To Claim or Be Claimed: The Privilege of Family
Written by: Erika Gisela Abad Merced
When visiting Punta Cana in 2007, a waitress at the breakfast bar, on hearing my sister and I were Dominicanas whose grandmother’s maiden name was Mota, which was her last name, claimed us as family. She shared her experience with us, telling us they moved her to the breakfast bar because she was pregnant; she told us about the hours she works and the days she has off . These are the stories gained not only in saying our father was born en la capital, but also in having a strong enough command of Spanish to actually engage in the conversation.
Throughout our days there, claiming our dominicanidad allowed us to flirt and joke our way to better treatment and clearer testimonies of what working in resorts and living in that area means for those who worked to serve us. Given that I know Puerto Rico because of childhood memories with my grandparents, childhood friends developed in the summers I spent, I acknowledge my relationship with Quisqueya is not as intimate or familiar. I begin with that visit to Punta Cana, my first and only visit (thus far) to my father’s country, because it informs what I understand about the continued divide between us and them.
We arrived to perfect weather, as the picture shows. In the week we were there, we were able to spend every day in the sun doing nothing but reading, laughing and dancing. To get to the beach, we passed the poorest town in my father’s country, Higuey. We passed wooden shacks, store fronts with meat hanging over dirt roads. We passed gorgeous countryside, lush, green and rich, but we also passed the face of poverty often forgotten in the comforts and extravagance of luxury resorts.
As a college educated Boricua-Dominicana (my mom’s Puerto Rican), I came across writers like Julia Alvarez and Angie Cruz who chronicled life as Dominicanas living in the US/East Coast. While their stories provided more insight than the limited access I had to my father’s country growing up, the books that did tell the story of struggle allowed me to understand more explicitly the complexities of the class divide that immigration only let one minimally escape. Cruz’s Let it Rain Coffee frames what I saw in Quisqueya, as one of the most striking images from the novel had been el viejo que ya no podía ir a la playa a pescar. The beaches in DR are growing less accessible to Domicanos as the number of resorts continues to rise. Furthermore the resorts’ militarized protection and employment of undocumented Haitians reinforced economic and political divide between me and native dominicanos. Despite their exploited labor and the general disdain Dominicans have for anyone with darker skin and Haitian connections, Haitians were deemed/assumed criminals because their foreignness was perceived as less than. My foreignness, being born and raised in the US, was one they privileged and hope to economically manipulate. How I was treated better; how security patrolling the beach and the resorts treated me further informed me of how unlike them, those that were deemed Dominican, I was.
Walking the beaches and being served all day and night made me grow conflicted with how luxury came as a result of working conditions unions and even non-union employees in the United States would not tolerate. Sixteen hour days for 12 days straight, with a day or two off, depending on the resort. Some resorts, like ours, offered their employees housing on resort property. At the club at our resort, employees would dance with us and when a young man grabbed my ass, he did so con la costumbre de lo que otros del global north esperaban. I know how we dance here but dancing here has a context and rarely if ever associated with the weight of labor that those employees had. Often, I caught myself impatient and frustrated with resort workers, which reinforced how easy it could be for someone like me to forget how minimally removed I could be from that existence. Even if, as I know, my father grew up in a house en la capital, his father an employee of the military, he did not grow up middle class, a dark-skinned Dominicano born in the 1910’s.
Since the 1970s, my father, his sisters, his brothers, nieces and nephews arrived in waves. My father, until he married for papers and then my mom for love, was undocumented. He survived through social networks his father established and his own charm sustained. In the 1990s, his brother arrived as a result of his country’s economic crisis and its effect on his job. Arriving here was not the American Dream that many expected and they did what they could. Still, there are business owners, community activists and teachers in my family as a result of sheer will and determination. Not all who arrived here arrived with little, a clear indicator of the influence of age, gender along with the opportunities life, education and strategic connections allow. That is something that does not change with immigration. Having a pregnant woman call me familia, as heart-warming as it is, remains a call for accountability for what so many of us here have and the power that allows us to take. What am I going to do with what I have and continue to learn? How will that shape how I see my father’s country and what takes place there? Answers to these questions are works in progress. For now, the question of how we arrived and what shapes those choices es en lo que me quiero enfocar. Más allá de lo que escribí para Cultural Studies ó Critical Methodologies two years ago, I want to write about the lessons to be learned from all the ways my extended family immigrated to the United States. Not all families arrived all at once. Mine did not. What that means for us in understanding our history in the United States and in our parents’/families’ country still needs further attention.
Por eso, I want to work with them, ask them how they arrived, how they survived and how they learned to overcome the adversities so many of us have. Because when my sobrinos, my cousins’ children, contemplate their Dominican ancestry, having an answer and point of reference will better allow them to articulate what it means to be here: what it meant for their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents to arrive. More specifically, learning more about the struggles they faced whether undocumented or not, whether coming con una carrera or no, allows us to have a stronger sense of groundedness of the legacy we carry.
Cruz, Angie. Let it Rain Coffee. Simon and Schuster, 2006.
Abad, Erika Gisela. Papa’s Lessons: Code-Switching Language, Cultural Literacy, and Forgiveness Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies December 1, 2014 14: 547-557
Unidad Dominicana Chicago. 2015. 8 June 2015. <http://www.unidom.com>