In Juno Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Oscar’s family — Beli, the mother, and Lola, Oscar’s sister — go to dinner, upon the mother’s invitation, to the Zona Colonial. We learn that “the waiters kept looking at their party askance.” Lola reacts to this in a manner consistent with (some) Dominicans, and of course consistent with notions of “zona” or zone that is aptly named “colonial,” and says, “Watch out, Mom … they probably think you’re Haitian.” Beli, the mother, replies, “La única haitiana aquí eres tú, mi amor” (The only haitian here is you, my love.). In another incident, as “Oscar Goes Native,” we learn that he sees “his first Haitians kicked off a guagua (bus) because niggers claimed they ‘smelled.'” Díaz also gives us the picture of “Haitians selling roasted peanuts at the intersections.”
What do we see here?
It is a picture, in this case of Haitians, that is consistent with how those in need are first seduced by wages, usually much lower than those paid to a native labor force but much higher than earned by the needy of a country not quite as bountiful, and then categorically denied human rights by the dominant culture, in this case the Dominican Republic.
But this is not a problem unique to the Dominican Republic. All dominant cultures contain segments of their population for the purposes of cheap labor. This creates an unequal distribution of wealth and benefits. Economies are built — and strengthened — on the backs of those that are economically and politically weaker. This is the history of Western Civilization. Beginning with the Dutch Empire in the 17th Century, establishing outposts and plantations, skewering the fertile Guyana plains and creating the Cape Colony in South Africa, what we learn is that the modern world has been built by colonialization, the extreme exercise of violent power and control, and therefore extraordinary abuses of people.
Colonizers increase their wealth and the colonized are effectively repressed. Moving away from this history is difficult since it’s built into the DNA of such notions as progress, individualism and now even multiculturalism, as the recent, tragic events in Norway reveal. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is having second thoughts on multiculturalism following the attacks in Oslo; President Nicolas Sarkozy of France held a nationwide debate on “national identity” and banned Muslim full-face veils, for instance.
This way, this method of addressing the ills of our societies as we all confront differences and desires that may be quite alien to some, really begins with the year 1492 and the destruction of Andalusía and the expulsion or conversion ultimatum issued to Jews by the Catholic King himself, Ferdinand of Spain. I stand with those intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky, that firmly see this dark moment of discovery and destruction, or the discovery that brought on further destruction already in progress in Spain, as the beginning of the Modern Age. If we look around, we can argue that we’ve yet to live through this period, the black plague issued from 1492 — perhaps the ultimate fukú, as defined by Díaz, “specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.”
Now, as the historically colonized and victimized — Africans, Muslims, the disenfranchised dark people of the world — slowly move closer towards social justice — those inalienable rights we all speak about — they are further victimized by the strong roots of extreme nationalism that apparently grow unabated when the Other we’ve always kept down gains a modicum of political power. Political power leads to economic power. We know this, our history tells us this, so we fear this inescapable reality.
The case of the Haitians in the Dominican Republic, the narrative of their efforts to gain respect and a sense of worth, began on October 4, 1937. Known as the Parsley Massacre, because Dominican soldiers, holding up a sprig of parsley, would ask, “What is this?” And if they couldn’t say peregil, the Spanish word for parsley, they would be executed. (The Creole word for parsley is pési; the French word for parsley is persil.) Between 15,000 to 20,000 Haitian immigrant workers were massacred in the Dominican Republic. Most were slaughtered with bayonets and machetes by the Dominican army and some Dominican big landowners (ironically this practice was thought of as a way to keep the Dominican army from being fingered — no bullets, no trace). Infants had their heads smashed against walls. Women were speared with pitchforks. Many who were attempting to escape back to Haiti were captured at the border and killed. These murders were ordered by Dominican dictator Raphael Leonidas Trujillo, in an effort to “cleanse” the border region and expropriate small peasants or “conuqueros” so that big landowners could take over their lands.
This ethnic cleansing pogrom was part of an ideological campaign by the ruling classes to scapegoat Haitian immigrants for the plight of poor Dominicans and build a Dominican national identity through this process. This has led to an enduring entrenched anti-haitianismo pervasive in Dominican culture, reinforced in schools and systematically used as an instrument of exploitation.
It seems as if when we exploit and colonize, we hate those we use and destroy. Could it be that this Other is so overwhelming a reminder of our brutality that it’s much easier to take the next step and simply annihilate them? Is it that in conquering we hate ourselves so we must more fully engage in the destruction of the Other to keep our sanity? Must we try to destroy their trace, a tragic irony since this is impossible, given that all our texts that justify our power — the Christian Bible, for instance, the US Constitution — are replete with memory, good and bad, peaceful and violent? The trace is just that — a stain, a drop, an instance that’s verifiable and that enables future generations to judge and adjust. Is destruction and devastation the only way we have of enjoying the treasures we’ve taken because they are so colored in blood? Do we destroy fearing the rise of the Other? Certainly the Norwegian extremist charged with killing 92 people in Oslo, Anders Behring Breivik, thinks so having developed a detailed manifesto outlining his preparations and calling for a Christian war against Muslim domination.
