She Couldn’t Find Dominican Women in the Official Archives. So She Started Her Own.

Angie Cruz. Photo: Courtesy of Flatiron Books

Angie Cruz’s latest novel, Dominicana, is inspired by her mother’s life. As a girl in the Dominican Republic, Cruz’s mother was married off to a man twice her age so that her family could immigrate to the United States. In the novel, Cruz imagines her mother’s experience. Set in the 1960s, the book follows 15-year-old Ana Cancion, who immigrates from the D.R. to New York City after an arranged marriage to a much older man. The marriage is loveless and abusive, but it paves the way for the rest of Ana’s family to immigrate to the States.

In the course of researching the novel, Cruz spent time combing through the archives of CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute. However, when she looked for photos of working-class Dominican women in New York in the ’60s, she couldn’t find many. So, she decided to start an archive of her own. She created the Instagram account Dominicanas NYC earlier this year, asking friends, family, and followers to send photos of their Dominican relatives along with the stories behind them.

We spoke to Cruz about the intergenerational trauma of immigration and the importance of keeping family stories alive.

You’ve said you created @dominicanasnyc because there was a lack of representation in existing archives. Can you speak a bit more about that? 
I’m interested in writing about the working class, which is often under-documented. What’s documented is what we see in the papers, about politicians, or people who have power, or crime. My family was in NYC in the ’70s, but for Dominicana, I was interested in writing about 1965. That was the year the U.S. occupied D.R. It was the year Malcolm X was shot across from the building I grew up in [in Washington Heights.] I wanted to bring all these historical moments together and show how, even if they’re different stories and movements, they’re all interconnected. And I wanted Ana to live through all of that.

I enrolled as a fellow at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. But when I first looked in the archives, there wasn’t enough visual documentation of working-class Dominican women. The last time I was at CUNY, I found two sets of photos [that had been donated by Dominicans].

How do you use archival photos in your writing process? 
I take them in: what are people wearing? What are the stores behind them? Where were these people, what street were they standing on? The photographs often don’t have context, unless something is written on the box. I had to guess what year they were taken based on what the women were wearing, and from their hairstyles. I was reading across the archive so I could write my character in a way that felt true.

How did you end up creating your own archive?
While I was [at CUNY] I felt very limited. I started asking people: oh, do you have photos in your family album? Can you send me a photo of your mom in the ’60s? Today, we’re post-digital and over-documented, but there’s this whole body of work in people’s houses that have been left to die in people’s closets. I started asking people for photos of their mothers, and the experience of submitting and curating that was so joyous. People said, oh my God, I would love to put my mom in there. I would like to put my grandmother in there. I want to put myself in there. Someone said, this is better than a DNA project, because they’ll start finding each other: is this my cousin? Are you from this town? The archive is another way of reconnecting the fragmented ways we’re pulled apart in America, through images.

People send me photographs of their mothers with a name and a date. I’ll write back and ask, do you have anything you want to say about your mom? And they’ll send me back three pages. I’ll say, can I publish any part of this? And they’ll say, publish it all! I’ve gotten a number of emails from people saying, thank you so much for this archive. I’ve never really thought about my family’s stories; about when they arrived. And now I’m asking them these questions. Some people told me they went to visit their families just to look at photo albums they hadn’t ever really looked at before. If it’s going to help someone do something that’s going to work towards healing or building a bridge, it’s already a worthy project.

What do you mean by the work of healing, and how do the images factor into that? 
One of the reasons I wrote my book Dominicana is because my mother was married off to a man twice her age by my grandmother. My grandmother told her, you need to leave, otherwise you have no future. And if you leave, maybe we will all have a future. It’s a sacrifice that my mother had to make for everybody else. And I was always like, but I grew up in America. What about falling in love and living your life and your dream, and not making the duty that you feel as a daughter or a community member your priority? I was really interested in those tensions. But a lot of of the women in my family who’ve immigrated don’t want to talk about their past, because there’s a lot of trauma and pain. And we inherit that trauma. I think storytelling creates a kind of salve in that space in us that feels untended to. Someone wrote to me and said, I haven’t seen my grandmother in years, but this archive made me think, maybe I should go visit her.

I think our mothers bear pain to save our generation from what they think we can’t handle, or shouldn’t know, or shouldn’t be burdened with. The great thing about photographs is that they do a lot of work of that telling for you. You know, you look at a photograph. You pull together what someone says, what they don’t say, what you see. The gestures in their hand. And then you get the truth.

In Dominicana, Ana’s made to grow up fast, without time to enjoy her girlhood. I love that people who submit to the archive are especially celebrating their mothers and grandmothers as young women. 
I like that, because a lot of women in the archive didn’t have time to sit in those moments of youth and luxuriate in them, so to look back on it in a photograph is really uplifting. One woman said the shocking part about having a conversation with her mother was that her mother said the most difficult moment in her day was lunchtime [because she missed the tradition of siesta, and how lunch in the Dominican Republic was always a family affair, not a solo one]. It just was unbearable for her. Lunchtime is the moment in the workday people look forward to, and she didn’t. I think that’s the interesting thing about immigration. Not speaking a language, or leaving something that you know well to come to a strange place — we manage all that, but it’s very lonely.

In an earlier draft of Dominicana, people said, oh my God, you spend so much time on Ana in the apartment. It’s claustrophobic. But part of the difficulty of being in a new country is the mundane. It’s the everyday. It’s the cleaning. It’s such a big part of the women in my life’s space, to tend to their home. And I want people to live in that for a moment.

The Writer Who Created an Archive of Dominican Women in NYC