ACTOR AS RUBI: Lo and behold, we were in St. Thomas, a small island in the Virgin Islands… We lived in a large country house, [Voiceover fades down…]
CHRIS: Meet Porfirio Rubirosa, y’all. Our guy. The legendary playboy. The Dominican James Bond who’s been haunting me. What you just heard is a bit of Rubi’s memoir. It was published after he died. We have an actor reading it – thank you.
I’m sharing this bit with you because Rubi describes a scene that I think tells us a lot about the man he’ll grow up to be.
It’s around 1914 and five year old Rubi and his family are living in exile on the island of St. Thomas. One day, Rubi’s teacher gives him a violin and puts him in the orchestra. Except there’s one problem. Rubi doesn’t know how to play the violin.
[Bass guitar enters.]
ACTOR AS RUBI: I remember breaking down in tears in front of all the others. But the teacher said, “Porfirio, Just pretend. Pretend that you know how to play; that will be fine.” I thought: Is this how it is in the adult world? Does everyone just pretend?
CHRIS: “Pretend. Just pretend.” Rubi says those words and what they symbolized were etched in his mind forever.
And honestly, we’ve ALL heard something like this before, right? Fake it till you make it. But for me and many people of color, this childhood lesson to pretend so you fit in – it resonates on a much deeper level.
Fake it till you make it…pretend you’re something else so you can get ahead…okay…but at what cost? And who for?
CHRIS: I’m Christopher Rivas and this is Rubirosa Episode Two: Pretenders.
[Spy-esque vibraphone and guitar plays.]
CHRIS: Alright, let’s get out of the studio for a minute and jump down into the subway.
[The sound of a passing train on a subway platform is heard.]
CHRIS: It’s 3 a.m., I'm on a subway platform and there are some very weird people on the subway at 3 a.m. In fact, people are looking at me like I’m the weird one…
CHRIS: I recorded this in New York when I was visiting in Fall of 2021. My producers handed me a field recorder and they said “Chris, go wild.” I’d never walked around with a microphone beforer had no idea what I was going to say. But then I was waiting for a late night train, and started thinking about a story that’s like a legend in my family. My parents have told it to me a million times.
CHRIS: It was 1984. And my mom and my pops, they've been hanging with some friends. It was 3:00 a.m. and they were waiting for the 7 train and they were standing somewhere on this very platform. And my 20 year old mom told my 23 year old Pops that she was pregnant with Lauren, my older sister, their first kid. My mom, she's an immigrant and outsider, and my pops is first generation. And my mom is standing there, she's waiting for some sort of reaction when my pop asks her, “OK. What do you want, nena?” And my mom, she thinks for a second. She knows exactly what she wants. She says, “I want my kids to never have to worry about where their next meal comes from, I want them to have something more than we had. I want them to have something more than this single mattress on the floor of our studio apartment, something more than spaghetti and hot dogs for dinner.” And my pops says, “OK. Let's do it. Let's do it.”
[Slow, swinging jazz music enters.]
“How,” my mom asks. “I don't know,” my pops says, “but we're going to do it, we'll do it no matter what.” And this was the moment when these two young young people decided that they were going to turn nothing into something.
CHRIS: That is my origin story. My parents, a subway platform, and the American Dream. And they did it y’all. I’m here to tell you - they did it. They worked their asses off and they got there. My sister and I grew up with a pretty great life. Better than what my parents’ had.
[Jazz music fades.]
WILLIAM RIVAS: I knew that this was going to work out and I knew that I can get to where I want.
CHRIS: Meet my pops, William Rivas. He says that night on the subway platform with my mom, he thought to himself, “This woman, she’s like me.”
WILLIAM: If this person wants to go where she wants to go as equal as I, we can achieve anything that we want, especially in America, because America is the land of opportunity. And if you're hungry, you can get it.
CHRIS: They were hungry, y’all. Their drive to work hard was not all my parents had in common…
WILLIAM: Not only is she Latin and she has the flavor, but she can also – she knows everything.
