Pre-Columbian Culture and Peoples
When Christopher Columbus first arrived on Hispaniola, the former name for what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, there were an estimated 400,000 indigenous Taino Indians inhabiting the island. The word Taino means “men of the good,” for the Taino were a gentle race of people whose lives where inextricably linked with their natural surroundings. The Tainos were a seafaring people who lived on the verge of dense jungle, but they also developed sophisticated agricultural practices that produced cassava, corn, squash, and peanuts. They wandered about naked, their bodies decorated with colorful dyes made from earth, and they bathed in the rivers near their homes, which were constructed of thatch and Royal Palm. They greeted Columbus and his men with the kindness and generosity that were honored Taino values. However, the Taino population decreased rapidly as a result of exposure to disease brought by the Europeans and by forced labor. The encomienda system, which allotted the Tainos to colonizers operating mines and farms and instructed the laborers in the tenets of the Catholic faith, forced many Tainos to commit suicide or abort pregnancies rather than endure a life of slavery. Eighteen years after Columbus’ arrival on Hispaniola, the Taino population had dwindled to a mere 22,000.
Dictatorship in the Dominican Republic
For most of the twentieth century, the Dominican...
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Point of View
The story is narrated in the first person by Yunior, the story’s main protagonist. Yunior’s energetic, colloquial tone invites the reader to listen attentively to his story. Yunior is also an unreliable narrator. He often contradicts himself, as when he tells the reader that Cassandra was not advertising falsely about her prowess in bed; previously, he tells Magda that sex with Cassandra was “lousy.” The advantage Díaz gains in using this type of narrator is that the reader only hears one side of the story, thus underscoring the ironies that continue to confound Yunior long after his relationship with Magda has ended. Furthermore, the theme of responsibility is highlighted by the selective manner in which Yunior reveals his actions and by the way he interrupts his narrative to make passing remarks about women. Inadvertently, he proves that Magda’s opinion of him is indeed correct.
Borrowing the slang of New York’s streets, Yunior refers to himself obliquely when he describes Magda’s sudden physical transformation: “About a month later, she started making the sort of changes that would have alarmed a paranoid nigger.” The word nigger, often used in the United States as a derogatory term, is used by Yunior in the story to establish a more objective view of himself and to denote the affection and camaraderie he shares with his boys. They, in turn, address Yunior as “Nigger” when they...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic. Who were some of the major players? Was the U.S. government welcome? How did the occupation affect the Dominican Republic’s economy? How did the occupation affect the Dominican Republic’s relations with other countries throughout Latin America?
Who were the parigüayos? Where does their name come from?
Explore the ways in which Díaz uses words that share a common origin in the English and Spanish languages. Cite examples. How does Díaz’s use of language reflect his characters’ environment?
Who were the Tainos? What geographical region did they occupy? Did they really come from South America, as Yunior suggests? Are the Tainos an extinct race of people, or are their descendents alive today? Examine the cultural history they left behind.
Research the Cave of the Jagua. Is it an actual place, or, as the Vice-President suggests, does it possess a more mythical importance? What symbolic connotations does it have in the story?
How important a role does tourism play in the Dominican Republic? What other industries form the basis of this nation’s economy? Research the rise and fall of the sugar cane industry in the countries of Central America and the Caribbean.
In the story, the Vice-President and Bárbaro debate the actual number of Dominican ballplayers in the major leagues. Name some of the more famous Dominican ballplayers...
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Audio Editions (http://www.audioeditions.com) offers The Best American Short Stories 1999 on cassette, each story read by its author. The set contains four abridged cassettes and features, in addition to Junot Díaz, such noted authors as Pam Houston, Jhumpa Lahiri, Aleksandar Hemon, and Tim Gautreaux.
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What Do I Read Next?
A native of the Dominican Republic, Julia Alvarez moved with her family to New York to escape Trujillo’s regime when she was ten years old. Based in part on her early experiences as an immigrant, her novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents follows the exploits of four sisters who move to the United States from the Dominican Republic. One of the sisters, Yolanda, is the protagonist of Alvarez’s novel ¡Yo! Alvarez addresses Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship in her novel In the Time of the Butterflies, which is based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters who were murdered at the hands of Trujillo’s secret police. The novel was later adapted into a film of the same name starring Salma Hayek, Edward James Olmos, and Marc Anthony.
In 1984, Sandra Cisneros, a Mexican American writer, published The House on Mango Street, a book constructed of vignettes that may be read as short stories or prose poems. Narrated by Esperanza, a poor Latina girl who longs to have a room of her own and to become a writer, The House on Mango Street addresses the isolation from mainstream American culture many immigrants experience as it focuses on issues of poverty, identity, and cultural repression. Junot Díaz has cited Sandra Cisneros as one of his early influences.
Edwidge Danticat evokes the rich cultural history of her native Haiti in novels and story collections such as Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) and...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Sources Atkins, Christine, “Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat,” in New York State Writers Institute—Writers Online, Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring 1997, at http://www.albany.edu/writersinst/ olv1n3.html#danticat (last accessed April 19, 2004).
Díaz, Junot, “Contributors’ Notes,” in The Best American Short Stories 1999, edited by Amy Tan and Katrina Kenison, Houghton Mifflin, 1999, p. 378.
———, “My First Year in New York; 1995,” in the New York Times Magazine, September 17, 2000, Sec. 6, p. 111.
———, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” in the New Yorker, February 2, 1998, pp. 66–71.
“Junot Díaz,” in Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003 (last accessed April 4, 2004).
Lewis, Marina, “Interview with Junot Díaz,” in Other Voices, Vol. 36, at http://www.webdelsol.com/Other_Voices/DiazInt. htm (last accessed April 26, 2004).
Rouse, Irving, The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus, Yale University Press, 1992, pp. 5–25.
Stanton, David, “Junot Díaz: On Home Ground,” in Poets & Writers, July/August 1998, pp. 26–37.
Stewart, Barbara, “Outsider with a Voice,” in the New York Times, New Jersey section, December 8, 1996, p. 4.
Wiarda, Howard J., and Michael J. Kryzanek, The Dominican Republic: A Caribbean Crucible, Westview...
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