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Chapter 1 covers the period 1974–1987. The narrator introduces the reader to the hero of his story: Oscar de León. As an adult, Oscar never had much luck with women and hence was unlike “those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about.” But in his younger years, he approached girls with confidence, earning him comparisons to a famously sexual Dominican named Porfirio Rubirosa.
Oscar’s “Golden Age” of romance reached its peak when he was seven years old and had two girlfriends at the same time: Maritza Chacón and Olga Polanco. Oscar’s mother wouldn’t allow Olga over to the house because she smelled. Oscar dumped Olga after a week, and soon after that, Maritza dumped Oscar for another classmate, Nelson Pardo.
After Maritza dumped him, Oscar’s life took a downward turn. He gained weight quickly over the next few years, then puberty splotched his face with zits. Increasingly dorky and shy, he became an outcast among his peers.
Oscar had a miserable high school experience at Don Bosco Tech, an urban all-boys Catholic school. Bespectacled, sporting the awkward trace of a mustache, and weighing in around 250 pounds, Oscar earned the title of the neighborhood parigüayo. The narrator defines this word in a footnote as a “party watcher.” The word comes from the American Marines stationed in the Dominican Republic during the 1916–1924 occupation who would stand at the edges of Dominican parties and just watch the revelers. Oscar’s obsession with science fiction, fantasy, and comic books—the “Genres”—cemented his outsider status. In a footnote, the narrator speculates that Oscar’s “outsize love of genre” may have been “a consequence of being Antillean.”
As his introversion deepened, Oscar harbored intense secret crushes that caused him great anguish and felt acute in comparison to other Dominican males, like his hyper-sexual uncle Rudolfo, who moved in with Oscar’s family. In contrast to Oscar, his sister Lola was practical, confident, and outgoing. She was a long-distance runner who didn’t take flak from anyone. She also cared for her brother and counseled him to exercise and change his appearance to avoid dying a virgin. He deflected her suggestions and persisted in his romantic frustrations, nurturing painful crushes on Lola’s friends.
By his senior year, Oscar had grown even heavier and more depressed. His only friends, Al and Miggs, started dating girls and gradually grew apart from him. That summer, Oscar and Lola’s mother sent them to Santo Domingo to visit their abuela (“grandmother”), La Inca. While Lola ran about the island with her friends, Oscar spent his time in La Inca’s house writing science fiction stories.
Oscar returned home to Paterson, New Jersey, and in the fall, he fell in love with a girl in his SAT prep class named Ana Obregón. Ana was loud-spoken, chubby, and beautiful, and she read sexually provocative books by writers like Henry Miller. At first, they hung out regularly, but Oscar grew disappointed and jealous when Ana reunited with her ex-boyfriend, an older guy named Manny. Ana restricted Oscar to the “friend zone,” and Oscar felt upset when she told him about Manny’s large penis. Oscar’s rage increased as he learned that Manny verbally and physically abused Ana. One night, after listening to Ana sob on the phone, Oscar stole his uncle Rudolfo’s gun and went to Manny’s apartment with the intention of killing him. But Manny never showed up. Not long after this incident, Oscar confessed his love to Ana, but she rejected him.
The following September, Oscar started college at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Despite his high hopes for college, he remained an outcast. White students “treated him with inhuman cheeriness” when they saw his dark skin and afro. Meanwhile, the students of color refused to believe that he was Dominican.
Dominican standards of male sexuality had a strong impact on Oscar throughout his youth. Although the narrator will continue to develop this theme throughout the rest of the book, he already makes it clear that Dominican men are culturally expected to exhibit an outsized sexual confidence. In his early years, Oscar fulfilled this expectation, demonstrating a degree of swagger that earned him his family’s admiration. Oscar’s confidence also earned him comparisons to Porfirio Rubirosa, a historical figure whose infamous sexual prowess turned him into a household name among Dominicans. However, after the breakdown of his relationships with Olga and Maritza, Oscar lost his touch with the opposite sex. As he grew into a shy, dorky, overweight adolescent, he felt the loss of his sexual confidence acutely. The praise from his family dried up, and he grew ashamed of his failure to live up to their expectations of Dominican masculinity. Oscar retreated further into himself when faced with the hypersexual personality of his uncle Rudolfo and Ana’s fascination with Manny’s large penis. Oscar’s inability to live up to these standards of masculinity greatly harmed his self-worth and contributed to his depression.
The narrator uses the Dominican slang term parigüayo to characterize Oscar’s outsider status, but the original meaning of the word also applies to the narrator himself. When the boys at Don Bosco Tech called Oscar a parigüayo, they meant that he was a loser. But the term has an interesting history that the narrator recounts in a footnote. “Parigüayo,” he explains, is a Spanish word that arose in the Dominican Republic to describe Marines stationed there during a period of American occupation. These Marines observed rather than participated in Dominican life. They were the ones who stood aside at parties and watched. Thus, a parigüayo is a “party watcher,” or more simply a “watcher.” In the prologue, the narrator referred to himself as “your humble watcher.” Although the reader does not yet know the extent of the narrator’s relationship to Oscar or the nature of his involvement in the story, it is clear that he is an observer of sorts who witnessed at least some of the events he describes. In other words, he is also a kind of parigüayo, a designation that links him to Oscar.
When the narrator describes Oscar’s burgeoning obsession with science fiction and fantasy, he makes the important speculation that this obsession originated in Oscar’s Antillean identity. The narrator introduced this notion in the prologue, and he expands on it greatly in Chapter 1. In footnote 6, for example, the narrator notes that Oscar spent his first couple years living in the Dominican Republic. His relocation to New Jersey at the age of two would have been tantamount to moving to a radically different, alien world. His immigration was thus similar to interplanetary travel in a space opera. If this experience prepared the way for Oscar’s obsession with genre fiction, then his actual experience as a brown-skinned sci-fi nerd gave him a first-hand understanding of those many characters in science fiction and fantasy who must contend with issues of alienation and difference—whether in terms of race, gender, species, or some other category. As the narrator puts it: “You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto.” Like the X-Men, who were treated as outcasts for their mutant abilities, Oscar constantly had to navigate the bigotry of others.
As Oscar increasingly turned inward and his personal world shrank, storytelling enabled him to create a different reality for himself. Oscar’s high school years sent him into a spiral of depression. He felt frustrated with his appearance. His peers bullied him. His only friends started drifting away. And in the midst of it all, he had a tendency to fall hopelessly in love with girls who rarely paid him any attention. Isolated and with nowhere else to go, Oscar turned to books. He took refuge in stories of vastly different universes, and he saw something of himself in the many underdog heroes that populate science fiction and fantasy stories. However, as a person of color whose family hailed from the Caribbean, Oscar could never fully inhabit the worlds that existed within this white-dominated genre. For this reason, he began to write his own science fiction and fantasy tales. The ability to invent new worlds gave him a sense of power and agency that he didn’t possess in his ordinary reality. As such, the act of storytelling enabled Oscar to manage his isolation and depression by expanding his imaginative universe.