Mujeres Así: Paulina Rojas on her journey through poetry to publication

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YLI is My Story

On Friday, August 18th, the Dominican Writers Association released its new anthology of poems, Ritmo Que Late. Poetry for the anthology was contributed from poets across the country in response to the DWA’s 2018 National Poetry Writing Month Instagram Challenge, where writers from the Dominican Diaspora were encouraged to submit a poem a day in response to a series of prompts. 

Of the thousands of submissions, Paulina Roja’s Mujeres Así was selected for inclusion in the new anthology. The release party will be hosted at Cafe Bunni in New York, NY, and will be available for purchase here.

How did you find out about the Instagram Challenge?

I found out about DWA online – I was probably googling Dominican writers, looking to connect directly with my culture and my community from the Dominican diaspora who share the same upbringing. The nonprofit is based in NY and I’m active in their book club.

The book club has been an important outlet for me. Every month, we read a book by a Dominican author and then get together to talk about it. Those of us outside of New York can connect via Facebook live. It is really cool – I never read any Domincan authors throughout my schooling. It was my New Year’s intention to read more, especially women, people of color and queer authors. I’ve only read one book to be honest, but just the fact that this club exists, that these books are available all in one place for us to read, that we’re encouraged to offer reviews to raise the visibility of these authors on social media and amazon is a gift to me. It’s been a way for me to support other Dominican writers and read books I could relate to, to see myself in literature. 

It sounds like this online community is very important to you. What drove you to seek out it out?

It is especially important now, since I’ve moved to California from the East Coast. It’s been complex, especially in Coachella Valley, where I’m often the first Dominican person people have met. People expect me to do a lot of work to explain my culture, my food. I struggled a lot in the first few years. There are more Dominicans living on the West Coast now and our small community is definitely thriving.  

Even though I don’t have direct contact with other Dominicans, people here are excited to learn about me. I’ve cooked food for my Mexican friends. But I’m a minority among minorities. Sometimes it feels like a burden to represent my culture. Mexican culture here is very strong, and that’s valid – California used to be Mexico. But there has also been a lot of erasure of Central Americans, Caribbeans, South Americans, and Afro-Latinxs peoples. Some days I struggle with that. Other days, I’m glad I get to move things forward for the Dominican diaspora. 

That’s why I go online in search of my community and to uplift our narratives. On the East Coast, the Dominican Republic is really close by – it’s a short plane ride from Miami. But there has been a lot of erasure there, too, even within the country itself. My grandma grew up under the U.S.-backed dictator, Trujillo. Americans love to go to the beautiful resorts in Punta Cana, but my people aren’t represented in media, literature, or politics. Adriano Espalliat was the first Dominican to be elected to congress and that was in 2016. I don’t expect everyone to know everything about my culture, but I do want respect. 

What is your poem about, and how did you feel when you learned that it was selected for publication?

Needless to say, I was ecstatic to find out that my poem was selected for publication. The poem I wrote is about women who are hard to love. I’m a very bold person and I come from a family of very strong, bold and authentic women. Yet, growing up, I always heard from my family about what I was supposed to do, how I was supposed to be to attract men: “Men don’t like women who don’t talk too much,” “Men don’t like women who take too long to get ready,” “You can be independent but not too independent.” People always talk about what women need to do to be loved by men, but no one seems to talk to men about what women might want. No one talks to boys about what to do and what not to do – what women will or won’t like. For a long time, I faulted myself for the failure of previous relationships – for being too honest, loving too hard, talking too much. 

Like many societies, Dominican culture is very patriarchal. Common stereotypes of Dominican men are that they are promiscuous, that they do not take care of their families. That they’re selfish, just taking care of themselves, that they’re cheaters. Women in all parts of the Dominican diaspora continue to carry most of the housework. Even when we’re educated and independent, that question always comes: “When are you going to get married?” If you don’t have a man, you don’t have value, you can’t be fulfilled if you’re not raising a family. 

As someone who doesn’t conform to that narrative, I wanted to uplift that we can be defiant, different. Women carry a lot of pain in patriarchal societies. They want the best for their daughters, but they subscribe to these oppressive cultures. But we Latinas don’t have to carry the pain that our mothers and grandmothers carried. If men can be considered worthy of love even when they age and gain weight, so can women. Aging women, shy women, all women, all people are deserving of love. Our mothers subscribed to that out of survival – so we can still love them for trying to do their best. They tell us these things out of love. And we can hold our men accountable by being ourselves instead of trying to be “good girls.”

How do you see yourself and your poetry moving forward?

Lately, I’ve been feeling that my mission in life isn’t about how I see myself under the gaze of a man. Sometimes I wonder, do I even want a relationship? I’ve always been defiant. Romantic love isn’t the peak love – there are so many forms of love, and I don’t believe that romantic love is the ultimate love. The love I seek is love of myself – everything else is secondary.

I’m very proud of myself for putting myself out there by submitting this piece. Storytelling is very vulnerable, especially when you are taking a critical stance on your culture. And it’s so important that the submission process was so open. Young people can pick it up and read poetry from people who don’t have a classic education, an MFA. Everyone’s story is valid, we’re all poets in our own ways. I’m very privileged to be a part of it and my goal is to continue supporting and making time for these kinds of projects moving forward.