CHRIS: This woman, my Mom, she knows how to crack a joke, she gives the best hugs, she studied medicine. And? She knows how to throw down and dance with the best of them.
[Fast merengue music enters.]
WILLIAM: She followed well and we were like in tune with each other.
MARTHA RIVAS: I was born dancing. [laugh]
CHRIS: This is my mom, Martha Rivas.
MARTHA: Whether it meant, you know, freestyle or or dancing salsa or merengue, you just – I don't know, I just picked it up.
CHRIS: My parents are kids of the disco era - Watching them dance is like being taken to another time and another place. Saturday Night Fever, except starring two Brown People. My father floats and my mother levitates, they both shine.
[Merengue continues to play.]
CHRIS: They’ve been dancing together through life since the moment they met in the 1980s at a high end clothing store called Clappers. I know, it sounds like the name of a strip club, but it was actually a very legit men's clothing store. A nice one too. It was on 82nd Street in Jackson Heights, Queens. My parents both worked there. That’s where they met and that’s where they fell in love.
And they kept working. When I was growing up, my mom managed an obstetrician’s office by day and ran a desk at the ER at night. She worked so hard I feel like I barely saw her. And my pops, well I already told you my pops was the superintendent of our building in Queens.
[Merengue fades out to silence.]
CHRIS: To hear him tell it, the job had its perks. Like these old Russian cats who lived in the building. They’d see my dad every morning and insist that he join them for “breakfast.”
WILLIAM: Hot salami, hot coleslaw, everything was hot, but you had to have your vodka. And the vodka was like straight up neat. God forbid you said no. ….because these people would say, “no, no, you must, you must.” And then they would click you on your neck and that means you want to have a drink. By the time it was nine o'clock, I already had a little buzz going on.
CHRIS: Russians, Jews, Chinese folks, Dominicans, Colombians – you name it, our building was the melting pot. My family of four squeezed into a one bedroom apartment for years. Until eventually we graduated to a two bedroom… which means my sis got her own room. But not me. But it was alright, though, because I had the whole building.
[Sound of kids playing in a park outside.]
MARTHA: I think it was I don't know, we couldn't have asked for a better place to raise our family. It's, um–
CHRIS: Are you crying already? We just started.
MARTHA: Gosh, I know we've only just begun, but memory lane opens floodgates sometimes. So it was ideal because, I mean, we had everything. We didn't have an actual house, but the entire building was our house. That's kind of how I saw it. With extended family…I mean, the characters that lived in that building,... It was a real neighborhood. It was a building that was a neighborhood.
CHRIS: Can you tell me about some of the characters in the building? You remember?
MARTHA: So many, right?
WILLIAM: Rhonda was a sexual therapist who I thought never had sex.
MARTHA: [laughs] Our next door neighbor was a tarot card reader. She was great.
WILLIAM: The Goldbergs. The Goldbergs. Nice. There were the Goldbergs were in front of us.
CHRIS: Upstairs was my godfather, the pastry chef. And my best friend, Danny. And on the first floor was Mrs. Butts — yup. B-U-T-T-S.
WILLIAM: Mrs. Butts. Mrs. Butts basically was losing her hearing. Fantastic.
CHRIS: I think when he says fantastic, I think he means she was fantastic, not that she was losing her hearing. Anyway, Mrs. Butts ALWAYS had her TV on — blasting.
WILLIAM: So I would walk in there and I'd say, “Can you lower it?” And she goes, “What?” And I – and I would say, “Mrs. Butts,” and I'd start screaming and she'd go, “Why are you yelling?” And I'm like, “Because you don't hear me!”
[William and Martha laugh.]
CHRIS: My pops loves to tell stories like these. But the thing that sticks with me the most — my violin moment — is the memory of watching my dad interact with all the different folks in our building. Changing in front of my eyes for these other people. As he calls it, adapting.
