Once more to the campo: A student’s exploration of origin

One memory about the Dominican Republic (D.R.) sticks out to me. I was in kindergarten and the teacher told the class to draw a place that we loved being at. So I drew my family’s house in El Campo, or the mountainous countryside of the D.R. Nowadays the house is withering away and is in need of lots of repairs, but in my mind, I still have the same image of it from when I was a child. Sometimes when I think I don’t have a place here or anywhere else, I think of El Campo. I remember feeling like I somehow belonged there in that time.

If I had to draw it right now, I would draw a long, big house. Living in an apartment in New York makes you long for a big house – the irony is that the house I always wanted in America was in another country. I would draw the red and orange porch. And put a lot of black dots too, because I remember the walls were bumpy. I would draw the zinc roof that used to moan in the night. My uncles said that witches were walking across the roof. When it rained heavily, it would be so loud that you had to scream at the person next to you. I would also draw the old tree nearby that I was scared to go near because I thought a poisonous animal would come out and eat me. And I would draw the neighbor in the adjacent plot. Her name was Issa. I’m not sure how she became close with my family, but she loved me like I was her son. I would go down the hill to her house in the mornings, and she would cook for me and play with me. She used to joke that I would be so rich one day that I would be able to send her money for a generator.

So, kindergarten me drew the family’s house, and I showed it to a classmate of mine. I tried to explain to him what it was, but of course I didn’t do the best job. He was confused and whispered, “Those are bad things.”

From what I can remember, that was the first time I tried talking to someone who wasn’t a family member about the D.R. And, of course, I was too young to have the language to talk about immigration or the Diaspora. To me, it wasn’t a land full of political corruption, economic hardships and disparity – haunted by colonialism, genocide and dictator Rafael Trujillo’s legacy. To me, it was the wild paradise of my childhood.

As I grew up, I made assumptions about the D.R. and its people from my limited knowledge that I overheard. For example, I thought we were from Santo Domingo because every Dominican seemed to be from la capital. (My family is really from Santiago.) All Dominican men had two families and were dogs. All Dominicans were supposed to hate Haitians because they were going to kidnap you or rob you. And my family’s only ancestors were the Tainos (I never thought I could have black ancestry). These were assumptions I took to be true until I overheard something else that contradicted them.

As I got older, the D.R. wasn’t this vacation spot that I used to go to when I was kid. This island in the Caribbean had a history I didn’t know, that no one taught me. I had never heard of Trujillo until I read his name in one of Junot Diaz’s short stories. One time, I flipped to the index in the back of my history textbook and looked at the pages that mentioned the D.R. Those mentions were limited to when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. I felt proud that Columbus found the D.R. first, because it made the island seem more important.

There is an implied history for the island and, in turn, for my family. The D.R. was colonized by the Spanish, suffered from oppression for hundreds of years and became independent. My family was poor and left for America for a better life. My mother came to America and worked endlessly so that I can be here at the College.

Coming here, I learned that we’re big on sharing your stories. But I never spoke about the D.R. with non-Dominicans or Haitians. I still don’t know how to talk about the D.R. I’m trying to figure out how this small island affects my place in the world. Even writing this is a struggle because I still cannot articulate my connection to the motherland. Because the island is there and I’m here at the College. Because my family was there but they’re here in America. And my history is here, but is it there too? I try to learn as much I can here to create a connection with my Dominican narrative by taking classes and learning academic terms that my family won’t understand. But is that enough to make me learn and force a connection I never had in the first place?

Leonel Martinez ’20 is from New York, N.Y. He lives in East.