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Ana Cancion is 11 years old the first time that twice-her-age Juan Ruiz proposes. Although Ana and her family live in the countryside of the Dominican Republic, the Ruiz brothers are known to all: charismatic, rich and well-traveled from the United States and back, again and again. For four years, Ana and her ambitious, calculating mother wait until Juan makes good on his proposal. A child, tween and young teenager, Ana knows nothing of love, marriage or leaving everything she knows behind. And yet, this is the way she must help her family survive the political turmoil of the Dominican Republic, poverty and their own misguided decisions.

So begins Angie Cruz’s DOMINICANA, a vivid and timely portrait of both the immigrant experience and the coming-of-age of a young woman in a vibrant world. At turns naive, possessed of a wisdom beyond her years and a deep-seated pain, Ana shines as the heroine of a story thrust upon her by familial bonds, the era and, of course, the bonds of womanhood.

On January 1, 1965, 15-year-old Ana dons a gaudy wedding dress, suffers an agonizing sexual encounter with her now-husband, and flies to America dirty, brokenhearted and lonely. She arrives in America as Ana Ruiz, wife to Juan and proud renter of a six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights. Her new home is cold and inhabited by a third person --- Juan’s brother, Cesar --- as well as old makeup, colorful scarves and a lingering smell of perfume indicating that Juan has never been faithful. Not surprisingly, Ana is terrified not only of her husband, but of the city around her with its many sounds and smells.

"DOMINICANA is a staggering portrait of the immigrant experience, not only in 1965, but also today.... America comes alive through Ana’s eyes, with all of its benefits and flaws, and her story of resilience is one that will stick with anyone who reads it."

At the same time, Juan, both dangerously possessive and overprotective, tells Ana only of New York City’s dangers and not its joys. Avoid the homeless, junkies will kill you, he says; avoid Puerto Ricans, they only want to take you from me, he says; avoid blacks/Jews/neighbors/police, he says. Through it all, she has only the advice of her mother: do everything Juan asks and be the perfect wife. One day he will send for us, and we will be together again so we can build something new.

The backdrop for Ana’s arrival in New York City is tumultuous, to say the least. Malcolm X is assassinated right across the street. As Cesar blasts the Rolling Stones from their record player, Ana watches as Vietnam takes over the news. All the while, she searches the television channels --- punctuated by “I Love Lucy” episodes --- and newspapers, desperate for news about the revolution in the Dominican Republic, worrying for her family, a boy she left behind and her future in America. Amidst the political turmoil of the US and her growing concern for her beloved DR, she also must learn who she is as a person and what kind of woman she will become.

Slowly, Ana adapts to life in America, her unfaithful and occasionally abusive husband, and the pressures of her mother’s phone calls. Cruz describes Ana beautifully; though she is the woman of the house (and, at times, obviously the most mature member of the Ruiz household), she is still a child, as evidenced by her conversations with the pigeons that visit her kitchen window and her Dominicana, a doll in which she hides the money she makes through Juan’s business dealings. This dissonance is never more glaring than when Ana hatches a disastrous plan to escape and learns that she is pregnant, now tied to Juan forever. This juxtaposition creates one of the more interesting characters I have ever read, which would be cause enough to pick up this magnificent book, but Cruz does not stop there, infusing Ana with wit, wisdom and a lyrical talent for words.

Soon, Juan is called back to the Dominican Republic to deal with his business ventures there and check on Ana’s family. Finally, Ana is free to experience the real New York, with Cesar as her guide. She signs up for ESL lessons, visits Coney Island, makes a friend, starts a business selling her homemade food to Cesar’s coworkers, and strikes up a powerful camaraderie with Cesar --- to dangerous ends. But with her due date and Juan’s return approaching, she must decide if she will choose her family or her heart; her duty or her freedom; her head or her heart. And did I mention she is only 15?

I won’t spoil the ending, but what I can say is that Cruz writes Ana with such an unbridled, rebellious capacity for joy and hope that she shines through even the darkest moments --- and believe me, her life is full of darkness. She is a true heroine: brave, headstrong and full of potential, and though Cruz does not stray from the harsh reality of her situation, she makes the most of her limitations and brings her to life in a way that many authors simply could not.

DOMINICANA is a staggering portrait of the immigrant experience, not only in 1965, but also today. Combined with Ana’s coming-of-age storyline, this makes for a book perfect for anyone who has ever felt lonely, stagnant or trapped. But most of all, it is for the families who have waited far too long to have their stories told --- families who gave up homes, lives and loved ones for something greater, only to be faced with hatred, discrimination and a different kind of political turmoil. America comes alive through Ana’s eyes, with all of its benefits and flaws, and her story of resilience is one that will stick with anyone who reads it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on September 27, 2019

by Angie Cruz

  • Publication Date: August 25, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250205948
  • ISBN-13: 9781250205940