This is one of a series of occasional essays by authors on subjects that concern them in their creative lives. I REMEMBER discovering William Carlos Williams's poetry over 25 years ago in my anthology of American literature. It was love at first sight: So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. What a curious syntactic structure, our teacher noted: "So much depends . . . " So much what is depending on the wheelbarrow and the chickens? But the syntax seemed familiar to me. Todo depende. I had heard it all my life. Everything depended on, well, something else. It was our Spanish form of "maybe."
Scanning a collection of his poetry in the library, I found a half-dozen Spanish titles -- even a volume named Al Que Quiere! But there was no mention in my anthology of the why of these Hispanicisms. It was only later that I came to find out that William Carlos Williams was -- as he would be termed today -- "a Hispanic-American writer."
His mother was Puerto Rican -- upper-class Puerto Rican with a Paris education, but still . . . She married an Englishman who seems to have lived everywhere, including some years in the Dominican Republic, my homeland. The two moved to Rutherford, N.J., where they raised their two sons. Growing up, William Carlos never had a close association with Puerto Rico: In fact, he did not see the islands until he was almost 60 and had a deep longing to try to understand what his own roots really were. His was an American boyhood indeed, but with the powerful and sometimes baffling presence of his mother, who spoke Spanish in the home and who terrified and embarrassed her sons by going into trances and speaking to her Caribbean dead, especially during Unitarian church services as she was playing the organ. Williams did not phrase or even seem to understand his divided loyalties in terms of ethnicity. Still, as a first-generation American, he often felt "the islandness in him, his separateness," as his biographer Reed Whittemore has described it.
His friend Pound didn't help things. "What the hell do you a blooming foreigner know about the place?" Pound taunted. "My dear boy, you have never felt the swoop of the PEEraries." But it was Pound who jumped ship and fled to Europe. Williams stayed in New Jersey and struggled to set down on paper "the good old U.S.A."
As an adolescent immigrant, I too, like Williams, wanted to be an American, period. I was embarrassed by my ethnicity, which rendered me colorful and an object of derision to those who would not have me be a part of this culture, at least not without paying the dues of becoming like them. And I was encouraged in this by my parents and teachers, by the media and the texts I studied in school that never addressed the issues I was facing in my secret soul. Many of the ways of being, speaking, living I had once cherished seemed to have no place in this world and culture -- and so I started to have a secret life, which perhaps is what started me on the road to being a writer.
In my effort to keep some of my old culture in this new world, I was at a disadvantage because my family did not move into a comunidad in this country, where a concentration of Dominicans or Latinos would have kept alive and affirmed the values and customs, the traditions and language that were an important though increasingly hidden part of me. We lived in Jamaica Estates, a pretentious -- back then, anyway -- area in Queens for solidly middle-class families and for upcoming white European immigrants, many Germans, some Italians, some Jews and a couple of us Hispanics.
My father did have that other comunidad in his work life. Every morning he left the Estates for a Latino area in Brooklyn, a place my mother called "a bad neighborhood." Summers I went to work at his office, driving with him through block after block of brick apartment buildings bracketed by intricate fire escapes, nowhere a tree visible. But the lively and populous street life seemed far more enticing than the lonely, deserted lawns back in Queens. At El Centro Medico the nurses were all Dominicans or Puerto Ricans with sometimes an Argentine or Chilean lording it over us with her lisp and blonde hair. No matter: Papi was boss, and I was la hija del doctor. His patients brought me pastelitos and dulce de leche. The guys flirted with me, tossing out their piropos ("Ay, look at those curves, and my brakes are shot!"). I loved the place, though I admit, too, that I was very aware of my difference: At night, we drove back home to a welcome of sprinklers waving their wands of water over our lookalike lawns. We were of another class, in other words, a difference that was signalled the minute I walked into our house and my mother instructed me to wash my hands. "You don't know what germs you picked up over there."
But any comunidad we would have joined would have been temporary anyway. Worried about the poor reception and instruction we were receiving at the local school, my mother got scholarships for us to go away to school. We were cast adrift in the explosion of American culture on campuses in the late '60s and early '70s. Ethnicity was in; my classmates wore long braids like Native Americans and peasant blouses from Mexico and long diaphanous skirts and dangly earrings from India. They smoked weed from Mexico and Colombia and hitchhiked down the Pan American highway and joined the Peace Corps after college to expiate the sins of their country against underdeveloped and overexploited countries like, yes, the Dominican Republic. More than once I was asked to bear witness to this exploitation, and I, the least victimized of Dominicans, obliged. I was claiming my roots, my Dominicanness, with a vengeance. BUT WHAT I needed was to put together my Dominican and American selves. An uncle who lived in New York gave me a piece of advice embedded in an observation: "The problem with you girls is that you were raised thinking you could go back to where you came from. Don't you see, you're here to stay?"
