The Solidarity They Couldn’t Kill: A People’s History of the Haitian Massacre

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In October 1937, one of the most atrocious yet least-known genocides of humanity was executed. Between 15,000 and 20,000 Haitians were cruelly killed with machetes and clubs in the border area of my country, the Dominican Republic. Although this massacre has been documented by multiple sources, including the testimony of many survivors and international records, the State has never acknowledged it. Worse still, they have hidden its real history as a way to keep silencing the population of Haitian origins on the Dominican soil up to this day.

I was born in 1984 in Santo Domingo. Like most of the people from my generation, I had just vaguely heard about this massacre. As a child, I never sought to know how or what led to the extermination of this population solely because of their ethnic origin. People commented about the existence of a common grave just a few meters from the hill that bordered the house of my great-grandparents in Puerto Plata, a northern province of the Dominican Republic. I grew up without knowing what really happened there. I only knew that I didn’t want to get close to that place when I played nearby.

Only recently have I become interested in listening to my grandmother’s testimony. Some say that it is in moments of crisis that one is led to question one’s history. This time was no different. My grandmother’s near-death experience from an asthma attack, in which she almost died in my arms running to the emergency room, prompted me to ask more about her memories of the massacre. The experiences of this rural woman, who lived through this inhumane slaughter, not only confirms that our official history is a fraud but also explains why a recount of solidarity between Dominicans and Haitians poses a danger to the guardians of the Nation.

<p> Anadilia Jiménez (Aleja) at the time of the genocide.</p>

Anadilia Jiménez (Aleja) at the time of the genocide.

The Strength of Sociability

Abuela was born in 1924 in Ranchete, a small village located on the north side of the Dominican Republic, not far from the border with Haiti. Her name is Anadilia Jiménez, although at home we all know her by Aleja. She is the oldest of seven siblings. Her father, Don Toño, was a small farm owner in the area. He owned several plots on which he harvested coffee, cocoa, and root vegetables. When Abuela was born, this part of the Cibao enjoyed a high degree of political and economic autonomy vis-à-vis the central power in Santo Domingo. A constant daily flow of people from one side of the border to the other had brightened the social reciprocities between the two populations since the end of the nineteenth century. Haitians lived in nearby villages such as Marmolejos, Ranchete, Laguna Salada, Monte Llanos, and Bajabonico. They grew coffee and cacao, cut sugar cane, and planted yucca with which they made and sold casabe in the village. One frequently saw Haitian kids in Dominican schools and trade between Dominicans and Haitians; the formation of bicultural families, the daily use of Spanish and Kreyol, and the exchange of music and religion stood in contrast to the borderlines devised by the elites and intellectuals of the capital. As historian Richard Turits points out in his book Foundations of Despotism, these elites wanted to portray “the Haitian presence ... as a 'pacific invasion' endangering the Dominican nation. This 'invasion' was supposedly 'Haitianizing' and 'Africanizing' the Dominican frontier, rendering Dominican popular culture more savage and backward, and injecting new and undesirable African admixtures into the Dominican social composition.” State policies aimed at curbing this sociability, regulating the migratory flow through taxes on travel and permits of stays on both sides of the border, emerged. But this policy was roundly avoided in practice by a population that did not find any sense to these rules. Indeed, they were based on racial prejudices and social barriers that people who did not even live there wanted to impose.

One case of this refusal was my grandmother. Aleja did not perceive it as an "invasion" of strangers or believe that people were inferior to her because they were black. Abuela sympathized with Antoine, one of the Haitian workers in her home. In the fields, everyone called him Antonio. But it was more pleasant to her to call him by his Kreyol pronunciation: Antuén. Don Toño gave him a conuquito (a small piece of land) where he grew cacao and harvested and collected coffee. Antoine had the best breeding hens in the area, which he exchanged with the community for something more than money, quickly gaining the trust of people and popularity by his friendly personality and work skills. Unlike other Haitians who lived there for decades, Antoine had been living there for five years. He had no wife or children. His family was the people of the village.

State Violence

But during the first nights of the fall of 1937, this coexistence was drastically transformed by the dark turbulence of a political mandate. The dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo ordered the imminent extermination of all the inhabitants of Haitian origin living in the border zones of the country. By September 28, three hundred people had been killed in a town called Bánica. Everything was unexpected. There were no warnings or signs of tension. But the State, craving political and racial domination, triggered the forces of hate that perpetrated this massacre. For this purpose, Trujillo mobilized the military. To make it look like a pogrom, there were few deaths by bullet. Their method was to kill them with machetes or big wooden clubs. Some were able to escape. Others were trapped when, on October 5, the Dominican State decided to close the border and kill them in the waters of the Massacre River that separates Haiti from the Dominican Republic. Aleja tells me that aside from her house, “the Haitians passed by with all their tereques, bed sheets, clothes, well, whatever they could carry on their shoulders. They took the path by Marmolejos, and when they came from the Cruce de Guayacanes to Mamey, that was their ending. Down the hill near my house, was the slaughter... There they were killed. Poor Haitians, my God, that had no comparison! They were given a hit with a big club on their heads and later thrown into a hole. It was a huge hole. They killed them and threw them there. The point was to disappear them.”

<p>My grandmother’s house in Ranchete, Dominican Republic.</p>

My grandmother’s house in Ranchete, Dominican Republic.

