Monday, June 27, 2011

Altagracia and the Written Word

            Altagracia comes up to about here on me, and is slightly, but powerfully and gracefully built, without an ounce of fat and is the color they call india, or dark cinnamon, here in the Dominican Republic.  Her arms are thin but very strong with highly defined muscles from wringing out cloth mops and laundry by hand daily for 30 of her 37 years. She has very high and very pronounced cheekbones and when she talks she uses all the lip pointing and hand gestures that Dominicans are known for, including the very emphatic whip finger snapping move from the Haitian border village of Elias Piña which is where she was born. When she tells a story she tells it with such animation that everyone in the room listens and watches even if they don’t understand Spanish.
I met Altagracia when I stayed for a month at the pensión where she works in Santo Domingo while I worked on a photography project in San Cristóbal, which is about a one-hour guagua ride from the capital. Our relationship started shyly with hesitant greetings in the mornings when I was leaving the pensión and it wasn't until sometime during the second week that we began to chat. My Spanish was even worse then than it is now and she speaks very colloquially so it was slow going at first but I learned that she had been divorced from a comecomida mujeriego (good for nothing womanizer), Luis Alvarez, for three years and had had four children with him now ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-one years old. She was commuting an hour and a half each way between the pensión and Pizarrete, where she lived, by guagua and worked six days a week to feed her kids. Luis usually paid her rent of eight hundred pesos, or about twenty-five dollars, per month and gave her a little food money as child support, but they lived poorly nonetheless. Now I have moved to Santo Domingo and Altagracia and I and her children live here together in a quiet barrio.
Yesterday was a day off for Altagracia and she spent most of it muttering and swearing like the cartoon el Diablo de Tasmania, as Niningo, her youngest son, calls him, while she scrubbed corners and crannies in the house and rewashed dishes that she found dried crud on and fretted about the electricity coming back on because she wanted to iron the mountain of clothes she had washed by hand. But the power never came, which is not unusual here. When I joked that she could build a fire to heat up the electric iron with, I think she considered doing it for a minute. At two in the afternoon we went for her penultimate appointment with Dr. Pinales and he finally worked on her worst tooth which had been drilled empty for the last two weeks and he even used a hammer and chisel to get it just right for filling, and he did give her Novocain this time; then he filled and sculpted it with hard white stuff and now it looks great.
As we walked out of the dentist's office Altagracia happened to mention that she hoped that Chavela, her sixteen year old daughter, had finished the ironing while we were gone and I said that no, she could not have because she had computer class in the afternoon but Altagracia said that she had told her not to go to computer class today because ironing was more important and I said, “Hold the horses,” and that Chavela had sixty years of ironing ahead of her but only two more months of opportunity to learn something about computers which could give her a fighting chance to get ahead a little in life and besides, it was already paid for. But Altagracia said that no, that the clothes must be ironed and she herself didn't have time to do everything and that that was that. But when we got home we found that Chavela had gone to computer class against orders after all and Altagracia was furious but I got between them and eventually called Altagracia a bruta, or an uneducated boor, which she did not like at all but she stopped yelling and locked herself in the bedroom and later I told her that she was not really a bruta but that sometimes she acted like one because she does not understand, at all, what this book learning and school and computer stuff is all about because she herself can neither read nor write and can only sign her own name concentrating mightily since she was forced to quit school at the age of eight to work to help support her family which included fourteen younger siblings. When I came proudly home one day with nine cheap used paperback novels in English that I had bought during a period when I was bored out of my skull she had asked, “What on earth for?” and when she heard that the dictionary I bought for Chavela and Niningo cost almost two hundred pesos or nearly seven dollars she was astounded and could not understand how any book could be worth more than thirteen pounds of rice.
When Altagracia does read she sounds each syllable out hesitantly once or twice and then, if it is a word she knows, says it all at once triumphantly and she argues that she can, in fact, read, and that it is writing that she is bad at but her reading does her no good because while she may often get the word right she does not understand the message of the word. That is, if she received a note that had muchas gracias (thank you) written on it she would know that the words were muchas and gracias, and she would be happy that she had figured them out, but she would not understand that someone had actually thanked her for something and if the note had muchas gracias written on it twice she would take almost as long to recognize the words the second time as the first. There are words that she recognizes on sight like se vende and se alquila (for sale and for rent) but here she is helped by the fact that they are usually on a sign nailed to an empty house, and, too, we had a lot of practice with these words when we were house hunting, and I also think that she distinguishes them by their shape, more than by the order of their letters, like one distinguishes the shape of a dog from that of a cat at a distance.
Altagracia is very bothered by the fact that she is on her feet all day and works hard cleaning the pensión but is paid substantially less than the receptionist who only locks and unlocks the front door and writes receipts for the guests and files and paints her nails in front of the television in the lobby and so she wants to be able to write so that she can make more money doing less work. I went to the Department of Education on Maximo Gomez about four months ago and they were very friendly and gave me a hefty, free package of work books and a manual for teaching adults to read and write and Altagracia and I did spend almost an hour one evening working with some vowels and she practiced tracing them at first and then free handing them and I thought she might have been genuinely interested and I thought that we stopped before it got boring or frustrating but that was four months ago.
Altagracias's prime concern is basic survival and so spending time learning how to read is not a priority. Basic survival is why she married Luis and that is why she had children (even though that second stratagem might have backfired, as so often happens, since her two oldest children, who are done with school, show no signs of ever working or of ever leaving the house) but these were not conscious strategies, they are built-in strategies in a poor culture where a woman needs to have a man to protect her and make babies with her who will then take care of her after the man has left or died and she is old. Survival only crosses my mind when I cross the street or notice a passing tiguere, or street hoodlum, eyeing my shoes. I always assume that I am going to be able to eat tomorrow, but Altagracia does not, even though I have put a bunch of money in her own personal bank account and I am sure that it is more than she has ever had at one time before in her life and she and all four kids could live for a year on it but she still walks more than a kilometer each way to the bus stop rather than pay ¢25 to one of the motorcycle taxis on the corner even when her feet hurt, and she never lights the second stove burner with a new match but lights the other end of the last burnt match on the already lit burner to save a match and she saves and rinses off dental floss to reuse unless I catch her doing it. So it is hard for her to spend time learning how to read and write when she is always afraid, even though that fear is irrational now that she owns this house with me and has a healthy bank balance, that we will run out of food.
Among the things I wonder about is to what extent has the way I think been formed by reading, by the fact that I am conscious of syntax and of one thought leading logically to another on a page and of one page transitioning to the next? How did the patterns of plot, mystery, disclosure, description and fiction of the stories I was read aloud as a child make me think the way I think and shape my expectations in life? I cannot help but to read; any and all words that pass in front of my eyes are read automatically at least subliminally, but all the barrage of signage in Santo Domingo that one sees when riding on the guagua, all the posters and store signs and street signs and tee shirt lettering and headlines on newspapers being hawked in the streets at red lights, all mean nothing to Altagracia, all is just a chaotic jumble of painted or printed shapes, not even letters with names.
I was surprised the other day when the subject of the alphabet came up at the kitchen table and Chavela, who is doing okay in school, blithely admitted that she herself could not repeat the whole alphabet in order and that she knows the letters when she sees them and knows how to spell and that that is good enough-- although once I saw a note she left in the kitchen begging her brothers to wash some dishes in which she spelled por favor, which means please, as p-o-l  f-a-b-o-l. All four kids were amazed one day when they watched me find our own phone number in the Santo Domingo phone book in a matter of seconds by following alphabetical order. Once when I was looking for a name in the phone book that turned out not to be there Niningo, who knows the alphabet and understands alphabetical ordering suggested that I look on another page just in case. Another time Kiki, who is twenty-one and who has finished high school such as it is, and who I have heard read so I know he can, looked so bored, or super tranquilo as he put it, that he was going to cry that I gave him a Spanish translation of the first Harry Potter book, which is not the tome that some of the later ones are, and he browsed a few pages and took it with him to our marquisina, or garage, which is where he sleeps, but then gave it back to me the next day and thanked me but said that it looked kind of too long.
I expect my life to have beginnings, middles and endings and that they fit into some kind of template of meaning even if that meaning amounts to no more than noticing that such and such an event happened to me like some other event in a novel or fable or fairy tale or movie. I expect my life to be structured with the sense of a story and whether it will be a long story or have a satisfying or disappointing ending remains to be seen. Many, if not most, of the people I know here in our barrio have never read a book and have never been to the movies or even seen a non-action thriller movie on television and I think we have fundamentally different expectations in life because of this.
After Chavela was recently assigned to read No One Writes to the Colonel, a novella by Gabriel Garcia Márquez she completed the assignment by reading the first and last chapters and then filled in her report with what biographical data I could remember on Garcia Márquez. I had read it years ago but in English and had forgotten the story and so I read her copy before she returned it to Ezekiel, a classmate of Niningo´s who works in the colmado next door and I was pleased to notice that inside the back cover was scrawled Read by Ezekiel and Niningo-- Members of the Reader's Club. However when I got to the end of the novella I was disappointed to find that the printer had omitted the last few pages of the book and when I asked Niningo how it ended he said, “Huh, it just ends”. I showed him the last page and where it ended in mid dialogue and said how I thought that, in terms of the story, that the Colonel, his wife or the rooster had to die and he shrugged and said he supposed so too. I added my name to those of the Reader's Club and Ezekiel later told me that he heard that the rooster dies in a cockfight.
One out of every five adults in the world cannot read and two thirds of those are women and 98% live in what are, perhaps euphemistically, called developing countries. But what percent of those who can read do? It could be that more than half of the world's population are like Kiki and have never read and do not read anything, even street signs, although they could. It could be that more than 80% of the world population never read; a lot of people live in developing countries. And what does this mean? It is too late for me to know what it is like to not have a store of stories that range from Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose to Lonesome Dove and from Waiting for Godot to The Wizard of Oz tucked away in my head so I do not know, for sure, that they do not just create frustration and disappointment because no one's real life can be formed perfectly like a story (or even like a joke) and even if it were, one would not know it because of the problem of perspective. What a hoot it would be if the culture of reading turned out to be a perversion and that the real meaning of life was to be found in only feeling the weight of a five gallon bucket of water on your head and being sharply aware that lunch tomorrow is not guaranteed and if I become convinced of this I reckon that there are plenty of my neighbors as well as many religious and spiritual groups who would be happy to offer me lessons in exchange for a modest tuition.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sunday Morning

