The van is always packed. Like a philly cheesesteak. People busting out at the seams. Every stop meant money. You make this trip every Saturday to make money. Spend money to make money they say. Armed with your breakfast of an egg pastelito, you board the guagua to Puerto Plata. Is it a straight shot to the job? No, nothing ever is in the D.R. You have to take two guaguas, then wait for the school’s driver to pick you up near the hospital, and take you to el barrio where the center is located. You find your seat towards the back next to una viejita, clutching a bible in her hand. Shortly after, a portly man sits next to you, and a gringo in front of him. And five more passengers squeeze in and around you.
For a fifteen-passenger van, we’ve definitely reached capacity plus five. And still, they pick more up. This is for sure Max’s Steaks on Lehigh avenue in North Philly, with the meat and grilled veggie juice pouring down the side of your fingers. Packages hold a special place up front behind the driver, el chauffeur. Whoever sits up there needs to make leg room for someone else’s shit. Hey, they’re paying for the delivery service, so….The man hanging outside the guagua, nearly riding its side like a surfer, is el cobrador. These men change every day, sometimes midway through a trip. This cobrador is staying the long haul it seems. He’s probably 40 but showing 50, maybe from all the years of drinking Brugal and smoking menthols, probably inhaling too much petrol and pesticide from a life of campesino-ing. Wiry strong, his dark caramel complexion glistening in the morning light. He isn’t as abrasive as other cobradors you’ve had the privilege of barking at you. Some just act like you pissed in their mangy dog’s missing eyeball socket. He just took your money and sent you to the back without saying a word. You smelled the cologne of Reserva and Newports as you brushed past him.
That day was about the same as the others. Passengers on, passengers off. Philly cheesesteak stacked and juicy hot, stinky cheese pits wafting in the hot air. A routine stop. Oye morena. Atras, says the cobrador. She squeezed her way through sweaty cotton wallpaper glistening limbs to the last seats, almost falling over the portly man who huffed a little in protest — Teng cuidao, Morena! rattled in your ear like a badly installed subwoofer rattling on a license plate. Why did it bother you so much? It’s not like every time you hear it, you’re acting like it’s the first time? It must be the visual, huh. A dark caramel burnt crispy cobrador addressing a sister shade of woman as Colored. Just because she was Haitian. Not like him, of course, Dominican. Not worthy of the doña he greeted a woman with just before his sister shade boarded the guagua.
Your brown gringo’s American sensibilities are tingling. You want to say something. You want to stand up for her. You want her to stand up for herself. This shit wouldn’t fly in the States. She’d flip on his ass. Oye pendejo! Have you looked in the mirror lately? You look like you just escaped from the border before el poli dragged your black ass back without papers. She’d demand his badge number, his supervisor’s name, even his last dental records. She’d get him fired. This would make local news. Maybe national? Headlines reading BLACK FEMINIST FIRES RACIST BUSDRIVER! Here though, on the dusty cracked road from Cabarete to Puerto Plata, no one even flinches at hearing “Morena.” The white gringo is oblivious. And you, say nothing. What do you think you’d actually accomplish in calling out el cobrador? At most, a shouting match with him and el chauffeur. And probably a passenger pissed off that you’re making him late to work. You keep your mouth shut. You look over at the Haitian woman. Is she Haitian? Maybe she’s mixed. Maybe she’s Dominican. Does it really matter? You look over at her. She sees you looking at her, and smiles. Beautiful plumped lips stretching across her face, lifting up glistening cheekbones. Her almond shaped eyes relax on you. You smile back, and shy your gaze towards open fields of tall grass zooming past. You look at your naturally oily naked shoulder, turning burnt crisp from a morning sun. You think to yourself I could be her brother. I could be his son.
Armando Batista is a poet, performer and educator. The child of Dominican immigrants, he was born and raised in Washington Heights, NY. Armando earned his M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a B.A. in Theater from Temple University. He has written and performed two solo plays, and co-created other theatrical works. He has written poetry, plays, essays, and even a spec script for a 30-minute television drama series. He is currently working on a poetry collection and travel memoir. Armando’s poetry has been translated and published in the Mexican literary journal CRACKEN, and his essays are published in the online journals past-ten and The Maine Review.
You can follow him on IG @armando_batista_poet