Hudlin Entertainment

Island of the Apes: On Being Dominican

Like many first-generation Americans, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the Dominican Republic since I could remember, or rather, with many of our Dominican elders. On one hand, I love my motherland—our capital, Santo Domingo, is the first city in the New World. Last November, I found myself sitting with my significant other—who is half Haitian—on a bench in the nation’s”first” park, soaking in the sun, and the sensual, sometimes chaotic vibe that is emblematic of this gorgeous city. It felt great to be back in la capital where I lived with my maternal grandparents for several formative years of my life.  Dominicans are generally hard-working, tenacious in their ability to survive on almost nada, and kind (unless you’re Haitian, that is). This is the country where the Mirabal sisters were born and, prematurely, died on their feet (as opposed to living on their knees) fighting against our very own Hitler, the dictator Rafael Trujillo. We are also the land who gave birth to the living legend, flautist and Fania records co-founder Johnny Pacheco: the man is a national treasure, he laid down the foundation for salsa music. We have flavor oozing out of our pores.

We are  striking people. We’re like ethnically ambiguous futuristic aliens, a reflection of what America will look like sooner than later.  Over 90% of us are of products of Columbus‘ fruits of labor in the island of Hispaniola: we are part Spanish courtesy of his invasion; we have only traces of Amerindian blood due to the genocide committed against our indigenous Tainos; we are African because of Transatlantic Slavery; and at some point or another, everyone from the Jews, former North American freed slaves, the Lebanese and Italians, added to our motley crew. Over dinner with my aunt, I learned that my great-great grandmother was from Vietnam! My uncle confirmed that my grandfather’s grandfather was from Haiti. The latter genealogical discovery wasn’t such a stretch. To say we are diverse is to make a gross understatement. And our miscegenation shows itself in almost every damn thing in the Dominican Republic—from the way we dance to the way we cook, and a laundry list of things in between—our connection to the African continent is as undeniable. I’ve seen more African retention in Dominican Republic than I’ve seen in the States. I know, I’ve visited West Africa several times.  And I made a movie in Sierra Leone.

The other thing that inspired me about going back to Santo Domingo was meeting my peers and other very progressive young people. I was invited to a film festival in the country (curiously, hosted by foreigners…) only to find my screening scheduled on a Sunday at the same time as the closing night ceremonies. But I didn’t care. I wanted to connect with the locals. And sure enough, with a leaky ceiling, no car to take me there (every other filmmaker had transportation to and from their screenings), sans support from the curators, and a  series of other unfortunate events, everything turned out better than it could have in my wildest dreams.  I mean, I’ve been fortunate: at dozens of screenings, I’ve met Sierra Leoneans who connected to Bling…. But I had never screened or presented any of my work in my country, so this was special.  And regardless of how inconsiderate the festival organizers were, I truly appreciate the opportunity to have returned to my country in spite of these circumstances. The  theater—the venue was so out of the way, the driver had gotten lost—was overflowing with fantastically engaged people. It was almost midnight and everyone stayed to meet me, ask questions about my journey to this point, and the obstacles I faced making this documentary.  Emmanuel Jal had decided to attend the screening and share his experiences as a former child soldier in the Sudan with the audience. Young people in the Dominican Republic are curious about Africa, about our connection to the continent, about exploring the self-hatred our elders have tried to pass down to our generation. And, specifically, we all wanted to discourse about Haitians living in country: why, all these years after the assassination of Trujillo, who supported and sponsored a Haitian massacre, are they still being treated like animals? My question to the audience was, to put it bluntly, “what gives?”

I thought about all of this when I read a recent news report from the Associated Press:

(AP) Dominican police are investigating the decapitation of a migrant from neighboring Haiti.

Police Maj. Jose Llubres says the victim’s body was found Saturday in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of the capital, Santo Domingo. He says residents allege the victim killed a local merchant and police are investigating whether he was slain in revenge.

The Foreign Ministry described the killings as an “incident between individuals” in a statement Tuesday.

Haitian officials have called the migrant’s killing barbarous and questioned whether Dominican police could have prevented it.

About 1 million people of Haitian descent live in the Dominican Republic, often suffering discrimination and violence.

I’m not naive. I know that many crimes against Haitians go unreported. Funny thing is, many Dominicans have Haitian blood running through their veins. Trujillo himself was mixed. Author Michele Wucker wrote, “He wore pancake make-up to lighten the traces of color his Haitian grandmother’s blood had left in his skin.” Today, I’m not sure what exactly is our current President’s stance is on being of mixed ancestry, though his features speak volumes.  Thankfully, President Leonel Fernandez is an educated man. I really hope that Barack Obama’s ascension to power in the United States will inspire him to act boldly and deal with this racial ignorance in DR. Our obsession and self-hatred is holding us back from realizing our potential in the global community. It is also holding us back from providing aid and working with our neighbors for a mutually beneficial future.

I live in a predominantly Dominican neighborhood in New York City where I’ve heard very, very dark-hued Dominican men and women talk about “stupid black Haitians.” These people need to go to the 99 cent store on 207th street and purchase a mirror. I’ve read and listened to Dominicans  here complain about their neighbors stealing  jobs from family members back home, blaming Haitians for stressing out their economy to the breaking point. But, um, hello, Haitians are doing the jobs Dominicans think they’re above doing,  like cutting  that sugar cane. People need to understand that these so-called “black Haitian savages” delivered us Dominicans from the evils of slavery. I mean, like, they really didn’t have to do that for us.

Today, like true internationalists, many Haitians not only speak Creole, but French and Spanish to boot (I mean, they’ve gotta learn Spanish if they wanna eartin DR, right?) On the other hand, you will rarely meet a Dominican who waxes poetic in Creole or French. And if Haitians are so inferior, why don’t we have a filmmaker like Raoul Peck challenging us rethink the world around us? We Dominicans make ridiculous, buffoon-like comedies that aren’t really funny.

We are deeper than that. Yes, claro, we have  the Pulitzer prize-winning Junot Diaz. I loved the nuances and footnotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao so much so, that I spent several weeks slowly reading the last three pages of the book for fear that the experience would end. Junot’s masterful tome illustrates that there is hope for us all  to  explore our  own issues, instead of having someone else do it for us. We may change the way we see ourselves, our neighbors and the way others see us.

Contrary to what the film Sugar might lead one to believe (said flick, incidentally, was the crown jewel of the aforementioned film festival), Dominican girls in the  hood aren’t oversexed  sluts who wait patiently at home as their men migrate north and lust for all things American—from apple pie, to baseball and cornfed blondies. It’s not cool for Dominican women to be reduced to  two-bit whores, be it in films or in real life (have you seen all the American and European men who rent underage girls in D.R.?), and it’s not kosher for us  Dominicans to treat Haitians like sub-humans. One island. One  blood. We need reexamine our whole selves.

Raquel Cepeda

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