KC Barrientos is a PhD student in Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures and a Kellogg Institute Doctoral Student Affiliate at the University of Notre Dame. She holds a BA and MA in Hispanic Literature and Latin American & Caribbean Studies (LACS), summa cum laude, from the University at Albany in New York. Her research centers on decolonial studies, bodies of color, and cultural space in Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Latino literature of modern and contemporary eras. She also analyzes the depiction of human rights violations and spatial invasion of indigenous communities in Central American literature. Above all, KC is interested in how the poetry of these regions collectively paints the assertion of cultural identities in the midst of a postcolonial world. When she is not occupied with her academic pursuits, KC also writes her own fiction and poetry, and plays, sings, and composes music.
The conceptualization of transculturation in Latinx literatures often centers on bilingualism. In this vein, Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz captures the trauma of the pressure for the Latinx to translate their language, space and experience to survive in the U.S. Díaz’s short stories “Negocios (Business)” (2009) and “Invierno (Winter)” (2012) connect language to space and, by extension, to transculturation. In my analysis of the protagonist Dominican family, who struggle to learn English to escape physical and emotional isolation in New Jersey, I draw on the theoretical groundwork of Fernando Ortíz that frames transculturation as the product of cultures in contact. I place Ortíz in dialogue with Homi K. Bhabha’s reading of culture as an intangible space, and Henri Lefebvre’s exposition of cultural, mental-linguistic space as imbricated with geographic locus to form social space. Vis-à-vis this map between Ortiz, Bhabha and Lefebvre, I postulate that Yunior, the protagonist of “Invierno,” and his father Ramón, the protagonist of “Negocios,” occupy a third and other social space distinct from the Latin American and Anglo-American cultures that bracket them. I conclude that physical spaces such as the family apartment and the oceanside in these stories function as markers for Spanish-speaking, English-speaking, or third-as-other social spaces for Yunior’s family. In light of this argument, I conclude that Díaz advances a social commentary on the predicament of those Latinx immigrants like Yunior and Ramón who are suspended in their otherness.
Keywords: transculturation, social space, third space, otherness, bilingualism, translation, Caribbean diaspora, Dominican-American literature
“Learning to Sleep in New Places”: Language, Third Space and Other in “Negocios” and “Invierno” by Junot Díaz
The semi-autobiographical fiction of Dominican-American author and professor Junot Díaz is marked by a duality of language and space in every childhood memory spent between the rural stretches of the Dominican Republic and the working-class barrios of New Jersey. Scholars of U.S. Latinx literature have underscored Díaz’s narrative language as one that “testifies to the presence of these dual locations; his creative work is marked by a creolized vernacular, equal parts urban and island slang, that moves seamlessly between English and Spanish” (Hanna, Harford Vegas and Saldívar 2). In particular, Díaz’s short story anthologies, Drown (1996) and This Is How You Lose Her (2012), utilize the links between language and geographical space to capture the ambivalence of cultural identity of his self-named protagonist, Yunior. Throughout the pieces, Yunior awaits his father in the United States for nine years, clinging to the promise that his father will bring the rest of the family from the Dominican Republic to his new household in New Jersey to fulfill their dreams of education and socioeconomic advancement. Each geographical locus is marked by language in these stories, thus illustrating how the ties between language and space—ties between Spanish and the Dominican Republic, English and New Jersey—define where one culture’s borders come in jarring contact with the other. In this vein, I examine two specific short stories from Díaz’s anthologies, “Negocios” from the first and “Invierno” from the latter, and I argue that the interplay of language, space and culture illustrates how Yunior stands at the center of a process of transculturation that relegates him to a third space in the in-between, separate and Other from the spaces of the island or the United States.
Bilingual narration and code-switching between characters in dialogue commonly appear in the U.S. Latinx canon and mirror the complex internal conflicts of growing up between cultures and countries. The unnamed protagonist of Achy Obejas’ “We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?” (1994), for example, demonstrates these cultural nuances in the intergenerational encounters between her and her Cuban family. Through code-switching, she demonstrates when and how she defines her transcultural identity in contrast to that of her first-generation immigrant parents. Argentinian-born polygot Sylvia Molloy points out that bilingualism comes with stigmas, for a bilingual person can be easily imagined as a cultural no-man’s-land or an Other figure in constant demand of translation for those around her (Molloy 30-31). Less poignancy and more positivity toward bilingualism, meanwhile, can be found in the Chicana author Gloria Anzaldúa, who has become renowned for her writing on the construction of an identity between borders. “Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate,” writes Anzaldúa, “my tongue will be illegitimate” (Anzaldúa 39-40). It is precisely this societal problematization of transcultural and bilingual identities that Junot Díaz appears to challenge in “Negocios” (1996) and “Invierno” (2012) and that I analyze in-depth in this essay.
