by Mauricio Castillo
I was introduced to my first true idol at the age of 15.
This individual embodied all I wanted to be at that age; they were attractive, cool, and fearless (they always had money too, which, to a 15-year-old who just got their first job, was a big deal). When they walked into a room, they had an air you couldn't help but be enveloped by.
This person was what Dominican culture would refer to as "una pajara," the first lesbian I'd ever met, my older cousin's girlfriend.
Which, for the record, is such a ridiculous idiom it borders on comedic, but that's a whole other can of worms.
Growing up Dominican, gay and lesbian people existed — but not really. They were the subhumans you were supposed to hate, pity, or keep as far away as possible. They were in movies and TV, aggressively over-sexualized in porn, and perpetually dehumanized in the culture and society.
When my cousin introduced her, the part of me still ingrained with Dominican male ignorance — no matter how much I fought it with my liberal, open-minded NYC upbringing — said, "Wow, a real-life lesbian! Of course, my cousin isn't one, but her girlfriend is — wow!"
The stupidity in that logic is not lost on me.
My cheeks flushed upon meeting her. "How do I play this cool?" I thought. “How do I show her acceptance, even though I'm" not sure what exactly I'm accepting?" I didn't know whether to hug her or dap her up.
Thankfully, she did it for me. She held out her hand and unleashed the coolest-sounding "Whaddup son" I had ever heard in a rough, grizzled voice that would make any old Italian man from the Bronx proud.
Why is it that the most remarkable people always have raspy voices? That moment broke my trance.
I stood 5'9" then and towered over her even though I would grow a few more inches in later years. Her green eyes appeared muted one second and piercing the next. Her long black hair was tied in a ponytail under her Chicago Bulls fitted. She wore a giant white T, baggy jeans, and Jordans. You might have thought she was a young man if you looked quickly enough. It was only up close that you'd fully see the softness of her facial features, the way her jeans seemed to strain across her hips, and her small hands.
The only label I instantly bestowed onto her was the coolest-looking person ever.
And, as superficial as it might sound, her always looking so cool and fly taught me what a unique, self-actualized individual was supposed to look like. She probably didn't know she was doing it, either.
You see, to her, your outward appearance didn't signify you had to impress others. On the contrary — you had to impress yourself. She once told me to stand up straight. I've stood up straight ever since.
My cousins and I were inseparable in our teenage years, as is the norm with Dominicans, so we spent much time with her. She often took me and my cousin's shopping; we got haircuts together, and she showed us how to tap into our individual styles and embrace them. She so drew me that I couldn't imagine spending a weekend not hanging out with her and the gang — not being able to potentially pick up another nugget of knowledge I could apply to my life.
La idolo was an incredible athlete. I felt like writing down everything that came out of her mouth.
To me, she was family.
Of course, not everyone felt as such. I remember telling a Dominican friend about her and how she inspired my new style. He hung on to one detail in particular.
"Wait, your cousin is gay? Her girlfriend dresses like a dude?"
"Oh," he said as he screwed up his nose and raised an eyebrow. “Ten cuidao que esa pajarareria se pega.”
Dumbfounded, I failed to defend her, knowing it would expose me and have me be accused of the very taboo I thought didn't affect me. My lack of a retort revealed I wasn't as much of an ally as I thought.
Most of the older members of my family felt similarly to my friend — except they didn't use words to express it.
Silence seemed to surround her whenever she was around the family. They would smile politely, maybe a hug here and there, but mostly it was that obvious fakeness that comes from, "I'm trying to be nice because I don't understand this."
Or, worse: "This is a family setting, and I'll ruin the mood if I express how I truly feel about this predicament."
My cousin had long been considered the rebel of the family, the one whose voice could command a room and make windows tremble, who had piercings and tattoos before they were considered cool, whose laugh is as infectious as it is menacing. But even with all this, there was a distinctive aura of "She's gone too far this time" among the older generation when she brought a girlfriend into the picture, with no actual warning of a sexual orientation change.
There was a cacophony of "Esa muchacha 'ta loca," even though the words were never really said out loud. You didn't speak of those kinds of things. And it was that foreboding silence that said more than words ever could.
Gayness is blisteringly taboo in our hypocritical Dominican culture, where ignorance is commonly dressed up and presented as esteem. God's name is thrown around when most convenient.
Just as their ignorance would put on its Sunday best, so too did a change occur in my cousin's girlfriend the few times she came around dressed as a young woman.
