By Abril Peña
Driving from La Capital to San Francisco de Macorís in a borrowed white Honda Civic, my youngest brother asleep in the backseat, me in the passenger seat grasping onto every gust of cool air coming out of the AC vent, and Mami anxiously clutching the steering wheel while deciphering traffic signs.
This is the first time I've ever seen Mami drive a car in her country. Whenever we visit the Dominican Republic, she’s no longer the mom who hauls her kids in a Toyota Sienna minivan throughout Queens, New York, but rather a tourist in her motherland, gripping the grab handle in the passenger seat, shaking her head as we weave through traffic and motorcycles and clouds of dust. "Es demasiado peligroso manejando aquí," she clamors every time.
We’ve barely been on speaking terms. As soon as our plane touched down in Santo Domingo, we had an unspoken agreement to play nice and put on this illusion that we have our shit together as a family for Mamá, for the distant relatives, and the family friends. They have no idea that Mami and I were having screaming matches just weeks prior over trivial things like dirty dishes or significant things like her buying a house with her boyfriend. They don't know that we can't even sit in family therapy without competing in the trauma Olympics, in which there is no winner.
No, they know none of that.
They only know of us as the smiling faces on their Facebook feed—the graduations, the birthdays, the vacations, and the chismes they hear through voice memos in the WhatsApp group chats. They know Mami as the architect, the stoic single mother, the career woman, the bohemian who listens to Latin American folk music, whose Facebook statuses are poetic, political, and absent of grammatical errors. The Mami they know may look somewhat familiar to me, but I don't know her.
The Mami I know criticizes the kink of my hair, the boyish sneakers I wear, the vulgar music I listen to, and the attention I get from my reverberating laugh. She suppresses the few things I have in common with her and the many things that remind her of Papi. She kills her curls in a fresh blowout and questions why I let mine live. When people ask her how I am doing, she doesn't tout that I'm finishing my degree while working part-time; she sneers, "ella no hace nada." To her, I do nothing, nothing in comparison to what she does.
A martyr of motherhood, is the role that has defined her identity whether she likes it, or not. She uses her words to hurt me, and I defend myself using the same voice I inherited from her. Suddenly I’m rebellious, defiant. "You are not a good daughter," she tells me, "not like I was. I used to cook for my father and make coffee without being asked. I listened to my mother. I never disrespected her!" By this point in the lecture my bedroom door has already been shut behind me.
She's tough, Mami. But not as tough as her mother.
Whenever we are in el campo at Mamá and Papá's house, the beautiful home where they raised their children and returned to for retirement after working for decades in New York, Mami is no longer the architect, the career woman, the bohemian—she’s boiled down to the obedient daughter. She happily runs to make Papá another cup of coffee while he sits in his rocking chair listening to classical music on the porch. In the sala, she opens up a maleta full of new dresses and shoes and pants, and shirts for Mamá to inspect and distribute amongst the family members, according to size and needs, ultimately to be disappointed that Mami didn't bring more.
She bickers with Mamá about the things that have been misplaced since the last time we were here or how yet another girl quit working in the house because Mamá was difficult. "Las dominicanas no quieren trabajar," Mamá says in her defense, before Mami is tasked with hiring another Dominican girl to cook and clean, hopefully, one who hasn't heard of Mamá's bad reputation with the help. The imperfections of me and my brother—his unkempt Afro hair and my acne—are blamed on Mami. She explains how she begged and pleaded with my brother to go to the barbershop before the trip and how many soaps and treatments she's bought for me that failed to clear up my skin. Uninterested in explanations or excuses, Mamá had already left the room. She drops bombs of criticism on Mami, and her sisters alike, going before the debris settles.
My Goliath suddenly shrinks down and becomes David.
It's bizarre to see Mami like this, demeaning, and being ordered around. The target has been removed from my back and promptly placed on Mami's. Her jaw-clenching after every conversation with Mamá only begins to soften when she sits alongside Papá en la galeria. Even though I'll get the occasional lecture from Mamá, mostly about how I should be sending her more money since I work a “good” job or that I should be more respectful towards my mother, the lectures Mami gets in private are much harsher. For Mami, my failures are compounded on top of hers.
In the car, I am holding Mami's phone, trying to navigate using Google Maps with a single signal bar. We stop to ask men in flip flops and worn Old Navy T-shirts for directions, but we end up even more lost than before. We reach a toll bridge, and Mami asks the young morenita in the booth if this road goes to Villa Tapia, and she replies, "No señora, tienes que dar la vuelta y devolverte." She gave us directions and let us go through without paying so we could head back on the road.
The silence in the car felt unfamiliar. It wasn't the usual silence, thick with tension after an argument or an annoyance. Mami looked zoned out like she wasn't in her body anymore. She sounded different too. Eventually, she broke the silence to point out places that she knew, where she and her college friends used to hang out, where her favorite aunt and uncle lived. She spoke softly, almost in a whisper, as if she was having a private conversation with herself about her memories, and I just happened to overhear. In between directing turns and merges, I asked her why she decided to leave the Dominican Republic and go to New York. It was a question I had never thought to ask before this moment, but it felt like the only chance I'd have to ask her before we assumed our usual opposition positions.
She doesn't share much about herself that didn't add to the surface-level portrayal of what she wanted people to see: the stoic single mother, the bohemian, the architect. In this white Honda Civic in the Dominican Republic and the Toyota minivan in New York, I don't know who the woman driving was.
As a teenager, I used to snoop through Mami's room to find information, something to piece together the mystery that is my mother. I would find the small pieces of paper with her New Year's Resolution goals, a letter her ex-boyfriend wrote to her, or a list of her passwords in her notebook. I couldn't ask her to tell me more about herself because it required a level of vulnerability we wouldn't allow ourselves to enter, and I didn't want her to know that I wanted to know.
She was quiet, and I thought maybe she hadn't heard me for a moment. Finally, she said, "I felt too big for this little island."
The words stood still in between us. Until this moment, I didn't realize how little I knew about Mami. I don't know her in the way that Papi knows her, her friends know her, her sisters, boyfriend, or colleagues know her. I don't know how she became Mami, who she was before she was Mami, or who she wishes she could be instead of Mami. I don't know what keeps her up at night besides the menopausal sweats. I don't know who her first heartbreak was or when she felt the freest.
I wondered if the expectations placed on her weighed as heavy as the ones she put on me. I wondered if, given the opportunity, she would go back and make any changes, changes that would mean my brother and I wouldn't exist, and even if so, if she would have the courage to admit it to herself. I wondered about the times she yelled at me, if she was just envious of the willpower I had to fight back in the ways that she didn't dare to at my age.
I didn't know anything about Mami, but I knew she was too big for this little island.
Born and raised in Queens, New York, Abril Peña is a writer, a social impact professional, and the eldest daughter of her Dominican immigrant parents. She enjoys writing about her personal experiences as a first-generation New Yorker, a young adult navigating her career and relationships, and an Afro-Latina trying to understand her multifaceted identity. In addition to being a writer, Abril has had a steady career in the nonprofit and corporate responsibility spaces advocating for youth, education, racial and gender equity, and financial literacy.