Written by Dulce María Reyes Bonilla
We unfriended one other on Facebook faster than it took for us to become friends in the first place. I was the first to do it. It was the week after we’d reconnected in May 2014, after almost thirteen years of being distant, with tacit estrangement, since right after 9/11. Back then she’d called me after nearly two years, like a journalist contacting a source.
“¿Entonces parece que los niuyourquinos no son tan fríos como se dice?” She’d wanted confirmation about whether New Yorkers were as cold as they’re thought to be. Apparently, after the attacks, all she could do was call me to get a quote.
What prompted my unfriending was something that Prudencia[i] posted on her page about how now was the time for her and her people, our people, to take back the country, her country, our country. Or maybe it was in reaction to something I shared: an article on Amnesty International’s monitoring of the situation. The invaders she was intent on stopping looked like her, like me, like us, some only two shades darker. They remind me of the deep mahogany-hued and now dead father we share.
I felt guilty about my bold decision to unfriend her with such expedience, with impatience, like an efficient guillotine fulfilling its mission. I told our youngest sister Lari. She told me not to worry, that one of our brothers—the community radio producer whose skin color most resembles our father’s—had kicked Prudencia out of his friends’ list, too. Apparently, our sister had posted something over the top more than once. That gave me only some relief. They all grew up together and have their ways and dynamics of loving each other, of pushing each other, of hating on each other, of making up with each other, or maybe not even making up at all and just learning to be in the same space without talking or talking when it’s only necessary. But it’s not easy for me to do that.
When you’re an outsider and want to be included or want to return like a prodigal child, you tiptoe. Life is complicated with your other siblings when you’re not part of their clan, when you haven’t grown up together, when you’re a “bastard child”, the proof of their father’s infidelity to his wife, their mother; his infidelity to the children he was supposed to be working to feed instead of womanizing… when the proof of his betrayal is your own birth on the tenth birthday of your father’s only daughter with his spouse… when you came to the world, like a punishment, as his oldest daughter began to blossom, in the month of pouring rain.
Prudencia tried to re-friend me or maybe I reconsidered and sent the request. I don’t remember the details right now, but the thing is that we accepted, without a message to explain, to clear the air, to apologize. A common decision to carry on, without denying our differences knowing they were huge. We dissented on many things on religion, on politics, on cultural and social issues and mores, on perspective, on the issue at hand: Dominican citizens and residents of Haitian descent in our native Dominican Republic which, of course, shares an island with Haiti. Even on what should be the island’s rightful name, to me Ayiti/Kiskeya, we probably disagree.
There should have been no surprise though I had hoped for the best. Months after stalking her open Facebook page and googling her, I discovered her efforts, her poison pen. I came upon her bubble gum-colored website chronicling events taking place nearly two centuries ago–the church burnings, the forced labor, the tax levies–all to pay back “the debt to France” for peace, recognition, and respect, back then when the country’s first Black republic, on our island, tried to regain control of the entire land to keep their old colonizers-France and Spain as well as Great Britain and the U.S. outside our shores. Back when our island’s new republic sought to build its own empire wherein the children of the Slave Coast—those taken from mostly West Africa for over 300 years—could finally be free.
“OK, but her mother is white, Prudencia doesn’t see herself as African, no matter her puffy hair, her broad nose, her thick lips. She’s not like me, negra por toa parte,” I thought.
I even lamented her style and use of words. “Look at how she writes, like a good daughter of Cervantes; she’s breathing Spain, le oigo la zeta!” I told myself between breaths, trying not to have an apoplexy, lest everyone know that I hadn’t been taking my hypertension meds, on top of everything else I wasn’t doing right.
I wanted to become a vengeful spirit and cut off my sister’s hands, slice her tongue, sear her mind, shake her out of her stupor, put a brake to her derailment towards hatred of people like us, like our father, like maybe the great-grandparents we never knew, her hatred of humans, of construction workers, of cane cutters, of public hospital nurses, of teachers, of children, of lawyers, of wordsmiths like her, innocents like her young adult children, like her siblings, her hatred of Africans hidden under the guise of a tri-color flag centered by a seal embedded in a cross, and within it a bible and a bay leaf, reading “Dios, Patria y Libertad.” What kind of god is this? What country? What freedom?
