By Catherine Ventura
As children, my brothers, cousins, and I spent our summers in the Dominican Republic with our grandmother, Mamá Natalia. Each year, we U.S.-born grandkids were rounded up with our maletas and sent off to the island. Annual trips that perhaps were deemed vital by our struggling parents, who went above and beyond to ensure we remained tethered to the roots from which they bore us.
In those days, Mamá Natalia lived in La Villa, a small apartment—half home, half marquesina—in the city of Santiago. Blue, green, beige and bright pink buildings lined up against the horizon. The boundaries of the apartment’s marquesina were marked by bars de hierro that, like vines, climbed up and down all windows and doorways, separating this space from the outside world.
In the evenings, just as the sun would begin descending, the power would go out. As if this didn’t happen twice a day, every day, shouting voices would travel from all over the village: “Se fue la luuuuuuz!” Mamá Natalia would explain to us the sort of people, la gente con dinero, that could afford backup generators to make up for the lack of infrastructure that caused these apagones—blackouts that stretched across portions of each day in the Dominican Republic.
During those years, se fue la luz meant trying my best to fall asleep inside an inescapable heat and humidity that taunted me for what it seemed to know: that I was not born on its tierra, not made of the same substance, not yet resilient enough to withstand consistent discomfort. Se fue la luz meant hearing the chatter of my teeth and trying to quell my body’s shivers with a little dance in the bathtub while a single stream of cold water—with no way of heating itself—traveled through a pipe and onto the top of my head. Se fue la luz meant all of us kids gathering every night on la marquesina, waiting for the breeze that would occasionally pass and cool us off as the sky grew darker—waiting for the stories.
As soon as we heard the village’s voices, we’d race to the front of the apartment, hoping to get the best chair of the few available. Excitedly, we would recite a line we’d inherited from la Doña’s collection of sayings: El se que se va de villa, pierde la silla. Upon taking our places, we’d see the others making their way towards us, children that lived in La Villa whom we had befriended and who would come to gather with us. To hear Doña Natalia’s stories.
Sure enough, as soon as the sun said its final goodbye, Mamá Natalia would gracefully take her seat on her rocking chair and begin whichever story she had for us that night. She told stories of the witches she knew in her day and how they were treated by Dominican society. Of the atrocities endured by las hermanas Mirabal. Of Trujillo’s dictatorship and how he elicited a fear felt in every moment, in every interaction, but that few dared to name out loud. Of la Ciguapa, a creature of Dominican folklore, whose backward feet, exposed blue skin, and long, pitch-black hair I dreamt of for many nights after.
On that marquesina, during those summer nights that remain untainted by time, she told us stories we didn’t know we needed. Ones we didn’t even realize we longed to hold as shards of knowledge. Fragments that, years later,—many years after Mamá Natalia ceased to be with us in earthly form—we’d try to remember. To gather her knowings. To call whatever we made of it our own.
On the island’s tierra, we created worlds that still live tethered to a nostalgic place within us. An expansiveness of space as rich as it is empty, like the landscape of our grandmother’s home in La Villa and the vastness of our uncle’s land near el rio en Inoa. These grounds were fertile for our tender imaginaries, for the play we engaged in. Yet, the island’s earth has not forgotten us. Still, through my memories, she beckons me.
Back in the States, the distance between the two worlds we straddled felt stark. Our lives had already begun molding us, acclimating our senses to the congestion and air of urgency that permeated Paterson, NJ, the city I’d been raised in. Then, Mami worked tirelessly—en el afan, as she used to say—to single-handedly support the three of us in an unfamiliar place that had promised so much. With grief and grace, she faced new fears and fought fresh battles for too many days of our childhood years.
Our first cramped apartment on Madison Ave offered us, at least, a place to share. Another place to call home. Gracias a Dios! we were made to remember. Amen, Mami would often say to herself, each time she’d call on God’s grace to provide the strength she needed. Si Dios quiere, we were made to remember whenever we made plans or wishes, no matter how trivial.
When we’d forget to acknowledge God’s role in the unfolding of our lives, there was the voice of Mamá Natalia or that of our mother’s: Si Dios quiere. Two decades later, the voice—now channeled through another woman —still speaks the truths we were made to remember. That voice, now, is my own.
In La Villa, I’d spend so many moments wondering why I didn’t see buildings with vibrant colors in the States. Wishing that my nose could somehow store the island’s distinct smell: humidity, gasoline, leña, endurance, and joy, all at once, I would keep my maleta stuffed with the same clothes that had touched that world I was already homesick for. Si Dios quiere. I’d hope that, in their fibers, I might somehow find my way back to that feeling—that place of possibility where I dreamed of new worlds to call home.
Catherine Ventura (she/hers) is a Dominican-American writer and educator from Paterson, NJ. In addition to working with youth in nonprofit learning spaces, she teaches university courses in composition and literature. She writes creative nonfiction and poems that center on Dominican girl-/womanhood and their embodied ways of knowing.
Catherine holds a B.A. and an M.A. in English from Seton Hall University. Currently, she is a doctoral student in the joint Ph.D. Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the decolonization of Latinx youth literacies and the functions of memory in Caribbean Latinidad.