March 11, 2007 Macho Dominoes

Photo Caption: Men play dominoes near a baseball field’s concrete block wall, which is tagged with the words “organize and fight” (organizate y lucha) and “a state for the people” (un estado para el pueblo). Force of the Revolution (FR) is a communist party that emerged in 1996 with the unification of four other Marxist organizations. With roots in the underground movement that opposed the American incursion in 1965 and subsequent executions suffered at the hands of the Dominican paramilitary, the Revolutionary Force promises justice for all, including Haitian immigrants.

History: At any given time, thousands of Dominican men across the island are shuffling dominoes and slamming one down as frentes, partners sitting across from each other, read familiar gestures that cunningly reveal a teammate’s hand. Together, beyond the raucous machismo and shell-game diversions, they try to assist each other while preventing the player to the left from making a move. If he is blocked, he passes to the other team by tapping the table with a piece he holds impatiently in his hand. Once a team plays the final domino in a set to bar further play, or plays its last piece, it proudly counts the total points remaining in the hands of the opposing team. Women rarely play.

Journal Entry: Escaping Ignacio’s caged porch, I explored his poor community on the fringe of Santiago, where a gang of motorcycle taxi drivers posed for me at the end of the public transportation line and a passing gray-haired, soiled soul smoked a pipe as she rode side-saddle on her mule. I stopped at a produce stand to photograph a vendor shredding cabbage beneath her dangling cigarette with its ashes clinging precariously as she asked if I had a Dominican girlfriend. Her sidewalk location also offered drive-thru service to more mobile customers who could purchase coleslaw, minus the ashes hopefully, from their car window. Following the daily intake of chicken and rice Ignacio and I made a late-inning appearance at a neighborhood baseball field to hear the faithful root for an underdog squad as it tried in vain to lead a comeback against a better-uniformed team. Outside the ball park entrance, four old men played dominoes with spirit and conviction. Down the street, we found Ignacio’s uncle, aunt and cousin in a crowd gathering outside a lottery office to see if they had the day’s winning ticket. Apparently it is easier to win riches than to earn them here. In appreciation for his hospitality, I treated Ignacio, his younger brother, sister-in-law and her sister to pizza in an American restaurant far too expensive for a non-lottery winner. It was the least I could do.

Joining “the boys” at the mini-market the following night, I aligned with Bantroy to combat Yuri and Leonardo in a war of dominoes. Though I came to the island as a gringo without prior knowledge of Dominican rules, I learned their vicious style of play with ten weeks of regular attendance. While I was still clueless to the subtle signals sent between teammates, I didn’t need them tonight. Amazingly, I won the first three hands and that was all it took for us to rout team one. Shaking his head in disbelief, Yuri kept repeating, “Incredible!” In the second match, when I won the opening two hands and the last to defeat Renaldo’s team, the vanquished and passersby gathered around the table battleground to witness a prodigy from Arkansas. If only my grandfather could see me now. Facing off against two delivery drivers, we needed just twelve points to win our third match. With ten winning hands under my belt, I played the right domino, but at the wrong end. The pressure was too much!

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