Dominicana by Angie Cruz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dominicana by Angie Cruz is a coming-of-age literary fiction novel about a Dominican girl in the 1960s who’s forced into a marriage to get her chance to live in the United States, but the American dream comes with more sacrifices than she expected.

Ana Canción is growing into her own. She loves her family composed of her parents, three siblings, and two cousins, and helps them on their dying farm in the Los Guayacanes area of the Dominican Republic. Except her family needs to sell some land to the entrepreneurial Ruiz brothers, who mostly live in New York City. Ana’s mother convinces Ana to marry middle brother Juan to seal the business deal and have an opportunity to live in the U.S. As the obedient daughter who witnessed her older sister Teresa suffer the downfall of having a child with a no-good man, Ana says yes to a marriage proposal that’s been on the table since she was eleven years old, even though she’s falling for Gabriel, her first crush:

One kiss and suddenly I’m una mujer. Not a niña or jovencita but a woman. I touch the mirror to understand how it happened without warning, but with the hot-pink dress on, the girl who had never been kissed is gone. I am Ana, about to be married and to travel to America. Juan Ruiz is expected before noon.

On the way to New York, Juan buys Ana a ceramic doll at the airport she calls Dominicana. By the time they get to their apartment in Manhattan on 168th Street and Broadway, Ana realizes that the doll is the only constant. Juan works most of the day in the garment business and comes home smelling like another woman’s perfume. He becomes violent when Ana isn’t the perfect homemaker, always cooking, cleaning, helping with Juan’s side hustle, and staying home as an undocumented immigrant who doesn’t know English. Juan’s side hustle is selling men’s suits out of their apartment. Ana figures out a way to overcharge and keep some of the profits for herself, hidden in Dominicana. But upon expanding her world, she loses her money and feels desperate about starting over again.

To make matters worse, Ana discovers she’s pregnant. She needs her own money. Juan’s younger brother César comes to her rescue. While Juan sorts out business affairs in the Dominican Republic, César, who also works all day and comes home smelling like another woman’s perfume, takes it upon himself to be the husband he knows Ana doesn’t have. They form a bond that seems indestructible until Juan returns home.

Every detail of a regular life juts out in a way that’s still interesting in this historical fiction novel reflecting the journeys of Dominican women coming to the United States in the 1960s when the island was on the brink of civil war. Seeing the world unfold from her window, Ana even witnesses Malcolm X’s assassination at the Audubon Ballroom next to her building.

It’s a snapshot of immigrant life in American history that’s rarely told in American literature. The story follows a pattern from other novels such as Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, which takes place in London with a woman from Bangladesh brought there by a much older husband, of the teen bride-turned-housewife dedicated to serving the husband who works all day while she doesn’t get the love she deserves until she finds it elsewhere. But the story also features domestic violence and rape as Ana is fifteen and Juan thirty-two, more than double her age. Ana feels stuck in a new country and in a promise to financially support her family. The weight is heavy of being the chosen daughter of a poor family from a poor country where she has the chance to make life easier for everyone by sacrificing herself for the cause.

Overall, the reader sees Ana’s growth from shy teenage girl to determined mother-to-be looking for ways to escape her marriage without causing harm to her family. Throughout the book, Ana thinks about her family as tragedy strikes amid her home country sinking into war. Her dedication to her family is strong as she depends on one Ruiz brother to save her from another.

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