Family is Relative

If in America a young man moves in with a fifty-year-old woman to whom he is not related, we call it suspicious. But in the Dominican Republic, they simply call it family

I'd lived with my family for three weeks before I realized that Eduardo, the twenty-three-year-old living in the bedroom beside me, was not my brother. "While you're here, I will be your mom," Doña Negra explained my first afternoon in the Dominican Republic. "You can tell me anything--if you're sad or lonely, if you have parasites." The power was out, as usual, and we sat on her barred-in porch like two strange birds suddenly thrown into the same cage. She stepped back to look me up and down, and smiled. "Mija." My daughter.

My two months in the Dominican Republic were the end of an eight month journey that began with a job in Mexico. I then traveled alone throughout Central America before joining fourteen other women for a Health, Nutrition, and Environment Program based in Santo Domingo. Every day we visited or worked in public hospitals, malnutrition clinics, sugar plantations, marginalized barrios, and factories; and every night, no matter what time I returned, Negra had dinner waiting for me. As the electricity kicked on and off, she told stories and I ate. Dominicans speak with a speed that shook my confidence--syllables slip and blur in rhythm with the constant hip-to-hip shuffle of merengue. So the evening Negra mentioned that Eduardo had spent the afternoon with his family, I asked her to slow down. Over two servings of guandules y arroz, she explained to me that Eduardo is her hijo de crianza. Literally, son of nursing, or raising. His "actual" family, if one must think in biological terms, lives in a different barrio.

Negra and Eduardo met through their church, and when her husband died, Eduardo moved in because it simply isn't right to have a widow living on her own. He does not pay rent. She covers his food and medical expenses. In return, he comes home every night, carries the five gallon tanks of potable water up the stairs to their apartment, and drives her to church every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. I asked Negra if she'd explained this relationship to me the first day, if perhaps I had misunderstood.

She shrugged. "No recuerdo, mija." I don't remember. He is her son just as I am her daughter; the arrangement is common. The distinction "de crianza" may or may not be used--it is as irrelevant as the Dominican constitution.

This ambiguous interpretation of family is exactly what I once longed for as a child. In school, teachers combed their memories when I said I had an older brother. Stephenson, Stephenson? "What grade is he in, dear?" College, I explained. My brother is eleven years my senior. And the teachers nodded knowingly. "Oh, your half-brother." Or there was the morning a local bully planted himself in front of me at the bus stop. "Your brother doesn't live here anymore and he's from another mom, so really, you're an only child." He said it with scorn. You're only an only child. I didn't know how to respond to these declarations because we did not use words like "half" and "only" to describe our family. Although my brother was away for most of my childhood, he was my hero--half parent, half sibling.

In a small pueblo at the base of the Dominican Republic's central mountain range, six women asked about my American family. We were seated in the small three-room house where my friend Santa Ana lives with her husband, four children, and seventy-year-old father. I told them about my brother and they nodded, gesturing to the street. "Who cares what you call it? Everyone here has other folks' children living with them at some time or another. We take care of each other." They laughed. "Somos hermanos." We are all brothers. When asked what I would do upon returning to the United States, I said I'd probably stay with my parents. They nodded, assuming I was moving home to be the caretaker. No, I clarified. For now, my parents can care for themselves. I would stay only until I'd found a job and earned enough to move out. I began speaking more quickly, explaining I'd left home when I was seventeen and in ten years hadn't returned for more than a few weeks at a time, so it seemed right to get to know them again. "But I will move out!" I kept insisting.

It was my justifications that confused my friends. "Moving back home is not very common," I said, aware of the translation in English. Moving back. It is not a return but a regression, implying a lack of independence and financial savvy. In the United States, when a twenty-seven-year-old moves in with his mother, no one congratulates his devotion and sense of responsibility. Rather, he is considered a little "unhealthy," or "codependent." Imagine Negra and Eduardo's set-up in the United States--a young man moves in with a fifty-year-old woman to whom he is not related? Hmmm, sounds suspicious. "Pero es familia," they cried. It's family, and that's all the reason one needs.

According to Dominican culture, it is perfectly acceptable for a grown child to rely on his or her parents, because the parents must also be able to rely on the child. "Y que hacen los padres si cada niño les abandona?" Santa Ana asked. And if every child leaves the parents? I tried to explain the concept of a retirement home, which made no sense, so I called it a nursing home, for parents in need of medical supervision. They shook their heads. No. Children care for their parents. One mother can raise eight children, why can't eight children care for one mother? At this, her father looked up from the mango he'd been peeling and waited for my response. Their incredulity was not simply a result of the economic differences between our cultures. Dominicans' commitment to family (however defined) surpasses financial constraints. People take in brothers and aunts, or friends who recently moved to the city--whether or not they have money for temporary housing is beside the point. In Santiago, Negra's sister wants to build her an apartment behind their house not because Negra doesn't have enough money to stay in Santo Domingo, but because she doesn't have enough family there. And Eduardo, of course, is welcome to join her, because he, too, es parte de la familia. I don't mean to imply that Dominicans have a utopic arrangement. There are, of course, problems associated with family members spending their entire lives together--especially in the small quarters to which many of them are confined. But living in the D.R. prompted me to ask questions that have changed my own relationships. While Latin society focuses on the importance of family, contemporary U.S. culture places great emphasis on tracing our difficulties and unhealthy patterns back to it.

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