Letter from The Dominican Republic — From the May 2015 issue

Displaced in the D.R.

A country strips 210,000 of citizenship

( 5 of 10 )

Although Dominicans have a mix of European, African, and indigenous roots, their chosen heritage, their usable history, is European. Santo Domingo is home to the first cathedral of the Americas, the first hospital, and even the first tavern (built in 1505), now a “European Brasserie” where I tried an excellent dish of shrimp and chorizo called Don Quixote’s skillet. Many women in the restaurant had hair dyed brassy blond and a spectral skin tone, white and yellow at once. Whitening “skin fade” cream starts at under two dollars in pharmacies. (Sammy Sosa, the Dominican baseball player, is an example of startling skin bleaching surpassed only by Michael Jackson.)

During the colonial era in Latin America, a lexicon developed to express the exact proportions of indigenous, black, and white blood in each subject of the king. Those terms gave way to an infinity of local slang to describe race: “coffee with milk,” “cinnamon,” “wheat-colored.” In Mexico I’m not only a gringa but a güera or even a rubia, a blonde. Never mind my curly dark hair, or that my Irish grandmother politely referred to my Jewish mother as “pigmented.” “Blonde” refers to my light eyes, my foreignness, the fact that I’m whiter than the local white people. In Latin America you see more clearly what is also true in the United States: race doesn’t exist without a referent. Dominicans are not black people in denial. In their country, “black” means Haitian, or a child of Haitians. To Dominicans, the supposed distinctions are clear: Dominicans are European. Haitians are African. Dominicans are Christian. Haitians practice voodoo.

Madam Lebrun, a cane and charcoal seller, has lived in the D.R. for more than twenty years. Though two of her children were born in Santiago, they have never been issued identity papers, and her own passport is no longer valid. Photograph by Thomas Freteur.

Madam Lebrun, a cane and charcoal seller, has lived in the D.R. for more than twenty years. Though two of her children were born in Santiago, they have never been issued identity papers, and her own passport is no longer valid. Photograph by Thomas Freteur.

It can be a shock for Dominicans to move to the United States and find themselves on the other side of the color line. “Until I came to New York, I didn’t know I was black,” wrote the Dominican poet Chiqui Vicioso. Some of the sharpest criticism of the Sentence, and of Dominican treatment of Haitians more generally, has come from the 850,000 or so Dominicans living in the United States. Many see their situation in an often hostile and racist country as parallel to that of Haitians in the D.R. It is fitting, then, that the Haiti–D.R. border looks like a small-scale version of the U.S. border with Mexico. Indeed, the D.R. is the United States’ pupil in immigration policy. With U.S. financial assistance and training, the D.R. created a border-control guard, CESFRONT, for the first time in 2006. A 2008 U.S. Embassy cable released by Wikileaks describes CESFRONT’s “regular round-ups of suspected Haitians” in border areas, “based on ‘profiles’ usually nabbing darker-skinned individuals or persons who ‘looked’ Haitian e.g. an elderly woman carrying fruit basket on head.” Last year, CESFRONT inaugurated a new shooting range, donated by the U.S. Embassy; more than one Dominican pointed out to me that it was rich for a girl from the United States to start sniffing around the D.R. for problems with racism and immigration. (Other Caribbean countries, like the Bahamas, have also started to crack down on Haitian immigrants. The New York Times reported that in 2013, one official in Turks and Caicos vowed to “hunt down and capture Haitians illegally in the country, promising to make their lives ‘unbearable.’ ”)

Last June, a Dominican congressman proposed building a wall along the border with Haiti. The congressman, Vinicito Castillo, is the son of Vincho Castillo, a powerful politician who was a crony of Trujillo’s. After Trujillo’s assassination, in 1961, Vincho switched his allegiance to Joaquín Balaguer, who served three terms as president. Balaguer used to complain that Haitians were “darkening” the country and, in his famous book La Isla al Revés (1983), warned that Haitians were trying to invade the D.R. using a secret weapon, the ability to “multiply with a rapidity that is almost comparable to that of a vegetable species.” In 1994, Balaguer torpedoed the presidential candidacy of his opponent, José Francisco Peña Gómez, by spreading rumors that Peña Gómez, who had dark skin and African features, was actually Haitian. (Balaguer, whom Ronald Reagan called the “father of Dominican democracy,” died in 2002 and was eulogized as a national hero.) Vinicito Castillo was sworn in to Congress last summer with the Nazi salute used during Trujillo’s dictatorship; he defended his border wall against critics by citing the example of the United States.

is a doctoral candidate in Latin American and Caribbean history at New York University.

More from Rachel Nolan:

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2019

Downstream

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Stonewall at Fifty

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Maid’s Story

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Is Poverty Necessary?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content