WILLIAM: It's – I'm not sure if it's a natural thing that happens to me or what I do, but I try to make them feel comfortable. First, you know where they come from, who they are, their culture, their habits. And also you have to know everyone and you kind of study everyone to know how to address them. We're not all the same, and we have to adapt to who they are. I tried to adapt to their personalities and who they were to make it easier.
CHRIS: Here’s some examples of what we’re talking about… When my dad would greet the russian guys in the morning —
WILLIAM: And that's how [speaks in Russian].
CHRIS: But if he was talking to Jose, the Dominican dude who worked for him it was this —
WILLIAM: Oh pero flaco, como tu ‘ta?
CHRIS: The kids hanging around on the property late at night met this version of my pops:
WILLIAM: Well, let me just tell you, if you don't get out, I’ll rip your freakin heart out, OK? So get the hell out right now before I go crazy on you.
CHRIS: And his white bosses met this one:
WILLIAM: Yes, sir. Yes, ma'am. [Laugh.] How are you, ma'am?
CHRIS: And my pops taught me to do this, too. To study people. Copy them. Adapt. He turned it into a kind of game...
Hey Abigail — can I get some park noise going?
[Background park noise enters.]
CHRIS: Yeah, that’s the stuff. I learned the game one evening in Central Park.
[Hand drums start playing, electric piano and bass enter soon.]
CHRIS: It’s called "Where Are They Going, Where Are They Coming From And Why Do They Walk That Way." Basically, you sit at the entrance of a park, or any place really, and you watch people…you study them.
WILLIAM: The thing about people and the way they walk…before they even open their mouth, you could see a character, for who they are by their expressions of their their body.
CHRIS: They just got out of work. I know that. Um, and they're going to – they're going home.
WILLIAM: If they're too edgy, if they're looking around too much, this guy's got something to hide, why is he looking around? Why is he like, you know, what's happening?
CHRIS: Why do they walk that way? He has quite a turnout. She does not have a turnout. She has more pep in her step. He's so exhausted. I can tell.
WILLIAM:If they're really not paying attention and just walking around oblivious to what’s going on, their surroundings.
CHRIS: And you gotta be careful when you play, because usually you don’t play it out loud like this, because then you know, people are like staring at you.
CHRIS: My pops thought that if you watch any one long enough, you get to know how they live, how they move, how they breathe, why they are or aren’t successful. He would tell me things like, “Chris, you want to be rich, hang out with rich people. You want to be smart, hang out with smart people. You want to be funny, hang out with funny people. Whatever you want to be, mijo. You put yourself there until it comes true. Play the part, play the part.”
CHRIS: In today's society, we call the code switching out. Do you know that term?
WILLIAM: No, but I must say that is similar to adapting to the culture.
Playing the part. Code switching. Adapting to the culture. It’s all the same… It’s all pretending. And it got my dad ahead in life — it got him (and me! And many brown people!) the American dream.
[Music fades down.]
But whose dream is it really? And what does it cost us?
[Gunshot sound effects are heard.]
ACTOR AS RUBI: The roar produced by the shots of the rifles were the first noises I heard in my life. I was at most three years old.
CHRIS: That is Rubi’s origin story. Porfirio Rubirosa Ariza is born in 1909 in a Dominican town called San Francisco de Macorís. He is the youngest child of an upper-middle-class family. His father is in the military. And the country he’s born into is one in chaos. Bands of men fighting for power and control.
ACTOR AS RUBI: Suddenly, trembling from the detonations, the glass in the windows shattered. People shouted. My mother took me and threw me under the bed. I could hear her breathless voice pleading softly to the Virgen de la Altagracia.
CHRIS: When Rubi is just six years old, he’s extracted from this chaos. His father is sent on a diplomatic mission to Paris. All of a sudden, Rubi is far from the DR, a young Brown boy in a gold, glittering city.
MARTY: I think what separates him from the typical Dominican man is his raising in 20s and 30s Paris. We can only imagine what that was like. And that's where the Rubirosa that we know was really reborn.
CHRIS: This is Marty Wall, co-author of Chasing Rubi.