He was right; we were here to stay. But the problem was that the American culture as we had experienced it left us out, and so we felt we had to give up being Dominicans to be Americans. Perhaps in an earlier wave of immigration that would have sufficed -- a good enough tradeoff, to leave your old country behind for the privilege of being a part of this one. But we were not satisfied with that. The melting pot was spilling over, and even Americans were claiming and proclaiming not just their rights, but the integrity of their identities: Black is Beautiful, women's rights, gay rights.
What finally bridged these two worlds for me was writing. But even in my writing, I had only the models that had been given to me in school, books by the great writers, mostly white male American and British. And so, for many years, I didn't have a vocabulary or context to write about the issues I had faced or was facing. I didn't know it could be done. I had never seen it done. I had, in fact, been told it couldn't be done. One summer at Bread Loaf, a poet stated categorically that one could write poetry only in the language in which one had first said Mother. Thank God, I had the example of William Carlos Williams to ward off some of the radical self-doubt this comment engendered.
How I discovered a way into my bicultural, bilingual experience was paradoxically not through a Hispanic-American writer, but an Asian-American one. Soon after it came out, I remember picking up The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. I gobbled up the book and then went back to the first page and read it through again. She addressed the duality of her experience, the Babel of voices in her head, the confusions and pressures of being a Chinese-American female. Wow! The silence within me broke.
With her as my model, I set out to write about my own experience as a Dominican American. And now that I had a name for what I had been experiencing, I could begin to understand it as not just my personal problem. I combed the bookstores and libraries. I discovered Latino writers I had never heard of: Piri Thomas, Ernesto Galarza, Rudolfo Anaya, Jose Antonio Villareal, Gary Soto. But I could not find any women among these early Latino writers.
The '80s changed all that. In 1983, Alma Gomez, Cherrie Moraga and Mariana Romo-Carmona came out with Cuentos: Stories by Latinas. It was an uneven collection, but the introduction, titled "Testimonio," was like a clarion call: "We need una literatura that testifies to our lives, provides acknowledgement of who we are: an exiled people, a migrant people, mujeres en la lucha . . . What hurts is the discovery of the measure of our silence. How deep it runs. How many of us are indeed caught, unreconciled between two languages, two political poles, and suffer the insecurities of that straddling."
The very next year Sandra Cisneros published her collection of linked stories, The House on Mango Street; Ana Castillo published her book of poems, Women Are Not Roses; I published Homecoming. Up at Bread Loaf, I met Judith Ortiz Cofer and heard her read poems and stories that would soon find their way into her books of poems, stories and essays and her novel The Line of the Sun. Cherrie Moraga, Helena Maria Viramontes, Denise Chavez. Suddenly there was a whole group of us, a tradition forming, a dialogue going on. And why not? If Hemingway and his buddies could have their Paris group and beat poets their Black Mountain School, why couldn't we Latinos and Latinas have our own made-in-the-USA boom? STILL, I get nervous when people ask me to define myself as a writer. I hear the cage of a definition close around me with its "subject matter," "style," "concerns." I find that the best way to define myself is through the stories and poems that do not limit me to a simple label, a choice. Maybe it is part of my immigrant uneasiness at the question, in whatever form, "Do you have something to declare?" Maybe, too, after years of feeling caught between being a "real Dominican" and being American, I shy away from simplistic choices that will leave out an important part of who I am or what my work is about.
Certainly none of us serious writers of Latino origin wants to be a mere flash in the literary pan. We want to write good books that touch and move all our readers, not just those of our own particular ethnic background. And speaking for myself, I very much agree with the advice given to writers by Jean Rhys, "Feed the sea, feed the sea." The little rivers dry up in the long run, but the sea grows. What matters is the great body of all that has been thought and felt and written by writers of different cultures, languages, experiences, classes, races.
At last, I have found a comunidad in the word that I had never found in a neighborhood in this country. By writing powerfully about our Latino culture, we are forging a tradition and creating a literature that will widen and enrich the existing canon. So much depends upon our feeling that we have a right and responsibility to do this.