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.

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