The Mayor of Palmar de Ocoa was a generous host. He prided himself on the ample
servings of imported wine his trim wife poured into the upraised glasses of guests who sat on
his Chinese Cherrywood dining room chairs, still encased in their protective plastic.
Tonight, he raised his voice and his glass, proposing a toast over the din of an all-night beer
bash whose music and inebriated attendees bounced off the walls up and down the streets of
the small, coastal Dominican town.
To his right sat his wife, her black wavy hair framing her face with such easy grace no one
would believe the amount of time she spent in multi-colored curlers topped with a hair net.
The rest of the seats were occupied by three couples, two medical doctors and their wives
who weekend-ed in lush villas bordering the bay. The third couple, Guillermo de Guias and
his wife, Yesenia, owned a five-bus fleet which ferried residents of Palmar to points North,
West, and East every day but Sunday.
The Mayor drank to their health, and to the success of the mango harvest before settling his
ample hindquarters onto the chair at the table’s head and motioning for Ana, the Haitian cook,
to begin serving.
“Your Honor, the blessing?”
The Mayor glared at the guest seated at the table’s foot. A middle-aged farmer. Truth be told,
the most influential mango grower in the region. Educated in the United States, Bartolomeo
Santos was a quiet, serious man whose few words exerted extra influence for their scarcity.
The Mayor muttered an epithet under his breath, wishing he had not invited the man who was
sure to stifle any carousing which might otherwise develop. A shame. The Mayor had been
hoping to catch the eye of the pretty blond wife of the cardiologist on his left.
“Barto is always here to remind us of our duty to the Pope, aren’t you, Barto?” The Mayor
laughed, showing all his teeth.
“A farmer, like the Pope, Your Honor, knows the debt he owes to God.” Barto stood to his feet
and made the sign of the cross. The Mayor heaved himself up and grudgingly followed suit,
bowing his head while Barto recited the simple blessing.
“Now, Barto,” said the Mayor’s wife as they sat, inclining her head and smile toward the end of
the table, “tell us about the mangoes this year.”
“A good crop, Ma’am. Should be ready to begin picking next week.”
“I understand you’re doing something different this year?”
The Mayor stepped indelicately on her foot under the table. The last thing he wanted to talk
about was farming, when there was the new pier to discuss.
“I’m sure Barto would prefer to eat his steak, not discuss farming,” the Mayor snapped, glaring
down the table at his guest.
“If the lady would like to hear, I am happy to explain,” Barto replied with his quiet smile. He
didn’t appear to notice the brusque tone of his host.
“A new technique?” inquired the cardiologist. “I would be very interested to hear. I have my
own mango grove, you know.”
“Oh, Barto’s got all kinds of ideas,” interrupted the Mayor. “He’s following in my footsteps,
trying to find ways to stimulate the local economy. I know he agrees with me about the new
pier which would bring tourists to -”
“Local economy?” asked the other doctor, a pediatrician, “You mean mango exports?”
“No!” yelled the Mayor, “we’re not discussing farming!” He shook out his napkin and threw it
across his lap. “Ana, bring some more wine.”
“I think we’d all like to hear about Mr. Santos’ ideas,” said the blond wife, fluttering her fake
lashes at the red-faced Mayor. She turned to Barto, “please tell us all about it!”
Barto waited for the Mayor to flick his wrist in impatient consent.
“As a mango grower,” he began, inclining his head toward the cardiologist, “you know what a
large percentage of the harvest never makes it overseas.” Several heads around the table
“Bruised and misshapen fruit,” said Guillermo, “we see it in piles along the bus routes.”
“What he means is, we smell it,” laughed Yesenia with a wink at her husband.
Barto smiled. “Exactly. It’s that pile I would like to turn into something useful.”
“It’s already useful, no?” interrupted the Mayor with a guffaw. “The Haitians eat it!” He looked
around for someone to share his mirth, but found no support among the pursed expressions.
His wife stepped on his foot.
