Junot Díaz: The Mongoose and the Émigré

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An article by Junot Díaz for the New York Times.

There were mongooses everywhere on the island, but in those years I only ever saw them in Azua, where my mother was from. When we visited that part of the country, which seemed to me as withered as Santo Domingo was lush, they never failed to appear — low-slung sweeps of light, streaking across a baseball field, vanishing into grass. Mongooses were irresistible to a kid like me. Even in that small place, their reputations preceded them: legendary ratters, breakers of serpents, lightning fast and smart like all get out. Naturally I wanted one for a pet, but my abuelo, who knew everything about every animal in Azua, just laughed. Jurones can’t be tamed, he explained. Son guapo.

I still remember watching a mongoose pick off one of my abuela’s chicks right in front of our eyes, and while my abuela cursed the mongoose down to hell, I felt nothing but admiration for its speed and its audacity.

When we emigrated, mongooses were one of those things that followed me from the home country. It’s always surprising what crosses over with you when you emigrate, what remains. I forgot all the games I played with my little friends, I forgot the platanero who came to our street in the morning. But I didn’t forget the rains, and I certainly didn’t forget the mongooses.

There were no mongooses in New Jersey, but I kept my eyes peeled for them anyway — the impossible longing of the immigrant. When they did appear — in Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom,” in “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” in Alexander Key’s “Flight to the Lonesome Place,” as a brand of bike — I was thrilled. And in those moments, all the distances inside me lessened.

Later, when I was in college, I learned that, like my own people, the mongoose had been brought over to the Caribbean in chains to work the plantations — and yet they, too, had managed to slip empire’s bonds and become free, and flourish. In that fierce little feliform, a parable of my own people’s epic struggles.

When I finally made it back home to the Dominican Republic after 20 years’ absence, one of the first things I did was look for them. I traveled to Azua, and for three days I waited. I just about burst into tears when a mongoose finally darted out in front of the car I was in. Didn’t even bother to stop and look at me.

My girlfriend craned her long neck. What in the world was that?

That was a mongoose, I said. Son guapo.

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