            Altagracia woke up at 5:15 cranky this morning and half way through her cup of coffee began swearing a string of invective that continued nonstop until she got on the guagua to go to work and waved to me through the window. This litany included critique of her thankless lazy children, particularly Jhoanglish who wrecked the left member of his only pair of shoes yesterday, but also included Chavela and her increasingly perceived slutty behavior and Niningo who forgot to put water in the ice cube trays, as well as to Kiki  and who he is allegedly consorting with in Pizarete and of her sister Francia, who borrowed the blow-drier and broke it and now does not answer her phone when we call and her brother Tito, who had always been upright and honest with her since she raised him practically single-handed from a baby but who now owes her 13,000 pesos that he was supposed to pay back when he got the insurance check for their father's burial but who now does not answer his cell phone (which he borrowed from me) either. We are especially disappointed in Tito's delinquency as he is in the Army and so has a regular paycheck and also because some months ago when he accidentally shot the driver of a car he had stopped at a checkpoint with the same pistol he was relieving the driver of because he suspected it was an illegal one (but was not, unfortunately) we did bring him dinners while he awaited his hearing in Polverín, the military prison near the River Isabela on Maximo Gomez. It turned out that the driver was only shot in the leg and declined to press charges which, although it made everyone suspicious that he must have been doing something illegal, was good for Tito who was released after only a week with a warning not to shoot any more motorists accidentally or otherwise.
            But by 6:30 Chloë and I walked Altagracia up to the blue water tank where she caught a guagua for work and we walked back home slowly. The street was still almost deserted but we did see Anthony Richard who lives on the corner by the bakery and who looks exactly like Bill Cosby and whose father immigrated here from the island of St. Kitts in the twenties to work as a cocolo in the cane fields and who himself moved to and worked in a factory in the Bronx for many years before retiring back home in Villa Mella. His wife, a bustling beetle-browed woman, is named Luz, which means light in Spanish, so he is fond of affectionately joking that even when the whole barrio is dark, that he always has Luz.
            The days now are hot but there are light breezes at night and the mornings are cool enough until about 8:00 when the sun gets above the rooftops. Sitting on the galleria I watch the street wake up. Guangu walks slowly up to his house carrying a jaggedly broken mirror fragment and a piece of pan de piedra which he throws at a dog who is following him too closely and who has just finished breeding a bitch at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the street and the dog yipes and scurries. La Rubia strides down the hill alongside her house with the daily six chickens to kill, stows them in the chest freezer shell and starts her fire lighting a couple of plastic cups to get it going. The beefy girl, Rosie, who lives in the house between Guangu and La Rubia with her boyfriend, her brother Alvaro and their aged arthritic father who still works at a local lumber yard, comes out barefoot in her nightgown and runs a homemade extension cord up the hill to a house behind hers that fronts Calle #12 and plugs in a water pump to fill the fifty gallon water tank in her kitchen.  A shoeshine boy trudges up the street leaning forward under the weight of his wooden box filled with polish and brushes, and the dapper little man who sometimes walks past curling a tiny barbell with each arm for exercise walks by clutching an open Bohemia grande in a brown paper bag. I wait by the railing of the galleria to catch a glimpse of Ambar on her rooftop but it must still be too early. The cats and the big corgi wait near the fire that still smells a little of burnt plastic and one of the itinerant roosters grabs a beak full of feathers on the back of the neck of a scrawny hen and mounts her fast by the curb.
            Because there is electricity I pump water up to the tinaco. Chavela gets up and yells sharply to Niningo through his bedroom door to wake up but he does not stir. She tunes a salsa station on the radio loud enough to hear over the noise of the water pump. I haul the lavadora out of the kitchen and set it up in the patio for her to wash clothes in later and she carries a plastic basin full of dirty dishes out to the outdoor sink because it is cooler there than in the kitchen. A drumming noise echoes from the chest freezer across the street as the dying chickens thrash and kick against the thin sheet metal walls. It is 8:30.

            The weather changed suddenly and the last three days have been cool with lows in the mid 70s (I can only estimate because my thermometer was dropped and broke), breezy and overcast so many people wear denim jackets or two shirts to protect against the cold, although when the sun does break through it is burning hot. I continue to receive little waves and smiles from Ambar from her rooftop but I have not sent her any more Bohemia after hearing that she does, in fact, have a boyfriend who lives in Capotillo which is one of the most dangerous, drug addled barrios and who in one jealous rage some time ago shot her twice in the thigh and even though this information comes from Jhoanglish, who claims to have seen the scars but who almost never tells the truth, I have taken the flirtation under advisement.
            Altagracia has continued her daily visits to Dr. Pinales although now is complaining that he never gives her even a topical anesthetic while he is drilling and filling her cavities and it is now past the two week mark within which the work was supposed to have been finished so she had me call yesterday to cancel for her and today we will see if he will agree to anesthetize her and get cracking.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dominican language, Herman

