Painter, Photographer, and Writer

Barrio Vietnam

The lecherous Generalísimo Rafael Leónidas Trujillo
Who ruled the Dominican Republic for thirty-three years
Of genocide, murder, rape
Bogus medals festooning his chest like soda bottle caps
Gave the house on Avenida Independencia
To Ofelia Japonesa, his slant-eyed sister
Gave her the mansion on the tree-arched street leading to el centro
Along which los cepillos, shiny, black VWs, slid through tropical nights
Sweeping up dissidents and speeding them to torture and death
Her house, two blocks from el malecón and blue ocean breeze
Once painted gleaming white
But now grimy, stucco crumbling, porch pillars cracking
Front steps askew, doors long removed
The house of La Japonesa
Now the Barrio Vietnam. 

Raucous parties were held here
(To whom could the neighbors complain?)
Rum-soaked sycophants seeking her brother’s favor
Windows from which once light had blazed
And meringue music had gushed forth
Are now only blind eyes unable to see the devastated yard
Where the pinks and oranges and yellows of jasmine, hibiscus and buganbilia
Were carefully cultivated and groomed
To please the slanted eyes of the dictator’s sister, La Japonesa.

Then the dictator was assassinated
His bullet-pocked body stuffed in a car trunk
His brutal reign exploded and La Japonesa fled, terrified, to Spain
With luggage bulging with pesos her brother had stolen from his country
Los pobres invaded his many mansions like hornets
Swarmed into the house on Avenida Independencia
Angrily wrenched apart gold-trimmed furnishings from Europe
Broke windows, trampled gardens
Smashed flowered porcelain from France, etched crystal from Belgium
Tore fixtures from the bathrooms
Built nests in the debris
Two or three families crammed into each room
Constructed a shanty town in the front and back
Tiny huts of cardboard, dirt floors and leaking roofs
Separated by narrow, muddy walkways
Filled them with naked babies and transistor radios
Blaring meringues and strident commercials.
The squatters call their ramshackle village Barrio Vietnam
With an irony born of poverty and squalor
In homage to the faraway country los gringos bombed and ravaged
Like they did here, to stifle a righteous revolution
And install a puppet president, the dictator’s sidekick
On this small island of undulating palms, turquoise waters, flowering trees
Where the poor waited and waited and waited
Thinking El jefe’s death would mean release from fear and misery
Though of course it only meant
A different body in the seat of power. 

Now young girls with gigantic neon pink rollers embedded in their hair
Laugh and sway to the infectious meringue beat
Taunt leering boys whose sweaty faces glimmer like polished metal
Young mothers wonder how much they can water down the habichuelas
The little shack-store on the sidewalk sells
A half cup of cooking oil, a cup of milk, a few ounces of sugar or salt, una Coca
And the vendor on his rickety chair offers single cigarettes, chicle, and dulces
From his tray on folding legs, beseeching passersby to stop
A single bulb using stolen electricity lights the barrio at night
A gossiping line waits with dented pitchers and pails for water
From a single faucet, water from cracked pipes buried centuries ago
Next to the leaking sewer pipes
Plátanos, yuccas, onions, garlic fry all day in rancid oil
Noisy chaos and pungent smells have replaced
The intoxicating jasmine, hibiscus and buganbilia crawling up the pillars
And the blue ocean breeze blows the thick, ochre stench of human waste
From the empty lot behind the mansion
Over the entire neighborhood. 

La Japonesa has been gone a long time
Her bullet-ridden brother’s body the end of one more chapter of sadism
The house of La Japonesa is almost obscured by the honeycomb of humanity
Crying, laughing, scrabbling, birthing, dying
In the dark, tumble-down shacks and narrow pathways
Of Barrio Vietnam.