It’s a vague but persistent notion that Carmen Rita Wong carries with her throughout her
life—not fitting in, not belonging. Unlike her older brother Alex, she has none of their father
Peter Wong’s physical features. While she assumes that Alex takes after their dad and she takes after Lupe, their Dominican mother, there is still the skin-deep but very practical question, “Where did her nose come from?” The answer, with all its ramifications, comes to light over the course of Carmen Rita Wong’s engrossing memoir Why Didn’t You Tell Me?
In their early years, Alex and Carmen are immersed in Dominican American life in their Harlem home, and visits to Chinatown with Peter round out their bicultural lives. When Lupe divorces Peter and marries Marty, an Italian American who moves them to small town New Hampshire, first Hudson and later Amherst, it “was an introduction to a third American culture. The dominant one: white.”
This transplantation expands Carmen’s experiences in surprising ways: “I was a Chinese-tea- sipping, Abuela-cafecito-drinking China-Latina city girl now pumping water from a well in the middle of the woods and popping popcorn in a pan over a campfire.” The move also comes with a more alarming revelation.
One evening while the family is driving home, the flashing lights of a police car unnerves them all. Marty explains to the officer that their house is nearby and hands over corroborating documents. The policeman reveals that their “neighbors called in a report of Puerto Ricans casing the neighborhood.” It’s Carmen’s first understanding that white people not only thought of them as less but also feared them as criminals. Not to mention misidentifying their ethnicity.
Over the next years, Lupe and Marty add four girls to the family. While Alex, as the eldest and the only boy, has the privilege of staying above the fray, Carmen is pressed into a surrogate mother role, missing out on the opportunity to have a sibling relationship with her half-sisters. She feels secondary to this second family of her mother’s.
Sometime during her preteen years, she begins calling Marty “Dad” as a way “to bridge some of the distance between being an outsider to a family [she] lived with and grew up with and [her] increasing desire to be an official part of it.”
When Carmen is an adult, she learns through a series of events—Lupe’s sudden need for
confessing past transgressions, her (Carmen) and Alex’s decision to submit to DNA ancestry testing, and her own sleuthing—the identity of her biological father. It’s a discovery that comes with mixed emotions—sadness that much of her life has been lived as a lie and elation at finally disentangling why.
Why Didn’t You Tell Me? is Carmen Rita Wong’s fairly straightforward, chronological account
of her journey to discover herself out of a life rooted in deception, the origin of which stemmed from sexism and racism. What makes it riveting is the clarity with which she examines the events and circumstances of her life, and also the life of her parents, especially her mother Lupe.
Wong writes, “It’s wild when you’re a kid and see an interesting side of a parent you’ve never seen before.” She’s referring to her mother’s enterprising ways to raise money for Carmen’s school and other causes. “It was now clear to me that Mom was naturally ambitious.”
That ambition had been held in check since her marriage to Marty and the move to New
Hampshire. While Marty commutes to work every day, Lupe stays home to raise babies and tend to all things domestic. She no longer has her own income from her own job the way she’d had in Harlem. Instead, each week, silently seething at the amount, she opens her hand to the check Marty doles out for the household expenses.
There are other things that enlighten Carmen to her mother’s circumstances as a Dominican woman transplanted from a brown and black city neighborhood to a white, small town. Soon after their move from the city, her mother wears a scarf, a beautiful one, over her hair rollers to the grocery store, a common sight in the streets and stores on Saturday mornings in Harlem. But in their New Hampshire town, onlookers “stared, sneered, and stifled laughs.”
Even from within their own household, Lupe’s Latina traits are scrutinized. While Lupe loves
trying out big, formal words in English, Marty teases her about her accent.
“Lupe! There is not an ‘e’ before every word starting with an ‘s’! It is not ‘es-spoon’—it
Later, in an act of independence and a nod to her Dominican roots, Lupe comes home one day with her normally straightened hair styled naturally into an Afro. Carmen is shocked but exhilarated for her mother. “It was brave. I was in awe of her.” Marty hated it. Lupe covered her head with a scarf every day until her hair grew out.
It’s a marriage that breaks down over time and ends when Carmen is an adult. In the meantime, Lupe directs her anger and frustration at the kids, with Carmen, as the oldest girl, receiving the brunt of it while also trying to mitigate it for the younger ones. Lupe also denies Carmen any privacy, regularly searching her bedroom. Wong writes, “I learned that the only truly private place, the only thing that was mine and only mine, was my own mind.”
It’s the private place of her mind that allows her to ruminate and process and piece together her mother’s deception regarding her biological father and in the end to understand it—how it began with Lupe at nineteen years old marrying the much older Peter Wong, a union arranged by Lupe’s father who arranged a similar union for Lupe’s sister.
To Carmen’s question, “Why did Abuelo have both you and Maria marry Chinese?” Lupe
responds, “Because the Chinese were the closest thing to a white man.” In addition to this
elevation in status in terms of skin color, marriage to Peter Wong brings another enhancement: immigration status.
The marriage lasts only a few years, and though Peter Wong is not a frequent presence in the lives of his children after that, he does imbue Alex and Carmen with a sense of Asian identity. While Lupe’s marriage to Marty gives Carmen an education in Anglo culture, it also intensifies her appreciation of her Dominican heritage.
Every story is a mystery story is a piece of craft advice for writers—a reminder to hold the
reader’s attention by unspooling the narrative to finally reveal the answer to the mystery at the end. Wong does this very well, inserting measured references throughout her story regarding her sense of something out of place. The reader shares Wong’s joy with the identity of her biological father and also her pain at the implications, such as the extent of the deception Lupe perpetrated. And yet, the racism and sexism Wong witnesses and herself endures over the years gives her insight into Lupe’s life and legacy.
“Lupe ended up pouring a solid foundation for me despite all the things working against her.”