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From the Outside, Looking In

Memoirs of an Observer

As long as can remember, I have been an observer. There are two kinds of kids, the ones doing and the ones watching. I was the watcher: extremely shy, awkward and skinny, too afraid to talk. I could watch for hours and never utter a word recording everything around me, taking it all in – every detail –  watching lizards, spiders, birds, and exploring the rich paradise that was Santo Domingo. And reveled in the stories around me carried forward by the women in my life: my mother, aunts, maids, etc.

I have started this site in order to share stories of my family and my life. I have led the most exciting, complex, chaotic life full of ups and downs, adventures, lots of fun, lots of pain, but at the end, full of peace and happiness. I wish I could go back and tell that scared little girl that it is going to be alright. To relax and enjoy the ride.

I would like to dedicate these stories to my daughter, Avaryl, and my nieces and nephews — a generation free of political repression, anxieties, and fear, full of hope and open to every possibility.  I am aware that your generation has no reference to relate to the world I grew up in. Even I, at this age, and in this reality, feel like this was just a movie I saw a long time ago, but, sadly, I know it was all very real.

I am adding entries in the Blog when I can. Short stories of memories, events, or just observations throughout my life. Browse through and comment if you like. I welcome any information you might be able to add to the stories. 

coat-of-arms arvelo-dalmau

Family Crest designed by my father in the late 1940s.


El Cadillo or Sand Burrs

One of the earliest memories I have is of going to see my father in the La Victoria jail in Santo Domingo. My father was a political prisoner and had been arrested several months prior. The Dictator Trujillo had been feeling that my father wasn’t totally dedicated to the dictatorship and could not be trusted. There had recently been an incident in which the navy had declined to participate in gruesome atrocities. So, the heads of the navy had to be replaced with people that the regime could trust to carry out its sinister crimes. My father along with the  rest of the high command of the Navy was accused of stealing. Phony trials followed and my father was sentenced to 10 year in prison for supposedly stealing from the navy. He spent the next 14 months in solitary confinement, but was in jail a total of 22 months.

My mother was left at 27 with two babies and a husband in jail. At the same time, she had the dictator’s brother calling her every day saying “if she went out with him, maybe he would put in a good word for her husband.”  So, my mother moved to a very small house near my grandfather’s and rented out our house which was in the country.

My mother took food to the jail every day. It was quite a trip on unpaved roads to get there in the heat in an age before cars had the luxury of air-conditioning. She suffered all kinds of malice and insult at the hands of the guards. She would make sure the food got to him, even though they wouldn’t let her see him by tipping the guards when she could, or bringing them cigarettes. My father couldn’t have visitors for a long time.  So she pulled every string she could and achieved visitation rights. There was a time when there was a new Warden at the jail and he made a new rule that the wives had to park very far from the jail. The roads were not paved and when it rained it was almost impossible to get there. My mother had to pull a lot of strings to be able to park near again. That is one of the moments of kindness she still remembers. 

On one occasion, my mother brought my brother and I to see my father.  My mother said she took as a few times – I only remember this one time.

My memory starts sitting with my father, my mother and my brother Pico in a courtyard towards the front part of the jail. There were guards with machine guns in every door leading to this place. I was just a little bit over 2 years old and I remember looking at this terrible place and understanding that it was an evil place full of misery and suffering. I had to have understood the situation in order to remember all the details. I remember the colors, the smells, and the tension that everyone felt that day. My brother and I behaved like little angels. Somehow we knew that it was imperative that we did. My father had a white short-sleeved shirt and dark pants. We were meeting in what was supposed to be a courtyard with planters. Planters that had been designed by some very optimistic architect who, for some reason, believed that plants could actually thrive in this forsaken place. The reality was that the walls had paint that was peeling off, the planters had nothing but dirt and nothing had managed to survive in this courtyard, located in the purgatory itself. As a friend said to me a long time ago... “I didn’t live in hell, but I could see it from my front porch”.

The thing that has always stuck in my mind is that somewhere in the middle of all this, a little sand burr plant had tried to grow in a corner. Even that plant, which thrives in the most troubled environments, was completely dry, standing there as a testament of the desolation and barrenness of the place. I was too young to know what it was called, but I recorded it anyhow.

I have spoken with my mother recently about this memory. She can’t believe I can remember all that. I guess it was such a traumatic experience that I recorded every detail. 

Because of this memory, I was aware when I had my own daughter, that you have to be very careful about what you expose your children to even at a very early age. They might not be able to express themselves as adults, but they are certainly aware of what’s going on and absorb every emotion. I know I did.

My mother has always said that she could take my brother and I anywhere. I can see why. We must have known somehow that our lives were in danger all the time. I remember always hanging on to my mother’s skirt. I was terrified of letting go.