Family is Relative

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.

Eventually we all recognize the imperfection of our families, and these faults, once labeled as the root of our dissatisfaction, can make even a short stay an unbearable torment. In the United States, grandparents moving in with their children's families are considered a disruption, an unnatural strain, and, worst of all, an invasion of privacy. As a child I had a lot of privacy. Because we only saw each other a couple times a year and rarely spoke on the telephone, my brother and I never had occasion to disagree. When asked, I enthusiastically told people how close we were. Then one summer our family took a vacation to a small cabin in northern Wisconsin. It was the first time the four of us had been together longer than three days in about twelve years. We had no TV, no phone, no nearby movie theater. Suddenly, my brother and I discovered we clashed on various fronts. I'm a vegetarian, he's a hunter. I'm a liberal, he's not. As would later happen in a different context with Eduardo, I discovered my brother was not exactly the person I'd assumed he was. A similar scenario occurred between my parents and me. For a while we all avoided certain topics, unsure where the others' sensitivities lay. Over the years I drifted further and further from my family, rationalizing that it was for the better, considering our differences. Communication seemed too great an inconvenience for all of us.

The easiest way to live is to surround ourselves with people who think like us. Why not? It provides constant affirmation that our way is best. Have you ever noticed that people of a different mindset seem to take up more space than those with whom we're in synch? One of the most difficult things about living in the Dominican Republic was that after four years of living alone, and another six months traveling alone, I'd grown accustomed to choosing my own companions, food, lodging, and diversions. Then, upon arriving in Santo Domingo, I had an insta-family that was as different as different can be. Eduardo, a Seventh Day Adventist who once won first place in a national merengue contest, no longer dances or listens to music unless it specifically praises Jesus Christ. After dinner he would present me with what he thought were moral dilemmas in an effort to help me realize my wayward spirituality: "If a very close male friend announces he is a homosexual should you A) Pray for him, or B) Congratulate him?"

The issue of privacy quickly became a nonissue; that concept does not really exist in Dominican culture. Negra would enter my room at random, thinking nothing of my nakedness as she sprayed for cockroaches. When I told her I needed to eat more fruit and less fried food because my system was "not functioning properly," she exclaimed, "Oh, you're constipated!" and sent me off to the bathroom. "Dedicate some time to it," she encouraged on the other side of the door, listening for progress. Because I was in a foreign country, I was able to not only tolerate my Dominican family's differences, but enjoy and love them. My dad has an old expression he uses whenever someone asks him a question that requires a comparison: "Everyone's a relative"--everything's relative.  

Both apply to my experience in Latin America. I slept in my own bed, which was, relatively speaking, a lot of privacy. I had my own family of Negra, Eduardo, and all the neighbors, aunts, uncles, and cousins who opened their hearts to me. They were all my relatives--closer to me than many of my blood relations. Eduardo and I came to respect each other's opinions. Had we met on the street, we probably would never have made an effort to communicate, but because we lived in the same small apartment, we became good friends.

In the same way, my real brother and I are now building a genuine kinship that acknowledges our differences as well as our unexpected similarities. I don't advocate forcing oneself into situations of constant discomfort or challenge, but I do think we can afford to extend ourselves a bit further than our strongly autonomous and often exclusive culture permits. Whatever privacy I lost in the Dominican Republic was replaced by a previously unknown patience and calm. For me, living outside my country, race, and language reminded me that I remain myself wherever I am. No one entering my room without knocking, disagreeing with my political views, criticizing my choice of partner, or infringing on my personal space is going to shake that constant companion.

When I speak to Negra on the phone, she calls me her daughter, and just as I have never done with my brother, she does not qualify the word. Es algo en el corazón, in the heart, not just the blood. Now, as I read the articles about Dominicans demonstrating and being jailed in a fight for electricity and potable water, I imagine Negra sitting in the dark on her barred-in porch, fanning herself with a useless TV guide. I'm grateful that she and Eduardo have each other, and that I too have family with me--la familia they taught me to appreciate.

Shirley Stephenson now lives in New York City and travels frequently to Mexico for her job. Last month she ate codfish in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her Dominican brother, who happened to be on tour with a church quartet the same week she was in town. This is her first contribution to Minnesota Parent.

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