In “Drown,” home is both a place to belong to and to escape from. Yunior and Beto both live in New Jersey and are the sons of working-class Dominican immigrants. Their bonds with their families and communities are indelible, and yet both boys struggle with a desire to escape and excel beyond the circumstances of their upbringing. Ultimately, however, Beto’s sexuality forces him to think beyond his community and gives him the momentum to leave it, while Yunior has both the burden and privilege of fitting into his community and therefore getting trapped within it.
Although Yunior and Beto come from much the same circumstances, their comfort levels within their community are vastly different. While Yunior does not particularly like remaining in his childhood routines, they suit him well and offer him a sense of stability. Indeed, Yunior is deeply woven into the fabric of his community. Everyone knows him and he knows multiple generations of the same families, even if it is because he “sells them their shitty weed.” Furthermore, Yunior tells Beto that, unlike Beto, he has no “promises” beyond those offered to him by the neighborhood. He hasn’t set himself up for more than a high school diploma—and besides, his mother needs him.
In contrast, Beto’s homosexuality means that he cannot fully belong to his community and so he has no choice but to build a life outside of it by excelling in school and seeking out opportunities and social situations in which he might be accepted. Yunior explains that Beto “knew a lot of kids I didn’t” and he points out that some of Beto’s more “worldly” friends were other gay men in the club scene in New York, examples of early attempts to stretch his social horizons beyond his community. Beto is also “delirious” at the thought of leaving for college because it means “nobody can touch [him].” This suggests that (though Yunior may be unaware of it) Beto has suffered violence and confinement as a result of his sexuality. While Beto urged Yunior to “learn how to walk the world” as a method of expanding his horizons, Yunior clearly never felt the need to expand his horizons, since he was comfortable enough where he was.
While Beto’s sexuality is clearly a factor in his ability to escape his community, his natural ambition and the fact that others recognized talent in him at a young age are also important. Beto was always encouraged and praised in school, which led him to be confident in his ability to direct his own life, while Yunior believes that he lacks the ability to control his fate. Yunior describes a formative experience of a teacher comparing him and his classmates to the space shuttle. The teacher explained that “a few of you are going to make it, but the majority of you are just going to burn out.” In that moment, Yunior “already saw himself losing altitude,” as if his fate were already sealed at a young age. By contrast, Beto always excelled in school, so he expected to escape no matter what. He explains to Yunior that, regardless of whether or not he was about to leave for college, he would just “choose a job anywhere and go” if it meant finally being free of his neighborhood. Yunior could also find a job somewhere else, but he prefers to stay home dealing drugs. He notes that while many of the younger kids he deals to have part-time jobs in addition to their schoolwork, he never had one himself, and he spends most of his free time drinking and fighting with his friends. Therefore, he seems to have fallen into exactly the life that he believed others expected of him, undercutting his sense of personal agency.
Due to their differing abilities to belong to their community and their contrasting ideas about fate and agency, the concept of escape comes to mean fundamentally different things for Yunior and Beto. Beto escapes by permanently leaving a community that does not accept him and making a life in which he can be himself. To Yunior, escape means only temporary reprieve from a life that suits him but which he doesn’t want. For example, he submerges himself in the pool just to surround himself with silence and stillness. “While everything above is loud and bright,” he says, “everything below is silence.” This might bring temporary emotional relief, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the circumstances of his life—it just enables him to bear his hardships. Even when Yunior does contemplate more permanent escape in the form of joining the army, he doesn’t take the concrete steps that Beto took to get out. Instead, Yunior seems to see himself as being at the mercy of others, going running in spots where he thinks he might encounter an army recruiter and saying, “These days my gut feels loose and cold and I want to be away from here. [The recruiter] just needs to name the place and I’ll listen.” This demonstrates that, even in contemplating a major life change, Yunior does not see himself as being in charge of his own fate.
Throughout the story, both Yunior and Beto learn from their surroundings. They inherit their bad language, standoffishness, and aggressive behavior from their friends and family members, but they also inherit a sense where they fit into the world and expectations about how and if they will succeed. Although Yunior fulfills the low expectations of his teachers, he also fits within his community. In contrast, Beto is driven to succeed and leave his neighborhood precisely because his sexuality prevents him from fully fitting into his community. Without the belonging that Yunior feels, Beto’s only option is to carve space for himself elsewhere and to have enough ambition to fuel his escape.
Escape and Belonging ThemeTracker
Escape and Belonging Quotes in Drown
The heat in the apartments was like something heavy that had come inside to die. Families arranged on their porches, the glow from their TVs washing blue against the brick. From my family apartment, you could smell the pear trees that had been planted years ago…
I can still go far without coming up. While everything above is loud and bright, everything below is whispers.
These days my guts feel loose and cold and I want to be away from here. He won’t have to show me his Desert Eagle, or flash the photos of skinny Filipino girls sucking dick. He’ll only have to smile and name the place and I’ll listen.
He knew a lot of folks I didn't—a messed-up black kid from Madison Park, two brothers who were into that N.Y. club scene, who spent money on platform shoes and leather backpacks. I'd leave a message with his parents and then watch some more TV. The next day he’d be out at the bus stop, too busy smoking a cigarette to say much about the day before.
One teacher, whose family had two grammar schools named after it, compared us to the shuttles. A few of you are going to make it. Those are the orbiters. But the majority of you are just going to burn out. Going nowhere. He dropped his hand onto the desk. I could already see myself losing altitude, fading, the earth spread out beneath me, hard and bright.