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In Chapter 3, the novel’s primary narrator returns to tell the story of Oscar and Lola’s mother: Hypatía Belicia Cabral, more familiarly known as “Beli.” The chapter covers the period 1955–1962.
The dark-skinned Beli spent her adolescence in Baní, a Dominican city “famed for its resistance to blackness.” Beli lived with her “mother-aunt,” La Inca, who owned a bakery. La Inca frequently recounted the history of Beli’s respectable family who had been impacted by tragedy. Yet Beli wanted more. She was, as the narrator says, “one of those Oyá-souls, always turning, allergic to tranquilidad [tranquility].” Restless, Beli desired escape.
At thirteen, Beli won a scholarship to the prestigious Colegio El Redentor in Baní. Despite the fact that Beli’s now-dead parents belonged to the Dominican upper class, her status as an orphan made her an outcast at El Redentor. Though school made her miserable, back in her home neighborhood, she sang El Redentor’s praises and pretended to have many close friends there.
Beli developed an irrepressible interest in boys and spent much of her time daydreaming about them. She had eyes for a handsome, light-skinned boy named Jack Pujols. Jack was cocky, wealthy, and entitled. His father served as a colonel in Trujillo’s air force, and his mother was a former Venezuelan beauty queen. The narrator also notes that in later life Jack would grow close to “the Demon Belaguer,” a Trujillo associate who ruled the Dominican Republic following the dictator’s assassination.
Beli tried to get Jack’s attention without success. Things changed following the summer of her sophomore year when she “hit the biochemical jackpot” of puberty, and her body “transformed utterly.” Beli started attracting men’s attention, and she quickly realized that the men’s desire gave her power over them.
Meanwhile, Beli committed herself to her academic work and performed well. In one of her classes, a pupil named Mauricio Ledesme wrote an essay expressing hope that the Dominican Republic would renounce dictators and become a democracy. Both he and the teacher vanished that night, and no one commented on their sudden disappearance.
In October, Jack Pujols broke up with his girlfriend and turned his attention to Beli. He bought her expensive gifts and drove her around in his Mercedes. Despite being underage, no officers stopped Jack since his father was a confidant to Trujillo’s eldest son, Ramfis. Jack and Beli’s tryst came to an abrupt end when a teacher found them having sex in a broom closet. The event caused a scandal, and the Pujols family claimed that Beli had seduced their son. Beli publicly refused any guilt, but she felt devastated, having believed that Jack would marry her and buy her a house.
When turmoil from the scandal settled, Beli promised herself that she would never again follow another person’s lead. Not long after, she went into town and secured a job as a waitress at the Palacio Peking, the only Chinese restaurant in Baní. She convinced the owners, two immigrant brothers named Juan and José Then, that her body would bring in customers. She worked at the Brothers Then’s restaurant for eighteen months, and she found the male customers’ attention exhilarating. Back at home, Beli and La Inca didn’t speak much, and when they did, Beli revealed her newfound gift for spicy banter. La Inca mourned Beli’s “Fall.”
Beli had many male admirers, but her ongoing infatuation with Jack prevented her from engaging intimately with any of them. The narrator describes two of her admirers, including a white dealer of Fiats and an idealistic young student named Arquimedes. The Fiat dealer reacted poorly when Beli rebuffed his sexual advances. Arquimedes showed more understanding.
Meanwhile, in 1959, a youth-led, Communist invasion aimed at toppling the Trujillo regime failed, which resulted in many young people being arrested, tortured, and killed.
In February of the following year, a woman named Constantine started working at the Palacio Peking. She took Beli to El Hollywood, an opulent club that was “the It place to be in Baní.” There, a man whom the narrator calls “the Gangster” approached Beli and offered to buy her a drink. She turned away and the man grabbed her arm, prompting her to scream and attack him. Beli remained upset about the incident for days, but she couldn’t get the Gangster out of her head. After their shift one night, Beli convinced Constantina to go back to El Hollywood with her. She found the Gangster and introduced herself.
When the narrator notes that Beli was “one of those Oyá-souls,” he’s making a reference to an indigenous African religion that came to the Caribbean during the Atlantic slave trade. This particular religion originated among the Yoruba people of what is now Nigeria. The religion features a pantheon of many god-like spirits known as orisha. The orisha-based religion is complex, and in the Caribbean, it grew even more complex as it mixed with and influenced other religious practices, such as Haitian Vodou. In spite of these complexities, particular orisha developed popular followings throughout the Caribbean. Oyá is the name of one of the more well-known orisha. According to tradition, Oyá is the orisha associated with winds and tempests, which is to say she’s the orisha of change. Thus, when the narrator calls Beli an Oyá-soul, he means that she’s under the influence of an orisha whose power makes her restless, changeable, and always hungry for new experiences. This is the only reference the narrator makes to the orisha religion in the book, but it nonetheless shows the cultural importance of the orisha throughout the Caribbean.
Beli’s dark skin poses many problems in her early life, which draws attention to a hierarchy of skin color within Dominican culture. The Dominican Republic has a long history of racial mixing, with as much as seventy percent of its population claiming mixed ancestry. Thus, Dominicans have a wide range of skin colors. But not all skin colors are perceived as being equal. As with most other places where Europeans exerted their influence and control, lighter skin remains privileged over darker skin. The reader sees the Dominican hierarchy of skin color at play in Beli’s obsession with Jack Pujols. In addition to his family’s wealth and political ties to Trujillo, Jack’s light skin gave him a certain prestige and made him highly desirable. Beli intuitively understood Jack’s prestige since immediately upon arriving at El Redentor, she identified him as the most attractive boy at school. Their later sexual relationship scandalized Jack’s family, partly because Beli was an orphan and hence belonged to a different class but even more because she had dark skin. The Pujols family did not want Jack to get Beli pregnant since their union would have produced a darker-skinned child.
Elements of Beli’s youth foreshadow similar elements that would later define her children, Oscar and Lola. As explained in Chapter 1, much of Oscar’s youth was dominated by his obsession with girls. When he developed a crush, he had a very difficult time getting the object of his affection off his mind. Similar to Oscar, Beli spent her years at El Redentor completely fixated on boys. She daydreamed in class, and she had a tendency to develop single-minded obsessions with one boy at a time. Beli’s rebelliousness also recalls Lola’s account of her own youth. As she explained in Chapter 2, Lola spent much of her adolescence in a tense relationship with her controlling mother. She eventually ran away with an older boy and explored her sexuality. Likewise, Beli defied La Inca by getting a restaurant job where she could flaunt her developing body and enjoy her newfound sexual power over men. The echoes between Beli’s life and those of her future children are important to note since they foreshadow yet more similarities that will prove important for the reader to track.
Throughout the first half of Chapter 3, the narrator makes references to the Trujillo regime that foreshadow the tragic events to come in the chapter’s second half. In Chapter 3, the atrocities of the Trujillo regime initially seem to fade into the background. The narrative focus on Beli’s adolescence appears distant from the Dominican political context. However, the narrator does make a couple of important references that serve as bad omens. For example, in the midst of describing Beli’s infatuation with Jack Pujols, the narrator emphasizes the Pujols family’s ties to the ruling regime. He also notes that Jack himself would later become an associate of Trujillo’s nefarious successor, Belaguer. These brief references suggest that Beli may have an affection for morally questionable men. The second major reference to political realities comes just before Beli meets the Gangster. The narrator briefly mentions a youth-led invasion of the Dominican Republic that failed and resulted in terrible violence against the youth. Though Beli apparently remained ignorant of these events, in the context of Yunior’s narrative, the references to these events set the stage for the tragedies to come.