A Dominicana’s Guide to Surviving a PWI
BY CORAL BELLO-MARTINEZ
Runner-Up for the 2020 Adroit Prize for Prose
Selected by Kristen Arnett
Mami… todos son gringos.
You arrive. Take in the brick buildings decorated by fresh-cut grass and towering trees before you take in how much heavier your skin feels here. You will learn what it feels like to be the only drop of color in the pale canvas of your classroom, and the truth settles in: it would take a miracle to make this place your home. For the first few weeks you will lock yourself in the cubicle you call a dorm–four muted walls trying to fit your anxiety into fifty square feet. What the fuck did you just do? You FaceTime Mami. You lie and reassure her, “Si, todo bien.” You fill the silence with thoughts you wish would spill from your mouth, but you swallow them. You are living Mami’s wildest dream, how could you tell her you won’t make it come true? “Siempre pa’lante mija, siempre pa’lante,” she reminds you.
Excited to see a glimpse of yourself, you sign up for a Latin American Politics course and witness a white man butcher your culture and drag it by its own limbs. You will ignore it until the screech of chalk on the board feels like an itch on your third layer of skin. Hesitantly, you look up as he writes, “American intervention is needed in Latin America.” You lock eyes with the only other Latina in the room, united in your alienation. Your gaze begs, “Get us out of here.” She promptly returns to her notes, you return to the endless flow of emails in your inbox instead. No one saves either of you–here, you will have to save yourselves.
You will also take an African-American History class and watch a white man learn Black history from you, and you’ll start to wonder why you rise at the ass crack of dawn to pay for this bullshit. Two work study jobs and one internship, pa que? When you find yourself lecturing him on how white supremacy disenfranchises the Black community through unfair housing practices and redlining, just get out. The labor isn’t yours to do, and that class? It’s not worth your time. Take the Withdrawal and practice explaining the scarlet “W” on your transcript. Learn to say the shit was racist the “politically correct” way.
If you’ve never sat at a table with white people, you’ll learn what it’s like to be invisible here. You will learn what it feels like to have people look through you, as if they saw a cloud of dust instead of your skin. You know, the “liberals,” they’re colorblind.
Remind yourself to keep talking. Take up all of the space y o u deserve. You do not need to be welcomed to know you belong. You will learn to affirm yourself; scream “I am here,” with your eyes: do not let them wander on the table, look at them directly to show you have no fear. Your lips: be sure to smile and tame your resting bitch face. They already think brown folks are threatening. Your wit: Abuela taught you how to command a room with a twist of the tongue and the rhythm of your teeth. You know how to charm even the most uptight of the gueritos. Even if you brought your own seat to the table, like Mami says, “Al mal tiempo, buena cara.”
Call Mami when you’re missing her, there is a hundred percent chance she is missing you too. She tells you she made churrasco con tostones. She’ll ask what you ate today and will notice the sadness in your tone when it all sounds just a bit bland. You both joke that gueritos colonized half the globe for spices and don’t even use them, but you laugh with tears forming in your throat. You won’t get used to the food away from home. You will gain fifteen pounds (just like they said), a consequence of repulsive dining hall food, and yet when you go back home for Thanksgiving she will still point out, “Estas mas gorda.”
When you find a Dominican restaurant in your area, you will finally know tears of joy. When you learn that they have Country Club de Frambuesa you will become hysterical. You’ll order the pollo guisao with the moro de gandules, and of course, with the sauce on top. You won’t realize how much you miss food from home until you find a Bravo twenty minutes away, and suddenly you’re staring romantically at a pack of 3 for $1 platanos. Yes, it’s that deep. It’ll take you back to Abuela’s kitchen, where she brewed her Bustelo every morning and told you stories of her time in la Republica Dominicana. She reminisces to when she labored overtime at the cigar factory to build this future for her four blooming kids–for you, too. You fit your hands into hers, and for a moment she feels like God–who else could you blame and praise for where you are right now?
“Nereyda” by Raulin Rodriguez will pulsate through the empty halls like it’s time to do Sunday morning chores at Abuela’s house. You exhaust the volume on the speaker just to let the campus know you’re here. And you’re alive. And you’re surviving a world not built for you by building one yourself. When the white boys snicker because they feel more American than you, when they undermine your language and whisper go back to your country, remember their president is a talking orange and they have all willingly accepted a clementine as their leader. Ouf, Brad. Wish I could.
When white folks make excuses as to why they can’t pronounce your name right. Do not give them a pass. Nothing was ever handed to you.
Call Mami and let them know they tried you. Before you hang up, ask her about the bland, the menial, and the ordinary just to hear the motherland on her tongue whistle in your ear a little longer. When she tells you your Spanish is fading, swallow the knot in your throat and smile. She advises you to do something with that hair. Since you joined the Black Student Union you decided to go natural. She hates it–but you don’t protest, not anymore. These few minutes are the only time she has to feel like your mother.
