Maintaining Roots

Writing has always been a solitary exercise that has connected me to my Dominican roots and helped me maintain my Spanish language. I’ve always been a writer. I must have been five years old when I first tried to write a newspaper. And I’ve always written poetry. It has been interesting being involved in the Dominican writing community in the United States because I write almost exclusively in Spanish, but I’ve carried most of my education outside of the Dominican Republic. As a matter of fact, I’ve lived more than half of my life outside the Dominican Republic. When I contrast myself to others in the Dominican writers diaspora [Photo], they write, for the most part, in English. Some of them, such as Rhina Espaillat, also write in Spanish, but the majority of her production is in English. Junot Diaz and Julia Álvarez write exclusively in English. The rest of the Dominican writers who are in the United States are recent comers. They write specifically in Spanish but they’ve been here between one to ten years. I don’t think that any of them has been here more than half of their lives and has completed their formal education in the United States. I am set apart in that way.

Maintaining my native language has been a necessity for me, but I’ve been forced to maintain it through reading and writing, and not necessarily through speaking and interacting with my people, because of my jobs and the places I’ve lived. Professionally I’ve been in a non-Spanish speaking world. Geographically I’ve lived at many points in my life for long periods of times where speaking Spanish was a rarity. In Hanover, New Hampshire, for example, I can’t just strike a conversation in the supermarket in Spanish. Writing in Spanish has been an imposition out of need, then, because I can’t do without a relationship to this language. Writing, in the absence of speaking and living in the language, has been the vehicle through which I have been able to maintain my language.

I am proud of every single thing that I have written, but in terms of things that one can show for it, I am proud of winning the Letras de Ultramar contest (Literary Overseas Letters Award) for the first book of short stories that I wrote about my childhood, either of characters or situations in my hometown, called Reminiscencias. It was a contest open to all Dominican writers who live outside of the Dominican Republic who write in Spanish, put on by the Dominican Republic’s Commissioner of Culture in the United States. I received publication within the book, a cash prize, and then was flown to the Dominican Republic to be a guest at the international book fair for that year. I have enjoyed all the types of readings and ferias that I’ve been to for my writing [Photo].

Right now I have a manuscript of poetry that’s unpublished, called Allá, diario del transtierro, which will literally translate to “There, Journal of Transterra.” It is divided into five chapters: my relationship with people, my relationships with prójimos (my intimates or my fellows), my relationship with writing, my relationship with my journal, and my relationship with the world.
One of my poems from the manuscript is about the condition of transtierro, which is a form of exile, but without the connotation of forced exile. Transtierro is when one transports him or herself from one land to the other, then grows roots there, but has the ability to sort of go back and forth. The poem is called Condición.

It says:

Estoy condenado al transtierro,                                                      I am condemned, I am sentenced, to this state,
odio el presente que debo cambiar,                                                I hate the present which I must change,
me desconecté del pasado y sé demasiado                                  but I got disconnected from the past and I know too much now
para volverlo a vivir.                                                                          to go and re-live it.

¿Qué será? ¿Dónde?                                                                           What will it be where?
Sto. Dgo., me es ya como un conjunto de retrospectivos         Santo Domingo is now like a set of nostalgic retrospectives
nostálgicos y felices, a veces de frustración.                              sometimes they are happy and sometimes they are of frustration.

Me apasiona Europa,                                                                        I am passionate about Europe,
me intriga América del Sur.                                                             I am intrigued by South America.
Mi país me es casi ya inadaptable,                                                but my country is almost inadaptable,
y Nueva York me sabe a hastío.                                                     And I’m sick of New York.

Hay que emigrar del transtierro,                                                   Therefore I must immigrate from transtierro, from this state,
por el transtierro,                                                                               because of this state
…al transtierro.                                                                                   and inevitably to this state of exile.

It’s like being an errant or a nomad, living in this state of transtierro. I inevitably miss part of there, but when I’m there I never really miss part of there. If I don’t go back physically, I go back mentally. The first poem in this manuscript, Allá, diario del transtierro, is actually about me “going back mentally.” I wrote it in my journal in 1992.

