The bustling panorama of Constanza, a Dominican town a few hours to the northwest of Santo Domingo, stretched along the mountains opposite. Standing by the statue of el Divino Niño, I inhaled the breeze, which (having shed the motorcycle fumes and street dust from Constanza on its way up the mountain) tasted like August sun and the vapor rising from a faraway river.
Some man erected the statue years ago as a way of thanking God for healing him of cancer. He never took God seriously before that experience, but one night during the chemotherapy stage, his deceased mother appeared to him in a vision and urged him to cling to the Divine Child for healing. The man did, and his cancer left him. Some people donate to charity when they’re healed of cancer; they send money to starving kids in Africa to prove that their lives are useful to the rest of us. Instead, this man advertised his healing by erecting a monument on top of a mountain in the middle of the Dominican Republic to prove that miracles are possible. We all need that reminder.
The strange thing about el Divino Niño is that rather than facing outward to embrace Constanza, the statue turns his back on the little town. What did those hundreds of poverty-stricken people do to make el Divino Niño turn away? In stories, he always welcomed the sick, the lame, and the blind. But that was, after all, 2,000 years ago. Maybe el Divino Niño got tired of dealing with humanity’s messiness and gave up on us all. Maybe healing that man’s cancer was the last miracle that he was willing to perform.
During the ride up the mountain our truck had jerked and lurched and rattled, constantly threatening to eject us out of our seats. Our entire mission team had hopped onto that truck: Heather, with her t-shirt and a pair of neon sunglasses; Lucas, with his ruffled blonde hair and the intensely introverted look he always wore; Sue, Adam, Lauren, Kiki, Bethany, Chris, my mom, me – so many clashing personalities thrust together in a single truck. We hadn’t known each other very well at the beginning of the trip, but we shared our testimonies throughout the week – our testimonies of how we had come to this place, this placing of going up the mountain to see el Divino Niño. I whipped out my phone and tried to capture the ride on video, but nothing could reproduce those bumps, the earthy air, and the mountains rippling over each other. I felt so alive, as if my life in America was all a dream and this was the only real thing. Had I never been alive before?
Finally, the truck eased to a stop and we all looked expectantly toward el Divino Niño, a huge and somewhat disproportionate statue of Christ set onto a platform. Robed in rose-petal pink and wearing a spikey halo around his head, the statue wasn’t exactly a Doryphoros, but the radiant expression of his face gave him a unique attractiveness. Each culture, including the Greeks, has manufactured its own standards of beauty, but that of el Divino Niño is Classic in the fullest sense. Unlike the mole dotting Marilyn Monroe’s artificial upper lip, no one will ever get tired of el Divino Niño’s smile.
Under the influence of that gentle smile I examined the poor town of Constanza, which lay sprawled out like an open briefcase full of papers that some businessman had dropped: a mess of squares and rectangles surrounded by green fields and humping mountain-tops. I couldn’t make out the therapy clinic where I worked as translator or the shop where we bought ice cream flavored like coconut and pastel de tres leches. Someone pointed out the orphanage and school where we led VBS, but the individual faces of the children had melted into the stone walls of the buildings, too miniscule to pick out. Where was Wilson with the scar on his face? Or the boy with the piercing green eyes and freckles, the one who always watched me like a sly cat? Or all the little girls with their braids and happy, dirty faces? If I, standing on this mountaintop and straining my eyes, couldn’t glimpse them, then how on earth could el Divino Niño see them with his back turned?
In the Dominican Republic every year, thousands of men and women go on pilgrimage to the Basilica of Higüey to venerate la Virgen de Altagracia (their patron saint), hoping that she will alleviate the immense suffering that encompasses their daily lives. I’ve never been to the Basilica of Higüey, but I wonder if la Virgin’s back is turned like that of el Divino Niño. I suppose that people go on these pilgrimages because they believe their prayers won’t get heard any other way. They think they have to push themselves into la Virgen’s face for her to notice them. I wonder if that’s how they feel with el Divino Niño.