“Negocios” and “Invierno” can be treated as companion pieces telling the tale of a Dominican family separated by borders. Yunior’s father, Ramón, emigrates to the United States in search of stable employment and, in the process of wandering throughout various states, settles down with another woman named Nilda. Meanwhile, his first wife Virta and their two sons, Yunior and Rafa, await his return for nine years back on the island. “Negocios” takes on the unenviable task of walking readers through Ramón’s emotional and psychological process leading up to his infidelity. Notably, despite his search for permanence—in employment, housing and relationships—he finds himself all too often trekking across state borders after being let go from one job after another. His transience, it seems, becomes an impetus for Ramón to teach himself English, which will eventually lend him an advantage in securing a more long-term position at a Reynolds Aluminum factory. In terms of chronology, “Aguantando,” another story from the same anthology as “Negocios,” functions as the mirror piece to the latter work because it details those same painful nine years from Yunior’s perspective growing up on the island. I argue, however, that “Invierno” is just as worthy of a comparative analysis alongside “Negocios,” because it takes place in the aftermath of Ramón finally returning to bring his first family back with him to New Jersey, and subsequently portrays how Yunior, Rafa and Virta combat the various levels of trauma of their inability to translate themselves into the new language, space and culture around them. This theme of translation, together with the narrative device of bilingualism, creates key parallels between the two stories in their depiction of transculturation, third spaces, and Othering.
In both “Negocios” and “Invierno,” Díaz portrays the ubiquitous pressure on the Latinx immigrant to translate himself—his language, his space and his culture—and illustrates how physical spaces become defined by a particular language for the characters in order to function as safe, home-like spaces or spaces of translation and foreignness. In both stories, Díaz simultaneously introduces a third type of space where the characters wander literally and figuratively, as a vivid metaphor for their suspension in between spaces, languages and cultures. Drawing on Fernando Ortíz’s definition of transculturation, which has been foundational in transcultural studies, I argue that this third space is the space of transculturation, where translation gives way to the production a new, different and Other cultural identity for Yunior. Gustavo Pérez-Firmat dubs this space “life on the hyphen” (Pérez-Firmat 3), or in the case of Díaz’s stories, an existence between the ‘Dominican’ and the ‘American’ in the phrase ‘Dominican-American.’ For characters like Yunior who are part of the “one-and-a-half generation,” born outside the States but immigrants to the continent in their formative years (Pérez-Firmat 4, Rumbaut 61), the interstitiality of their identity is difficult to encapsulate between definite borders. Homi K. Bhabha makes a similar point about culture being conceivable as an intangible space (Bhabha 6-7), and Henri Lefebvre expounds on that conception of cultural (or social) space as an imbrication of the mental-linguistic and the geographical (Lefebvre 11). Building upon this theoretical framework, I further analyze the narrator’s tone in “Negocios” and “Invierno” as one of pragmatism, wherein the translation of geographical spaces does not entail translation of culture and social spaces. Transculturation, therefore, from the viewpoint of the two texts, is not a process of integration or easy adaptation, but rather of Othering or third-as-othering for the immigrant child.
Theoretical Framework of Analysis
The conceptualization of a third space tied to the production of an intercultural identity fundamentally hearkens back to Fernando Ortíz’s proposal of the term transculturation. The Cuban essayist and thinker wrote in 1940:
I have chosen the word transculturation to express the highly varied phenomena that have come about in Cuba as a result of the extremely complex transmutations of culture that have taken place here, and without a knowledge of which it is impossible to understand the evolution of the Cuban folk, either in the economic or in the institutional, legal, ethical, religious, artistic, linguistic, psychological, sexual or other aspects of its life. (Ortíz 98)
Though born of a more local analysis of the Cuban subcultures that sprung up from points of contact between indigenous, African and Spanish descendants, Ortíz’s term has gained certain universality when referring to any production of identity from contact between cultures. It is important to note that the term transculturation was birthed in response and in opposition to the then-popularized notion of acculturation, which was problematic for Ortíz because it “did not take into account issues such as power, control, inequality, whether the transference [of culture] was unidirectional, or if one culture was thought of as ‘inferior’ to another” (Davies 149). Transculturation, on the other hand, does. This distinction is key when we consider how languages, as cornerstones of culture, are naturally relegated to hierarchies of prestige. Sylvia Molloy, for example, criticizes how status was automatically and ironically afforded to English over Spanish in her bilingual school in Spanish-speaking Argentina (Molloy 18). Similarly, in “Negocios” and “Invierno” (and in the rest of Díaz’s anthologies), Díaz underscores how the English language—and hence the Anglo-American culture—takes precedence over one’s own Spanish-speaking roots for the benefit of socioeconomic advancement, social acceptance and psychological survival. It begs the question, then, whether Díaz is portraying acculturation or transculturation. I believe that the focus of Díaz’s lens on the imbalanced power dynamics of space, language and culture in Ramón and Yunior’s world in these two stories would point to a complex and honest reading of the protagonists’ search for an authentic identity. Hence, the narrator is addressing not the ingenuous conceptualization of acculturation, but rather the implied Otherness of transculturation.
