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.

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