Afro-Dominican singer-songwriter Xiomara Fortuna has enjoyed a career that spanned more than four decades and shaped the work of a new generation of Dominican musicians. In March 2017 she was bestowed a presidential award of honor and she accepted it barefoot, making a clear statement about her values and where she sees herself fitting in Dominican society. Drawn from three separate interviews conducted with Fortuna in Santo Domingo in July 2016, augmented by her extensive internet archive, this article frames a transcribed and translated testimonio that captures some of Fortuna’s experiences while coming of age in the Dominican Republic in the late twentieth century. While much of Dominican society’s African cultural history has been actively obscured by the ruling class, Fortuna has long celebrated Afro-Dominican culture through her life’s work and her identity has shaped how she has navigated a neoliberal society as a black artist. Her insights provide an essential piece of Dominican historiography that includes Dominican youth organizing on the Left in the 1980s and 1990s, feminist activism, and cultural production.
I am Xiomara Fortuna. I was born in Monte Cristi at the border with Haiti—the Dominican Republic and Haiti—where I lived my early years. I lived my first 19 years there in Monte Cristi. I never left the community until age 19, when I came to the city of Santo Domingo, after traveling at that time to Cuba and Jamaica. This visit to Cuba had a great impact on my life. This was 1978.— Xiomara Fortuna
The Queen of Fusion
On International Women’s Day in 2017, musician Xiomara Fortuna received a medal of honor from the Dominican president, Danilo Medina, in recognition of her lifetime of activism in women’s rights, anti-racism, and environmentalism (see fig. 2). The award stirred controversy in the local media because Fortuna accepted it at the national palace descalzada (barefoot). While her rejection of upper-class Dominican rules of propriety scandalized some, the act was truly a testament to Fortuna’s life-long political values and the place that she has made for herself as an artist in the Dominican Republic (DR). Known as La Reina de la Fusión (the queen of fusion), sixty-two-year-old Fortuna is a prolific cultural producer who began playing and writing music at an early age. She is recognized as a pioneer of música raíz in the Dominican Republic, a music that blends Afro-Dominican rhythms and sounds of carabiné, la mangulina, la salve, la bambula, el merengue típico, congo, gagá, and palos with hip hop, reggae, rock, jazz, and pop music (Guerrero 2011).1 Her career has emerged in different waves over the last four decades. Although she found recognition for her music in Europe early in her career—when she says her music went from being referred to as “world music” to “Dominican fusion”—she was deliberate about returning to her homeland. Singing with the late Tony Vicioso in the band Kaliumbe greatly informed her sound and connected her to broader Dominican audiences. Yet her talent and abilities as a songwriter were being overlooked or ignored by many Dominicans for some time because of her gender and her blackness (see Austerlitz 1998; Davis 2012; Quinn 2015).2 Her music has gained greater prominence in the last decade, however, and she has paved the way for a next generation of Dominican musicians known as “generación fusión.” Numerous collaborations with younger musicians and recordings with queer artists like Rita Indiana and the group Mula (known for their futuristic sound and aesthetic) have helped her work reach “alternative” listeners.3 Among Dominican musicians in their twenties and thirties, Fortuna is respected for her artistry and work ethic, while her signature sound inevitably elevates and inspires their own.
Today, Fortuna’s music and her cultural aesthetic circulate via social media through sophisticated videos by Dominican media makers, and her new releases debut on YouTube and Spotify. It is possible to trace her musical contributions through the recent scholarship of Dominican ethnomusicologist Rossy Díaz and others, alongside a newly expansive internet archive (Díaz 2018; Sánchez 2016–17; Vargas 2014). Preceding the global pandemic, Fortuna performed regularly on the island, with concerts for audiences throughout the DR and Haiti. In 2019 she won a Soberano, the famed Dominican cultural award, for Best Alternative Music, and in August of that year, she held a forty-year retrospective concert at the National Theater (Listin Diario2019).4 She then won a Soberano again in 2021 in the same category.5
However, I did not seek an interview with Fortuna to learn more about her musical career. I wanted to learn about who she is, and how she has navigated a transnational life as an Afro-Dominican artist and activist; I hoped to learn about the ideologies she embraced along the way and how her thinking might be reflective of a generation of black feminist activists of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean (Laó-Montes 2016: 1–3). Her stories of coming of age in the northern region of the Dominican Republic during the second half of the twentieth century reveal much about who she is today; they illustrate her becoming. Her life story exposes the cultural and political context of the Dominican Republic in the decades following the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1930–61), and later, Joaquín Balaguer, who continued Trujillo’s legacy (Liberato 2013: 58–59). Throughout that period, a vibrant student movement at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, where Fortuna studied, fostered a revolutionary legacy that continues to this day. She reveals how growing up in the 1960s and 1970s Caribbean meant that a leftist movement in the region informed her politics and her creative work. She provides insights into aspects of Dominican society that are often invisibilized by historians of the white Dominican elite.6
Fortuna’s identification with blackness has always informed her career; it is reflected in the expansive archive of music she has produced over the last four decades, and it has significantly influenced how (and when) the Dominican music industry and its audiences have received her. Much cultural history tying the Dominican Republic to Africa has gone unrecorded or was erased, as the African heritage of Dominicans has been contested for centuries by a social elite of European descent who are invested in a national identity that is decidedly not black (see García-Peña 2016; Quinn 2015). It is this cultural dissonance that has motivated some scholars and visitors to the DR to proclaim that Dominicans do not know they are black, yet U.S. black identity and Dominican blackness are constructed through different histories and cultures. Moreover, as Brendan J. Thornton and Diego I. Ubiera (2019: 417) state, “Within the Dominican Republic, scholarly attempts to recover the African heritage of Dominican culture are not scarce but have tended to consign black traditions to the domain of folklore; that is, conspicuous cultural forms regarded as relics to be celebrated at specific times and in specific places.” Fortuna’s artistry is likewise interpreted in limited ways by a culture in which, as Thornton and Ubiera understand,
black or “Afro-Dominican” culture can be found in magical religious beliefs (e.g., Dominican vodú), in carnival and festival traditions (e.g., el gagá), or in folktales, dance, and traditional music (e.g., palo) (see Andújar 1997; Tejeda Ortiz 1998; Aracena 1999), but not usually in everyday social and cultural life, conceding, however erroneously, that ordinary Dominican culture is inherently nonblack since black culture, to be present and operative, must be distinct or distinguishable from it. (417)
Although Thornton and Ubiera parenthetically suggest that “hyphenates like Afro-Dominican imply that Dominicanness on its own is absent of black cultural attributes and therefore requires a modifier,” Afro-identified Dominicans, including many I have interviewed, would likely argue otherwise. Rather, today their claims on Afro-Dominicanness or blackness for many articulate lived experiences of being othered or of anti-blackness.
