This vibrant, provocative début novel explores the dreams and struggles of three generations of Dominican women. Graciela, born on the outskirts of Santo Domingo at the turn of the century, is a headstrong adventuress who comes of age during the U.S. occupation. Too poor to travel beyond her imagination, she is frustrated by the monotony of her life, which erodes her love affairs and her relationship with Mercedes, her daughter. Mercedes, abandoned by Graciela at thirteen, turns to religion for solace and, after managing to keep a shop alive during the Trujillo dictatorship, emigrates to New York with her husband and granddaughter, Leila. Leila inherits her great-grandmother Graciela’s passion-driven recklessness. But, caught as she is between cultures, her freedom arrives with its own set of obligations and dangers.
About the Author
Nelly Rosario was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Brooklyn, where she now lives. She received a B.A. in engineering from MIT and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University. She was named a “Writer on the Verge” by the Village Voice Literary Supplement in 2001. Song of the Water Saints won the 2002 Pen Open Book Award.
Read an Excerpt
Invasions - 1916
SANTO DOMINGO, REPÚBLICA DOMINICANA
Graciela and Silvio stood hand in hand on El Malecón, sea breeze polishing their faces. Silvio hurled stones out to the waves and Graciela bunched up her skirt to search for more pebbles. Her knees were ashy and she wore her spongy hair in four knots. A rusty lard can filled with pigeon peas, label long worn from trips to the market, was by her feet. Silvio's straw hat was in Graciela's hands, and quickly, she turned to toss it to the water. The hat fluttered like a hungry seagull, then was lapped up by foam. Silvio's kiss pinned Graciela against the railing.
It was a hazy day. The hot kissing made Graciela squint against the silver light. Beyond her lashes, Silvio was a sepia prince.
–That yanqui over there's lookin' at us, he murmured into Graciela's mouth. He pulled out his hand from the rip in her skirt. Graciela turned to see a pink man standing a few yards away from them. She noticed that the yanqui wore a hat and a vest–he surely did not seem to be a Marine. When she was with Silvio, Graciela forgot to worry about anyone telling on her to Mai and Pai, much less panic over yanquis and their Marine boots scraping the cobblestones of the Colonial Quarter.
Passion burned stronger than fear. Graciela turned back to Silvio.
–Forget him. Her pelvis dug into his until she felt iron.
Graciela and Silvio were too lost in their tangle of tongues to care that a few yards away, the yanqui was glad for a brief break from the brutal sun that tormented his skin. With her tongue tracing Silvio's neck, Graciela couldn't care less that Theodore Roosevelt's "soft voice and big stick" on Latin America had dipped the yanqui the furthest south he had ever been from New York City. Silvio's hands crawled back into the rip in Graciela's skirt; she would not blush if she learned that the yanqui spying on them had already photographed the Marines stationed on her side of the island, who were there to "order and pacify," in all their debauchery; that dozens of her fellow Dominicans somberly populated the yanqui's photo negatives; and that the lush Dominican landscape had left marks on the legs of his tripod. Of no interest to a moaning Graciela were the picaresque postcard views that the yanqui planned on selling in New York and, he hoped, in France and Germany. And having always been poor and anonymous herself, Graciela would certainly not pity the yanqui because his still lifes, nature shots, images of battleships for the newspapers had not won him big money or recognition.
–Forget the goddamned yanqui, I said. Graciela squeezed Silvio's arm when his lips broke suction with hers.
–He's comin' over here, Silvio said. He turned away from Graciela to hide his erection against the seawall. Graciela watched the man approach them. He had a slight limp. Up close, she could see that his skin was indeed pink and his hair was a deep shade of orange. Graciela had never seen a real yanqui up close. She smiled and folded her skirt so that the rip disappeared.
The man pulled a handkerchief from his vest pocket and wiped his neck. He cleared his throat and held out his right hand, first to Silvio, then to Graciela. His handshake swallowed up Graciela's wrist, but she shook just as hard. In cornhashed Spanish the man introduced himself: Peter West, he was.
Peter. Silvio. Graciela. They were all happy to meet each other. The man leaned against the seawall and pulled out a wad of pesos from a pocket in his outer jacket. His eyes never left Graciela and Silvio.
–¿So, are you with the Marines? Silvio asked in an octave lower than usual, and Graciela had to smile secretly because her sepia prince was not yet old enough to wear long pants.
The yanqui shook his head.
–No, no, he said with an air of importance. His thumb and index finger formed a circle around his right eye. Graciela looked over at Silvio. They wrinkled their noses. Then more cornhashed Spanish.
