Why Are They Holding Up the Wall?

I need a partner who takes it easy. People have remarked that it looks like he’s crushing my hand. Moment captured by Pedro Manuel Martínez Sánchez.

In 2007, the first time I taught an evening course in Literature of the Caribbean, I was surprised to see that not one literature or Spanish language major signed up. The class was full of math and science majors who needed an elective. It was even held in the science building. It occurred to me that I needed to make the curriculum as entertaining as possible, so I incorporated educational games, library scavenger hunts, and movie versions of the books we were studying into the lessons. I also took the class to a Dominican restaurant. The owner’s school-age son already had the presence of mind to notice that they were “non-Latino students learning about our food and way of life.”

Up until then, I was setting a good example for them. The time I invited members of the Latino Student Union to be guest speakers, I ended up learning a lesson of my own.

The vice-president of the LSU was a tall, vibrant blonde who proudly proclaimed her love for a Dominican boyfriend. Like me, she had become a Latina by affinity. The other two young women took questions about being bilingual and going to school in a different culture. To this day, I remember little of what they said because I was fixated on a caricature that I had unwittingly created.

 The time came to demonstrate merengue, one of the typical dances of the Dominican   Republic. Music and dance are often included as part of the curriculum of “modern languages” or “other cultures in English” classes. The burning question is how, and it is something I grossly misunderstood. The LSU vice-president and I told the students to choose a partner, and we were moving with reckless abandon to the music. . . while the two Latinas who had been born into the culture hung back. I could not help but wonder, why are they holding up the wall?

Toward the end of the semester, I attended a community luncheon known as the Reconocimiento (Recognition) Awards and learned that one of them was the Young Latina Leadership winner. Oops! Without saying a word, I had metaphorically put my foot in my mouth!

At least the twenty-year-old with the Dominican boyfriend had youthful enthusiasm as an excuse. I was double her age and should have known better, so where was mine? The stereotype about “having rhythm” ended up working in Langston Hughes’s favor when, as one of only two “Negro” students (as he put it), he was elected class poet. His peers were elementary school children, and apparently, the teacher bought into the idea. Only when Hughes was hired to be part of a song and dance troupe as an adult did he discover that his lack of “rhythm” was detrimental.

Intellectually, I know that Italian Americans do not go around dancing the “Tarantella” at the drop of a hat. During a discussion years later, another local leader reminded of the Saturday Night Live skit called “The Manuel Ortiz Show,” where host and guests always broke into merengue. Glasses on the bridge of her nose, she of the severe countenance asked me, “Do you really want to turn us into a caricature?”

 At least Betty White, who was almost 90 years old, was intentionally trying to be funny in this clip that aired on Dominican television. She dances (or makes a brave attempt)  toward the end:



Happy Birthday to Me?! What Not to Do Upon Reaching 50



Photo Credit: Low Game Community.

Check out more funny and unusual photos here: http://live-host.net/gallery/

When searching for the appropriate image to accompany my next entry, I first looked at the ones with the smashed or dropped birthday cake. There was even one with a cartoon character that read, “Smash me.” Then I came across this brilliantly sarcastic cake complete with lit birthday candles.

My birthday is not until February. I was born on Groundhog Day, but woe to me if I, in the spirit of Bill Murray, have to read the same, self-centered Facebook posts day in and day out. I would much rather listen to an endless loop of Sonny and Cher singing, “I Got You, Babe,” just like Murray did in the movie.

Nothing annoys me more than “Happy Birthday to Me” posts by my female peers. Granted, I have a few more years before I reach 50, but I will have bigger and better things to do than post my picture, stating, “51 and still feeling like a warrior,” in order to garner “Likes” and comments. Just the other day I woke up to this status update: “Happy Birthday to Me! 56 and still shinning bright.” First of all, the glaring spelling error hurt my eyes. Second of all, I wanted to scream at the screen, “Get over yourself! Wait for other people to recognize you!” 

Finally, I started calling for Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors to take me away with him.