            Dominican Spanish along with Puerto Rican has the reputation for being among the most degraded, or perhaps evolved, or perhaps devolved from the Spanish of textbooks and literature and I encounter many words  that are in common usage here but do not appear in, for example, the Harper Collins Unabridged Spanish/English Dictionary (2003) but only appear, if they appear at all in print, in the Dictionary of Dominicanisms by Carlos Esteban Deive (2002).
            My favorite of these dominicanisms, and perhaps the most commonly cited as a purely Dominican word, is chin which means a little bit as in, “I only want a little or a chin of coffee”, and you might say muy chin or chinchín or chinichin or chininin to mean a very little bit  like, “I only want a tiny bit or a chinchín of coffee” and chin is used much more here than its common synonym poco.
            The suffix ita or ito is usually an affectionate diminutive when attached to a noun  as in muchacha (girl) and muchachita (cute little girl) or ladron (thief) and ladroncito (cute little thief) but note that nada, which means nothing, means less than nothing as nadita and rojo, or red, is redder when it is rojito and gordito is fatter than gordo and likewise tranquilito is calmer than tranquilo and igualito is even more equal than igual and muerticito deader than muerto. I have heard Dominican Spanish criticized by Latinos from other countries as sounding childish and, I think, it is because of this enthusiastic use of the affectionate diminutive.
            I suspect that concón, or the layer of partly burnt crusty rice found at the bottom of the cooking pot, exists in every country in the world that cooks rice which I suspect is every country in the world, but I have never heard of it as a popular delicacy or as having its own coinage and it is very popular here-- I have heard it asked for in comedors like someone might ask for an end cut of prime rib at a buffet in the States and once, when I did not have any money for the tip and it was near lunchtime, one of the garbage truck guys asked for a glass of water and a chin of concón.
            Oranges are always naranjas in the dictionary but here are chinas when eaten and are only naranjas after they are juiced.
            A lot of words and phrases are truncated here when spoken, that is, not all of the words are pronounced as they are written and may be missing sounds, which is contrary to standard Spanish instruction which tells you, on the first day, that in Spanish, unlike English, all the written letters should be enunciated, that there are no silent e's or diphthongs and that each letter has its own invariable sound. But to my dismay here-- Madre and padre (mother and father) become mai and pai; ¿cómo tu estás? (how are you?) becomes cómo tu 'ta; gallinas (chickens) become gai' and so forth. One of the great ongoing debates in any Spanish language student's mind is when to use por (for) or para (for) but here both are pronounced p' the majority of the time so the decision of which to use can often be ducked.
            There is a rich vocabulary of face and hand gestures that perhaps evolved to compensate for the missing spoken sounds. One of the most important of these is lip pointing which is an exaggerated pucker which may be aimed left, right or straight ahead, is usually expressed without turning the head and may be used to silently tell someone to look over that way or this way but which may also be used as a voiceless howdy, which I thought at first was meant as a kissy, seductive gesture but it is used between men as well as between men and women. Other gestures include tapping ones elbow with your fingers to indicate a cheapskate; holding the little finger up by itself to indicate scrawniness or that something is dried up and aged; and snapping your fingers fast while whipping your hand in front of you to indicate how hot or angry or fast someone or something was and is usually used when telling a story.
            Dominicans, instead of saying Hey you! or Waiter! or Taxi! attract attention by hissing, a sound that carries a surprising distance and at first sounded rude to me but is not intended that way. It is evidently a peculiarly Dominican device so much so that, so I have heard, Puerto Rican customs officials trying to spot illegal Dominicans will walk through a crowd in the San Juan airport and make that hiss and watch to see who turns their heads first .
            Since it seems to me that the language of the Dominican Republic, which is islandic, is more richly idiosyncratic than in other countries that there might be a comparison of this evolution to the speciation of the animals of the Galapagos Islands which is also richly idiosyncratic because of having been allowed to evolve in an isolated, or islandic, setting. When I have mentioned this half baked theory to friends they invariably point to the fact that nowhere is like an island anymore because of internationality and the homogeneity of television, newspapers and the internet but here, in my barrio, people only read Dominican newspapers, most do not know what the internet is and it is difficult to watch much television because the power usually goes out at dark. So I wonder if language might evolve in Darwinian ways.

            So last  night Niningo, who sleeps in the bedroom closest to the street, heard someone outside buy some pot from Herman, then smelled them smoking it and then heard that they were hiding it under a stone by the marquisina and so he tells Jhoanglish this morning who then goes and finds Herman and tells him to find some other house to make his drug deals in front of because even if you know nothing about them and police find drugs associated with your house it can be big trouble and you can actually lose all your furniture and other possessions as potential evidence and who knows how long it could take to get it back from being stored comfortably arranged in some cop's living room. I am on the galleria later in the morning when Herman, who reminds me of a snake in every way because he has a snaky walk, snaky slit eyes and long skinny snaky arms and legs, and he wears the most gigantic shorts with the cuffs coming almost to his ankles and the crotch is not much higher and I don't know what keeps them up because it's not his ass, approaches with some other Fulano (a Fulano is a Tom, Dick or Harry or Joe Bagadonuts) and quickly flashes me a walnut sized bag of brown dried looking herbage he has hidden in his hand and then hands it to his friend and the friend hands him a little money and Herman says loudly and in my direction that he is going to sell drugs any damn place he pleases and I just look at him confused not knowing why he just made this big show because now I know that he sells drugs whereas I only suspected before and later when Jhoanglish explained this to Herman he, reportedly, apologized and felt appropriately stupid.
            After Ambar borrowed the buckets of water the other night I have seen her several times sitting on the roof  outside her second story room with several women, one of whom is extremely pregnant, and an assortment of little kids and once I smiled and waved and she smiled and waved back and another time I said hola to her as she was passing the house and she said hola back and then yesterday afternoon Chloë and I passed the roof group but this time they were sitting in plastic chairs down on the sidewalk eating chicken noodle soup out of washed out two pound margarine containers and the pregnant one asked if I owned a hammer and could she borrow it and I said sure and so one of the kids followed me home and I sent the hammer back with her and about an hour later, which is a record here for returning tools, she returned it using the same courier. Later that evening, unusually and for no particular reason, I walked Chloë the other way past the last colmado and Guangu, the father of Titi, was there and so I bought him a Bohemia grande and we sat outside the colmado and Ambar and two other women and the usual group of kids entered the colmado and left after a minute but a half hour or so later the little hammer courier girl came back and shyly asked me if I would buy a beer for Ambar and I figured why not which is probably what Ambar was figuring when she got the idea to ask and so I sent the courier back with a Bohemia. If one of Guangu's children, for example, came up to me and asked the same favor I would have done the same thing so, even though when I told Altagracia what I did, which was better than waiting for her to hear it, embellished, as street gossip, she only shrugged and said that I was free to waste my money any way I liked, why do I feel guilty? Because Ambar is 23, single, and stacked? I also feel flattered even though I know that Ambar did not risk asking me for a beer because I am so handsome and/or charming or because she likes the cut of my jib but because I am a gringo and undoubtedly rich, and so to be flattered is my prerogative whether it is a foolish one or not.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jacking water, Niningo

