Saturday, July 14, 2007

Collective Parenting

On Monday, equipped with my power suit and high heel shoes, I walked along the uneven roads of Swetes Village and up Roman Hill to wait across the street from All Saints Roman Catholic Church for a bus to take me to town where I was to begin my work at the Directorate of Gender Affairs. There, at the bus stop, stood two older ladies. Being a good Antiguan, I said, “Good Morning” so that they could see that I have manners. If not, I probably would not have heard the end of it. “Good Morning,” they replied in unison in the Antiguan sing-song I have missed. “Oh, she so pretty and nice,” one of the ladies said to the other. I smiled humbly after hearing the compliment.

Then, the same lady turned to me and said out of nowhere, “Listen, you pretty, and dem men dem gon follow after you. Don’t let dem a spoil you. All dem a want is sex, and then when dem a get it, dem a turn dem back pon you.” I smiled and nodded at her advice, saying that I was focused on my studies, not on men. Soon, afterwards, the bus arrived and I wished my two new friends a lovely day as I closed the bus’s door shut. When I got into the bus, praying that it was going to take me to where I was trying to go, I started to reflect on what the nice older lady had said me.

Of course, I have heard that very same thing from my Antiguan mother—let your man wait because after he gets sex, he’ll leave you. Believe me, that idea has been engrained in my head. However, what I enjoyed most about the women’s schooling me on the ways of men was that it seemed that in Antigua, raising children is everyone’s job. Even on Thursday when I was taking the bus home from town, the lady next me kindly told me, “You musn’t bite your nails.” I replied, “You’re right. It’s a bad habit. Thank you.” Her comment and the one of my older lady friends caused me to think about my students in the Bronx, who would never want to hear anything from anyone else because “that ain’t they mother to be telling them what to do.”

Unfortunately, in the United States, everything is so individualistic. No one likes to be told what to do. No one wants to hear how she should raise her children. No one wants to get involved in any one else’s business. In contrast, in Antigua, everyone is in your business. The island is small, and the villages are even smaller. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone has a role in raising all children. The idea of a collective parent evokes the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and indeed it does.

Parenting should be collective. Children are our present and our future, and for us to only care about our own children and not our neighbor’s children is to do a disservice to our society, as we would probably all like productive individuals living among us. When issues of education and public health and of abuse and discrimination against children come up, we should all get involved. We should all fight the fight because we would want the best for our children and thus should want the best for other children no matter which part of the world they reside.

Did I plan to come to Antigua? Did I plan to go to Dominican Republic, for that matter? No, I did not, but something moved me to these destinations. In fact, I had a conversation with a friend this week and told her that it was the need for humanity that moved me, that brought me to these places away from family and friends. It was the injustice, the inequality, and the poverty that made me come here and go to Santo Domingo. I felt that little me could do something, could make some sort of difference, but as a collective unit, we could all make a bigger difference. We should all be walking activists, fighting for all children as we would fight for our very own.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Full circle: a visit to Santo Domingo and a new journey in Antigua

I walked through the very same streets in Santo Domingo and saw poverty right where I left it a year ago. Orphaned children who shine shoes instead of attending school hung around on Calle Independencia, waiting for business. Street hustlers yelled broken English to tourists to buy their made-only-in-the-Dominican-Republic-goods.

The same Dominican faces and their unfortunate conditions mixed with curious, naive tourist families and foreign men with their caramel-colored-by-the-hour-escorts welcomed me as I walked briskly on El Conde. Illusions of change and progress with the broken down roads in la capital for the construction of the metro still leave the poor, abandoned and suffering. Not much has changed, sadly.

My visit to the maternity hospital reminded me of the hurt and pain I felt each day I worked there. There is a new door by the entrance that separates the waiting room from the upstairs patients' rooms, but the waiting room in the adolescent unit still fills to capacity with young-mothers-to-be. There are still little resources, so little that during my hour's visit, I found myself playing pharmacists again, distributing medicine and instructions to take them to pregnant teens like I had done every day last year.