In this area, the carnage lasted for weeks, and in some places, it lasted for months. The military prevailed with all the weight of physical violence, but they did not always render it visibly. Aleja tells me that they came medio incógnitos to the houses where they knew that there was a long coexistence between Haitians and Dominicans, as in the communities of Ranchete, Cabia, and Bajabonico. The army forced the local people to murder — in some cases where they knew that people were friendly with the Haitians. This seems to be the case with my great-grandfather. My grandmother tells me she never knew if he had killed someone when they took him to the ridge. In Unijica, by the house of her father-in-law, Don Tibe, she remembers hearing the rumor that the workers from the village butchery slaughtered a large number of people of Haitian origin.

But, as these brutalities were carried out, this terror story also had a back of the coin in which solidarity and resistance were decisive. Historians such as Edward Paulino, Lauren Derby, and Amelia Hintzen have shown how crucial this solidarity was, and reported that civilians and military were killed for refusing the order to kill Haitians. Abuela saw how many people also helped them escape: "They hid them in the houses so that the guards could not see them. Dad gave Antoine money to leave. But the State militia caught him on the way.” Trying to escape to Haiti, Antoine was caught when he was crossing the Yaque River and was murdered by Cornelio, another employee of my grandmother's house. After this, Cornelio was not welcomed back to work in my grandmother's house.

Sorrow and fear followed in the months after this horrible event. Aleja tells me that people in the village were shocked. They couldn’t understand the meaning of so much violence against people who had worked in the same places where they were dismembered, and others that had even been born and grew up there. At school, they couldn’t talk about it. The fear became private: ‘‘Oh god, people were sad, very sad. I can’t hardly describe it. We kept talking about that in the village, between us. Do you know what it's like to kill all these innocent people? Trujillo wanted to end with the normal life that we had with Haitians.’’

Illegalizing History

Abuela is right. This genocide was the beginning of the making of a history of division between Dominican and Haitian populations. The guardians of the State have declared war on this coexistence. In their eagerness to perpetuate their political hegemony — from what they understand should be and not what actually constitutes our Nation — the Dominican ruling class tries to make invisible the social logics that create community through distorted narratives and disturbing policies that seek to create antagonisms.

Since this massacre, a history of constant rejection of any form of community between the two populations has been built. The cutting of the sugar cane in the Dominican Republic was scrupulously reserved for Haitians. It would not kill them physically, but socially. Everything was done to deny them their very right to life, fixing them to the most sordid social and labor conditions on land, with no possibility to claim their rights. Everything was done to avoid their socialization with the Dominican population, reducing their existence strictly to the confines of the bateyes (a type of barracks) that still surrounds the sugar cane fields of the country.

Today, as in 1937, we have been led to believe that these two populations are incompatible. As if anti-Haitianism is the definition of what is Dominican. This rejection by the elites of the very heterogeneous Dominican population comes to fulfil a function: to legitimize social injustice by dividing the working classes and making up a false enemy within it. As if racism springs from the heart of those who live it. The purpose has been to dissimilate the State’s responsibility for the social misery in which they live by exacerbating tensions between the “They” and “We,” the “Black” and the “Others,” which ends nefariously by punishing them for this situation.

Far from being just a past, this hideous history keeps updating its incidence in the present day. In September of 2013, a decree of the Constitutional Court (the highest judicial instance in the Nation) ordered the revocation of Dominican citizenship to men, women, and children born of at least one Haitian parent between 1929–2007. Through the force of law, the real goal for the State is to make coexistence illegal. Today, as yesterday, the true fear of the Dominican elites lies in the transgressive practice of solidarity and pacific coexistence among peoples that blur border lines, transcend their political visions and substitute them by principles of hospitality. In brief, by humanity.

<p><em>Abuela</em> giving me her testimony of the solidarity and community between Haitians and Dominican populations before, during and after the massacre. July 2017.</p>

Abuela giving me her testimony of the solidarity and community between Haitians and Dominican populations before, during and after the massacre. July 2017.

The Socialism of the People

Abuela opened my eyes on how troubling this cohabitation between Dominicans and Haitians has been for the State. But also to how a people’s version of this massacre brings us crucial lessons about the power of a history from below. Her story makes visible the social process that shaped the will to continue living together, and which continues to shape the unthinkable nation. Every day in the country, the official history is subverted. This is what I observed in the city of Santiago of my childhood, where I spent time helping my grandparents sell groceries in the bodega. Recently, the residents of a working-class neighborhood subverted an order of the mayor, expelling the municipal police who were preparing to arrest and dismiss the Haitians who lived and worked there. I also lived it a few months ago conducting fieldwork in the sugar cane fields of the country. There I found the answer I was looking for, of how, despite the animosity that is created from above between the populations, and that longed-for social explosion that many sectors are looking for (and that from time to time, tend to happens), most of the time it doesn’t occur. The answer is simple. These populations are permeated by the experience of community that I call the socialism of the people. This is not a political-ideological issue, much less morality inherent to a particular cultural group. It is rather that solidarity that tends to develop within a community as a result of a common historical situation of domination. The force of this social bond emerges in the daily conditions of precariousness, consciously and unconsciously, creating ideals of communal justice and structuring and giving meaning to collective life, overcoming the particular interests of the elites. Mostly, it is in those inner-cities confined to segregation where new nuances of solidarity arise from the feeling of living and fighting the same conditions of misery. And, it is in those fields and bateyes where the question is not where do you come from, but what makes us stand together and where do we hit from now on.

Aleja will soon be ninety-three years old. She hasn’t mourned the loss of her friend Antoine yet, but the State has never been able to destroy her love of building community. People from this Caribbean island have paid a very high price for freedom — a price too high to keep letting a political order trap the sense of our history and impose boundaries that dehumanize our social relations.

By Amín Pérez, Sociologist, Member in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.