Until quite recently, Fortuna’s work had been overshadowed because she is outspoken about anti-blackness in the Dominican Republic, and her blackness is undeniable; she celebrates afrodominicanidad through her sound and her aesthetic, inspiring other artists to do the same. It appears that increased claims to blackness among Dominican youth in the last decade—based on a new cultural currency placed on African heritage among transnational artists and cultural producers—may have countered some of Fortuna’s earlier marginalization. New desires to either celebrate or merely consume Afro-Dominican culture provoke an increased interest in her oeuvre. Her music and its visual translations celebrate the diversity of Dominican life, particularly that of black and working-class Dominicans, which for many seems to push the limits of respectability and challenges how Dominicans of the dominant culture have long imagined themselves.
In the 2013 music video for Fortuna’s classic rallying cry, “¡La calle será la calle!,” her signature barefoot concert performance is interwoven with the story of a woman (played by comedian Lumy Lizardo) walking the streets at night in full drag (thick layer of makeup, fake lashes, short skirt, and high heels) looking for sex work; a rainbow-striped tie dangles around her neck. Fortuna’s 2021 music video Afro E with Dominican rapper AcentOh further exemplifies her celebration of Afro-Dominican culture in lyrics and rhythms but is also queered through the humor that it incorporates as well. A short clip at the end of the video that rolls after the credits portrays a working-class Dominican woman (seemingly another performance of drag) sitting with a neighbor, her living room essentially set up on the street. Wearing a house dress and skirt (over what appears to be a T-shirt and shorts), house slippers, and the quintessential hair in curlers, she places Fortuna’s record on a record player beside her and then giddily enjoys the African rhythms of the music that emerges.
A Different Story
This essay was initially to serve as a testimonio, an oral history of sorts, to provide readers with Fortuna’s voice at length, from her stories of street theater and public education campaigns to a generation of lesbian feminists organizing, the impact of a proliferation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on Dominican society, and the ways that her music energized activist youth. Ultimately, the narrative she shares pays great attention to the ways that the opportunities she had growing up, the obstacles she overcame, the family of which she was a part, her personality, and her desire to pursue the life of an artist have all uniquely shaped her trajectory. Emerging from the details of Fortuna’s life is her long-held feminist politic, which she has used to empower other Dominican women. I see her story as politically significant, with a keen sense that the insights I am able to gather through ethnography can produce new theories about the world as experienced by black people (Caldwell 2007: 178). Moreover, as anthropologist Kia Lilly Caldwell affirms, “Scholarly production is inseparable from researchers’ personal identities, interests and politics” (xxi). Fortuna’s story not only teaches us about race in the Dominican Republic but it also points to the influences of the Left in the Caribbean region in the 1960s and the Dominican feminist movements of the seventies and eighties that utilized the arts to disseminate feminist ideology.
In July of 2016, I conducted a series of interviews with Fortuna in Santo Domingo to piece together some aspects of the early part of her life that shaped her unique outlook on Dominicanness.7 I did not sit down with her for an interview as a stranger but as someone who had met her before and who held a deep respect for her knowledge of the world and her work in it. As another black woman in diaspora, a U.S. scholar, I serve not only as an interlocutor but as an erstwhile intermediary in my effort to convey biographic details about Fortuna’s life to academic audiences. I lived for over a year in Santo Domingo and had met Fortuna in 2010. As an ethnographer, I have developed an understanding of Dominican life and culture over more than a decade thanks to the support of people like Fortuna who are willing to share their stories. I have actually had the opportunity to get to know Fortuna better in the years since I left the island, through WhatsApp messages, my return visits, our collaboration on the documentary film project Cimarrón Spirit (Durán et al. 2015), and through her online performances. I have witnessed her many new album debuts and other media events such as internet radio broadcasts, TEDX talks, and Instagram Live performances as well. I have sought to offer her words here at length, to make space for her storytelling and for her to speak for herself as she does with her music. Captured in this essay may be a different story than the one Fortuna might decide to tell today; most know her to be guarded about her personal life, or perhaps judicious about who she lets into it.8
Family Life in Color
Matter-of-factly describing her upbringing and family legacy as a source of pride, Fortuna tells me, “We always lived in the center of the city, my family, Las Taveras, in the community of Monte Cristi—my maternal family. It is a humble family, but very respected, since in small towns honesty is very important. And the people are educated, well-studied, with ideas ready to discuss them. This is important in a small town. My family is also a very honorable family.” She explains how she was able to become an artist—and come into herself—in the world in which she grew up. Her experiences from a very young age would make her aware of the many injustices in the world:
I first came in contact with art when I was twelve years old, since before that I remember I was in fifth grade and my teachers already recognized that I could sing and recite, even though I was very shy—well not shy enough to keep me from performing and reading whatever they gave me and such. So, in school I first learned to sing all of the hymns. The national hymn, the hymn of the mothers, the hymn of the trees, the hymn of the heroes, the hymn of the revolution. I learned all of these hymns at home with my mom and we sang them almost every day. We did it like a study session after dinner. We ate together and then stayed there with my mother, who wanted us to teach her to sing the hymns, since she also liked them. We learned them bit by bit every day until we had learned them completely, everyone in the house learned them. There were eight of us. Three boys and five girls, so there was that dynamic. My mother drew us a lot of historietas [comics/illustrated stories]. I mention this because it shaped somewhat my interest in literature and the arts, since we always had stories, we sang, we told stories and we enjoyed the outdoors, the moon and the stars and the trees and the animals. My mother liked a natural environment, and we always talked about the planets and such and this shaped my thinking and perception of the world. Also, I was the oldest.
