Down the road from my office the other day, a man came up and asked me in English, “Where are you from?” I’ve had similar exchanges with Dominicans many times; usually they’re curious what a blue-eyed gringa is doing in their country. Our subsequent Spanglish conversation, however, took a slightly more ugly turn.
Turns out he had lived for years in New York, and he told me he wanted to move back. He said he didn’t like it in the D.R., and when I asked him why, he said,
“There are too many Haitians.”
I was taken aback. I know that racial tensions run high between Dominicans and Haitians on the island, and I have seen and heard many other examples of racism, but this was the bluntest. I decided to try to engage him in a rational conversation, and asked him why it was bad that there were Haitians in the D.R.
His response was simple, if lacking in sense: “They’re bad.” I pressed him, suggesting that it’s not logical to claim all individuals of a given race are bad. He said, “Yes. Almost all of them.”
The man took advantage of my speechlessness to explain, “They are black. Their skin is so black.” And then after a pause, “I’m a racist. I don’t like people with black skin.” It wasn’t an apology, it wasn’t a disclosure. It was just a statement. Like, “It’s hot outside today.”
I walked away, and I passed a woman selling avocados. She was just on the other side of a parked car, about 10 feet from where we’d been standing. She was Haitian.
I’ve been looking at the above half of my blog post all week, and I just can’t seem to wrap it up nicely and tie it with a bow. But if you’ll allow me, I’d like to share the thoughts tumbling around in my mind…
The Dominican Republic and Haiti have a complicated and bloody history, but nothing, past or present, excuses hate. On that same note, I am called to love this man who I could barely stand talking to. I’m really good at being a hypocrite.
I am privileged. Where we’re born determines a whole lot more than we’d like to admit, for many of us. While all I had to deal with the other day was two minutes of unpleasant conversation, the Haitian woman selling avocados doesn’t have it quite so well.
Haiti is the poorest country in our hemisphere. In the D.R., Haitians are by far the most marginalized sector of society. Even Haitians who were born in the Dominican often don’t have papers and therefore cannot get work or government assistance. Many work 14-hour days with a machete in a sugar cane field to earn a couple bucks—literally. Yet, there’s hope. About 5,000 Haitians in the D.R. are Esperanza clients and are currently investing in small businesses and learning about Jesus’ love.
Rosa Emilia has been a client since 2007, growing her loan size from 4,000 pesos ($90) to 50,000 pesos ($1127). She’s invested the capital in her convenience store and food businesses, a motorbike, pigs with which to feed her family, and her education. Rosa is one of few people in her batey (a Haitian sugar cane community) to have gone to college. Now with six semesters of a physical education degree under her belt, Rosa looks forward to becoming a gym teacher. In her words, “It doesn’t matter if you’re poor. What matters is what you have in your heart.”
Amen to that, Rosa.
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