“Who would be interested in a story about a woman like me?
It’s so typical.”
These are the words that Angie Cruz’s mother said to her when she told her she was writing a novel inspired by her immigration to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the 60s. And it is a phrase that all too many women, especially women of color, feel. Men get centered in stories with killing and shootouts and crime and sex and it engrains in women that our softer stories are not important and do not need to be centered. On Good Morning America, Angie Cruz said she had never read a book written by a Latinx author until she was in college. It was an absolute privilege for her to see her book find so much success. It shouldn’t be surprising as she is an immensely talented writer, but due to the publishing industry ignoring Latinx writers for as long as literature has been around, we are lucky her story was even published.
Lee & Low just published their diversity survey displaying the statistics in writing. Only a small percentage of top performing books with published authors self-identify as Latinx. This makes sense when you realize that only 6% of the entire industry, from editors to reviewers to literary agents, are Latinx. 6% of children’s books represent Latinx characters, and only ⅓ of those books are written by actual Latinx #ownvoices. Why? One New York publishing said “Hispanics can’t read.” So many publishing houses who pride themselves inappropriately in their diversity & inclusion efforts are enmeshed in ignorance surrounding the linguistic capabilities of the Latinx population in the United States. Not only will they not publish books in Spanish for fear of underwhelming sales, they won’t take a chance on Latinx writers publishing their authentic stories. First of all, 41,000,000 people in the United States speak Spanish in their households, and 22,000,000 of those people speak English fluently. Only 20% of white Americans speak a second language. So, who’s illiterate and boring now BITCH? Latinx people make up the majority minority of the population.
Literacy rates in Latin American countries:
El Salvador: 90%
Costa Rica: 97.8%
Puerto Rico: 93.3%
Dominican Republic: 91.8%
The United States is at a 96% literacy rate, with 14% below basic literacy. Barely above, and below many, Latin American countries. The only Latin American country that is incredibly low in literacy is Haiti. No doubt because it has been completely colonized and catastrophically run into the ground by white governments like the United States. It’s easier to control people when they can’t read or write or know their basic human rights. ANYWAYS, my point is, that it definitely seems like Latinx people can fucking read. And would buy a buttload of books. If white publishing executives weren’t so moronic and dim-sighted.
Dominicana follows a fifteen-year old girl by the name of Ana. She has never dreamed of moving to America, but when her family notices that a thirty-two year old man, Juan Ruiz, has taken a special interest in her, an opportunity arises. Juan, twice her age, proposes and her family basically emotionally forces her to marry him, move to America with him, and have her send money home until they too can join her in America someday. She finds herself achingly depressed and lonely in her sixth floor walk-up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. She hears gunshots outside her window constantly, speaks not a word of English, and misses her family immensely. At first, Juan is sweet and loving and then he is drunk and forceful and beats her. As she’s hatching an escape plan to return home to the Dominican Republic, political turmoil escalates at home, and Juan is the one who must return to take care of his family’s land. When Juan leaves, Ana feels a weight lifted off her shoulders. Juan’s brother, César, helps to take care of her. She begins taking English classes at a neighborhood church, starts selling Dominican food as a street vendor to earn her own living, and finds herself falling in love. When Juan returns, she has to make a decision: family or sense of self?
Not only is this novel a coming of age story where a young woman finds her voice, it is a story that many immigrant women have faced. Today, almost 40% of immigrants coming to America is due to family migration, specifically family reunification which entails a primary migrant moving to America (Ana) and the family accompanying them later once they are financially and politically able to. That percentage adds up to over 2,000,000 people annually. That is 2,000,000 people who can see themselves in Ana’s story. And that is inspiring and revolutionary.
The main area of the book that really impacted me, that didn’t get as much emphasis in other reviews I saw, was Ana’s survival of the domestic violence she experienced. Newly arrived immigrant women whose immigration status is not permanently established, much like Ana in this novel who is technically undocumented after her visa expires, are much more likely to be controlled and manipulated by their abusers. Juan continuously assures Ana that outside the apartment is dangerous and that she should trust no one, often with racist implications (the colorism exemplified in this novel was tremendous and noteworthy). We often talk about intersectionality online in the book community, and the complex intersection of domestic violence and immigration status should be highlighted much more often. Not only is Ana brainwashed to think that America is dangerous, she feels trapped because of her language barrier and social isolation that Juan has forced upon her. He refuses to allow her to take English classes and beats her when she even opens the door to a guest who knocks. I used to volunteer at a domestic violence shelter when I lived in Madison, and thankfully, it offered bilingual services. But many shelters do not have the financial resources to implement that. Many court systems do not have a certified interpreter, if the case even gets that far. While this book takes place in the 1960s, today’s times are not any better. Across the United States, authorities have documented declines in crime reporting by immigrants. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, crime is not going down, immigrants are just more reluctant to contact authorities because of deportation consequences. The steepest declines took place in early 2017 when President Trump took office and ordered ICE to increase their targeting.
The writing in Cruz’s book is impeccable and eerily correct in its portrayal of domestic violence. For example, there is a scene in the novel where Juan strangles Ana to the point where she passes out. Strangulation is noted as one of the top indicators that a man will murder his partner—it occupies a category in domestic violence as a marker of lethality. In the novel, we read of Juan slapping and punching Ana. While these are terrible, none of them carry as much weight in regards to portend homicide like him strangling her did. We often see articles after mass shootings finally recognizing their connection with domestic violence, but our analysts need to dig even deeper and discover that strangulation is even more contextual.
After Ana is strangled by Juan, she discovers she is pregnant with Juan’s baby. Weeks later, bruises still around her neck, she goes to a check-up prenatal appointment. The doctor brings in a Spanish interpreter (a resource sometimes not included at a hospital) and they ask about the bruises. Strangulation is not only overlooked by most law enforcement officers and prosecutors, it is also not always recognized as a signal of immense dangerousness by health-care workers. In the novel, the health care workers give her one brochure (more than likely in English) and send her on her way with her husband who is twice her age and beating the shit out of her. They did not give her a CT scan or an MRI to see if she had a traumatic brain injury from losing consciousness. Luckily, they saw her bruises, but oftentimes strangulation is not visible. The mere presence of strangulation in a domestic abuse case increases the woman’s chances of homicide by sevenfold. Domestic violence does not move backwards. Once man’s hands are on a woman’s neck, the next step is murder.
When I read that part in the novel, I audibly gasped. I will not spoil the ending, which is utterly amazing, but just know that it pristinely and effortlessly delivers. The story of Ana, in symphony with Angie’s mother's story, is important. It deserves to be told with conviction and honesty and fearlessness. Cruz rightfully captures the essence of immigration and girlhood with the perfect amount of vulnerability necessary to give the reader an understanding of the experience. While the book is often littered with hardship and harsh realities, there is also an exuberant amount of joy that is pulled into existence when Ana is in the kitchen. The culture of the Dominican Republican flourishes as Ana finds comfort in her cooking and it was enticing to look over her shoulder as she found solace in the concoctions that swallowed her loneliness.
I would recommend this novel a thousand times over. I was not only interested in this story, but irrevocably moved to my core, and I think you will be too.
By Angie Cruz
336 pages. 2019.