Dominicana Book Review
By Astrid Ferguson
Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she has to say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day, 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights. Lonely and miserable, Ana hatches a reckless plan to escape. But at the bus terminal, she is stopped by Cesar, Juan’s free-spirited younger brother, who convinces her to stay.
As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets, leaving Cesar to take care of Ana. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, see a movie at Radio City Music Hall, go dancing with Cesar, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.
In bright, musical prose that reflects the energy of New York City, Angie Cruz's Dominicana is a vital portrait of the immigrant experience and the timeless coming-of-age story of a young woman finding her voice in the world.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz was a story that by the title alone I was intrigued to devour. Why? I mean if you haven’t read my “About Me” biography or my previous post, Yo soy Dominicana! I will admit I delayed reading this a bit because as a mother myself, I was triggered knowing Ana was only fifteen and Juan Ruiz was 32. I kept turning the pages and judging Ana’s mother. I was furious the way she just handed Ana over to Juan, no ceremony, no clothes, just a laundry list of how-to’s good wife practices with a little brown bag.
However, after getting over the anger I started empathizing with Ana. This novel reminded me of my own mother and grandmother. Although, they were never married off to someone, My grandmother was supposed to marry someone she didn’t love. It was tradition in Dominican Republic for teenagers to be married off to older men for prestige, money or simply put, opportunity. Fortunately for our family my grandmother was more like Teresa in this book. She went with her heart and wasn’t afraid to love without placing labels and/or price tags on love.
My mother ironically, married my father who was 33 years older than her and it wasn’t an arranged marriage. Let that one sink in for a minute. My mother was Eighteen when she married my father and he was 51. My father was a US Haitian citizen who resided in Dominican Republic. Many saw opportunity in their marriage but my mother saw an intellect with an expansive vocabulary. You can say she married him out of admiration. Mami was very much like Ana when she first arrived to the US. She also felt stuck in a place where she didn’t know the language, no friends or family and carrying me on her arm. It is the most suffocating and stifling feeling for any foreigner.
Complexity in Stories We Share:
The more I read the more I began understanding things about my own culture. It was like bridging the gap and some of those bridges I chose to burn. I used to think my Dominican women were pathetic (sorry to be so raw) for putting up with domestic violence as Ana did. However, I began to see the similarities between all the women in my family and Ana’s reasoning. It was the justifying that a slap, open fist, a bruised leg is not as bad as choking. The comparison that went on in Ana’s head and the silent theory that maybe the other women are also hit; felt like a ghost from the past venturing me back to my younger days. Ana tolerated Juan’s violent outburst and drunkenness because she was afraid, lost, completely depended on him and felt responsible for her family. So much pressure weighed on the shoulders of a fifteen year old. It’s unbearable to think that this was typical Dominican behavior. Nonetheless, she remained curious. Curiosity is what I believe kept Ana going. She was curious to learn about the world around her, to become independent, and quite honestly, within this curiosity she tasted freedom.
I found it refreshing that author Angie Cruz, added complexities around racism and events that occurred during the period of Ana’s Arrival (Malcolm X killing, Dominican Republic turmoil e.g.). It was also informative to learn about the way legal system revolving land worked in Dominican Republic etc. I heard rumors when I was younger, but never really understood how land could be taken when it is private property. Although, I have never been called a spic publicly, I have experienced racism from both the black and white communities. It was like being hispanic meant you were too light to be black and too dark to be white, although, many Dominicans consider themselves white (we won’t discuss this now it’s too much to unpack), I am glad the author briefly discussed this throughout the book. I appreciated the dialogue and the representation of the varying treatments darker skinned Dominicans experienced with their own kind, Dominicans, as well. The striking conversations between Ana and her mother, her attraction towards Cesar all made it even more interesting. Cesar was of darker skinned color than his brothers with coily hair, which made this short lived romance between Ana and him, even more juicier.
Other messages that I felt were lingering subtly within the context. Some of which I picked up as I continued reading:
The whole rivalry between Dominican and Puerto Rican (boricua) was definitely brought to life in this story. I mean was it me or did it seem like it was more jealousy?
The constant judging between women and feeling a need to compete instead of support one another, was heart wrenching and still remains nonfictional.
The double standard of men being allowed to cheat on their women but the women remain faithful. Completing their good wife duties out of accountability instead of an earned love language.
