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Oscar Wao and the Mestiza

Hybridity as a concept has been a central aspect of living for a long time and as a result, can be found in all areas of life including literature. Multicultural author, Gloria Anzaldúa refers to this idea of Hybridity the Mestiza. Perhaps, one of the greatest examples of a mestiza in literature today is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. This groundbreaking novel depicts hybridity in a number of different ways; however, the text through its protagonist Oscar, argues that the key to hybridity is found through attempting to assimilate oneself through the windows of pop culture.

Gloria Anzaldúa argues that hybridity is not something that simply happens overnight and it certainly is not achieved through one avenue. Instead, she writes that a mixture of cultures is better than identifying with just one. Anzaldúa is arguing that our whole understanding of identity has to be made new. “The old notion that we can know who we are by tracing our roots, by referring back to some stable point of origin, has to be abandoned. There is a pure, single source. All identities are hybrids, formed over time through the interaction of multiple cultures and constantly being transformed by new encounters in the ‘borderlands’ between one culture and another. The nostalgic demand for unitary, isolated cultures can only do harm in a world in which each of us is always already a mixture and we constantly come into contact with and must live among, others who are mixed in different ways” (Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2097).

Oscar Wao as a character exhibits this concept in every way his life is carried out throughout the novel. On the surface is a young Dominican man growing up in America who does not identify himself very strongly with the ideas of the natural-born heritage of the Dominican Republic; this proves to be important because Oscar chooses to find himself using the tools given to him by the fictional world. Oscar is truly a product of the multicultural world that exists today even if it only exists on a literary level. The reader is clearly able to deduce this in the way that Oscar constantly wants to live up to the stereotypical image of the Dominican man while also having a desire to become the “Dominican Tolkien.” Oscar chooses throughout the novel does not become one or the other, instead, he eventually becomes both. Oscar dares to live a life that demonstrates through a mixture of constant American pop culture references and Dominican slang that an individual's identity cannot be made up of one singular culture. With the help of everything from movies, television, literature, and still, so much more Oscar is able to not only find himself but also figure out what it truly means to be Dominican. Oscar relates anything that ever happens to him throughout the novel (Dominican or not) to something else found within the lens of American pop culture. This allows him to better understand himself in the way that his Dominican heritage cannot fully teach him because he was not actually born on that soil. Therefore, he compensates for this by applying the knowledge he does know (pop culture) to better communicate the unknown both about himself and his history thereby creating something completely his own.

However, Oscar is not actually the one who is narrating his own story rather the narrative is shared with the reader through the voice of Yunior, Oscar’s best friend. This only adds to Oscar’s hybridity found through the filter of pop culture however due to the fact that Oscar himself becomes his own personal metaphor for Frodo Baggins as he makes his way to Mordor or in Oscar's case the cane fields. Yunior, by serving as the obvious narrator of the text becomes in a way the Gandalf to Oscar’s ever somewhat confused Frodo guiding him through his own story. In this way, Oscar becomes the Dominican version of the American pop culture hero complete with his own bittersweet ending. In other words, everything concerning Oscar can be summed up through something previously mentioned in a science fiction film from the 1970s or a previously published novel from 1954. This being said the text asserts that Oscar’s membership which made him a part of “Nerd Culture” was, in fact, his tool belt, his map, his lifeline in order to navigate his messed up hybrid life that he was born into. “Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn't have passed for Normal if he'd wanted to. What is clear is that being a reader/fanboy (for lack of a better term) helped him get through the rough days of his youth, but it also made him stick out in the mean streets of Paterson even more than he already did”(21-22). Yunior makes the point that Oscar carries his nerdiness around with him pride because in Oscar’s eyes this is the part of his identity that he has complete control over and fully understands. However, Oscar also carries his nerdiness around like a weapon that he can uses in his favor when he lacks the knowledge to understand something in his Dominican culture that is foreign to him. The surplus of pop culture references that continue to be available to him at all times makes him feel more comfortable in situations that otherwise would render him an alien. However, simply because Oscar chooses to make equate his life experiences to events from the Marvel universe it does not mean that he will ever automatically fit into one culture or the other.