But love won out and I decided to send her a friend request, out of the blue, the night before our joint birthday: my forty-third, her fifty-third. Love won out because as furious as my sister’s words made me, I can’t deny that I’m hers and have always been. Ever since I found out that like me, she too loved words and looking at the world. I could do words but didn’t understand the world. It didn’t matter. I had a big sister and I wanted to be just like her. As I was growing up I flirted with the idea of studying to become a journalist just like Prudencia. I wanted to write, until I decided that one journalist, let alone two, daughters of struggling mothers and the same absentee father, was too many journalists. I could still love words, but they didn’t have to be my living, my source of living. Who could ever live from or with words?
And now we were friends on Facebook after being estranged for over a decade. And now my friends’ list had swollen to include all eight brothers and our youngest sister and the older brothers’ children and her son. I had acquired my entire band of siblings, most of whom I haven’t seen in nearly thirty years, with the simplicity of a click in a white and blue box that reads “Add Friend”. Then Prudencia and I go and unfriend one another. And then we weren’t friends anymore, and then we were again.
I never answered the long email she sent me that first night, on the eve of our birthday—one in which she sought explanations about my distance for almost fifteen years. She wanted to know about my big brother, wanted to know where my mother’s son from another man was. She didn’t tell me, but I know what the question meant: had we brought him to the United States? She said she still had a letter I’d sent her long ago where I made some promises. I wonder what that letter says, when I wrote it, what I promised. I said I’d reply to her email once the emotion of reconnecting had swept off my body. I never did. I never have. Did I inherit this from our father? The breaking of hearts? The broken promises?
There wasn’t much action between our second friending and the moment she finally unfriended me. Some “likes” here and there to the posts and comments of our common siblings. We tried to stay away from interfering in our political activism on each extreme of the now-disputed human rights of the descendants of those who did away with chattel slavery on our island and ran the Europeans out, making them flee for their lives to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and New Orleans. But the children of those once enslaved now find themselves kidnapped under “democracy” and a global economy. They are now enslaved by the new masters of a country created to contain their power, placed as an overseer in the new plantation, a plantation whose sugar is consumed out of canary yellow Domino’s boxes in the United States and paid at top dollar.
By the time Prudencia unfriended me for good, I’d already made peace with our opposing stances and had more or less recovered from the shock of realizing our similar passion for our positions. And that neither of us would yield. After all, I’d discovered months before that Manolito, my cousin Manuelita’s baby son who used to play naked in our backyard, running around after his sisters, is also in her camp.
This wasn’t obvious when I’d hired him as a lawyer to help with some family stuff some years back or when I saw him at Tía María’s novena in Mao, a year before, in 2013. This was in the house of my deceased aunt where despite this being the culminating ninth day of consecutive HoraSantas, hour-long prayers, old ladies—some neighbors and some obscure relatives long-believed to have passed—insisted on doing one more rosary or blessing of the altar, between plates of black bean rice, pollo horneado, and beetless potato salad offered to the guests. This was the house in Mao my mother and Tía Dolores had built for their sister, the deceased. Eleven days before, in full rural style, her oldest granddaughter, really her child, and the wife of one of her nephews, had cleansed and dressed my aunt’s dead body. There in that house the wake had been held, in her living room, for two days. And the place hadn’t stopped being packed, day in and day out, dawn to dusk, since then.
That afternoon, having arrived for Los Nueve Días with his mother and nephew, Manolito had engaged me in conversation next door at another cousin’s house. We’d gone rogue by escaping the multitude. Manolito even discussed the casual racism he encounters throughout la capital, and wherever else he goes. It happens whenever he’s not dressed in police/military garb, regardless of the SUV he drives, regardless of the watch he wears, regardless of how well-dressed, despite the private office he has or his degrees or maybe in spite of it, because he’s perceived to lack the legitimacy to do, to be, to have any of those things. He talked about routine traffic stops for no reason, to show ID, to have to make justifications of whereabouts. Because in his size, in his complexion, in his persona, he’s just another Black man, another suspect, subject to the global slave patrols of the XXI century, subject to the police/military force of which he’s a decorated member.