With the help of a Galician vendor, Peter West explained, he had accumulated an especially piquant series of photographs: brothel quadroons bathed in feathers, a Negro chambermaid naked to the waist, and, of course, he remembered with the silliest grin Graciela had ever seen, the drunken sailors with the sow. In fact, the sun was not so mean to him when he wore his hat and jacket. And fruit was sweet, whores were cheap.
Graciela reached for the pesos before Silvio did; after all, Peter West had thrust them in her direction when he finished his convoluted explanations. But he quickly pulled the pesos away, leaving Graciela's fingers splayed open.
With the promise of pesos, Graciela and Silvio found themselves in the Galician vendor's warehouse, where Peter West had staged many ribald acts among its sacks of rice. How happy they had been to help this yanqui-man push together the papier-mâché trees, to roll out the starched canvas of cracked land and sky. Silvio straddled the tiger with its frozen growl while Graciela pried open the legs of a broken tripod to look in its middle. When West lit the lamps Graciela and Silvio squealed.
–¡Look, look how he brought the sun in here!
Silvio shaded his eyes.
–This yanqui-man, he is a crazy.
Graciela's whisper rippled through the warehouse when the fantasy soured. The pink hand tugged at her skirt and pointed briskly to Silvio's pants. They turned to each other as the same hand dangled pesos before them.
–¿You still want to go away with me, Mami, or no?
Silvio's whisper was hoarse.
Graciela's shoulders dropped. She unlaced her hair and folded her blouse and skirt. In turn, Silvio unbuttoned his mandarin shirt and untied the rope at his waist. Graciela folded her clothes along with his over a pile of cornhusks. In the dampness, they shivered while West kneaded their bodies as if molding stubborn clay.
They struggled to mimic his pouts and sleepy eyes. Instead of wrestling under heavy trees by Rio Ozama, or chewing cane in the fields near bateyes, or scratching each other's bellies in abandoned mills, or pressing up against the foot of a bridge, they were twisted about on a hard couch that stunk of old rags. Bewildered, they cocked their necks for minutes at a time in a sun more barbarous than the one outside. Their bodies shone like waxed fruit, so West wiped them with white powder. Too light. So he used, instead, mud from the previous day's rain.
"Like this, you idiots."
Where his Spanish failed, West made monkey faces, which finally made Graciela titter–only to reveal gaps where her teeth had been knocked out in a fall from a cashew tree. She found it difficult to sweetly gaze up at the beams of the warehouse as he had instructed. Her eyes remained fixed on the camera.
Then Graciela and Silvio watched in complicit silence as West approached the couch and knelt in front of them. Graciela's leg prickled with the heat of his ragged breathing. One by one, West's fingers wrapped around Silvio's growing penis. He wedged the thumb of his other hand into the humid mound between Graciela's thighs. Neither moved while they watched his forehead glitter. And just as they could hear each other's own sucks of breath, they felt piercing slaps on their chins. West ran to the camera to capture the fire in their faces.
As promised, the yanqui-man tossed Silvio a flurry of pesos. Graciela rubbed caked mud from her arms while Silvio, still naked, wet his fingers to count the bills. Graciela wondered if he would hog up the money, then go off to porches and storefronts to resoak her name in mud. As she wiggled her toes into her sandals, cigar smoke made her bite the inside of her cheek.
–Me amur, ¿qué pase?
This time the knotted Spanish was in Graciela's hair, the grip on her shoulder moist. Before she could demand her own flurry of colored bills, a crash echoed throughout the warehouse. Glass and metal scattered across the floor. The photographer ran toward the crash and in his frenetic efforts to salvage the film plate did not bother to strangle Silvio.
Graciela and Silvio ran from the warehouse and hid behind barrels along the dock, suppressing adrenaline giggles.
–You liked it, she said.
Silvio made a fist, then pointed to the pockets of his shorts.
–¡Gimme my earn, you! Graciela hissed. She clutched at his pocket. A puff of hair flopped over her eye.
–You liked it too, he said.
They wrestled, the strange arousal they had felt in the warehouse pumping through them again.
–I'll hold it for when I come for you, Silvio said in between breaths.
Graciela had to trust Silvio. She tied up her hair into four knots and ran to the market, where she should have been, before Mai sent her brother for her. Silvio kept his head down to try to hide the recently-paid-man brightness in his eyes. He should have been home helping his father with the coal. Graciela and Silvio did not know they had just been immortalized.
Absentmindedly, Graciela plucked four pieces of yucca for bar- ter from the vendor's selection. Silvio's narrow back had disappeared into the market crowd in a swagger that thickened the dread in Graciela's throat. She was about to hand the vendor a lard can's worth of pigeon peas, only to realize that she had left it at the warehouse.
–Devil's toying with my peas.
Graciela bit the inside of her cheek. She turned away and fled.