Geographically speaking, Haiti is my neighbor. The Dominican Republic is my hometown and where I lived until my early teen years. My family is from a small city called La Vega, which is located in North-Central DR, about 250 miles from the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. While studying in the Dominican Republic, I learned basic information about Haiti’s culture and history. The relationship between the two countries has always been tense, and a lot of it has to do with ignorance.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in the island of Santo Domingo (now capital of the DR). He later claimed the whole island (now divided in two; the DR and Haiti) under the name of Espaniola. It remained a colony of Spain for many years. As French colonists began to arrive and settled on the northern and western coasts of the island, a massive amount of Haitian natives were being enslaved and killed. In 1664, France formally took control over the western side of the island (now Haiti), and later brought other thousands of African slaves to the island to work the plantations. After years and years of slavery and torture suffered under the hands of the French, Haiti claimed its independence in 1804.
Years later, in 1822, Haiti’s leader, Jean Pierre Boyer, and his troops invaded the Spanish side of the island (now Dominican Republic). Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic for approximately 20 years. The invasion is said to have terminated all slavery; nevertheless, Dominicans always wanted the Haitians off their soil. Dominicans did not have a large population at the time of invasion and had no military forces to fight back. It took years for them to declare independence from Haiti, on February 27, 1844. To this date, the tension between the Dominican Republic and Haiti continues.
My experience with Haitians
Everything I ever learned about Haitians when I was a little girl suggested that I should hate them. My earliest memory with this experience was in history class. My teacher said that Haitians had invaded our country by force back in the 1800’s and that they were “now trying to invade us again in a more passive way” — by ways of immigration. She lectured the class about La Guerra de La Independencia (the Independence War), which was fought between the DR and Haiti in 1844. I was quite young, and not knowing much about the subject, I had no reason to doubt my teacher. I also didn’t know anything about the Haitians, despite the fact that thousands of them were already living in our “backyards.”
In the 1990s, more Haitians had relocated to my town, La Vega, and that’s when I started to learn a little bit more about them. Usually, they would be out in the streets selling peanuts, women’s underwear, ice cream bars, etc. So my only contact with the Haitian community was the times that I approached them to buy an ice cream bar. They seemed friendly and always smiled. I never saw these people going to school or having fun anywhere, not even the kids, and I now wonder if they even had a place to go back to after long hours of work.
They did nothing but work hard all the time yet they were constantly discriminated against in the Dominican Republic. Ignorance, like anywhere else in the world, was the major cause of discrimination against Haitians. I realized that they are good happy people, whose history took an unfortunate turn that led to a number of terrible events, such as corrupt politicians and poverty. Some of them cross the Dominican border every day for the same reason that my family came to America: jobs and a better way of living.
I have come to understand the history and the tension between the DR and Haiti, but I don’t support this passive war that the two countries keep fighting. I don’t support the mistreatment of Haitians in the DR either. I think things have improved a little, but I remember reading a very gruesome story back in the 90’s about how some Dominicans murdered a few Haitians and got away with it. Simply disgusting. Racism is still alive and well in the DR—no matter how many times its president tries to hide it. I just wish the Dominican people gave Haitians a chance.
They’re hard-working people. I always remember one hot summer day when some Haitians were doing construction work in front of my house. Just like a lot of immigrants in the US, Haitians in the DR did cheap labor, and I’m sure they were abused and paid much less than they should’ve been paid. That day, I watched them work like animals with no water or food in such a hot day. I felt really bad, but didn’t know how to help. So my brother came up to me and asked if there was any food left from lunch to give to the workers.
Even though I sympathized with them, I was very ignorant and hesitated at first. But thanks to my big-hearted brother we did prepare some food and water and gave it to the workers. They had this incredible smile in their faces and thanked us sincerely. Whenever I think about that moment, I feel good about myself. I challenged what I had been taught, my beliefs. I saw the human in them. It should be a natural act; a human instinct. But when you know no better, it is a big deal.
Just like the old young me, a lot of young Dominicans are not aware of the truth and don’t invest time in learning about the Haitian people and culture, so this cycle of hatred and ignorance never stops. I don’t think we should take history books so seriously—the past is in the past. These are different times, and times when the poor country of Haiti could use some help. Besides, it is a neighboring country — be a good neighbor, DR! It is time to open minds and hearts (figuratively).