My Kids’ First Trip to the Dominican Republic: Heritage, Race, and Breaking the Cycle
We were on a bus on our way to do some volunteer work with other travelers from the Fathom cruise. Our project leader, a local employed by the organization heading the activity, was pointing out highlights of Sosua, the beach town we were entering and where we would do our work.
“And here is one of the first synagogues established in the Dominican Republic,” she exclaimed proudly. The group immediately looked out the window, surprised to learn that there was a Jewish community on the island, let alone a historic synagogue. “I didn’t realize there was a Jewish community here. When did they arrive?” asked a group member.
“Well, in the 1930s Rafael Trujillo who was a dictator here at the time, took in the Jewish refugees looking to escape the Nazis. He did this when no one else would and they came and settled here,” she replied.
There was a wave of “Oooh” and “Wow” in the group. My heart started racing and I felt myself getting impatient. I waited for her to say more, to explain further, but she didn’t. This was to be her last statement on the issue. This impression left upon a group of tourists of benevolence on the part of our country’s most racist, violent, horrific dictator.
I couldn’t take it.
“Well,” I said, pausing for a moment, questioning to the very end if I should say something. But my children were there and they were listening, and I had to, “that’s not the whole story.” I looked at the young woman. Her eyes widened as she realized I was about to share something which seemingly we just don’t share with tourists.
“The truth is, Rafael Trujillo had a history of violence, specifically against the Haitian community and descendents of black slaves in this country. Prior to agreeing to open the doors to hundreds of thousands of Jews looking to escape the Nazis, Trujillo himself was massacring Haitians by the thousands – in essence, committing the same crimes against humanity as Hitler. He had, in fact, just massacred over 20,000 Haitians the year before and his intention was two-fold: 1) to have the UN and other government entities turn a blind eye to his crimes and further invest in the country (the banana industry was exploding in most Caribbean and Latin-American nations at the time and Trujillo wanted in) and 2) he wanted to whiten the race. He felt that by killing off black Haitians and allowing white Eastern Europeans into the fold of Dominican society that the blackness of our nation would be wiped out completely.”
The bus felt silent. The guide, a bit horrified, quietly nodded her head. “Yes, that part is true too.”
I turned my face away from the group, both livid and sad. A bit nervous to have stirred the pot but realizing that I had no choice. What was I to do? Have a group of first-time travelers to my country walk away with a false impression of what happened here? Sosua is one of the wealthiest and predominantly white regions of the country. Not all the Jewish refugees made it to the island, the Nazis made sure of that, but those who did were given acres upon acres of land, as well as livestock and other necessities to give them a head start. Trujillo wanted them to succeed and prosper, and this came at the expense and even lives of the poor natives and thousands of Haitians. Of course, the survival of thousands of Jewish families is the great outcome this as well and they have prospered tremendously and brought wealth to the area. There is no question of that. But I couldn’t allow a significant part of our history – one so deeply rooted in racism, be erased or ignored.
My children are used to hearing about Rafael Trujillo. My grandfather was a member of his army. He was my father’s godfather. And the ideals of his regime have been passed on to other generations. Many Dominicans, members of my family included, still believe in “whitening the race” – my marrying a white man was a great cause for celebration because of it, though it isn’t why I married my husband.
My great-grandmother, who was Haitian, gave birth to an illegitimate child, fathered by a married, white Spanish man. That child, my grandfather, would be born black, like his mother. Though I don’t know anything about my great-grandfather or that he ever contributed to the wellbeing of his son, my grandfather, when you ask my family about their heritage, they will claim Spaniard and deny, to the point of anger, any Haitian roots.
The history and conflict between Haitians and Dominicans runs deep and is centuries old.
The recent government ordered deportation of Haitians stirred up those conflicts again, only this time it gained international awareness and intolerance. When talking to my affluent, white Dominican acquaintances about what was happening on the island, they would say that it was exaggerated and that the media didn’t know what they were talking about. Talk to them long enough and they didn’t sound any different from many who are talking about putting up walls to keep Mexicans out.
On my recent trip to Puerto Plata, I decided to touch on the subject with low-income and working class, black Dominicans. The tone was a bit different. I asked them what the status to date was on the issue.
