While The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a widely applicable coming-of-age story, it is also firmly rooted in a specific Latino experience. The entire novel is steeped in Díaz’s experience of Dominican American culture, from the language that Yunior uses to the cultural traditions, family dynamics, and historical information that Díaz includes in the novel. Díaz starts by educating readers about the Dominican American experience, reaching all the way back into the colonial roots of the Dominican nation, to tell a modern day story of Dominican American life.
Díaz builds in a crash course of Dominican history for his readers, as he does not assume that his English-speaking readers will already be familiar with it. He laments the “two seconds” spent on the history of the entire island in most World History classes in America. Though the history of the island is well-known and incredibly important to the characters, Díaz recognizes that the Dominican Republic is not usually deemed significant enough to be common knowledge for the average American. Díaz includes this history, then, both because of its great emotional significance to the protagonists of the novel, and to comment on the lack of attention paid to the histories of people of color in American culture.
The novel also deals with the tensions inherent to growing up as a Dominican American child of immigrants in the 20th century. Second-generation characters like Lola and Yunior try to appear Dominican enough, yet not too Dominican. Other characters, like Oscar, have that choice made for them. As Oscar has very dark skin but also enjoys intellectual and genre fiction, he is deemed “too black” to fit in with his white peers and “too white” to fit in with his Latino peers.
Racial hierarchies are no easier to avoid in the Dominican Republic. When they are on the island, the de Leóns must deal with the reality of their privilege in living in America, even if they are treated as second-class citizens there. Díaz also points to the racial divide between Dominicans and Haitians, calling out Trujillo for the genocide committed against Haitians, the erasure of Haitian-Dominicans from official government records, and the hatred of the dark “Haitian” skin color. By comparing and contrasting the racial prejudices Oscar faces as a black-skinned man in America to the racial prejudices Haitians face in the DR, Díaz exposes colonialist mindsets in which oppressed groups of people lash out to oppress others, and he ties his novel to activist measures for improving Haitian-Dominican relations in the real world.
As Díaz himself is Dominican American, his novel offers an inside look at a specific minority experience to a wider American audience and fleshes out the racial difficulties faced by people of colonial or Dominican descent. According to interviews with the author, one of Díaz’s main projects in writing Oscar Wao was to start dismantling colonial hierarchies so that people of color can stop equating skin color and self-worth, as Díaz sees many Dominican Americans still do today. Though Díaz points out the ways that he sees racism embedded in popular culture, he does not offer many solutions to the racism that his characters face. By spending so much time focusing on the racial dynamics and prejudices in his novel, he instead argues that awareness of racism and fighting internalized racism is the first step towards changing these ideas. He uses Oscar Wao to offer hope towards a post-colonial future where cultural hybridity and diversity are celebrated rather than erased.
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism ThemeTracker
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism 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.
It's perfectly fine if you don’t believe in these "superstitions." In fact, it's better than fine—it's perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.
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 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.
And that's when it hit with the force of a hurricane. The feeling. I stood straight up, the way my mother always wanted me to stand up. My abuela was sitting there, forlorn, trying to cobble together the right words and I could not move or breathe. I felt like I always did at the last seconds of a race, when I was sure that I was going to explode. She was about to say something and I was waiting for whatever she was going to tell me. I was waiting to begin.
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.
The only answer I can give you is the least satisfying: you'll have to decide for yourself. What's certain is that nothing’s certain. We are trawling in silences here.
That's the kind of culture I belong to: people took their child's black complexion as an ill omen.
In fact, I believe that, barring a couple of key moments, Beli never thought about that life again. Embraced the amnesia that was so common throughout the Islands, five parts denial, five parts negative hallucination. Embraced the power of the Untilles. And from it forged herself anew.
Oscar remembers having a dream where a mongoose was chatting with him. Except the mongoose was the Mongoose. What will it be, muchacho? it demanded. More or less? And for a moment he almost said less. So tired, and so much pain – Less! Less! Less! – but then in the back of his head he remembered his family... More, he croaked. --- --- --- said the Mongoose, and then the wind swept him back into darkness.
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.
If she's her family's daughter—as I suspect she is—one day she will stop being afraid and she will come looking for answers. Not now, but soon. One day when I'm least expecting, there will be a knock at my door.