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Monday, April 25, 2011

Dominicans and Haitians: A Furthering of My Urban Teaching Education

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.

7 comments:

  1. Have any of your kids read " The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?" I had a tough time discussing it with my mostly Caucasian and Asian students, but I loved it. Similar themes, masterful storytelling

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  2. great post. I hadn't realized that was the reason for the DR allowing Jews in during WWII. We actually talk about the Evian Conference each year but I didn't know the reason why. Thanks for sharing, and glad you had a good time.

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    1. A great book called "Tropical Zion" discusses the entrance of Jews to the Dominican Republic extensively. Great story.

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  3. Wonderful post. And thank you for the links.

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  4. There we go again. I could tell you the same type of anecdote but that does not explain a complex issue.
    This is so typical of liberalism. The story is the same as in Gates’ lousy documentary: Dominicans are evil and Haitians their innocent and glorious victims. However, reality is a little more complex. The cause root of this problem goes back to the Haitian attempts to wipe out Dominicans and the creation of an anti-Haitian, pro-Western culture on our part that validates our complex, mulato, post-colonial experience. We are the children of the master and the slave. Contrary to Haitians, we have no choice but love them both. We are two different people (enemies) who need to better their respective societies and stay separate. We have a right to decide who belongs and who doesn’t. The only reason why you see this new wave of anti-Dominican sentiments is because some people dream of solving the Haitian crisis on the back of Dominicans. Enough is enough. What do these people want to push us to the oceans? Or is it more like an arranged and forced marriage? We have the right to see ourselves as we think is appropriate to our survival. What don’t these people look into the damage Haitian migration is causing DR? Among these are deforestation, the spread of diseases, the free use of public services (electricity, health care), dumping HIV positive patients in Dominican hospitals, dumping the price of labor and keeping 45% of Dominican in abject poverty, etc. Well, all of that is true but it does no sound too nice. Will Americans allow 2.5 million potential enemies walk free in their land and not be concerned? We Dominicans have 2.5 Million Haitians in our soil simply on humanitarian ground. No degrading policy of deportation, like the one we have in the US, is used in DR. However, our government does not have resources to keep potential deportees in the Sheraton-Hilton. Every single day Dominicans save Haitian lives and share the little bread they have with the historical enemies. We do not deserve all this uneducated criticism that the American liberal media sells as news or commentary.
    Again, I could tell you the same type of anecdote but that does not explain a complex issue.
    Dios, Patria y Libertad!

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    1. Nessimo- I am about to start teaching middle school students of mostly Dominican origin and I was very glad to read both his post, and your comment.

      It is interesting that you criticize liberalism for taking a nuanced and complex subject and making it a simple right/wrong, good/evil argument. That is exactly what conservatives have always done here in the USA and what they continue to do today.
      Conservatives regularly make fun of liberals as being squishy on social issues because liberals like to take a comprehensive view of the world history and societal changes and also because of liberal’s belief in science and the power of man's intellect to improve society.

      Conservatism, on the other hand, by its very nature abhors change. This is, I believe, because conservatives are part of the ruling class that mostly benefits from that lack of progress--witness the many conservative apologists for slavery as not being that bad, the demonizing of illegal immigrants (including Dominicans), the push to deny rights to gays and women, the illogical and unwarranted confidence of the power of the so called "free market" to solve all problems, etc. Conservatives are also distinctly anti-intellectual, that is, they do not like to think and investigate and challenge their own beliefs too much. This, I believe, is mainly because they might have to face change, and change is uncomfortable and risky.

      While your criticism of the content of Mr. Boutin's post-- which focused on some of the subtleties of teaching Dominican students--obviously missed his intended point, I did appreciate hearing a strident position from the other side of the issue. I would describe myself as a liberal on most issues but I certainly appreciate, like most of my ilk, a honest view of the full picture. I suspect that if you would make a documentary like that of Louis Gates, it might be just as biased, but perhaps just as true. Point of view is important and just because you have a different take on an issue doesn't mean the other guy is wrong-- it just might be another facet of the same issue. It does seem that you want to blame Haitians for many of the DR’s problems, however.

      It is telling that say toward the end of your comments, “We do not deserve all this uneducated criticism that the American liberal media sells as news or commentary.” This is a typical Rush Limbaugh/Mark Levin take on the media as being all liberal and biased towards conservatives. Since a good quantity of the newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal as well as many of the television outlets, including Fox Television are controlled by conservative tycoons like Rupert Murdoch, your comments sound a little silly and take away from some of the validity of your points.

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  5. Nessimo: First, I'd like to thank you for offering your perspective. I certainly understand why you think it was important to do so.

    It was definitely not my intent to cast Haitians as glorious victims or Dominicans as evil. Both cultures have wonderful things to offer, and both have some less than savory aspects. I'm not a black-and-white kind of person. I teach, work, and live around Dominicans pretty much 24-7. I really enjoyed my trip to DR. I appreciate Dominican culture as much as I appreciate any.

    There is, however, a sometimes latent, sometimes blatant prejudice evident within the culture, as there probably is within any culture. I don't think that's deniable.

    I apologize for excluding all viewpoints in my post. Its purpose was primarily to make a case for the importance of cultural competency, and secondarily to provide a brief background on Hispaniola's history. Because of the nature of a blog post (i.e. its shortness), I'm afraid I necessarily excluded all perspectives. If you'd like to write you're own thoughtful post in response, I'd be happy to publish it as well.

    Again - Thank you so much for engaging.

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