“Some do, Your Honor,” replied Barto slowly, his eyes narrowed, “but most of the waste is not
fit for humans.”
The Mayor took a breath, but stopped abruptly at the pressure of his wife’s foot on his shin.
“What will you do with the mango waste, Barto?” asked the Mayor’s wife, smoothly.
“I have been doing some research about the mango seed. I appears that several countries
are using the seed to manufacture a cocoa butter substitute which has several uses and,”
here he looked straight at the Mayor, “is an excellent source of protein for people.”
Much to the Mayor’s chagrin, the rest of the evening was taken up with conversation about
mango seeds to the extent that the Mayor had to agree to endorse a small-scale trial of
mango-seed processing and did not have an opportunity to discuss the pier.
Four hundred dollars. Even exchanged for Dominican pesos, the sum looked scant. Rosana
thanked the man with massive, bejeweled fingers who sat in the currency-exchange booth
just beyond the airport concourse, then, turning, stuffed the wad into her bra and pushed
Norma’s wheelchair toward the customs line which snaked through the terminal.
“Where do we go, Norma?” she whispered, leaning down, not anxious for her English to be
heard. She had been sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb since they had boarded the
flight in Fort Lauderdale. “Left side of the terminal is for Dominicans going through customs,
right side is for foreigners. We’re both.”
“This way, please.” The young airport official stepped up to Rosana, addressing her in clear
English. “Auntie,” she smiled at Norma, switching to Spanish, “you come to the front of the
It took little time for the chatty customs officials to stop their conversation, stamp the
passports and wave them through. Their duffle bags were waiting in a massive, unsupervised
pile, and after Rosana, breathless, retrieved them, Norma pushed the luggage cart in front of
It was a blast of warm, moist air that hit Rosana first, followed by a lightening of the mood,
and a sudden burst of joy from the people around her leaving the airport. As if a great weight
of formality had been removed, the line of travelers seemed to dance and bounce like a
puppy with a new ball.
She pushed forward into the crush of humanity lining the walls of the airport and spilling out,
one joyous welcoming committee, into the parking lot.
Norma took charge.
“Go to that man,” she ordered. Rosana pushed them to a middle-aged man with two cell
phones and a constantly changing crowd of men around him.
“You need a taxi, Auntie?” he said to Norma, looking Rosana up and down.
“Yes. My daughter and I need a ride to Palmar de Ocoa.”
“Daughter?” The man laughed coarsely. “And I’m your brother! Eh?”
“Palmar.” Norma reminded him sternly. “Past Bani.”
The man shrugged and turned away, jabbering into his cell phone.
“Follow him,” said Norma, pointing.
Rosana shoved hard and managed enough momentum to move their baggage train past the
clusters of men all offering to take their bags to waiting cabs.
“Follow, follow,” Norma urged, waving them away. “That man runs the whole taxi operation
here. He’ll know how to get us home.”
And so he did, thought Rosana ruefully, two hours later as their ancient, seatbelt-less minivan
honked and cajoled its way into a parking place. The headlights had gone out twice, and
Rosana had bitten her cheeks in terror while the van tailgaited a Jeep whose lights still
functioned. Norma looked out the window, tears streaking down her worn cheeks.
“Why are you crying, Mama? Are you happy to be home, or just tired?”
“We’re in Bani. You see that big church at the top of the Square?”
Rosana gingerly pushed aside the plywood which covered part of the window which had been
broken in a pre-historic fender-bender. Two hundred yards across the city Square rose a
Spanish Colonial-style cathedral, its doors open, spilling yellow-orange light onto the row of
old men smoking by a verdant planter. “I see it, Mama.”
“That’s where Eduardo and I — where we — married. I left this town a happy bride.” She
cried aloud, causing the cab driver, a fat man with a stubbly chin, to turn around in his broken
“You okay, Auntie?”
“She’s fine,” Rosana snapped. “Ella esta bien.” Two years of high school Spanish right there,
she thought, cradling Norma’s head against her shoulder and mentally reviewing the contents
of her bag to make sure she had packed the Spanish textbook.