The purpose of my trip to Dominican Republic was to gather information from successful non-government agencies who work with and support sex workers. Prostitution in the Dominican Republic is legal. Of course, that is not to say that it is easy being a sex worker. Female sex workers experience police brutality on a daily basis and put themselves at all types of risks daily. Some sex workers never make it home alive.

During my first day there, I interviewed a sex worker, who has been doing sex work for twenty years. From her, I learned about the reality and the life of someone who is involved in commercial sex work. On my second day in the country, I had a meeting with three NGOs that work in that area and that have been successful in the work that they do with sex workers. From my meeting with the gracious representatives from their organizations, I learned about commercial sex work from the institutional perspective.

The rest of my short trip in the Dominican Republic was focused on my catching up with friends who became family and exploring parts of Santo Domingo that I had not discovered before. Right now, I am in Puerto Rico en route to Antigua, where I will be working with the government in their Directorate of Gender Affairs office. I will start a project I proposed that will be focused on the Dominican sex workers in the country so that Antigua could provide them with better support and sexual and reproductive health services. I still do not know what to expect, but I am excited to be doing this work for the marginalized in Antigua.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Es Asi

Es así
El mar está coqueteando con la orilla,
Viniendo y yendo, yendo y viniendo.
Las nubes se rezagan de arriba,
Mirando esta historia de amor tan triste,
Sabiendo que estos dos nunca pueden estar juntos.
Cada vez que el mar y la orilla se vuelven a reunir,
El mar se separa de ella
Con una gran fuerza sin su propio control,
Llevándose consigo un pedazo de ella,
Dejándola más sola, desconsolada, y abandonada que antes.
Cuando ella está lista para rendirse,
Él regresa, tratando de confesar su amor,
Antes de que él pueda decírselo, se separa de ella otra vez,
Y esto pasa
Por días,
Por meses,
Por años,
Y él vive solamente para decirle que él la quiere,
Y ella,
Ella pasa su vida,


Es así
The sea flirts with the shore,
Coming and going, going and coming,
While the clouds linger above,
Watching this sad love story,
Knowing that the two could never be together.
Each time the couple reunites,
The sea separates from her
With an uncontrollable force,
Taking a piece of her with him,
Leaving her more lonely,
And abandoned than before,
Just as she is ready to give up hope,
He returns to confess his love,
He is pulled away from her
Before he gets a chance to say anything,
And this happens
For days,
For months,
For years,
And he lives only for the hope of confessing his love,
And she,
She spends her life,
Waiting for him.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Conquistador SIDA

April 9, 2006

It was still early so the Colonial Zone’s Parque Duarte was not as littered with its usual crowd: rebels, posers, artists, queer people, beer-bottle collectors, and sweet-talking sanky-pankies with foreign partners at their sides. Sitting on a bench, my friends and I discussed politics, gender, race, and sexuality after having just arrived back to Santo Domingo from a campo in San Cristobal. All we wanted to do was relax and keep with us as much of the campo’s serenity as possible.

Mid-way in a conversation about my hair, a woman approached us to beg for money, completely ruining the mood. I looked up at her, acknowledging her presence, but could not understand a word she was saying in her mumble-speak. Out of nowhere, she lifted up her huge, black blouse and revealed her wet, pee-stained checkered pants to prove to us that she was going to use whatever money we would give her to buy an adult diaper.

She continued her testimony by showing us different parts of her body that were slowly deteriorating: her legs, her arms, her stomach, her everything. Several times as she spoke to us, she bent over in pain clinching onto herself and scrunching up her face as though she had just eaten something sour. She confessed to us that she was dying as tears trickled down the premature wrinkles of her drawn-in face.

