The Brooklyn-based arts organizations BRIC and Haiti Cultural Exchange teamed up on the occasion of the visual art exhibition, Bordering the Imaginary: Art from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and their Diasporas to ask four local thinkers of Haitian and Dominican descent to write about their personal experiences of border between the two nations. What ideas did they grow up with, and what inherited notions are challenged by their experiences living 1,500 miles from the island once known as Kiskeya? The responses grapple with issues of identity, race, stereotypes, and heritage, and share the personal perspectives of novelist Ibi Zoboi, scholar and professor Edward Paulino, immigration activist Albert Saint Jean, and community organizer, artist, and herbalist Suhaly Carolina-Bautista. Read Edward Paulino’s essay, originally titled The Dominican-Haitian Border: a Beacon of Collaborative and Revolutionary Freedom, below.
– Régine M. Roumain, Executive Director at Haiti Cultural Exchange and Jessica Sucher, Senior Manager of Community Engagement at BRIC
“¿Tú estás loco!?” shouted my relatives when I first began my doctoral dissertation research in the late 1990s. Uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends in the Dominican Republic were reacting to and discouraging me (sometimes half-jokingly, sometimes not) from visiting la frontera, the Dominican-Haitian border. They told me that the border was too dangerous. “Don’t you know they eat people there?” was the common refrain during casual conversations in my parents’ hometown of San Francisco de Macorís, in a region of the country called the Cibao, where a preference for whiteness has always been, let us say, very palpable. I was surprised to see and hear my own family and friends react so viscerally to my border trip. Their ominous comments made the border seem more like a death trap. Like I was stepping into a scene from the TV show The Walking Dead. It was, to say the least, surreal.
Growing up in New York City, my parents shared stories of economic hardships they endured in the Dominican countryside in the 1940s and 50s during the Trujillo dictatorship. Stories like sharing one egg with three siblings or the constant fear of being watched and having to turn down the volume of their radios at night – especially when listening to Cuban stations (Havana being a hotbed of anti-Trujillo exiles at the time) – as members of the regime’s Military Intelligence Service (SIM) cruised neighborhoods in their black Volkswagen Beetles (aka los cepillos). These were some of the many recurring and traumatic stories my family experienced and recounted ad nauseam during my childhood in the diaspora. Yet, I have no similar and significant recollections of them mentioning the border. (Except for my firefighter truck driving father who, my mother now tells me, was smitten with the northwest border town of Dajabón).
Prior to my research I could not have appreciated the border’s central impact on the development of the Dominican nation and its proverbial relationship with Haiti. Historically, Santo Domingo elites have more often than not viewed Haiti, and by extension the border, as a threat to their nation. Like many in Dominican society, in reacting to my frontier expedition my family members were expressing a common, outsider, elite-driven, and distorted view of the border and of Haiti as an imperialistic threat. The seeds of this perspective and antagonism date back to the 19th century, but it was the dictator Rafael Trujillo and his western-oriented, light-skinned elites who crystallized a historic but diffuse anti-Haitian ideology and created a state doctrine through mass violence where Haiti was portrayed as an eternal invader – something to be racially feared, loathed, and shunned.
Yet, since the late 1990s, when I first started to travel throughout the Dominican-Haitian border region, I have come to re-evaluate everything I was socialized to believe about the 300-mile political boundary that separates these two republics. Far from being an all-encompassing place of fear and terror in the Dominican transgenerational and transnational imaginary, the non-elite, local, everyday history of the border is a place forged more often than not in solidarity rather than exclusion. Here, where bilingual and bicultural Black border residents bequeathed to us a centuries’ old cross-border history of collaboration, always defiantly at arm’s length from state authorities in the respective capitals. The 14 border markets that open twice a week along the Dominican-Haitian border – in spite of the unceasing deployment of anti-Haitian policies through the courts, immigration raids, and the media – is a resilient but often silenced and ignored reminder of this economic and cultural counter-narrative.
Indeed the border has always been a revolutionary space. A space of freedom.
Long before the heroic Harriet Tubman shuttled runaway slaves up North on the Underground Railroad, enslaved indigenous and African maroons like Enriquillo, Macandel, and Lemba escaped to what is today the border region. They created palenques of free people that date back to the mid-1500s, in places like El Maniel, which can be inarguably called the first escape route of emancipation in the Americas. In my travels, border residents told me that the border region is the site where military battles between the great armies of Haiti and the Dominican Republic encountered each other. In the 19th century the border also became an escape route for rebels attempting to overthrow their respective governments in Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo. And in the 20th century the border region continued its reputation as a locus of resistance against the racist US occupation, where an all-white and disproportionately Southern Marine force killed and tortured local residents on both sides of la frontera, reigniting historic cross-border solidarity between Dominicans and Haitians intent on expelling the American invaders from Hispaniola. Through my archival and ethnographic research, I’ve learned that this border solidarity has never really disappeared. It has remained steady like a caoba tree, even when state violence has consistently threatened to irrevocably destroy life on the border.
Since 2012, I’ve gone back every October to the Dominican-Haitian border to light a candle. A group of us at Border of Lights, volunteers really, from both sides of the border and the respective diasporas gather to remember the victims of the 1937 Haitian Massacre: El Corte, Temwayaj Kout Kouto, a crime against humanity, which for its speed and duration I consider the largest and fastest lynching of Black people (an estimated 15,000 Haitians and Dominicans murdered) in the Americas in the 20th century. But, we also go back to remind our families and the world, and this is important, that cross-border solidarity has always been part of the Dominican-Haitian border region’s DNA since before the founding of both republics. Despite the wars, the genocide, despite xenophobic policies, despite earthquakes and hurricanes, Dominicans, Haitians, and their descendants, whether on the islands of Hispaniola or Manhattan, have and will continue to cross la frontera: to trade with each other, to pray with each other, to create art, to protest and speak truth to power, and, to love one another.
Bordering the Imaginary: Art from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and their Diasporas is on view March 15 to April 29, 2018 at BRIC | Arts Media House. Join the essay writers, along with moderator Carolle Charles, Ph.D, for an in-person discussion on Saturday April 28, at 4 p.m. This program has been developed by BRIC and Haiti Cultural Exchange.