The map I have drawn thus far connecting third spaces, transculturation and linguistic hierarchies recalls the considerable breadth of already existing theoretical discussion on cultural production and space. Homi K. Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994) revisits “the borderline work of culture” from a spatial point of view: that is, conceptualizing the space of culture not only as a physical locus (the tangible earth, sea and air of one’s locality) but also as an intangible one. “[This new conceptualization] creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural transition,” he writes; “Such art does not merely recall the past as social cause or aesthetic precedent; it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent ‘in-between’ space that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present” (Bhabha 7). It seems that what Bhabha dubs the “borderline work of culture” could be conveniently re-articulated in terms of Ortíz’s transculturation. Like Ortíz, Bhabha frames the “‘in-between’ space” of a socially alienated community such as Latinx immigrants in terms of a “hybrid cultural space” and the result of a “migrant act of survival” (7). Bhabha later refers to this migrant process of survival as becoming, which Ylce Irizarry in turn summarizes economically as “an immediate cultural space, between a past and future cultural space” (Irizarry 90). Just as Ortíz’s proposal of the term transculturation developed in response to and criticism of acculturation, so does Bhabha’s notion of becoming tread into the territory of new cultures and new spaces birthed from antecedent cultures in contact. In this way, Bhabha’s understanding of culture as intangible, mutant and unfixed is useful in the present analysis of “Negocios” and “Invierno” which seeks to read both physical space and language as tied to non-physical, (trans)cultural space.
In a similar vein to Bhabha, Henri Lefebvre asserts in his 1974 book The Production of Space (La production de l’espace) that physical (natural) space and abstract (mental-linguistic-literary) space collapse into what he calls social space. It is here that the force of hegemony fundamentally shifts the flow and dynamic between cultures in contact, much in the same way that Ortíz recognized that postcolonialism colors the power hierarchies between languages and cultures. In his book, Lefebvre asks the following questions which echo Ortíz and Bhabha:
Is it conceivable that the exercise of hegemony might leave space untouched? Could space be nothing more than the passive locus of social relations, the milieu in which their combination takes on body, or the aggregate of the procedures employed in their removal? The answer must be no… [H]egemony makes use of [space]…on the basis of an underlying logic and with the help of knowledge and technical expertise, of a ‘system.’ (Lefebvre 11)
In other words, Lefebvre reads every social space (geographical locus imbricated with mental-linguistic space) as the unconscious yet powerful tool used by postcolonialism to further cement the hierarchies of race, class, ethnicity and language that it has already produced. Put even more simply, immigrants like Yunior’s family and the various U.S. Latinx generations they represent are confronted with both physical (geographical) barriers and social barriers, like the hierarchies of language and culture that place their Spanish tongue and Latin American identity near the bottom of the society in the new space they attempt to occupy. Such hierarchies, Lefebvre argues, are so systemic as to be insidious, because hegemony is a constant element of power dynamics between cultures and spaces.
Critically, Edward Soja conceptualizes Lefebvre’s idea of hegemonic social space as the creation of Others in a “third space”—or, as Soja himself terms it, “Thirding-as-Othering” (Soja 61). According to Soja, this third space is that which is in between and beyond the two social spaces of cultures in contact. I would add that this third space is occupied by first-, second-, and one-and-a-half-generation immigrants alike, who are all haunted by the social space of their homeland (such as the Dominican Republic in the case of Yunior’s family) and confronted with the new social space that demands translation (the United States and, with it, Anglo-American culture). It is critical to note that what results from the contact of these two social spaces is not just an “in-between space” (Bhabha 211), but also a “third space” (Majkowska 115), that is, something new and discrete from the first two. Soja points out that third space both draws from and resists “binarized categories” (Soja 60). His reading of Lefebvre and his proposal of the term third space, therefore, ties in with Ortíz’s and Bhabha’s understanding of transculturation as much more than a simple hybrid or result of acculturation. Third space bears both aspects of the other two spaces and characteristics of a new space in and of itself. In Ortizian terms, this assertion can be translated into a third culture bearing aspects from the other two cultures in contact while demonstrating characteristics of a new and separate culture altogether. Indeed, while it is tempting to declare that bilingual and transcultural figures like Ramón in “Negocios” and Yunior in “Invierno” are stuck in a state of in-betweenness, they are in fact in a separate and third space entirely. Moreover, they are Othered, and herein lies the paradox between finding one’s own authenticity and problematizing the process of calling an Othered identity authentic in the first place.
In relation to this point, Soja postulates that it is through one’s state of Otherness in the third space that one is able to speak uniquely and authentically. He describes “Thirding-as-Othering” as a “critical ‘other-than’ choice that speaks and critiques through its otherness” (61). The overall tone of “Negocios” and “Invierno” and Díaz’s work in general seems to align less with Soja’s optimism toward the agency found in transculturation, and instead echoes Lefebvre’s criticism of how social space constructs and reinforces hegemonic hierarchies. Nonetheless, it is productive to read “Negocios” and “Invierno” through the multi-lensed analytical framework I have described that is inspired by Ortíz, Bhabha, Lefebvre and Soja, and thereby conclude whether or not Ramón and Yunior find their selfhood in their Otherness in the United States. As I will posit in the following scene-by-scene analysis of the two short stories, Yunior and Ramón indeed find their selfhood at the end of their respective narratives, but in palpably tentative terms and in clear recognition of the fact that they are rejected by the Anglo-American social space in the United States for their Otherness. Whether they are empowered, oppressed or simply paralyzed by the uniqueness of their Othered identity remains to be seen.
