An essay about my mom as a girl trying to get her education. Appeared in More, May 2011.
“I think of my mother, of course. She’s one of those ironwill rarely speak figures that haunt. See her in New Jersey, in the house with the squirrels in the back that she feeds sparingly (they shouldn’t get fat) and that she chides when she thinks they’re acting up. You wouldn’t know it looking at her in that kitchen, but she grew up one of those poor Third World–country girls. The brutalized backbone of our world. The kind of Dominican girl who was destined never to get off the mountain or out of the campo. Her own mother a straight-haired terror. Expected her to work on the family farm until she died or was married off, but my mother in those small spaces between the work cultivated dreams, that unbreakable habit of the young. When the field hands were hurt or fell ill, she was the one who cared for them. Opened in her a horizon. A dream of being a nurse in the capital, where she heard that every block had electricity. But to be a nurse, you needed education, and while there were some girls who attended the one-room school at the base of the hill, my mother was not one of them. Her mother, my grandmother, demanded that she stay on the farm, that she stay a mule. No one more threatened by the thought of an educated girl than my grandmother. Any time my mother was caught near the schoolhouse, my grandmother gave her a beating. And not the beatings of the First World but the beatings of the Third—which you do not so easily shake off.
So the months passed and the horizon started to dim, and that’s the way it should have stayed, but then the world, so far away, intervened. For his own complicated reasons the dictator of that time, Trujillo, passed a mandatory-education act stipulating that all Dominican children under the age of 15 had to be in school and not stuck out in the fields. All children. Any parent keeping a child from school would be imprisoned! Nothing short of the threat of a year inside a Trujillo prison could snap the resistance that rural Dominicans had to the idea of educating their young.
My mother heard about the law, of course. And she brooded on it. The house, like all other houses in the Dominican Republic, had a portrait of Trujillo hanging in it. I guess my mother figured if anyone was going to protect her from my grandmother’s wrath, it was going to be him.
She’d only learn later how little our dictator protected her or anyone else.
The news of the school came at a crucial time. My mother’s family was preparing for its seasonal move up higher into the hills, in the mist-soaked highlands where the coffee was waiting, but my mother had other plans. Two days before the move, she got down on her knees beside a stagnant puddle of water, put her mouth in it and drank deeply.
She was so sick that the family decided to head into the hills without her. The coffee could not wait. My mother was left with a cousin, and as soon as my grandmother was out of sight, my mother, bent over double from the stomach pains, hobbled down to the schoolhouse and reported my grandmother.
I want to go to school, was what she told the teacher.
What should have happened was that the teacher should have laughed and sent her poor ass back to the hills to pick coffee. But as it turned out, the teacher was an idealistic young woman from the capital—God bless all idealistic educators—and she took my mother’s claim seriously. Went to the police, who always took Trujillo’s laws seriously, and so when my grandmother came back to fetch her daughter, she found my mother attending school.
And when she tried to drag my mother up to the hills, the police put her in handcuffs, and that was that.
“Your grandmother beat me almost every day,” my mother explained, “but I got my education.”
She never did become a nurse, my mother. Immigration got in the way of that horizon—once in the United States, my mother never could master English, no matter how hard she tried, and my God, did she try. But strange how things work—her son became a reader and a writer, practices she encouraged as much as possible. I write professionally now, and life is long and complicated, and who knows how things might have turned out under different circumstances, but I do believe that who I am as an artist, everything that I’ve ever written, was possible because a seven-year-old girl up in the hills of Azua knelt before a puddle, found courage in herself and drank. Every time I’m in trouble in my art, I try to think of that girl. I think of that thirst, of that courage. I think of her.