Before moving to New York, I'd never had a Dominican or a Haitian student in my classroom. I was incredibly ignorant of the social realities affecting the island of Hispaniola. I knew: Haitians spoke Creole and had darker skin; Dominicans spoke Spanish and had lighter skin; Dominicans lived on the eastern side of Hispaniola; Haitians lived on the western side of Hispaniola. That was about it. Now, eighty-percent of my students are Dominican (still haven't had a Haitian student), and I know a hell of a lot more.
Over the course of the year, and particularly last week (during which time I spent wandering DR's capital, Santo Domingo) my ignorance of Hispaniola's past and contemporary social realities has been diminished. The process has only further reinforced my belief in the importance of culturally competent teachers.
One day back in September, a student walked into my classroom confused. I asked to see his schedule, and he asked where room 302 was. I knew immediately he was looking for a different school (there are seven schools in my building). I knew this not only because 302 is not one of our rooms, but because he spoke in French. When he told me he was Haitian, a few of my students close enough to the conversation stopped talking and looked over. The boy's eyes hit the floor. It wasn't much, but I definitely sensed a degree of social discomfort. At the time, I could not have explained its roots.
The relationship between Dominicans and Haitians has been, at times, extraordinarily violent. Dominican independence day, February 27, 1844, celebrates the day Dominicans overcame Haitian rule, which had been in effect since 1822. In many ways, Dominicans have defined themselves in contrast to Haitians.
Earlier this year in one of my classes, my students and I were discussing US patterns of immigration. I was trying to help them interpret some graphs and primary sources I'd provided. The evidence suggested that throughout American history, immigrants have been subject to mistreatment. "Como los haitianos," said one of my students. Although I'd gathered some sense of the tensions between Haitians and Dominicans by this point in the year, I was still not prepared to navigate the discussion that ensued. The floodgates opened, and before I knew it we were having a discussion about racism and stereotyping. The quote I remember most came from Alessandra. She said, "Mister, we know that not all haitianos are dirty, but most of them will poop and pee on buildings if you give them the chance." The class burst into laughter.
For years, blackness has been frowned upon by Dominican culture. Many Dominicans would prefer to refer to themselves as indios. Much of the most systematic attempt to eliminate blackness from the country came in the form of one of this century's most psychopathic dictators, General Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961, during which time he took extreme measures to rid the country of blackness.
A few weeks ago, I was struck by the comment of one of my Dominican students in a class conversation we were having about school safety. This student said that he felt unsafe coming to school because he was afraid of "black people," particularly the menacing ones that hang out on the corner outside the school in the mornings. This was coming from a kid with one of the darkest skin tones I've ever seen. I picked up his arm looking confused, and pretended to examine his skin. "You're afraid of 'black people?'" I asked. The entire class laughed for a solid sixty seconds, including the student, after which he became humorless again and said, "Mister, seriously, I'm worry [sic] about the blacks."
Trujillo took extreme measures to hide his and his country's own mulattoness. In all photo ops or television appearances, he applied white powder to his face and distributed tourist brochures in which only white people were featured. Despite his fascist leanings, Trujillo was one of the few leaders in the western hemisphere to welcome Jews fleeing Hitler's holocaust during WWII, hoping their mixing would further whiten the Dominican people. Trujillo, however, was not opposed to mass slaughter. In October of 1937, the general ordered what might be termed genocide of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. El Corte, or the cutting, is one of the terms used to describe the murder of at least 20,000 Haitians in the Dominican Republic, many of whom were hacked to death with machetes. The other popular term is the Parsley Massacre. In order to determine whether a person was Dominican or Haitian, killers would demand the person in question pronounce the Spanish word for parsley, perejil. If they did so unsatisfactorily, as French/Creole speakers who couldn't trill the 'r,' they were murdered.
Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian writer living in New York, wrote a book I'm in the process of reading (and so far highly recommend) about the massacre of Haitians in Trujillo's DR called The Farming of Bones. She also had a phenomenal piece in the New Yorker's Talk of the Town section this past January about Haiti's current state of affairs entitled, "A Year and a Day."
In a writing class I took a few months ago, a Dominican woman related to me stories of growing up in the Dominican countryside and hearing stories of Haitian boogeymen as a little girl. She told me, "I'd never seen a Haitian, but I knew to stay away from them. I didn't want to get eaten." Later in her life, a seasonal worker of Haitian origin staying in a house down the street died and left eight children living alone. The children were loaded on a truck and given to anyone who would take them.
There is an odd ethnic/national socio-economic hierarchy involving the Caribbean and New York. As this report on Caribbean migration patterns points out in referencing Puerto Rican discrimination against Dominicans:
"Ironically, the Puerto Rican stereotype of Dominicans recalls that of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, as well as that of Puerto Ricans in the USA. Dominican migrants face the same sort of racist categorization and prejudice that their own society imposes upon Haitians. Although many Dominicans apply their own complex system of ethnic classification to themselves, defining themselves as mulato oscuro, trigueño or indio oscuro, in Puerto Rico, where a US-influenced black/white dichotomy is more common, they are simply black."
And thus it goes: many Haitians flee their country for better opportunity in the Dominican Republic, many Dominicans do so in Puerto Rico, and many Puerto Ricans do so in New York City.
Although the country was on holiday while I was in Santo Domingo, and I didn't see many people - "Hay muy poca gente fuera esta semana" as I think one person put it to me - I did encounter a few Haitians at the hotel I stayed at while I was waiting to check in. One of them showed me my room, but did not speak the entire five minutes I was with him exploring my room and on the elevator up. The others I noticed as I was checking in. They seemed also to be checking in, but I couldn't be sure. They noticeably distanced themselves from the other white people checking in and me. Their eyes glued to the floor, they may as well have worn a badge that said, "Second Class Human."
Professor Henry Louis Gates (yes - the guy who was arrested for "breaking into" his own house) and PBS have put together a series on being black in Latin America. I've linked it below. It's very worth watching.
More than half of all Dominicans living in the US live in New York City. Somebody once told me they make up ten percent of all students in the New York City public schools. If that's true, that's 100,000 students. If you teach kids, especially if you teach kids humanities, you've got to know their cultures and backgrounds. You deny them an opportunity at a meaningful and therefore engaging education when you don't.