Oscar Wao is both Dominican and American, he is not simply one or the other; which means that when these two cultures mix there is always a little friction involved. According to Anzaldúa,“ Hybridity is good. The mixture is good. The way we think about hybridity provides an opportunity for change.” This is definitely true for Oscar as the reader watches him experience a tremendous amount of growth throughout the text but, as in real life growth and change cannot come about without some form of pain. This can be seen in the text when Oscar returns with his family to the Dominican Republic for the first time. “After his initial homecoming week, after he'd been taken to a bunch of sights by his cousins after he'd gotten somewhat used to the scorching weather and the surprise of waking up to the roosters and being called Huáscar by everybody (that was his Dominican name, something else he'd forgotten) after he refused to succumb to that whisper that all long-term immigrants carry inside themselves, the whisper that says You do not belong”(276). Through this quote, the Narrator (Yunior) demonstrates to the reader that Oscar is really not at home surrounded by his Dominican relatives. In fact, Oscar is treated as if he is an American tourist in every way except for one. Apart from having relatives who live in this part of the world, Oscar has no radar for what he experiences while making his visit to the “homeland ” of his heritage.

He is not accustomed to waking up to the crow of a trustor or being called by his native name because he the culture that he finds himself surrounded by is less known to him, however, it is not completely foreign even though he, himself, may seem like a sheep among the wolves. Oscar simply has not ever been presented with an opportunity to fully immerse himself in this culture. But in the same way, he should not be in a situation that makes him required to chose one particular side. Although, his identification with all things Americans does in certain ways single him out as an outsider and a threat it does not have to be this way. Oscar’s experience in the Dominican Republic allowed himself to change and see his life from a new perspective even if he spent most of his first vacation there writing in his room. This is what made Oscar a prime example of hybridity in motion. Like Anzaldúa suggest the mixing of multiple factors and cultures can bring about a certain level of change that was not present before. Following his initial visit to the Dominican Republic, Oscar has a more concrete understanding of what being Dominican means for him more so on an individual level rather than what it means through the stereotypical definition given to it by the rest of the world. This is the moment in the text where Oscar begins to grasp the fact that he can be a product of as many cultures as he desires.

Oscar, in a true hybrid fashion, is a child of Dominican, American, and nerd culture all at once which serves as a reminder that not every cultural parentage is based on an individual's birthplace. In other words according to the Mestiza hybridity is not something that can be divided into neat equally sized pieces. Instead, the pieces that do exist are messy and at times a mystery. However, as noted by Gloria Anzaldúa “The New Mestiza” is obsessed with the concept of ambiguity. On a broader level, the story of Oscar Wao is concerned with a certain level ambiguity that leaves the ending of the novel up for discussion“So this is what everybody's always talking about! Diablo! If only I'd known. The beauty! The beauty!”(335). While the closing lines of the text can be interpreted a number of different ways the echo of “the beauty, the beauty” suggests that Oscar has finally come to understand where he belongs. He by the closing of the novel has come to be his own person that is not made up of one culture versus another culture. Oscar Wao has wowed the world and himself in his own heroic way by choosing to be a hybrid of his plethora of cultures each of which he loves and has learned to embrace for their collective and unique value.

The truth is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz was never simply about a twenty-something-year-old Dominican man obsessed with pop culture. Instead, This groundbreaking novel depicts hybridity in a number of different ways. The text through its protagonist Oscar, argues that the key to hybridity is found through attempting to assimilate oneself through the windows of pop culture and so much more. Oscar dares to ask the world for an adventure both in Spanish and English and despite its heart-wrenching conclusion Oscar achieves everything he ever wanted. Oscar became the hero he had always admired from afar and teaches the world to venture outside their hobbit holes and live.

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