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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The fukú curse has a dominant presence from the very first page of the novel, and it broadly symbolizes the harm suffered in the aftermath of slavery. Yunior explains that this curse arrived in the Caribbean soon after European explorers colonized the islands and began transforming them into plantations. In order to secure a labor force, Europeans relied on slaves who came primarily from western Africa. According to legend, the fukú curse originated in western Africa and traveled to the Caribbean by boat, kept alive in the screams of captive slaves. The first slaves to arrive in the Caribbean entered through the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo. The Dominican Republic therefore represents “ground zero” of the fukú curse in the New World. However, as the institution of slavery spread throughout the Caribbean and into the American South, so too did fukú. Yunior claims that fukú continues to wreak havoc on people’s lives to this day. He understands the brutal Trujillo regime as one manifestation of fukú, and he sees the tragedies that have followed three generations of the de León/Cabral family as another.
The man without a face and the mongoose symbolize the contrary forces of fukú and zafa, respectively. In the prologue, Yunior notes that whenever Dominicans think the fukú curse is at work, they utter the word zafa as a way to counter its power. Yunior reintroduces these terms at the end of Chapter 3 when he suggests that both forces were at play in the events surrounding Beli’s beating and subsequent escape. When Beli saw the faceless man waving, it was just before she realized she was pregnant with the Gangster’s child. Hence, the vision of the man without a face foreshadowed the fukú-influenced attempt on Beli’s life. Then, after getting beaten, Beli envisioned a golden-eyed mongoose that encouraged her to live by appealing to a hopeful future. Against the power of fukú symbolized by the man without a face, the mongoose symbolized the counter-force of zafa. Both the man and the mongoose make appearances elsewhere and reaffirm these symbolic meanings. Just before Abelard’s arrest, his wife dreamt of a faceless man standing over their bed. The mongoose appeared to Oscar just before the failed suicide attempt that ultimately rejuvenated him.
The notion of “the Fall” plays a symbolic role in the novel that is closely related to the fukú curse that afflicts the de León/Cabral family. Each family member experienced some kind of fall that marked a defining trauma in their life. Abelard’s fall came when the Secret Police arrested him for allegedly telling a joke at Trujillo’s expense. Yunior explicitly refers to this event as “the Fall,” and he lists several tragedies that came in its wake, including Abelard’s wife’s suicide and his eldest daughters’ mysterious deaths. Abelard’s third daughter, Beli, experienced multiple falls. When La Inca observed Beli’s newfound flirtatiousness with men, she referred to the transformation as Beli’s “Fall.” Beli’s second fall came when Trujillo’s men beat her in the cane field, which killed her unborn child, nearly killed her, and forced her to flee the Dominican Republic. Oscar likewise experienced multiple falls, including the literal fall he took when he attempted suicide as well as the two attacks he suffered in the cane fields, the second of which killed him. All of these “falls” symbolically reflect the workings of the fukú curse.