NEW YORK -- Zack Britton grew up eating concon, as the crispy layer at the bottom of a pot of cooked rice is known in the Dominican Republic. He irked some of his Dominican relatives by taking the raisins out of his empanadas -- meat-filled turnovers that are ubiquitous throughout Latin America. And he shared a bond with his Dominican great-grandmother, even though she spoke only Spanish and he spoke only English.
So seamlessly was Dominican culture woven into Britton’s childhood life that he never paused to consider that to most people, he didn’t necessarily look Dominican.
The Yankees left-hander is a quarter Dominican on his mother Martha’s side, but he resembles his German-Irish father, Greg, in his complexion. But it wasn’t really until Britton got to rookie ball that anyone made a big deal out of it.
“Growing up, I didn’t think anything of it. It was just normal,” said Britton. “More so when I got to pro ball, people were like, ‘No way.’”
Britton remembers how stunned his Latin teammates were when they found out his favorite foods include Dominican classics like moro (white rice and black beans) and pollo guisado (braised chicken).
“They were like, ‘How do you know what that is?’” Britton said.
Years later, Dominican teammates and opponents continue to be equal parts shocked and thrilled when they discover that Britton has roots in the baseball-loving Caribbean nation. Britton still chuckles when he describes the reaction of Hall of Fame slugger Vladimir Guerrero Sr., whom he played with during his rookie season in Baltimore.
“He started telling everybody. ... No one believed it, and then my mom would have to talk,” Britton said.
Mets second baseman Robinson Cano and retired Red Sox slugger David Ortiz had similar reactions.
“Ortiz found out, and then he kind of started spreading that around the league. And then Cano, we all played in an All-Star Game together [in 2016],” said Britton. “They thought that was pretty cool.”
“Dominicans are always proud when we hear that another Dominican accomplishes something, especially in baseball,” Cano said in Spanish. “We were super happy.
“No one had any idea. Even now, if he doesn’t talk about it, no one would realize it.”
The surprise is due partly to the fact that Britton doesn’t speak Spanish, though he was exposed to it growing up. The TV in his childhood home in Los Angeles was often tuned to a Spanish channel. Spanish was also the language he heard when he got in trouble.
“I used to [understand more] when I was around my mom all the time when she was speaking Spanish,” says Britton. “She’d get mad at me and yell at me in Spanish.”
That didn’t stop Britton from being close with his great-grandmother. (Britton's maternal grandmother passed away from ovarian cancer when he was an infant.)
“We hung out all the time, to go see her. She’d make us Dominican food. It was just normal,” Britton says of his great-grandmother. “We had a great relationship with her, even though there was that language barrier.”
To this day, when the family gets together for the holidays, someone is usually making empanadas -- some with raisins, some without.
“It’s frowned upon in the household to take the raisins out,” Britton joked.
Britton’s mother's family arrived in the U.S. in the late 1960s, during the Dominican Revolution (his grandmother’s first husband was killed in the fighting) and they settled in New York City, where his mother grew up. Some of Britton's cousins -- many of whom are Yankees fans -- still live in the capital of Santo Domingo. He stays in touch with them via Facebook. When he pitches, he’ll often get messages, which his mother translates.
“I want to get some time to learn Spanish so I can go over there and speak and hear stories through their words and not translated,” said Britton.
Britton, 31, chose to honor his Dominican heritage during Players’ Weekend last year when he wore his grandmother’s maiden surname, Anglada, on the back of his jersey. And while he did not pitch in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, he had invitations from both the U.S. and the Dominican Republic squads.
Britton’s parents and two older brothers have all spent time in the Dominican. One of his brothers, Buck, an infielder/outfielder who played nine Minor League seasons in the Orioles, Dodgers and Twins systems, also played in the Dominican winter league, most recently for the Licey Tigers during the 2016-17 season. He’s slated to return to the island this winter, as quality control coach for the Escogido Lions.
Britton, however, has no recollection of visiting the Dominican Republic, but he still has family in the capital and is interested in exposing his three small children to the culture.
“I want everyone to go, to experience that side of the family,” he said.