Language, Third Space and Othering in “Negocios” and “Invierno”
True to the philosophical model of analysis melded from Ortíz, Bhabha, Lefebvre and Soja, physical space fuses with and reflects cultural-linguistic space in Díaz’s “Negocios” and “Invierno.” “Negocios” is characterized by a circular spatial narrative because it begins and ends in the Dominican Republic, first with Ramón leaving the island for the United States and then returning to the reluctant family. In between these two moments Ramón traverses one space after another. After landing in Miami, he struggles to find steady employment, befriends fellow Latino immigrant laborers his age, is urged by his new acquaintance Eulalio to learn English in order to survive, and wanders northward until he reaches New Jersey and settles into a new job, life and relationship there. The most significant of these spaces that Ramón orbits are the apartment he shares with three other Latinos; the bars that he frequents with and without Eulalio to practice his English with strangers; the ride through Delaware in the federal marshals’ car where Ramón forcibly minimizes his Spanish accent for fear of racist repercussions; and his return south to the island to retrieve the family he left behind. Together, these spaces function as the most manifest spaces of translation, transculturation and Otherness in “Negocios.”
Ramón’s first encounter with his roommate Eulalio in Miami is marked both by his unease at the latter’s arrogance, and by the necessity of diplomacy for companionship. This tension reflects the same necessity that drives immigrants like Ramón to recognize their Otherness in America and reluctantly translate themselves into their new social space. Yunior, the narrator, describes Ramón and Eulalio’s first meeting thus:
Eulalio was the third apartment-mate. He had the largest room to himself and owned the rusted-out Duster that brought them to work every morning. He’d been in the States close to two years and when he met Papi [Ramón] he spoke to him in English. When Papi didn’t answer, Eulalio switched to Spanish.
You’re going to have to practice if you expect to get anywhere. How much English do you know?
None, Papi said after a moment.
Eulalio shook his head. Papi met Eulalio last and liked him least. (Díaz, Drown 84)
The two men’s first meeting takes place in Ramón’s first flatshare in Miami, where he could reasonably expect his Latino roommates to all converse easily in Spanish. It is therefore significant and jarring to Ramón’s character that Eulalio first addresses him in English. Ironically, it is an indication of social boundaries and hierarchies where ordinarily there should be none. What Ramón unconsciously envisioned as his safe space where he can speak Spanish like the rest of his flatmates instead turns into a forced scene of translation. It is only natural, therefore, that Ramón avoids Eulalio specifically on his outings to bars where he wishes to meet strangers with whom he will practice his English, “away from Eulalio’s gleeful criticisms” (84). The narrator implies that if Ramón cannot stay at home without being ridiculed by Eulalio for his broken English, then the former would rather enter into another space of translation where his interlocutors are actually Anglophone speakers and not “transplanted Latinos” (84) who subscribe so faithfully to the power dynamic of English over Spanish that they shoot him unfriendly grimaces. Interestingly, characters such as Eulalio, who yet occupy a third space and are therefore Othered from American society, seem to foist their Otherness off onto newcomers like Ramón, in a never-ending replication of the hegemonic chain of social spaces pointed out by Lefebvre.
During Ramón’s moments of solitude in the Miami apartment, he likewise practices English, but not to achieve the acculturation and transplanted arrogance that he so sharply criticizes in Eulalio and the Latina women of the neighborhood. The narrator implies that Ramón practices English to himself as a means of forgetting what he left behind:
At the apartment, he’d lie down on his mattress… He abstained from thoughts of home, from thoughts of his two bellicose sons and the wife he had nicknamed Melao. He told himself, Think only of today and tomorrow. Whenever he felt weak, he’d take from under the couch the road map he bought at a gas station and trace his fingers up the coast, enunciating the city names slowly, trying to copy the awful crunch of sounds that was English. The northern coast of our island was visible on the bottom right-hand corner of the map. (Díaz, Drown 84)
Ramón’s goal in learning English is apparently to aid in his movement forward, upward, northward through the States. The scene tastes of irony, because even in these moments where he flinches at reminders of his responsibility to Virta, Rafa and Yunior, the very map that becomes his comfort still bears the outline of the Dominican Republic. It is a potent scene in which the narrator establishes first space (the island), second space (the United States) and third space (the meandering path through unnamed states to the North). Yet simultaneously, Ramón is haunted by the ubiquity of the first space in his past while he attempts to translate himself into the second space. Thinking that English fluency is his key to self-translation, Ramón instead pushes himself to occupy a third space in which he is a loner both literally and figuratively—about to embark on a journey northward on his own with no guide or connections.