I am the only daughter of my mother’s first marriage. My mother married a “foreigner,” which is to say a man who wasn’t from our city [Monte Cristi] but rather from the capital, from Santo Domingo, and, unfortunately, they divorced when I was born. Because of this, I never knew my father. My mother thought that he would come and get to know me, but we waited for many years and he never came. So, I was the oldest. Later, my mother married her first boyfriend who was from there, from our town, and had all the kids with him, the other seven children. I grew up in a family in which I was different, since I had a different father. I was also at the same time the daughter of a black father, and my siblings were the children of a man who was of German heritage, of German roots, and with a white mother and their white father. Well, with a little mix but . . . around here you call this “white”—a person with light skin, light eyes, fair hair. And my siblings came out a bit fairer and this brought about all the issues of racism (see fig. 1).
In this same house, my mother didn’t want to dress me in bright colors, rather she didn’t want me to wear red, and I loved red; she said that this wasn’t a color for black people, so in this way she came to single me out as different because I had dark skin. I never realized it until my mother began to say this to me and my siblings. When we talked about it, we would fight. There was always this allusion to my blackness, which surprised me: “Negra, negra, negra,” “negra del diablo,” were some of the words they used most at home . . . “negra de olla,” like a cooking pot that is black on the bottom, that’s an insult I heard at home, directed at me. My mother always said it wasn’t important, that I was equal with my siblings, but this was very difficult. It was especially difficult for a child like me: very thoughtful since childhood, thinking about a lot. I learned very early that I was different and that this difference was often negative.
A researcher of Dominican culture in her own right, Fortuna shared with me various stories of the racial discrimination and colorism she experienced, in part because these were questions that I asked about her life experience, but also because it was these experiences and not others that were the most profound examples of what had shaped her perspective in life. A hierarchy of color and class, and segregation in terms of race and gender, was produced and reinforced within the Dominican system of education. With a great deal of animation, Fortuna describes the details of how it played out in school for her:
At school I also began to feel this discrimination, this difference. Because at the school I always applied myself and wanted to sit in the front of the class to hear better and I always liked to study. But even if I arrived first and sat up front, the teacher moved me to a desk at the back, since the seats at the front of the class were for the whitest students and those with more money, who were usually the whitest. All of the blacks, always the poorest, we were seated in the back. The lightest, with good hair, were all seated in the front, well-dressed, wearing expensive shoes and all, and then us. They used to put me in the ninth row or beyond. There were something like sixteen rows for the whole school and the closest I got [to the front of the class] was seat number 7, when I was in primary school. Later, when I was in high school, I fought to be in front. So when I got there early I sat in front and everyone came with their chairs trying to pull them up in front of mine, then I pulled mine in front of theirs, until we were all the way at the wall, fighting. It didn’t have to do with who was poor so much as we wanted to see who was studying more, who knew more, who was more intelligent. This was the competition between the youth and adolescents. So every day we did this until the teacher arrived and sent us back.
Fortuna said she eventually realized that the teacher was paying attention to how the students behaved and would allow well-behaved students to leave their desks up at the front of the class. It became a position that she would fight for throughout high school. She noted, “It was always a fight to be up front.” As a child she received many messages about her position in society:
This school was in the community, where the same things happened to me at school that happened at home. In this community in Monte Cristi, the people are a reflection of what’s in the home. It’s the same. The same thinking and the same “you must put your hair in curlers, you must dress in light colors.” The same rules. The home is a reflection of the city and adopts the same codes that the city has, that the people have. If they don’t adopt these things, they are out of order, out of context, and the people don’t like it. It appears that the whole world thinks the same, the Dominican people don’t like difference.
Furthermore, as Fortuna tells us, one learns early on that being different is not a good thing, particularly in a society in which there is constant pressure to conform. Yet, being unable to conform to the expectations of those around her in terms of race and gender is precisely what gave Fortuna insights about how the world works, or as Audre Lorde (1996: 112) identified: “those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference.” Fortuna’s way of navigating the world as a youth was founded in not only a feeling of difference but also being different from her own family. As such, her worldview was a theoretical framework through which she was able to make sense of her experiences of racism from an early age. Her stories of colorism and systemic racism were familiar to me and similar to those of other “visibly black” Dominican women I interviewed in Santo Domingo from 2006 to 2016.9
The Cost of Resistance
Fortuna explained her own coming into consciousness about gender inequity first in her childhood home, where she realized that inequitable labor divisions based on gender were something that her mother maintained:
I always wanted to be close to my mother, so I wanted to learn to cook. I like to cook. Because I was the oldest, my mother sent me to clean up the bedrooms. Yes, and I rebelled. I first rebelled at age twelve when my mom wanted me to every day go out and pick up the boys’ rooms. The girls picked up their clothes and brought them to wash and the boys did not. We lived in a house with three floors, so I had to go up to the second floor to pick up the boys’ bedrooms, and I was the oldest and saw how they sent me basically to pick up the socks, pants, and shoes and such. I rebelled at twelve years old and at that moment gave a feminist speech to my mother. I told her that no, I would not pick up my brother’s things that I had to pick up when I was their age. So, this was also important to my mother. She always noticed it, but I always, always, always brought it up.
She would say to me, “You aren’t going to do such and such a thing,” and I would always say, “Yes, I am.” She never gave me a reason why not. I asked her “Why not?” She would say, “Because I said so.” Even though she said this, I would not abide. I would continue saying, “Yes, I will. Yes, I will. Yes, I will.”
“No, because you can’t. Because you are skinny. You can’t because you are this, you can’t because you are that. You don’t have a father. I don’t want the responsibility, I . . . ” You know? So I was always very “Yes, I will.” “Yes, I will.” I hardly spoke but was very contemplative about what I wanted. Always intent, very precise about what I wanted, and I defended my decisions when questioned.
