Junot Díaz Doesn’t Need To Improve His Spanish

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By: Hector Luis Alamo

There’s a tug of war taking place between two dominant forces in the world today, between globalization on the one hand and tribalism on the other. Point to nearly any continent on the globe, and you’ll find this struggle being played out — in the U.S. immigration debate, in the Kichwa tribe’s fight against deforestation backed by the Ecuadorean government, in the Dutch government’s unwelcoming stance toward Muslims, and of course, in the Dominican Republic’s denationalization of its Haitian-descended citizens.

A Sept. 23 ruling by the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court demanded that a 2004 law abolishing birthright citizenship be applied retroactively to anyone born to immigrants after 1929. The D.R. of course shares the island of Hispaniola with its neighbor and cultural-political adversary Haiti, thus making Haitians by far the largest group of immigrants in the Dominican Republic. (Think México, as it relates to how the term “immigrant” is understood by most U.S. citizens.)

Estimates concerning the number of Dominican-born citizens affected by the court’s ruling vary between 20,000 and 200,000.

Not one to shy away from making controversial statements, Díaz told reporters at a book signing in the D.R. that Dominican politicians were “corrupt” and “thieves.” His comments came on the heels of a op-ed he’d co-written with Julia Alvarez, Mark Kurlansky and Edwidge Danticat for the Los Angeles Times, in which the four authors — two Dominican and one Haitian — charge the current Dominican government with perpetrating the same kind of racism toward Haitians that has stained Dominican history since its independence and reached a fever pitch under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. This drove a group of Dominican intellectuals to pen an open letter to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, accusing him of not understanding the full context of the court’s decision. In the letter dated November 27, the group of eight go on to question Díaz’s Dominican-ness and his authority on Dominican matters, writing, “your presence in our country, in this difficult moment we’re getting through collectively, is a joke.” José Santana, executive director for the Dominican Presidency’s International Commission on Science and Technology, sent an email to Díaz, labeling him a “fake and overrated pseudo intellectual” who “should learn better to speak Spanish before coming to this country to talk nonsense.”

While Díaz is a native son of the Villa Juana neighborhood of Santo Domingo, he’s lived and worked on the East Coast since the age of five, making him a prominent member of the Dominican Diaspora. And wherever and whenever there’s a diaspora of any kind, there’s bound to be a debate about authenticity.

Arguments centering on identity and cultural purity have followed diasporic communities all the way back to the original diaspora, that of the Jews, who first fled or were removed from Judah during the Babylonian captivity. From then on the Judeans would argue that they were the only true Jews and that all the communities living abroad were diluted — showing that even back then there were people disputing the authenticity of others living in diaspora.

So, is Junot Díaz a real, true Dominican? Ignoring the stupid provincialism of such a question, we can safely say that, yes, he is.

But the supremacists on the island don’t see it that way. For them, because Díaz has lived outside the D.R. for nearly the past 40 years, he’s lost too much of his Dominican-ness — or has too much American-ness – to be considered a true Dominican. And so it is, too, that the same people attacking the Dominican-ness of the D.R.’s greatest author are the same people revoking the Dominican-ness of tens of thousands of natural born citizens.

Even if Junot Díaz isn’t Dominican enough, even if his Spanish is as wholesome as hot dog meat, that still doesn’t make the court’s ruling right. Díaz could’ve been born in Puerto Rico, Honduras or Iceland, and his criticism of the Dominican government and its new policy would be justified. Were natural born citizens of Germany in the 1930s the only people on the planet allowed to condemn Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic laws? Were natural born Americans during the Second World War the only legitimate source of criticism toward Japanese internment? Are the native sons and daughters of Arizona the only ones who have a right to protest the state government’s anti-immigrant legislation? The answer is — and I hope you’ll agree — hell no.

Admittedly, this whole business of authenticity and the right of diasporic communities to speak on homeland issues is a personal one for me. As a writer of Puerto Rican descent who often discusses Puerto Rican politics and U.S. immigration law, I’m confronted with the authenticity challenge on an almost weekly basis. Puerto Ricans living on the island will tell me that I can’t fully understand Puerto Rican society and the island’s political status since I wasn’t born on the island and I’ve never lived there. Those who discover I’m only Puerto Rican on my dad side will accuse me having separate loyalties — though, to be clear, I’m not loyal to any of my ancestral homelands. Not knowing that my mom was born in Honduras, Mexicans and other immigrant nationalities regularly challenge my interest in immigration issues and my authority to write about a topic that, as a Puerto Rican, I know nothing about.

The fact of the matter is there is no such thing as “as Dominican as.” There are only different kinds of Dominican, just as there are different kinds of Puerto Rican, Mexican and American. Junot Díaz is a Dominican who has lived most of his life in the United States and speaks English as his primary language, and José Santana is a Dominican who has lived most of his life in the D.R. and speaks Spanish as his primary language. Both men are Dominican, not one more than the other. And that both of them were born in the Dominican doesn’t make them more Dominican than a person born in the diaspora, since place of birth has more to do with luck than essence.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the jíbarito and the Puerto Rican flag – both born in the mainland United States, but both as Puerto Rican as anything the island has to offer.

And yet you’ll never hear a Puerto Rican politician question the puertorriqueñidad of La Monoestrellada.

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Hector Luis Alamo

Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer who currently contributes for Gozamos, Latino Rebels and RedEye, where he is an opinion columnist.