Ramón’s physical and geographical transience following his stint in Miami reflects his uncertain venture into a third space of language and culture in the States. As he is walking through Delaware, he is picked up federal marshals on the highway, and Ramón feels compelled to accept their offer of a ride to avoid suspicion since his visa expired and he is now in the country illegally (Díaz, Drown 86). In order to further sell his image as a long-term resident who is innocent of overstaying his visa, Ramón responds to the marshals monosyllabically and forces down his Dominican accent. Thus, whenever the “two sleepy blancos” pose a question, Ramón answers with “Jes,” and “carefully omit[s] the Nueva and the Yol” when he explains that he is headed for New York (Díaz 86). Ramón finally seals the story and earns the marshals’ trust by agreeing with their assumption that he is a traveling musician—a harmless bard compared to the arrested murderer they have riding in the back. Once again the interplay of language, accents and geography in this scene illustrate Ramón’s uneasy place in a third space and his daily struggle to translate himself into different acceptable versions to the white Americans when he passes through their social space. First, the bilingual narrator’s choice to call the marshals “blancos” just like he dubs other white characters “gringos” throughout the story establishes the significance of the social and cultural barrier that still exists between them and Ramón. Secondly, while the narrator always spelled Ramón’s lines correctly in previous scenes—regardless of whether Ramón’s actual dialogue was in English or was in Spanish but translated to English for the benefit of the reader—here the same narrator phonetically writes out Ramón’s accent to immediately highlight his difference, his linguistic Otherness from the white marshals and the murderer. And finally, the narrator emphasizes just how important a role language serves in this chapter of Ramón’s life, where his skill at translating his accent and his image can either land him in jail or give him a free ticket up north to a better job and housing. At the same time that Ramón exists in a third space as the clear Other in this scene in the marshal’s car—for he is the only mobile character that both enters and exits the vehicle—Ramón is also acting as his own agent of translation so that he can give off the appearance of acculturation rather than uneasy and Othered transculturation.
After Ramón lands a job in New York and begins a new relationship with Nilda, the narrator yet reminds the reader of how the first space—the Dominican Republic and the family that Ramón abandoned on the island—still haunts the man. Not only is he barraged by letters from Virta reporting tragedies in Yunior and Rafa’s health and school life (Díaz, Drown 92); he also feels compelled to return to the island and see his first family again, despite all his philandering tendencies (93). The day that Ramón lands back in the Dominican Republic is characterized once more by the different language in the environment. The narrator states:
Seeing the country he’d been born in, seeing his people in charge of everything, he was unprepared for it. The air whooshed out of his lungs. For nearly four years he’d not spoken his Spanish loudly in front of the Northamericans [sic] and now he was hearing it bellowed and flung from every mouth.
His pores opened, dousing him as he hadn’t been doused in years. (94)
The first line of the excerpt above confirms the existence of hegemonic social spaces in North America where Ramón has now spent years at the bottom of society. Ramón is therefore taken aback by seeing the hierarchy of Anglo America over Latin America inverted or even non-existent in the streets of the Dominican Republic. The physical and almost spiritual awakening that the narrator then describes in Ramón is a reaction to hearing Spanish being spoken so freely around him, not like a secret crime or source of shame, but as an open manifestation of culture and identity. Ramón has returned full circle to the space where he was born and where he should feel free. The bitter irony of the situation is that he is not even at liberty to move through the town the way he would have in the past in a heartbeat to visit his first family. Beleaguered by guilt and sudden hesitation, Ramón lingers in distant barrios and never ends up returning to Virta and the boys until another five years later. And in that time between his first return to the island and his final one, Ramón begins “smuggling himself out of Nilda’s life” (Díaz, Drown 97) physically and emotionally, until he has abandoned her and the space she represents entirely and flown “back south” (97) to the first space where it all began.
Ramón’s final conversations with Nilda, his new children and his business partner Jo-Jo are in Spanish, in a circular way that mimics how his interactions with his first family in the Dominican Republic and his first contacts in Miami were in Spanish at the opening of the story. Even the passing detail that he mistakenly calls one of his new sons “Yunior” seems to foreshadow Ramón’s inevitable, if not troubled and dysfunctional, return to his first family and his first space. Even while living in the second space, Ramón is haunted by the inescapable pull of his first culture, a narrative phenomenon that is both “elliptical” and “pervasive[ly] metaphorical” (Torres-Saillant 135). Ramón as a transcultural figure, while creating and occupying a third space, is not and can never be comfortable with his Otherness in the United States so long as he feels the weight of his psychological isolation from that which is familiar to him; he will therefore always return to some symbol of his first space. Thus, while bringing his old family with him to New Jersey may result in discord and abuse, Ramón yet hopefully—perhaps selfishly—sees this gesture as a solution to his failed self-translation into North American society and his empty substitute relationship with Nilda. The role of Díaz’s narrator throughout “Negocios” is to portray precisely this elliptical and futile—yet genuine—pursuit by a transcultural figure of the comfort of his first space.