We’re aghast at what happened in Oslo, but given the world we live in today, the question is why doesn’t this happen more often? The answer is that it does, it does happen, only in more subtle forms; the suffering is plentiful, particularly among the people that have been pushed aside, run through with machetes. We’re heading for disaster if we don’t find ways to ask relevant questions to help us change our DNA of conquer, divide, abuse and kill off. At the heart of the current US financial crisis, for instance, is this approach — conquer (the poor who didn’t know what mortgage they were getting into), divide (government’s insistence on ensuring the golden parachutes remain in the hands of the privileged that, historically, have always aided abuses), abuse (14% detectable unemployment in the US, though it’s much higher; let’s not forget the immigration crisis, too — we want them to clean our houses but we don’t want to recognize them, not even after generations of being in the US), and kill them off (let’s take to our guns and hit the Arizona border — it’s a war!).
The latest crisis in the long history that exists between the Dominican Republic and Haiti concerns the documentation of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Haitians — or better said: the Dominicans of Haitian descent — Dominican-Haitians — are seeking proper documentation so that they can attend schools and universities. These young people are not trying to gain anything that has not been earned by generations of their families living and working in squalor at the behest of the Dominican government. That is to say, these children are Dominican of Haitian descent — but rights are kept from them without reason. These young Dominicans don’t want handouts; they want what’s just so that they can then create a life for themselves, working hard, going to school and advancing. They see that their personal advancement would be the advancement of the nation. They are not welcomed in Haiti; they’re thought of as Dominicans. In the Dominican Republic, as we see in the hands of Juno Díaz, they are shunned, shoved off buses, ridiculed, made to live on the margins.
In Stranded: Stateless in the Dominican Republic, an Aljazeera report on a documentary by Steve Spapienza (why this tragedy is not touched by US mainstream media is yet another story, one of complicity, of course, since we have an equal crisis with immigrants we seduce with our bounty), we can fully see and understand their plight. But as we see in the featured case, that of Jean Sili and his family, the story ends tragically, as if we’re still in the bloody mess that was the Trujillo regime, the years of the brutal patriarch that ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians (he of course killed plenty of Dominicans as well — no one was spared by El Jefe).
What’s a solution for Dominican-Haitians and, perhaps, for undocumented immigrants to the US?
A solution is being presented by Fundación 180 Grados and a unique concept, gobernabilidad, the notion or quality of governing, the art of governing that proposes as a goal economic opportunity, robust social institutions, and stability between government — the State — civil society and open markets. Fundación 180 Grados aims to create education centers, places where gobernabilidad can take root in the promotion of humanity (social justice, a much maligned and overused term — and I dare say a term used by political correcteness not to addres the reality it hides: we’re talking about humanity, we’re talking about what is human, what is, after all, the normal discourse among thinking and feeling people, the blood stream in each of us that connects us all, something we readily dismiss — human rights). This can only happen if there is equal sharing of responsibilities between an organization and the people it’s trying to serve; one learns from the other, this way the underrepresented, the marginalized, can eventually take control of governance — gobernabilidad. It’s a concrete way of ensuring a fascicle and humane indoctrination into the dominant culture, and vice versa. That is to say, as Dominican – Haitians learn to govern — as they produce economies of scale for their own populations — they integrate into the larger society. In doing so, the dominant society benefits as suffering, which is costly in all shapes and forms, is reduced. The society then moves forward in humane ways, something we’ve yet to be able to do anywhere in the western world.
The light of day is in cooperation and collaboration, not competition. Competition — growth for growth’s sake and profits for few — has brought us wars and global warming, antipathies, violence and depravation. It’s time to work with people, such as the Fundación 180 Grados, that are finding creative and socially just solutions to our vast problems. We can’t learn apart from one another. We have to learn together. This will be the new world order.
In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, when Oscar is facing his assassins, Gorilla Grod and Solomon Grundy, sent by their police captain to end his life for loving Ybón, a local puta who made her way through the world as best she could, only to end up in this brutal captain’s hands, Oscar tells these formidable henchmen “that what they were doing was wrong, that they were going to take a great love out of the world. Love was a rare thing, easily confused with a million other things, and if anybody knew this to be true it was him.”
In the end, the very end of things, how we, as humanity, have recognized love and the magnificent power of love will be how we’re judged. Trujillo and his legacy, Gorilla Grod and Solomon Grundy, those that carry out colonialization’s ugliness, they’re scared of love and loving; those who work only to deny human rights, likewise, are scared to death of love. Love is powerful. If we give it, we gain strength.