How my Dominican grandmother empowered me to tell my stories
We’ve asked contributors to tell us stories about the women who shaped their upbringings in honor of Women’s History Month.
Everyone called my mom’s mother Mamá or doña Susa. She was barely five feet tall, and for as long as I knew her, she had thick hair that she dyed black and wore in a pixie cut. My grandmother smelled like gardenias and baby powder, often saying that to prevent sweat and chaffing, a young lady had to use a lot of gardenia lotion and powder herself regularly.
Mamá Susa was also the first real storyteller in my life. She’d tell me the story of Juan Bobo (John the Fool, if you don’t speak Spanish) so that I wouldn’t go through life “as a fool who doesn’t have any common sense.” Mamá told us about Juan’s nonsensical escapades and I’d laugh so hard.
But Mamá didn’t only joke. I’d ask what life was like for her growing up in the Dominican Republic, and she’d tell me about the violent, brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. He was the evil, monstrous man responsible for the time period that Junot Diaz called the “Plátano Curtain” in Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. During Trujillo’s 30-year regime, more than 50,000 people were murdered.
My grandmother told me that when she was young and newly married to my grandfather, one of Trujillo’s men approached her and asked if she was married. Terrified, she nodded her head and pointed to my grandfather, and the man left her alone. My grandmother admitted to me later on that Papá’s family, the Fiallos, were important in the Dominican Republic. The Fiallos had a dynasty and a famous writer in their ranks, Fabio Fiallo. Fabio denounced the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic and spoke up about how it had led to the Trujillo dictatorship. He kept writing and creating despite the political turmoil, and like a lot of other creatives, he was exiled to Cuba.
Mamá told me that when she began living with my grandfather, their house was put under surveillance because they had a radio and Papá was a Fiallo.
I had many cousins who were good writers, who always had interesting things to say.
I felt nowhere near as talented as them, but I wanted to prove to Mamá that I, too, could tell stories.
Mamá would tell me all kinds of stories. Like how she had gotten into a fight on the schoolyard, how she had heard ghosts praying when she walked by a cemetery, how it was wrong to catch fireflies because they were departed souls on their way to the other side. As she got older, she’d feel too tired to talk and ask me to make up stories for her.
When I was in elementary school, I’d show her my medals for reading and writing; she’d hug and kiss me and promise to buy me ice cream. When it was my turn to clean the bathroom, she’d often catch me writing in little notebooks instead. But she never told on me to my parents. Mamá would just help me clean and then ask me to write her a story.
Her own handwriting was so shaky. Mamá never finished elementary school. Girls didn’t really go to school unless they were rich, she once told me. Instead, they worked or got married early. Once I asked her when I should get married, and she responded with “after la escuela.” Though she was devoutly Catholic and expected me to jump for joy at the thought of having children, Mamá still wanted school to be my priority.
Mamá had her first series of strokes at my house in 2009. I spent most of that summer going back and forth between hospitals with relatives; we didn’t want her to be alone. More strokes came in 2012 and she passed away a little after Thanksgiving that year.
I won a writing contest while I was in college in 2013. It was about El Cuco, the Caribbean boogeyman. My Dominican grandparents used to tell my siblings and me scary stories about El Cuco to make us behave. (If you don’t go to bed, El Cuco will come get you!) I wrote about the day when I found out he wasn’t real, about how frustrated I felt after being lied to for so many years! It was a humorous, lighthearted essay and my professor loved it.
When I won, I was excited to get the prize money — but later that night, I cried in bed. I couldn’t show my grandmother the certificate that the English department had sent me. I couldn’t tell her that other people liked my writing.
A few Christmases ago, my boyfriend gave me a rare book of stories by Fabio Fiallo, the famous writer in my grandfather’s family. The title was Cuentos Fragiles, or Fragile Stories. I read the cover and started crying. It reminded me so much of my grandmother. I wish she had lived long enough for me to tell her about my writing contests, about that book. I would have read it to her for hours.
Mamá is why why I’ve become comfortable writing about culture and identity.
An older cousin recently told me that Mamá inspired her too. She was our matriarch, and now part of our family legend.
Now I’m a published writer, and so many people have reached out to me on social media to tell me that my essays remind them of their own Caribbean families. They talk about how much they miss their older relatives. Recently, someone even emailed me letting me know they want to read more of my stories.
Maybe I’ll start writing down some of the stories my grandmother told me. I wish that, when I was younger, I’d had the sense to ask her more about her life. I don’t have that chance anymore, but I have my writing to fill in the blanks. Mamá’s stories deserve to live on.