CHRIS: What changes for him in Paris?
MARTY: Oh, where did you grow up, sir?
CHRIS: New York City.
MARTY: New York City. Well, that's – you're the wrong person to ask. [both laugh]
[Upbeat jazzy acoustic guitars enter.]
CHRIS: What up Paris!? New York represent!
MARTY: I grew up in Detroit, and I remember my first visit to New York, which is I had no idea there was even a place like this, you know? And I think, you know, a young boy, I think when he moved there, seeing the other side of life, you know, there were cars! There were motor cars! There were lights everywhere! So I think it was just a huge eye opener for a different lifestyle and one that he was born to be part of.
[Upbeat acoustic guitars continue playing.]
CHRIS: Rubi loves living in a cosmopolitan place like Paris. He learns French. And when his older siblings are sent to Spain for high school, he gets to stay.
His father enrolls him in a fancy private school, giving Rubi an education he could never have had in the Dominican Republic. An education not just in history or art, but in the ways of the European world. He got to watch people walk in the parks of Paris. He got to learn how to walk like them
MARTY: And it was the 20s in Paris, it was the high life. You know, he became acquainted with the high life. You know, it was just this amazing, magical place that he learned how to become the mayor of eventually.
[Music fades out.]
CHRIS: Rubi, the mayor of Paris. Can you imagine getting to play THAT part? I mean, this is the 1920s in Paris! Like the real “Midnight in Paris.” There’s art, clubs and bars and music and dancing. Rubi’s only in his early teens… but he aches to go to the clubs…to be in the mix. And then he remembers the lesson from his teacher with the violin: Faire semblance. Just pretend…So that’s what he does.
In 1925, Rubi is only 16, but he sneaks his way into a nightclub. His first nightclub.
[Upbeat acoustic guitars play a different song.]
ACTOR AS RUBI: I can see it as vividly as if it were yesterday… The smell of perfume, cigarette smoke, and aftershave filled the air. I chose a beautiful woman that was seated with her date to dance with me. I will never forget her moist, wet lips that parted to reveal brilliant white teeth and her enormous brown eyes. She ran her fingers through my hair as we danced close and pressed our cheeks together. Before I knew it, it was daylight, 7a.m. I had forgotten that I was still a child, dependent upon my parents.
CHRIS: A grown woman spends the night dancing with a teen? Really? No way! But Rubi’s memoir is filled with stories about underage drinking and jazz and women and staying out all night. Pretty soon, the nightlife takes a toll on his schoolwork. He seems almost pleased about it in his memoir.
ACTOR AS RUBI: I only opened the books that I liked, and these were few in number. The only geography that interested me was the geography of Paris by night.
CHRIS: In 1928, Rubi’s father was back in the Dominican Republic when he received word that his son had failing grades for the third time. Rubi’s father sends him a furious telegram: Head to the coast. You are getting on a boat back to the Dominican Republic now.
ACTOR AS RUBI: I had returned from Paris, the liberated son from the liberated city, parading all the prestige that conferred. It seemed everyone was envious of my emancipated behavior.
CHRIS: Turns out nothing really fazes Rubi. Coming home to the DR isn’t such a big deal for him. Even though his father winds up getting sick, and there’s political turmoil all around him, Rubi still writes about music, dancing, and girls. Although he does seem disappointed in the old-fashioned dating etiquette of the DR...
ACTOR AS RUBI: The culture in Santo Domingo, compared to that of Paris, was like stepping back in time. …You couldn’t just ask a girl out to the movies and be alone with her. If a young man liked a girl, he had to first ask her parents’ permission in an eloquent manner. A simpler yes or no was out of the question. It was more like the third degree.
CHRIS: Rubi spends his afternoons on the beach with his friends. Flirting with girls. Smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. But while Rubi’s life is a breeze… his country is weathering a storm. A storm brought on by one man in particular… Rafael Trujillo the dictator who ruled the DR for 30 years.
