"You have different masks, depending on who you're talking to," author, professor and activist Junot Diaz told an audience that filled Salomon 101 Saturday night in the keynote address of the National Dominican Student Conference.
The audience, which mostly comprised Dominican and Dominican-American students from around the country, responded with raucous cheers as Diaz told his story. Their frequent cheers and laughter suggested that they recognized themselves in his childhood tales of mediating between his Spanish-speaking immigrant parents and teachers, doctors and the police.
"Story of my life," an audience member murmured to his friend, as Diaz imitated his mother trying to convince him not to leave home for college.
In his speech, Diaz wore the masks of artist and activist, rather than academic. But he employed his own particular brand of art - the art of the fringe, of the everyday, even of the profane. Much like his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," which created poetry out of the combination of profanity, Dominican slang and obscure references to several different cultures, hardly a sentence of Diaz's speech was free of profanity.
That profanity was not self-indulgent - it served a purpose. Speaking how he wanted, without restraint, illustrated his message of rejecting labels, marginalization and the erasure of its cultural heritage, which the Dominican diaspora has been taught to accept both by its own older generations and by the American education system.
As open as he was about the difficulties, he - and, he presumed, his audience - had faced, he emphasized unity over the type of dissension that comes from people telling each other, "You don't look Dominican." He compared Dominicans today who attempt to define the identities of others to "the Perejil Men," agents of a genocide in the 1930s and '40s Dominican Republic who massacred people who did not pronounce a word to their satisfaction.
The antidote, to Diaz, was straightforward. "If you say you're Dominican, that's (expletive) good enough for me," he said. He reminded his audience that Dominicans, no matter who fits within the label, will always be outnumbered and so need all the support they can get.
But he acknowledged the uphill battle against both external perceptions and internal prejudice to a culture of unity. Part of the problem, he said, was the perception around the world that the Dominican Republic is "pathologized around issues of race" - that the country has a particular self-hate toward the African portion of its identity.
Diaz rejected that assumption. He called out black activists and academics such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. for never dating women whose skin was darker than their own. He recalled his experience growing up in New Jersey - where his peers told him he could be black or Dominican, but he had to pick a side - to argue that the Dominican Republic is more comfortable with its black identity than the United States or almost any other nation is.
Maria Lantigua, a student at Columbia, noted a persistent racial divide within the country, asking what she and her peers could do to change the ingrained prejudice of Dominicans against their Haitian neighbors.
"Some of us have to be artists, some of us have to be on the ground, some of us have to argue with our parents" when they use anti-Haitian slurs, Diaz responded.
Overall, he said, he believed in the power of a "global youth movement" - the same movement that brought about the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and student-worker alliances in South America in the past year - to make the kind of changes necessary for a more open, accepting world.
"I have no doubt that we are not only going to win, but that we're going to create the kind of country we can live in," he said.