“They used to call me ‘Dulce,’ when I lived here. You know what dulce means, Querida?”
She peered up into Rosana’s face. The driver was trying to turn around and get a better view
of the American beauty comforting a Dominican.
“Sweet. They called me ‘Sweet.’ That was before Eduardo took me away from here. Me and
my boys. And now where are they? Dead! Dead, and I must come home to grieve, alone,
bitter. When I get to Palmar, they will call me ‘Amarga,’ bitter.”
“You’re not alone, Mama. Hey! Turn around, dude.” Rosana’s face hardened as she turned
from her Mother-in-law to the taxi driver. He understood her tone and averted his eyes, but
began speaking rapidly in Spanish to Norma.
“What does he say?” said Rosana, glancing from one to the other.
“He wants $150 dollars. And we’re not even to Palmar yet.”
“No, he does not! You tell him he’s not gonna get anything until his broken down hunk of junk
delivers us to Palmar! A hundred and fifty— nevermind! I’ll tell him!” By the end of the
conversation, Rosana and the driver, without a spoken language in common had come to an
understanding. One hundred dollars and they would get a local cab to take them the rest of
the way. Rosana kicked at the side door until the catch released. She unfolded herself from
the back, aching knees popping and turned on the driver who was hastily unloading their
three bags and the wheelchair. Rosana counted the precious bills into his hand, glaring
As their taxi sped away, Rosana opened the wheelchair with her foot and eased Norma into it.
She flipped the painting supplies backpack onto her back with the purse and arranged the
other two bags across Norma’s lap.
“Well, what now? Do they have a Metro here? A bus? Are we really going to have to use a
The streets were filled with the weekend crowd. Cantina music echoed through the Square
from parties a block away. Mopeds, double and sometimes triple-laden wove in and out of
traffic, around street vendor carts, ignoring the occasional traffic light.
“No bus now. Too late. We need taxi.”
Rosana calculated mentally. Another fifty or hundred dollar charge would really deplete their
three hundred dollar stash. She glanced down at Norma’s tear-stained face, drawn and grey
with fatigue and emotion.
“Food first. Then a taxi,” she decided. Norma didn’t resist.
A half-block from the Square, Rosana found an American-style pizzeria with a door wide
enough to wheel through. Conversation stopped as they entered, and picked up again quietly
as a waiter hurried to help.
“Pizza, queso and pepperoni, entiende? Understand?” She thought about Norma. “And a
salad! And agua.”
Half and hour later, grumbling about the service speed, Rosana bit into their salad, topped
with cheese and pepperoni. Norma picked at her food, but eagerly drank the bottled water.
“Well, I’m full,” Rosana announced, scraping the bowl, “almost as full as that girl’s bustier! I
don’t think I’d come out in public in that thing! It looks two sizes small!”
Norma clucked. “Fashion is different here.”
“Fashion is smaller here,” retorted Rosana, sniffing. “How do you get a taxi in— where are
“Bani. Nearest big town to Palmar. Unless you count Azua.” Clearly, Norma didn’t. Rosana
didn’t feel like digging out her guide book, so she took the wheelchair’s handles and
shouldered the bags. “We go back to the Square and talk to one of the taxi drivers.”
Fourteen men sat along the low walls bordering the Square. They varied in age from teens to
teeth-less, and most of them were smoking. Rosana squared her shoulders and pushed
forward. Some snickers and a wolf whistle came from behind her, but in front, they met
incredulous stares and silence.
“Taxi to Palmar de Ocoa?” Rosana ventured. No one answered, all eyes darting from Norma
to Rosana and back again, taking in the luggage and the wheelchair.
Finally, a tall man with graying hair and a thick mustache threw his cigarette to the ground and
crushed it under his boot. “Yo voy.”
“Does that mean he’ll take us?” Rosana ducked her head to whisper in Norma’s ear.
Rosana straightened up. “Great. How much?”
An exchange of Spanish swirled around her.