I couldn’t believe the shit was on my mother’s side too, via Manolito, seemingly a fine person. I mean I know that when we talked, it came out strongly, like I’d seen hints on Facebook, that he is an evangelical Christian. OK, that, and he was a bureaucrat in the police/military force. But he was an educated man, someone with a law degree, and another in Public Administration. This hinted that he had to be smart: they all were; he and his sisters.
When we talked about discrimination and the things that kept me from ever wanting to live there again, to return, I also talked about racism. I told him about the comments about the width of one’s nose, the dispute about whether one’s mouth qualifies as a bemba or the coarseness of a Black person’s hair, especially if not relaxed. I mentioned the calls to get out of the sun, the interactions full of micro-aggressions on a regular basis, the casual racism I’d grown up with in the 70s and 80s, displayed everywhere, dispensed at anytime. I went as far as mentioning homophobia and transphobia which, if he hadn’t noticed before, was my way to come out to him. If he was a bigot, he certainly acted calm and civilized.
So, how does one of my cousins’ babies, mi primito, grow up to become-three decades later-the lawyer who defends the Dominican government in his attempt to enforce “La Sentencia”, the Dominican Supreme Court decision to de-nationalize and expel two hundred thousand people with French/Haitian last names, back to Haiti, to a country they no longer or have never known? How does my baby cousin become the lawyer who discredits the groups I’ve helped support with English or Spanish subtitles for videos; with friends; with dollars raised via birthday gifts? How not to forgive Prudencia when someone else, on the other side of my bloodline, is doing as much damage with cunning legal strategy as she is with her words?
“Pero, tú no vive aquí tú no sabe como é, utede tan bien por allá, no se metan,” they accuse us. Others, and the same, claim that it’s all about money, profit: “influencia extranjera, el imperio, las ONGs de afuera, todo es mentira—it’s all lies, it’s not so bad.” My people—other Black people—using the same arguments used to oppress us tell me to shut up. People like Prudencia and Manolito, other nationalist activists, government officials, and even lay people—mostly Black people—argue that “los dominicanos ausentes” and “los Dominican-York” as they call us, should just mind our business, to pocket our strength this time around, not get in the way, look the other way, for whatever goes on. A divided family, a divided home, whether in the entire Ayiti Kiskeya, Santo Domingo Oeste, New York, Miami, the globe, or Facebook, we carry on.
My oldest sister unfriended me the day after the Muslim students from Duke were shot in North Carolina. This was during the vigil-heavy global campaign “Je Suis Charlie” for “free speech” and “stopping terrorism” that supported the provocative Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo after the massacre carried out by militants offended by the obvious Islamophobia in their graphics and commentary. This was the same satirical magazine that once ran a cover mocking the new Minister of Justice of France—who happens to be phenotypically Black and sports natural hair—with the image of a monkey wearing lipstick and earrings.
The day after the North Carolina students were gunned down by their white neighbor, I posted on my Facebook wall that I hoped that the “Je Suis Charlie” crew worldwide was happy now.
And that they could go fuck themselves.
I think my sister, like millions worldwide, had posted about one of those vigils, though I’m not sure.
But the moment before my post was the last time Prudencia and I were Facebook friends.
[i] Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the real-life characters in this piece.
Dulce María Reyes Bonilla migrated to the U.S. in 1989. She is a Black global citizen, intersectional activist, and nonfiction writer with stubborn poet leanings. Her publications appear in Daring to Write: Contemporary Narratives by Dominican Women, Colorlines, 50 Ways to Support Lesbian and Gay Equality, Revista ABPN, Gotham Gazette, Divagaciones bajo la Luna/Musings Under the Moon, and Desde la Orilla/Up from the Margins. A copyeditor/translator, Dulce assisted with the bilingual aspects of the memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernández. She is a four-time VONA alum who has also studied at the New School, the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, WILL, IWWG, and Miami’s Center for Writing and Literature. She holds an MA in Sociology from CUNY.