Breaking the Silence: The Immigrant Woman’s Plight in the United States

Angie Cruz, Dominicana (New York: Flatiron, 2019); 336 pages; ISBN 978-1250205933 (paperback)

• February 2021

Dominicana is a coming-of-age story about a young teenager, Ana, claiming her own voice as she navigates a new country. Ana is a fifteen-year-old girl from the Dominicano campo who is sold into marriage to a man nearly double her age, to ensure her family’s path to financial freedom. The book situates her in the context of the emergence of the Dominican enclave in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood; Ana gets someone else’s identity and papers to enter the United States. The story captures this immigrant bargain and the reality of how these negotiations come to fruition: often, birthdates and even names on official government paperwork are fictitious, new, created for the purpose of the immigrant journey. Ana’s story is one that has yet to be told in Dominican American literature. The attention to these details is part of the strength of Dominicana’s narrative.1

Cruz’s first two novels were invested in the intergenerational dynamic of contending with immigration to the United States. In Soledad the story is about the protagonist coming into her own, but this comes about through her understanding of her family and how her mother navigated life and eventually came to be in the United States. In Let It Rain Coffee, similarly, we have an unfolding story of two generations of a Dominican family coming to grips with the difficulties of achieving the “American Dream.”2 Although these two previous novels, published in 2001 and 2005, respectively, were well received, I would argue that Dominicana’s Ana is a protagonist whose voice and overall character are Cruz’s most engaging and powerful. This has to do with the novel’s simple but cohesive plotline. Unlike Cruz’s other works, which contain time shifts and varied points of view constantly moving back and forth or a narrative squarely in the third-person point of view, this novel stays in Ana’s voice nearly the entire time. If we encounter anyone else’s voice or point of view it is because we become privy to documents (letters) in which the writers share their perspective.

An important distinction between this work and Cruz’s other novels is that this is not an intergenerational excavation. In the case of Dominicana, Ana is the first generation to gain access to the United States. This story is deliberately chronologically focused on Ana’s journey from her life in the Dominican Republic at the age of eleven through the first year of her journey in the United States. It documents how Ana is nearly broken physically and emotionally by the set of circumstances surrounding her life. Cruz uses compelling language to render the perspective of the young girl who is just on the precipice of beginning life as an adult upon her arrival in the United States. As we follow her, we can see this almost childlike perspective revealed through her constant reference to animals that locate a relational point of empathy for her own treatment by others. After some violently abusive episodes with her husband, she reflects on how she exists in this world with him:

I look at my feet. I hold back my tears, slump my shoulders, and retreat just enough to show deference. I have learned a lot from growing up with animals. (69)

Ana seeks to understand her position in the world through animals because she sees herself as property that has been moved from her family to her husband. Even in her resistance, her language reflects a sense of dehumanization:

He flings me to the sofa. I slip from under him and jump on his back, and my fingers press on his eyeballs. Blinded, Juan swings his body around. I hold on like a tick. (95)

Her family also shapes an understanding of the meaning of her life through the language of bees. In one key instance that follows an episode in which her brother gets stung by a bee and the children reflect on how bees die upon stinging someone, Ana’s mother responds to her incredulity in the face of such an act:

All girls have to make sacrifices for the good of the colony. They sting to protect their sisters and brothers. And they will do anything to protect the queen. Every colony needs a queen. (178)

A gendered relation of service and an understanding of her role in the narrative is revealed within this memory: she must suffer and endure a figurative death in order to ensure that her mother (the queen) and siblings can make it to the United States.

The story documents life in 1965. Much of the narrative strength of Dominicana is in the way it represents a protagonist struggling to develop her own views and womanhood as she lives in two countries whose transnational relationship is developing at a pivotal moment in their intertwined histories. We see these significant moments through Ana’s experience. For instance, when her husband Juan goes back to the Dominican Republic to conduct some family business, political instability is being played out in the capital, Santo Domingo. This is a tumultuous year in Dominican history, following as it does the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled ruthlessly from 1930 until his ajusticiamiento (assassination) in 1961. In the wake of the assassination, the leftist president and major literary figure, Juan Bosch, was elected under the banner of a new Dominican society and a new constitution. Bosch, who had recently returned from exile after Trujillo’s ajusticiamiento in late 1963, would be deposed after only seven months in office, triggering a popular revolt in April 1965. This would prove worrisome enough for the United States to station troops in the country under the pretense of protecting Americans and helping to establish a democratic political state.3 Initially, Juan believes that American involvement in the Dominican Republic will benefit him financially; however, he quickly realizes nothing is as settled as he imagined. These historical events affect Juan’s ability to return to the United States, and they affect Ana’s family as she loses a sibling amid the instability in the capital.

