Pitt English professor pulls from her Washington Heights childhood to portray Dominican life in New York during the ‘60s in Dominicana | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pitt English professor pulls from her Washington Heights childhood to portray Dominican life in New York during the ‘60s in Dominicana

click to enlarge Angie Cruz - ERIKA MORILLO
Erika Morillo
Angie Cruz

Angie Cruz had personal stories to tell, but was ambivalent about writing them as nonfiction. What would her family think about seeing a fictional account of their lives, and some painful memories, in print?

Cruz, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, instead focused on fiction, publishing two critically acclaimed novels, Soledad (2001) and Let it Rain Coffee (2006). When Cruz finally used her mother's story as inspiration for the novel Dominicana (Flatiron), she didn't recognize herself among her daughter's characters. 

“She asked me, 'Who are these people?'” Cruz laughs. “And I realized that there was this weird desire to be seen in some way in the stories.”

Set in the Dominican Republic and New York City in the mid-1960s, Dominicana features Ana Cancion, who's only 15 when she reluctantly agrees to wed a man twice her age in order to provide her family with a better life. After marrying Juan Ruiz on New Year's Eve, 1964, Ana is whisked away to New York City where, instead of getting an education, she is forced to tend to her husband's needs or face his wrath.

“She's a very, very quiet person, very timid, introspective,” Cruz says of her mother, who was generally hesitant to talk about her childhood. Cruz wanted to know what life was like under the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930-1961. What was it like when the U.S. occupied the Dominican Republic in 1965? What was it like to marry a man you didn't choose?

“She would say, 'It's like any other life,'” Cruz says. "The less she wanted to say, the more I became interested in figuring out what that was about. Initially, the journey of writing the novel was a way of being closer to her.”

But the story pivoted during the 10 years it took to complete the book. Even though the novel was inspired by her mother, Cruz used Ana and the other characters to paint a pastiche of Dominican life in New York during the ‘60s: the food, the music, the social life, the families, even the Dominican heroes like baseball players Juan Marichal and the Alou brothers.

Cruz learned these details from the Dominican women in her Washington Heights neighborhood of New York where she grew up in the '70s and '80s.

“I’ve never really seen their stories reflected in the mainstream media or what people see as New York stories,” Cruz says. “One thing people don’t realize is that almost 10 percent of New York City’s population is Dominican. I’ve watched TV shows and movies set in New York my entire life, and rarely have I seen Dominicans in any of those shows.”

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