Your welcome home to the island is a ramp, but it’s also a runway. The passage from the plane door to the bright red Aeropuerto Internacional Las Americas sign is more than just the exit from Santo Domingo, Domincan Republic’s international airport. It is its own microcosm of travel and migration in the island. People (friends, family, lovers) drape over the guard rails that keep them away from those (friends, family, lovers) pouring down the ramp from the terminal to ground transportation. You’re in the group of those who return: the parents, siblings, and children who come and go because opportunities live elsewhere. Like everyone else, you arrive from another country, dressed in your very best, because you know it’s important to make an impression.
Your parents taught you this. Whenever you returned to the Dominican Republic for the holidays, Mami wore her bright peach silk top and Papi his Ralph Lauren shirt with the “little caballito.” They both smelled like heaven. Mami moved in a floral cloud of Curve Crush and Papi roamed with the deeper scent of Ralph Lauren Polo on his skin.
You know it technically means the shine of newness. As a verb it means to debut, to wear, or perform for the first time — which you do on that small, metal runway wearing the pale blue pants with brightly colored beans that you’ve sewn into the pockets to match the Tommy Hilfiger logo emblazoned across your camisa de tiritos and the matching zip up hoodie that keeps you warm on the plane but makes you sweat under the island’s humidity. When you see your tía at the bottom of the ramp, you twirl and swing every lustrous strand of your blow out, all twenty-eight glorious inches sealed in and protected with all the necessary oils, puntas limpias, gently curving under the weight of the gloss. This is the way you know — and signal to others that you know — that you’ve finally arrived home.
Dressing up was at once both Mami’s idea, and not. Her vanity is so deeply rooted in the Dominican culture of decency and propriety that it’s practically encoded in her DNA. For errands at the bank, she’d insist on wearing a collared shirt or a cap-sleeved blouse. The supermarket required an updo beyond a low ponytail. Any Marshalls run required the “Juicy” sweater with rhinestones. While Mami and I rarely fought about my rebellions (which were mostly me disobeying bedtime to finish a book or an AP history assignment), we would devolve into screaming matches over clothes.
I’d refuse to change out of my uniform into jeans for dinner. I’d want to wear my track and field hoodie to the middle school dance instead of the bright purple dress she had found on sale. Frequently I’d quip that “Maybe I could get more books or those nice felt-tipped pens if we didn’t buy as many new clothes this year.” One day, I wore my old elementary school field day t-shirt for our trip to the grocery store — and she started screaming. Jesus woman, are you serious? It’s WALMART, I hissed in response. She got apoplectic to the point that Papi, who hated even being in the same room as conversations about “cosas de mujeres,” had to intervene.
For Mami, beauty was decency — something required to be a full person in society. For me, beauty was whiteness — something I would never have as the only Black Dominican-American kid in our all-white North Texan suburb. By early elementary school I already understood that the “pretty girls” had three common physical traits: pale skin (mine is chestnut hued); small, sharp noses (mine is wide and round); pin-straight hair (mine is so tightly coiled it requires the highest strength relaxer). Right then, I decided that was okay. I could just be the smart one.
I had reason to think that my decision would be accepted by Mami. After all, she and Papi tirelessly pursued better and brighter educational opportunities for me and my younger sister Mao. They had hop-scotched our family through the Caribbean and down the East Coast before we wound up in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex. They chose a zip code where the schools had new computer labs and roughly zero students of color. Education was the number one priority in the house — but it shouldn’t come at the cost of beauty, according to Mami.
This made middle school a time of bizarre role reversal, with me screaming about the length of the jean mini skirts Mami had bought me for school. Mami, there’s a DRESS CODE. The FOUR INCH RULE. They will send me to the PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE. But it was no use. This was the same year she had bought me a ridiculous skirt for the dance, which was long enough, but made entirely of shredded fire-hydrant-red rayon, so I looked like a sluttier version of Lumiere’s girlfriend (yes, a feather duster) in Beauty and the Beast.
Ponte unas lycras y ya, deja de joder, was Mami’s response. Mine was to breathe deeply, pull on some leggings under the too-short jean skirt, and sneak my favorite pants into my school backpack to change into later. College, I thought. In college I could reject all of this obsession with looks, with materialism, with feelings, with softness. In college, I could reject it all — even girlhood. Because why the hell not? Being “una niña decente” was the most cited reason for making my sister and I do things that made no sense: set down our books to talk to people to whom we didn’t want; spend hours in salon chairs so we could go places we didn’t care about; wear itchy, brightly-colored frills to please people whose eyes we didn’t want on us in the first place.
In college, I would swing so hard in the opposite direction of aesthetics that I would only do things that made sense. Concrete, logical, empirical sense. I would go into science. So far into science that I wouldn’t even remember the skirts. I would be so far from Mami that she couldn’t make me care anymore: I could live in dirty sweats like all the other American girls.