[Theme music enters, briefly plays at full volume, then ends.]
[Brief vibraphone, guitar, drums, and bass interlude.]
CHRIS: Rubi was born into an era of Dominican history filled with continuous conflict. After the DR declared its independence in 1844, there was this constant cycle of leaders seizing power, then being assassinated, then seizing power and being assassinated, and so on.
In 1930, Just two years after Rubi’s return to the DR, there is a new leader. One that would shape Rubi’s life and the course of world events. Enter our next great pretender: Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo.
ISABELLA: Oh, Trujillo. [sigh] Must I?
CHRIS: This is “Chasing Rubi” co-author Isabella Wall. We’re not gonna talk to her for long in this episode, but I just had to let you hear her reaction to Trujillo. That sigh says it all.
ISABELLA: You know. Yeah, I mean, he's just. He’s something, let's just say. Trujillo, it's the the dictator of the Dominican Republic who dominated the island for about 32 years or something like that.
CHRIS: Trujillo would come to be known as one of the deadliest dictators in the Americas.
He seized power of the Dominican Republic in a coup against the sitting president in 1930. And then he ruled with a bloody iron fist for three decades, under the guise of restoring order to a country ravaged by conflict.
Rubi is always writing about Trujillo, and he seems particularly impressed by their first encounter.
ACTOR AS RUBI: It was in the fall of 1932, at the Country Club, that I met Trujillo for the first time. I did not know more about him than what my father had told a few weeks before he died, and what was whispered in the halls of high society, where fear had settled: the general was a tíguere, a tiger, more cruel than the others ... more cunning than a fox.
CHRIS: Rubi was just 22 years old when he met Trujillo. At the time, Trujillo was a feared man, who would only get more violent as time went along. But Rubi doesn’t seem afraid in his memoir. He seems enamored by the general’s self-control, and his appetite for pleasure.
DR. MILAGROS RICOURT: Well, Trujillo was, you know, he was the master of manipulation.
CHRIS: This is Milagros Ricourt. She’s a professor of Latin American studies at Lehman College. Milagros says that as Trujillo rose to power in the DR, he had a way of getting what he wanted both personally and politically.
DR. MILAGROS: So Trujillo entered the police academy that the United States created in the Dominican Republic after the invasion, the 1916 invasion. So he entered that academy and from the academy, he graduated as a colonel. Then he …he went to the Capitol city. He ousted Horacio Vasquez. And he became the president with an election that was fraudulent.
CHRIS: Yeah this guy took over, and THEN held an election in which he conveniently won 99% of the vote. That’s pretending to the MAX. Once in power, Trujilrlo renamed the capital city after – you guessed it, himself. He demanded every home hang a sign pledging allegiance to God – and to him.
He also kept an execution list. If you opposed Trujillo’s political positions? You’re on the list. Speak out? On the list. Heck, if you made eye contact for too long you’d probably wind up on the list! Trujillo once allowed an opposition party to form, only to then arrest or kill everyone who joined the opposition.
In order to keep a steadfast hold on the country, Trujillo surrounded himself with loyalists. He very much wanted to be accepted by the elite – which believe it or not, included our boy Rubi.
ACTOR AS RUBI: He went to great lengths to meet me, and others like me. He portrayed himself as a descendant of a Spanish solider and a French Marquis, which of course he wasn’t.
Those in high society ridiculed Trujillo because of his low social origins, and he was well aware of that.
[Downbeat, pensive music enters.]
CHRIS: Let’s take a sec here. That pretending is back. Trujillo is pretending he’s Spanish, French, European. Basically, he’s pretending he’s white. Even though, like almost everyone in the DR, Trujillo was the descendant of enslaved Africans. He had Haitan relatives. He was anything but white. The man is Afro-Latino, Black with a capital B.
But Trujillo didn’t want that to be true. Trujillo didn’t want to be Black. So he pretended. He actually went so far as to use makeup: he baby powdered his face multiple times a day to lighten his complexion. He applied a literal mask to hide who he really was. This was racial, of course, but it was also about power. About aligning himself with those he so desperately wanted to impress — the elite. The European and American rulers. The white faces of power.