            At about 5 PM after walking the two kilometers home with me from her now daily afterwork visit to the dentist Altagracia eats her lunch of guandules, white rice and chicken and drinks a cup of coffee on the galleria and then retires to the bathroom with the mop and a bucket and an armload of clothes to wash by hand in the shower while she is bathing and shampooing and locks herself in for a couple of hours. When she emerges she hangs the clothes on the line and has Chavela put her hair in big rollers, then drags the lavadora out to the patio to wash more clothes even though I keep pointing out that that shirt is clean, those pants have only been worn one hour etc. and in between cycles she sweeps and mops the three bedrooms, living room, kitchen and galleria even though most of them were mopped earlier in the day and then, since it is a water pumping night and the pump is hooked up, she brings the garden hose into the marquisina and hoses that down, walls and all, all the time swearing and muttering like Yosemite Sam about what slobs her kids are and especially Jhoanglish who never cleans anything except his own clothes and, in fact, he has left his opened bottle of liquido, or shoe blacking, on his bed and so she hoses that down too to try to teach him a lesson but when she calls him in off the street where he is hanging out with the other youth of Primaveral and he sees his dripping mattress he just shrugs and wanders back out into the night to bum more cigarettes and talk about what it will be like to be in the Air Force. She then smokes half of a five peso cigar and sets up the wooden ironing board in the living room even though it is still hot as hell in there and irons clothes until 11PM when she drinks a little more coffee and puts her hair in the smaller rollers for sleeping and we go to bed. Tomorrow is, Wednesday, her day off.
            It had been a fine night for pumping water. There was plenty of water pressure as well as electricity for the pump and so a lot of green garden hose ran from the exposed curbside plastic pipe nubs and crisscrossed across the street, and sometimes for hundreds of feet and sometimes up to roof tops where it filled tinacos and barrels in second floor kitchens. People without hose or a pump or access to a water pipe walked around with empty plastic five gallon Tropical brand paint buckets, which are as ubiquitous here as joint compound buckets are in the States, looking for a place to fill them and so occasionally Niningo or I would pause in filling our cistern to fill a couple of buckets for neighbors like Ambar from three houses up and across the street who was wearing a short nightgown and carried the heavy buckets home slung between her and two girls who live next door.
            In past weeks Marwell, like Andres before him, began appearing later and later and more sporadically in the evenings to visit Chavela and has now gone the way of Andres which frees Chavela up to mingle in the street in front of the house and to receive a variety of male visitors-- some of them are friends, some of them are clearly too young for her even though their hopeful greetings often involve a little more than a momentary embrace and a quick besito, or peck on the cheek, and some of them are suitors. Chavela has told both her mother and me that, while she liked kissing Andres and Marwell, any touching beyond that made her uncomfortable (and Altagracia, who can spot a lying teenager from a much greater distance than I can, believes her too) so I am not very worried about her turning up unexpectedly pregnant even though 27% of all pregnant women here are girls younger than nineteen, but Altagracia is furious with this behavior. Last night she pulled Chavela inside at 10:30 and had Niningo lock the doors because Chavela was talking with a boy out front and at six this morning while Altagracia and I were drinking coffee in the kitchen, which has a window into Chavela's bedroom, Altagracia launched an unending barrage of critique toward Chavela who barely protested because she was still half asleep and words such as puta (whore), cuero (whore), sinvergüenza (shameless), mala reputación (bad reputation), and coño-- the most popular curse word by far in our barrio and which is often used by mothers to motivate even small children e.g. Muévate, coño which you might translate as Hurry up, damnit and which translates literally as cunt in English but does not carry even nearly the force of that ancient English word which may even be referred to as the c word on all male construction sites-- were much in evidence and I was taken aback until I remembered that Altagracia herself was never sixteen years old and single.

            Niningo is Altagracia's youngest at fifteen years old and is quiet and studious and is the only boy who does chores, often without being asked, and who runs practically all the errands to the colmado and who has worked in the colmado and who now works on either Saturday or Sunday every week painting rooms in the pension where Altagracia works and gives me money to save for him because he would like to buy a cell phone. Both he and Chavela are now enrolled in a computer course which meets every afternoon on weekdays and will last for three months and it is he, more than Chavela, who is reading ahead in the manual and asking me questions about Windows and files and bytes.
            One evening when Niningo, Chavela, Altagracia and I were watching television we thought we heard a gun shot outside and we all got up and, as it happened, it was Altagracia who was the first to the door to go out to see what had happened but Niningo lunged and tackled her yelling No, no not you too! and he would not let her out until Chavela and I had ascertained that it had been a truck that had backfired. Their father, Luis, had been the parent who had spoiled the children and had been the good cop with them and, I think, the older three may resent that he was the parent they lost and not Altagracia and this may be part of the reason for the recalcitrance of Jhoanglish and Kiki. But the relationship with Niningo had been different, Luis had ridiculed him from a young age and gave him the nickname Enano which means dwarf and which Chavela uses affectionately sometimes but neither Altagracia nor I ever call him that and it may be that I am the first man who has ever treated him respectfully, has ever handed him the sports section of the newspaper before he has read it himself, for example. So Niningo and I have rapport, often unspoken because he speaks very fast and mumbles so I have a hard time understanding him, but it was to him that I entrusted a special phone number in the States where I would always get the message in case things blew up in Villa Mella or I ever had to leave suddenly.
            Niningo and Chavela are close and he and Jhoanglish get along okay but he is as relieved as I am that Kiki has moved out and even Altagracia will point out that it is best to keep all young boys away from Kiki because he might throw a kick or a punch their way and he has reportedly beaten up Niningo in the past although not since I have been around and my theory is that because Kiki was punished severely as a  boy he takes it upon himself to try to assure the same treatment for all boys.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Joanglish works, Dentist, Money

            Kiki is still living with cousin Fermin in Pizarete, apparently uneventfully, although there were some unsubstantiated rumors of renewed trouble with old enemies from when he lived there before, the same enemies who, in fact, had shot him in the face with a shotgun last year. What reliable news we do get from those parts comes from Anahai who lived next door to Altagracia and her family in Pizarete after Altagracia's separation from Luis and was Altagracia's best friend when best friends were scarce. Anahai is 20 something, has a two year old boy, many boyfriends-- all of whom drive SUVs-- loves beer and is astonishingly beautiful. So she and Kiki are friends, having lived next door to one another for three years and Kiki is probably a little in love with her and who wouldn't be and so he keeps in touch with her and she keeps in touch with Altagracia.
            Anahai may have to move soon because she was living in a house that was owned by her father, Chulo, but he died just after Christmas when a dump truck rolled over on him at the turn off for Pizarete on Route 2 and the laws of inheritance here give preference to any children who are minors so Anahai is sure to lose the house. At first it was thought that Chulo would just lose a leg and Altagracia and I tried to visit him one evening in Hospital Dr. Dario Contreras because he had always been nice to Altagracia but because it was after visiting hours we could not get in and that is evidently a strict rule because the hospital's entrances were all gated shut and any visitors who were still inside had to stay inside until morning but we got word to Anahai, who was inside, that we were there and she came down to the gate and we were able to hand in 200 pesos and some fried chicken to her through the bars. But Chulo, who I never did get to meet, died a few days later. Chavela jokes that during the three years the family lived in Pizarete they did not know anyone who died of natural causes. We went to the rezo in Pizarete nine days later and it was a quiet affair, unlike the rezo for Altagracia's father, with about 100 whispering mourners seated under an enormous tree with little refreshment. The little country cemetery where Luis, Altagracia's ex-husband was buried was only a short walk away so we visited it and it was the first time Altagracia had seen it; she had refrained from attending his rezo in August because of dreaded squabbles with his 31 offspring and their mothers, all of whom would feel entitled to whatever inheritance there might have been.  I took a picture of Altagracia solemnly contemplating his tomb which was a concrete box on top of the ground, painted white with a cross and an inscription and she was sad for a few minutes, after all they had spent almost 20 years together, and then she peed on the ground near the head of the grave and then we walked around the cemetery looking at the other tombs, including that of Chulo, as yet unmarked and unpainted, before returning to the rezo.