Even I was stunned at the transformation. Hair long and wavy, cascading from the top of her head to the small of her back. The figure you could never see under the baggy gear revealed itself in the common form-fitting clothes of the mid-2000s and reminded you that she was indeed a woman.
Her physical change reflected in the older generation, who seemed to look at her in a different light. As if this was the REAL her, not that other person. Or maybe some demon possessed her, only freeing her once in a while to be who she really was.
Of course, that was all bullshit. She intimated that she only dressed like a girl on notable occasions to accommodate my family. She said it casually as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
I felt shame, but god forbid I ever expressed that out loud. I hoped and wanted them to see what I saw — not a gender or sexual orientation. The only thing worse than my 17-year-old, a close-minded friend saying, "Ten cuidao' que esa pajarareria se pega," would be an adult family member saying the same thing — and passing it off as wisdom.
So, like a coward, I never spoke up. Not when they shunned her for being dressed like a boy or abided her when she dressed like a girl.
But that changed one Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is sacred for Dominicans.
La Idolo, my cousins, and I got together and planned to dress to impress and wear matching Jordans (we all grew up in the hood, okay — Jordans are revered).
I envisioned her outfit to be "womanly," considering this was going to be a large family event. So imagine my shock when I found her wearing nearly the same outfit as me: a patterned sweater vest with a white collared shirt underneath, blue jeans, the sneakers. Her hair was done up in two immaculate braids.
To her, it was probably nothing. She was wearing what she felt most comfortable in.
I, on the other hand, couldn't help being in awe. It was one thing to wear boy's clothes on a random Saturday night. It was entirely another thing to do on Christmas Eve. En plena Noche Buena.
Once again, I became enveloped by that same shame.
Nevertheless, the night continued. Food was eaten, drinks were consumed, but no amount of presents or ~vibes could conceal the uneasiness, that "Ahi 'ta la pajara otra vez" -ness that hovered over like a black cloud and affected anyone who wasn't actively defending against it.
Maybe it's because we were dressed the same. Maybe it's because it was Christmas Eve. Perhaps it's because the nightmarish vodka/Sunkist combo was kicking in (hey, it's not a Dominican Christmas without a little underage drinking), but I wanted to shield her from it, from the ignorance of it all. At the very least, take some of the brunt of it from her.
It was beyond midnight when Dominican Christmas went from a holiday to a full-blown party. Suddenly, "La Boda" from Aventura started playing from the stereo (random side-note: I don't know why, but freaking Romeo's voice is in many formative moments throughout my life). I took one last swig of that horrible mixture, stumbled over to her, and asked her to dance.
She looked at me oddly, like, "Bro, why are you asking your bro to dance bachata?" but she complied.
The dance started pretty typically, but around when Romeo began to make a fool of himself in that church, I did something that, at the moment, was probably just for shits and giggles. But maybe it came from someplace more profound than that.
In bachata, the man usually leads. As we danced, I grabbed her hands and put them on my waist. I crossed my arms around and behind her neck. She became the man then, and I the woman. She took it a step further, putting her hands on my flat ass the way a man might grasp his girlfriend's butt during a particularly powerful bachata.
No words were spoken, but eventually, we both burst out laughing. Right there, in the middle of my aunt’s living room, with only a few others dancing while the older folks watched in relative silence.
No one around us laughed, but no one screamed, "Yo me opongo!" either. The song and dance ended, and that was that.
She probably doesn't remember half of what is written here. If she reads this, or rather when she reads this, she probably won't even remember that moment. And if she does, I can hear her saying, "Bro, you being a softie — it was never that deep," with a raspy chuckle but a warm hand on my shoulder.
My cousin, another tough-as-nails woman, would agree. But it was significant to me. It was the first time I wasn't afraid to show how I felt about her.
She and my cousin have since gone their separate ways. Still, I carry everything she taught me, especially this: Be proud and unashamed of who you are — not for anyone else, but for yourself.
Mauricio (Mo) Castillo was born and raised in Queens, New York City, and is a first-generation Dominican-American by way of Bonao, Dominican Republic. His first love is and always will be fiction and creative writing; he was published at 18 and never looked back. When he's not trying and failing to write the next great vampire novel, he enjoys music, film, food, fitness, beer, and deep conversation. He is the current Senior Editor of fantasy sports content at Yahoo Sports.