Study Guide

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Power

By Junot Díaz

Power

Act 1, Preface

For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history: 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 Boss], the Failed Cattle Thief, and F***face) came to control nearly every aspect of the DR's political, social, and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation, and terror. (1.preface.3)

Trujillo had almost total power over every aspect of Dominican life. One of Díaz's points in this book is that too much power can make anyone a little weird. When Trujillo, who was already more than a little out there, achieves total power, he starts bleaching his skin and wearing platform shoes and Napoleon-era clothes. The problem is that no one has the guts to say: "Hey, you're doing some bizarre stuff, Trujillo." Probably because if they did, he'd have 'em killed, lickety split.

Chapter 3

Considered our national "genius," Joaquín Balaguer was a N****phobe, an apologist to genocide, an election thief, and a killer of people who wrote better than himself, famously ordering the death of journalist Orlando Martínez. Later, when he wrote his memoirs, he claimed to have known who had done the foul deed (not him, of course) and left a blank page, a página en blanco [blank page], in the text to be filled in with the truth upon his death. (1.3.5.1)

Balaguer was another Dominican dictator. We think this detail about the blank page is pretty interesting. Isn't this how things work in totalitarian states—those in power get to decide what information is disseminated to the general public? Or, you could say, what pages in the history books remain blank?

The world was coming apart at the seams—Santo Domingo was in the middle of a total meltdown, the Trujillato was tottering, police blockades at every corner—and even the kids she'd gone to school with, the brightest and the best, were being swept up in the Terror. (1.3.9.40)

Díaz gives us a pretty accurate description of what it looks like when a dictator is losing power. It's like a whirlpool: if you're anywhere in the area, you're in trouble.

It's true. The Gangster's wife was—drumroll, please—Trujillo's f***ing sister! Did you really think some street punk from Samaná was going to reach the upper echelons of the Trujillato on hard work alone? N****, please—this ain't a f***ing comic book! (1.3.14.1)

You've heard this old adage before: it's not what you know, but who you know, that matters. The Gangster has so much power because he married Trujillo's sister. Also, whenever a character is harmed in this book, it usually has something to do with Trujillo. We just can't escape this guy.

Beli, who'd been waiting for something exactly like her body her whole life, was sent over the moon by what she now knew. By the undeniable concreteness of her desirability which was, in its own way, Power. [...]. Hypatía Belicia Cabral finally had power and a true sense of self. Started pinching her shoulders back, wearing the tightest clothes she had. Dios mío, La Inca said every time the girl headed out. (1.3.5.15)

Wao talks a lot about political power—the kind of stuff a dictator like Trujillo has. But here, Díaz points out that everyday citizens have power, too. Take Beli. Once Beli becomes a woman, she has men swooning over her. She uses her beauty to her advantage. This, we should note, is also a type of power the book explores: the power that stems from one's sexuality.

The Mongoose, one of the great unstable particles of the Universe and also one of its greatest travelers. Accompanied humanity out of Africa and after a long furlough in India jumped ship to the other India, a.k.a. the Caribbean. Since its earliest appearance in the written record—675 B.C.E., in a nameless scribe's letter to Ashurbanipal's father, Esarhaddon—the Mongoose has proven itself to be an enemy of kingly chariots, chains, and hierarchies. (1.3.18.38)

The Mongoose is a symbol of good in Wao. It helps out both Beli and Oscar when they're dying in the canefields. Our narrator also notes that the Mongoose is an enemy of kings, chains, and hierarchies. Seems like it's directly opposed to the Dark Lord Trujillo, right?

Johnny Abbes Garía was one of Trujillo's beloved Morgul Lords. [...]. After Trujillo's death, Abbes [...] ended up working for that other Caribbean nightmare, the Haitian dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Wasn't nearly as loyal to Papa Doc as he was to Trujillo—after an attempted double-cross Papa Doc shot Abbes and his family and the blew their f***ing house up. (I think P. Daddy knew exactly what kind of creature he was dealing with.) No Dominican believes that Abbes died in that blast. He is said to still be out there in the world, waiting for the next coming of El Jefe, when he too will rise from the Shadow. (1.3.7.40)

One question you might have about this passage is: What is a "Morgul"? Don't worry; we've got you covered. They're the dudes in Lord of the Rings who basically serve as minions to the big-time baddie, Sauron. So Johnny Abbes was like a Morgul for Trujillo. Notice the mixture of fantasy stuff like Lord of the Rings and real-life political stuff like Trujillo's dictatorship. This mixture cues us into to the larger-than-life hold Trujillo's evil regime had on the Dominican Republic.

De la Maza, perhaps thinking of his poor, dead, set-up brother, then took Trujillo's .38 out of his dead hand and shot Trujillo in the face and uttered his now famous words: Éste guaraguao ya no comerá mas pollito [This hawk will not eat any more chicken]. And then the assassins stashed El Jefe's body—where? In the trunk, of course. (1.3.20.17)

This quote repeats the famous words of Trujillo's assassin, Antonio de la Maza: "This hawk will not eat any more chicken." says this zinger right after he shoots and kills Trujillo. Isn't that an amazing "in yo' face" to the dictator? Plus, Maza's metaphor gives us a pretty accurate picture of Trujillo's government. Trujillo was just a big, mean hawk tormenting a defenseless population.

The next thing you know he was giving her rides in his brand-new Mercedes and buying her helados [ice cream] with the knot of dollars he carried in his pocket. Legally, he was too young to drive, but do you think anybody in Santo Domingo stopped a colonel's son for anything? Especially the son of a colonel who was said to be one of Ramfis Trujillo's confidantes? (1.3.6.13)

Jack Pujols drives Beli around in his Mercedes even though he's too young to drive. You know how this works: the mayor's son gets to do anything he wants because most people wouldn't dare say "no" to him, and even if someone did, his dad would get him out of trouble. Díaz makes it clear that being associated with someone like Trujillo has its benefits. (Even if Trujillo is basically the most evil guy who ever lived.)

Chapter 5

The reign of Trujillo was not the best time to be a lover of Ideas, not the best time to be engaging in parlor debate, to be hosting tertulias [chats], to be doing anything out of the ordinary. (2.5.1.7)

This quote is about Abelard's tertulias [chats]. Basically, Abelard would invite over some smart people and they'd talk about anything and everything—literature, philosophy, science, ancient history. Anything, that is, except Trujillo. So not only does Trujillo have power over what people do in the Dominican Republic, he has power over what people do (and don't) say. That's some big-time dictatorial control.