            Jhoanglish, after not returning to work with Guardianes Marcos, spent a couple of weeks moping around the marquisina and then the phone rang one evening and it was the owner of a colmado near the pension where Altagracia works asking Jhoanglish to come to work making home deliveries by motor scooter for the colmado. We were all very happy, especially because room and board were included in the offer, and Jhoanglish went grumbling off to work at the colmado early the next morning but showed back up at the house around 10:30 that night saying that the motor scooter he was to use had been in an accident the day before and did not run right and so he got hit by a car while stalled in an intersection and he showed us a scrape on his arm to prove it and then he slept all night and most of the next day  but the colmado called Altagracia at work later that next day and asked where Jhoanglish was and where was the money he was carrying to make change for customers with and then mentioned that the motor scooter was fine and that there had never been any accident of any kind. But he never went back and the change that he kept was less than the day's pay would have been anyway and we still don't know how he scraped up his arm.
            Yesterday Jhoanglish went to San Isidro to enlist in the Air Force. Today he is trying to get his paperwork in order to continue the enlistment process tomorrow which means going to Pizarete and getting a copy of his Declaration of Birth as well as a record of having completed high school which he never actually completed but there is evidently an old teacher of his there who will write a note of some kind and stamp it saying he all but completed school and that should be good enough. So Jhoanglish borrowed 200 pesos from Niningo, his younger brother, for guagua fares then woke up at 3AM and washed his clothes and ironed them dry then went back to bed and got back up at 6AM and left for Pizarete. He enlisted in the National Guard once but lasted less than a day when he twisted his ankle during a wind sprint and was sent home so we are not very optimistic about the Air Force.

            Altagracia, after years of procrastination and gnawing on sugar cane,  went to a dentist today. She first called the dentist who has an office very close by and near the blue water tank but it turned out to be a woman dentist and Altagracia refused to go to her. Our second choice was a dental office I had actually reconnoitered once before and was about a mile down Ave. Hermanas Mirabel and was staffed by two male dentists with modern looking equipment and no appointment was needed. Dr. Milton Pinales, a short alert man with very crooked lower incisors, agreed to calculate a price for everything and after about five minutes of peering around in her mouth with the standard tiny round mirror on the little bent stick wrote us up an itemized list of work which included one complete cleaning, one complete destartraje (?), one root canal, two replacement molars and 17 fillings for 14,600 pesos ($500) and promised to be done in two weeks. By the time I got back from the ATM machine with the initial deposit of 4,000 pesos he had already extracted the biggest rotten filling and had drilled the nerve of the worst tooth. He is, so far, getting good reviews from Altagracia.

            Pesos exist in denominations of 2000, 1000, 500, 100, 50, 20 and 10 peso notes as well as 5 and 1 peso coins. The 20 and 100 are nearly the same color as are the 50 and 500 and so are possible to confuse with one another. Cash registers still total your bill using centavos which are also known as cheles but this figure will be rounded off as nobody uses cheles anymore because there are 100 cheles in each peso and the only thing you can buy with one peso is one mint, and not one of the best mints either.  A 50 centavo piece was called a half-peso and a 25 centavo coin was called a peseta. The most important thing to remember when you are about to spend pesos is to offer the largest bill you have that you think the vendor could possibly have change for because small bills, known as menudos, are surprisingly scarce. I have visited as many as five colmados during the afternoon of a weekday looking to break a 500 peso bill (about $17) unsuccessfully and I eventually had to walk all the way to Hipermercado Olé and buy a box of matches for 4 pesos to do so. If you have only a 500 peso bill you need to ask the cobrador if he has that much change before getting on a guagua even though you might reckon that hundreds of people have already paid their 10 peso fares before you got on and if you want to pay your guagua fare with a 100 peso bill you should pay well before your stop to give the cobrador time to find change. I was once called an abusador by an irate cobrador for handing him a 50 peso bill to change as I hopped off his crowded guagua. I believe that there is often a locked box under the driver's seat and that that is where they stash the menudos and if they squirrel away too many of them at once they are stuck for change for a while.
            Unlike in the U.S., where if you posses more than half the bill you still have all its value, Dominican paper money, particularly a large denomination bill, may be refused even if it is only missing a tiny corner or is torn or has some ink on it and you then have to bring it to a bank where they examine it under ultraviolet light and with a magnifying glass before exchanging it for an unblemished one. Many of the larger stores scan all large bills with an ultraviolet scanner and almost everyone will hold the 500 up to the light to check for the watermark of the bust of Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the leaders in the struggle for independence from Haiti which was achieved in 1844. There are little silver foil things embossed on the front and a gold shiny stripe with BCRD standing for Banco Central República Dominicana printed on the back of each 500 peso note as well as the watermark so it would seem to be difficult money to counterfeit, and maybe hardly worth it, but I suppose one can't be too careful.
            Bancos are banks but bancas only sell lottery tickets or, if it is a banca deportiva, it is for betting on sports and might have as many as a dozen televisions showing various sporting events to the bettors. Banco Popular, Ban de Reservas, Banco de Leon, Scotia Bank and Banco BHD are the most prominent banks in Santo Domingo and all have many automated teller locations and many branches and, often, waits of over a half hour to make a simple cash withdrawal and sometimes much longer just before holidays and on the first and fifteenth of each month when many people get their paychecks. I have, at times taken two guaguas to go to the Ban de Reservas in Lucerna because it usually has a much shorter line than the one in Villa Mella and I think I have saved time doing it that way.
            I once brought a bunch of Traveler's Checks to cash at the Banco Popular tower on the corner of Maximo Gomez and John F. Kennedy because none of the branch banks would accept them. After waiting on line for 20 minutes or so I reached the appropriate teller and, making sure she was watching me, I countersigned all the checks and then she took them along with my passport and driver's license and disappeared into some farther reaches of the bank and she finally returned after what seemed like a long time and said that my signatures did not match and so the bank would not cash the checks without the pieces of paper with the corresponding check numbers on them along with more of my signatures that the bank in Massachusetts said to NEVER carry with the checks themselves and so I had to go all the way back to my room in the pension carrying all the checks with two signatures on each one and get the verifying scraps of paper and come back to the bank with all of it in one bulging pocket hoping that I could find the same teller who had watched me countersign them and everything worked out okay but I don't think I will bring Traveler's Checks here again.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Internet service cut off till Monday. I recieved a notice telling me that I still had 20% of my 3 gig allowance for the month and not 1 minute later I was cut off. Next post in near future.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


--There is a big tree right across the street from the house that always has at least a few and sometimes many small, white cherry blossom-like flowers. One drizzly day when occasional petals were spiraling toward the ground I watched a small barefoot boy dancing back and forth under the tree, looking upwards, catching and eating the falling blossoms in his mouth.

--La Rubia tells me that the tree with the little white flowers is called a roble and that it is good for nothing but making a mess with its constant shedding of flowers, and shade which means that her house always has a bunch of lazy tigueres sitting in front of it. But as she pointed to a machete gash in the trunk she added that the bark, which is very bitter, is used to make a tea which pregnant women drink just before giving birth, or giving the light as they say in Spanish.

--Early this morning while walking with Altagracia to the bus stop a barefoot  woman dressed in a dirty white knit dress stopped us and pointed to a lumpy burlap sack closed with a knot at the top and abandoned near the side of the road and excitedly explained that there was a dead dog in it and that it stank.

--People walking by the house frequently sing snatches of popular songs. The phrases I hear most these days translate as-- “I like the gasoline, give me some gasoline”, “Lean back mama, lean back”, “Bad bird, bad bird” and  “I love this darned thing”.

--I can´t think of any way to verify this, but I think that Dominicans accidentally drop more things than North Americans like fruit in supermarkets, cell phones in guaguas, plates and glasses in the kitchen, small change, earrings and I don't know why this might be true. It may be that I only notice this because in my house, which has all concrete floors, every cup, glass, plate, bottle and bowl that is dropped breaks so these events are memorable. As I just finished writing that last sentence Jhoanglish walked past and dropped his comb.

--There is much public spitting and picking of noses but gas emitted from either end at any time is considered rude.

--It seems to be considered de rigeur for some men to maintain a grasp on their crotches while walking and men of any age may make blatant adjustments in this area in public. Women may spontaneously adjust or pat into place the breasts of other women, or their own, and may reach inside to do so.