DR. MILAGROS: Trujillo loved Rubirosa. There was like a chemistry between the two because Rubirosa had everything that he believe the perfect man has to have.
MARTY: Rubirosa was all the things that Trujillo wasn't.
CHRIS: Rubi embodies so much of what Trujillo wants to be. He's got the European upbringing and education. He speaks French and is at home in Paris. He's stylish, cool. He's a ladies man. And he has sway with the young people of the island.
Trujillo offers Rubi a job in the military, hoping Rubi’s acceptance will cast a shiny glow on his army.
ACTOR AS RUBI: I always felt the president was using me as a trophy of sorts. He would always have me around to charm the wives of visiting diplomats and dignitaries with my polo stories and other wild tales I just made up.
CHRIS: Was Rubi scared to be working for Trujillo? A man quick to punish even the slightest transgressions? From his memoir, it doesn’t sound like it. But then again, Rubi is also pretty good at pretending.
Once he’s in Trujillo’s military, Rubi still finds ways to be … Rubi. Just like he did in school in Paris, Rubi spends most of his time doing the things he wants to do.
ACTOR READING: Trujillo’s protection gave me great leeway, allowed me to see the good side of military life, and to be active in sports, which I loved. Especially riding horses.
CHRIS: Rubi also proudly writes about ways he tested the limits of being Trujillo’s trophy boy. Get this: One night he’s invited to a fancy dinner Trujillo is hosting. He’s supposed to wear his formal military whites. But he shows up in his casual khakis. “My formals are in the wash,” he says. Lying to everyone in the room and everyone knowing it’s a lie.
ACTOR READING FROM MEMOIR: I still remember the look Trujillo gave me, and the eyebrows that rose in the middle of his forehead
CHRIS: How will Trujillo react to such blatant insubordination? This is the sort of thing that gets someone fired, expelled.
Then Rubi being Rubi takes it one step further…and abandons his position. He brags about it in his memoir:
[Music picks up.]
ACTOR AS RUBI: I couldn't take it anymore. The musicians were playing a dance, I left my ridiculous guard post, walked around the presidential table, and with the feeling of a gaze of steel on my back, I approached a young lady, leaned over, and invited her to sit with me at the small table near the president.
CHRIS: The dictator watches. But, doesn’t intervene.
CHRIS: And this is the moment Rubi and Trujillo begin their long, long tango. A dance that will last for thirty years. Rubi gains money, power and prestige. Trujillo gains a posh and elegant Dominican mouthpiece. A man everybody loves on his side.
[Music plays at full volume, ends.]
CHRIS: A few months after the uniform incident, Trujillo and Rubi take another dangerous spin.
Trujillo introduces Rubi to his daughter, a beautiful young woman named Flor de Oro — which means flower of gold. It wasn’t supposed to mean anything… but Rubi’s Rubi, and before you know it, him and Flor are sneaking around behind Trujillo’s back… in love.
And this took guts, y’all. I mean, asking a woman to dance in the wrong color uniform is pretty bold, right? But now this dude is literally sneaking around with Trujillo’s own daughter! Even when you know that he lived another 30 years, when you’re turning the pages in his biography you’re half expecting Rubi’s gonna end up on that execution list any minute now.
And so when the dictator finds out about Rubi and Flor’s little love affair, he is filled with rage and kicks Rubi out of the military. Fearing for his life, Rubi runs away to his family’s cocoa plantation. While he’s in hiding, Flor calls him there.
ACTOR READING FROM MEMOIR: “My love don’t give up,“ were the first words from her lips. “Everything will work out, you’ll see. I have not left my room but I have sent word to my father that I wanted to marry you.” She’d beaten him. She got what she wanted — always, and I was she wanted.
