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El Prejuicio--Dominican Society's Tragic Flaw

An excellent research paper by Maggie Kercher.

"Caneo, why do you always call me, 'usted'?" I had known Spanish long enough to understand that Dominicans only use the formal pronoun 'you' (usted) for those of very high rank--the boss of a corporation, or a political official--never with an acquaintance or friend. This had bothered me for some time that Caneo referred to me in this way; I considered him a friend just as I would consider any young man with whom I'd spent some time conversing.

"It is because...well," Caneo hesitated, not looking at me. "Well...you came here to help our children...you're white....you just are superior. I feel like I should say that."
"Caneo, no!" I responded in horror. I waited for him to look at me. "We are equals, Caneo."

The look of gratitude in his eyes nearly brought me to tears. "Gracias, Maggie." he said quietly. I wondered at this strange interchange for some time until I was at a gas station some weeks later. Some Dominicans were talking to the storeowner, it appeared they needed something. The storeowner looked around and spotted a Haitian man nearby, washing his motorcycle. "Get over here, you black devil!" I looked away in horror as the Haitian man responded, walking over to the storeowner. This scene is burned into my mind and suddenly it didn't strike me as so odd that Caneo had never been called an equal to someone lighter-skinned before.
It was in the early 1900's that the Dominican government--needful of cheap labor--offered jobs to Haitians. The Haitian people just been through a political and social catastrophe (Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo had massacred 30,000 of them) and were quick to accept the tempting sugarcane harvesting positions. Haitians immigrated across the border and were channeled into bateyes, (i.e. "secluded work camps"). There they spent their lives, cutting sugarcane field after sugarcane field, being paid in government coupons whose only value was recognized in the government supply stations. A meager existence--needs barely met, never getting ahead.

Throughout the late 1960s, '70s, and 80s (the heyday of the Dominican Republic's sugar economy), Haitian sugarcane cutters were confined to these bateyes (i.e. "work camps") under the watchful eye of armed government soldiers. Their belongings were confiscated and they were trucked back and forth from the fields, often working from sun up to sun down. The daily wage was barely enough to buy one meal a day--oftentimes the cane cutters and their families had nothing to eat but the very cane they cut. The bateyes had no running water, no electricity, no cooking facilities, and no bathrooms. The shanty homes consisted of slatted wood walls, tin roofs, dirt floors and often housed up to eight or more people. The Haitians were not allowed to leave the bateyes, under the threat of deportation, except to work in the fields. By the 1990s, the bateyes had become home to hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children--second- and third-generation Haitians born in the Dominican Republic, but with no legal citizenship status to be there and with no ties to their "homeland" Haiti. They basically became a people without a country."

The hatred that exists in the Dominicans' minds toward the Haitians is perhaps most blantantly displayed by this sad sequestering of a race into poor villages outside the wealthier Dominican towns. If they keep the Haitians on their own little patch of land, they can sort of forget their existence, can pretend that they are actually just Dominican, that they do not depend on Haitian inhabitants and labor for their economic survival.

"Many Haitian illegal immigrants are employed in sugar fields, factories or on cattle ranches in conditions that human rights groups say often are not far removed from slavery and face periodic mass expulsions."

It is there we find them today, situations only slightly elevated from the beginning stages; although it could be said that the situations are worse as each year marks the furthering of the cycle, the turning of the unjust wheel that bears a deep rut in Dominican society.
Society? What does the society have to do with it? "They're just people, right?" my confused mind yelled at the town of Barahona, Dominican Republic, my home for six months. "Not so, Maggie," said society. "Not so."
Truth #1 I learned: Haitians are black
Truth #2 I learned: Dominicans are brown.
Truth #3 I learned: This distinction is of vast importance.

"Just as the English language connotes the word 'white' with purity and goodness, Dominican Spanish makes similar connections. One host mother described her study-abroad son in one breath of linked words: "so nice, so sweet, and so white." Her verbal connection of these words exposed her mental relationship to them. For her the words 'nice,' 'sweet,' and 'white' are interchangeable. Through these similarities I realized that in many ways all oppressed people have to fight the same patterns of self-hatred and confusion as we do in the United States."

Hearing the comments was a constant frustration to me:

"They're white, that is so much prettier."

"Black women are ugly."

On one occasion I traveled to a mountain lookout with a group of Dominicans and overheard excited comments on the way back:

"Look! My skin is lighter...the wind up there blew some of the black away!"

"Me, too. The wind blew my skin whiter!"

To the Dominican mind their skin is like a swimming pool. The darker the water, the less attractive it is it swim in; water that is very dark is downright revolting. Although a Dominican prides himself on the quantity of Spanish blood he can claim runs through his veins, he knows that the race of Dominicans is primarily mulatto, a mixture of the ancient Taino Indians, Spanish explorers and African slaves. A tourist asks why none of the Dominican dolls have faces. "We have no pure ancestry," is the answer.

I saw it all day long. Sometimes on Wednesdays I would find myself with a free afternoon and would gladly betake myself to Hotel Costa Larimar, home of the only swimming pool in town. Though I was not a guest, the hotel owner had given me leave to partake in the delightful concrete reservoir of chlorinated, parasite-free water. On one particular Wednesday I was with some Haitian friends and I suggested we run over to the hotel for a refreshing dip. "No, Maggie," Nando said quite quickly. To my puzzled look he replied, "I'm too dark, they won't let me in their water."

