When I was invited to be the teaher of the “Life Stories” writing workshop, the matter seemed simple. Then I had my doubts. Matías Bosch,1 Ana Belique2 and I met to discuss the details of the writing workshop for young people of Haitian descent affected by the resolution that left them in Limboland: without nationality, without land, and with an uncertain future.
Fulfilling this request did not seem so easy because we were unaware of the writing skills of future workshop participants and, personally, I feared that, as soon as they faced the minimum degree of difficulty, the majority would abandon the project. To prevent this, my proposal involved rotating from batey to batey, working with small groups. How long would the process take? Of course, the teacher did not have the extraordinary organizational capacity of the Bonó Center of the determination of the participants, members of the Reconoci.do movement.And the truth is, I confess, that it was only as the project developed that I was better able to understand the factors that made it work.
When I saw some young mothers bring their small daughters to the workshop, I said to myself: “These women are unstoppable.” In fact, I understood, listening to Rosa read fragments of her life story, that she learned from her father to take her children everywhere. If she grew up going to the sugarcane fields, well before dawn, was she going to have a problem attending our class just because she didn’t have someone to take care of her children? Well, no. Rosa and other mothers took their children with them: they did not miss a single session of the writing workshop that produced the texts we now share.
It was also unclear to me what would ultimately come out of this adventure. “A writing laboratory” could be the title of these introductory words, but as it does not fully describe it, we must discard it. But, for the record, those meetings were an experiment that surprised us, made us cry, laugh and changed our lives. Not only for those of us who were supposed to be there, but also for those who weren’t supposed to be there, but also ended up being there, such as my university students.
I am referring to the students to whom I gave some poetry classes during the first semester of 2017. Well, those students read these life stories and wrote poems dedicated to their authors. Every Saturday, from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm, I taught a class for new students. On Saturdays in the afternoon and Sundays in the morning, I went to Manresa La Altagracia, in Haina or to the spiritual retreat center located in La Victoria, the Schoenstatt Sanctuary, where the authors of the personal stories that we’ll read shortly awaited me. This dynamic exchange was … amazing?
Students read the life stories written by young Dominicans of Haitian descent who were stripped of their Dominican nationality.
It was beautiful. Incredibly beautiful. I was astonished by a student who expressed his disbelief [in what he read] by throwing the paper with the life story he had to read on the desk: “It cannot be possible to live like this, this is not true, it is not true! They did not write this!” he said. Another said it cannot be possible to live with 60 pesos a day. Or with less. And another, that it cannot be possible that these stories were told with such grace and ease by people who only studied up to 8th grade. I confess that if I had not been there, teaching, maybe I would think the same.
I am not sure that everyone did believe me when I swore that these works were real, that they were not fiction…but I beg whoever reads these words now to believe me: yes, it is perfectly possible. Each fragment of each life story has a birth certificate. It was written in response to a writing exercise, and each writing exercise is linked to a book we read in class. For example, “What is Rosanny’s Baggage Full Of?” written by Rosanny Romilis Jiménez, arises from the reading of the children’s book The Box of Hope.3 And there are many other examples just like this one. While reading the children’s book The Worst Lady in the World,4 we reflect on the oppression of the State and power. And so on, and so forth.
What did those who signed up for the course without knowing writing skills do to express their complex thoughts? We made use of not only writing, but also oral practices, and the solidarity of those participants with more writing skills, who transcribed texts that were written with certain limitations - typical of those who are still in the process of literacy- until they were legible. Perhaps some still needed to learn the alphabet, but they made up for it with much determination, courage and capacity for reflection. Because in order to write what we will read next you have to suffer more than once. And cry more than once. Because it is not a simple thing to organize the past, even less so when the future is unclear. Why do we have this obsession with the past?
Some sources we consulted estimate that, in 400 years, about ten million Africans entered the Caribbean, victims of slavery. The descendants of those that survived the cruelty of the slave masters, we are still here walking around; some like me, with Lebanese descent, are ultimately Blacks in disguise. Of course, even as a law called into question the birth certificates of so many Dominicans of Haitian descent nobody doubted that the granddaughter of a Lebanese man was Dominican. And I was lucky: I don’t know Lebanon. I don’t know its language. The parts of its culture in mine, I have no idea: My Lebanese grandfather died before I was born, so my only possible identity is Cibaeña (from the Cibao region of Dominican Republic).
But, seeing that the fate of human beings is to migrate, I think my identity may not even be that: I feel I am from all of the Americas, from everywhere, from all places where love has grown. I want to be from that civilization of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens that over 37 thousand years ago knew how to live together for more than five thousand years.5 Well, that is best explained by the poem “Stampede.”6
Stampede7 To Danica May, “the 7th billionth baby”
Close the circle of shadow drowned in the eye:
with her we are seven billion and a gesture.
Perhaps counting is the only way we can tell where a body has just been.
Always in transit
we drown the border of the instant
the round pause of the traffic light
the endless anxiety of the migrant.
So we departed
carrying the territory and debris
deploying at another point on the map.
The homeland is a timeless debt
the zero hour of a genetic disease.
Death migrating in our blood
Proud like a birthmark.
It goes without knowing when we will have become too many.
It does not wonder if there will be a more exclusive crowd
than the common use of the word all.
Fragile we contemplate our function of number
of feet dusted in minutiae
and a fatal meaning of the term term.
What happened to the girl who lit up covers,
happily announcing her status as a figure.
We will get tired one day of rocking balances
of piling up explanations on the itinerant bottom of the river
to illustrate bloody coasts,
gunpowder heroes revered at the wrong time.
We will get tired one afternoon of adding
girls born to be flies in a bucket of milk.
