by Henry Suarez
“Eh que ella andaba haciendo cosa freca,” mami condemningly declared when our neighbor’s teenage daughter ended up pregnant. Shortly after, when mami was pregnant with my brother Omar, I asked how it had transpired.
“Es un regalito de papa Dios para la familia”
“Papá Dios? El té lo puso en la barriga? O tu estaba haciendo cosa freca?”
“Mira muchacho! Tu quiere que te rompa la boca?”
Las cosa siempre son una bendicion o una maldicion, dependiendo a quien le pasa y quien lo cuenta. Mami and my aunts were celebrating the announcement, but all I heard from next door was shouting and doors slamming. Why was it a blessing for us yet immoral for my neighbor?
Growing up Dominican, it’s nearly impossible to cultivate a healthy relationship with matters associated with sex, whether it is sexual identity, relations, behavior, or knowledge.
I don’t know of a single Dominican household that discussed the birds and the bees. Frankly, I still don’t understand that reference, and when I tried googling it, I ended up even more confused.
Dominican parents act like reproductive knowledge is obtained through osmosis. They induce self-loathing and disgust of the opposite sex, all in the same breath. Seriously though, for a culture significantly impacted by teen pregnancies and STDs, minimal effort is placed on education.
In prepubescent years, mami walked in on me in the bathroom with my pants down, examining myself.
“Oye! Guarda eso y subete ese pantalon. Que no te vuelva ver con la pistolita en mano. Tu no sabe que eso es un pecado.”
This proved particularly challenging a few years later; when my thoughts ripened, my body reacted involuntarily. Boys would tease one another about engaging in “self-gratification,” knowing damn well that each of us was going home and doing the same drill. My body was rebelling, sending me straight to hell. Una eternidad por darte manigueta, me parece severo.
Women in my family would demonize girls. Let them tell it; these evil seductresses would tempt me off the righteous path. My tia abuela raised mami and doubled as my godmother. I called her madrina, and my brothers called her abuela.
During one trip to Santo Domingo when I was 10, I struck up a friendship with a girl a few houses over. While sitting alone out front, she came by on her way to el colmado. She stopped beyond the gate, introduced herself, and asked my name.
“Gusto en conocerte, Henry.”
The following day my uncle came home for lunch, and he had a message to deliver.
“Wey, gordo te mando saludo Cassandra, la de al doblar la esquina. Vamo pa ya ahorita”
Madrina cut him off real quick.
“No me dañe el muchacho. Esa muchachita es muy chivirika.”
I stood there, not uttering a word, but madrina had a direct message for me too.
“Y tu, mucho cuidado. Por aquí lo que andan son unos cueritos.”
Mami wasn’t any better; she thought badly of every girl not related to me.
“Estas muchachitas de ahora andan con las patas abierta!”
When it came to the men in my life, there was no real conversation, only hypersexualized versions of what a typical Dominican man should be. That would never work for me.
Papi would lecture us on the importance of saving money, getting an education, proper hygiene, and etiquette. Never once a conversation on sex or bodily changes. While papi neglected to engage in such discussions, my uncles and older cousins were more than willing to share what they considered wisdom.
My dad’s cousin (I called him Tio) fancies himself quite the savant when it comes to women. Un día me llevo a Helados Bon y se puso a piropear la cajera. Inappropriate, considering we were headed to his house, wife, and kids.
“Tio, para que usted quiere el número de teléfono de ella.”
“Pa hablar con ella. Todo hombre necesita una novia.”
My mind was blown. He needs a girlfriend?
“Pero y tía Mari? Ella no es su novia?”
“Mari es mi esposa, pero una nunca es suficiente.”
Tempted to ask if those rules applied to my dad, but I stood fearsome of the answer. It appears Mari wasn’t in agreement with this polyamorous arrangement; within the year, he arrived at our doorstep in Queens and spent a few months on our couch.
Even after madrina’s warning, my uncle wanted to ensure that I was better acquainted with Cassandra.
“Oye, alístate que vamo pal play. Ta tu amiguita esta ahí con sus hermanas.”
“Pero madrina dijo….”
“Si tu te lleva de los consejos de mami, tu va salir maricon. Anda ponte ropa.”
Even at that young age, I knew that the only insult more offensive than maricon for a Dominican man is being called “haitiano.” Que tu espera de una cultura tan machista y racista. La ignorancia va acabar con nosotros.
I’ve always been equal parts extrovert and complete shut-in. Cuando llegamos al play, estaba todo el mundo en chercha. Sadly I was in shut-in mode; I simply wanted to eat empanadas and wash them down with refresco rojo. My uncle headed straight to the bleachers, and I pivoted to the empanada stand instead.
“Primo deme dos de pollo, sin mayokechu.”
My extended absence must’ve worried my uncle; he walked over to see what was up. Despues de cuatro empanadas y un Country Club, estaba yo harto y con una mancha de grasa en la camisa.
“Coño loco, que toyo.”
“Yo hice lo que vine hacer. Me voy pa la casa.”
“Tu si eres palomo. Como tu piensa agarrar una chamaquita asi?”
He completely missed the point, yo no estaba por agarrar ninguna chamaquita.
The infinite reserve of misguided information and admonishments taught me one thing; these people didn’t know shit. I could see what was happening around me and decided it wasn’t for me. Yo no voy a repetir los mismos errores de ellos. Life is already difficult enough without having to carry the guilt of a culture that’s somehow sexually repressed and over-sexualized simultaneously.
El que quiera perder su tiempo, que me aconseje.
I caught up with Cassandra while on one of my empanada excursions at the park. Yo fui mas cuidadoso con la grasa esta vez. I made sure to eat on a bench facing away from them—if I could climb a tree, I would’ve.
Once I finished up, I walked over, planning only to say hi. She invited me to sit. Almost instinctively, her two friends stood up and walked away.
“Quiero que me enseñe a saludar en inglés.”
“Se dice: Hi, how are you?”
“No, tu va tener que deletrearme eso. Yo no cogi nada!”
In another corner of the park, I could see el paletero setting up shop. Madrina would be against it. She doesn’t think he boils the water he uses, and I’ll get sick. Pero ese tiguere vendía una paleta de batata, que eran el final. Además, era de leche.
“Como es Nueva York? Tu has visto muchas estrellas de cine?”
“Estrella de cine? No, pero en el bloque hay una tecata que dice que fue actriz de películas.”
“Tecata? Y que es eso?”
Esa pobre niña no estaba por nada tampoco, ella era tan inocente como yo. She just wanted to know about American pop culture and how to greet in English correctly.
Instead of focusing so much energy on what the end result will be in the future. We should enjoy the present and the small steps leading down the greater path.
Henry Suarez is a Dominican-American writer born and raised in Corona, Queens. He writes on the immigrant experience, growing up bicultural/bilingual, and his fatherhood journey through a cleverly comical, effortlessly entertaining, relatable perspective. Henry resides in Westchester, NY, with his wife and precious daughters. His personal narratives have appeared in Somos En Escrito, DWA Cuenticos, and Acentos Review. To discover more of Henry’s literary work, visit www.henrysuarezwrites.com.