My Bronx instinct told me not to believe her, to think that all of this was some scam to get money out of us, two foreigners and two Dominicans with New York City flavoring, but death and suffering consumed her being. She struggled to support her thin, fragile self up, a thirty-eighth year old trapped in an old woman’s body waiting for her last breath.

After learning she suffered from AIDS, her frail appearance made sense, and I also realized that although I had worked and talked with HIV patients before, I had never known anyone with full-blown AIDS in my life. Now, all the statistics, all the scholarly journals I had read about AIDS finally had a face—a young woman, invisible to society, with no money, with nowhere to go, and with no family or friends supporting her.

Years ago, when she was a younger, vibrant woman at her job in Santiago, she was forced down by some man and raped, only to learn later on that his violent and voracious act would be the cause of her death. I sat in shock and in disbelief as she spilled out the events of her life—all the things she had done and those she will never get to do.

“What’s you name?” She asked, looking deep into my eyes through her wide-framed glasses. “Dena,” I replied eagerly in an effort to remind her of her personhood, which was lost when she was driven to make the streets her home and strangers her family. “Milagros (Miracles) is my name,” she said, and we stared at each other in brief silence as though we were both thinking the same thing: nothing about her life reflected the meaning of her name.

Then, she kneeled down to me and broke out into a bachata song about her last hospital visit. She struggled to sing, often taking short breaths from her sprinkled-with-rotten-teeth mouth. I absorbed her lyrics, as the beauty and soulfulness of her voice were mesmerizing. At the end of her song, she walked away, leaving us to try recuperating any remaining campo tranquility while she continued her begging in Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone, having no choice but to spend the rest of her life suffering a brutal and fatal colonization of her body.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Old Italian Man at Playa Guyacanes

April 1, 2006

I was lying on one of those white plastic, worn-out, rent-for-the-day beach chairs with my face absorbed in a book. My plan was to get some reading done while enjoying the beautiful Caribbean scenery and the relaxing sound of the ocean’s comings and goings. I arrived at the beach equipped with my one-piece bathing suit and basketball shorts, extra protection from preying men, because I did not want to be bothered today. I had learned my lesson months ago in Sosua when a group of European men mistook my token-ness at the resort for my being a Dominican prostitute, even in my conservative two-piece suit.

Next to me, and my dilapidated chair, were a group of old men, some greasy-haired, others bald, spitting Italian words and gestures all over the place. Their sprinkled-with-white-hair chests and pregnant guts complemented their tight bikinis. Apparently, they did not get the memo: old men should not try to strut their not-so-hot stuff in Speedos. I attempted to concentrate on my reading, but I was distracted by their loudness and their sense of power and entitlement. Instead of struggling to focus on my book, I turned toward my friends to join into their conversation but was interrupted by one of the bald Italians before I could say a word.

“Americana?” He questioned. It was as though he had been waiting for me to put my book down to get my attention, to intercept my words. “No,” I replied. I never say I’m Americana anyway. “I’m from Antigua,” I continued, giving him the benefit of the doubt although, in the back of my head, I knew that he and his friends had to be sex vultures scavenging Dominican women. “I have never been there. I should go there.” he replied, looking as though he was taking a mental note to look into it for future sexual investments and expecting an invitation to there from me. Then, he told me, in his part Spanish, part Italian, that he was in the Dominican Republic for six months, a vacation from the cold, something he always does evidently.

As much as I did not want to talk to this old grimy Italian, I was curious; I wanted to put a face to these prostitute-searching men. He persisted with small talk, and after learning that I also lived in the Dominican Republic, mumbled, “Maybe, you could call me, or I could call you sometime, and we could get together.” I pretended that I did not hear what he said and sought refuge in my book, which suddenly looked more interesting than it did before. I locked my eyes on to the black letters of the white pages while he remained staring at me, his aged eyes’ burning me worse than the Dominican sun.

