Letter from The Dominican Republic — From the August 2017 issue

Sons and Daughters

The village where girls turn into boys

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During the week, the heat seems to cast a languid spell over Las Salinas. In the morning, children in neatly pressed blue uniforms make their way to school. They walk past two-room houses made of concrete and wood and through the central square, where a bust of Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the country’s founders, stands watch. Every few blocks, there is a colmado, a small corner shop selling plantain chips and soda. The town’s morning market has become smaller over the years, but half a dozen stalls still stock fruits and vegetables — sweet potatoes, taros, and avocados — and Haitian migrants sell secondhand clothes in piles on the side of the road until noon.

At dusk, when the heat breaks, sunsets of purple and fluorescent pink streak the sky, and groups of neighbors begin to cluster outside, watching others pass, calling out greetings. It feels like everyone knows everyone, and is somehow related — usually as a primo, or cousin. The feeling of one great extended family promotes both warmth and a lively gossip mill. As the locals put it: Pueblo pequeño, infierno grande. Small town, big hell.

On the weekends, everything changes. The town pumps with bass, sweat, and booze. It is by far the loudest place I have ever been. Competing bars, each with its own sound system, blast bachata into the central square. Many of the men have spent the earlier part of the day gambling at cockfights, and now, as the entire town gathers outdoors to drink beer and rum out of small plastic cups, they recount the matches once again. At midnight, a Mitsubishi truck with a speaker system on the roof is still parked in front of Duarte’s bust, thumping beats into the darkness, and everyone, from tiny toddlers to grandmothers, dances on the pavement.

Most residents of Las Salinas spend hours preening for this weekly event. Women get their hair done, men do the same. Each beauty parlor buzzes with gossip about the town’s romantic and erotic entanglements — a reminder that sexuality is anything but a forbidden topic.

“The first girlfriend of every Dominican boy is his hand,” Yessika Terrero, a twenty-two-year-old who has an infant daughter herself, told me on a Saturday night. Her friends nodded sagely as we sat in a group on a curb. Terrero badly wanted to take me for a spin on her friend’s motorcycle. As she navigated through the square, she slowed just enough to make sure that all the men who saw us could let loose a long catcall.

Las Salinas was founded in 1730 when Juan Féliz de Luna, a Spanish colonist, lost track of his cows. He found his herd in the mountains, licking a rock. He tried it himself, tasted salt — and three Spanish families soon thrived in the new trading post, which they named for the mineral. According to a local history professor, Abraham Terrero, by 1932 the population had reached about two thousand. That same year, Rafael Trujillo’s government seized the territory for industrialization, building facilities to extract salt and gypsum and simultaneously destroying the local economy. Poverty remains widespread, as do water shortages and electricity cuts, which explains why young people have been abandoning Las Salinas in increasing numbers for decades.

While the cows have supplied the place with its creation myth, there is none for the prevalence of 5-alpha. “This is a phenomenon as old as the town itself,” Miguel Gómez, one of the four Evangelical ministers in Las Salinas, explained. “It’s in the town’s soul.” There are scattered speculations about the origin of the condition: spiritual punishment for ancestral incest, the ingestion of iodine in the unprocessed salt from the mine. But mostly, people told me they didn’t know why it happened. God simply made them that way, they said, and that was that.

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