After Uncle Tomás tells me about the day in 1967 when his father, my abuelo, whipped him for slapping his high school teacher in the ass, the two of us haul bags of weeds and garden detritus to the garage, and Mom helps us drag them in. They are heavy and smell of pollen. I hold back a sneeze. Mom tells me about Uncle Mike. “He was always getting into trouble,” she says. “He’s such a crybaby, but he somehow got himself in all these situations.”
When Miguelito refused to cut his Beatles hair, Mom tells me, Abuela waited for him to return from school before she ordered her other children to tackle him to the ground. Lourdes and Gloria pinned him at the wrists, Carlos and Tomás sat on his ankles, and Mom held him by the temples. Miguelito’s mane flowed sweaty and thick over Mom’s tiny fingers. She was the youngest.
Abuela retrieved a large pair of scissors from the counter and knelt on the creaking wood floor, binding Miguelito’s ribcage with the legs that had brought him into this world. She fitted his chin into the crook of her palm – “You listen to me, Miguel. You want the hair of a hippie? You can have it.” – and, as he stared back in horror, she let go of his chin, clutched his hair, and sliced away unruly chunks. She left half his do untouched, wild, brown, and elbow-length, and reduced the other side to stubble, tufts protruding from his gray scalp like the skin of a poorly shaved dog. “There,” she said. “Now you look like a real street monster. You like that?” His five other siblings, his cousins, and his friends ridiculed him. Two days later, he cut the rest himself.
The other siblings laughed, but they knew they too could become victims of their mother’s wrath. They had evaded the Trujillato in the Dominican Republic, but a piece of it followed them. Today, we refer to the women of the Paoli family as the Paoli Generals after our ancestor General Pasquale Paoli. General Paoli freed Corsica from Italy and founded the world’s first constitutional democracy. The Corsican Republic lasted little more than a decade before the French invaded, claimed the island for their own, and exiled General Paoli to London. In time, he returned, universally adored by his countrymen, including a young Napoleon, as a symbol of justice and liberty, and he was elected into the French-subsumed government.
When General Paoli sided with royalty in the French Revolution, Napoleon turned on him, and General Paoli, with the help of the British imperial fleet and the authority of King George III, chased Napoleon into France, freeing Corsica once again, this time from the French. But France quickly took back the island. General Paoli returned to London, where he lived his final days.
In the garage, Mom describes Abuela as the Paoli matriarch, an instrument of brutal reason. Outside in the grass, a squirrel raises its head, attentive to the sparse suburban traffic. A bird calls across the yard.
“They deserved it, you know,” Mom says. “Our family has a problem with authority.”
“Easy for you to say,” Uncle Tomás interrupts. “She never beat you.”
“That’s because I was good,” she says.
“It’s because you were fuckin’ spoiled!”
Mom rolls her eyes. When a child misbehaved, she explains to me, Abuela would wait for him or her to enter the shower. Usually it was Miguelito. After the water ran, she would unwind a metal coat hanger, open the bathroom door, rip aside the curtains, and swing at the shivering creature. He would squeeze his legs together, covering his privates. “I’m sorry!” he’d cry, and Abuela would swing harder. “Sorry isn’t good enough!”
“That’s what you tell me when I do something bad,” I cut in.
“You’re lucky I don’t do the other stuff,” Mom replies.
To his people, Pasquale was a general. But to the Italians, the French, and later his royal friends in Britain – when revolutionaries in the Thirteen Colonies opened Paoli Taverns in his honor – he was a rabble-rouser. The Paolis were experienced in the art of discipline because they had played equal part punisher and punished, occupier and occupied, general and soldier. But more so the latter.
Mom says we’re kicked out of every place we go. My great-grandmother’s ancestors migrated to the Dominican Republic from Germany. Pasquale ceded from Italy, then France, then was exiled for the second and last time to Britain. My great-great-grandfather left Italy for America, then America for the Dominican Republic as a US soldier in the occupation in 1917, staying behind after the country claimed independence and losing his American citizenship after he spent years voting in his new homeland.
Mom’s family left the Dominican Republic to arrive here, whipping their tail from beneath the clamp of Ramfis Trujillo’s boot as the US invaded once again in 1965. I have to assume my time is coming.
A week later we host a birthday party for one of my little cousins, Bella. Uncle Tomás isn’t invited. Titi Gloria, Mom’s eldest sibling, finds me sitting alone. I ask her about Trujillo, and she tells me about her relationship with the dictator’s regime. Before they left the Dominican Republic, Gloria protested the Trujillato. Abuela told her to stay at home, but Gloria didn’t listen. Abuela beat her harder and harder until one day she cracked open her daughter’s skull.
Titi Gloria tells this to me with gusto, as if delivering one of her many sermons, when the family circles around a meal as she sings Jesus’s praises while we grumble and rub our bellies. Titi Gloria’s evangelical, gives grace with vibrato. Still, we ask her to give grace at every party, like this one, and she’s careful about not calling Jesus “god.” When she’s done she asks Dad to come up and say something, and he’ll refuse politely. Everyone will chime in, and he’ll accept.
Dad and Titi Gloria balance each other well. She had a hard time accepting Mom’s conversion to Islam, but she’s come to terms with it. Mom has told me the transition wasn’t hard. She says she doesn’t feel like she lost anything. Islam changed a few things, but a lot was the same. So were the families. Both were large, and both partied hard at weddings. She says she wishes Dad’s family had been more dedicated to Islam, had been more willing to teach her values and practices that she would learn later. Dad and I are more Muslim now thanks to her. She’s cooked ropa vieja and arroz con pollo with halal meat for the party, so I can still eat Dominican food. Her and Dad don’t follow halal as strictly as I do, but they’re happy that I do it.
Excerpted with permission from Technologies of the Self, Haris A Durrani, Brain Mill Press.