Several times, he attempted to get my attention, but I ignored him, immersed into my fake-reading. In the awkwardness of the moment, he conveniently noticed a friend and walked to him, away from me. “Thank goodness,” I thought to myself, and I finally joined my friend’s discussion. In his absence, two teenage Dominican girls, after being called over, joined the Elderly-Men-Who-Think-They-Are-God’s-Gift-To-Women Social Club. I watched these girls, who had nothing in common with these men, try to engage in meaningless conversation with them. They sat among these baked foreigners, putting on a show for them, entertaining them as though they were kings.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, in my pitying these girls, a hand brushed over my head. It was his hands, his dirty, disgusting, women-objectifying hands. All I could think was that this stranger old-enough-to-be-my-great-grandfather had touched me, had run his hands over my head, probably getting some kick out of feeling my what-is-for-him exotic hair. Shocked by his boldness, his utter disrespect for my space, I was unable to speak; I was unable to react.

After my initial trauma, I gave him a Dena-from-the-Bronx look. I felt so annoyed, so assaulted, so dehumanized by the way he petted my head as though I were some animal. Nothing about me said, “Touch me,” but he must be used to getting his way around here. I got up from my on-loan chair and hopped onto another crappy beach chair away from him, something I should have done sooner, and at the same time, something that I should not have had to do. I plopped my book open, looked out toward the horizon, and listened to the ocean’s music drown under Italian cadence.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Sick Baby

March 23, 2006

“I would like to go upstairs with you today,” I said to the psychologist, the words blurting out of my mouth uncontrollably. She motioned for me to come, and I followed her without really knowing what I was getting myself into. We walked through a long, narrow corridor where pregnant women scurried around like ants and pass a make-shift waiting room at the hospital’s entrance where patients’ loved ones sat idly in the Dominican heat.

The first time I visited the adolescent post-partum room on the third floor I wanted to cry. It was too much for me—to be in a room full of disadvantaged teen moms that I could not help and to be in a place that reminded me so much of Dana’s suffering. This time like the last time, the Virgin Altagracia in the framed picture on the wall stared at the new teen mothers endearingly. Her serene face contrasted the nervous and clueless expressions of the girls she watched over.

Metal-framed beds were lined up next to each other on each side of the room, where nothing separated one patient from the other. Each mother was exposed; her business was everyone else’s. In the corner of the room, I saw a family that I had met previously. I had developed a relationship with the mother and her pregnant daughter during their hospital visits downstairs. As soon as the girl’s mother, Luz Maria, noticed me, she ran to me and gave me a hug. “I came looking for you twice to give you a gift,” she said. I told her that a gift was not necessary, but she wanted to express her gratitude to me, her gratitude for my making them feel as though they mattered. I was touched.

I walked with her to the last bed in the room where her seventeen-year old daughter struggled to sit up, her breast out in the open in an effort to squeeze milk into a bottle for her baby. I wondered why she did not simply breast-feed; then, I looked onto her bed to realize that every other mother in the room shared their beds with their new borns except for her. “Where’s your baby?” I asked. “He’s in intensive care,” Dulce, the teenager’s aunt, answered. “He has respiratory problems,” Dulce continued. I listened to her explain everything to me because that was all I could do. I tried to change the topic. “When did you give birth?” “On March 21,” Maria, the new mom, said. I assured her that her baby would be intelligent because he’s an Aries, like me, even though I do not even believe in that astrological sign crap. Somehow, I wanted to give her hope that her baby would make it, and then when he did make it, he’d be some genius.

Unsuccessful attempts at extracting milk from her breast led the family to decide that Maria should visit her baby, Francisco, to breastfeed him. Four of us took the trek downstairs to the intensive care unit where babies in plastic boxes fought for their lives. When we reached Francisco, the nurses were giving him an injection in his left hand. The needle protruded out from his delicate, virgin skin. Maria stepped away, not being able to see her son like that, weak and fragile. I understood how she felt completely. I know how hard it is to see a loved one fighting for life.

