As a lifelong student of history, I’m constantly surprised by how much things change and by how much things stay the same. I think two forces are at play in the world. First there’s Whig history, the idea that societies become freer and more open as time passes. Then there’s what Thomas Paine said about how something wrong practiced for a long time (centuries even) begins to seem like something right.
Antihaitianismo, the racist and nationalist ideology popular in the Dominican Republic since possibly before the D.R. even gained its independence, is just such a something wrong.
I’m of course talking about the D.R.’s Constitutional Court and its decision to strip the citizenship of any Dominican born to non-citizens after 1929, a move that will affect hundreds of thousands of Dominicans mostly of Haitian descent.
Some news outlets have provided the historical context of the court’s late September ruling, giving a brief overview of Hispaniola during the 1800s and how the Trujillo regime further institutionalized antihaitianismo in the D.R. Almost all talk about the 20,000 or so Haitians massacred during five days in October 1937, an event forever known as “The Cutting.”
Again, as history’s pupil, I applaud these news agencies. It’s important that people understand today as the result of a million yesterdays.
But you don’t need a history lesson in order to appreciate the evil behind the D.R.’s latest edict, evil in the sense that it makes one human being hate and disenfranchise another human being based solely on where their parents or grandparents were born. (My fellow Americans, sound familiar?)
For Latino Americans, the events in the Dominican Republic offend on three levels — as human beings, as Americans, and as Latinos.
Any man or woman on the street with even the vaguest knowledge of what’s going on in the D.R. could explain how the court’s ruling offends us as human beings. Racism and nationalism, which are the major isms to blame in this case, are inhuman, since they divide the human race into arbitrary groups. Nothing about the D.R.-Haitian border suggests the people on one side are superior to the people on the other side, just as nothing about the skin color of the people in Africa and the skin color of the people in Europe suggests one continent is inferior to the other.
The bit about racism and nationalism should affect us as Americans, seeing as the United States was founded theoretically as a free and open society, but it doesn’t. (See: DREAMers) What does affect our American sensibilities — or should, anyway — is the fact that Dominican-born citizens will soon be denied citizenship. But, then again, America has become sort of a vague concept these days, and Americans seem unable to agree on what should or shouldn’t offend them.
For Latinos, however, the issue is much more controversial. Depending on your conception of Latinidad, the news coming out of the D.R. represents either the right of the Dominican people to defend their Latin American identity from non-Latin American encroachment, or it flies in the face of what it means to be Latin American and, thus, Latino.
The ruling from the D.R.’s Constitutional Court confronts all Latin Americans and their descendants living around the world with two essential questions. First, can black people be considered Latin Americans (or Latinos) in the purest sense of the term? Second, and more profound, is Haiti a part of Latin America?
As I wrote in a recent column for the RedEye, Latinos aren’t sure what they are, racially and ethnically speaking. Some Latinos say we’re a mixture of Spaniards and indigenous peoples, as antihaitianismo argues. Some say we’re a mix of Spanish, indigenous and African blood, but nothing Portuguese, French or anything else. A few Latinos, like myself, contend that Latin America is comprised of all the New World societies south of the continental United States — a definition radical only in its inclusiveness.
The debate over Latinidad is what makes the island of Hispaniola such a unique and important case study. Here we have this tiny island in the Caribbean practically split down the middle and shared by two supposedly completely different groups. And yet, besides their immediate cousins in Puerto Rico and Cuba, the Dominicans have more in common with their fellow Haitian islanders than they do with, say, the people of Mexico, Honduras or Chile. But its the Dominicans, Mexicans, Hondurans and Chileans who are considered Latin Americans, while Haiti’s left out in the rain.
A “Yes” to any part of that question is utterly ridiculous and must be based on racism, Spanish supremacy or Iberocentrism. Blackness is clearly no barrier to Latin American and Latino identity, and unless the English-speaking Belizeans and Portuguese-speaking Brazilians are going to be left out of Latin America, we can’t disqualify the Haitians for their French tongues.
A denial of Haitian Latinidad is also a denial of history itself. The island that Haitians and Dominicans share was called Ayiti by its original inhabitants, the Taínos, before Columbus landed there and the Spaniards began calling it Hispaniola. Possession of the island would switch hands between the French and Spanish crowns for the next 300 years — not to mention that a French descendant has sat on the Spanish throne, on and off, since 1700.
All of this is to say that Haiti is part of Latin America, the Haitians are Latin American, and the only reason anyone thinks otherwise is because something wrong practiced for a long time (centuries even) begins to seem like something right.
As future President Juan Bosch wrote in 1943:
“It doesn’t matter that Santo Domingo has a public less poor and less ignorant. There is no fundamental difference between the state of misery and ignorance of a Haitian and a Dominican, if both are measured, not by what they have acquired in goods and understanding, but by what they have yet to acquire in order to justly call themselves happy and proud human beings.”
In the end, that the Dominicans continually look for ways to distinguish themselves from the Haitians says more about the Dominicans than it does the Haitians, just as Latin Americans’ and Latinos’ refusal to acknowledge our cousins in Haiti says more about us than anything else.
[Photo: Mihnea Stanciu via Flickr]