I was a kindergartener in 1958 when the in loco parentis doctrine, which granted teachers the same rights as parents to punish children in their care, was still common practice. It allowed my mean-eyed teacher with the heavily penciled eyebrows and too-black hair to take it upon herself to line up every child in the classroom and inspect our underwear. Someone had pooped their pants and the hapless offender would not, could not, face the humiliation of such a public admission — at least not voluntarily. For the record, I was not the pooper. I’ve put that incident in one of my stories, my only recourse of redress for the violation I and my classmates endured when our teacher stripped us of our dignity well before our five-year-old selves could articulate such a state of being.
In her introduction to Daring to Write: Contemporary Narratives by Dominican Women, editor Erika Martínez relates her own mortifying childhood memory, which eventually fed her desire to create this anthology. In first grade, she retaliated against a boy who had spit at her by spitting back. The boy ratted on her, and the nun exacted swift punishment by sealing young Erika’s mouth with masking tape and banishing her to the corner, her disgrace on display for all her classmates. When she was allowed to go to the girls’ room to pee, an older girl found Erika staring at her taped mouth in the mirror. The girl turned Erika to face her and removed the tape.
It’s a poignant and empowering story of rescue — one girl restoring another girl’s right to words. Her right to be heard. Martínez has repaid the good turn with her aptly titled anthology that gathers the voices of Dominican women both in the U.S. and in the Dominican Republic. In these stories and essays, Dominican women write to claim themselves and their place in the world.
Martínez separates the book into four sections: courtship and marriage; identity; gender and sexuality; and migration. Uniting the sections are the social and political consequences of the island’s history of colonization and slavery: issues of race, class, color, even hair — its degree of straightness or curliness — that determines one’s place on the status spectrum. The essays and stories portray how these elements operate both within the Dominican culture and beyond it. Fiction by Ana-Maurine Lara (“Halfie”), Leonor Suarez (“Papi”), and Kersy Corporan (“Greñas”) take on dating, an absent father, and bullying, respectively, each within the inescapable context of race and color and their effect on self-image, family relationships, and one's place in the community. Essays such as those by Rhina P. Espaillat (“Identidades/Identities”) and Sherezada Vicioso (“The Caribbean, or the Feminine Face of Multiculturalism”) provide a valuable framework within which to observe how the boundaries made fluid by economically impelled migration across the Caribbean and northward to the United States affect the lives of women.
Many of the pieces echo Martínez’s early experience of female empowerment and sisterhood. In the opening essay, “Writing toward Forgiveness,” Angie Cruz writes about her philandering father. Cruz’s anger at her father and her incomprehension at her mother’s willingness to forgive stymie Cruz’s attempts at translating the events to fiction.
As she considers the circumstances of her parent’s marriage, she unwaveringly takes her mother’s side, indignant on her behalf. Her father, one of the few Dominicans who traveled to New York in the sixties as a seasonal laborer, was from a respected family. These factors negated the seventeen-year age difference between them. When her mother turned fifteen, her father asked for her hand, and Cruz’s grandmother readily consented. Her mother had no choice in the matter.
She was lucky that a man like him, who was already working in Nueva York and making dollars, had chosen her, because according to my grandmother, she was just una pobre diabla from el campo.
Cruz’s feelings toward her father and his infidelity are complicated when she learns that Caridad, his mistress, had saved her mother’s life.
In the powerful and disarming “Pero, M’ija, Where Did you Get That From?” Dulce María Reyes Bonilla, describes her futile attempts to explain to her mother that her lesbiqueerdom has its roots in desire, that she was “born for this.” Nevertheless, it’s her mother whom she credits for her own fierceness and honesty.
So much of my lesbiqueer desire is because of her. It is rooted in deep admiration and respect for her. And now it’s channeled into a deep love and alianza to other women, especially the ones who are poor, las campesinas, las negras, las sirvientas, las indias, las obreras, las luchadores, las sacrificadas, “las feas,” las Viejas, las marcadas, las humildes pero poderosas, the courageous ones. It’s a love and commitment that surpasses sensuality and lust, and that comes from the lessons my mother taught me and the path she paved and the price she paid for my liberation.
In Sofia Quintero’s fictional piece “The Intervention,” Yadira, a Sarah Lawrence graduate with degrees in English and journalism, is kidnapped by three women as part of an intervention to save her from her objectifying modeling career. When one of her kidnappers asks Yadira why she didn’t pursue a career in journalism, Yadira fumes.
Because journalism is a joke, I almost say. Los blanquitos barely practice journalism in this country anymore, so what makes her think they’re trying to have a brown-skinned Latina up in their mix? The closer a nation is to the United States, the less Americans want to know about it.
Yadira refers to her three captors as La Morena for her dark skin and hair, La Indistinta or La Que Sea for her indefinable mixed heritage look, and La Boricua for her Nuyorican accent. At one point she unintentionally shames La Boricua when she speaks to her in Spanish and La Boricua understands not a word.
Curious about the ethnic make-up of La Que Sea, Yadira vacillates about asking her.
“And yet it feels too soon to ask her what the fuck she is, exactly. If I come out and ask her straight up, “You black? White? Latina? What? that may show my hand. And what do I say if she asks me why I care? What if the mere questions pisses her off? I’ve dealt with these ambiguous chicks before, and it’s a crapshoot with them. Some take pride in keeping you guessing, especially if you’re a dude. Bat their eyelashes talking about, “What do you think I am?” Or even more annoying, reciting the fuckin’ census. My great grandmother on my mother’s side was Irish…” Fuck out of here with that.”
The story is a fascinating look at the language, race, and color dynamics at play and the struggle to sort through these differences and come together — much like the sancocho that is the subject of Nelly Rosario’s absorbing essay “Feasting on Sancocho Before Night Falls, A Meditation.”
Sancocho is a meat-vegetable stew common to many Latin American and Caribbean countries. Rosario calls it “a weapon of mass attraction.” One does not eat sancocho alone. “Solitude and sancocho are polar opposites,” she writes. She describes the various versions of the stew, including sancocho blanco, made with white meats, and the dark, viscous sancocho prieto, a “mishmash” of Dominican attitudes on race. Despite the ever-present issue of race that can segregate and stratify, Rosario observes that “a pot of sancocho serves up the briefest taste of national unity.” The anthology serves up more than a brief taste. It’s a necessary and fully satisfying sampling of Dominican women's voices.