“The government has relaxed with its aggressive attitude towards Haitians. Right now they have put a hold on the whole thing,” said a street fruit vendor.
I asked if they felt pressure from the outside, as this latest attempt drew a lot of attention. “Absolutely! There was so much international pressure. It was an embarrassment to our government and a lot of us felt it at this level from tourists,” said one of the cabbies I spoke to. I asked, to confirm this statement, if they felt that all the attention put pressure on the issue and was told yes. This was great for me to hear as it means that we have the power to push for change or cause pause, even from afar.
I asked if they felt threatened by Haitians, scared that jobs were being taken from them by Haitians.
“You know, this region depends on tourism, and the truth is that none of us can make it if we don’t have a skill set to cater to the demand of tourists coming into the country. That is the case, I feel, regardless of where you come from or your skin tone,” said one restaurant owner. “But in more rural areas, I would say that the fear is real. And there was a lot of violence because of it, which we are not proud of.” He was speaking of incidents where Haitians were being harassed and kicked out of their houses, and attacked with bats and punched. There was even an incident where a Haitian was lynched.
I would disagree with him in terms of opportunities for darker skin Dominicans or Haitians, despite qualifications. People are still turned away from opportunities because of race. In fact, while I lived in the country, its people kept voting in Joaquin Balaguer, a white politician who served as president of the country for three non-consecutive terms. I was always in awe of this considering that Balaguer was Trujillo’s right hand man during his reign. Many people didn’t agree with his politics but voted for him because his opponent was José Francisco Peña Gómez, a black man (who served as Mayor of Santo Domingo, the capital city), and no one, including those in my family, were going to vote for a black man for president.
Yet, for now, it seems these incidents have settled down a bit while the government tries to figure out its next move. But the tensions are still there and racism is very much an issue in the country.
It was important for me to expose my children to the rural areas of the country first, because, as is the case even in the states, most of the country’s poor blacks live in these areas. Drive through the country and look at the billboards of political figures and models promoting a certain product or brand, and it is clear that the standard of success and beauty is white, an image which is not truly representative of the country’s general population.
My children, especially my youngest, was impressed by the level of poverty, and so we broke it down. I asked him what about what he saw signified being poor? Needy? Disadvantaged? And we broke that down further. Why are the houses different? Why are there outhouses or no electricity? Why are kids running around barefooted, or bathing out of buckets in the streets? I shared my history with poverty, my own personal experiences under a tin roof, out house, and bathing in the rain. Then I shared my history of wealth, living in this country surrounded by it and how different that was. We talked about how different the things we value are, what our priorities become when we have more things. In more poor communities, family comes first, for cultural, religious, and economic reasons. Community and family depend and look to each other. This is something money can’t by, and often impacts negatively. They started to look past the surface and deeper into the people and the community we went into. They saw commonality in values, in attitudes, in family connections. They started realizing that there is a lot of their family and home experiences in the families and homes we visited.
While many more affluent Dominicans would never admit to coming from humble backgrounds, let alone find themselves wandering through many of the communities we went into, my children started to feel comfortable in them. The warmth of the people we met, the welcoming embrace of the women after they learned that I was Dominican and these were my children, the motherly affection with which they approached them and caressed their faces – this is how my children got to know the people, their people.
At one point, at another activity, we were with a group of elderly tourists waiting to meet the group for English lessons. One of my sons stated, “This will be easy for you, mom, since you speak Spanish too.”
“You speak Spanish?” asked one of the tourists in our group. “Yes, I’m Dominican, I went to school here for 10 years,” I replied.
“You are?! Of course!” He exclaimed. Then he looked at my two boys. Their green eyes and lighter skin a stark contrast from any Dominican they had met so far, including me. “But you’re not Dominican,” he told my boys. “Yes, we are,” my boys said in unison.” “We are Dominican,” said my 10-year-old confidently, head held high, “just like our mom.”
And my eyes teared up, my heart filled with relief at the realization that I had passed on a sense of pride that so few have in who they truly are and that as a result, a cycle had been broken.
To read more about our trip to the Dominican Republic and how you and your family can take on this very enriching experience, check out Cruising with Fathom Travel & Volunteering in the Dominican Republic. And don’t miss our YouTube video with a first hand look of our trip from start to finish!
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