If the narrative tenor of “Negocios” is clearly defined by Ramón’s perceptions of the ties between language and mental-geographical space around him, then “Invierno” is even further illustrative of the Othering process of Yunior’s entry into third space. The latter story takes place almost exclusively in the confined space of Ramón’s apartment where he holds Virta, Rafa and Yunior virtually hostage. This space is at once their physical and psychological prison, and a haven from the harsh northern winter and the strange-sounding gringos outside. Two additional spaces serve key roles in “Invierno”: the field outside the apartment where Yunior meets his young white neighbors Eric and Elaine, and the open oceanside space where Yunior, Rafa and Virta venture at the end of the story in a gesture of rebellion against Ramón and in search of their selfhood. The first two spaces named here, much like those visited by Ramón in “Negocios,” function as scenes of translation between the characters’ Dominicanness and the Americanness of their surroundings. In contrast, the last space represents a possibility of mobility between cultural spheres for these characters, wherein they feel reprieve from the near-constant pressure to self-translate and instead seek little indications of their freedom and selfhood as best they can in the unfamiliar setting around them. Together, these three physical loci in “Invierno” reinforce my reading of Díaz’s work as a recognition of the complexity of (re)building a cultural identity in a foreign space out of necessity.
In much the same way that Eulalio lords his relative mastery of English over Ramón when the latter first arrives in Miami, so does Ramón hold his family’s language barriers over their heads to confine them inside the apartment. Yunior attempts to explore outside the apartment in the opening scene, only to be wrenched by the ear down onto the couch by his irate father. The boy narrates, “He did not look happy. ‘You’ll go out when I say you’re ready,’ [Papi said]” (This Is How You Lose Her 123). Yunior remains frozen on the couch—stunned at his father’s domineering side that he has never seen before, and perhaps only now beginning to realize just how different life is about to become compared to his vibrant existence in the open spaces of Santo Domingo, as described in the preceding stories in Díaz’s anthology. Also noteworthy in this encounter is the juxtaposition of the heated dialogue with the impressionistic audio-visual of the news on the television in the background. “I didn’t move,” says Yunior; “On the TV the newscasters were making small, flat noises at each other. They were repeating one word over and over. Later when I went to school I would learn that the word they were saying was Vietnam” (123). While on one hand, the inclusion of this detail neatly establishes the timeline of the story, the overarching narrative function of the undecipherable US news is also to highlight the language barriers that imprison Yunior and his family even from a device so innocuous as a TV. The scenes that follow are marked by the same inertia and intangible force imprisonment: for days Yunior and Rafa are snowed in, seated motionless on the couch while trying—and failing—to pick up fluent English from US television programs at Virta’s behest. The one key that can release the boys and their mother from their snowbound prison, both physically and metaphorically, is at this point so unattainable as to acquire a flavor of trauma that continues to color the remaining scenes in the story.
In the same way that their lack of knowledge in English prevents Virta, Rafa and Yunior from moving between physical spaces, so does it also bar them from even moving forward toward any meaningful tasks. “We mostly sat in front of the TV or stared out at the snow those first days. Mami cleaned everything about ten times and made us some damn elaborate lunches. We were all bored speechless,” Yunior recalls (This Is How You Lose Her 123). The trauma of their inability to self-translate has even rendered the family speechless. Later dialogues between them revolve almost exclusively around learning English, leaving the apartment, seeking friends on the outside and daring to reminisce fragments of their happier life in the Dominican Republic. Ironically, Virta’s unsuccessful attempts at English become yet another tool with which Ramón can exert his control over her and her space. Her hopeful repetition of English words over dinner devolves into her humiliation by her own husband:
I can’t understand a word you’re saying, he said finally. It’s best if I take care of the English.
How do you expect me to learn?
You don’t have to learn, he said. Besides, the average woman can’t learn English.
It’s a difficult language to master, he said, first in Spanish and then in English. (124)
The reference to bilingual dialogue at the end of the exchange above is oblique yet significant. Given the complex turns of phrase preceding the final line, one could assume that the majority of the dinnertime dialogue takes place in Spanish. This realization necessitates the question: why would Ramón feel the need to close the conversation by repeating his point in English? In this instance, language functions as control, in all senses of the hegemony of social spaces pinpointed by Lefebvre: gendered, racial and geographical. Ramón asserts his machismo by dismissing English as something only easily acquired by men. And in the same damaging gesture, he flaunts how he is the only family member to have become (to borrow Bhabha’s words), to have gained some modicum of mobility between the social space of his ignorant immigrant family and the social space of the gringo world. Ramón is, for all intents and purposes, the Eulalio of this very scene with his family. Othered and relegated to a third space by the gringos, he yet exploits his English fluency to alienate his wife and sons, to remind them of how they are stuck in the first space and have not become. Like Eulalio, he unconsciously and abusively replicates the hegemonic hierarchy of languages and social spaces over his own family.