Fortuna was very much the “willful girl” that Sara Ahmed defines for us in Living a Feminist Life, who refuses to submit to the will of her parents or others with power around her. As Ahmed (2017: 71) recognizes, it is no surprise that “this figure of the willful girl, the one who is becoming feminist, who speaks the langue of injustice to mask her own desire or will for power, creates such a strong impression.” Moreover, the point Ahmed is making, which Fortuna relays in her telling of her childhood, is the reality that “to become a feminist is to be assigned as being willful: you are not willing to recede” (75). Notably, these moments of “willfulness” emerge out of a recognition that one is being treated differently because of one’s gender and because of one’s race, as Ahmed highlights. However, according to Fortuna, it is her personality, forged in response to the day-to-day discrimination that she faced, that determined her life course. As she understands it, such a willful orientation to the world always has a cost. While Fortuna does not necessarily want to share with me in her interview what it has cost her, examples she describes in our conversation provide enough of an explanation of how doing this work of remembering is very much about “putting a body into words,” and, as Ahmed so aptly describes it, the injury is cumulative, like “gathering things in a bag, but the bag is your body, so that you feel like you are carrying more and more weight. The past becomes heavy. We all have different biographies of violence, entangled as they are with so many aspects of ourselves: things that happen because of how we are seen; and how we are not seen” (23). The experience is no different for Fortuna, who theorizes it thus:
I was always different. I never liked to be like others. And I paid for this. I paid because the people on the island don’t want to talk with you. They bully you. They say, “What are they thinking?” “What is this?” “They think they are some big deal.” You know? People don’t understand that you have the right to be however you want to be. And to go out however. People won’t accept this; they still work to be the same. My family was like this. They didn’t wear red lipstick because it seemed too black. They conformed to the same social codes. I think this came to a head and became the rule under Trujillo, but it is from much further back, emerging from colonization, from what was brought from Africa to America. And so, what came with the Spanish as they worked to make one race superior to another. Yes, this is the project of colonization, I believe. And Trujillo, what he did, was to make these beliefs into laws, to institutionalize this.
As a society, colorism is really terrible. My mother had to go to school with me many times to say to them, “Look, she has a mother and I am her mother, even though she is black.” My mother said, “She is india [in color], she has a mother who is india.” She would go and defend me there. “She is black but she has a mother who is not black,” my mother would tell them. Of course, she is mestiza and she always had to go and show her face. Because she always told us that fighting was bad, and if people mess with you, you don’t have to fight them. And I never fought. They bullied me, and my mom would go to school and come up with ways to punish the people who bullied me without me having to fight. . . . If I’m in line and someone shoves me aside, well the next day they’d want to fight because I pushed them. There was a lot of violence. I grew up in this environment, but thankfully my mother understood that violence is not the right way to defend oneself. Rather, one has to talk.
Through Fortuna’s willfulness, or resistance to being marginalized in the classroom, in the home, and beyond, she became acquainted with the workings of power in her world. She learned early in life that she would not be conceded any power, and her choice was to fight or not to fight in the hardscrabble world of her youth. Rather than retreat, Fortuna joined in where she was able, and with talent and determination she became a leader among her peers: “I participated in all of the cultural movements in the town with the youth, in theater, in chorus, sports, all throughout my adolescence I participated. In Monte Cristi, I started a theater group and we did plays with social content. We denounced poverty. We did a piece where we spoke out against the rape of a woman by a man. We came to work on the issue of imperialism, too. . . . Various themes like that, with social content.”
Fortuna’s political engagement started locally, but eventually her world expanded. As a black girl from a town in northern Dominican Republic, growing up not far from the site of the massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent at the border town of Dajabon, she made a profound journey into consciousness about the workings of the world. In telling her life story, she returns to the spaces in which she was able to engage with art: “I was also in a poetry group—a group that recited poetry. So I learned a lot of poems by great poets like Pablo Neruda, everything Latino. We learned them in order to recite them. And it also brought me into social consciousness, which would appear in my work much later.”
As a teenager, Fortuna started to separate from her family, leave her hometown, and take some distance from her relationship with her mother: “I went to Cuba after many problems with my mother, who didn’t want me to go.” Fortuna’s motivation to forge her own path led her on a life-changing adventure that she repeatedly points back to when she tells her story today:
I didn’t have much opportunity to leave my town, my mom couldn’t afford to pay for university and I could not afford life in the capital. Because of this, when I graduated from high school, I spent a couple more years in my community. I was teacher in the private school, where I saved up money to come to the university. I worked two years. Then my mother said no, that she would not send me to the university. That happened. I never thought that I would travel but I always wanted to travel. I am a lover of cultures. And in my little head I wanted to know them, the other countries and the culture of our country. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. And I got the opportunity when there was a very important festival in Cuba, organized by students. It met in Cuba with students from all over Latin America. So for those of us from the provinces, they saw it as an opportunity for a young person, just one person, from all of Santiago and below. So we were well-organized, the youth, at that time. We were organizing the towns and their organizations—every neighborhood had a group. We built a trust for the election of groups of youth, at the national level. So, at my level, the confederation to the north elected only one person to go to Cuba. The youth understood that the best person to go and represent them was me. I could sing. I was the best actor. No other youth knew how to do much. So there was voting, and then there was voting, and then there was voting, and I won my town. First, I won my town and after winning my town, I won.
So I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba and also spend some time in Jamaica. That’s because I had the luck of coming all the way from Monte Cristi, and when I arrived at the office of those organizing the youth that would go to Cuba, they told me that on that day there was no delegation going and that it would be two more weeks to go to Cuba. So they said, “There’s a group going tomorrow to Jamaica, you want to go?” And I spent twelve hours in the office and they organized everything and the next day I went to Jamaica. I spent about ten days there and then I went to Cuba. This was a trip for me that, as my mother said, was antes y después [before and after]. I had not even been on a donkey. Not a car, not anything. And in this trip, I rode in everything that there was to ride in: ship, train, plane, guagua, car, even an elevator. Everything, everything, everything. For me it was a trip of discovering the world. And so I sang in Cuba with artists that I heard on the radio. Very famous artists that were like idols, and some of them were my idols too. I sang with them there in Cuba, and I was the youngest and I was very successful. Dani Rivera, Lucecita Benitez from Puerto Rico; from here Sonia Silvestre, and Luis Días, who already lived in the capital and had made a name for himself, and me, living in the countryside, el pueblo. Well, I was totally unknown. No one knew me. But I showed up with my guitar, and I had quickly memorized all the poems by Don Pedro Mir, our national poet, and that’s what I sang at the concert there in Cuba.
