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The Kitchen Is Not the Only Place for a Dominican Woman
Roberta Nin Feliz

“You need to learn how to cook,” said my dad.

“I do know how to cook. I can make eggs, spaghetti, you know, all of the things I like to eat,” I said.

“No, you need to learn how to make things like rice, beans, and chicken.”

“Well, I can make those things, sort of. But it’s not like I ever eat that anyway so I don’t see why I would have to learn.”

“You know, when your Aunt Blanca was 10 years old, she could whip up meals in a heartbeat. She cooked for the whole family,” my dad continued.

“Yeah, well, times have changed. There are more important things than learning how to cook,” I said.

In my Dominican culture, I’m constantly being reminded how important it is for a young woman to know how to cook the traditional Dominican dish arroz con abichuela y carne (rice, beans, and meat) for her future husband. I mean what man wants a woman who can’t make a delicious dinner for her poor, hard-working husband who’s been slaving all day at work, right?

I don’t think it’s wrong for a woman to cook for her husband, but the emphasis my culture puts on it is extremely frustrating. It’s as if that’s all that’s important. I may not be able to make the most delicious Dominican meal yet, but I sure can solve a math problem in one heck of a second.

Unequal and Sexist

It also bothers me that the emphasis on adolescents learning how to cook is placed solely on the females. We’re always supposed to be looking over our mothers’ shoulders, watching her sprinkle the pollo with a little bit of cilantro here and a little bit of adobo there. But no one insists the boys learn how to cook.

These ideas about cooking and the kitchen are just one example of the unequal, sexist expectations for mothers and wives in Dominican culture. My mother tells me stories about her youth and how she had to do the housework, and that her eight brothers did very little to help. In the Dominican culture men expect to be waited on by women. How old-fashioned! When my dad asks me to get him a drink, I say as politely and respectfully as possible, “Pa, you know you can get it yourself.”

In my culture, the kitchen is furnished and organized in such a way that it becomes a second home to the Dominican wife and mother. But my second home will be the office where I’ll be slaving away writing my novel.

I want a husband who will know I’m ambitious and need to work toward my dream of becoming a professional writer. He will respect my feminist tendencies and not get upset when, for example, I decide I want to open the door for him instead of him always opening it for me. I may also want my kids to have my last names instead of my husband’s.

image by YC-Art Dept

Old-Fashioned Values

Being treated as an equal to my husband is the opposite of what I see in my household. For instance, when it comes to making big decisions like piercing my ears or dyeing my hair, my mother always says, “Ask your father.” I think she thinks he should have more of a say in important parenting decisions because he’s the primary provider. And she rarely disagrees with what he says. It seems to me that most Dominican women are conditioned to leave the important decisions to the man of the house.

This really irritates me because it’s not as if my mother is less of a parent. I have the same respect for her as I do for my dad, and I feel they should make decisions together. Leaving the decision-making to the men is not only sexist but also extremely limiting. It’s always better to get more than one opinion and I’d often like to get my mother’s point of view.

Even though my father is a typical Dominican man in many ways, in one respect he is different. Most men from the DR encourage their daughters to grow up and become good wives; mine encourages me to be independent. In fact, my father is the reason I’m a feminist. We were sitting at the dinner table one night and he says, “You know you’re a very smart girl.”

“Yeah I know Pa, you tell me this all the time.”

“I want you to finish school and make something of yourself. I don’t want you to depend on a man for anything. That way, if you ever want to leave him, you have enough money to take care of yourself.” His eyes are full of sincerity with a little bit of worry when he says this.

“That’s what I want for myself too, Pa.”

My Father the Feminist

I could never understand why he always tells me not to depend on a man and have a career, but then gives me a hard time about not knowing how to cook traditional dishes. Often his argument is that he does so much for me, I should be able to make him a home-cooked meal. But after I pressed the subject with him, he said, “It’s a good skill for you to have. One day you’ll be cooking for yourself.” Then I figured out that my dad just wants me to excel in all areas, not just in school. He wants me to be a good student and a good cook.

Part of the reason why I was hesitant to embrace cooking was because I didn’t want to learn how to cook if it’s intended to serve someone else; I want to do it for me. I also felt that cooking enslaves women. But now I realize a lot of “typical women activities” are only as dangerous to my feminist pride as I let them be. I can be a feminist who knows how to cook.

My dad’s encouragement makes me believe it’s possible to live differently. It also feels good to have his support. Still, growing up around these traditional gender roles has made me nervous about getting married someday. I don’t want to have to put my career on hold to become a housewife or to even be a housewife. But I also know I want a family. I want to be a wife, mother, and author. When I grow up, I hope to find a balance among all three roles.

I see myself having kids later in life once my career is established and I’m economically stable. I want a husband who is willing to compromise on issues like this and recognize that I’m equally important to him in body, mind, and spirit. Ideally, he and I will both spend equal time in the kitchen.

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