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Boldly forthright and bitterly candid, Junot Diaz’s “Drown” forges a sense of community culture that propels the development of several of the work’s major themes, foremost among them the retention of historically accepted implications of masculinity. Whereas subjects such as dissecting the infamous coming of age narrative or examining the futility of the ‘American Dream’ may appear more readily accessible or simple to grasp, this central, cultural, and intellectual complex of machismo proves to be the true agent that drives both these ideas and countless others explored by Diaz through his protagonist, Yunior.
The masculine insecurities that Yunior experiences can be anticipated as early as the opening lines of “Drown,” with the dismissal of his former friend Beto on the basis of his homosexuality. However, this rejection is a complex one, as Yunior relates,
My mother tells me Beto’s home, waits for me to say something, but I keep watching the TV. Only when she’s in bed do I put on my jacket and swing through the neighborhood to see. He’s a pato now but two years ago we were friends and he would walk into the apartment without knocking, his heavy voice rousing my mother from the Spanish of her room and drawing me up from the basement, a voice that crackled and made you think of uncles or grandfathers (Diaz 91).
Here, while Yunior’s spurning of Beto is apparent, his simultaneous reminiscence of times past with his friend reveal a great deal more on the subject of masculinity. Rather than merely stating that he and Beto were no longer on good terms, Yunior makes sure to highlight Beto’s homosexuality with the Spanish term, ‘pato‘, a subtle act of desperation made in order to distance himself from the cultural taboo such an orientation entails. However, even in these opening lines of “Drown,” Yunior begins to expose his genuine sentiments on the subject of masculinity. By emphasizing Beto’s dominance, his ‘heavy voice’ that roused his mother and drew him up from the basement, ‘a voice that crackled and made you think of uncles and grandfathers’, it becomes clear that Yunior is intrigued, if not obsessed, with the notion of machismo. Relating Beto to an uncle or grandfather figure, the respect and admiration Yunior has, or had, for his friend’s masculinity and confidence can be noted quite clearly. Conversely, Yunior’s decision to wait until his mother falls asleep before going to try and see Beto further reveals his desire to hide any relation to a man who may be criticized in terms of masculinity, an effort that ironically reveals the fragility of his own sexual confidence. Commenting on their past adventures together, Yunior explains,
We were raging then, crazy the way we stole, broke windows, the way we pissed on people’s steps and then challenged them to come out and stop us (Diaz 92).
Emphasizing recklessness and abandon in multiple instances, Yunior attempts to showcase his and Beto’s facade of masculinity, as well as the bravado it culturally implies. And yet it is ultimately Yunior that displays the more sensitive nature between the himself and Beto, as upon being caught shoplifting he recalls,
I started to cry. Beto didn’t say a word, his face stretched out and gray, his hand squeezing mine, the bones in our fingers pressing together (Diaz 99).
While Beto, the pato, remains stoic in the face of prosecution, Yunior begins crying, shedding the stereotypical attributes of machismo. This irony, in conjunction with the powerful image of Yunior and Beto’s hands clenching together, further complicates the already multifaceted nature of Yunior’s sexuality, bringing into question his ‘masculine’ identity. In a scene that encapsulates the masculine sentiment of this Dominican-American enclave in New Jersey, Yunior’s friend Alex, in reference to a gay man,
… just puts his head out the window. Fuck you! he shouts and then settles back in his seat, laughing. That’s original, I say (Diaz 103).
Aside from merely highlighting the cruel attitude toward those with stereotypically deviant sexualities, this incident also shows that Yunior isn’t completely spiteful or even apathetic towards homosexuals, seeming to almost come to their defense when abused by Alex. Therefore, through a multitude of subtle yet clear innuendos, Yunior’s latently complex and delicate masculinity reveals itself to be infinitely more fragile than he attempts to make it appear.
In this case study of masculinity, arguably the most powerful formative influence on Yunior, both sexually and emotionally, is his mother. The masculine burden Yunior feels compelled to carry with respect to his mother can be traced to their abandonment by his father, as described by his happening upon his parents talking:
She’s talking to my father, something she knows I disapprove of. He’s in Florida now, a sad guy who calls her and begs for money. He swears that if she moves down there he’ll leave the woman he’s living with. These are lies, I’ve told her, but she still calls him. His words coil inside of her, wrecking her sleep for days (Diaz 100).
Embittered by his father’s abandonment, Yunior loses all respect for the man, calling him a ‘sad guy’ and a liar. More significantly than his personal attitude towards his father, however, is Yunior’s concern for the effects of his father’s words on his mother. The vivid imagery of his father’s destructive effects on his mother is a detail that relates the compassion and sensitivity of Yunior, as well as his outstanding quality of loyalty. When his father leaves, Yunior feels obliged to contribute to household income and care for his mother, two stereotypically masculine qualities. Even going so far as to entertain his mother, Yunior reflects,
Saturdays she asks me to take her to the mall. As a son I feel I owe her that much… Before we head out she drags us through the apartment to make sure the windows are locked… Putting my hand on the latch is not enough-she wants to hear it rattle (Diaz 96).
Yunior’s bond with his mother is one that is only emboldened by the departure of his father, and the symbolic locking of the windows that occurs both here and at the end of the work symbolizes his devotion and his mother’s insecurity. Just as she wants to hear the locks rattle to make sure they are secure, Yunior’s mother makes sure to hold on to and hold back her son. Stepping in to fill the hole his father left behind at such a young age is a responsibility that advanced Yunior’s notions of the masculine at an alarmingly early time in life, while simultaneously corrupting his views of acceptance in an effort to preserve the qualities that he believes to support his mother. This internal struggle of self identity, this divide between the ‘masculine’ and the otherwise, boils over when Yunior relates,
My mother sensed that something was wrong and pestered me about it, but I told her to leave me the fuck alone, and my pops, who was home on a visit, stirred himself from the couch to slap me down. Mostly I stayed in the basement, terrified that I would end up abnormal, a fucking pato, but he was my best friend and back then that mattered to me more than anything (Diaz 104).
After Beto’s first sexual advance, Yunior’s carefully designed facade of masculinity seems to crumble around him, triggered subsequently by his mother. When asked what is bothering him, Yunior snaps back with an explicative, unable to contain the terror he feels in that moment. His mother, the reason for his machismo, the inspiration for the masculine identity he has constructed, is questioning him on an incident he can tell her nothing about; an incident that would be damning in the harsh cultural enclave they live in. This image of Yunior staying in the basement, afraid of ‘becoming’ homosexual, is therefore a symbol of his reluctance to come to terms with his sexuality, as well as one that represents the pressure he faces to maintain the illusion of masculinity in a society that denounces any inkling of the otherwise.
The masculine tragedy of “Drown” can be encapsulated by Yunior’s commentary of a scene he watches on television with his mother:
The actors throw themselves around, passionate, but their words are plain and deliberate. It’s hard to imagine anybody going through life this way (Diaz 107).
Yunior ironically goes through his life in the exact opposite way, one that is equally painful to watch. Filled with passion and emotion, Yunior is unable to express it, bottling feelings inside himself in order to comply with the preconceived cultural notions of masculinity surrounding him. Initially a spectator of those around him ‘drowning,’ such as his mother and Beto, Yunior is eventually overwhelmed himself, closing the window on both his literal and emotional potential, a victim to suffocation at the hands of cultural expectations.
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