Olga Marina Segura (Zora/Medium) talks to Dominican writer Angie Cruz and novels such as Soledad, Let It Rain Coffee and Dominicana. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]
Dominican novelist Angie Cruz does not come from a family of talkers, and yet, for 20 years, her novels have offered an intimate look into the experiences and complexities of a community known for its silence.
It was early February, and we met in Uptown Garrison, a cocktail bar in Washington Heights—the northern Manhattan neighborhood where Cruz was born in 1972 after her parents migrated from the Dominican Republic. When she first began writing, she told me that she was attempting to write about the unknown parts of Dominican history. “I was trying to write into what I didn’t know. And I would ask questions and I would always feel like I was hitting a wall because people were like, ‘Why do you want to talk about that?’” She added that, within the Dominican community, it is often difficult to talk about things like what it was like to live under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo or about the tense, often violent, relationship between the country and its neighbor Haiti. “I practiced sitting and listening to people and trying to piece together, through the gaps and silences, a truth,” she told me. Her works, all novels set in the Heights and the Dominican Republic, are Cruz’s attempts to grapple with Dominican history and identity.
Growing up, Cruz traveled often between the islands of Manhattan and the Dominican Republic. “I was able to see the United States from another point of view,” she told me. “It also allowed me to see the complexity of our community and demythologize the American dream and what it means to climb socially.” Her novels are set in the epicenter of Dominican American life, the Heights, and they deal with Dominican migration to America. The first migratory wave began in the 1960s, eventually peaking during the 1980s, when more than 200,000 Dominicans arrived. The majority of these individuals settled in New York City, where almost 40% of the U.S. Dominican population resides today.
Cruz’s novels demonstrate what it was like for Dominicans navigating the life they left behind and the life they were trying to create in the United States. She addresses questions of migration and what it means to leave war and oppression for the escape of America. Most importantly, Cruz focuses on Dominican womanhood and what it means to be a woman in patriarchal Caribbean culture. Her first novel, 2001’s Soledad, tells the story of teenage Soledad, an art student at Cooper Union who is forced to return to her childhood home in the Heights after she learns that her mother, Olivia, has fallen into an emotional coma. Once she is back home, she is forced to confront her tumultuous relationship with her mother and the trauma inflicted upon her and Olivia by her dead father. The novel depicts the powerful, often complicated, relationships between Dominican women and the experiences they face.
“The women in my life have always been resisting the status quo. Even though they had a lot of challenges and limitations due to patriarchy and misogyny and racism and not being able to speak the language, they were constantly performing acts of resistance,” she told me. “I don’t think my mother would say, ‘I am a feminist,’ but I think in all the different ways that she’s moved in the world, she practices resistance to male domination.”
In Dominicana, published last fall, Cruz introduced readers to Ana Canción, who at 15, is married off to a man twice her age, Juan Ruiz. Ana and Juan move to New York City, where Ana rarely leaves her home and is abused by Juan. By the end of the novel, we see Ana grow from a quiet, subservient character to a powerful woman, becoming one of Cruz’s most beautiful characters. Cruz tells me that part of the inspiration for this story came from her mother, who was married to a man twice her age prior to arriving in the United States in the 1970s. Cruz wrote the book while living in Texas, miles away from her family and community in New York City. Dominicana also allowed Cruz to look into what life must have been like for women like her mom, who married young, and the choices they were forced to make. “I want to give Ana this story, so women, when they’re in the kitchen, preparing a meal, see themselves, which is something they do so often. When they feel trapped in a situation, they don’t feel alone in that situation. When they feel this desire to learn and study, they actually can watch someone do that thing.”
Cruz’s novel Let It Rain Coffee turns 15 this year, an anniversary she describes as a coming of age. The novel, her second, is the story of Don Chan, who after the death of his wife, leaves his home in Los Llanos to move in with his son, Santo, and Santo’s wife Esperanza in New York City. Prior to moving to the United States, Santo and Don Chan fought against Trujillo and the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic. The novel, which moves back and forth between Dominican Republic in the 1960s and New York City in the 1990s, showcases how adept Cruz is at weaving fiction with history. When Don Chan first arrives in the United States, he becomes frustrated when his son and daughter-in-law insist that life has gotten better in the Dominican Republic, reminding them: “The U.S. invaded us in ’65 so that D.R. wouldn’t turn into another Cuba. And look at it, D.R. is another Cuba, it’s Batista’s Cuba. We’ve become whores for the tourists and U.S. aid.”
The history of resistance in the Dominican Republic was not a history Cruz learned growing up in the Catholic schools and art school she attended. It was not until she was an undergrad at SUNY Binghamton that she studied the revolutions that took place in countries like Haiti, Cuba, and Chile, and she began to wonder why the Dominican Republic was left out of revolutionary texts. She credits a class called Race, Class, and Empires, taught by historian Tiffany Patterson, with allowing her to learn more deeply about Latin American history.
She told me that the act of putting a book together was her way to try to understand her country’s role in the history she was learning. “Where does my family fit in this narrative? Where does D.R. fit in the narrative of the international conversation?” I asked Cruz if it is difficult to tell stories she is so connected to. She said, “I think writing in general is difficult because if you’re trying to write about the nuances of human nature, there’s a struggle.”
Cruz isn’t afraid to also highlight the anti-Blackness and colorism prevalent within the Dominican community. For years, she said, Dominicans were not even willing to acknowledge that they are Black citizens, pointing to the erasure that occurred under Trujillo, who infamously lightened his skin and killed Haitians and other darker skinned Dominicans.
“I think the right side of history for Dominicans is that we’re African Latina. We are. In the same way that we are part of the African diaspora,” she said. “Those things are difficult to talk about… I acknowledge my privilege, I acknowledge my assets, I acknowledge all of it, but I also am not going to erase the fact that I feel like I’m part of the Black diaspora. I don’t belong anywhere else.”
Blackness within the Dominican community is not an easy topic to discuss, but Cruz’s novels offer a great starting point, demonstrating why it is so important to have Caribbean and other Latinx writers tell our own stories and histories.
Cruz and I met just two weeks after her publishing house, Flatiron Books, had released a statement on the controversy surrounding Jeannine Cummings, the white author behind American Dirt. Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Cruz about Cummings and whether white authors should be allowed to tell Black and Brown stories. She told me that while writers should be able to write about whatever they want, the issue surrounding American Dirt had more to do with the power given to a white writer over a Latinx one.
“I think that the hurt that writers are feeling because of this really has to do with the fact that we are so underrepresented. I think that if there was a critical mass of Latinx writers being published, being supported, being represented, this book would have been a blip in the radar,” she says. “So we should write about whatever we want, but we have to do it with kindness and tenderness, but also realize that it’s really a structural problem, and it’s a capitalist problem. The money has to be reallocated, and we have to see ourselves more. All of it.”
After our conversation, I felt more hopeful about my own role as an Afro-Latina writer in 2020. Before we parted, she instilled one final piece of wisdom, urging me to remember to write about what matters.
“In the end what really matters is that you can defend your work. And that you could be proud of it 10 years from now, 20 years from now, because you did something that was honest and then you tried your best.”