CHRIS: Rubi and Flor persist…and eventually, Trujillo gives up. They get married in December of 1932. Trujillo declares their wedding day a national holiday. Flor is just 17. Rubi is 23, and now he’s the son-in-law of one of the most dangerous men in the world.
CHRIS: Was Rubi really in love with Flor? Or did the brave young ladies man get in over his head? Maybe marriage was the only option to save his life. But one thing is clear: after Rubi marries Flor, he certainly enjoys the privilege of being Trujillo’s son in law. He’ll soon be an appointed diplomat, traveling the world in style, with a generous spending account and a beautiful woman at his side.
And it’s here that I can’t help but remember that scene with the violin. A schoolboy realizes that if he pretends with enough confidence, he can stay on stage, in the middle of the action.
Now that same boy is standing in the middle of a much more dangerous stage… and he’s playing to please a brutal dictator. While you might admire his guts, you also can’t help but feel he’s risking losing something in this game.
[Music plays at full volume, then fades down as the sound of a subway announcement fades up.]
CHRIS: Remember that subway story I told you at the top of this episode? About how hard my parents worked to give me and my sister a life different from their own? Well, let’s go back to that for a minute. I think that family history has some more lessons about what pretending can cost us.
[Sound of train arriving.]
CHRIS: When I was 13 and out of nowhere in the middle of this big merengue salsa Dominican Bachata, me and all my 37 cousins shindig party in Queens, my pop's cousin calls my dad fake. Fake. And this shouting match, it just begins and then the cousin yells, “Yo, look who it is the blanquitos.” As in, “Look who it is the white people,” followed up with, “When are you going to stop trying to be so white?”
CHRIS: I don’t remember this party, myself. But the story is another Rivas family legend. My dad got so furious… him and his family they barely speak. And that’s not the only time in my dad’s life that people confronted him like this.
WILLIAM: Well, my friends used to say, “You want to be something that you're not.” Then they would say, “Oh, check out Willie, he's trying to be part of,” you know, they would say, “Oh, you want to be white now?” So you would hear that. In my behalf, [sic] I just wanted to fit in and be respected in some way. I didn't care what people thought about, you know, when they said if I had to adapt. It's not about adapting. I just want to get somewhere. And I know that it was, in my time. And still now, you know you want to – in order to be with a certain group of class you had to fit in, you had to be, you had to know current events, you had to know what was going on. People judge you and honestly, money brings money. Connections, bring connections. It's who, you know, it's not what you know.
CHRIS: When my dad pretends, when he adapts, puts on his masks… I think in HIS mind, he’s doing it for us, his family. So that we can have the life he and my mom talked about on the subway all those years ago. But maybe to other people, my pops is selling out. He’s pandering to the people with the powers that can grant him that money, those connections, that so-called Freedom and American Dream. And y’know what? My dad’s not wrong. In America, if you look like us, if you come from a culture like us, that’s what it takes. Assimilation. Pretending. Faking it til you make it.
But there are costs.
CHRIS: Do you think you and mom gave anything up in order to achieve this American dream?
WILLIAM: Friendship. Your mother didn’t, but I did. What kind of I I couldn't relate to my friends still hanging out. I want something new. I want to be – progress. I want somebody who's going in the same direction. I'm going. Because if you're not and you're going to stay without me, I still will say hello to you. But we didn't – sometimes I just couldn't go back.
CHRIS: How do you identify? White, brown what?
WILLIAM: How do I see myself? I see myself as a white person. I see myself as William Rivas, born in New York City and raised as a Latin American by American culture. That's it. I mean, one story is my real name is Guillermo in my Social Security. So when I was going to school, people would laugh because when they would do roll call, the teacher couldn't pronounce Guillermo and they would say, Guh, Guh-ler-mo, they have a hard time. And then you get the kids that were laughing. So to me, I was growing up with this embarrassment about my name and it was hard. I made it an effort as a teenager to go to the Social Security office and change my name to William.
CHRIS: William. Or Willie. Or Bill. Or Mr. Bill. One time, my dad says he had a party.
