nothing but a plane day

In the early afternoon of April 7th, 1989, the lady and the teenage daughter she’d named partly after herself boarded a Pan Am flight from Santo Domingo that would change their lives forever. They weren’t convinced they’d be allowed on the plane–having been turned away the previous day, unsuccessful on their attempt to be upgraded from standby status on an overbooked flight. Never having entered an aircraft, they weren’t quite sure they could even survive the four-hour journey to New York and feared that this was how they were to die.

A dear sisterfriend of their family was tasked with traveling with them, on her way back from vacation, and delivering them at JFK safely. However, no one could predict what would happen at the Customs entry interview at the airport. A consular officer had approved them for an immigrant visa to live in the U.S., but what if they didn’t pass the interview and “los americanos” changed their mind at the last minute? What if that sealed manila envelope have a secret that could get them sent back?

To their relief and disbelief, they were allowed to stay and welcomed to a place where everything—except that interview—was done quickly, where everything seemed too fast— especially the way and the things people spoke, where the extra-curricular English the daughter had sought to master for nearly three years at a vocational school suddenly seemed inadequate.

Clearly, much awaited them. From where they stood as fems who were poor, Black, landless, single, and fatherless, one middle-age, the other in her late teens, born in a country that invalidated them daily, it was a given that they’d gain a lot with this new life. The benefits would come in unpredictable and puzzling forms, though. But no one could have forewarned them of the unexpected losses and disappointments of starting anew at ages fifty-four and seventeen, of one day becoming lovers and citizens of yet another country that wouldn’t always make them proud. To say that the experience would be transformative is akin to stating that the Sun is just one of the many stars in the solar system.

Love at first sight would come in the way of a dreamy and endless avenue called Eastern Parkway, with streetlights seemingly taken from the Parisian summer postcards once sent by Monsieur Venét, one of the mother’s former employers—perhaps the best– in her lifelong career as a domestic worker. There would be more of that in the new country, not the friendly postcards, but the grueling live-in, back-breaking and never-ending jobs.

When the taxi finally stopped they couldn’t believe they would live only a block away from that enchanted avenue. They had reached Union Street, Brooklyn, NY. They were finally in front of a brick house whose address the daughter—as family scribe—had penned a thousand times in envelopes containing sisterly letters and holiday cards since childhood. They realized that their relative had not exaggerated in bringing them coats to wear that time of the year.

This Brooklyn would forever steal their hearts. The mother would one day find that it was easier to live without her daughter than without this place.

A welcome dinner party awaited them, as well as friends and family they’d met only on the other side. There were also strangers who hugged them warmly and lovingly and slipped them– surreptitiously and to the newcomers’ amazement– a twenty dollar bill and a bag with things inside, with the unforgettable Nueva York smell that appeared magically when their U.S. relatives visited the Dominican Republic.

Their first evening in Los Estados Unidos melted into night and then into their very first day in a new land, one of the many thousands to follow for the rest of their lives. They will come to miss many people and many things in this new life. Over those first twelve hours, however, they couldn’t help notice the absence of something that had made life in the old country even more unpredictable and chaotic: power outages. Something they wouldn’t miss. It wasn’t just the abundant and uninterrupted light; their attention, their joy, was on the lack of darkness. They came to find it would have been wiser to focus on the abundance of light.

For the better of twenty-five years, and then the hard three after Stage 3 cancer showed up, they also wouldn’t have to miss each other. While acculturation and personal growth and change, as well as triumphs and defeats, would come to test their bond, loyalty, and mutual respect many times over, those would become stronger and deeper with the passage of time.

Just as the visionary consular officer, a fellow Black woman, had predicted upon approving the mother’s visa and sending her to get her daughter’s papers ready for a sudden minor child visa interview in three weeks’ time so they could leave together, neither could or should weather the storm of the next three decades being apart.

With resentment–for the inevitable loss of the new boyfriend, friends, job, of a future as perhaps a university student, and the bureaucrat’s sabotage of a long-awaited freedom–the rebellious daughter obliged. Neither mother nor daughter could or should weather the storm of the next three decades without one another. Because a storm is exactly the word and nothing like El Ciclón David, in ’79, the motherlode that had shaken their backyard to its core, unrooting the stately coconut tree and bringing the proud bamboo stalks to their knees. A storm like never before.



“Negra Con Lápiz” is Born/Nace “Negra Con Lápiz”

I was  in fourth grade, in 1979 and before el Ciclon David, in my native Matahambre, a semi-slum in Santo Domingo, so well-known for its prolific flora brimming with extra ripe coconuts, mangoes, guavas, and tamarinds that it became a mandate that no resident would ever die from hunger while living there. Hence its name.
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