Recent data revealed that of the world's people, Dominicans are some of the most willing to relocate to the United States. If tomorrow the DR became part of the United States, more than ¼ of the adults would pack up and leave for Washington Heights. Most want to leave simply for economic reasons. I don't think I've heard of one single Dominican who moved to the US because of freedom or humanist reasons. The Dominican dream for many is the blind embrace of the American capitalist dream, often unfettered. So blinded are many by that economic pursuit, that they are willing to risk their lives.
In the Bronx, I was well acquainted with an individual who risked his life to fulfill his American dream. Unlike Cubans, Dominicans are not immediately granted residence permits if they reach US soil. Not only that, the voyage from Cuba to Florida is direct, whereas Dominicans have to traverse shark-infested waters to reach Puerto Rico, merely a layover destination for Nueva Yol, as many Dominicans refer to the United States.
My friend in the Bronx – let's call him Juan – was only 17 years old when he finally got fed up with school and decided to borrow money from a local bookie so he could book a yola to Puerto Rico. A yola is a essentially a hand-constructed boat used by smugglers to ferry people across the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico.
Juan paid 500 dollars, a bargain since the person who ferried him was relatively new and inexperienced in the game of crossing the Mona Passage; many experienced sailors charge as much as 2,000 dollars. Those 500 dollars were the biggest sum of money he'd ever seen, and he haggled with the yolero to let him keep 20 of those 500 dollars.
Along with a rag-tag bunch of strangers, the wooden, leaky boat took them across the strait for what felt like days. As a kid, I remember people telling me stories about yola trips and I saw it almost in the same light that I saw a trip across the Atlantic. And hell, the conquistadors who sailed on their way to plunder the Dominican probably did so under safer conditions, and with sturdier boats. A yola is tiny and completely exposed to the elements. Menstruating women have been rumored to get thrown overboard for fear that their blood may attract a shark that tips over the boat and devours everyone.
But Juan wasn't afraid of storms, or sharks, or getting stranded and resorting to cannibalism. He'd left his parents asleep in his childhood home – a brightly-painted wooden shack with a zinc roof. The house had been built 40 years earlier by Juan's grandfather, and was the only thing the family had inherited. He left the house in the middle of the night, and in a way also said goodbye to the termites eating away at the wood, and to the pieces of gum patching the leaky roof. If Juan was afraid of one thing, it was the termites. He had nightmares every night where a hurricane would come and wash away his life, but the termites eating his body is what frightened him most. He preferred to be devoured by sharks. There's no logic to fearing what happens to your body after death, but to him a shark was much more noble and Christian than termites after a hurricane.
“One gets used to seeing death and complete loss at every turn,” he tells me. And it was perhaps with that fatalist mentality that he saw that ride across the shark-infested Mona strait as just another night under a leaky roof.
It's hard to predict how many have died crossing the Mona strait, but sometimes it feels as if every Dominican I've encountered knows of someone who has died. Dying in the Mona Passage is in the Dominican consciousness almost a failed entry exam, as if the American hand of destiny decided to turn you back from her embrace.
“I didn't dream of dying crushed in my house that night, instead I dreamt of waking up in Nueva Yol. Nueva Yol was heaven, and Puerto Rico was purgatory,” he said.
Juan arrived in Puerto Rico with those 20 dollars. Everyone landed on a deserted beach and made a split in all directions. He had a dry change of clothes in a plastic bag, and the 20 dollars took him to a part of San Juan he'd heard of where there was a Dominican colony. The very next day, he'd already met someone willing to spot him a gram of white.
“I didn't even want to buy food, I just wanted to sell gram by gram, day by day so I could fly up to Nueva Yol.”
He slept on a park bench the first week, and then met a girl who enjoyed his product and didn't ask for a rent deposit or ID. Through her, me met some guys who dabbled in the identities of the dead, and soon Juan was reborn as a resurrected Puerto Rican man. Puerto Rico is a US commonwealth, so back in the 1990s a library card could have probably gotten you on a plane to the US. You could still be questioned by customs, and if you didn't sound Puerto Rican or got nervous, that could be the end of your Dominican dream. But Juan picked up the Puerto Rican slang and accent rather quickly, and was even choking on his Rs like a true Boricua, as Puerto Ricans charismatically call themselves.
So, there he was in NY, ready to take over the city. He landed on his feet, already having made connections back on the island. Pretty soon he was driving fly cars and his moms had a house, but in less than a year he got busted by the cops with 30k in his car and ended up serving 5 in the slammer. He had nothing stashed away, and being a Puerto Rican, he can never expect to get a passport that would secure his return to the Dominican. To the US legal system he is but a Puerto Rican felon. He can't leave and will probably never see his hometown or family again.
“I miss them everyday, but I can't go back without getting into even bigger trouble.”
Today he works an honest job in a supermarket and makes slightly above minimum wage.