Becoming Dominican York

A Short Story by Maria Diaz

If my brother found out that I was sleeping with one of the Beltrez boys, he would kill me. We had to be really secretive about it — sneaking out when the entire campo was at church, pretending we were arranging community meals so that we could be in the same house. I regularly invited Teofilo over when he was headed to New York, dizque pa’ mandarle algo a mi hermano. I knew they never saw each other, but the effort kept the bochinchosos from opening their big mouths. Teofilo had a wife and kids in New York and a wife and kids right here, in Sabana Iglesia. I wasn’t his wife. I didn’t want to marry him, anyway.

In a few months, I would also be in New York, rich like my brother. The entire campo chased him every time he came back with his wife, whose beautiful blue eyes could only temporarily distract my neighbors from my brother’s good fortune. He bought a house in Queens, big enough for all of us, he said.

Teofilo lived in Manhattan.

“That’s where the real Dominicans live, mami,” he said to me, “how will the kids know what it means to be Dominican?”

Teofilo liked to pretend that we could one day live together, as if he did not already have several beds to keep warm and mouths to feed, as if I was not the biggest secret he kept. I knew there was no world in which we could coexist. He was actively a Trujillista, a believer in the dead dictator’s policies who had upended the life of so many Dominicans.

My family fought to save us from that reality; my brother was a very vocal opponent and protestor against the dictator’s hateful rhetoric. He moved to New York in fear that he might one day be arrested for his public dissent. I stayed in Sabana Iglesia as proof that we were not traitors. I had a visa. I could have left.

Teofilo entered my house and took one look at me before commenting, “Tu si ‘ta gorda,” as he rushed towards my bedroom. He didn’t kiss me; he didn’t hug me. He didn’t bother to ask how I was. He noticed the weight I had gained, and he made it a point to comment on how fat I was getting.

He had been gone for four months, and in that time, I had learned that I was pregnant. Teofilo was the only man I had been with in two years, so it was definitely his baby, but I knew that telling him meant risking losing him. Money and land were sacred in Sabana Iglesia, and babies guaranteed access to both.

“I’m pregnant,” I blurted out, as he undressed himself in my bedroom. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“It can’t be mine. I’ve been gone for months,” he said.

Teofilo thought I wanted his money. That’s what all DominicanYork men think the side chick they keep hidden away in el campo want. But I didn’t need any of his money. Our family had our own.

I wanted to hear three words I had never heard from him in the six years we had been doing this: I love you.

Teofilo kept coming back for a healthy release throughout the pregnancy and wrote me letters while he was in New York. He signed every letter, con amor, but he never once told me he loved me. In the last letter before Robert’s birth, he told me that his New York wife was due in October and that his Sabana Iglesia wife had just given birth to a baby boy months before.

Teofilo’s visits became sporadic after Robert’s birth. He sent me a total of $5000 to keep quiet about the paternity of the baby, but there was no denying who his father was. Robert had his father’s white face, his very round brown eyes and his coarse, curly hair.  He did not take after my side of the family.

I gave that money to my brother, to help him pay the mortgage on the Corona house that would soon be mine as well — a home I hoped would one day house my grandchildren and their grandchildren, a little piece of New York that could be ours. How would my children know they were Dominican? How could they deny what ran so prominently through their blood?

I left Sabana Iglesia in 1965, months after having Teofilo’s second child, who I left with his big brother, in el campo with my younger sister. I trusted that my boys were safe in Sabana Iglesia and I knew that this sacrifice — this temporary separation — was for our collective benefit.

Corona, Queens was unapologetically racist — we were among the first Dominicans to settle in the neighborhood, and when asked if we were Cuban, we often answered, “Yes,” though we knew the answer was wrong.

We thought people were asking if we knew Spanish, trying to find an easier way to communicate with us, but they were using Cuban as a substitute for communist, and every “yes” was an admission of guilt. We had not yet figured out how to navigate this new world where politics intersected with racial identity. Our light complexion, it turns out, told a particular story about our heritage that was neither true nor relatable in the Corona context. To our neighbors, we would be Cuban until at least the 1980s, when a mass migration of Dominicans made our story easier to understand.

I spent the first few years in Corona watching what was happening in the neighborhood through the curtains in the windows and calling las vecinas pa’ bochinchar, to tell them whose husbands I saw entering single women’s homes, spying on my brother, who developed a gambling addiction since arriving in the states, and cooking dinner for all of the Sabana Iglesia transplants who had settled in the neighborhood. I went to church not because I was a devout Catholic, but because that was the best place to get the latest chisme, pa’ saber que pasaba.

The prayer group of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans that came to my house on Saturday nights actually came over to play Bingo — we didn’t pray at all, except to pray that we took the most money home that night. I often cheated, making sure that the house always won.

I thought about Teofilo often, wondering what he was up to in his big Manhattan four bedroom apartment, curious about the daughter who was about the same age as our son. He was my past now, with whom I shared nothing but memories of sins of adultery and two beautiful boys who lived in the Dominican Republic, waiting to be reunited with their mom and stepfather.

Robert could come at any time, but we were waiting. I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for, exactly. He would have a house with a big backyard, a garden, and his own bedroom. Nelson had to wait because he was younger, and he was struggling to learn to read and write. I felt like it was my fault. I abandoned my children and the younger one, the one I had spent less time with, could hardly write his own name.

Right after we came back from visiting my kids in December 1971, I came back to my Corona home to a brand new television in my bedroom; my brother and my husband had banded together to get me one because they knew I liked my bochinche. I watched Univision every night at 6:00 and 11:00, sure to write down any time they mentioned a Dominican last name I recognized from el campo: Diaz, Rodriguez, Collado, Nuñez, Beltrez, Valerio, Fernandez, Hernandez, Vargas, Franco.

The news stories usually repeated themselves between 6:00 pm and 11:00 pm, so I did not expect the variation on January 2, 1972. I did not get a warning. Nobody called me to tell me.

The newscaster said that a man entered his four bedroom apartment in Manhattan, where he lived with his wife and his daughter, when he was approached by his angry wife, who met him at the door with a butcher’s knife.

Someone called her from Sabana Iglesia, to tell her that they saw a boy, about ten years old, who was identical to her husband, which meant he had to have been cheating on her. They had been married thirteen years at that point. She stabbed him seventeen times in the back. The life-threatening injuries took his life.

“Teofilo Beltrez, de Sabana Iglesia, Santiago de los Caballeros, murió en su apartamento en Manhattan.” Teofilo died in his Manhattan apartment, after his wife found out he had cheated on her.

After someone in Sabana Iglesia went to my house, took a picture of Robert, and sent it to her.

I called the boys that night to tell them.

I couldn’t mourn his death publicly. I was not his widow. I was married to a man who loved me, and I was expecting a baby.

I dressed in black for a week, stayed in my house, and did not bother staring out the window.

Robert would be flying to New York for his father’s funeral and I knew that in short time, I would be bochinche, not just for the Sabana Iglesia transplants, but for all Dominicans who live near — and for the Cubans and Puerto Ricans who make it a habit to spend Saturday night at my house.

When my son came, I held him over his father’s casket and said, “This is your father. He died in a car accident.”

Other mourners stared at Robert, whose face was identical to his father’s. They heard my lie, shook their head, and they did not have to say what I knew they were thinking.

His wife killed him.

But I caused his death.

Maria Diaz is an educational consultant living originally from Queens, New York, where she currently lives, though she has left parts of her heart in Cambridge and Palo Alto. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College, The City College of New York, and Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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