-- La Rubia is plucking white chickens across the street,  their feathers pink with their own blood after  having their throats cut. She is sitting on a broken cement block and when she lobs each plucked chicken into the shell of a nearby overturned chest freezer it makes a hollow clang. There is a gallery of two cats, a dog which appears to be part corgi and basset hound and a bunch of loose chickens nearby paying close attention waiting for the offal to be tossed their way. At night the loose chickens roost high up in the big tree with the little white flowers and one of them is a rooster who is missing the end of his right wing. Twice I have witnessed him fall out of the tree-- first there were about 4 seconds of desperate flapping as he crashed unseen down through the leaves and small branches and then he cleared the bottom of the canopy and free fell for eight feet and hit the street with a soft thud, picked himself up, looked around to get his bearings and then ran back up the trunk flapping his wings furiously to help climb.

--While the streets may be filthy, the people are not. Seven people can wedge themselves into an un-airconditioned Toyota Corolla at 4 PM on a 90 degree day in slow city traffic and everybody still smells great after a half hour. I have an aunt who, while in nursing school, learned to inspect ears in Washington Heights in New York City, a predominantly Dominican neighborhood, and, after inspecting the ears of Dominican women for 3 months was moved to a different borough and was horrified when she first saw the piles of detritus in the ears of native New Yorkers. Altagracia cleans hers often and deeply, uses bobby pins and leaves no residue behind.

--An old mango pit with plenty of fibers still attached and a rat each flattened in the road look the same but the pit never has a tail.

--My cocker spaniel's name is Chloë and she is better known in the neighborhood than I am. Early the other morning as Chloë and I were walking back to the house from the bus stop down a still deserted side street and still blocks from the house, a motorcycle comes speeding up behind us and flies by with La Rubia on the back, dressed all in red to match her hair color of the night before, returning home from the disco and she is clutching three live, white chickens by the legs in each hand and she is yelling ChloëChloëChloëChloëChloëChloëChloëChloëChloëChloë and the bike is going fast enough so that the frequency is higher as she approaches than as she disappears around the bend in the street ahead like the Doppler effect of a passing train whistle.

The Papa of Titi chiseling concrete across the street; the ear splitting blast of the air horn of the garbage truck; murmurs of conversation between La Rubia and chicken buying customers; an approaching motor scooter with a bad muffler; many chirping house sparrows in the big tree across the street; a subdued groaning sound as the breeze sways the neighbor´s mango tree which rubs on the metal roof of the galleria; the clucking of chickens; men´s voices talking with the Papa of Titi as he works; another motorcycle with another leaky exhaust; Chindón, a local hipster greets Jhoanglish with the hipster greeting of ¿Que lo que? which is popularly translated as Wasssup? and Jhoanglish answers with the formula answer of Tranquilito or Really calm, man; a mingling of distant radio bachata from the south with a romantic ballad from the east; the sounds of recess at the day care center from around the corner; some barking from the house right next door and then the quick whistle of a broomstick through the air and the shrill kee-yidling of the dog it hit.

            While standing on the galleria one morning I casually asked Jhoanglish where he was headed that day and he pointed up the hill beyond La Rubia's little pink house and said he was going up that way. A few days later when, again from the galleria, I asked him where he was going he pointed in the exact same direction and said down that way and when one is getting directions from someone on the street it works the same way. The person doing the directing may tell you to keep going up (or down) in a certain direction and that up (or down) may be toward the north or the south and it may be back the way you came or where you were headed and it may be toward the center of town or heading out of town or toward the river or away from the river or up the hill or down the hill. Many times the person giving directions will turn, guided by some kind of internal compass, and use their arms, pointing or waving while saying that you then go more that way and then down by there and then all the way up and then there you are!
            If one tells a conchista or a taxi driver to take the next right they will often turn to look at you to see which way you are indicating (if you are on the back of a motorcycle it is advisable to point so the driver can see). That particular right hand turn is not inherently, essentially always a RIGHT HAND TURN in the most absolute sense of the phrase because it always depends on which way you are facing and so it might be more a distrust of abstraction on the part of the driver than not knowing right from left.
            To get to my house you continue straight for about a kilometer and take the first left after the bakery and when I explain the directions that way North Americans always find the house but Dominicans seldom take the right turn, and I do not know why. For a long time I thought that it was only me who was getting it wrong, that there existed some kind of secret but consistent code that everyone else understood and that had perhaps evolved due to the lack of street signs or due to the fact that while there is a high illiteracy rate here, even many of the people who can read tend not to and so the habit develops of navigating as one would while walking through the woods where there are zero street signs so one needs to know to turn by the big tree, or at the two boulders or by the prickly shrubs, but I often see people lost here and I have heard a lot of bad directions given and so I carry a street map with me and a good one is the one by Mapas Gaar and you can always find one in the Thesaurus book store on Sarasota and Abraham Lincoln.

            It had not rained in 6 weeks. Clouds of dust followed trucks and motorcycles up the street and settled everywhere and even a dog or a chicken or a child running could raise up a small rooster tail. At night, even when nothing was stirring it up, you could see the dust in the air through the slanting light of the headlights of standing cars waiting in front of the colmado. Chavela mopped the galleria and the kitchen floors twice a day and then would fling the dirty water out of the bucket in a fan shaped spray onto the street to try to keep the dust down and we would try to keep the persianas closed on the windows to keep the dust out but it would get too hot in the house. If a big Coca-cola or Presidente truck rumbled by on its way to the last colmado the roiled dust could get so thick that, for a moment, you could not even see Titi's house clearly which is just across the street and only two houses down.
The finished paint job.
            But then today it rained for about an hour before lunch. La Rubia fashioned a Hipermercado Olé plastic bag into a shower cap and threw several more plastic bags over the cut up chicken still on her table and sat back down in the rain to wait for customers and a bunch of little kids wearing just underwear came out of nowhere and took baths under the down spouts that drain the water off the flat roofed houses. A girl of about 12 who had been mopping the floor in a marquesina across the street and one house up leaned her mop against the wall and stood in the doorway, half in the rain, and danced slowly in the water running down the sidewalk.
            I had been painting a patio wall of the garden just outside the house with orange paint and the rain came suddenly. I just had time to get the laundry off the line and into the house and put my brush and roller and paint under cover and then there was nothing to do but to sit under the roof of the galleria and watch the drain water that ran off the patio turn oranger and oranger. Niningo and Chavela came home from school just as it was letting up and when I showed them the stained blotchy paint job they each said, “What bad luck.”

