Reading Junot Díaz’s “Drown,” my mind constantly kept going back to texts such as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and James Baldwin who said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” Along with these items, I also thought about the power structures that keep Yunior de Las Casas in subjugation and essentially strip him of the power to even dream beyond the confines of his own environment. It is these aspects that I want to briefly discuss today.
Throughout the story, Yunior does not show any real signs of aspiration or pushing back against a system that keeps him suppressed. This lack of fight even manifests itself in physical ways like when Beto pushes Yunior’s head underwater for not telling him what expectorating means. This does not mean, though, that Yunior lacks intellectual capabilities. Consistently, he displays a level of sophistication and knowledge through his narration. Rather than simply saying that there are pear trees in the courtyards, he comments that they are there “probably to save us all from asphyxiation.” Yunior’s use of “asphyxiation” shows a level of knowledge that belies the facade he wears.
Likewise, Yunior refuses to tell Beto what “expectorating” means, Beto gets angry that Yunior knows something that he doesn’t and attempts to drown him. Yunior tells the reader that even though he didn’t tell Beto what the word means, Beto still “thought I didn’t read, not even dictionaries.” Yunior’s comment shows that he does read; however, he does not explicitly give this information away. He does not challenge our, or Beto’s assumptions. He just says, “he thought I didn’t read.”
Where does this mask come from? Why does Yunior refuse to show Beto and the reader that he is, in fact, more knowledgeable than he wants us to think? Within the story, we do not get a large amount of information that helps us to answer this question. Yet, we do get an important scene that highlights why Yunior does not feel like he can achieve anything beyond what he already does. Leading up to Beto’s departure, for Rutgers no less, Yunior begins to think back their trip to the university then back to his high school years.
In high school, the teachers would bring the students into the teachers’ lounge to watch the shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral. Yunior things about one of the teachers, “whose family had two grammar schools named after it,” and what that teacher told the class. Yunior notes that the teacher’s family is important in the community because the teacher’s surname graces two of the grammar schools. Thus, the teacher’s family is part of the power structure that has a hand in shaping Yunior’s future to meet their own needs.
The teacher would compare the students to the rising shuttles, telling them, “A few of you are going to make it. Those are the orbiters.” For those lucky few, like Beto, they will leave the neglected apartment buildings with sparse foliage. They will leave the public swimming pool. They will leave the strip mall. They will attend the university that sits further upstream beside the Raritan River. They will leave the shutdown dump that overlooks it from Yunior’s neighborhood.
The teacher continues by telling the students, “But the majority of you are just going to burn out. Going nowhere.” As the instructor placed his hand on the desk, Yunior thinks, “I could already see myself losing altitude, fading, the earth spread out beneath me, hard and bright.” For Yunior, the teacher’s assertion that most of the class will fizzle out and never amount to anything serves as just another reminder that no matter what he does, no matter how much he reads, no matter how much he knows society will always work to keep in a position of subjugation.
He has seen it happen with his mother who works as a housecleaner, not even making enough to pay all of the bills. He has seen it in the fact that he must sell weed in order to help his mother pay the bills. He even gives her some of the money so she can buy new clothes each season. He sees it in the ways that the store employees profile him and watch him as he walks around. He sees it in the military recruiter’s pitch, who basically says that the military is the only option.
Even presented with the military, an option that is problematic but one that would afford Yunior an opportunity to get out and experience the world, Yunior appears to just nod his head and listen at the man’s promise of the American Dream. All Yunior does as the man names off the places he has been is stand there and listen. He does not engage. When he skips school, he goes home and watches TV or goes to the library to watch documentaries. Beto even tells him, “You need to learn how to walk in the world. . . . There’s a lot out there.” However, Yunior does not want to “walk the world” as Beto does when he goes to other neighborhoods. Instead, he chooses to remain firmly in place.
Yunior’s decision highlights the psychological effects of the teacher’s comment to his students. The teacher’s reinforcement of Yunior’s position causes Yunior to cease striving at any level. Yunior shuts down, skipping school, refusing to let on that he reads, and working hard to maintain an image of himself as someone who doesn’t care. The fact that Yunior even watches documentaries when he skips school lets the reader know that he has a yearning for knowledge and information, but his refusal to show his acquisition of that information shows that he has been so beaten down with the idea that he will not succeed that he merely gives up.
In essence, Yunior is drowning. The continual cycle of poverty that he exists within, both physical and psychological, causes him to shut down. Without positive reinforcement from individuals in positions of authority, the teacher in this case, Yunior does not see the point. As well, we must consider that the text, like Brother Ali’s “The Only Life I Know,” presents limited options for Yunior if he does not work to expanding his network and striving for the same things that Beto does. He can sell drugs, as he does, go into the military, or subsist on government assistance (this is not stated in the story).
What options are those? Even with the availability of jobs, would he be able to succeed? No. His mother proves this point because he supports her. This, unfortunately, is not an anomaly. It is a reality as Matthew Desmond shows in “Americans Want to Believe Jobs are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not.” In the article, Desmond speaks with Vanessa Sullivan, as a home healthcare assistant. Even with her job, and steady hours, she must spend nights in her car with her three children or even in hotel rooms. She is part of the “working homeless,” individuals who work hard but do not even make a livable wage.
There is, of course, much more that could be said here. What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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