Also, this might be a spoiler but can we discuss how my stomach turned when Ana would spend all this time making delicious food for others and she was eating Chef Boyardee, alone? I realized then I was selfish because I would’ve ate a good plate or two after reading/imagining Ana’s delicious plates. Don’t judge me.
The romance that occurs between Ana and Cesar was bittersweet. It was one of those things where you know it’s wrong but you’re glad Ana experienced a morsel of happiness in the big apple.
The pressure Dominican mothers put on their children is unreal! I mean I didn’t have to bring my whole family from DR, but Jesus was I held responsible for way too much for my age. The way Ana’s mother would demand, demand, demand and just make her feel like shit felt all too familiar. Which you can read about in my two Anthologies Molt and The Serpent’s Rattle (shameless plug).
I felt so much compassion for Ana’s story. I wanted to preserve her innocence but knew that with each turn of the page, Ana was hardening with the complexities in her life. She was so naive and full of generosity which made her a wholehearted and down to earth person. It wasn’t her fault her beauty attracted such wolves like Juan Ruiz, Antonio, and Marisela’s betrayal. I felt like I wish I knew Ana so I could guide and show her the ropes. I wanted to tell her there is so much more to the United States than just Washington Heights, Broadway, Chef Boyardee, New York or the big apple. I was rooting for her every time she found a new hustle. I was waiting for her big aha moment. The announcement of her figuring things out and deciding to do this life in the US alone. Unfortunately, every turned page that moment never came. By the time she gave birth to Altagracia I felt emotionally exhausted. I was so disgusted with Ana’s mother throughout the entire story until she switched from villain to hero. I loved how her motherhood instincts kicked in and even with being in a foreign place, she didn't allow her fears to stop her from saving Ana’s life. I think that is what I enjoyed most about this entire story.
What Didn’t Work:
It just seemed like everything was left undone. Ana didn’t find love. Who knows what happened to Cesar. Ana’s remaining family was never heard of again. She never actually left her living situation. The entire story stayed on one period with Ana being fifteen. Juan Ruiz didn’t exactly pay for his conniving and deceitful ways (as most Dominican men). So much time was spent describing events around Ana but never was it about Ana uncovering lies that Juan told her to keep her sheltered. Lies like pigeons are poisonous and he survived a really well prepared pigeon meal (porque ese fue un plato delicioso mi amor). These are not actual faults of the author but more of my expectation as the reader. I was looking for the great turn of events and it seemed like things just remained steady. Not really bad but not well either, just a little better. While Ana felt better with her mother and brother now in the states, she was still stuck. However, it wouldn’t be called Dominicana if it wasn’t written that way. As most of my families stories are the same. Just living to survive and not living in the moment, until this new generation, as they say.
In closing this story was a reflective and inspiring story. It portrayed the lives of many Dominicana’s well. It was very descriptive and vivid. The scenes were beautifully described using prose and can I add the delicious meals? I was ready to take some recipes down. I appreciate how the author was able to marry complex emotions and crucial events involving racism, sexism, domestic violence, immigration barriers, and life turning historical events of the late 1900’s. I would recommend this story to any of my platanos to read or anyone who is curious to learn of some of the trajectory of Dominican traditions.
Aside from the story what I loved was the book cover. Can we take a moment to inhale the bright colors? I loved how it shows Ana looking out the window because that is so Washington Heights style right there! I never lived in Washington Heights but everywhere in New York that we hispanics lived, we watched soap opera’s live from our windows, while we hung sheets on cable lines ha-ha. Good ole times! So just go read it already! Despues hablamos, ok?
Sorry mis amigos, no giveaway for this post. This was an arc (advanced reader copy) that I received and my sister already copped it. My bad, but you can download the first chapter of The Serpent’s Rattle by clicking here. Otherwise, you will just have to get Dominicana when it comes out in September. You can pre-order from Amazon by clicking here. By the way, this didn’t in anyway alter or persuade my review of this book. This is an honest review of this riveting story that I think will keep the reader locked in with every turn of the page.
Now, tell me have you ever read a story that made you cry, laugh, felt inspired and sad at the same time? If so, let me know in the comments I’d love to hear what they were and your thoughts behind them. If you read this story and felt the same; my frien (read it with a Hispanic accent) let’s talk. I hate to feel like I’m on this emotional island by myself. Also, feel free to share with a friend who has been on the fence about Dominicana or in need of a new novel to read. Ok hasta la proxima my friends! Chao!