Aya de Leon

author – activist – faculty – mom

Flashback Memoir: Racism and Haitian Immigrants in the Dominican Republic

I read with fury and sorrow about the recent ruling against citizenship for Haitian immigrants to the Dominican Republic.  A subsequent New York Times article clearly revealed the pretense of justification, as well as solidarity from Haitian and Dominican writers Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz and Julia Alvarez. 

In 1994, I traveled to the Dominican Republic for an artist residency at Altos de Chavon.  It was a challenging and powerful trip, both shifting and strengthening my sense of myself as a Caribbean-American woman, and reconstructing my identity as an Afro-Latina. 

I made connections in the Haitian-Dominican community, and wrote a painful and critical piece about it that was published in Go, Girl! The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure by Elaine Lee. 

I dug out a version of the piece on my old desktop PC to republish here.  Some of the formatting is off, as it was originally written in WordPerfect in the 90s.  I considered giving it a real edit, to improve the craft, but instead decided to leave it mostly intact.  What you have here is the raw, emotional travel journal of a woman in her 20s. 

I prayed in the piece, and I pray today.  I pray for justice for my Haitian people and all my African heritage people worldwide.

Catching A Glimpse

The upholstery of the bus seat was falling apart, and its metal dug into my behind. The bumpy road didn’t help either, and I tried to stay squashed into my corner so as not to knock my friend Gigi off the seat we were sharing.  She and I ate our platanitos in silence, watching the lush green Dominican landscape out of the dusty window.  Behind us, the Kansas City Missionary Baptists chatted excitedly. Gigi, the driver, and I were the only brown faces on the bus.

I had met Gigi on the way to the beach a few days before.  She was a chocolateªskinned young woman with a super straight pressed bob and a t-shirt that said something in English.  My heart leaped at the possibility of another African-American.  The only other Black person from the U.S. I had met was a brother who worked at the school where I was a writer in residence.  He would alternately flirt with me, and then avoid my advances for friendship.  Later I learned that this was because he was afraid that if someone saw him with a strange woman, then his girlfriend would get wind of it and be angry with him.  I wasn’t hitting on the man, I just needed a friend.

That’s why I was so excited when I saw Gigi.  However, when I approached her, she turned out to be Haitian.  She explained to me in Spanish that her brother lived in New York, and he had sent her the t-shirt.  But she had spent her junior year of high school in New England.  This was great for me, because she spoke enough English that we could communicate across the lapses in my Spanish, which were frequent, unpredictable and very frustrating to this third generation Puerto Rican on my mother’s side, raised in California.

Gigi, on the other hand, spoke French, Creole, Spanish, and English, and she was translating for the Kansas City missionaries.  Their church back in the States sponsored Gigi’s, the Haitian Missionary Baptist Church, which ministered to the abundant needs of the Haitian community in the Dominican Republic, particularly the bateyes.  Bateyes are quarters for the Haitian immigrants who work in the cane fields.  Work that few Dominicans want to do, yet many are resentful of the powerful unabashedly African presence of the Haitian people in their country.  Do they think that perhaps, if all these Haitian people didn’t come across the border, that the cane would maybe cut itself?

As the bus came around a curve, the road turned and we could see mountains in the

distance, and the cane.  To the left and to the right were fields of it.  The cane that makes sugar for coffee, coca cola, cake, cookies, candy.  That sweet powder.

lo que  traigo es azúcar, azúcar pa’ mi

To the left the field of cane stretched all the way to the horizon.  An ocean of cane, with gentle waves in the afternoon breeze.  The bus went up a hill and I caught a glimpse of a path of red earth parting the sea of cane.  An empty path because it was Sunday, and the laborers didn’t have to work.  One free day in a week of body breaking labor.  One day in seven.

When we went up the next hill, I could see there were two little black girls on the path.  Black like the night sky, like the color waiting for me behind my eyelids when I sleep.  One had on a yellow dress, the other a white dress.  Black angels walking down the red road in yellow and white dresses under a blue sky through a green sea of cane.  And the bus went around the next curve and they disappeared.

We drove twenty minutes more, and arrived at the first batey.  As the bus stopped, the people came out of their houses made of cane stalks and palm leaves, and for the fortunate ones, bowed wood.  All the houses had dirt floors and folks had bare feet and ragged clothes, and I said, “saludos,” which means greetings.  What more could I say?  That I was enraged that they had to live in the country without running water, without health services, without houses that could protect them from the rain.  That the old woman in the worn dress reminded me of my grandmother?  That the tiny girl with the big eyes and the smile like the sun reminded me of my little sister, who is one of twins but the other one died?  That I am furious that they earn in a month what I can make in a day back in the states.  My anger is worthless to them.  They can’t eat it or build better houses with it.

lo que traigo es azúcar, azúcar pa’ ti

Meanwhile, as the missionaries handed out pens and gum, I went to the edge of the batey, near the field of cane to pray.  I passed the huge hog that was sleeping, and the other one in the pen with the mean look in his eyes.  The edge of the cane field was alive with hens and their chicks, alarmed with the presence of the foreigner.

