Being There / Estar Allí

By Michaela Dwyer

Writer’s note: over Spring Break, I traveled with Nathan, Christian, and a group of alumni from the Ethics, Leadership & Global Citizenship Focus cluster to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Our objective was to study firsthand the forces behind and effects of a controversial Constitutional Court ruling that came down last fall in the Caribbean nation.

“Let me confess: I love Santo Domingo. I love coming home to the guys in blazers trying to push little cups of Brugal into my hands. Love the plane landing, everybody clapping when the wheels kiss the runway.

If this was another kind of story, I’d tell you about the sea…How when I’m driving in from the airport and see it like this, like shredded silver, I know I’m back for real…And I’d tell you about the traffic: the entire history of late-twentieth-century automobiles swarming across every flat stretch of ground, a cosmology of battered cars, battered motorcycles, battered trucks, and battered buses, and an equal number of repair shops…I’d tell you about the shanties and our no-running-water faucets and the sambos on the billboards…I’d tell you about my abuelo and his campo hands, how unhappy he is that I’m not sticking around, and I’d tell you about the street where I was born, Calle XXI, how it hasn’t decided yet if it wants to be a slum or not and how it’s been in this state of indecision for years.

But that would make it another kind of story, and I’m having enough trouble with this one as it is. You’ll have to take my word for it. Santo Domingo is Santo Domingo. Let’s pretend we all know what goes on there.”

(excerpt from “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars,” which opens Junot Díaz’s short story collection This is How You Lose Her)

Before we left for the Dominican Republic, I’d often wake up from naps dreaming in the language of Junot Díaz. I typed little notes in my iPhone, fragments for the novel I’ll probably never write. And fragments they were: these absurdist tableaus would never resolve. They always hinged on a missing part: some Spanish phrase that I couldn’t remember, or at least remember to articulate correctly.

Moon and rooftop as seen from the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo.

I’d spent many weeks pretending I knew “what goes on there.” I read a lot about the ruling, about the DR’s and Haiti’s colonial history, about race in the Caribbean. I imagined the ways in which I could beef up my Spanish language knowledge—once-substantial, at least by grade-school standards—before I’d have to use it on the ground in Santo Domingo. I reviewed some vocabulary with my younger sister, an AP Spanish student. But the words were mostly from her “Valentine’s Day” list. No se funcionan for day-to-day verbal exchanges, unless I arrived in the DR with the urge to tell strangers I loved them.

Despite my “only connect” mantra, I did not. I arrived with too much luggage and hair that curled instantaneously when I stepped off the plane and into the funnel of tropical humidity. I arrived straddling excitement, graciousness, and uncertainty. This mix manifested in my telling our group to tone down our volume in the airport, at the hotel, in a restaurant—as if this would tone down the glaring otherness of our majority-light skin colors, our American clothing, our preponderance of English. I’ve noticed that when I’m abroad I want to do everything I can—and in the least showy way—to blend into the culture at hand. I tend to see this as a highly individual project. While I know I can’t be the people whose everyday lives I’m intersecting and whose land I’m traversing, I study their movements ad infinitum to figure out how I can choreograph myself to least impose.

But what about when you’re helping to lead a group of Duke undergrads in a city and country that is new to all of you? When your status in the country is difficult to articulate, resisting common boxes like turística and misionera while filling them at first glance? When about half of you speak workable Spanish and you have meetings scheduled each day with judges, community organizers and activists, and migration officials, almost all of which end up being conducted entirely in Spanish? ¿Pueden ustedes entender español?, you’re asked. ¿Hay alguien que va a traducir?

Monument to the Mirabal Sisters, Santo Domingo.

There we were—there I was—hinging again on that missing Spanish word, in what hinged on feeling like an absurdist tableau. But, of course, it was not. It was my body sitting in a conference room chair, pulling linguistic threads together with our Spanish-speaking students to translate in paraphrases to our group; my head darting around from the passenger seat of our taxi, jabbering with our weeklong driver Jose as he smiled and pointed out the monuments along the Malecón—the seaside road named, in part, Autopista 30 de Mayo to commemorate the date of dictator Rafael Trujillo’s assassination in 1961. On the same road, back east toward the Zona Colonial, a large column dedicated to Las Hermanas Mirabal stands triumphant in a roundabout, its pointed top reaching straight for the sun. Turning from the window, I’d smile back at him, regularly astounded that one highway could serve as both memorial to a country’s complicated history and the fastest way from where we were staying to the government district downtown. In these moments of quiet observation it wouldn’t really hit me that I’d just spoken mostly in Spanish. It was just the thing to do, if I wanted to know where I was and what I was doing.

Incidentally, it was thinking and talking in Spanish that encouraged and still encourages me to find words for my range of emotions that week. I’m neither Dominican nor Haitian, and I can’t really know what goes on there, as Díaz writes. I clapped, along with everyone else, when the plane landed, but I’m sure my applause resonated with a different sound than those returning home.

Similarly, I don’t feel the effects of this ruling in my day-to-day life: I enjoy assured citizenship and legal state residency, and my impulses in “feeling Southern” or “feeling American” are validated in turn. Over the course of a week in Santo Domingo we heard from figures who think lifetimes of “feeling Dominican” aren’t sufficient for claiming nationality, and others equally boggled by why and how the law wouldn’t take into account these same claims, sent forth by individuals and communities with voices as vibrant as Díaz’s. They know what goes on there. But I think Díaz is right in his sly suggestion that we all need to try to pretend, together. Pretending is at once luxury and necessity; we need space to imagine better, to brainstorm ways to make our stories heard; but mostly we’re just trying to get through the day-to-day. And if our stories don’t circle back to an acute awareness of this level of being, we’re doing it wrong.

It’s easy for me to wallow in the abstract anxiety of “doing it wrong” when I’m in a foreign city, be it Berlin or Santo Domingo. It’s not as easy to expel the privilege inherent in this approach, to speak in a language other than my native tongue, and to get over my “otherness” long enough to simply hold a conversation and just be. It’s a small gesture, un gesto pequeño, a half-saunter on the sidewalk—but it’s a step.