Updated: Jun 12, 2022
By Gina Arias
My childhood summers were spent in the Dominican Republic at the home of my maternal grandparents, with an almost complete lack of adult supervision. The days opened with the distant crow of roosters and were filled with a rhythm of my own making. Breakfast was usually warm, oval pan de agua spread with creamy melted butter and thin slices of delicious farm cheese, always laid out in ceramic plates covered by other ceramic plates. A small metal mug of sweet cafe con leche to wash it all down.
The bread was purchased only moments before from a young bread seller who roved the neighborhood on foot announcing himself “Panadero! Panadero!” carrying his fresh-out-the-oven product in an enormous basket covered with a light cotton cloth. Reaching into her ample bosom my grandmother, Mamá, would pull out a worn, black leather change purse with a golden clasp, from which to pay the boy, but not before she criticized something about the quality of the day’s bread or its price or the late hour at which he was peddling it. It was hard to please Mamá.
Maria del Pilar Arias Guerrero, Mamá to us, and Doña Pilar to everyone else, was a serious, reserved woman. She could, at brief turns, be affectionate and perceptive but was, in general, a woman who frowned often.
My grandmother was very fair-skinned. Full of pride she let it be known that her family had descended from Spain, with blue eyes no less! Despite the delusion of white supremacy with which she was raised, and which she fed her entire life as if it was a precious poodle, she fell deeply in love with a man of African descent. What is known as Black in the United States, in DR, his particular shade is called “Indio –even though there isn’t a Taino to be found anywhere on the entire island.
Growing up, what my mother most heard about Black people was focused on Haitians. It was told to her when she misbehaved as a young girl. Mamá would warn that, if her behavior did not improve, the Haitians would come to eat her because that’s what they did: eat bad children. In addition to fanning the flames of anti-Haitian sentiment that has plagued DR, my grandmother was wildly ignorant about Blackness in general. She once told me that Blacks in Cuba were of African descent. When I asked her where she thought Black people came from in the Dominican Republic she didn’t have an answer.
My grandfather, eleven years her senior, was not conventionally handsome but was blessed with captivating charm and swagger. Mamá bore Papá twelve children, eight girls, and four boys, and they remained married for 52 years until death did them part with his passing. Mama did not work outside of the home and truth be told, she did not work much within the home either. She bragged that in earlier times she sometimes had two women servants. Papá, on the other hand, was often away working in the twin industries of agriculture and bedding women all over the land. My grandfather had 25 children that we know of. Three of them were born before he met my grandmother, the rest, however, were born to various women during my grandparents' lengthy marriage. Papá moved in the world on his own terms, as did most men of his era, particularly those of the middle and upper classes. Both funny and endearing, within moments he was the center of any room he entered.
Mamá, however, lived with a bitterness that seethed just below the surface. Her demeanor, most often cold and dignified, belied the pedestal of adoration on which she placed my grandfather and her sons.They filled her with pride even when they disappointed her. They could do no wrong, and even when they did, her anger toward them was short-lived and surface level. Her daughters, however, by and large could do no right. And so I was neither doted on nor coddled by the woman in whose care I was placed for two full months of every year, making for extraordinary summers that, in later years, helped me to better understand why so many Latin American authors write in that genre known as magic realism.
Despite Pilar’s lack of knowledge, in many realms, my grandmother was, in fact, quite astute in some life categories. The day after the Mirabal sisters were killed, in November 1960, my grandfather read about it in the newspaper. “Look Pilar!” he called out to my grandmother. “Look at what a terrible thing has happened! Three sisters were killed in a car accident.” Mamá scanned the article over his shoulder and leaned in closer to him. In a hushed tone she responded, “That was no accident. Don’t you see who they are, the Mirabal sisters! Those women were murdered by Trujillo’s henchmen!” Papá said nothing, and realizing she was right only shook his head slowly in acknowledgement.
Out of self-preservation, my grandparents adhered to the rules laid out by the Trujillo dictatorship, including keeping a photo of Trujillo prominently displayed in their home with the caption “Aqui manda el jefe”. However, they were staunchly against the regime. They would often listen to underground radio programs on low volume in their second-floor bedroom broadcast from Cuba, by exiles who resisted Trujillo’s reign.
Later in life, my grandmother, in her exasperation over the criminality, violence, and corruption exhibited by both civilians and government authorities in the Dominican Republic would exclaim “This country needs another Trujillo! In those days you could sleep with your door unlocked! Who would dare to come in and rob you? No one!” Mamá’s own personal experiences with delincuencia no doubt shaped her nostalgia for the Trujillo era. She had two gold chains snatched from her neck, once when she was in her front yard. It never helped to remind her that she had been anti-Trujillo during his rule, because eventually that became irrelevant. She came to place more value on the security afforded by an oppressive regime than the insecurity and lawlessness experienced in a democratic one.
In her early 70s, I sat down with her to get some oral history. She sat stoically rocking herself in the mecedora, her short hair fully gray, dressed in black, for the luto she carried for Papá. She recounted her many home births attended by local midwives. She told of how my grandfather, noting her anger over his many escapades resulting in children with various women, said to her that he would never accept divorce as an option. Mamá talked about her education. In the rural village where she was raised, she received lessons at an informal home-based school, to about the 3rd grade. That was as far as the school went. Her father decided she would be sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Santiago to continue her education at a formal institution. Abruptly, for reasons unknown to her and explanations ungiven, he made an about-face on that decision. She told me that she would have liked to study medicine had she been allowed to stay in school.
Mamá married Papá when she was just 17 years old, shackled for over half a century to stifling gender norms and expectations of what a married woman could be, say, and do in conservative mid-20th century Dominican society. She enjoyed class and color privileges and also endured a lifetime subsumed under male domination and oppression.
She told me her stories, in a matter-of-fact way, without any note of victimhood, sadness, or even anger. By this point in life, the necessary armor fit her snugly. It then dawned on me why my loving and charming grandfather always smiled and laughed heartily, and as a result, was dearly loved, yet Mamá, both respected and feared, perpetually furrowed her brow.
Gina Arias is a Brooklyn-based, Queens-born, Long Island-raised writer who centers Blackness, punto. As a youth, she spent her summers in DR. She has had a wonderful life thus far and has always been ni de aqui, ni de alla.