In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, almost every character questions his or her own identity, struggling and experimenting with who they are and who they want to be. The novel also shows how such experimentation is driven and affected not just by internal factors but also by external communities. The characters struggle, in other words, not only with how to become the self they want to be, but also with how to do that while remaining true to, and fitting in with, their Dominican or Latino heritage.
On the level of the individual, the novel explores how its characters try to both be themselves and fit in with others. For many of the characters, this means developing vastly different public and private lives. Díaz shows this through the nicknames of his two main characters, Oscar and Yunior. Oscar’s nickname symbolizes his inability to fit in with other Latinos as himself, while Yunior’s nickname shows his desire to display the ideal Dominican man rather than risk rejection by showing his true personality. Though this separation of public and private lives is supposed to help Oscar and Yunior fit into their Latino community, it only makes it more difficult for the two to mature and lead fulfilling lives. In general, Diaz shows how many people are not just internally complex but even intrinsically contradictory, and thus it is a constant struggle for them to embrace their full identities while at the same time presenting particular identities to the world.
As in many coming-of-age novels, the characters must try to find themselves while also navigating their place in the world. Oscar Wao not only examines individual identity, but also investigates collective identity—particularly that of Dominicans and other Latinos, both in their home countries and in the US. These Latino communities offer support to the characters as a source of pride in the face of racism and oppression, but also impose false restraints on the individual identities of the characters. All of the Latino characters have nuances – a love of genre fiction, a goth style of dress, or a monogamous attitude towards romance, for example – that refute the stereotypes about “typical” Dominicans or other Latinos.
The characters, then, are all shown to be more than their Dominican stereotypes—they are human, and thus complex, contradictory, and unable to be pigeonholed—but ultimately Díaz shows that these nuances do not make them any less Dominican. Identity, in turn, is presented in the novel as being both complex and fluid. It changes depending on the physical location of the characters (in the DR or New Jersey), as well as on their emotional maturity from adolescence to adulthood. By simply depicting such Dominican and Latino characters, he also shows how the Dominican and Latino cultures as a whole will be richer for accepting the many identities and idiosyncrasies of all those who belong to the nation. And, further, by writing the novel about these characters and their experiences and lives in America – lives that are usually invisible or ignored within American popular culture or history – he humanizes people that are often treated as a single minority group, a single foreign “other,” and asserts that the tapestry of America is all the richer for their presence.
Identity and the Dominican Experience in America ThemeTracker
Identity and the Dominican Experience in America Quotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history: Trujillo, one of the twentieth century’s most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality… At first glance, he was just your prototypical Latin American caudillo, but his power was terminal in ways that few historians or writers have ever truly captured or, I would argue, imagined. He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.
You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.
Jesus Christ, he whispered. I'm a Morlock. The next day at breakfast he asked his mother: Am I ugly? She sighed. Well, hijo, you certainly don’t take after me. Dominican parents! You got to love them!
The trip turned out to be something of a turning point for him. Instead of discouraging his writing, chasing him out of the house like his mother used to, his abuela, Nena Inca, let him be. Allowed him to sit in the back of the house as long as he wanted, didn’t insist that he should be "out in the world."
The white kids looked at his black skin and his afro and treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You’re not Dominican. And he said, over and over again, But I am. Soy dominicano. Dominicano soy.
You don’t know the hold our mothers have on us, even the ones that are never around—especially the ones that are never around. What it's like to be the perfect Dominican daughter, which is just a nice way of saying a perfect Dominican slave.
a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her
so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked
who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewhere.
…you could argue that the Gangster adored our girl and that adoration was one of the greatest gifts anybody had ever given her. It felt unbelievably good to Beli, shook her to her core. (For the first time I actually felt like I owned my skin, like it was me and I was it.)
All those people have families, you can tell by their faces, they have families that depend on them and that they depend on, and for some of them this is good, and for some of them this is bad. But it all amounts to the same shit because there isn’t one of them who is free. They can’t do what they want to do or be who they should be. I might have no one in the world, but at least I'm free. She had never heard anyone say those words. I’m free wasn’t a popular refrain in the Era of Trujillo.
“Wondering aloud, If we were orcs, wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves?”
These days I have to ask myself; What made me angrier? That Oscar, the fat loser, quit, or that Oscar, the fat loser, defied me? And I wonder: What hurt him more? That I was never really his friend, or that I pretended to be?
A heart like mine, which never got any kind of affection growing up, is terrible above all things.
He read The Lord of the Rings for what I'm estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he'd first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line "and out of Far Harad black men like halftrolls" and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.
On one of our last nights as novios (boyfriend and girlfriend) she said, Ten million Trujillos is all we are.
Behold the girl: the beautiful muchachita: Lola's daughter. Dark and blindingly fast: in her great-grandmother La Inca’s words: una jurona. Could have been my daughter if I'd been smart, if I'd been ---. Makes her no less precious. She climbs trees, she rubs her butt against doorjambs, she practices malapalabras when she thinks nobody is listening. Speaks Spanish and English. Neither Captain Marvel nor Billy Batson, but the lightning.
So this is what everybody's always talking about! Diablo! If only I'd known. The beauty! The beauty!