New Jersey 1974-1995 and the Dominican Republic 1944-1995
The Dirty Jerz, 1974-1995
Folks often forget about the Garden State—or, the "armpit of America," if you're not too fond of the place—because it's wedged between two major cities: Philadelphia and New York. This idea of the margins, of something forgotten and abused, is central to Díaz's novel.
So we think New Jersey is a perfect setting for Wao. The main characters, like Oscar and Lola, are down-and-out outsiders to many aspects of American and Dominican cultures. Similarly, the state of NJ is, itself, kind of a weird underdog.
In one interview, Díaz talks about how NJ is an "elsewhere," and not a "somewheres:"
Somewheres is the place where everybody wants to be. That's where art is consumed, where it is purchased, where it is ranked, where it is propagated. A somewhere is New York. Elsewheres is those other places that nobody cares about, or even really believes are in any way important. [...] [W]hile art may be consumed and validated in somewheres, the most important art in the world is produced elsewheres. It's produced at the margins of power, at the margins of society, at the margins of importance. [...] NJ [...] is the quintessential elsewhere.
Simply put, NJ is a claustrophobic setting for Oscar and his sis. It's stuffy and cruel. It's outside of the place where real power exists. But he also suggests that it's where real art happens.
And in Wao, Díaz wants to speak for the groups that might not otherwise have a voice: Dominican-Americans, nerds, Trujillo's victims, and, lest we forget, New Jersey.
The DR, 1944-1995
If NJ is where Oscar and Lola's Mom, Beli, escapes to, the Dominican Republic is where she escapes from. What would she want to escape, you ask? One word comes to mind: Trujillo.
It's impossible to talk about the DR in Wao without talking about Trujillo. Luckily, Díaz does it for us:
Trujillo, one of the twentieth century's most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality. A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery, Trujillo (also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, and F***face) came to control nearly every aspect of the DR's political, cultural, social, and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-option, and terror [...]. (1.preface.3)
This period in Dominican history sounds pretty awful, huh? What Díaz does, though, is to shift our focus away from all that evil, to the home and work life of his characters. We follow Beli and La Inca, or Abelard and Socorro, through their day-to-day routines of work and school.
Beli goes to a good private school. Abelard practices medicine. It's all (relatively) familiar stuff.
But then Trujillo always finds a way to interfere in these normal lives. For Beli, it's through The Gangster, and for Abelard, it's through Jacquelyn. So the DR schools, homes, and countryside that Díaz depicts in Wao won't strike readers as all that strange at first.
However, as soon Trujillo enters the lives of his characters, you realize the danger and oppression of the place.
So the de Leóns end up hating the DR, right? Wrong. "Home" is a complicated concept, are we right? Despite Trujillo's best efforts, the DR is still a kind of home for the de León family.
Even Oscar and Lola, who were born in NJ, feel an incredible affinity for the DR. When Oscar returns to the DR for the first time in many years, Díaz waxes eloquent on how the DR calls its emigrated citizes home:
Every summer Santo Domingo slaps the Diaspora engine into reverse, yanks back as many of its expelled children as it can; airports choke with the overdressed; necks and luggage carousels groan under the accumulated weight of that year's cadenas and paquetes [chains and packages], and pilots fear for their planes – overburdened beyond belief – and for themselves; restaurants, bars, clubs, theaters, malecones [piers], beaches, resorts, hotels, moteles [motels], extra rooms, barrios, colonias [colonies], campos [fields], ingenios [mills] swarm with quisqueyanos [someone from Quisqueya] from the world over. Like someone had sounded a general reverse evacuation order: Back home, everyone! Back home! (18.104.22.168)
This version of the DR sounds wonderful. But remember, Wao presents us with a much more complicated Dominican Republic. At times, the characters need to leave the DR in order to stay alive. At other times, the characters describe the DR with intense nostalgia and, dare we say it, love.
Actually, there's probably only one phrase for a place like this: home, sweet home. As the gentleman on the plane to New York says to Lola: "It's OK, muchacha [girl] [...]. Santo Domingo will always be there. It was in the beginning and it will be there at the end" (2.preface.46-2.preface.48).