I had intended to read In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, for my book about the Dominican Republic. When I looked up her biography, however, I discovered that she was born in the United States, so I’ll have to save that book for reading outside of this project. Instead, I turned to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, a book for which the author won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008.
The book follows the life of Oscar de León, who, along with his older sister Lola, is being raised by their single mother Beli in Paterson, New Jersey. Beli had fled the Dominican Republic for the United States in her teens to avoid being killed by goons hired by the wife of a man she was having an affair with. She begins a relationship with a man she meets on the plane on the way to the U.S., and from that relationship, Lola and Oscar are born. Their father isn’t in the picture for long, though, and he doesn’t make much of an appearance in the book.
For the most part, the story is told by a narrator who remains unknown until about halfway through the book, at which point he takes on a fairly prominent role. He appears to be intimately acquainted with the de León family, and from him we learn that Oscar is obese, unattractive, and obsessed with science fiction and fantasy books and movies. He is also desperate to have a girlfriend, which is unlikely to happen because he is obese, unattractive, and obsessed with science fiction and fantasy. He is bullied throughout high school and college, and the few girls he does interact with never want to be anything but friends. He attempts suicide twice, unsuccessfully, then has a life-changing experience during a trip to the Dominican Republic with his family.
While most of the book is about Oscar, there are also chapters about his sister, his mother, and his grandfather. In these chapters we learn, among other things, about the bad times in the Dominican Republic during the thirty-one-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. His was a particularly brutal regime, in which thousands of people were killed or imprisoned, and women were in constant fear of coming to Trujillo’s attention and being forced to have sex with him. The brutality and sexual appetite of Trujillo had brought about the downfall of Oscar’s mother’s once-prominent family, a family now thought by some to be cursed.
It took me some time to get into this book, partly because the author relies heavily on slang, in both English and Spanish, that’s not familiar to me and which I found distracting. The book is also kind of depressing, as the plot doesn’t contain many happy moments, and learning about the Trujillo dictatorship was horrifying. As I continued to read, however, I became invested in the lives of the characters and hoped the curse – or the fukú, as they called it – wasn’t real. But as the narrator says in the opening pages, “It’s perfectly fine if you don’t believe in the ‘superstitions.’ In fact, it’s better than fine – it’s perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.”
The dish I chose to make for the Dominican Republic is unrelated to anything in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s a recipe for stewed red beans (habichuelas rojas guisadas) I found on the Dominican Flavor website, which, unfortunately, was suspended shortly after I made the dish. The beans were really good, though, and I don’t want you to miss out on making them, so since I can’t provide you with a link to the recipe, I’m copying it down below, to the best of my recollection:
1 lb. dried red beans
2 T. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 green habanero peppers, seeded and chopped
1 cup acorn squash, peeled and cubed
1 cup cilantro, chopped
2 T. tomato paste
1 tsp. oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Rinse the beans and soak them overnight in water that covers them by about three inches.
In a large pot, sauté the minced garlic in the olive oil, add the teaspoon of salt, and then add the beans and the water they soaked in. Bring them to boiling and then turn the heat down to medium high, half cover the pot with a lid, and let the beans cook for about an hour.
At the end of the hour, add all the vegetables to the pot. Mix the tomato paste with a little of the bean water and then add it to the pot, along with the oregano. Half cover the pot again with the lid, and let the beans cook for another hour.
If the beans start to dry out at any point along the way, add more water. When the beans are soft, but not mushy, taste them and add salt and pepper as needed. Serve the beans over white rice.
Even though I didn’t read In the Time of the Butterflies for this blog post, I read about it in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s about the Mirabal sisters, three women who actively opposed the Trujillo regime and became martyrs to the cause when they were assassinated in 1960. They called themselves “las mariposas” – the butterflies -- which is why I chose the Mariposa Center for Girls to receive my donation for the Dominican Republic. The purpose of this project, which I found on the GlobalGiving website, is to create a center where “impoverished Haitian and Dominican girls come to engage in sports, receive academic tutoring, have access to libraries and computers, receive job and life skills training and health and wellness care.” More information about the Mariposa Center for Girls is available at http://www.mariposadrfoundation.org/mariposacenter.html.
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