In every bit of sarcasm, there is the tiniest grain of truth. Murray’s character is initially described as a “self-centered meteorologist.” The only way to escape the incessant string of Groundhog Days and move the calendar forward to February 3 is for him to better himself. In the movie, among the talents he acquires are the abilities to play the piano and even speak Italian and French.

I can play the piano enough to read simple music because I gave it up in college. My Italian is not as fluent as it should be because we never spoke it at home. French is another story, since I stayed in Paris for a total of 12 years. I recently had a friend take a picture of my diploma from the Sorbonne (earned in 1995 in the pre-social media days) and I uploaded it to my Facebook timeline. The trick was to give my friend photographer’s credit and make it all about him.

Watch Bill Murray reciting French poetry here after he takes the time to find out about Rita (Andie MacDowell) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVeJ5F26uiM

And if anyone catches me navel-gazing on my 50th birthday and beyond, may  “Punxutawney Phil” see his shadow over and over again so spring never comes. Then may the townspeople come knocking on my door, drag me through the snowy streets to volunteer at the nearest Red Cross or United Way, and in so doing, force me out of the endless time loop. 

A Soccer Story



Photographer’s Credit: Sarah Cooper, http://www.trinitonian.com

I do not play soccer. In fact, I have never been athletic. Nonetheless, I use sports metaphors such as “take the ball and run with it” and refer to myself as a “left fielder.” This is why a story told to me by a soccer player served as a lesson. On this particular Saturday afternoon, one woman was going around and practically begging to join a team. All the other players, including my friend, shook their heads and wondered what kind of agenda she had. 

Finally, the newcomer was placed on the opposing team, and she soon demonstrated the speed and skill needed to take possession of the ball, similar to the encounter pictured above at a University of Dallas game last fall. She had such fancy footwork that she easily led her teammates to victory. 

Even though this player had clearly shown everyone she was an accomplished athlete, doubts still lingered in everyone’s minds. Teammates and opponents alike were in awe of her prowess. So why had she approached everyone with desperation in her voice?

I can be the most proficient in Spanish, a language I learned on my own. I can also take voice lessons at the prestigious Eastman School of Music. But it all means nothing unless I follow my Dominican husband’s advice: hay que darte tu importanciaThis does not mean to put on airs, but to recognize my own importance. He used to become quite upset when he saw me acting like that soccer player and putting everyone else on such a high pedestal. 

What prevented that skilled athlete from recognizing her own importance? Perhaps she had been told repeatedly that her preoccupation with soccer was just some silly fancy, just as I had been led to believe that my interest in other languages and music was a waste of time.

If someone wants me on her team, I have to prove to her that I can steal the ball.  




Litany of the Disenchanted Island


Santo Domingo: The Beach at Dusk

The following poem offended a number of people. Then again, it fascinated others. Some listeners said it sounded worse in Spanish, even if they were not fluent in the language. 

My point of blogging is not to project a Pollyannaish image of “we’ll all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ and be friends.” Sometimes there are serious differences that can only be resolved through poetry, even if it sounds harsh.

For now, I am using the nom-de-plume of Dionisio de los Ríos for this and a few other selections. With all the references to queens, sirens, sorceresses and prostitutes, it could have been written by a male poet. As a non-Latina woman, I am not allowed to be bitter or angry, so I am putting all my venom into the mouth of my male persona.

Litany of the Disenchanted Island

I renounce the sun the sea and all that sings:

take back your enchantment your sirens your illusions
I will no longer wreck my boat upon your island
beachless surrounded by jagged rocks and false promise.


Oh disenchanted island queen of lies:

how long have I listened to your Piper’s tune?

your malecón worse than the streets of Hamelin

where souls lured by black magic march toward death.


Whoring siren ungrateful Piper shall I pay you with my blood?

How long will you laugh at my cries a thousand ahs! cast into the sea?

Cursed be the day I learned the psalms that even David would hate

declaimed in a tongue as cutting as the rocks that choke the shore.


