Harvard Professor Lorgia García-Peña returns to her roots to investigate the narratives that shaped a divide.
The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic forces a conspicuous dividing line between black and non-black, respectively. How the island of Hispaniola came to be so racially divided, and the impact it has had on the formation of the Dominican identity is a central focus of Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction by Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Lorgia García-Peña, Roy G. Clouse Associate Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.
The Dominican identity is highly complex, melding various ancestries from Spanish colonials, Indigenous peoples, emancipated slaves from the seventeenth century, and Haitian blacks, who are themselves descendents of the slaves of French colonizers. Above all racial affiliations, blackness has been historically the most reviled and disputed element of Dominican diversity, where many shades of “brown” have been somehow easier to embrace. García-Peña delves into the archives and oral histories to document historic, cultural, and literary efforts to erase blackness from the national identity. As a contributor to the growing discipline of Afro-Latin American studies, her research moves beyond slavery and persecution to identify the many ways in which Dominicans are embracing their multifaceted ancestries and to document the growing awareness of social inequities for ethnic Haitians and Afro-Dominicans.
Dominicans should never forget the inherent ferocity of those monsters that penetrated our homes…and even the innocence of our candid virgins destroyed.
—Translated from the song “Canción dominicana” by Felix Maria del Monte, 1844.
When she was a child, Lorgia García-Peña learned about the history of the Dominican people the way most children in the Dominican Republic (DR) did: through the literature, poems, and songs taught at school. One story in particular, written by Nicolas Cesar Penson, recounted the tragedy of three young sisters who were raped and murdered by invading Haitian bandits in 1822, the first year of the Haitian Unification, when the entire island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) was united under a Haitian flag.
“In the Latin American literary tradition of tradiciones, in the nineteenth century, historical events are recounted as truth,” García-Peña explains.
The account of the murders would be repeated and referenced numerous times in the nineteenth-century literature and narratives of the DR. The many iterations of this story fueled the enduring racism against Haitians, Afro-descendants, and “blackness” that would prevail to modern times.
“There is no alternative to a little girl reading about her history and learning that you should be afraid of these monsters—Haitians—because they kill or rape little girls like me, take your country away from you and make your dad go to war,” García-Peña reflects. “It’s the most known story, but nobody knows what really happened.”
Decades later, as a scholar in the United States, García-Peña, who is the daughter of Dominican immigrants, became curious about the historical accuracy behind these formative stories.
“I became very interested in who reproduces truth, and the ways we invest certain knowledge by publishing them in books, songs, monuments,” she says.
Her curiosity propelled her on a fact-finding journey that led to some powerful revelations.
In the Dominican National Archive she found the original court documents from the Galindo murder trial in 1822. As evidenced by the documents, the perpetrators in the famous story were not Haitians. They were Dominicans. And they had killed not just the girls, but their father as well.
“I almost passed out,” she recalls. “You have this incredible story that is basically a complete fabrication.”
The story had been repurposed and perpetuated for close to two centuries. The facts of the Galindo case represent one of the absences in what she calls the “Archive of Dominicanidad,” and these omissions fueled her scholarship.
What’s more, García-Peña discovered that she was the first person in 113 years to have read the court documents. The last person to sign the ledger was the famous intellectual thought leader and journalist Nicolas Cesar Penson, whose celebrated historical legend, Las Virgenes Galindo (1891), became the foundational reference point for future storytellers.
“Even though Penson had access to the facts of the case, he must have ignored them,” she says. Instead, he got his “facts” from an earlier writer, the literary and political figure Felix Maria del Monte, whose famous poem was the first to switch the identity of the killers. “Going forward, everyone just kept citing Penson without anybody fact-checking him,” she says.
García-Peña decided to track down all the mentions of and references to the murders in the arts, including paintings. In her book, she demonstrates how the story appears in various media.
A pattern began to form: versions of the story would emerge during times of national crises, particularly after the 1937 massacre, when, under the direction of the brutal Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, army soldiers killed some 20,000 rayanos, or black Dominicans and Haitians living near the border.
“The official line of the government then and today is that the massacre never happened,” she says. “The truth is that many Dominicans at the border were killed as well. The silence around this massacre was incredible, because you could never admit Dominicans were killing their own.”
Even as recently as 2013 the National Theater in Santo Domingo put on a large-scale production based on the story. Not coincidentally, it was the same year as the denationalization act, popularly referred to as La Sentencia, which rescinded the citizenship of children of undocumented immigrants retroactive to 1927, including the one million Haitians in transit for work, she explains.
“Anytime the Dominican government does something atrocious, the Galindo story pops up,” she says.
The Galindo story is just one of the many traditional narratives she examines in her book. Using great sensitivity to reconcile cultural beliefs to the historic facts, she looks at all the influences that come to bear on the retelling of a narrative, such as identity politics, and the colonial biases of powerful intellectual figures.
How this island nation came to be divided is another central question she revisits in earlier chapters. During the twenty-two years of Haitian rule, Hispaniola was a diverse country with no structural segregation. When the Dominican Republic won its independence from Haiti in 1844, it marked the first true racial divide between the nations. But García-Peña argues that it was not anti-Haitianism or negrophobia that drove the independence movement. As the world’s first black republic, Haiti was not recognized by the United States or France, who imposed sanctions and taxes in exchange for legitimacy.