Inside the statue I found a little room full of candles of all different shades of pink and red: vermillion, coral, salmon, crimson. I admired those little flames, the embodied prayers of Dominicans begging el Divino Niño for the health of a loved one, for their daily bread, or for a job that payed more than a few pesos.
One day during that mission trip we visited a young widow who was trying to scrape enough money together to finish the construction of her house. Her husband, a pastor, had been killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving her alone with her two little girls. It was a barren place without doors or windows (just openings cut out of the chalky-white walls), probably smaller than the size of my living room and kitchen combined. Her two little girls played among the dirt and rubble inside the house where the floor should have been. Did that widow venture to el Divino Niño to light a candle, asking for enough money to finish that house?
Wherever you go in the Dominican Republic, you run into a cluster of children staring at you with smiling faces. It isn’t like in America, where children don’t bother to glance at you, or their own mothers, over their iPads. Dominican children at the bottom of the social hierarchy – illiterate children, campesinos – don’t have iPads, and you don’t usually see them with their mothers (or fathers, if they have any). They don’t seem to belong to anyone except to the mountains, or the streets, or even the little ravines sighing away from the road. The moment that these children see a friendly face they latch onto it, like a dewdrop attaches itself to a rose. I don’t understand much about the relationships between organisms, but I’d call this one symbiotic: the rose prevents the dewdrop from melting into the dirt, and the dewdrop softens, irrigates, and bejewels the rose. I don’t know much about psychology, either. I’ve just observed people, and street children in the Dominican Republic are like those dewdrops: fragile, hopeful, beautiful, transitory. Looking into their faces as they latch onto you, you’re afraid that they’re going to dribble into that mud and be absorbed at any moment. And most of the time, the earth does swallow them. There’s nothing really that you can do about it.
I was standing in the gift shop at el Divino Niño and glancing at the trinkets for sale when a little boy latched onto me (not physically, min
d you, but emotionally). Once our eyes met there was no avoiding it. I like to imagine that he thought me kind, or gentle, or something eloquent, but he probably just liked me because I was “una americana.” The boy, aged about ten or eleven, observed me with a pair of chocolate-mocha eyes that were deep, serious, and lighthearted at the same time. You see that combination with children everywhere in the Dominican Republic – their childishness just manages to hold its head above the waters of abuse and misfortune, of street gangs and unclean water polluted by floating bird carcasses. Tall and lanky, the boy wore a baseball cap and a red shirt with Mario characters on it. Did he even know who Mario was? Some innocent American boy probably donated that shirt to the Haitians without realizing that the Dominicans would sell it on the black market.
We started a conversation in Spanish about something; I think I asked him about his family, but we both sensed intuitively that the words themselves didn’t matter. We were assessing each other amiably, determined to like each other. My little friend followed us back to the truck, and Fred (the missionary) invited an entire cluster of children onto the back to ride down the mountain with us. In America, some well-meaning elderly lady would have labeled us as kidnappers and called the police, but here those kids didn’t belong to anybody anyway (except, perhaps, to el Divino Niño). I asked one of them, a little boy (I can’t remember if it was my Mario friend), if he had any pets, and he shook his head. “¿Por qué? (Why not)?” I probed, gazing at his wistful face, even though I should have known the answer. He smiled and held up his hand, rubbing his fingers together. Of course – they didn’t have money for pets. Is that why he walked up the mountain to see el Divino Niño? To ask for enough money to buy a pet goat?
We smiled at each other the entire way down from el Divino Niño. If I could have, I think I would have adopted them all right then and there. But eventually we reached the bottom and had to say goodbye. The dewdrops rapidly dribbled into the dirt and disappeared. They all hopped out of the truck and scattered to tell their families that they had just seen a bunch of Americans. I wonder what they thought of us, with our iPhones and spare sneakers?
Whenever we drove through the city in our truck, we always waved and smiled at all the Dominicans in the various stages of mundane life: an entire family piled on top of a motorcycle; a group of men drinking in the shade; a bunch of dusty children wandering through the streets; a woman with her groceries piled on top of her head. When they saw us, their faces lit up and they waved back, their eyes following us down the road. Why do I look back at those faces and feel a throb of dissatisfaction, perhaps even guilt? Why do I somehow connect those smiles with a row of candles in a little chamber on top of a mountain? And why does my back as it rumbles away from each successive face remind me of the back of el Divino Niño, turned upon the town of Constanza? I wonder whether we, like el Divino Niño, were to those people more than a simple tourist attraction.
