Fifteen-year-old Ana Canción never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she must say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk up in Washington Heights.
As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, dance with Juan’s brother, César at the Audobon Ballroom, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.
In bright, musical prose that reflects the energy of New York City, Dominicana is a vital portrait of the immigrant experience and the timeless coming-of-age story of a young woman finding her voice in the world.
Joining Bookstagram (follow me!) meant that I was fortunate enough to see a huge amount of books by Latinx authors flood my timeline during Latinx Heritage Month. One of them was Dominicana by Angie Cruz and wow am I glad this book came into my life.
I have never read a story quite like this before. A complex, heartfelt and necessary exploration of an immigrant experience, Ana’s story will stay with me for a long time. There is a sense of immediacy and urgency to Cruz’s glorious writing – it lives entirely in the present tense – that grips you close, holding you deeply inside Ana’s experience in such a way I have rarely seen portrayed with quite such thrilling effectiveness. You’re blinkered by Ana’s experiences – but in a good way. As a reader you adopt her expectations, her understanding of the world and her context in such a way that every moment of her life and her move to the US and all of the alienation, fear and excitement that comes with it feels like your own. It’s incredibly tough at times – domestic violence is a regular feature of Ana’s world – but compelling to read such a closely written portrait of a life.
Part of the way Cruz has achieved this is her deft approach to the political moment of the New York Ana lands in. You understand her context only as she far as she does – which doesn’t include any knowledge of the country and its cultural landscape. So, when she and her new husband move in across the street from the Audobon Ballroom in January of 1965, a month before Malcolm X is assassinated there – and goes on to see from her window a small part of what his community mourning him looks like – you know this has happened and what it means, but Ana does not, so you the event and its after effects remain cloaked in painful mystery. She doesn’t speak any English and her husband won’t allow her to leave the house without him, and there’s no means for her to learn more – so the reader doesn’t either. I found it so refreshing the way Cruz doesn’t waste time spoon feeding context. She treats the political situation in the Dominican Republic in a similar way – you get enough of a sense of what is happening from the story and what it means for Ana and her family, but if you want to understand in more depth (which I would always recommend), you can do further research. The story doesn’t ask it of you, but it does give you a compelling reason to do so.
This is just one of the ways Cruz has crafted how utterly unknown New York is to Ana when she first arrives – the entire city is a question mark, and that fear of feeling lost the moment you step out the door alone was so present, especially in the early chapters of the book before Juan’s return to the Dominican Republic. The realness of that fear only increases the joy at its overcoming.
Dominicana is a unique immigrant narrative entwined with a powerful coming-of-age story – and as you’ll know I’ve you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I love nothing more than reading about a woman stepping into her own. And let me tell you, Ana is a character you want to scream and applaud loudly from the side lines for. Ana has as much self doubt as any 15-year-old – and the sort of weight on her shoulders no one, but especially not one so young should have to carry – but she holds herself with this quiet strength that grows steadily throughout the narrative in a way that was utterly delicious to read. In the process of building her life in New York, Ana falls down a lot – whether that’s from trusting the wrong people, or because what she wants is incompatible with what she needs to do for her family – and there is a bracing authenticity in how she faces it all. Cruz has written a book uninterested in the happy, neat ending of a girl riding off into the sunset, but one that instead revels in the complexities of human relationships, and the never-ending push and pull of duty to family verses duty to self.
It’s an extraordinary piece of writing about an experience too often sidelined. Cruz has crafted a novel that demands the spotlight.