“He says he can take us. He is the only one with a van, but he has to go to his home and get
it. Only his motorcycle is here.” Norma gestured to a row of motorbikes parked on the street.
The man was already climbing onto one.
“How long?” asked Rosana, but no one answered, and she had the distinct impression time
really didn’t apply. She parked the wheelchair by the wall a few feet from the men and settled
herself on it.
Three kids were throwing a torn up baseball across the stone benches.
“Oh, that’s true,” she murmured to herself.
Norma looked at her questioning.
“Baseball is big here, right? Isn’t like the national sport, or something?”
Norma nodded, tears welling again in her deep eyes. “Carlos and ‘Celo both -”
“Nevermind, Mama. Here.” She unscrewed the lid of her water bottle and held it out. Norma
sipped at it.
Reaching into the backpack, Rosana rummaged around and presently drew out a small
sketch pad. Her purse yielded a No. 2 pencil and rearranging herself on the wall, she began
sketching the boys with the ball. The one in the center had a good arm, and threw the ball
high above the orange- and red-flowered bushes. Rosana sketched steadily until a shrill
whistle from the street startled her.
“He’s back,” she announced, slamming the sketch book closed and flouncing to her feet. The
taxi driver leaned out the window of a clean, newer-style minivan, contorting his lips.
“What is he doing?” asked Rosana warily, pausing in her hasty preparations. “What’s with the
For the first time all day, Norma smiled. “It’s like pointing you finger,” she said,demonstrating.
“Just using your lips. This is very Dominican.”
“This is very weird.”
The man drove the van up onto the sidewalk, jumped out and began to move their luggage to
the back of the van. From the passenger-side emerged a woman with a disbelieving look on
She rushed to Norma, clucking and waving. A moment of conversation passed between
them, and then they were hugging and crying like long-lost friends. Rosana shifted her weight
from one leg to the other, wondering what she should be doing.
“As if the whole place wasn’t looking at us already, now let’s have a scene,” she muttered,
glancing over her shoulder at the men on the wall who seemed to be enjoying the show.
“Rosana!” Norma’s high pitched voice trembled with excitement. “My cousin, Valencia! Her
husband recognize me and bring her to me!” Rosana took her mother’s outstretched hand
and stepped forward. Cousin Valencia, the top of whose brown hair reached no further than
Rosana’s shoulder, threw her arms around Rosana and said something in Spanish. Everyone
within earshot laughed. The flush creeping up her neck, Rosana turned to Norma
“She say she always want a tall, white sister.”
Rosana laughed. “Tell her we are family now, since you are my mother.”
Norma relayed the message, and another round of chattering and laughter echoed off the
sides of the plaster-walled cathedral.
In ten minutes, they were settled into the van, Norma strapped in with the seatbelt, much to
the chagrin of the driver, who had to remove the protective plastic wrap from the never-used
The city melted away behind them into low hills and sandy soil. Rosana caught the
occasional glimpse of the sea, away to her right, the sun above it, preparing for its evening
Soon, the landscape changed, and the taxi climbed a hill whose summit opened into a wide
valley surrounded on three sides by tall mountains and filled with neatly arranged rows of
“What kind of trees are these, Mama?”
“Mango. Spring is harvest time. They pick soon. Valencia, this is still Santos’ orchard?”
“Si. Barto took it over. He went to New York to go to school and now he’s back running his
“All this belongs to one family?” Rosana scanned the valley, incredulous.
“Yes. And between the trees, he has planted other crops. Onions. Melons. You can see all
the Haitians out there working.”
Valencia’s husband took his hand off the wheel to point to a group of people in worn clothing,
faces covered with bandanas, machetes in hand.
“They look like gangsters,” muttered Rosana. “Hey! There are women in that group! Do
women work in the fields, too?”
Valencia nodded. “If they must. Sometimes, the women are the only ones who can work. Or
the men stayed behind in Haiti.” She gestured North, toward the border.
