“…Patriotism and Religion and National pride
And all of this talk about God on our side
And the marginalization of minorities it is World-wide
And the things that unite us from others us divide…”
–Maginalization Of Minorities, Poem by Francis Duggan
In Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the author utilizes Yunior to narrate the stories of several characters— especially the experiences of first generation Dominican-American Oscar De Leon and the dichotomy he faces between his life in pre-dominantly white America and his cultural roots from the Dominican Republic. The narrator Yunior presents the other characters in vignette- reminiscent documentations and follows each character’s perspective generation by generation as the De Leon family immigrates to New York, travels back into the political unrest of Santo Domingo, and returns back to a home in America. This format really reminds me of another book I loved— The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which similarly rejects classic plot to convey how a young Puerto-Rican girl goes through a series of heartbreaks and triumphs as she attempts to socially mobilize and move out of her poor Latino neighborhood. Both works are compartmentalized in a sense, but it really works to illustrate the simultaneous separation and synthesis of experience.
Like Oscar, each member of the family struggles with the unique background and cultural pressures they face from American and Dominican society. Even the narrator himself is influenced by the dual pressures from his competing identities— which can allow him to be seen a credible narrator in many ways while being paradoxically incredible in others. In this way, it seems that the internalization of the Dominican Republic has a “powerful hold on Dominicans wherever they may wander”, despite how American culture demands assimilation of the family.
Diaz discusses a litany of different culturally relevant issues in his book— pertaining to both the Dominican Republic way of life and the white-driven, discriminatory attitude toward immigrants in the society of the United States.
Through his implementation of footnotes, Diaz is able to masterfully document the historical context he places his characters. Though Junot Diaz is very concerned with sharing the stories of individuals, his footnotes tell of political and economic issues which effect the Dominican population as a collective. At the foundation of all of the De Leon family tales is the looming shadow of Dictator/President Rafael Trujillo. In his reign of terror and destruction from 1930-1961, Trujillo created a regime of censorship and communist ideology among the Dominican people. Where Diaz’s characters speak to how his dictatorship affect them on an individual level, the footnotes are a macro-lens in which to view Trujillo in his larger-scale, culturally damaging wake and the events that followed his assassination in May of 1961.
In terms of immigrant life, Junot illustrates how the members of the De Leon family experience blatant racism and discrimination in America— especially in the public school system—in a manner that evident across multiple generations ( from Oscar’s grandparents to his mother Beli to that of himself and his siblings). The De Leon’s live in a poor community dominated by Dominican American immigrants, forced to live in the slums because of how race dictates the socioeconomic divide but required to go to public school with non-bilingual, wealthy, white students who shame them because of their immigrant status. The immigrant experience in the De Leon family is further broken down by the construct of expected gender roles as well. The young females are seen as sex-objects and are exploited by their white male counterparts— simultaneously encouraged to “bed-down” with them for their potential provision of wealth but shamed for not keeping sexual relations within the Dominican American community. The young males feel out-casted by the privileged whiteness they’re exposed to every day, so they join gangs to establish their manhood and societal significance. Either that, or like Oscar, they become reclusive and ostracized by both the white and Dominican cultures they’re subject to.
Diaz chooses a style that deviates from the canonized whiteness of literature, but doesn’t negate it either. We can’t ignore the relevance of “classic” lit, but Diaz’s work does a lot to show how the two can be synthesized. I think this can be seen in the thematic development of his text. Where Diaz lacks plot formation because of his vignette style choice, he makes up for it in thematic connections between the characters and their lives. Though they all undergo oppressive mistreatment, cultural disconnect, and isolation from self and community in intimate ways, the vignettes communicate how their experiences are also inextricably linked to one another. New York Times calls it a character-to character “meditation on public and private history and the burdens of familial history”. As a mother and a woman, Beli may be discriminated against ways that differ from Oscar’s, but their suffering is linked in such that they share similar identity crises and also contribute in unconscious ways to the reciprocity of their pain. I believe this is extremely brilliant in authorship because Diaz has thereby created a mirror of understanding between his characters and his audience. Though someone like me— white, abled, and middle class— I cannot fully comprehend the ways in which society actively oppresses immigrants and bilingual citizens stuck in their socioeconomic demographic. However, I can resonate with the universal isolation and the reciprocal nature of familial conflict and suffering. Diaz’s thematic elements tie the audience and the characters in his novel together while still establishing how divisive the experience is between the privileged and the non-privileged. That’s a construct that works, or should work, in accordance with the type of literature already pervasively represented and emphasized in curriculum.