Monday, June 6, 2011

Rezo in Elias Piña

            After spending the last five years of his life in bed, stricken with thrombosis, emaciated and unable to walk, Amado Mateo Nova, Altagracia's father, died. His wife, Anna, had left him some years ago but came back to care for him during the thrombosis. Altagracia and I went to visit them a few months before his death and, while he was not alert for much of the time, he recognized Altagracia´s voice at some distance while we were still outside the little four room house and called her by her pet name, Ninina. She was, and still is, very proud and pleased and moved, inordinately pleased and moved it seems to me, that he recognized her then because, by most accounts, he had not been a loving father and it may be that her affection for him is only because he abused her less than he did her 13 brothers and sisters. Amado's brother, Ramoncito, told me that he influenced her parents to send Altagracia away to work and that he introduced her to Luis, who she would quickly marry, to get her to safer ground-- he spat on the ground when describing his brother, and this was at the memorial or rezo. He told me that while Amado did work he did not bring the money home to his family but spent it on game cocks, rum and women and that his children often went hungry and that he was sometimes violent.
            When someone dies here they are buried quickly. At 1:30 AM of the morning that Altagracia heard that her father had died and, even though the first guagua to Elias Piña would get her there well before noon, she worried that she would be too late, but she wasn't. Nine days later a rezo, a day of remembrance and prayer, was held.
            We had arrived at the house of Altagracia's family the night before the rezo and were served some boiled pork liver with yuca cooked in a kettle set on three cement blocks over a small wood fire outside on the ground under a shelter of thatch. Although there was electricity, the house only had two dim light bulbs so it was very dark with most of the light coming from the cooking fire, or fogón. Altagracia found that the only outhouse, a snug one-holer, was packed floor to ceiling with firewood so she ordered one of her younger sisters, Momona who still walks stiffly after having had polio as a child, and some of the men to empty it out and clean it so it could be used the next day. About 20 people spent the night sleeping on makeshift mattresses, slumped in plastic chairs or on the dirt floor and we all were awake by 6 AM to begin cooking the food for the expected gathering of 200 people. By 10 in the morning there were eight fogones scattered around the compound with some having kettles big enough that it took two men to move them. The two biggest kettles were set over a long fire in a hole about two feet across, two feet deep and six feet long dug in the garden. The foods cooked were pork, goat, chicken, yuca, rice, habichuela, tayota and chenchén, a corn meal and milk based mixture. The pig, which had already been killed, was coarsely hacked apart with a machete and then women with smaller knives finished cutting up the meat and splintered bone into stew sized pieces. The chickens were killed and plucked moments before stewing and the kettles were stirred with short poles that had been freshly cut and debarked. One short wrinkled old man was stopped from shaping one of these stirring sticks with his machete because the particular type of  wood he chose was bitter and would give the food a bad taste. The house had no kitchen or bathroom or running water so all food preparation and washing of pots and pans was done on the ground or on one of several makeshift wooden tables and all washing and cooking water was carried in 5 gallon plastic buckets. Scraps of food that fell on the ground were eaten by the dog or by one of the little pigs that wandered around. Coffee was brewed throughout the day by boiling the loose grounds in a kettle and then strained by being wrung through a long fine fabric tube that was closed at the end and then sweetened and served by women in tiny plastic cups maybe twice the size of thimbles.
            Anna, the widow, spent most of the day in a small room with close family receiving well wishers who might sit and stay for a while and who might talk among themselves, but it was generally a room full of sorrow and sobbing. While men did pass through to offer condolences almost no men ever stayed or sat. During the upcoming year the women of the family will observe a luto or mourning by wearing only somber colors and refraining from dancing, but men do not observe luto.
            An even smaller room in the house housed the prayer table with a candle, some leaves and the cross that would grace the grave site, although the inscribed birth date of Amado on the cross was off by about 15 years. I spoke with 4 of his brothers and none knew exactly how old he had been. Ramoncito answered that question by saying, Well, when I was eight he was about this tall and almost a man, and held his hand up to the height of the bridge of my nose.
            Out front, on the other side of the house, there was a tarpaulin stretched between trees to provide shade for the ongoing two domino games and where many of the men sat passing small rum bottles back and forth, most of which did not contain rum but clerén, a cheap, strong aguardiente from Haiti, only a stone´s throw away.  Many of the guests walked over to the rezo from Haiti, many women smoked tobacco pipes and some had short braids of hair hanging down in front of their ears and much of the conversation was in a Haitian patois which, to me, sounded like Turkish played backwards.
            The last guagua left Elias Piña at 5:30 in the afternoon and we barely made it in time to return home to Villa Mella.

            Kiki has now moved out, with his clothes this time, back to Pizarete and is living with a cousin named Fermin in Fermin´s little house and they seem to be getting on well. Altagracia and I bought him a folding cot and about 300 pesos worth of rice, habichuelas, sardines and other provisions. Fermin appears to be about 60, tall, gaunt and nearly toothless and told us he served some hard time many years ago but has since lived a clean life. What occasioned Kiki´s move was a problem in the barrio with Herman, a local tiguere. Evidently there were 8 joints between them and when Kiki and Herman tried to divide them evenly it came out to 5 and 3 in favor of Herman so Kiki took a couple of jabs at Herman and blackened an eye and bloodied his head so now Herman has sworn revenge and has been seen cruising the neighborhood in a car with two friends which means that they are looking to first kidnap and then kill Kiki and it is generally believed that they are serious and so Kiki, prudently, left.
            So it is, for now anyway, quieter around here-- although it is possible that Jhoanglish is rising to fill the vacant niche in the social ecosystem of the house as he recently stole Chavela´s point and shoot camera and gave it as a birthday present to a girl he had met two days before-- and food lasts longer in the fridge although Chavela still prepares a small bowl of food for Kiki every day and leaves it on the counter in case he comes back unexpectedly. Jhoanglish usually eats it.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


            This afternoon I will meet Altagracia after work in Gascue and we will go shopping for funeral clothes for her in the shopping district known as Duarte, where there is Plaza Lama and Gran Via and Almacenes Rodriguez and Almacenes Paloma and Centromoda and Sedereles California which are all relatively un-air-conditioned, somewhat grimier versions of Woolworth or Walmart and where the sidewalks out front are packed with venders set up on folding tables selling everything from alarm clocks to earrings to coconuts to belts to wigs to perfume to toothbrushes to cell phone chargers to bootleg cds to boiled corn on the cob and to the headphones they give away free on Delta flights to listen to the movie with and where I would not go at night and where no women wear shiny necklaces (only bead necklaces that fall completely apart if torn off the neck) and where sometimes you can get a better price even in the big stores that take credit cards and have UPC barcode readers by bargaining and where none of the size labels on clothes can be believed. The stores here are a lot more crowded than the stores in the fancy malls like Acropolis or Megacentro and everything is cheaper. You have to carry your wallet in a front pocket and keep your purse always in front of you too.

            Altagracia comes up to about here on me, and is slightly but powerfully and gracefully built without an ounce of fat and is the color they call india here. Her stomach sticks out and, because it is not fat, I wonder if it could be from the surgery she had to prevent more pregnancies after the life threatening birth of Niningo, her last born. Her arms are thin but very strong with highly defined muscles from wringing out cloth mops and laundry by hand daily for 30 of her 37 years. She has very high and very pronounced cheekbones and when she talks she uses all the lip pointing and hand gestures that Dominicans are known for, including the very emphatic whip finger snapping move from Elias Piña. When she tells a story she tells it with such animation that everyone in the room listens and watches even if they don´t understand Spanish.
            I met Altagracia while staying for the month of January, 2004 at a pension in Santo Domingo while I was photographing indigenous cave art near San Cristobal. Our relationship started shyly with hesitant greetings in the mornings when I was leaving the pension for the caves and it wasn't until sometime during the second week that we began to chat. My Spanish was even worse then than it is now and she speaks very colloquially so it was slow going at first but I learned that she had been divorced from a comecomida mujeriego (good for nothing womanizer), Luis, for three years and had had 4 children with him now ranging in age from 15-20 years old. She was commuting an hour and a half each way from Pizarete by guagua and worked 6 days a week to feed her kids. As child support Luis usually paid her rent of 800 pesos per month and gave her a little food money, but they lived real poor nonetheless.
            By the end of my month in the Pension I was looking forward to the short chats we would have in a hallway or by the front desk and when she said she would miss them too, we exchanged phone numbers and she did, indeed, call me about a week after I had returned to Massachusetts and after another week we were calling one another 2-3 times a day. This telephone courtship continued for two months until April when I returned to Santo Domingo to deliver my promised prints and digital archive of the cave drawings to the Museum del Hombre Dominicano and to begin arranging the next phase of my project and, of course, to see Altagracia. We met in front of Supermercado Nacional on Maximo Gomez and walked and talked together and it was wonderful. The first besito, the first embrace, then the first real kiss. At that time she was no longer working at the pension so we were able to spend a lot of time together; she shuttled back and forth from Pizarete and we stayed in pensions on nights when she could be away from the kids, all of whom I had met by then. It was a sad goodbye when I left to go back to the States. She was certain she would never see me again, and I couldn't wait to come back.
            By this time the cave photography project was looking so promising that I left my position as professor of photography at a small New England private college and began writing grant proposals and planning on how best to move to the Dominican Republic. In July, after two more months of twice or thrice daily phone calls, I returned and Altagracia and I began house hunting. We walked miles through the city looking for Se Vende (For Sale) signs, talking with the local corredors (neighborhood shysters who presumably know what is for sale), reading the classifieds and talking with real estate agents and cab drivers. Twice we very nearly bought government apartments built in the time of Trujillo after being told that a clear title could be obtained afterwards (it cannot, at least as I understand it now) and we also very nearly bought a very pretty house that needed a new roof on a dead end street on a hill with a view of the Caribbean in Maria Auxiliadora for about $12,000 U.S. before we learned that, at night, no taxi will take you there because it is so dangerous. The trick was to find something I could afford but in a barrio that I would not get killed in and, since we had started out thinking in the under $10,000 U.S. price range, that left a narrow range of possibilities. Halfway through the second week we found the house in Villa Mella through a lawyer/real estate agent named Norkis. It had been lived in by a frail looking little old lady and a smattering of extended family including two overgrown sons for the past 14 or so years and had a clear title. We believed about half of what the owners told us about the house (half too much, but so it goes), made an offer, counter offered, etc. and eventually settled on 860,000 pesos which at the time came to $18,000 US. Altagracia´s lease was expiring so we moved her and her family in in a hurry from Pizarete and I was able to sleep there two nights before returning to work in Massachusetts.
            Primaveral has some nice houses and some shabby houses and is generally a poor, but not caliente (or hot or dangerous) section of Villa Mella although we knew there would be at least a few tigueres around. The plan was for Kiki and Jhoanglish to stay in the house with Altagracia and the two younger ones for the first month or so, while I was not there, to establish a strong male presence and label the house as not an easy one to break into safely, even though the head of household was a gringo, and then they were to move in with their father, Luis, in another area of the city. Unfortunately, Luis at the age of 74 was murdered in early August. Had he died before I bought the house, I would not have bought the house until the boys were settled elsewhere. Had he died sometime after the boys had moved in with him, they could have stayed there. The fact that I am struggling with these two malcriados in my own house owes itself  to an improbable event that happened during a two or three month window of time. But here they are.
            In October, about a month before I moved into the house with Altagracia´s family she and I had a fight by telephone. She was so mad that she went and got her job back at the pension and started looking for another house or apartment to move into. It is March now and she is still working at the pension, and working hard, for about $5 a day, 6 days a week and if she is sick a day she loses her day off. It is both fierce pride that she feed her children herself, even though she doesn't earn enough, and an even fiercer, and compulsive, work ethic that keeps her there.