Ana is impacted by political events in the Dominican Republic; she also bears witness to significant events in the United States, including the assassination of Malcolm X, various events related to the civil rights movement, and protests associated with US involvement in Vietnam. Her apartment building is located across from the famous Audubon Theatre, where Malcolm X is killed. However, there is a key series of moments where Ana is able to experience some recreation by attending the World’s Fair and even watching a movie at Radio City Music Hall. This period, coming in the middle of the novel, is like a fresh breath of air, not only for Ana but for the reader, because Ana is finally free. While her husband goes to the Dominican Republic to handle business matters, she is able to navigate the new country without his dominating presence. During this time Ana has a lot more freedom to do what she wants. She is no longer catering to her husband’s work schedule or ideas of how she should spend her time. She pursues her interest in getting an education by dedicating herself to learning English at a nearby church. She even collaborates with César, her brother-in-law, to create an additional stream of income for herself by selling pastelitos during lunchtime to his colleagues at the factory. Ana falls in love with and has an affair with César even though she is pregnant with Juan’s child. During these months in which she and Juan are apart, she is able to gather the strength, confidence, and voice to challenge him upon his return from the Dominican Republic.

The novel’s title reminds us of Ana’s journey to assert her own voice. Dominicana is the name that Ana gives a ceramic doll she brings with her from the Dominican Republic and places on her windowsill. This ceramic doll, well-known in the Dominican Republic, is often sold as a gift for tourists, and it is also a gift that Dominicans sometimes bring to the United States for relatives. The dolls’ skin color is usually a rustic red clay, and they are painted with bright-colored dresses and hats. What is perhaps most striking is that the dolls are not painted with any facial features. Cruz takes up this particular detail to metaphorically communicate a statement about Dominican women’s injunction to be quiet and sit prettily. As a young woman in the Dominican Republic, Ana does not want to marry Juan, she does not want to have sex with him, and she does not want to come to the United States. It is heart wrenching to see her endure rape as well as physical abuse and great moments of loneliness and sadness in order to ensure her own survival and the future of her family. The doll becomes a poignant symbol for Ana’s obedience to everyone in her life. However, it is also the object Ana uses to hide her money. The doll represents a vehicle to Ana’s financial freedom and provides a way to send her family money, giving her the means to make her family members comfortable upon their arrival to the United States. At the end of the novel, upon giving birth, Ana returns home and gets into a physical altercation with Juan, during which he breaks the doll. At this moment, the doll represents the consequences of Ana’s challenge to the patriarchal forces in her life. She is also no longer just a Dominicana. Ana’s time in the United States has given her the strength to challenge Juan but also the ability to be her own person, apart from what her family desires of her. Even though Ana stays with Juan long enough to ensure that her mother and younger brother can get safe passage to the United States, and she chooses not to pursue a future with César, her response in this moment breaks with gendered expectations. She refuses to be quiet; she can now exist as an independent woman, mother, and supporter of her own family as they adjust to being in the United States. Ana’s rebellious turn at the end is powerful.

Cruz ends the novel with the conclusion of Ana’s first year in the United States, because that year will shape her future choices. As much as I appreciated this narrative choice, I also wanted more. Yet we also know what potentially happens next, because those stories have been told by a host of women writers documenting the diasporic Latinx experience. Ana’s rebellion against silencing vividly documents the very delicate, difficult, and precarious position that immigrant women occupy as they move to a new country and work to survive the demands of staying in their place. Cruz is saying something crucial in documenting Dominican womanhood formed under these horrific, abusive, and oppressive circumstances: women can and will overcome them, but it comes at great sacrifice, one that must be acknowledged and reckoned with as we account for the damage to their bodies, minds, and spirits.

 

Raquel Corona, a lecturer at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York, recently graduated from St. John’s University with a doctorate in English. Her dissertation is a rhetorical exploration of how transnationalism affects the circulation of stories about the Latinx woman’s body and sex. It examines various texts and the digital realm to consider the ways Latinx women are resisting the dominant and oppressive forces on their lives to cull an alternative way of expressing and exploring their sexuality and sexual desire. 

 


[1] An excerpt from Dominicana appeared in Small Axe 56 (2018).

[2] Angie Cruz, Soledad (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), and Let It Rain Coffee (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

[3] See Frank Moya Pons, The Dominican Republic: A National History, 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2010).