And I knelt down to pray. I poured a little of the water in my water bottle as libation and I prayed.  I prayed for the Haitian people in the Dominican Republic and for all of my Caribbean people that they may have justice and peace and dignity and work that does not break their bodies nor their spirits.  And I cried because the babies were malnourished.  Many of them had hair that was dark auburn at the roots, but honey blonde at the tips.  It seemed strange to see such dark children with such light hair.  I asked Gigi about it, and she said it was malnutrition.

And I cried and prayed for justice and peace for my people.  Because the Haitian people are my people, and the Dominican people are my people, because I am an African daughter of the Americas, and although my mother has roots in Puerto Rico, and my father has roots in St. Kitts and Nevis and South Carolina, we are still family.  Because when the ships came to the Americas, carrying Africans from Ghana and Nigeria and Angola and Cote d’Ivoire and the Congo and on and on.  And they were taken to Cuba and Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo and Haiti and Trinidad and Jamaica and Grenada and Saint Thomas, and Saint Kitts and Saint Maarten and all the other saints and all the other islands, and the US and Mexico and Panama and Nicaragua and Belize and on and on.  And it was mostly at random who ended up where, and so the woman in the worn dress is my grandmother, and the daughter with the big eyes and the smile like the sun is my little sister.

And this is how we all lived not so long ago—in quarters; in slave quarters.  With no running water and no medical services and not enough food, and work–Lord have mercy!  In the fields all day in the hot sun six days a week.

And it rocked me to my foundations to look into the face of such economic exploitation, to have my past and present collide right before my eyes.

Why God?  Why do black people have to suffer like this?

Gigi came up behind me and asked what I was doing.  Wiping my eyes, I said, “praying.”  She led me to the little green church.  It was wooden and held together with barbed wire.  There were several pews on the cement floor, and in the front was an altar with a white cloth, artificial flowers, and three small, worn chairs.  The ceiling was of corrugated metal, and it was by far the most durably constructed building in the batey, but it leaned precariously to one side.

As I prayed and I cried more, a group of children came in.  They were spindly six and seven year olds, all with long arms and legs, and dancing eyes.  Led by a bold girl, the tallest of them, they asked what had I brought for them.  Nothing.

lo que traigo es azúcar, azúcar pa’ mi

Where was my gum?  Where were my pens?  I was no missionary.  I didn’t know I would be coming to visit them.  I didn’t have enough Spanish to fully explain myself to them.  To justify my opulent empty-handedness in the midst of their abundant lack.  And would they even have understood me in Spanish?  Here in the bateyes, children didn’t go to school, did not learn the language of the country, were not trained to integrate into the larger society, were not expected to.

How could I tell these children that I had just gone to church with one of the few outgoing young women I had met during my visit?  That my trip to the Haitian Missionary Baptist Church had led to an unexpected trip to the bateyes?

But had I known I was coming, what could I really have brought for them?  Pens and gum seemed like an insult.  I wanted to bring them something they could sink their teeth into. Something like justice. Something like living wage. But I couldn’t. I brought love.  I brought tears.  I brought prayers.  It just didn’t seem to be enough.

Gigi came in and told me that the bus was about to leave, and we said goodbye to the people and moved on.

The second batey was smaller, and the church was little more than a hut, but it had a drum in the corner.  I prayed inside the church, but I didn’t cry this time.

I stepped back outside to find Gigi talking in creole to an elderly woman with sharp eyes, and weathered, red-brown skin.  She had a naked baby on her hip, and was smoking a cigar. Through the open door of her tiny house, I could see a double bed which took up almost all of the space inside. I nodded to her in acknowledgement.

The missionaries were hot and they pulled out a cooler in the back of the bus full of coca cola and 7up, in those old-style bottles with caps that don’t twist off.  In the absence of any openers, Gigi popped the tops off on the edge of the metal track for the sliding bus windows.

She gave one to the sharp-eyed woman, and poured some of it into a cup for the baby.  She also poured a bottle of cola into the earth at the side of the woman’s house.

lo que traigo es azucar, azúcar pa’ ti

Gigi noticed that I didn’t have a soda, and asked me if I wanted one.  I said I didn’t eat sugar, grateful that I was not the American consumer on the other end of this economic chain of cane.

I was quiet, thinking on this young Haitian woman, living in the Dominican Republic, translating for the missionaries from Kansas City, befriending the African-American Puerto Rican writer, inviting me to church, pouring cola into the earth by the house of a sharp-eyed Haitian woman smoking a cigar.

I stayed quiet on the way back. I just sat in the stew of my privileged sadness, my impotent fury, and my growing respect for my friend who bridged so may worlds.

About ten minutes after we hit the road, I saw two little black girls, one dressed in white, the other in yellow, walking out of the bright green cane.  It was at least an hour since the first time I had seen them walking, surrounded by nothing but cane and sky and road. And how long had they been walking before that? Gigi said that they walked all that way just to go to the church.

What will undoubtedly save my people, one way or another, is our great faith.

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This entry was posted on November 8, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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