I lost my clothes and luggage on that trip. I went the whole month without clothes, without anything, without a brush, without clothes, without a toothbrush or toothpaste, without anything. Nothing more than what I had on. What happened was that my hair grew out, and I discovered my hair because my mother had always straightened it. But I was there, and I didn’t have a thing, and my hair began to grow, and grow, and grow. It got big, and I liked it. I left my hair natural. I didn’t see other women like this. Dreadlocks in Jamaica, but not on women. I think I was—yes, I was the first woman here, I think. I was the first woman here that went natural. I can say that because it was terrible. I had to be very strong. They threw stones at me, they threw combs. They said all kinds of things. They shouted at me in the street and wouldn’t allow me to get into the public cars. If I got in, people would pull my hair. I had to sit in back because if I sat in front they pulled my hair and shouted loca [crazy]. They shouted many things at me. The first time I went on television with my hair natural and big like this, they threw things at me while I sang. Yes, yes, yes.
Hair is a critical marker for black women worldwide in terms self-expression, performance of gender, and self-actualization, no matter the era. In 1978 it was equally important for Fortuna. She explains:
I’m telling you about this hair, and when I decided to be a singer, because it is a decision. In my house my father didn’t want me to—my stepfather—he didn’t want me to pursue art. At that time, still to be an artist was something bad. For women it was like prostitution. It was as if, it was seen as something negative—for a woman, for a decent young lady—they prostitute themselves. So I always said that I am going to show them that one can be an artist and not prostitute oneself. I have endeavored to be an artist that does what she wants to do. I didn’t do it for anyone else. If I didn’t do what I needed to do, what I had to do, I wouldn’t have done anything I didn’t want to do. Nothing. No, no, not anything, not a career. I was feisty, with a lot of strength and strong beliefs. I had a lot of faith in what I wanted, and I defended my beliefs above all else, before money, fame, wellness, and whatever else. I didn’t care. I said I was going to be a different kind of artist, I was going to do what I wanted to do, and I didn’t care if I starved in the streets. I decided this very young, because my father always said I was going to be a prostitute, that it was prostitution. He even came to take me out of the cultural movement of the theater troupes and all that. He took my guitar. He didn’t want me learning guitar, and when he took it and took me out of the group, I held a hunger strike at home. I sat in the living room and would not speak, would not eat, nothing. And all the neighbors came by to say to my mom, “Let her be, let her be, let her go. Let the child be. This girl that has so much talent, this girl is an artist. Let her go to her group. Don’t take her out. This girl is so sad.” And there I was, mute, striking for almost fifteen days. Until it made my mother so sad and she said, “No! Get out of here! No man is going to tell me what I need to do with my daughters.” She said it like that, “No man is going to tell me what I need to do with my daughters. Get out of here!” This was when I was fourteen or fifteen, that age, when I lived the whole day with my guitar, and at my house more than forty youth would come by daily, to be with me. I was a leader without realizing it. Yes, my house was como un dulce [like a sweet], everyone was drawn to it.
Forty youth came by my house every day. And the neighbors said that—after I went to Cuba—the neighbors said I had gone to Cuba for weapons training and that I was teaching communism to the youth. When I arrived back from Cuba, then, the police were waiting for me, to take all of the things I brought from Cuba, and I brought many things. I brought many books, I brought a lot of propaganda on T-shirts, on brochures that they make, the hat, I brought posters too, of Che, of Fidel, of anything at all Cuban. I brought a lot of posters and such. I brought the poster of the symbol of liberty, and I covered the town with the poster—yeah, we did it bam-bam-bam and took all the posters that I brought and put them up in town. So what happened then was the police came after me. But my mom had an idea. She told me that I needed to hide all the things I had brought. And you know how my house is? A big house with three floors? We had something like a water tank on the second floor, in between the floor and ceiling. It was impossible for someone who wasn’t from the household to know where it was. So that’s where we hid all of the things that I brought from Cuba. And it’s there that I also hid when they came to look for me. I hid inside the water tank. Eighteen or nineteen years old . . . yeah. I was thus, well politicized.
Self-Making and Political Education
Fortuna’s experience in youth organizing would help her find others with shared values around issues of social justice. Her interest in cultural exchanges and her desire to learn about the world beyond her small town would lead her to significant transformation during her adolescence. More than once in our interview, she recalls this moment of politicization and of becoming, as marked by a before and after moment.
Cuba was an opportunity to make connections with others. The political part was voluntary, say, to inaugurate something and there would be speech, or two, or three, political speeches, but it was an event with a lot of music, and a lot of exchange. We spent two hours daily at talks, but this was voluntary, you didn’t necessarily have to go. The lectures were about the rights of the people and liberty, la lucha [the struggle], you know? I already had this in me. I arrived there with a desire for this, that’s why I went. There I was left with nothing, and I discovered how to be a warrior. I became much stronger on this trip. It made me. . . . I went as a girl whose hair my mother combed, as my mom said, that would do anything for her mother. . . . But there, surviving a month on my own, I discovered my strengths, and so I began to present myself in a different way. For example, I was no longer a mama’s girl. I came into myself. That’s why she always said there was “before Cuba and after Cuba.” Because I didn’t ask her to do my hair anymore. She could no longer tell me how to do my hair, how to dress, what colors I should wear, nothing. That was it. Not where I could go, or where I was going, or with whom I could or could not go. I already learned how to grow up the hard way, on this trip. For me, it was definitive because it framed my life, significantly. I was able to come to the university and I came prepared. Because I had to confront all the professional artists when I arrived with my guitar, and I already had status, like a confidence to say, “This is who I am,” not, “This is what I want to do.” Yes, that happened in for me in Cuba: “This is who I am.”
