The bus to Santiago was cramped and the air conditioning blowing something fierce. Junot Diaz‘s nerd jokes and Dominican curse words entertained me as the man next to me slept soundly and exhaled hotly against my neck.
Alberto, Carlos, Federico, and Raul, all painters from Moca and members of Grupo Garabato, were waiting for me as I climbed over the passengers and hauled my backpack out of the luggage storage. Their jovial smiles and hugs were such a pleasant surprise. How could they be hugging and kissing me like we had been friends for years? And yet they were.
Off we sped to Carlos’ house for showers, beer, and long conversations in rocking chairs. [You will notice that this — beer and long conversations in rocking chairs — will be a recurring theme in my DR experience.]
On Saturday, we loaded in the car to leave Santiago and head off to Moca. There, we visited Carlos and Federico’s studios. Their mothers insisted on making food and coffee in each place, looking at me like I obviously must be starving to death.
In Carlos’ studio, I was exclaiming over his stacks and stacks of prolific paintings. In typical Dominican fashion — hospitable to the nth degree — Carlos set up an easel with paints and urged me to paint until finally I acquiesced. That day would be the first time I had painted since leaving for the first country of this project. In 20 minutes, on the easel stood a quick portrait of Raul reading a book, and I gazed at the brush in my hand, confused about how that image had suddenly appeared. A good omen of Moca’s effusive passion and creative energy.
On Sunday, we went on a long drive to see the hundreds of murals in Moca, Salcedo, and Tenares. The Mirabal sisters, iconic figures in the DR’s history, were originially from Salcedo, and many of the murals in the area honor their legacy:
The Mirabal Sisters were the Great Martyrs of that period. Patría Mercedes, Minerva Argentina, and María Teresa — three beautiful sisters from Salcedo who resisted Trujillo and were murdered for it. (One of the main reasons why the women from Salcedo have reputations for being so incredibly fierce, don’t take shit from nobody, not even a Trujillo.) Their murders and the subsequent public outcry are believed by many to have signaled the official beginning of the end of the Trujillato, the “tipping point,” when folks finally decided enough was enough. (p. 83, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz)
The following days have been a blur of visits to artists’ studios, smoking cigars, and having long philosophical conversations in rocking chairs while waiting for the afternoon rains to stop so that we can head off on Alberto’s little scooter to the next artist’s home.
The madres and abuelas urge me to eat at every house and kiss my cheeks. The babies sit in my lap, play with my hair, and giggle incessantly. Everyone laughs at the jokes I tell in slow broken Spanish. Every conversation devolves into one about the importance of art and the role of the artist in society. The passion and generosity here surpass any language barriers. The mutual understanding of art and its power binds us together.
(And as I finish this last sentence, once again, more food has been placed next to me. Have I magically withered into a skeleton?? What is going on??)