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Not Bad for a Bobolón

Indigo Diego Carvajal

What is a “bobolón”? A quick Google search reveals that it's a term for someone "dumb or silly." If you were to ask my mother, it was the only apt description that she could assign to me. There was hardly an occasion where she couldn't find a use for it. Most of the time, it seemed to be her weapon of choice. Growing up, bobolón was just one of many insults my mother could instantly conjure up. However, whereas the scars of those other insults have mostly receded, the branding of bobolón continues to linger in all aspects of my life.

My mother immigrated from Baní in the Dominican Republic to New York City in the mid-1990s. One of many children born to my grandmother, life in Baní was anything but comfortable. My mother and her family lived in a tiny, crumbling, barely-held-together shack where the daily ultimatum for everyone living there was to "make it work." If that meant having to walk for hours in the unrelenting Caribbean heat to retrieve water or other necessities, that was done. As my mother never hesitated to remind me, a small loaf of bread would sometimes need to be divided into ten portions to feed everyone—there was no room for selfishness in our family.

In the evening, they were at the mercy of the area's electrical power to determine whether they would have working lights or fans for the night. When the TV was functional, everyone would gather around for Sabado Gigante, a variety show that featured skits and musical performances, among other festivities. It also offered a glimpse into a world completely alien to life in that run-down home in Baní: one of excitement, one of celebration. Once the show ended, it was back to business as usual. This was the routine my mother called normal for nearly thirty years.

While those around her may have been pummeled into complacency, my mother thought differently. She had dreams that, quite frankly, she had no business having. Past the squalor and strife that created her, she saw a life where things could be easier. A place where she could make possible what those around her couldn't—perhaps something similar to the spectacles she watched on Sabado Gigante. And so, without a cent to her name, the young dreamer girl from Baní embarked upon the big city.

My mother gave birth to me not long after arriving in New York. Born prematurely and with a list of health problems, any hopes my mother may have had of an easier life were quickly dashed. From what she described, I was a nightmare: constantly sick, disobedient, and saddled with a healthy appetite. Nothing could have prepared my mother for what I was. Couple this with her ongoing struggle to adjust to New York City, which might have been another planet compared to her life in Baní. She spoke no English, could never find steady work, and was barely used to my existence before we welcomed my brother into the world not long afterward.

Despite the chaos, my mother was hell-bent on paving the way. We managed to nestle ourselves into the neighborhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan, known for its large Latino population. Here, my mother would use the skills imparted to her to raise my brother and me. Our duty was to become upstanding Dominican men who carried and celebrated our traditions proudly. As the firstborn, it was up to me to lead the charge out of poverty and generational trauma into a new, successful, wealthy normal.

My mother had prepared a shell for me to fit into from day one—a Dominican shell. One that would eat yuca and asopao without vomiting. One that would know all the bachata classics by heart. One that would chat on the phone for hours with that one aunt I hadn't seen in a decade. One that would bring home a pretty girl for her approval. One who would show no weakness to any man. I was to be your average Dominican, one who longed to one day return to Baní as a champion of my people.

Only my mother never knew something about me: I am not normal, and I never would be. I am neurodivergent. Long before I had a name for it, I knew. I was aware that I would fall short of all of those expectations. I was shy and withdrawn. I wanted to eat Lunchables like the other kids, not mangú. I didn't feel the need to stay in touch with family who didn't check up on me. I was far more interested in the grit and grime of New York than the seemingly majestic Dominican Republic. I couldn't dance worth a lick, and I barely had any friends, much less a girlfriend. Worst of all, I was a crier. Dominican men aren't supposed to cry, and a Dominican mother like mine wouldn't put up with it. I clumsily attempted to appease her. I wanted to be normal for her so badly. I tried and failed to be a Dominican and enjoy everything that brought her joy. I couldn't. Both my mother and I were frustrated with who I was, something she wasn't shy about vocalizing.

Insults became part of my daily routine. If I didn't do exactly as she said, I was a malcriado. If I didn't feel full after a meal, I was a cerdo. If I did something that wasn't manly, I was a maricón. Most common of all, whenever I did something that fell below her standards, I was a bobolón. Stupid. Foolish. Slow-witted. You get the idea. Her use of that term expanded past those definitions, however. Whenever I expressed my interests, desires, or wants, I was dismissed as a bobolón who didn't know what I was talking about. As I grew up and my personality drifted further from that Dominican shell she’d crafted for me, the more disdainful those insults became. Bobolón graduated from something that was said if I took too long to respond to the ultimate disapproval of me as a person. I wasn't a Dominican to her—I never could be.

While I couldn't be the Dominican she wanted, I was still a dreamer. I also dreamt of an easier life for us. I readily craved an escape from the poverty that weighed on us daily. Like what I saw on TV and the internet, fiction kept me dreaming about bigger and better things. Every day, I chase that life even if our history tells me I shouldn't. That young girl from Baní, my mother once was, who risked everything to make it here, is a part of me. In the end, I am a bobolón, and so is she.


Indigo Diego Carvajal is a 25-year-old queer Dominican-American artist based in the Bronx, New York. A lifelong New Yorker, Indigo incorporates his lived experiences across the city into his work. He currently focuses on freeform poetry, covering loneliness, self-expression, and existentialism themes. Indigo advocates for women's rights, civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and the fight to end homelessness. Indigo hopes to one day work in the entertainment industry to bring his deeply cherished beliefs into the public consciousness.

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