Fortuna sought out and was sought out by other Dominican feminists who wanted to create a community with aligning values. Through music, she was able to build community and help mobilize an activist movement among youth. However, only a small fraction of their efforts have been documented. She laughed as she described to me their attempt to do it all themselves as feminist activists:
When I came here to Santo Domingo in the eighties, there were already feminist events, they had started feminist movement and women’s movements. So since I sang, I found myself with a group of women that played women’s music, and they sought me out so I would sing with them. They were women who played guitar, percussion, bass, violin, so I was the singer. It was an idea of a group that never was, but we got together, talked, selected short feminist songs to put together, and then I discovered the world of women and of feminism—through this idea that never was. But without a doubt much later, two years after, we created a feminist theater troupe. We called it Las Marchantas.
There was already a strong women’s movement behind the NGOs. All of the NGOs now had offices that worked on the theme of women, the problems of women, so we created the plays, writing the libretos collectivos. We did the lighting, we did it all. We didn’t want men to put a finger on anything! We all did the work. We had a little truck that we drove. We would go to the countryside bringing the stage. For three years. There were five of us. Five actresses. At that time, I didn’t know if I would dedicate my life to theater or to song. It was Arlette Oleka Fernández, Josefina Stubbs—who is now the second rank at Banco Mundial—it was Rita Mella, who is the first Latina judge. It was Ginny Taulé, who is also a big deal, working at Brahma, the beer company, and there was me. It was us five. All of them have become tremendous women and have worked outside of the country and made many decisions together. Oleka married and had children. The others didn’t have children because the work was hard, and sometimes you can’t have children and then be able to do other things. And sure, out of all of us the other four were lesbians, but we were not lesbians para siempre [forever], but on the road it happens. So many ideas, so many ideas and so much thought in search of something better, that’s all. Nada, everyone was pursuing her work. I do my work as an artist, the other her work as a judge, the other as an actress. We didn’t work on the theme of lesbianism, the theme of pure feminism. At that time, no one spoke of a lesbian feminism, of a black feminism, of a white feminism, nor rich, or poor, they didn’t talk about it. Only “feminism.”
I don’t think feminism of the U.S. arrived here. The movement, I think, evolved into another thing and other forms because the NGOs covered everything. . . . The people, if they didn’t have any money, they didn’t do anything, but if we didn’t have any money we [still] handled everything. Because when there’s money, those that have the money decide what the issues get addressed. Therefore, with the NGOs’ involvement, things became more individualized: a lot of everyone doing whatever they could from wherever they were.
Fortuna’s memory work recalls an early period of neoliberal influence through the NGO-ification of the DR in the 1980s, when she made her way to Santo Domingo. Dominican feminists were well aware of the damaging effects of neoliberalism’s commitment to individualism, and as Ochy Curiel (2016: 46) and others would argue, the ways that a neoliberal politic “makes collective action more difficult.”
The activism Fortuna recalls at the University Autónoma de Santo Domingo (UASD), the public university in the capital, captures a moment of feminist activism and revolutionary influences from other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.
So I arrived at la UASD, and at la UASD I had to study and I looked for a major that would allow me to continue to explore art. I declared a major that at that time they called advertising arts, but it gave you exposure, it offered two semesters of all the majors that had to do with art: architecture, design, advertising, sculpture, history of art, psychology of art, and such. I studied all of these fields, these theoretical subjects, about all of the theory of art, psychology of art, which I loved, because I already came from that and I didn’t have books to study. I did my studies without books. My mom could not buy books, so I studied with the Larousse dictionary. Like, for example, the question, “What were the planets?” I looked up in my dictionary, “What were the planets? The planets were—” I studied everything in the dictionary, because the dictionary had a section that had to do with art. All of the definitions of the artistic movements—the Renaissance, impressionism, all of this, I studied this. I had studied this in my town. I could look at the little pictures. Mine was a big one, a larger Larousse. I studied everything with the Larousse and the Bible.
When I arrived at la UASD, I became famous in the socialist movement. I sang every day at the university. Songs with social content. The professors were with me because I was filling their classrooms. I did not have a notebook, I did not have a book, I went as a listener. I knew that I wasn’t going to graduate. I would go to learn whatever interested me; I listened. This I was always clear about. And so learned as I went, and I came to understand the university and beyond. After this I came to the feminist movement, where I was always singing as well.
As Fortuna described it, when she got to la UASD in the 1980s she discovered that the students were so politicized and each political party had students within the university that represented it. The parties on the Left wanted her to join them because of the content of her songs: “So now I was able to do this work and was useful to the parties of the Left.”
Well, reluctantly I did more with the militants of the PCD [Dominican Communist Party] and all of the big leaders that were now involved in that movement. All of them are now representatives. I don’t know all of those people that were part of this movement. I also got close to the PLD [Dominican Liberation Party] that was in power. We had concerts every Friday on the patio of the party headquarters. We also sang children’s songs. And from these two platforms we built a lot of solidarity with the people, which was important. We built a lot of solidarity with Cuba; we built solidarity with Nicaragua, with the Sandinista movement. We built solidarity with Haiti, and with El Salvador. From this platform, then, I went two times to Cuba, to youth festivals. Nicaragua, a couple times too, facilitated by the same president, Daniel Ortega [Saavedra]. I went to sing in El Salvador, and I went around as an activist revolutionary.
Never did they pay me. Never did they value my work in other ways more than someone who could represent their interests. So in this way I was welcomed, and the two parties that chose me at that time were the PCD and the PLD. It isn’t so much that I was resentful; it was good for the artists who at the time were very important in this genre of protest music, of protest songs. But I didn’t have support. I was not well received. In fact, it was the opposite—from the beginning, I experienced discrimination for being young, for having a good reputation, you know. I was someone very compromised by my career choice. I didn’t go with any movement at the time that used drugs, you know, there’s always peer pressure. And if you don’t participate it’s a little like, “Ah, don’t invite her to this, there’s the other thing.” A little “no, no, no, not for this.” I wasn’t cool, in a way. I had to win my space as a singer and composer, I had to insert myself in a way, but I was fortunate that the parties saw something in this handsome-feminine that I was, that could in that moment represent their interests in the fight for a chance, once again, through song.