WILLIAM: I invited some of our regular friends and one of the neighbors said to one of my friends, “Hey, how do you know Bill?” He goes, “Bill, who's Bill?” And he said, “the owner of this house.” “Oh you talking about Willie? Oh, I know Willie for a long time.” So I had to blend in with different types in order to just mix in there, be part of that pot.
CHRIS: Ok. so I knew my dad’s real name was Guillermo. And I know everyone calls him William or Willie or Mr. Bill. But I didn’t know he changed it legally until this conversation. I definitely didn’t know he marked his license white until this conversation! My mom didn’t either. Though she said it didn’t surprise her.
When I hear stuff like this I feel angry. Mad at my dad for not standing by his birth name or for not punching his cousins or his buddies for talking shit, or for marking white on his drivers license. But I can’t stay mad for long. Because in every conversation we have like this, even for this podcast… he always asks me this one question.
WILLIAM: Did I do a good job, Chris?
CHRIS: Oh, yeah, for sure, of course. Uh, yeah, I think I think you and mom did an amazing job. I think look at, look at the life, I have – I mean, I think I ask you these questions not in a way of saying you did a bad job, but like look at the ability for me to be able to ask you these questions, for us to have these conversations. And I think that's in large part to you two just saying yes more than you said no and supporting me no matter what. Yeah.
[Sentimental piano enters.]
WILLIAM: I know I told you the skies are the limits, and I think I did a great job because I see what a what I've created.
CHRIS: In the end, my pops is right. He did a damn good job. He made sacrifices and they were worth something. Growing up with him as my dad taught me valuable lessons about how to survive in a world not made for us. Surviving as a Brown body in this world does take a little bit of code switching. A little assimilation. A little pretending... And sometimes a lot.
And I gotta hold both these feelings at once — the push against pretending and trying for the white gaze, and the realization that it helps me play the game, helps me thrive not just survive.
[Piano fades down.]
You know, scientists have studied the impact of this kind of “surviving.” An African-American epidemiologist named Sherman James interviewed Black Americans in the 1980s and found higher rates of heart disease, hypertension, and other stress-related illnesses. He identified the physiological costs of competing for acceptance from the white gaze. I feel these costs daily, a steady anxiety that I feel in my gut and in my heart.
I think most Brown people feel this at some point in their life. I think my Pops has had this anxiety. I think Rubi had it too...the need to be accepted. Even Trujillo, the guy who seized power, kept powdering his face because he wanted to be accepted by the white gaze that surrounded his little island in the Caribbean.
Because we don't have the luxury of walking into the world without some sort of perfect mask... so we walk the tightrope of pretending. Pretending in order to fit in, in order to be seen.
[Theme music enters.]
Next time we’ll take a look at Rubi’s life— from his adventures in the high life:
TAKI: He was incredibly glamorous. Was always flirting with a woman, gave fantastic parties, and he seduced everybody.
To his low points:
ISABELLA: Basically Rubirosa was assigned with making him disappear,
And we’ll find out what Rubi might have in common with Bond. James Bond.
[Music transitions from theme music to merengue.]
Rubirosa is a production of Witness Docs from Stitcher. It’s created by me, Christopher Rivas, and I’m also an executive producer.
Abigail Keel is our senior producer. Kevin Tidmarsh is our producer. Our Story Editor is John DeLore. Our technical director is Casey Holford. Kameel Stanley is the Executive Producer of Witness Docs. Readings of Rubi’s memoir are performed by Victor Almanzar.
Workhouse Media Inc is also a contributing producer to this podcast. Amelia Baker, Mackenzie Munro and Ari Anderson are executive producers at Workhouse.
Original music for this podcast is composed and performed by Wilson Torres, Yeisson Villamar [via-mar], and Marcos Varela [va-rel-ah]. Our theme song is composed by Allison Leyton [LAY-ton] Brown.
Get in touch!! We wanna know your questions, thoughts, and stories… so send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. And do us a favor — subscribe to the show, write reviews. Tell your friends! We love the help. :D