Who Gets to Call Themselves Dominican?


The moment a person from the Dominican Republic arrives in the United States, one of the first things that they notice is that Dominicans here act “more Dominican” than those back on the island. When I lived in the Dominican Republic from the ages of three years old to my mid-teens, I always thought wearing Dominican attire was tacky. Nobody out there rocks Dominican flags or headgear on the regular.

Yet here, it’s quite the opposite. People in the Heights and different barrios ask family members to bring them regalitos whenever they visit the island. And these regalitos, ranging from Brugal to bracelets with the Dominican flag, aren’t just meant to show off our pride for the country that represents us. They’re also a way to reassert ourselves in a place where we grapple with unemployment, discrimination, violence and poverty. They’re a way to celebrate our identity in a place where we aren’t American enough.

But this week, many of us here who have been advocating against the mass deportations of denationalized citizens taking place in the Dominican Republic are being told that we’re also not Dominican enough. Not Dominican enough to weigh in, or to understand the realities of an island we no longer live on, or to speak out about the real motivations behind the 2013’s ruling 168-13, which effectively stripped an estimated 210,000 people — Dominicans of perceived Haitian descent  — of their citizenship overnight.

Ruling 168-13 is defined by a myth of what being Dominican means.

When Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz spoke out against ruling 168-13 in an Op-Ed in the LA Times in 2013, he drew the ire of intellectuals on the island, who questioned Diaz’s Dominican-ness in an open letter published by digital publication 7 Días.  I can’t tell you the many times that someone has questioned my Dominicanidad in the comment section of the stories that I have written about this issue. It seems that Dominican media and politicians only care to acknowledge people of Dominican ethnicity when they’re improving the country’s image in the eyes of the world, be it through prestigious awards or TV representation. Even Junot Diaz was celebrated as a member of the Dominican community when he won the Pulitzer Prize. But suddenly those who have something negative to say about DR politics are being stripped of their Dominican-ness? ¿Y eso?

The line to legalize status at the Interior Ministry in Santo Domingo on Tuesday.
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Ruling 168-13, which largely affected Dominicans of perceived Haitian descent, and the subsequent Naturalization law 169-14, which created a difficult and often unattainable path to documentation, are both defined by a myth of what being Dominican even means. It seems that Dominican-ness is somehow being defined as inherently anti-Haitian. This is a narrative deliberately pushed by the extremist and Nationalist Dominicans who support this ruling. But it’s also tied to the way history is taught in the Dominican Republic. I still remember the lessons we learned in school about how the Dominican Republic claimed independence from Haiti in 1844, and the moment when a teacher made us question the presence of Haitian immigrants in the streets of Santiago.

Today I wonder, how is it that we learned so much about the Haitian occupation and not the Spanish occupation? We recognize dates like February 27th, 1844 and learn about the history of the island in those 22 years, yet ignore the centuries of Spanish occupation that ended on November 9, 1821.

The rise of the anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic is not a reflection of the Dominican people themselves, but of the fact that we too are victims of oppression and a racist ideology centered on white privilege—and this is something that the international media and Dominican-Americans mustn’t ignore. The US media has been using terms like “Dominican racism” to speak on this issue, but this ignores the fact that anti-blackness has Western and colonial roots. The anti-blackness that exists here and that has been brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement is intrinsically tied to the anti-Haitian sentiments that exist in the Dominican Republic.

How is it that we learned so much in school about the Haitian occupation and not the Spanish occupation?

And, similarly to how immigrant labor in the United States has helped build the infrastructure of this country, so too has the labor of Haitian immigrants helped build the infrastructure of Dominican Republic. In many ways, Haitian laborers are crucial to the economy of DR, and yet they are being denied the benefits of citizenship, like education and health benefits. Are the people who grow our food, build our roads, and take care of our homes not one of us? The issue is complex, yes – the Dominican Republic shouldn’t be burdened with caring for a nation that has been ravaged with political instability and poverty when it is a developing country itself. But to blame workers willing to accept low wages – while failing to denounce the corporations that aren’t willing to pay more – is missing the structural issues that reinforce this system.

Haitians stand in front of the National Palace while waiting to register in the “regularization” program in Santo Domingo. Ricardo Rojas/Reuters
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So if i cannot claim Dominicanidad because I no longer live in the Dominican Republic, and someone who lives in the country, grew up there, and contributes to its infrastructure for decades as a laborer can’t be considered Dominican – then who can?

What needs to happen for the Dominican people who accept this ruling to see that this law is as flawed as the government that created it? And who exactly gets to be Dominican enough to talk about it? The problem of racism is historical, it has affected the Dominican Republic for centuries and it is something that as Dominicans we are victims of ourselves. But now, it is our responsibility to address it as a people and a nation. Let’s make Dominican-ness be defined by the willingness to address our problems as a developing country, to build solidarity across borders, and to fight for solutions against all forms of oppression.

There will be a Black Lives Matter en Republica Dominicana rally in the Bronx this Saturday, June 20th. More info here.