Sorceress of scorn inflictor of all pain

merciless mystic mother where is your chaste and cherished child?

I reject you and all your works oh empty house of fool’s gold.

Far from you shattered mirror of injustice I will seek other seas.

Dionisio de los Ríos

July 2012

The Spanish version is here:

Letanía de la isla desencantada

 Renuncio al sol y al mar y a todo lo que canta:

te devuelvo tu encanto tus sirenas y tus ilusiones
mi barco ya no naufragará en tu isla
sin playa rodeada de rocas serradas y promesa falsa.


Oh isla desencantada reina de mentiras:

¿desde cuándo he escuchado tu melodía de Flautista?

tu malecón peor que las calles de Hamelin

en donde las almas llamadas por la magia negra se marchan hacia la muerte.


Sirena prostituta Flautista ingrata ¿debería pagarte con mi sangre?

¿Hasta cuándo reirás de mis gritos miles de ¡ah! echados en el mar?

Maldito sea el día cuando aprendí los salmos aborrecidos hasta por David

declamados en una lengua tan cortante como las rocas que ahogan la orilla.


Hechicera del desdén la que inflige todos los dolores

madre mística sin merced ¿dónde está tu niño casto y querido?

Te rechazo a ti y a toda tu obra oh casa vacía de oro de tontos.

Lejos de ti espejo de la injusticia hecho pedazos buscaré otro mar.

Dionisio de los Ríos

julio 2012



Enough Chinese Takeout for Six People




Photo from The Wokery Chinese Restaurant in Rochester, New York

Chinese restaurants used to be a place where I went because I did well in school. When I brought home an outstanding report card at the age of ten, my mother told me, “I’m taking you to a Chinese restaurant tomorrow.” There was no reward system in place. I simply liked school and would continue to study hard whether I had Chinese food to look forward to or not.

I learned to use chopsticks that day, and even now, my coworkers from Southeast Asia notice how natural it seems for me to hold the bottom one like a pencil and move the top one.  Then the Wokery opened not far from my high school. This was a favorite spot to go with my grandmother and mother. Once in a while, I brought another studious friend with me.

Recently, I joked about keeping a Chinese takeout place in business because we were moving into our first home and everything was upside-down or in boxes. There was even a lawn mower in the living room!

Last month, I learned that even though I was now a homeowner in my hometown, I still could feel very much like an outsider. And what is to blame? In my field of study, Comparative Literature, I learned how to break down all kinds of cultural and linguistic barriers, but not everyone shares this ability. My suspicions were confirmed that gender also had something to do with the misunderstanding.

On a Friday night during happy hour, I went to a local bar that reminded me of European establishments with the zinc counter and the espresso machine alongside the bottles of wine and liquor. The previous week, an Italian gentleman my father’s age had sat with me at an umbrella table and explained how to make a good cup of espresso. He even said he was going to buy me “an espresso machine for the home.” Since I had company and could only stay a little while, time went by quickly.

Then on the evening when I had planned to stay the entire time, I was offered an espresso, and my Italian friend was nowhere to be found. A few Dominicans I hadn’t seen in a while were sitting at the next table, and I was hoping to catch up with them. Apparently, they had another agenda, which was to spend some “guy time” as it was later explained to me. The gender difference had not even crossed my mind, since I was fluent in Spanish and thought that my ability to converse in their native language trumped their longtime friendship with the owner of the establishment. 

As they sat and broke bread and I wanted to join them, I looked at my watch and thought of a white lie to save face: “Alessandro said I needed to be with my husband,” I told them, “and he’s working overtime. I should really be home by 6:30.” The bar owner laughed, saying, “I’ll tell him you’re following directions!”

I went to my usual takeout place to order enough Chinese food for six people. When I got home, I took a few bites and could not eat any more because of the bitter taste in my mouth. 

The next time, if I wanted to break bread with the Dominicans, I would bring the food. Or better yet, I would bring my husband with me.