As a Kid I Didn’t Know I was Poor Until I was Told I was for Using Jabón de Cuaba
Poverty is a hellish thing. There are levels to it and I didn’t realize where exactly I was on the socioeconomic ladder as a kid until I was told through a joke that I was at a socially unacceptable one.
When I was in grade school, I had to travel to school by bola and I would come back home walking through Sosúa beach. My grandmother lived approximately at a 30-minute walking distance from my school in el Batey, on the main freeway of the town. We used to hitchhike to get to it. One day, we hopped behind a camioneta and the young man driving it took us close to school. He told us to get off and once we tried he would take off to see if one of us would fall—it was a cruel thing he did to children he was known and got away for. All for shits and giggles. One of us turned out to be me and I fell on my head, right in the middle of the road, from his pickup truck. I was stunned and didn’t know what was happening for a couple of seconds, but then it hit me along with the stares. Someone on a motorcycle picked me up and took me to my grandmother’s house. I cried all the way there. I was quickly taken to Santiago to get a CAT scan to see if I had a concussion. She placed me in a private school closer to home right after that. A private school they could barely afford since I remember being a couple of times late with the monthly payments. I hated all about it.
I never had any airs about me–especially socially. I never cared for material things like that. And I certainly never viewed people as if they were lesser or better than me. Private school, it seems, tends to bring the classism out of people—including children. They enrolled me in the now defunct evangelical school, Fuente de Luz.
One day, as it is customary for Dominicans, we were busting each other’s chops before we went back home and one of the boys sent a “y tu te bañas con jabón de cuaba” my way. All the children roared with laughter—except for me since I am sure many of us there used it one time or another. I didn’t understand the joke, but I quickly learned that jabón de cuaba was associated with poor folks since it’s the most inexpensive type of soap and has a distinct non-offensive smell. Jabón de cuaba comes from the cuaba pine tree. Dominicans use it for pretty much everything: bathing, washing clothes, cleaning, and even brushing their teeth. Jabón de cuaba is a national treasure, a cleaning elixir, a magical thing. But I didn’t know those who were well-off as well as wannabes repudiated it. It was repudiated for being a fixture in Dominican households—especially in those of humble beginnings.
I wish I hadn’t known what it meant to be poor then because that joke had a domino effect on my brain. I started connecting more and more things: why I didn’t have as many toys or clothes as my classmates (I would build cars and trucks out of tapas and milk cartons, small cities with pebbles and mud—necessity truly is the mother of invention), why I wasn’t traveling or going camping, why I didn’t have all the books the teacher recommended, why my family wasn’t going to church with them on Sundays, why most of those kids were criminally behind with their education, and why I taught the class along with our teacher despite coming from a supposedly assbackwards public school. I was shocked to enter a class in the middle of the year to children singing Christian songs. I was bothered by how conceited some of them were. It’s as if I’d enter a Black Mirror episode and I was its antagonist. I am sure those kids found me just as weird, but some of them became my friends. I lasted less than a year there. I wanted my freedom back. I felt like I was in prison. The protective metal bars that Fuente de Luz had didn’t help me feel any better, either.
Luckily, my grandmother respected my wish to be taken out as soon as the year ended. I missed my classmates. I missed playing baseball with my classmates during free time. I missed walking arm-in-arm with them through Sosúa beach. I missed the liberty to daydream without being distracted with status symbols. I was too much of a dreamer to be bothered with insignificant material things—things I found downright absurd and ridiculous.
That mentality never left me and I doubt it ever will, but damn, does it force many brains, many lives, many societies succumb to classism and materialism. A classist and materialistic world that inevitably attracts racism and sexism to function—an abominable comorbid combination of things.
I still abhor man-made poverty and love jabón de cuaba—not just for how versatile it is, but also because it is associated with a poor, working people.
The best people there is.
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