Our team leader warned us girls to be very careful around Dominican boys because they snatch up any opportunity to get on good terms with “las americanas.” Their attentions are hardly flattering. In reality, they see us as a fast and easy pass to the United States, the Land of Opportunity. It’s strange to be treated like a ticket, like some secret password for success.
Once again I think of the candles, el Divino Niño, and the pilgrims to the Basilica of Higüey. I wonder whether Jesus likes being treated like a ticket or a secret password. I wonder whether the people who hustle up the large steps to look at the statue’s face secretly harbor the hope that el Divino Niño will heal them, just like he healed the man with cancer. And when he doesn’t take them out of poverty, or prevent their family member from dying, or give them a good crop harvest, do they shake their heads and throw away the ticket as defective? No, because the flames of the candles keep on burning, day after day and year after year, and people keep on visiting that monument with its back turned to Constanza.
In America, too, we have tickets, but of a different kind. We have the tickets of luxury, and intelligence, and success – of impressive job resumes and Bath and Body lotion bottles with pretty flowers on the front. No one knows what the tickets are for in the end, but no one really cares. It doesn’t matter if they’re worth anything or not. The Dominicans look at us as tickets to material advancement, but if they lived in America, they would see all the dissatisfaction, depression, and anger and wonder what on earth they had traded their Divino Niño tickets in for. Not much, I’d say. The whole concept of tickets – the whole ticket industry – is skewed. You can’t trade in your ticket of materialism for happiness any more than you can go on a pilgrimage to Higüey hoping that all your problems will melt away. Maybe it’s time that we stopped treating Christ – or people – like tickets.
Why did the man make el Divino Niño face away from Constanza? Supposedly, the people who erected el Divino Niño turned him the wrong way by accident and the man didn’t have enough money to change it. On the other hand, el Divino Niño might have told the man to let it be; he might have chosen that position. That way, the only people smothered by that radiant smile are those who trek up the mountain seeking it. Each Dominican in Constanza knows that he’s there; they can feel his influence over the town even with his back turned. They understand that in order to see his face, they must hike up the mountain to meet him. El Divino Niño wants them to prove their loyalty to him. He wants to be adored for the sake of his beauty, not for his ticket-value, so he tests them. It’s like with the pilgrims to Higüey. No one promises those pilgrims that they will get what they ask for, but they continue to make that journey year after year. Why? Maybe they want to prove to la Virgen that they love her even when she doesn’t stop the street gangs or wipe out corrupt government officials.
I have a friend who has wandered away from the faith slowly but steadily; she seems to have given up on the idea of a faithful God.
“Have you ever tried to seek Him?” I asked her.
“Yes, I tried. And nothing happened.”
No, that’s all wrong! You can’t take just one step up that mountain and be overwhelmed by the presence of el Divino Niño. Don’t you realize that at first you must be content to see his back, knowing that you’ll soon see him face to face? Don’t you know that sometimes, on the curves of the mountain, you lose site of him altogether? He’s still there, I tell you, and he’s waiting for you. But he doesn’t want to be treated like a ticket.
I will never see that boy in the red Mario shirt again. I will never again look into the faces of those children who melted like dewdrops into the parched and thirsty soil of the Dominican Republic. And yet, I hope that little boy stayed far away from the witch doctor’s house that we passed on our way to the airport, with its satanic symbols dangling from the trees. Did he ever venture to travel up the mountain to el Divino Niño again? Did he ever put his candle inside the monument’s bosom? I don’t know. I also can’t stop thinking about those people whose eyes followed us as we chugged down the road in our truck. Did they ever get sick and tired of looking at the back of el Divino Niño? Did they ever trudge up the mountain to see his face – not to get something from him, but just to belong to him? I can’t say. But I hope so.