In contrast to the ennui, imprisonment and psychological abuse symbolized by apartment, the field that Yunior and Rafa glimpse from the window where white children play and build snowmen represents a fantastical illusion of the possibility of acceptance outside—in the second space. After the first time the white children, Eric and Elaine, wave at the two boys, Yunior notes Rafa’s sudden desire to stay in the States. “Rafa…didn’t want to go,” Yunior tells himself; “he liked the TV and the toilet and already saw himself with the girl in apartment four” (131). Yunior himself approaches Eric and Elaine first with the same hope of acceptance. Here in this first dialogue between the Dominican characters and the American ones, it is clear that Yunior’s long sentences are actually spoken in Spanish while Eric and Elaine’s confused responses are in English. The narrative itself transmits the entire exchange on paper in English—an interesting aesthetic choice on Díaz’s part that serves to highlight a jarring instance of code-switching the moment Yunior returns to the apartment:
The gringo children watched me from a distance and then walked away. Wait, I said, but then an Oldsmobile pulled into the next lot, its tires muddy and thick with snow…
Rafa was sprawled in front of the TV [inside].
Hijo de la gran puta, I said, sitting down. (Díaz 133-34; emphasis added)
The field where Yunior shares his first of numerous encounters with the friendly gringo children retains its dream-like quality in that we almost feel as though Yunior was able to translate himself monolingually to Eric and Elaine. As soon as they leave, however, Yunior is thrust back into his personal reality that he is still incarcerated in the apartment, both by the absence of friends outside and his own inability to translate himself to make meaningful connections elsewhere. Physical space and cultural-linguistic space converge once more to remind Yunior of his isolation and his Otherness, at a point in his young life where he cannot yet understand that his transcultural nature has become his own social space.
As Virta is likewise lured by a natural human thirst for freedom to leave the apartment when Ramón is not home, the narrator takes this opportunity to introduce the final key locus, the oceanside. Throughout the story, Yunior and Rafa occasionally hear their mother opening the front door and disappearing somewhere unnamed in the dead of the night. In the last scene of the story, when Ramón is stranded elsewhere overnight by an oncoming blizzard, the boys finally follow their mother out and accompany her across the Westminster strip to the oceanside. The joy of the three characters is palpable, for here at last is a space where they are relieved of the pressure to translate themselves to the gringo or prove themselves to Ramón as worthy of freedom. Notably, the dialogue in this scene is the only one between Virta, Yunior and Rafa where there is no mention of learning English, and where Virta offers her sons a genuine smile. But the portion of the scene that speaks most profoundly is the one where no one speaks at all:
We went down to the edge of the apartments and looked out over the landfill, a misshapen, shadowy mound that abutted the Raritan. Rubbish fires burned all over it like sores and the dump trucks and bulldozers slept quietly and reverently at its base…
We even saw the ocean, up there at the top of Westminster, like the blade of a long, curved knife. Mami was crying but we pretended not to notice. We threw snowballs at the sliding cars and once I removed my cap just to feel the snowflakes scatter across my cold, hard scalp. (Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her 145)
This is the first, longest and most detailed description of an open space in the story, and it is with these words that the narrator draws the tale to a close. True to his style of allowing readers a fleeting taste of complex human emotions, the author juxtaposes the boys’ giddiness at their newfound freedom with Yunior’s personal pain as an older version of him looks back on the same memory (145). Similarly, the “rubbish fires” scattered around the bay “like sores” and the metaphorization of the ocean as “a long, curved knife” remind the reader that the characters’ triumph at being able to escape the apartment for a night cannot belie the fact that they are geographically trapped in another world where the Anglo-American culture clashes with and asserts itself over their own. On a small scale, the space of the snow-dusted oceanside offers hope and a degree of beauty; but in the grander scheme of things, the vastness of the ocean is another reminder of how inaccessible the family’s homeland is from across the water, and how they cannot escape forever the pressure of having to translate themselves into a new social space for survival. The pain of their Otherness, then, pursues Yunior and his brother and mother, even into this third space that simultaneously and paradoxically blankets them from the memories and pressures of the other spaces they have occupied.