Maria begged me to ask the nurse what ailed her baby. She felt powerless, so I did her that favor. “What’s wrong with this baby?” I inquired. The nurse explained that Francisco was doing poorly, that he had severe respiratory problems, and that he would have to stay in the hospital until he improves. I looked behind me to see if Maria was still in the room, but she had vanished, not wanting to look as though she had sent me on what should have been a mother’s mission.

I exited the room to find Maria sitting down with her mother and aunt. “What’s wrong with him?” They pleaded, almost attacking me with their curiosity. Suddenly, I felt like the doctor that has to approach a waiting family to tell them the bad news, that some relative had just passed away. I had seen this exact scene so many times in movies or on television shows, and now that I was presented with the real-life script, I could not even speak. I explained to them that Francisco was still doing poorly but that with time he would improve. I kept it simple, not going into details, using the Spanish-is-not-my-native-language excuse. I was not prepared for this.

I saw Maria’s face become overcome with pain. She tried hard to fight it, to pretend that everything was fine, but when we returned back upstairs, Maria’s tears started to pour down onto the dirty hospital floor, leaving clean spots where they had fallen. “I was born ill too,” I added to her mother and aunt’s cheer-uppers. I explained to her that my twin sister and I stayed in the hospital two weeks after being born and that now we were both healthy. I had no choice but to lie. I neglected to get into Dana’s tumultuous medical history. I was desperate. I just wanted to help.

Maria stopped crying when we reached her too-old-to-still-be-in-use hospital bed. Her mother and aunt had convinced her that she had to be strong for her baby and that she had to take all of this as a learning experience. Despite their crisis, they were making arrangements for me to come to their house to share themselves, their lives, their everything with me. I watched them as they showered Maria, and me, with strength, wisdom, and love and wondered why they would ever feel the need to thank me for making them feel as though they mattered when it is because of them, I matter.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Stealing Innocence

March 1, 2006

It is routine for three of us to sit at a one-person desk asking patients questions about their medical histories. I usually block out the many conversations around me so that I could pay full attention to the patient with whom I am talking. “Yes, she has always been epileptic,” a voice answered. Suddenly, I looked in my colleague’s direction to see a mother standing by her child, her concerned eyes fixed on her daughter’s innocent face.

The young girl, this woman’s daughter, sat awkwardly on a tan, metal, fold-out chair, not really knowing what was going on around her. Her hair was divided into eight big braids equipped with ribbons, resembling the childish do’s I wore until I begged my mother to let me do my own hair in fourth grade.

She wore a pink polo shirt, parts of it drenched with saliva that dripped down from her mouth uncontrollably. Her white ankle socks peeked out from her no-brand sneakers the same way waiting patients peeked at this unexpected mother, wondering how she ended up where she was, pregnant at 17 and mentally and physically unable to take care of her offspring.

I did not want to add another pair of eyes to the many that already glared at this mother and child, but I could not help myself. I wanted to know more. It was obvious that years of epileptic fits without proper medical treatment caused much damage on this girl’s body, so much that the nurses could not even weigh her because standing took too much effort for her. What was also obvious to everyone was that her fits were not the only threat this girl had experienced.

“She must have been raped,” the patient with whom I was working whispered. I nodded in agreement, trying to hide my disgust and anger for the sick man who saw no problem taking advantage of a vulnerable child and then leaving her and her mother with a baby they could not afford to care for. I wanted to leave the crammed desk and bolt pass the full-to-over-capacity waiting room to find this man, who for me, represented the men who raped the many women in my life, who stole their happiness. I wanted to avenge their rapes, their suffering, my suffering.

I looked at this poor teen mom again who, despite her expressionless face, said so much to me. I sensed her frustration of being constantly stared at and of being trapped in her own body, unable to articulate her feelings. I sensed the pain, the confusion, and the terror she must have felt as some man made her a woman and a mother too early, stealing her innocence from right in front of her face.