The Dominican Culture and History in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a Novel by Junot Diaz

Examining the historical events that took place during the setting of a book can greatly help with ones comprehension and analysis of the text. Understanding the culture of the people whom the author writes about also helps achieve the same results. Readers can use historical and cultural information to better relate, understand, and empathize with the characters in the story and what they are going through. In this work: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, A broken family from the Dominican Republic has taken refuge from the terrible dictator Trujillo in New Jersey.

This story reflects on the difficulties and troubles met by this family as they all search for love, often unsuccessfully. Their Dominican Culture and history is constantly being blended in with their new setting and life. Junot Diaz’s uses of setting, story-telling, flashbacks, and code switching give the reader some idea of the culture of the Dominican Republic in the 20th century and the effect Trujillo’s reign had on citizens lives, but for a full understanding of the books cultural setting the reader must immerse himself into the historical and cultural aspects which played such a huge role in the lives of not only our characters but citizen in the Dominican Republic at this time period.

Junot Diaz the author of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was greatly influenced by the culture of his own life, which he incorporated into the writing of this story. Diaz like characters in his book immigrated to central New Jersey as a child. Immediately it is evident that Diaz took not just one piece, but almost an entire childhood from himself and replicated it as that of his main character; Oscar’s life. The Dominican Republic culture was all around Diaz as he grew up, this knowledge was key in expressing the culture of the Dominican Republic to his readers. Wikipedia states that as a Dominican-American his immigrant experience was central to his work in literature.

Also, Trujillo plays a huge role in the story, often times indirectly. Rafael Trujillo was a ruthless and cruel dictator. This man was the ruler of the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years in which time he massacred 50,000 of his own and neighboring Haiti’s citizens. This monster had a special fondness for young girls, which he would hide, away in estates all around the Dominican Republic so he could deflower them personally. As the famous Mirabel sisters said in, In the Time of Butterflies, “He wouldn’t take no for an answer.”. (Alvarez. Chapter 2) Trujillo in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao attempts to do the same thing with Beli’s sisters, but her father disobeys him and, “Not four weeks after the party, Dr. Abelard Luis Cabral was arrested by the Secret Police. The charge? “Slander and gross calumny against the Person of the President.”( Diaz. P.233)

Both Beli’s parents are taken and later killed by Trujillo. This type of brutal abuse of power was ubiquitous in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo’s reign. Trujillo left the Dominican Republic scarred and traumatized for many years following his eventual assassination. Knowing how horrible it was living like this; trapped by such a terrible ruler helps you better understand the reasons why characters do the things they do throughout the story. Beli, Oscar, and the whole Dominican way of life were forever transformed by Trujillo and his awful reign.

Furthermore, Trujillo’s power spread all across the country because of the gangsters and secret police her had working for him. Corrupt government officials were chosen with extreme nepotism to keep his power secure. Gangsters under Trujillo did all of the dirty work for him and often killed off any opposition. Beli falls for a gangster and almost pays the price. Unbeknown to Beli was that the gangster was married until in a park she is stopped by a lady who says, ” Soy Trujillo. I’m also Dionisio’s wife. It has reached my ears that you’ve been telling people that you’re going to marry him and that you’re having his child. Well, I’m here to tell inform you, mi monita, that you will be doing neither.” (Diaz. P. 141)

She like many others before her was beaten and left for dead in the labyrinth of cane fields by Trujillo’s secret policemen. With the secret police working for him it was very hard to speak out or do anything against a such a terrible man because, “People who opened their big mouths often didn’t live very long.” (Alvarez. Chapter 2). Trujillo gripped the Dominican Republic in fear with his violent ways and oppressive government control.

Lastly, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is constantly being influenced by Dominican Republic culture. The people of the Dominican Republic are very superstitious and have a strong belief in the spirits surrounding them which they call fuku. Junot Diaz in an interview refers to the fuku in his story as “a curse of consequences”. (Ghomeshi. YouTube 2009) The fuku in the story constantly follows bad decisions. Oscar and his family are constantly under the rule of not only the dictatorship of Trujillo, but also to the dictatorship of the fuku because of they constantly make bad decisions. This is not the only aspect of the Dominican Republic we see. Junot Diaz often uses code switching in the text in which he changes to Spanish when speaking between two Dominicans or when characters with to display lots of emotion. It is evident that

Dominican Republic men had a sort of culture all their own. Machismo is what Yunior,the narrator and Oscar’s roommate, would call this masculine culture. In order to be a real man you have to sleep with lots of women. Real men take care of their body and are very fit and well groomed. Sleeping around in the Dominican Republic is just the traditional gender roles of the Dominican Republic. When more closely examined all the aspects of the Dominican Republic culture greatly expand the readers understanding of the book and why characters in it make the decisions the make.

Junot Diaz did a lot of research and pulled from many different resources including personal memories and stories to try to piece together a story which contained a culture and history very different from that of most of his readers, yet still made it relatable to everyone. Diaz did not have to choose this a setting like this. He could have written about anybody from any time period but he chose this setting and these characters and by using historical and cultural information about this society managed to incorporate these aspects into the culture and history of his own story. Learning more about the Dominican Republic’s history and culture while reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao greatly helps readers empathize with and understand the characters decisions and the text as a whole.

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