By Jonathan Dusenbury, M.A. student, Department of History
This past weekend, countries throughout the Western Hemisphere officially observed the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Despite decades of pushback by scholars and activists against the holiday and the master narrative of Western history that it represents, the story of Columbus remains a persistent founding myth for many countries in the Americas, regardless of whether Columbus ever stepped foot on that territory or not. The mythology surrounding Columbus is indeed so strong that his remains have been treated as holy relics, and various historic sites in Spain and the Caribbean have argued about who owns his authentic remains. One of these sites is the Columbus Lighthouse in the Dominican Republic, and a recent ruling by that country’s highest court provides a powerful framework for observing the persistent effects of Columbus mythology in the modern world.
Just under one month ago, on September 23, 2013, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic ruled in favor of the Dominican Electoral Board in a suit brought against them by Juliana Deguis Pierre, a Dominican woman of Haitian descent, whom the board had refused to issue an identification card. Although Pierre had been born on Dominican soil, the court found that, because she was the daughter of migrant workers, she did not have the right to claim Dominican citizenship. In effect, this decision strips hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship privileges, rendering them stateless. It also further solidifies a process of racism, discrimination, and exclusion of people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic whose roots reach back well into the nineteenth century.
The ideological culprit here is antihaitianismo. Colorado State University political scientist Ernesto Sagás describes this ideology as “the present manifestation of the long-term evolution of racial prejudice, the selective interpretation of historical facts, and the creation of a nationalist Dominican false consciousness.” Mobilized against Haiti and Haitians’ “blackness” is a discourse of Dominican “whiteness” that finds its origins in the conquest of the island of Hispaniola by Spanish invaders and in the pre-conquest aboriginal past. As the neighbors of the first independent black state in the modern world (as well as victims of a Haitian invasion and occupation from 1822 to 1844), the Hispanic elites of the colony of Santo Domingo and then-independent state of the Dominican Republic worked arduously to create a national narrative that contrasted their white, Hispanic, Catholic state with their black, voodoo-practicing neighbors and former occupiers. The Dominicans were proud descendants of the conquistadors and aboriginals; the Haitians were the descendants of slaves. (To gauge Haitians’ view of the history of Spain’s conquest of the Caribbean, we need only remember that within months of the Duvaliers fleeing that country in 1986, Haitians tore down a statue to Columbus in Port-au-Prince and threw it into the sea.)
Last month’s Constitutional Court decision was not the first manifestation of the effects of this ideology. It has persisted since the nineteenth century, erupting most famously in the massacre of tens of thousands of Haitian migrant workers by the Dominican military, under the orders of President Rafael Trujillo, in October 1937. Since August 2012, the Dominican Republic has expelled nearly 50,000 undocumented Haitians from the country, more than double the number from the previous year. Antihaitianismo has also helped to co-opt the support of poor and darker-skinned Dominicans for the country’s ruling elite by classifying the former as “indio” – Indian – on their identity documents. Designation as “black” – with all of its attendant pejorative connotations – is reserved exclusively for Haitians.
The stripping away of the citizenship rights of people of Haitian descent born on Dominican soil puts that country on a dangerous path to broader and more violent persecution of dark-skinned residents of the country. Unless the international community is willing to hold the Dominican government accountable for its treatment of undocumented Haitians, there is reason to fear that another pogrom on the scale of the 1937 Trujillo-led massacre is possible.
It is also a very real lesson in the dangers of mythologizing a particular version of history, and of using a selective reading of history to undergird a particular social and political system. No country is immune from this tendency – not the Dominican Republic, not the United States. Founding myths have been and continue to be essential tools in the building of national identity. But if we are to push for the building of more just and equitable communities, then the respective and collective histories of various countries must be handled with extreme care.
Ernesto Sagás, A Case of Mistaken Identity: Antihaitianismo in Dominican Culture. http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/haiti/misctopic/dominican/antihaiti.htm
“Dominican army deports 47,700 Haitians in 13 months.” http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130927/dominican-army-deports-47700-haitians-13-months
Ezequiel Abiu Lopez and Danica Cono.“Experts fear crisis over ruling stripping citizenship from Haitian-Dominicans.” http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-10-09/world/42849811_1_haitian-citizenship-nationality-legalization