17 de septiembre, 1992 (09:19 a.m.)
New York, New York

He vuelto (me transporto)
por sus caras, a sus sueños
de querer pasar a la inmortalidad en el anonimato del “Tírame una foto.”
Estarán ahí –sin nombre- en mis álbumes;
es (para ellos) inconsciente.
A sus caras sucias (he vuelto)
por sus limpiabotas (a los cajones que se sepa).
He vuelto; me transportan su sol,
el mar y los ríos.
Me transporto consciente a la inmortalidad
de mi anonimato (igual).
En mis fotos los almendros seguirán ahí, e igual
sus rostros:
-He vuelto-
anónimamente (a la glorieta del parque)
por el recuerdo.

I just go back in my head. I can’t avoid it.

One of the reasons I visit the Dominican Republic once a year nowadays, as that poem shows, is because if I don’t go back physically, then I go back mentally. I visit the Dominican Republic because I love seeing my people. I love seeing my family. My father still lives there. In retrospect I think one of the things I’ve given up by migrating is finishing growing up with my father and growing with my peers and my cousins. I visit because I love hugging and talking with them while walking around town.

That being said, when I go back to my hometown and I see the friends that I went to school with, and I see that they are literally stuck in a vicious circle where there is no way out, it is extremely painful. It is especially painful when I come across classmates that were very bright in school, whom I thought had an amazing future ahead of them, and I see that they never went to college or never finished college, do not have a job, and might have kids already. When I talk to them, I see that they have not cultured themselves; their vocabulary, their ideas and their view is circumscribed to very small circle. In that way, what I’ve gained by migrating is in rather painful. It is in contrast because it is what I think I’ve personally gained. Here it makes me okay, but there it doesn’t make me that happy.
On these visits it also pains me to see how things have completely changed. When I left in 1985 there was one single public telephone in the whole town. Since then it has grown tremendously. There’s so much chaos. Nowadays when I visit my father’s house, I cannot read a book or watch a movie because there is so much noise outside from the motorcycles or people going in cars with music blasting. The colmado down the street that sells cold beer has music blasting. If I sit at my father’s house I either have to like the music and live with it or I have to get one that is louder than them. Otherwise I have to get the hell out.

Usually I get the hell out. Sometimes I will get up from sitting in my father’s chair and say “I’ll be back!” I will often just go wandering around the town and inevitably I end up – my hometown is a little valley – on top of one of the surrounding mountains looking down. I used to do that a lot as a child. We used to go on what we would call maroteando, meaning we’d go out look for guayabas, guavas, or mangos, or whatever fruit was in season [Photo]. We’d jump through people’s land and get chased by the bulls or by the cows or by the dogs. We had the freedom to do that.

In the same way, when I visit now, I’ll go hunting or fishing like I did in my childhood, and I’ll always feel comfortable and secure because I grew up there. If I come across someone, I will say who I am and to what family I belong and then everything will be fine, never fear. That, in the United States, is completely different. I picture myself in the fields somewhere and an owner comes out. I open up my mouth and I end up getting shot, no other questions asked. They will get away with it. That is one reason why in the U.S. I will always go hunting with someone who is “from here.”  In fact, the only times I went hunting, shooting birds and rabbits, by myself was when I was a police officer in New Mexico, because I had a badge and a gun, and I knew where I was going. Even though I didn’t have that fear per say, there was still that idea in the back of my mind that in any situation like that I will inevitably be seen as an outsider, as a foreigner, as an invader, as an alien.

In that sense, by migrating I’ve given up the freedom that I knew I had in the Dominican Republic. I’ve given up the freedom of trespassing on the way up mountains and feeling the breeze on top, without worry of getting shot! In New York – New York is a very flat city – there are only two points in the city in which you can go to get a little view, unless you are on top of a skyscraper. Cincinnati has a very hilly topography. I could go to different mounds and parks amongst the mounds and get beautiful views. I loved that very much about Cincinnati. I would ride my car and escape every once in awhile. On top of the hills, with the physical sensation of the breeze, there is a sort of freedom in being by myself and observing. I could get that in Cincinnati, but it was more than that in the Dominican Republic. There, the freedom was in the sheer ability of doing that in a fearless manner. It was the freedom of being where you belong and where you are not looked at as an outsider.