Back to that hair.
The white kids won’t know how to treat it. They’ll examine it, and beg with excited wonder, “Literally your hair is to die for! O-M-G how did you get it like that?” You play find-the-first-person-of-color-in- the-room again, searching for someone to cling on to. Upon finding them, you turn back to the clueless guerita and reply dryly, “Water.”
“Can I touch it?”
“Do you wanna fight?” “No.”
You thought this would be the end of it. But they will look at you next day unable to place your face once you’ve tucked your voluminous pajon into a bun, so the next day when Becky walks in with her hair pulled into a slick ponytail instead of her usual poorly-wanded hair, you will tease, “Gee Sarah! I didn’t even recognize you!”
Just when you think you can joke about it, on the day you decide to skip your African-American History class your friend texts, “Bro.”
“The professor just marked you present.”
You reply amazed, “LMFAOOOO”
Because in his world you are exchangeable, and mistaking you for another black girl isn’t racist. You continue to laugh but the joke is getting tired. You label it problematic, but it worked in your favor. When you’re back in class the next day with a scarf tied neatly around your head, he will mistake you for someone else, yet again. He will look up, flustered from his attendance sheet, lock his gaze into yours and plead,
“Stop confusing me.”
Now you’re confused: 1) at the tears beginning to well in your eyes, 2) the audacity, 3) at his insinuation that the shade of your skin and the way your hair dances around your cheeks makes you, yet again, invisible.
You will have the urge to cause a scene. Flip a table, say fuck you and storm out the room like you’ll never come back. Tame it. Call Mami. She knows how to turn pain back into laughter.
You will be exhausted.
But when the BSU has their cookout and Mi Gente Latina has their Salsa Night, sis go. That’s the closest you’ll get to the open pompas on the sidewalk with the kids from el barrio–a good time, even around the chaos. To survive here you will need this village, even more than the blessings of a thousand Virgen Maria’s, you will need them. When you’ve eaten sleep for dinner three nights in a row, when you need someone to call who will help you carry the load, or when you just need some fucking fries with mayoketchup and cheap white wine, you’ll need them.
When you get turned away at the door of a frat party with all of your other black and brown friends, do not be surprised. It’s normal here. Taking up a defensive position with his clipboard, one of the brothers asks smugly, “Are you on the list?”
You will recognize his face from your sociology class and you will wonder if he has learned anything at all. We just talked about race and ethnic relations, Bobby.
The gag is, you all are on the list, but he will find a discrepancy anyways and your inebriated tongues won’t be able to hold back their frustration. You will want to argue, say this is racism, but keep your control. When it comes to sides, the police will never pick yours. Mami’s voice will echo its way into your head, Cuidate mi niña. You will want to run back to your dorm and cry. Stay with your friends instead. You will all drink Barefoot Pink Moscato in your dorm room. Talk about how ass it is that you can’t even party at your own school, but laugh about it anyways. Fuck ‘em. Make your own party.
When the same frat guys dress up in blackface a month later, despite your anger, remember you are here on a scholarship. The administration will stay idle and reticent, and soon you’ll learn they pick sides like the police do. The brothers will show no remorse. Neither will your school. You take up signs, run your vocal chords to the ground, and protest in the cold–all to fight against what your institution has proudly represented for hundreds of years: racist ass shit. This place wasn’t built to be your home.
But you think about your Abuela, and how she came to this country alone: estranged, confused, and Latina. Disoriented as hell at every turn with all these Americanos walking as fast as they spoke. She knew she wasn’t welcome here, but she leaped into a new world knowing this future would come true. When Abuela came from la isla in the eighties, this is what she did it for. So you can’t give up, not even on the days that seem the hardest. This is what esfuerzo looks like.
One day, a professor will ask why you stay if you hate it here so much. It will be hard to hold in your laugh–not because it’s funny–but because she will never understand the weight you are buckling under. When your Abuela abandoned everything to ensure you received an American college education, and your school lifts the financial burden of the liberal arts price tag, you will suck it up for the next four years. This is what sacrificio looks like. So you tuck your smile into your lips and reply, “I am a manifesting dream, and I’ll be damned if I don’t make it.”
When your school holds a Latin Night on the weekend, mueve ese culo mami. Show your friends that you’re a true bachatera, and forget where you are for once. Sing all of the Aventura songs until your voice cracks. Dedicate an Ivy Queen verse to all the motherfuckers who tried to dethrone you–dile toma reggaeton si tu quieres reggaeton. It will be a release.
When you’re sitting in your white ass classroom on a Monday morning, holding your cafe con leche, remember this isn’t forever. Take out your planner and your books, y sigue pa’lante. You will learn that being the only drop of color in the pale canvas of your classroom only makes it easier to shine. So when you find your light, don’t forget to