To my surprise, I was the embarrassed one. I felt ashamed that I knew their society so poorly. Yes, the society, for that is what supported such a thing to be tolerated. Dominican social institutions are structured around racism. The schools are Dominican. They teach Spanish, NOT Creole (the mother tongue of the Haitians). Haitian children in a Dominican school will not speak Creole for fear of the shame that accompanies an admission of such black descent.

Wanting to do something about my American mind recoiling at the open racism being tolerated, I went through stages of shock, disgust, then unwilling awareness of the way this type of injustice is not only supported in society, but necessary for life as they know it.

Dominican social institutions prohibit the demise of racism by refusing to disallow the segregation. A team of Human Rights researchers discovered this while scoping out the racism situation in the DR:

"Dominican authorities also deny Haitian children born in the country the right to Dominican birth certificates, despite an Inter-American Court of Human Rights order to do so."

The effects of this are enormous! I cannot tell you how many times I heard a Haitian friend mention some hope or dream they had, followed by "Pero yo no tengo mis papeles..." (But I don't have my papers--i.e. birth certificate) In fact, most of my "Haitian" friends ought to be actually considered Dominican--having been born in the DR. But the Constitution of the Dominican Republic does not extend citizenship to children born to non-naturalized Haitian parents, these children born in the Dominican Republic, do not have birth certificates or identity papers of any kind.

"This lack of documentation made it nearly impossible for children of Haitian descent to attend school or benefit from any other social services. These families and children were denied access to medical, social, and educational facilities. Just as the generations that preceded them, these families faced a dead-end life--with no way out of the batey."
Haitans who do make it through the education system (which are very rare) must not only overcome the opposition of their position in life, but the hostility among students as well. One of my friends who attend the university in San Pedro was assaulted one night by fellow students as he was walking home from class--only because is Haitian. He was beaten and left to die until police found him days later. A Dominican told me that the police moved slower "because our friend is only Haitian." The shame they carry around under that dark skin is overwhelming.

The most disturbing thing is that to be racist in the DR is to be normal.

The racism is not only confined to the Dominicans' "lighter" minds; a dear Haitian friend once told me the sad story of her father's selective maltreatment to her and not to her other siblings. Although she is a sweet, obedient, beautiful teenager, she was born with a darker shade of brown coloring her skin--and her father hated her for it. He often told her he wished she'd "fall out of a truck" or "get pregnant." He also beat her. Only a deep societal and cultural branding in this man's mind could cause him to deplore his daughter's skin color so much.

He knows, I suppose, that she will not receive any good medical care, because of her skin color. If she were to go to the emergency room, she would not be helped until everyone lighter-skinned than her had been cared for.

"Essentially, what the Dominican Republic had done was to create a permanent underclass--a category of individuals that, in the eyes of the law, doesn't exist--they have no right to own property, no right to an education, no access to healthcare, and no right to vote. In essence, a class of people condemned to poverty."

Not only has the government contributed to the upholding of the racist slant, the schools perpetuate it, the medical system furthers it, and the economy depends on it. What would happen if suddenly there came into existence laws about equality among Haitians and Dominicans in the workplace? We would have illiterate Haitians trying to make sense of an office job, struggling to make their Creole-Spanish accent understood. We would have "educated" Dominicans hunched over a machete, cutting sugar cane. Those "educated" Dominicans would unquestionably revolt against the harsh conditions of batey work, and demand a higher wage--a wage the government cannot support.

What if schools were suddenly required to "become colorblind," and un-teach racism to the young populous? Creole would be spoken in schools, Dominican girls would develop crushes on Haitian boys, scaring their parents with the prospect of darkening the family skin tone. More Haitians would graduate, increasing the number of them entering the Dominican workforce. To any Dominican, this paragraph is a nightmare.

What if hospitals and clinics suddenly opened their doors wide to the Haitian population? The influx of babies to deliver, scabies to cure, eye infections to treat, machete wounds to dress and parasites to medicate would create a frightening shortage of supplies and medical personnel.

What if the government took a serious look at living conditions in the bateyes and began to make provision for clean water, electricity, and affordable transportation? What if they took note of the fact that children in the bateyes often eat only one meal a day and do not own even one decent set of clothes? What if they brought Haitian living standards up to those of the Dominicans?

Implemented overnight, these steps toward justice would cause a tragic crashing of Dominican society, culture and economy. It can't be done. Can it?

El prejuicio --"prejudice" in Spanish. It can't be abolished. Can it?

Works Cited
"Children of the Nations: The Origin of the Dominican "Batey"". Children of the Nations. 14 November 2007 .
"Dominican Republic." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 11 March 2008 .
Erichsen, Gerald. "Formal and Informal 'You' - Spanish Grammar". Your Guide to Spanish Grammar. 15 May 2007 .
"There's No Racism Here? A Black Woman in the Dominican Republic". ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes. 11 Mar 2008 .
"UN envoys find profound racism in Dominican Republic ". Stuff.co.uz. 11 Mar 2008 .
Wucker, Michele. Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999.