Some nights after the family’s move to New Jersey in “Invierno,” Yunior recalls, “I dreamed of home, that we’d never left. I woke up, my throat aching, hot with fever… Learning to sleep in new places was an ability you were supposed to lose as you grew older, but I never had it” (135). “Learning to sleep in new places,” indeed, is an apt way to put into words the transcultural figure’s dilemma of spatial and social mobility. It is a vivid illustration of how some part of the immigrant’s or immigrant child’s personhood may still be left behind in the first space and how, even generations after the first contact between cultures, Latinx populations can still feel the alienation of the third space they live in while integrated into North American society. In this vein, Cuban-American writer Achy Obejas remarks in her 2009 interview with Junot Díaz:
Traditionally, the immigrant comes to the United States and breaks the relationship with his native land, in one way or another. His native land remains a place of nostalgia, dreams, illusions. But there is a new generation that maintains its relationship with the native land. People come and go, like you and me—you belong to the Dominican Republic just as I do to Cuba, without belonging. (Obejas 44)
By rephrasing Obejas’s point in the language of my analysis thus far, one could say that Yunior’s family, but particularly Yunior and Ramón, belong to their first space in the Dominican Republic at the same time that they no longer belong. Marisel Moreno reads this predicament of the Latinx immigrant as the type of fluidity of identity that defines the Dominican diaspora. In her analysis of “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie,” another story from Drown told by an older Yunior, Moreno posits: “Yunior’s obsession with masking and unmasking…illustrates that Dominicanness is being redefined as a result of migration… In the end, Yunior’s personal struggle can be said to mirror the processes that Dominicans in the United States are undergoing in their negotiation and reconfiguration of identities in the diaspora” (Moreno 115). It is obvious in “Invierno” that Yunior, in his youth, does not yet know how to navigate these nuances of his identity in the face of his immigration to the States. Similarly, Ramón in “Negocios” starts out just as naive and lost as his son when he arrives in Miami, only to become the English-speaking transient between social spaces that switches on and off different aspects of his linguistic-cultural identity to survive in the white world—in the marshals’ car—and then later uses his newfound linguistic prestige to Other his own family.
The parallel spatial and linguistic metaphors in “Negocios” and “Invierno” construct a potent and critical lens on the relationship between transculturation and social alienation for the U.S. Latinx community. In both stories, Junot Díaz juxtaposes each geographical locus with linguistic parameters to trace the characters’ movement between cultures. Safe spaces like Ramón’s and Yunior’s apartments become scenes of humiliation by older Latino immigrants and pressure to translate oneself to English and Anglo-American culture. The bars in Miami and the field in New Jersey where Eric and Elaine play both symbolize illusions of acceptance into the second space, the gringo world. And the later moments in both stories, where Ramón wanders the winding highways northward, and Virta and her sons meander for a moment of bittersweet freedom through the detritus by the oceanside, represent the characters’ inevitable entry point into the third space of transculturation and Thirding-as-Othering. In both “Negocios” and “Invierno,” the Spanish-speaking social spaces are relegated to the lower rungs in the cultural hierarchy of the immigrant experience. The characters of both generations fail to translate themselves to their gringo interlocutors in a meaningful or lasting way—Ramón with the marshals, Yunior with the white children. These characters, therefore, exist in a constant state of fluidity, of belonging without belonging, of Otherness without successful self-translation. Díaz passes no value judgment on whose fault this failure could be attributed to, but rather focuses his bilingual narrative lens on these complex truths and difficult realities that so often characterize his work. And if Yunior expresses bitterness at the fact that he may never acquire the skill of “learning to sleep in new places,” then this is simply another metaphor for the narrator’s pragmatic view that transculturation is not the seamless merging of social spaces, but rather a cyclical passage of survival from one space to another as the immigrant figure seeks to escape his isolation in his Third-as-Othered space but always comes back to the comfort of it.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 2007.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.
Davies, Catherine. “Fernando Ortíz’s Transculturation: the Postcolonial Intellectual and the Politics of Cultural Representation.” Postcolonial Perspectives on the Cultures of Latin America and Lusophone Africa, edited by Robin Fiddian. Liverpool Scholarship Online, 2013, pp. 141-68.
Díaz, Junot. “Invierno.” This Is How You Lose Her. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012, pp. 121-45.
—. “Negocios.” Drown. Riverhead Books, 1996, pp. 80-98.
Hanna, Monica, Jennifer Hartford Vegas and José David Saldívar. “Introduction: Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination from Island to Empire.” In Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 1-30.
Irizarry, Ylce. “Making It Home: A New Ethics of Immigration in Dominican Literature.” Hispanic Caribbean Literature of Migration: Narratives of Displacement, edited by Vanessa Pérez. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 89-104.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Blackwell Publishing, 1991.
Majkowska, Karolina. “‘Neither Here Nor There.’ The Experience of Borderless Nation in Contemporary Dominican-American Literature.” Colloquia Humanistica, vol. 6, 2017, pp. 113-24.
Molloy, Sylvia. Vivir entre lenguas. Eterna Cadencia Editora, 2016.
Obejas, Achy. “A Conversation with Junot Díaz.” Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, vol. 42, no. 1, 2009, p. 45.
Ortíz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Translated by Harriet de Onís. Duke University Press, 1995.
Pérez-Firmat, Gustavo. Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.
Rumbaut, Rubén G. “The Agony of Exile: A Study of the Migration and Adaptation of Indochinese Refugee Adults and Children.” Refugee Children: Theory, Research, and Services, edited by Frederick l. Ahearn, Jr. and Jean L. Athey. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, pp. 53-91.
Soja, Edward. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
Torres-Saillant, Silvio. “Artistry, Ancestry, and Americanness in the Works of Junot Díaz.” Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination. Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 115-144.