Last April, during a two-week vacation back in Haiti, where most of my family comes from, my uncle and I discussed taking a road trip to the Dominican Republic. As he lamented what a crime it was that I hadn’t “seen the entire island,” he rattled through the many activities we could get into—some legally dubious, all exciting nonetheless. In that moment, I, like the rest of the ignorant world, had forgotten that the Dominican government had just stripped Dominican-born citizens of Haitian ancestry of their citizenship, rendering hundreds of thousands stateless.
In September 2013, the country’s Constitutional Court effectively ruled to retroactively deny any Dominican citizenship to anyone born after 1929 without at least one parent of Dominican descent. The ruling leaves those who fall outside of these guidelines “illegal.” (Previously, Dominican citizenship was given to anyone born in the country.) Though the clause affects many different migrant groups in the country, most immediately saw it as a thinly veiled move to remove black Dominicans of Haitian descent. (My own abuelito, who was born in the DR in 1921, missed the cutoff just by eight years—and, being a very dark-skinned man, he’s unlikely to ever go back now, despite his common Spanish last name.) The ruling was met with much backlash but little outside media coverage.
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Last week, the country’s government began proceeding with its plan to deport these “illegal” citizens—reports estimate this population at around 250,000—who have never known any home other than the DR. Despite a year-long registration period to give many a chance to sort out their paperwork, reports say only 300 people have gotten papers. On June 16, the head of the nation’s immigration agency, Army Gen. Ruben Paulino confirmed that his forces would begin patrolling residential areas known for having a high population of migrants and rounding them up for repatriation if they were unable to present paperwork. Despite the government’s assurance that there would not be deportation sweeps, Paulino also mentioned having buses ready to get folks outta dodge—a regular Scared Straight border tour.
Many of these so-called “Haitian” families have never even stepped foot on the other side of the island nor speak the Creole, which is Haiti’s popular language. (Its “official”–read: bourgeois—tongue is French.) Most of them have no property, family nor living roots in Haiti. Citizens with Haitian features, a.k.a. black features, a.k.a. “wide-nosed, breathing all the white man’s air!” features have already begun to be harassed, murdered and even lynched. It’s 2015, and for once, this usage of lynching is correct.
Worse than the government’s bullshit praise of its ethnic cleansing disguised as “alien regularization” is the reaction from Dominicans around the world, many of whom are now expressing gratitude for the nation’s proactive decision to rid the country of a so-called “immigrant overflow.” Claims of economic hardship stemming from the presence of illegal aliens ring as hollow in the DR as they have for centuries throughout many nationalist and xenophobic regimes. (Mexicans taking all those great jobs, eh?)
Memory is as short as history is violent. Less than a century ago, this same country staged a massacre against this same group of black people. In 1937, the dictator Trujillo ordered millions of Haitian—a.k.a. black—folks in the country slaughtered, for the same euphemistic reason: “overflow.” At the time, the racist litmus test was your pronunciation of perejil, the Spanish word for parsley, which requires a rolling of the rs. In French and Creole, the “r” sound is made with the throat, not the tongue; it was impossible for the Haitians. Some estimate that 20,000 of them died in the Parsley Massacre, many of them Dominican families. The event is so relatively recent that the time period of this new clause predates it. People who survived that—or were born in the aftermath of it—are now once again being hunted and uprooted.
Many find offense in the assumption that the events in the Dominican Republic will turn violent and genocidal, but again, my use of “lynching” a few paragraphs ago was not metaphorical. History has proven a hundred times over that when people are asked to discriminate based on looks in the name of patriotism, the result is always blood.
The tensions between the two ethnic groups on the island is, of course, a legacy of colonialism. Hispaniola was separated by Europeans interested in domination: Christopher Columbus landed with his Spaniards in 1492 (yup, that was us, not you, Florida!) to wipe out the indigenous Taino population; the French claimed the left to brutalize and rape their imported African slaves. The clashes between the slavers naturally extended into the slave populations, which eventually drove their captors out via murderous rebellion. Haiti proclaimed its independence in 1803 and helped the Dominican Republic attempt its own, only to be ruled intermittently by the Haitian government, Spanish colonials and even, for a time, a United States occupation.