In college, I bring with me two suitcases packed with mismatched clothes. I dress myself in the same pair of soft jean-cum-cargo-pants crossover and various old, thin waffle shirts from middle school every day. I can’t afford a college hoodie, but I ceremoniously buy one on the credit card Papi made me get in my first week because You never know, Flaca. I wear it over everything for weeks at a time. During school breaks, Mao and I return to the Dominican Republic to visit Mami, who has relocated to be closer to family. I wear the same school hoodie I wore to bed the night before onto the plane, not even bothering to change into a fresh t-shirt later. I bristle and shrug my shoulders when Mami inevitably scowls, trying to let her sense of betrayal roll off of me like pond water from a duck.
I don’t even notice when I start caring about what I’m wearing again. One day I just catch myself standing in front of my closet, studying the color of my shirts to ensure they match my light-wash jeans. I mentally imagine the harsh fluorescent lighting of the lab, wondering if my outfit will still look right with the various beakers and fume hood as my backdrop. I do calculations with the number of decent outfits I have remaining before laundry day, moving around my most valued pieces like variables. I dress myself for the day only after I have outfit problem-solved the rest of my week. One day my hands suddenly still on my muted green suede skirt. I blink, trying to think back to when I started doing these calculations. But I really can’t recall. By the time I notice it, the impulse feels old and right, simply routine, and somehow true to what I believe.
Every time I return home to Mami, I remember the degree to which I am her daughter, and I forget the degree to which I’m her retirement plan. The one who will care for her, provide for her, when she can’t anymore. I spend my days preparing to visit her by running up my credit card so high — on Ugg house shoes, Bose headphones, Ralph Lauren shirts, New York and Company dresses — it gives my sister anxiety. Returning to DR always follows the same ritual. Mami and I settle onto the bed. I unzip my bag and present the items one by one, for her, for tía, for my primos and primas, for everyone as she nods in approval, double checks the sizes on the shirts, and tells me that “Actually, that blazer should go to your other prima because she just started law school.”
Neither of us yells anymore, but she does ask why I’m leaving so soon even though I’ve only just arrived. She squints and purses her lips at my coat when I tell her it’s secondhand. She sighs and asks why I didn’t just make a career in science, which I have an actual degree in, instead of chaotically pivoting back to my first love of writing upon graduation. If you had just done what you said you would do, she complains, You could have a salary and regular time off. But she also asks what a nonfiction chapbook is again, when mine is coming out, and demands that I hand deliver her copy, signed. She quips that I should have spent less time shopping and more time writing — maybe that way I’d be able to see her more. She even says I don’t have to do all this, that she just wants to spend time with me, but then I see her check the label on the silk top I bought for her and raise her eyebrows slightly in response, and I laugh.
“Ay Mami por favor. You know I couldn’t come empty handed. I had to bring y’all at least a little somethin somethin. Para que estrenen,” I say, and she cracks a smile. For ten days we run errands at Plaza las Americas and her sister’s bridal shop, eat at all of her siblings’ homes, and plan next year’s return. Just when I’ve decided she hasn’t noticed, she says she likes how elegant my sundress is. Womanhood, she notes, suits me. I nod, tracing the amber florals on it, trying to hide my smile.
When I do leave, I give her her last gift: a bottle of Curve Crush I found on eBay. It’s still her favorite perfume. It smells like a garden at dusk. I say I love you when I hand it to her, but what I really want to say is: This is the only way I know how to say goodbye; the only way I know how to be welcomed back. The shine and newness and thoughtfulness of these gifts are the grease on the hinges of the doors between our worlds, allowing them to open and close as we pass through, together and away from each other, then back again, as smoothly, beautifully, and painlessly as possible.
When I visit her now, my new routine reflects this reverence. After exiting the plane, I beeline for the strategically placed bathroom in between aduanas and the arrivals runway. I’m American so I wear my Meg Thee Stallion hoodie and Adidas sneakers on the plane. But I’m also Dominican so I change into Lululemon leggings (a boxing day sale), a tiny rayon floral Reformation dress (secondhand), and red Michel Kors boots (bought with my tax return). My black Kate Spade shoulder bag (a Black Friday sale) is tucked inside of my brand new oxblood Telfar (a birthday present from my girlfriend). The look is the embodiment of what Mami has always wanted for me (femininity, presentability, logos) and what I have come to appreciate (secondhand, sales, authenticity).
There’s nothing acquiescent about my day one wash-and-go corkscrew curls, nothing approachable about the disconcerting fire-hydrant red Fenty on my lips, and there’s something a bit unsettling about the way that none of my jewelry matches because none of it is actually mine — all of it is pilfered from or given to me by loved ones over the years. I wear it all together because I’m trying to carry with me everyone who’s ever loved me, and all the parts of the world we all come from, all at once.
How was beauty taught to you? Read how one writer learned self-care despite her mother’s asceticism.