Shades of a Brutal Past

Last week, Haitian president Evans Paul warned that the Dominican Republic’s policy of deporting those of Haitian descent back to Haiti would lead to a humanitarian crisis. Fourteen thousand people have crossed the border in less than a week, some by choice and some by force. Many of those coming to Haiti were born in the Dominican Republic and have never been to the country before, yet they are being denied citizenship because they cannot prove their place of birth. It is estimated that there are half a million Haitians in the Dominican Republic; of the 250,000 who have applied for citizenship, only 300 have been granted residency permits (those who can prove they have applied will not, according to the government, be deported until their case is examined).

Most of the Haitians (and people of Haitian ancestry) in the Dominican Republic live in bateys, company towns built for sugarcane workers. Many entered the country illegally, and their employers refuse to vouch for them or their families because they do not want to admit they are hiring illegal workers. This is a situation found all over the world in the agricultural industry especially; but in the Dominican Republic, it has a particularly brutal history. In 1937, under the infamous reign of Trujillo, around 20,000 Haitians were massacred because they could not say the word “perejil” (parsley) like a native Spanish-speaker would. The current deportation order goes back to any Haitian who has entered the country since 1930.

Other countries, including the US, have preserved official silence (in general) about the deportations. According to the New York Times, this is due to “the troubled relationship many countries have with migrant workers who enter their borders illegally seeking employment” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/17/world/americas/migrant-workers-in-dominican-republic-most-of-them-haitian-face-deportation.html?_r=0). But official silence about the Dominican Republic’s racial policies has long been the case. Take, for example, Sydney Greenbie’s wartime Three Island Nations: Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic (1942), part of the Good Neighbor Series and developed under the auspices of the US Commissioner of Education John Studebaker (the US government had a habit in the 40s and 50s of “suggesting” what children should read; this is one reason so much science fiction was published in the decade before the US landed on the moon). This series, designed to teach American children about their Latin American neighbors, surprisingly mentions the Perejil Massacre—but is rather coy in its explanations: “it is always a temptation for the Haitians to come over into the more spacious lands of Santo Domingo to seek work,” Greenbie writes, and, “In 1937, when the Dominicans found that thousands of Haitians had crossed the border illegally, a serious armed clash occurred. The Dominican Republic finally admitted full responsibility for the incident and paid Haiti an indemnity” (72-73). Here the discussion of the massacre ends, and the reader is left with the idea (based on the words “illegally” and “clash”) that—despite the Dominicans taking responsibility—the Haitians are equally to blame. Greenbie’s text does, however, admit that the problem is a racial one; he writes that Dominicans “punish anyone on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti who dances the Negro dances or sings the jungle songs” (72), because Dominicans want to emphasize their Spanish origins.

Mostly good neighbors--except for that massacre thing.

Mostly good neighbors–except for that massacre thing.

Perhaps Greenbie (and the US government) felt it was wise to remain vague about a dictator still in power at the time his book was written. But most modern geographies for children do not mention the Perejil Massacre or the large number of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic (then or now) at all. One that does is Susan Haberle’s Countries and Cultures: Dominican Republic (Capstone: 2004), but again, the discussion raises more questions than it answers and leaves the Haitians appearing partly to blame. She writes, “Most Dominicans, and people around the world, remember Trujillo’s rule as a time of terror. He imprisoned, tortured, and killed people who opposed his rule. In 1937, he ordered the murder of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic as revenge for the killing of spies he sent to Haiti. More than 20,000 people were killed” (29-30). Although admitting to the number of Haitians killed, there is nothing about Dominican racism, and the Haitians are faulted for spying on the Trujillo regime (the US was also spying on Trujillo, but he didn’t murder 20,000 Americans . . .). Even more than 60 years after Trujillo’s assassination, children’s geographies remain evasive about the Perejil Massacre and the racism that led to it.

Suffering under the DR's Trujillo in Alvarez's novel for children.

Suffering under the DR’s Trujillo in Alvarez’s novel for children.

This is true of children’s fiction as well. Although authors like Julia Alvarez have brought powerful stories of Trujillo’s regime to a young audience (Before We Were Free, 2004), her children’s books do not discuss the Dominican-Haitian divide. Interestingly, she has written a story about migrant workers being sent back to their native land, in Return to Sender (2010), but this book is about Mexican migrant workers in the US. Edwidge Danticat, who along with Junot Díaz has called for intellectuals to take a stand against the deportations in the Dominican Republic (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/25/junot-diaz-edwidge-danticat-condemn-dominican-republic-haitian-migrants), has written one of the most powerful books ever about the Perejil Massacre, The Farming of Bones (1998)—but this is for adults. Haitians, in children’s books about the Dominican Republic, are not just fictional—they are almost nonexistent.

Jwenlapaix in the Bateyes (Paperback) ~ Amanda Ellis (Author) Cover Art

There is only one book that I could find that tells the story of a contemporary Haitian child in the Dominican Republic. The self-published book by Amanda Ellis, with text in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, is called Jwenlapaix in the Bateyes (2009) and tells the story of Haitian canecutters in the Dominican Republic. “Their lives are one long fight, one endless struggle,” Ellis writes, “against the sun, against the cane, against their Dominican sisters and brothers, and against a world that does not even know they are there.” Perhaps this latest crisis will bring their struggle to the attention of authors and readers at last.

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