With this editorial, we introduce Dominican Republic-born poet Rhina P. Espaillat’s new quarterly Terrain.org series, Knock, Knock: Aquí Estamos. Here readers will find rich intercultural insight, lyricism, and zing. Enjoy!
I. Without Knocking
Dear America, do you remember me? We first met in Washington, D.C., where I was with my parents and others, including a great-uncle who was representing the Dominican Republic at the time. I was only five, so—forgive me—I formed no clear memory of you then, except for a visual memory of the Washington Monument retreating into the distance during a drive in my great-uncle’s car.
And—oh yes—one other thing: Catherine, the pleasant, pretty young Southerner employed as a nanny for me and for my cousin George, the only other child traveling with the legation, issued an unusual warning to both of us. “Don’t play with the Negro children,” she said as we approached a group of potential playmates in the local playground, “because their color may rub off on you.”
As Hispanics from the Caribbean—that is, mixed-race children with relatives of all shades—we knew that wasn’t so in our birth country, but mentioned it to my father, wondering if maybe it was true in the United States. My father took it calmly, assured us that Catherine was mistaken, and promised to have a talk with her. We never learned what he told her, but she never again touched upon racial differences, or much of anything outside of our daily routine.
The next time you and I met, America, I noticed you, big time! So many details about you, in fact, that the encounter felt like fireworks: the tallest buildings, the heaviest traffic, the densest crowds and the most persistent street noises I had ever experienced, from the moment I stepped down from the deck of the Leif Erikson! A friend of the family had brought me to New York to be reunited with my parents after two years of separation. They had broken with the dictatorship then in charge of our native country, and, exiled for life, had found refuge in New York City while I remained in the safety of my paternal grandmother’s house. My parents, as they greeted me on the dock, seemed older and quieter than I remembered, but the constant motion that surrounded them more than made up for the subtle changes.
If you noticed me at all, America, it must have been when, on that first day, I ran down a staircase on one side of 49th Street and up another on the opposite side, over and over, unable to absorb the fact that real trains ran on real tracks under the ground, vomiting people through doors that snapped open by themselves, and replacing those people with others waiting and pushing to get in before the doors snapped shut.
But even if you didn’t notice me, you must have noticed my father, who made himself as conspicuous as possible, panting after me in and out of the buried train station more times than I could count. He wanted, he said, to show me that you were a safe place where we could say anything we wanted and not be punished by the Chief—the Jefe, who in this country was known as Roosevelt—and who, my father said, was very different from our dangerous Jefe, Rafael Trujillo Molina. To my horror, Papa stood on the corner of 8th Avenue and shouted as loudly as he could, “Abajo Roosevelt!” (“Down with Roosevelt!”) over and over. And—even stranger than the underground trains—people rushed past with barely a sideways look. Although two huge police officers sauntered by on enormous horses, they moved on as if we weren’t even there. Nor did any strangers show up at the door of 348 West 49th Street, to knock on the door of 1W, our ground-floor apartment, and take my father away in a black car, either that night or any night.
During the days that followed, America, my parents told me many things about you that were hard to believe but were subsequently proven true: the police carried guns in holsters, but seemed to wear them merely for show. “They work for the people here,” I was told, “not for the Jefe. If you need help when you’re away from us,” they added, “find a policeman to help you, not a stranger.”
That was very odd: in our home town there were few strangers, but many relatives and friends of the family whose homes I could enter without knocking, in search of cousins and other playmates. And everywhere in the country there were many heavily-armed police officers, guardias, who were known to be under the direct command of El Jefe, and could therefore go wherever they were sent, without knocking, but not in search of playmates.
II. When To Knock
After a week or two I found myself in front of a class at Sacred Heart School, where my mother had enrolled me for the rest of the semester, rather than in the large public school a bit farther away, on the grounds that it would be easier for me to feel safe and welcome in a small parochial school. The nun who had welcomed me with a smile and showed me my seat had waited for the arrival of the principal, Mother Superior, a large, earnest, very tall woman, imposing in her habit, and then led me to her side and turned me to face the class. Mother Superior said, in gentle tones, several things that I knew were about me because she gestured down toward me and then toward the class, and finally placed her left arm about my shoulders.
And then, America, I had my first lesson in the differences that may exist between cultures and bite us without warning, even without any trace of ill will on either side. I had been taught that it was bad manners not to return a caress or friendly gesture offered by an adult, so I very contentedly placed my arm around Mother Superior, as would have been expected and proper in La Vega. But unfortunately I was very short, and my arm did not embrace her waist, but her buttocks, which I patted.
The scene that ensued has remained in my memory since the spring of 1939: Mother Superior opened her eyes very wide, turned to face me, and pushed me away with both hands firmly on my shoulders, saying in dark, intense tones, in that new language, something I knew was distinctly not gentle before she handed me over to the nun I later learned was Sister Agnes, before leaving abruptly. Nobody spoke for several minutes while I wondered how I had gone wrong, trying very hard not to cry in front of those quiet children who, to their credit, did nothing to increase my embarrassment.
During the weeks that followed I learned that my classmates, like Sister Agnes and Mother Superior herself, were kind and welcoming. But I also noted that, unlike the people I was used to, they had an invisible No Entry Zone about them that had to be respected. They didn’t pat each other for emphasis when they engaged in conversation, and even dramatic stories about little pigs trying to evade greedy wolves were told without the use of hand gestures. After a few weeks in kindergarten relearning to make the letters in cursive but this time sound them out in English, I was moved to first grade, and by summer had achieved, in second grade, a small vocabulary and simple reading, discovering that poetry, which could be created in English too, was every bit as danceable as what my grandmother used to read to me.
By the time Sister Agnes read us “Little Boy Blue” and short snippets of Robert Louis Stevenson, I understood that poems were not entirely exercises in auditory music to move with and clap to, but also windows into the minds and lives of others—strangers like your sons and daughters, America—with whom one could, after all, communicate, provided one found the door—language—and remembered to knock first.
III. “Knock Knock!”
America, before I sign off, I want to invite you to a game I’m sure you know. Yes, I know, you’re busy being the leader of the free world, and a source of hope to the unfree one, as well as food, water, emergency workers, and medical supplies after any disaster anywhere. But humor me, and I promise to keep it short. Here goes:
Olive us, from Oliver creation, with Olive our baggage! We’ll tell you why we’re here after we’ve washed up and had a bite to eat! What’s that? You’ve already had lunch? No problem: we’ve brought a little something from home, wherever that is: here, taste this. We feel Right-At-Home!
Come to think of it, that’s exactly where Olive you are too, ever since somebody from somewhere else got here and took over Olive it! Come in!
Make yourself at home—again—and welcome to my _____!” (Fill in appropriate noun, such as “book,” “harvest,” “invention,” “railroad,” “Broadway musical,” “vaccine for…” “bridge over…,” “military service at….” You get the picture).
But, what’s this you’re handing me? For me? Oh, you shouldn’t have! But thank you. Let’s see: A Constitution! And a Bill of Rights too? I love them both, and they’re going to fit perfectly! How did you guess my size?
Dominican-born former high school English teacher Rhina P. Espaillat has published 12 books, four chapbooks, and a monograph, including some in English and Spanish, and translates into and out of both languages. Her work appears in numerous periodicals and anthologies, and has earned many national and international awards. She is a frequent reader, speaker, visiting poet, and workshop leader at literary events, and co-founder of the Fresh Meadows Poets in New York and the Powow River Poets in Massachusetts.
Header image by Mama Belle and the kids, courtesy Shutterstock.