After reading the letters of elite Dominican mulattos who led the independence movement (and who had originally championed a united Haiti), she concludes that they sought a free nation in order to shed Haiti’s colonial strings. This economic argument represented yet another absence in the collective history, a rationale overlooked in the record. Although the ethno-Spanish literary figures of the nineteenth century framed separation as a racial imperative, García-Peña insists: “It was not about race, it was about money.”
In another chapter, she studies the systemic effort to “civilize the island” and “erase blackness,” during the US occupation of Haiti (1915–1934) and the DR (1916–1924) by referencing letters of the marines and infantry stationed on the island. (The occupation was the result of a deal made with the United States to cover debts in the Dominican Republic; while in Haiti, the US aimed to quell an insurgency that led to the assassination of the dictator.)
“The US infantry and marines were young men from the Jim Crow south, who brought with them their fear and disdain for blacks,” she explains. Dominican blacks were somehow seen as even worse than American blacks. During the period of occupation, stories and films in the United States and in France depicted Haitians as “savages” and “zombies.”
One method to suppress the African influences in the DR was to attack religious and spiritual practices. The US forces in combination with the Dominican Republic National Guard criminalized the practices of the Afro-spiritual communities called confradías. They invaded birth and wedding rituals and desecrated sacred artifacts.
US forces even murdered a prominent Afro-religious leader named Olivorio Mateo, a much-loved spiritual guru. His corpse was displayed to the public, in a show of triumph in the occupied state’s ongoing fight against guerilla insurgencies.
García-Peña writes that Mateo’s body was “textual evidence of the cooperation between the US empire and the Dominican white elite in bordering Hispaniola to exclude blackness from the nation.”
Although the atrocities during the occupation were well documented, once again García-Peña became more interested in finding what was missing in the record, the voices that told different versions of history—like that of resistance to the occupation.
For example, she discovered the story of Dominga Alcantara, a popular leader in the Confradia del Espirito Santo, a peaceful spiritual community in the DR’s San Juan de la Maguana. In the spring of 1922, while Alcantara was preparing for a major religious festival in the region, US troops confiscated her sacred drums, an act of aggression and desecration.
García-Peña found a letter that Alcantara wrote to the military governor of Santo Domingo asking for the return of her drums. It was exceedingly polite, yet in one line contained a warning. “We had not been tested by the government until this day,” Alcantara wrote, intimating that she had the will of the people behind her. On reflection, the occupiers returned the drums.
To García-Peña, this story not only illuminates a new angle of resistance, but also reveals contradictions. “First, nobody at that time expected Alcantara, as a black Dominican woman, to be literate, and second, to hold so much political power in the community,”she says.
“In addition to denouncing horrific histories, scholars and historians must find the moments in which people are not entirely passive in processes,” she insists. “People do resist and they do find ways to tell other histories to keep their legacy alive.”
The Borders of Dominicanidad clearly adds to and also disrupts the national discourse. Moving beyond historic events, later chapters segue into contemporary race relations and the growing acceptance among Dominicans of their multiracial, multiethnic character.
Long-held ideas about transnational enmity were severely tested in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, in 2010. Many injured Haitians sought medical help across the border, resulting in a 20 percent increase in undocumented Haitians in the DR. Through the story of Sonia Marmolejos, a Dominican mother, a rayana from a border town, who nursed injured Haitian babies in a Santo Domingo hospital, the world witnessed what was thought of as an extraordinary symbol of transnational bonding. Nursing Haitian babies wasn’t an act of nation building, García-Peña argues; Marmolejos was simply doing what rayanos did in their diverse, intermixed borderland communities. As an accidental media celebrity, Marmolejos recast Afro-Latin relations for the rest of the world.
In her chapter on the aftermath of the earthquake, García-Peña uses Marmolejos’s act as a framework for understanding what she calls “rayano consciousness,” or the expressions of multicultural norms through everyday acts and, increasingly, through works of art by popular Dominican artists and performers both at home and in the diaspora.
“Through rayano consciousness, artists, writers, and the general public are able to confront anti-Haitianism within and beyond the island territory and find communal ways to create and historicize their own everyday realities,” writes García-Peña.
By bringing a fresh analysis to race relations in the region, Borders of Dominicanidad contributes to the growing field of Afro-Latin American studies, a relatively new multidisciplinary field that proposes to move beyond slavery scholarship to study the experience of Afro-descendents in Latin American postabolitionist, democratized societies. Instead of using slavery as a rationalization for today’s racial discrimination, the field promotes looking at discrimination through a contemporary lens and documenting the growing social justice movements in Latin America.
In many ways, the field of Afro-Latin American studies is building its own archive, one that actively seeks to understand the experiences of the groups most likely to be silenced or dismissed.
In creating “other archives of knowledge” García-Peña hopes that the work she and her colleagues are doing “get us closer to the ways in which scholarship can dismantle the intellectual legacy sustaining systems of oppression.”
—Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs
Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Lorgia García-Peña is the Roy G. Clouse Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of History and Literature at Harvard University. She is the author of The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nations and Archives of Contradictions (Duke University Press, 2016). She studies contemporary US Latino/a literature and cultures; Caribbean literature and cultures; performance studies; race and ethnicity; transnational feminism; migration; human rights; and Dominican and Dominican diaspora studies.
1. Map of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Credit: Kristin Caulfield
2. Photo of Lorgia García-Peña. Used with permission by Lorgia García-Peña
3. The music video “Da pa lo do,” by the Dominican singer Rita Indiana Hernández, expresses the sentiment: “Even though we are people of different nationalities we can live together on one island.”