That, along with seeing my friends and family, is part of the reason I continue going back. I wrote a poem in December 2002 on the last day of a trip there. It’s called Último día.

2 de diciembre, 2002 (08:00 a.m.)
Cambita Garabito, S.C. (Tierra de dios), República Dominicana

Hasta que vuelva no saludaré con un “¡Jeei!” al levantar la mano derecha
o abanicar adioses con la izquierda;
no más abrazos de “¡Cuánto tiempo muchacho!”
Será ya hasta la próxima.

El país sigue luchando a gritos.
Gritan los negocios con la música al tropel,
andan sordos los dueñitos de carros (o carritos) con música al tope;
se grita en el mercado, se grita en la guagua;
la gente está con el grito al cielo y el cielo ya no existe.
La esperanza es lo único que nos queda. Pues:
todavía suben la bandera en la escuela y los estudiantes de primaria
entonan el Himno Nacional.  Se les oye, pero suenan a mal comidos
–en ayuna quizás (como en mis años).
¿O será que el constante ruido de los motores
-que no dejan de joder- los hace escuchar así?
Terminan su himno y dos profesoras se dan un saludo afectuoso de medio abrazo;
-abrazo de media manga- esos que se dan de lado, chocando las cinturas
y sólo se entrelazan entrambos antebrazos.
Salgo a ciudad Santo Domingo, me voy (último día).

Because of that feeling of being with family and friends and where I feel I don’t have to be constantly proving myself, I have thought about how the perfect state of living would be a house there and a house here, living part here and part there. But I know that I could never live in the Dominican Republic permanently.
If I were to move there full-time, in six months time and I would be in jail or dead. I am the type of person that believes in the rule of law. I have since a very young age. The same cultural norms that made me change my mind as young boy about being a lawyer when I grew up are the same cultural norms that would get me killed today.

I decided at an early age that I didn’t want to be a lawyer when I witnessed the injustices of a particular trial. They wouldn’t allow me into the courtroom because I was too young, so I would sneak in the little alley and watch the trials through the window. There was this man that was accused of hitting a woman. She was crying, saying he hit her in the face. I remember he said, “Your honor, look at my hands, look at these calluses. Don’t you think if I were to strike that woman she will have some sort of mark? I’m a working man.” She was crying as he was denying it, going back and forth until at some point the prosecutor said, “You know, I don’t know why we’re making a big deal. Striking somebody is a small fine of 3 pesos and 50 cents.” He responded, “You should have said that sooner! I slapped the crap out of her!” The judge says, “Fine! 3 pesos and 50 cents.” I was shocked! I thought he should have put him in jail for seven years for lying, for disrespecting the court! At that point I decided I did not want to be a lawyer, because there was no justice there.
I feel the same way about law enforcement in the Dominican Republic today. The rule of law is the one thing that I appreciate most about the United States. To a greater or lesser extent there is law that is, for the most part, applicable regardless. If you do something you get arrested. In the Dominican Republic, in contrast, things are too disorganized. I do not believe in giving anyone any money; I don’t believe in buying things. I believe in earning things. In order to survive in the Dominican Republic I would either have to give into that or fight it constantly. In the way that it is right now, I am going to fight it constantly and, as a result, I’m going to get killed. I am going to get killed either because I’m standing at a red light and the person behind me wants me to go through it, since there is no other car coming, or because I go through the green light and there is someone who’s going through their red light that is going to kill me. Or I’m going to get killed because I’m going to argue with the civil employee about getting a signature for a certificate, getting a license to open up a business. Another scenario is I will get pulled over in my car by a police officer who wants me to give him a bribe. I’ll say give me a violation and I’ll go and pay it, but I am not going to give you a penny. Then from there it might go into a little tango dance and I’ll get shot! I am that type of person. On the other hand, if I had no shame I could be in the Dominican Republic working with the government, in a high-paying position with a good title, with two houses, one here and one there.