This was the environment in which I developed at the university, and from there, little by little, I was soaring to new heights. This included my screenings, television, and such, but always with a protest song. And from there, of the other groups that were movements, like the women’s movement, the feminist movement, the worker’s movement, the peasant’s movement, all of these movements began to see in me the possibility that my songs could reach across class to the people, and so they began to see me as someone essential to the cause because there were almost no women, maybe two, maybe three, but not very active in the movement nor with the clarity of calling that I wanted to transmit—thinking about struggle, about change, for equality, these types of symbols. So, I was very clear about this and because of this: “Ay, here she comes, she’s coming.” And they opened up the space to me. In this space, I spent all of the eighties singing. I don’t remember how I survived because I was never paid a cent. I really don’t know how I did it. But I did it. And I lived by myself, I had an apartment, nicely set up, and I lived for my work and I had a job in the morning.
I worked in a popular barrio named Guachupita. I worked in a medical center, a health center. My work was to offer education about prevention of illness through theater. So I created a puppet theater, with women and the people of the community, the doctors at the center, and I did short plays. Every day I would go into the community and bring a message of illness prevention. And this helped me pay for my studies, pay for my house and everything. I worked there for three years; it was very important for me because I could interact with the people most in need. My first contact with poor people, really. People really, really, really, precarious, living precarious lives. That was where I had my first contact with this reality. At the time, it was something in my head: the poverty, the inequality, the food and the hunger, these concepts that appear in the literature of the greatest poets, and philosophies that up until that moment I had only read about. There I had direct contact, and this was a good compliment to my ideas, to reaffirm my ideas, my desire to fight, my interest in equality for all. All of this was reaffirmed in my work.
Like many graduates of la UASD whom I encountered in my ethnographic research in Santo Domingo, Fortuna took advantage of the opportunity to wander through her studies. All aspects of her education would inform her music:
I studied the arts. I took other classes they gave. They offered anthropology, and I could say I have done anthropological work because I have been in contact with and draw my music from my research when I was investigating Afro-Dominican roots. Also, I know a very important Haitian singer, named Toto Bissainthe. I also knew an American anthropologist that lived here and developed the anthropology department at la UASD.
She refers to anthropologist June Rosenberg, who spent three decades as a professor la UASD, researching Dominican cultural traditions that tie the Dominican people to many African traditions. Rosenberg (1979) worked alongside a whole generation of Dominican scholars—Dagoberto Tejeda Ortiz, Frank Moya Pons, Carlos Esteban Deive, and others—who were equally committed to defining Dominican culture beyond the official line of the state and the Dominican elite about the roots of Dominican culture. In interviews Fortuna often credits Rosenberg with this education that changed her. Spending time doing anthropological research in rural Dominican communities and a training in the methods of ethnography altered her outlook and understanding of not only the society in which she lived but also how she saw herself.
With June Rosenberg, the American anthropologist, and Toto Bissainthe, who were great friends, I began to visit the ceremonial centers of what we call Dominican vudú. With her and with Doña Rosenberg, I would go and study. I would sit beside them, I would sit beside Haitian singers as well, and we would, as June said, dig into those realities, of Afro-Dominican religion, and all that it brought. Because it brought with it dance, and it brought a worldview, and it brought music, rhythm, the drums, the melodies. All of this for me was a discovery that I enjoyed. Until that moment, I had not had contact with any folklore. Nothing. I arrived at college at twenty-two years old without having exposure. Only what we sang at church, the hymns, and those sorts of things. And I liked to listen to songs of different genres. Otherwise, I had to hear this music during my Cuban hours. I had to listen to it at dawn, since after 2 a.m. I could get radio signals from Cuba, two stations. One was called Radio rebelde. So there I was hoping they would play the songs of Sergio Rodriguez, of Pablo Milanés, and everybody, impassion and all that. Mercedes Sosa. This represented the genre of música de trova, protest music, freedom songs. I would do it, so that I listened and learned these songs. I remember one time spending a whole month trying to be able to write out an entire song that they put on at night—so that I could write all the words out. I did my best because I could not write as quickly as the ideas came. But I would record and write songs and afterward look for the music, sound it out on the guitar to teach myself the songs so that I could sing them. This helped me a lot too, it helped me become who I am now with all the interest that I have in social justice, in these types of ideas.
So with this work in Guachupita, this poor community and with June Rosenberg and Toto Bissainthe, on the other hand, investigating folkloric Dominican music, basically religion—el gagá, the drums. Well, I was discovering in myself an identity. Not something theoretical, but an identification that was very real. Then came the concept: I am black, I make music, all this pertains to me. And later, that I had to preserve this, that I also want to promote this, that I want it to reach more people, that it is my identity, and I want Dominicans to know that it is part of us, that we can encounter it in our cultural identity and in our African origins, and value this, and carry it with pride. This has been a very important objective of the work of la lucha [the fight].
With her music and in her political efforts Fortuna was part of a network of activists who make black identity central to their revolutionary feminist resistance. Her consciousness raising came about through an immersion in and discovery of Dominican blackness. Institutionalized narratives of Hispanicity and Indigeneity, as key components of Dominican identity, would have otherwise kept her from embracing blackness (Candelario 2007: 85; Ricourt 2016: 46). Though not all Dominicans who claim afrodominicanidad as an identity present phenotypically in ways that outsiders might perceive as “black,” the term Afro-Dominican names both an inheritance and a bodily experience that Fortuna has described above. Her consistent and overt commentary on race and her claims on Africanness in her music resist the social norms under which she grew up (Whitten and Torres 1992).