What happened to the one that swelled
the bright generation of emptiness.
What adds to this hour a number of so many digits.
Cooler in the glistening blanket of the countenance.
More scarcity and crowd displaced
in their agonizing sense of unity
towards the mute indifference of the points.
What makes your homeland your homeland? These life stories give exact descriptions, not only of a geographical location: the geography of poverty and violence is also very well described. Women, as is often the case, are the most affected: the texts gathered make it clear how the economic situation forces girls to be caretakers for their siblings, housekeepers and victims of rape, among other types of violence. What about these girls’ rights? And what about sentimental geography? Shalin Charles Deni tells us quite well in her text:
When I asked the inspector what this document was about, he told me I was being sued by the Junta Central. When I said: “Why is the Junta suing me?,” he told me that it was a claim to nullify my birth certificate. I couldn’t hold the tears back and I started to cry. I called a young man named Isidro, he was the community coordinator for Reconoci.do. He told me to take the documents to the lawyer. She (the lawyer) told me not to worry, that everything was going to be taken care of. They sent me three nullification claims. I didn’t know what to do. I … even thought about taking my life … because if I had no documents, how was I going to live in this discriminatory and abusive country?
Or as Ether Bonnat Michel tells it:
They rang the bell for classes to start, and when they went through the attendance list they mentioned my last name and the teacher asked: “Where does your last name come from?” I did not answer. And everyone else began to make fun of me. This went on daily. They bullied me, beat me up, called me “Haitian” every day. This went on for so many years of the same thing that I began to get used to it. When they called me “Haitian,” I called them “Dominican,” and so on.
On this side of the world, dark skin color has been linked to poverty and all kinds of marginalization. I remember that as recently as the first decade of this century, it was rare for advertisers to let us use Afro-descendant models for commercials because customers – and some account managers – claimed that the “aspirational” thing was to be white and rich. And we had to appeal to that.
Being Black in the Caribbean was not well seen centuries ago, as it is not well seen now: more than once a co-worker (sarcastically or joking) offered to raise money to send me to the beauty salon when I used my curly hair. Having straight hair is synonymous with good taste, refinement, elegance. Or is it self-denial, self-shame, self-distortion?
The thing is that these life stories not only tell how this group of young people – who in some cases did not know each other because they come from bateyes from different provinces – lived the experience of being stripped of their nationality, granted under the laws in force at the time of their birth in the Dominican Republic. The thing is not reduced to repeating the same story, changing just the title and its authorship. Each story is different. Each one tells a different chunk of life. It shows us that magical realism – which has so much fame thanks to the works of Gabriel García Márquez – falls short: it seems improbable, if not impossible to believe that our governments have allowed people, regardless of their ancestry, to live in the conditions of poverty and vulnerability that these stories show us. Courageous voices. Loud voices. Voices that went from singing to stop from crying in the sugarcane fields, to telling their stories, their emotional tragedies, their achievements despite having everything against them. And to tell their joys as well because in a sad past we can also find beautiful moments that we have to treasure: a particular smell, the breeze on the face, picking mangoes or guavas…
Whoever has the courage to read these stories will find daughters and sons proud of the humble origin of their parents. Daughters and sons who are not ashamed that their parents are cane cutters or candy sellers. That don’t invent a white or powerful past. They are young people beaten by life again and again, and this is what makes me most emotional: all these experiences have helped them to become better human beings. All of their experience has helped them to become more supportive and recognize the immense value inherited from their culture: cash-strapped communities but very rich in human values, in generosity, especially, which is what makes this corner of the world – marginalized and, therefore, so unjust – not a hostile place, but a place in the process of change. And I am sure that these new voices will be heard everywhere.
We have chosen to present these stories organized by authors’ year of birth. The batey, as an imaginary place, might seem “the same”, but it is not. Poverty is not the same in arid areas as in areas where anything can grow. However, the stories give more of an account of an interior geography, rather than an exterior one, which becomes richer when we take note of it:
- Women are poorer and are deprived of education when they become pregnant in adolescence.
- Women are encouraged to marry men when they are still girls or adolescents, as a way out of extreme poverty for the family, but the family of origin does not notice the boomerang effect: they will return with children, damaged and poorer than when they left.
- Completing a high school education remains a marker that will determine the course of a life forever.
Is any of this news? Let’s say not. All of the above is abundantly known, but the state seems not to know. Is there any good reason to marginalize those who were already born with loss? And to this we not only refer to life in the bateyes, but also to the lives of all human beings who inherited the denial of opportunities to which they are entitled to. People who are born in extreme poverty, who do not have a school in their community or the school provides a poor quality education, what future do they have ? What can they be encouraged to do if they are even denied their birth certificate? To answer these questions, it is best to read the life stories in this book. We have organized these stories by year of birth, hoping that this sequence will help us to accompany the growth of this unforgettable generation of young people.
Matías Bosch is the Executive Director of the Juan Bosch Foundation. ↩︎
Ana María Belique is the Coordinator for the Human Rights Program focusing on Nationality at the Centro Bonó (Reconoci.do was born as a campaign that was led by the Centro Bonó that later came from the Young Dominicans of Haitian Descent Social Movement. And since its beginnings, Ana María Belique stood out as a leader and voice of the collective). ↩︎
Farah Hallal. (2016). La caja de la esperanza [The Box of Hope]. Santo Domingo, Rep. Dom.: Ediciones SM. ↩︎
Francisco Hinojosa. (1992). La peor señora del mundo. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica. ↩︎
Farah Hallal. (2013). Borrándome. Santo Domingo, Rep. Dom.: Zéjel Media Group. ↩︎
This is a translation of Farah Hallal’s “Estampida.” ↩︎