjoy the riches and beauty of other places but also to remind people our bodies aren’t commodities to be touched, probed or explored at will. Our bodies deserve respect.
There are countless other examples of racist behavior I encountered abroad—in Prague, and Paris, in Barcelona and Madrid, yes, even in Rio de Janeiro, Saõ Paulo, Lima and San Juan, and most especially in Santo Domingo, the capital of the country where I was born. Those moments are enough to fill an entire memoir, of the macro and the micro, of the ways in which I was so often reminded that walking in the world, in a body that looks like mine, meant an assumption that I was a servant, or a sex worker, or a thief. Sometimes, it meant that people felt free to touch my skin, my hair, deny my friends and I service or kindness. Rarely but still numerously, I felt a hostility in the air that bordered real violence, and I was quick to take myself out of those situations, to leave as quickly as I’d arrived.
The habit I developed early on my travels, to assume no ill-intention, was good armor until it cracked. Until I realized that intention had little to do with whether I took these kinds of experiences personally or not. Today, as I travel—with and without my family—I see the act of calling racism out as the price I have to pay for being a global citizen. My early silence, often cowardice dressed up as respect for other cultures, is no longer allowed. And as a mom of two young Black children, I’m conscious of setting an example for them about the responsibility we have to each other—to hold each other accountable for treating strangers with dignity and respect—starts with expecting it.
Quick note from the cupcakes and cashmere team: If you haven't already secured your tickets to the virtual anti-racism festival Cleyvis co-founded with Magogodi Makhene, Love as a Kind of Cure, it's not too late! The virtual festival ends Sunday—but there are some fantastic events today, like this Fixing Feminism conversation at 12 PM ET and a Freedom Keynote at 8 PM ET. We're covering all tickets for cupcakes and cashmere readers, so be sure to use code CUPCAKES at checkout to get yours free of charge. Thank you, Cleyvis!