            Altagracia was born on June 6, 1967, in Elias Piña on the family property that borders Haiti and where her mother still lives. She was the second oldest of 14 and the oldest girl-- as I write this she is 37. Altagracia was forced to leave school in what I estimate must have been about the second grade to work on her father´s conuco (little farm) and shortly after, to begin working cleaning houses both of relatives and of people who would pay her father a little for the service. Some of these positions were located as far away as Santo Domingo, 4 hours by guagua, and were live-in, at least during the week days so she was hardly raised by anyone.
            When she was 15 one of her uncles, Ramoncito, introduced her to Luis Alvarez, a 54 year old bachelor (and about 8 years older than her father) from Baní who already had 31 children with 7 or 8 different women. Before meeting Luis Altagracia had had one almost boyfriend who she had kissed on one occasion. She found Luis handsome and liked him and they were quickly married. Her mother, Anna, was only 13 when she herself got married. I suspect there was some kind of quid pro quo between Uncle Ramoncito and Luis. She gave birth to Kiki while she was 16. Altagracia has several sisters, Viola and Nellis, who are younger than her own two oldest children. Under pressure from Altagracia (for example she once threw all of his clothes into the front yard and burned them) Luis curtailed his womanizing ways after a few years and did not father any more children with other women. Luis was employed by a factory as a night watchman for a number of years, that business was  bought by another and he was kept on until his death. At one time in the marriage, after the first rocky years of his constant cheating and before the financial demands of 31 other children drained all his resources, they were reportedly happy and lived in a nice house in Baní. Altagracia tells me that she left him because she simply did not love him anymore although, here again, I have a feeling that something else must have happened to spark her move. When Altagracia called me in Massachusetts to tell me about the murder of Luis she had wailed into the phone, “tigueres killed my children´s father.” Since then she has not said much critical about him, whereas before his death she never said much good, but I suppose that is natural. She is furious with him for dying and leaving her with all four and I think she is serious about wanting to kill his murderer with her bare hands.
            We wake up at 5:30 every morning and I make coffee and hot milk while Altagracia makes the bed. After coffee she dresses, fixes her hair which has been in rollers all night and, with Chloë my cocker spaniel, we walk the kilometer to the blue water tank where she catches a guagua to take her to work. It is about an hour ride at that hour of the morning. She works making beds and cleaning without a break until 4 PM and then takes another hour long guagua ride home.
            When she gets home from work she inspects the house, orders more mopping in the kitchen or galleria, fold these clothes, put these damp clothes back in the sun, wash those dishes cleaner etc. Chavela has made lunch of rice and habichuelas and a side dish of some kind and left it on the kitchen table. I have already eaten half of mine but have saved the other half to eat while Altagracia eats her first real meal of the day after work.
            After she eats she goes for her bath which is the only time of the day she takes for herself although she brings the clothes she wore that day in with her and washes and wrings them out by hand in the shower. She stays in there for a good hour and sometimes smokes a cigar or two while she is in there and sometimes she bleaches the floor and scours the toilet for good measure. Chavela does laundry every day in the lavadora (portable washing machine) and cleans the bathroom every day too. Cleaning is therapy or escape for Altagracia, but I do not know what for or from. When she comes out she is frozen half to death even though she has gone in with a cauldron of water heated to boiling to mix with the cold water from the tinaco. She then sends Niningo to the colmado to buy something for dinner, frequently it is just bread and milk or a wheat pudding mix thing, or corn meal to make arepitas with but sometimes it is a big sancocho or salami with mangú. After dinner we watch a few minutes of Xica de Selva, a dubbed Brazilian telenovela (soap opera) that everyone in the family has taken a fancy to, then Altagracia irons for an hour or so, drinks a cup of coffee and we go to bed around midnight.
            Kiki and Jhoanglish are different, in a damaged sort of way, than Chavela and Niningo (who I haven't written about yet, but he is a sweet, honest kid who, so far, likes to work and has won academic prizes in school). I asked Altagracia once what traumatic event, something violent or sexual they might have seen or experienced (I listen to a lot of radio talk show psychologists)  when they were young and she could not think of anything. But when I asked Chavela the same question, she answered without hesitation, “Mommy´s punishments”. She went on to describe Kiki as a 10 year old, being forced to kneel on a flattened, jagged tin pail for 4 or 5 hours holding a large rock on his head in the sun after being caught doing something wrong. I began to leap to the conclusion that these punishments, which, I believe, exceed those allowed by the Geneva Convention, were what made Kiki the way he is today but the other kids tell me that he was real bad before too and when I asked Altagracia about it she said she had not known what else to do, and that that punishment had evolved commensurately with Kiki's crimes and that a neighbor had put a stop to it well before he had logged the alleged 4 hours.
            Altagracia used to make extra money by reading taza, or tea leaves, although she usually uses coffee instead of tea and reads the drips that run down the outside of the coffee cup after the person has drunk and then turns the cup upside down over a candle to scorch the dregs to increase their resolution. She might be able to tell you what your spouse is up to nights when he or she is out, warn you about upcoming health issues or see other things in your life that might be making you unhappy. Afterwards she writes a prescription which is usually comprised of a mixture of herbs. She read taza for Britannia a week before the knife fight and when I asked if she had foreseen such an event in Britannia´s future she said no, but that she happened to know that Britannia never took her prescription. She was very matter of fact about this talent when she explained to me that, yup, her father had it but that she was the only one of her 13 siblings who had it, so it goes. There is no belief system that goes along with this activity-- some people can wiggle their ears or curl their tongue the other way or dowse for water and Altagracia can read taza.