Rosana sat back and let the conversation and the countryside wash past her. Women
working in the fields. Close family connections, but racism toward the Haitians. Huge
orchards owned by a single family. A land of contradictions.
She was brought back from her reverie by the words, “tu casa.”
“Your house?” she interrupted. “What about your house? Do you still have a house here,
Valencia’s husband turned around in the drivers’ seat to look at her. “Eduardo, Sr.’s house
lived in by Jaime,” he growled in slow English. Rosana pointed ahead fiercely until he turned
around, jerking the van to avoid the rapidly approaching fence.
The women continued chattering as if their life had not been in mortal danger. Rosana wiped
her palms on her pants.
“But what about your house, Mama? The one you lived in with Eduardo, Jr.?”
Norma turned her face toward the window, her shoulders beginning to shake.
“Jaime rent it to people from the Capital. Then it fall. Earthshake.” This time, she noticed, he
didn’t turn around, but looked at her in the rear-view mirror.
“Earthquake,” she corrected. He shrugged.
“Now, no good.”
“How not good is ‘no good?’” she pressed, but he didn’t understand. “Mama, where do we
stay tonight?” The lengthening shadows lay heavily across the road. Norma didn’t answer.
For awhile the car was silent. Then, with a sudden jerk, the asphalt ended. Norma clutched at
her daughter-in-law, and Rosana, grateful for the seatbelt, cradled her head while the van
lurched and bounced into Palmar de Ocoa.
“Welcome Home, Mama,” she whispered into her hair.
When Bartolomeo had bowed to his hostess and wrapped his work-strengthened fingers
around the limp grip of his host, he donned the North Dakota State baseball cap he wore at
night, and stepped off the Mayor’s porch into the darkness.
He sighed with relief, knowing the Mayor was annoyed enough with the conversation to
exclude him from the guest list for – well, several months at least. And that will get us
through the harvest, he thought. He turned left at the corner, opting for the long way around
the town’s centro where the majority of the drunken party-goers were reveling. He would
pass the small hotel, the park by the city beach, the Catholic Church, and the Haitian section
of town before turning from the road onto a foot path. Half a mile up the hillside, he would be
home. It was a walk he could manage blindfolded, and so he closed his eyes for a moment,
taking in the smells of his hometown, the texture of the sidewalk, recognizing by the feel
underfoot who had neglected their daily duty to sweep the sidewalk.
At the sound of English, he opened his eyes, pausing just shy of a puddle of orange light.
“Where, Mama?” He recognized an American accent. Eastern, by the sound of it. No drawl
or midwestern twang like the hardy people of Fargo, North Dakota where he had studied
agriculture for four years. An eastern accent, but not from New York. He had been to New
York city only once, in spite of the fact that most of his compatriots thought New York was the
only city in the United States, and therefore the place where Barto had gone to school.
A mixture of English and Spanish followed, and into the light of the streetlamp stepped the
most unlikely picture Bartolomeo had ever seen on the streets of Palmar. A tall, tired-looking
young woman, hair pulled back into a high ponytail, pack on her back, pushing a wheelchair
occupied by a Dominican woman. Duffle bags buried the older woman in the chair until there
was little more to see than her shoulders and head.
Before Bartolomeo could step forward and offer to help, they had moved on and were at the
door of the Inn. He stood, statue-like, watching while the younger woman parked the chair
and knocked on the door. Once. Twice.
Barto wondered if Chavez would open. He was likely out at the party. Once more, Barto
stepped forward, ready to cross the street to the assistance of the women when the door of
the Inn was thrown open. If the sudden blast of cheap-imitation rock music echoing down the
nighttime streets had been less boisterous, he would have been able to hear the
conversation. As it was, he watched silently a moment longer, and when loud cries of
recognition were followed by the older woman being helped into the Inn and the younger
relaying the luggage piece-by-piece under the curious stares of the two young boys who were
supposed to help, Barto moved on.
But not before he noticed the tourista’s curly ponytail was a magnificent red.
The Mayor of Palmar de Ocoa was a generous host. He prided himself on the ample