Arts Muse

Book Review: Dominicana

“As God is my witness, my daughter will have choices.”

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Image Credit: Flatiron Books

Though set in the 1960s, Angie Cruz’s Dominicana does not stray too far from the trajectory of the contemporary lives of Latin American women and girls who find themselves disenfranchised by the nightmare of 'American Dreams'. The general motivating factors for Latin American immigration include “deterioration in the economic, political and social conditions” of their respective country of origin (Del Cid, The American Dream: An Illusion or Reality for Latino Immigrants). However, as recent headlines and events have unveiled, this collective of immigrants, which has been rapidly increasing in number since the 60s, isn’t granted the same scope of opportunities available for other, more favoured ethnic groups in the United States.

As Del Cid notes, the U.S. “often desires immigrants from advanced, wealthy and well-educated nations, and drives out those immigrants from poverty-stricken countries with little emphasis on the importance of education.” Hence, the inherent “structural inequality” which the nation has built itself around as a result of feverish political unrest has left those seeking easy success and prosperity in a state of hopelessness. It seems, then, that the essential aspects of the richly elusive 'American Dream' are greatly attractive to immigrants, and as the right solution to the problems of their native countries.

But Cruz, unconvinced by this flawed, national initiative, examines the drive of despair brought on by chasing an ever-dwindling dream that seems to favour one collective over another. Dominicana’s central character, Ana Canción, is a raw, grim, personification of the eyeless, mouthless doll she carries with her, a “sweet, hollow Dominicana,” who stands for young Latinas who have been stripped of their smiles as a result of their pledge to familial arrangements.

At 15, Ana is forced into a marriage with 32-year-old Juan Ruiz – the latter an oppressive, negligent man who falsely promised her love and luxuries, and ultimately leaves Ana with no foundation for help. Having forcefully migrated from a farm in the Dominican Republic to the depths of the industrial Bronx, Ana, and the reader, smells the stench, feels the loneliness and pressure, tastes the food, and sees the ugly humanity of machismo stripped bare. As an immigrant locked away in her husband's apartment, Ana immerses herself in American culture in her attempts to imitate and parody it to establish a sense of belonging. After watching I Love Lucy or The Sound of Music, Ana incorporates herself into their narratives in a way that playfully undermines their idyllic images, and Cruz dismantles the devastating ironies present in her situation.

For me, Domincana was one of those books I began reading for one reason, and ended up loving for another. The transactional nature of their relationship and the familial and social pressures that perpetuate different forms of oppression are only temporarily detrimental factors to Ana's mental state. She manages to overcome a significant number of hurdles that both her family and environment throw at her, channeling what Cruz calls a “quiet heroism”. A tale about a child bride, forced immigration, and emotional hardships would seemingly sound dismal and distressing, yet Cruz lifts it to a higher plane of realism, infusing her story with hopefulness for those seeking solace in their own isolation.

Cruz herself has been characterised as a representative voice, among many others of the Dominican literary diaspora, for depicting "intersection[s] of gender, race, class, and ethnicity in the context of the urban Dominican experience." (Moreno, Debunking Myths, Destabilising Identities) She describes Dominicana as a passion project, "a valentine to my mom and all the unsung Dominicanas like her...Even if Dominicana is a Dominican story, it's also a New York story and an immigrant story." Despite Cruz setting an evident time period for the tale, the political standings and systems do not abandon contemporary attitudes, and this forms an emphatic portrayal of the need for change.

Whether it be racist attitudes, misogynistic behaviour, or the Dominican Republic turmoil, Cruz conveys certain issues which resonate so much with our present moment, that we would just be facilitating their survival in society if we were to simply ignore them. Cruz, highly aware of this potential ignorance, places Ana at its very core; in one scene we see her scouring a newspaper, trying to find coverage on the political circumstances back home from her and Juan's apartment. Yet, to no avail, she only manages to find a crude photograph of a Dominican playboy who appears to stand in as her national representative. "Nobody cares about us," she tells Juan's brother, César. But, at this particular moment, it's very much as if she were speaking to and on behalf of contemporary Latin Americans who find themselves just as helpless as Cruz's 1960s teenage girl – and this, I believe, speaks volumes.

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