Islanders of Dominican descent have always had a stronger lineage of indigenous and white European DNA. (While 90 percent of the French colony that would become Haiti was made up of slaves, Santo Domingo’s population was comprised of almost equal numbers of white owners, free mixed people of color, and slaves. The French colony was also four times as populous.) Dominicans tend to have lighter skin, “curly” rather than “kinky” hair, many of the other facial features that the boring oppression of colonialism leaves so many of us pining for. Colorism is underestimated in former slave states, but if anything it is most potent in places where the delineations are finer—like Brazil and the islands. The long history of placing the European nose above all else spills into nationalism when you have an island that can be split into the dark side and the light. Your border essentially becomes a brown paper bag.
As the nation of Haiti struggled with debt, poverty and all the other obstacles put up to punish those black people for demanding their humanity—an insurmountable debt, invisible international aid and unstable government—the Dominican Republic found itself positioned as the hotter, lighter-skinned sister. The DR does more tourist business than any other island in the Caribbean; many resorts are smack dab in the middle of sugar cane country, which is maintained by the very “darkies” that are supposedly “swallowing up” the country’s money. And, as a result of this long-standing (and white-imposed) prejudice, many Dominicans refuse to claim any African heritage, declaring themselves a separate race entirely.
For more than half of my life, I have gotten my hair maintained by a Dominican migrant woman, who also uses relaxer in her hair to straighten it. She’s a Dominican woman whom I share natural hair jokes with. She is light-skinned, but has blacker features than her straight-haired, European-looking daughter. She abandoned working with fellow Dominican women because of the prejudice she experienced for her looks; she found family in a salon filled with black Caribbean and Asian migrants.
I wonder how we would all be judged if we were in the DR tomorrow, me and her and the rest of us. I am considered more “Indian” to some back home, because I turn red in the summer instead of a deeper brown—a fact that is supposed to mean something, a fact that leads to too many dudes stalking me and demanding I marry them in the short times I spend there. These biases present themselves in different ways and differently violent policies everywhere, but in essence it’s the same all over the world: Darker faces are used as scapegoats, excuses for the inexcusable. The reality of the island is a group of people that together comprise a physically beautiful example of the complexities of blackness, a living visual history of what imperialism and colonialism achieved in spite of itself. For anyone on the island, subscribing to racist bias is a sublime act of forgetting where the racist bias comes from: a white culture of hate and cruelty that will always see us all as less worthy.
And many stand in protest, inside the nation and out, against this pogrom. During that same vacation, after that conversation with my uncle, I sat in my abuelito’s yard talking to him about the ruling. Now 94, he was born and raised in the Dominican Republic; he didn’t come over to the other side of the island until he was 17 when he walked across the country to avoid being killed in the massacre. (For reference, it’s an eight-hour drive between the two countries). He too did not speak Creole at all when he arrived.
“The audacity of [them] even thinking of us that way is appalling to me,” he said, unable to understand how the Haitian government had not responded. I don’t understand either, except I do. When we have to make hashtags for police murder to get media attention, it’s no surprise that the world has turned a blind eye to the DR’s actions. And it’s a shame, because this whole thing falls under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter. Nationalism is nothing more than racism dressed in business casual.
I will never step foot in the Dominican Republic while this ruling stands—not after the violence and harassment to black residents that will surely arise as a result. But what hurts even more is the thought: what if another country did this? I think about how, if Haiti passed the same ruling, my abuelito would have to leave his house. How, if America did it, my Dominican uncle by marriage—a proud black police officer—would have to take his kids and my Haitian-Dominican aunt elsewhere. How his late father, who was the darkest Dominican man I had ever seen outside of my own abuelito, the color of actual ebony wood, would have had no ownership to the house we now gather at for holidays. How his father was the most campesino man, speaking a dialect so country it had no separate syllables, and still proud of his nationality and race. How my aunts would have to take my half African, half Mexican and half Jewish cousins elsewhere as they too have no American parents. I myself have no American parents. I think about how many different ways my family could be split and left stateless and I think about what it means about who we truly are in this world.
In 2015, we are repeating racist history in the name of progress. We are complacent, we are ignorant, we should be ashamed. We are committed deeply to categorizing and labeling ourselves, separating ourselves in the name of tradition, a term with a lot to hide. It’s more than simply stale; it’s still very, very dangerous to many. The buses, as I write this, are pulling up.
It’s easy to hide your head in the sand while these things happen, if you want to—just be prepared for what you might see when you pull that head out. For the rest of us, there are petitions being passed around and voices to be amplified. We must demand that this deportation be covered by the world, that we bear witness. We must boycott tourism and show them that the money to reform the country can be pulled from the pockets of the corrupt and not off the backs of those who put themselves into the land. Before the reports start turning bloody, we can speak. It’s long time we said something.