As Fortuna shows us, her embrace of blackness has been a process: “I began to study this and I met a Dominican musician named Tony Vicioso. He was doing jazz, and they introduced us. He brought me into the jazz band that he had, and I began to sing his music. Then he began to write, and I started to make lyrics for his music; later we separated.” But as is common in the small artist’s community of Santo Domingo, presumably much smaller than today, Fortuna would circle back into this collaboration: “We made a band called Kaliumbé, where he made music and I made music and I sang. He had a little guitar and had the band. This was at the end of the eighties—eighty-five, eighty-six, eighty-seven. This all happened, and from this we made an album together.” Fortuna’s musical trajectory has taken many paths with numerous collaborations—arguably a feminist approach to cultural production—and perhaps this is why she has hardly been recognized as a composer in her own right. Since the 1980s, her artistic projects have been motivated by her politics, and her musical talents have served as an opportunity to respond to the society in which she lives:
I did this work with the movement of women poets, the circle of Dominican women poets that was like eleven or twelve women that got together to study and share ideas and their poetry. They made me an honorary poet in this group . . . and we did an investigation of the writings of women in the countryside, about songs, because there was already a women’s movement, and they were creating women’s associations. The women, when they got together, sang songs with misogynist content that were playing on the radio. So they reproduced the values of songs written by men, with very violent content, that was extremely demeaning towards women. I remember that there was a song that said one should be careful of women today, that you needed to tie them up with a rope, and if they chewed through the rope, tie them up with a chain, and if they chewed through the chain, then let them go, they aren’t worth it. Something like that. So the women sang this at their gatherings. We realized that they had to make lyrics that women could sing and with an NGO called MUDE (Mujeres en Desarollo Dominicana [Dominican Women in Development]) that we worked with, they had many connections at the national level that worked specifically with campesinas, supporting initiatives for them to have their own land, and an association that helped them to start small businesses in order to have some resources.
So, then here comes me and the women poets. And we decided to offer a contest in which the women would write, and we had the campesinas submit their ideas. There were hundreds of poems written by these women and we chose ten. Then we made an album from them, which we called De la Loma al Llano, which was the first work I did. We recorded it between eighty-three and eighty-four. I think it was released in eighty-four or eighty-five. So we gave the women that tool, those songs with content of their own. When you see this record, you can have an overview of what the campesina women’s movement was about then: what their concerns were, and what their limitations were, and what their dreams were. You’ll find it in that work. This is how I participated in the movement of women poets.
Fortuna proudly describes this moment in the 1980s of a feminist intervention that involved poetry writing with poor and rural women and publishing their work on albums. Her faith in the transformative nature of art and cultural production is as powerful as her personal narrative, through which she was changed by her experiences abroad, the music she could access on the radio, and opportunities she had to organize with others around art and performance that continue to this day.
Rather than a story of childhood trauma and marginalization because of her blackness, Fortuna provides us with a clear-eyed take on what it has meant for her to navigate Dominican society as a rebellious Afro-Dominican woman of her generation. Plans for a documentary film on Fortuna—aptly titled Descalzada—emphasize the significance of her life and legacy. She continues to be driven by her values and is a staunch environmentalist amidst a tourist economy in which the DR produces a literal sea of plastic bottles.10 In 2001, Fortuna founded the ecotourism project Rancho Ecológico el Campeche, an organization and foundation that fosters environmental education, grassroots development, and sustainable tourism in the region. By hosting guests from across the island and abroad at her ranch just south of the capital, Fortuna seeks to promote “respect and love for nature” among those who visit. The space is also used for transnational black feminist retreats organized by the next generation of Dominican activists.
When she had the opportunity to tell her own story to an audience for TEDx in Santo Domingo in 2016, Fortuna signaled her arrival onstage with warm, deep vocals that invited response, and she told the audience that the reason she went without shoes to receive her award from President Medina was simply because as an artist she “didn’t have the right shoes for the occasion” yet did not want to miss the opportunity. Of course, it is more than that, she explains; to arrive descalzada—to be barefoot on the stage as she has done on several other occasions—is an act of humility.
Her albums, many of the last decade recorded with members of the Sinhora Band, include De la Loma al Llano (1985), Balbuceos (1996), Pan Music and Música Raíces (1997), “Baisabi” on Putumayo Presents Latinas: Women of Latin America (2000), Kumbajei (2001), Ella ta’í (2002), Tonada Para un Querer (2004), La Calle Será la Calle (2009), Pa’ Cantarte a Ti (2010), Son Verdad (2017), Rosa y Azul (2018) with the Sinhora Band, Canto de Abril (2020), and Viendoaver (2021). Fortuna has produced some twenty albums with ILé Akwa Productions and collaborated with Dominican artists such as Vakeró, Rita Indiana, and AcentOh, to name a few.
While I recognize the reasons that publishers have moved to capitalize the word Black, I use the word in lowercase to talk about blackness in the Dominican Republic as a social construction that is different from African American claims on Black identity in the United States. I find that capitalizing the term to affirm it as a political identity obscures some of the nuances of the racial category across different contexts in Latin America and the Caribbean.
With a limited background in music, I find myself hesitant to write about Fortuna’s particular sound; I encourage readers to explore the visual and audio archive of her work online.
Special guests included local favorites Raulín Rodríguez, Covi Quintana, Vakeró, La Marimba, El Prodigio, Techy Fatule, Janio Lora, Diomary La Mala, Roldán Mármol, Mula, and Cheddy García.
There is much more to be said here about how Fortuna’s work has been categorized and assessed by the judges of this Dominican award and the fact that she won only one previous award for her music before the category for Best Alternative Music was created. She had received a Casandra (what would become the Soberano) award for Best Female Solo Artist in 2002.
She is less forthcoming about lesbianism among feminists in the DR, and while she doesn’t gloss over it entirely, I quickly understood that queerness would not be at the center of our interview.
My conversations with Fortuna took place in Spanish at the recording studio in her home in Santo Domingo; I recorded on my ipad, and for some of the interviews, Fortuna did her own recording on her phone. I transcribed and translated our three interviews and sorted the content in ways that highlight moments of her becoming. Scheduling these interviews required time and persistence, as ethnographic work so often does, and although I was often reminded that my priorities were not always hers, I felt an urgency to record her story.
My 2015 essay, “No tienes que entenderlo,” conveys Fortuna’s sentiments about what information should be available to whom. Our conversation continues, as I seek her permission to publish her thoughts and reflections in this format, and in English, a language that she does not read.
Fortuna’s experiences of having her body “policed” are not unlike the stories of many Dominican women I interviewed over the years. It is something that I, too, experienced firsthand while visiting and living in the DR between 2006 and 2017.
More than once, I have seen Fortuna reject a single-use plastic bottle of water when handed to her.