Disorder on Another Border: The Latin Migration Becomes Universal

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Mar 13, 2008 12:01 AM
Disorder on Another Border: The Latin Migration Becomes Universal

PUERTO PLATA, Dominican Republic -- All politics are local, as every successful politician can tell you. Like life itself, all politics are universal, too. The farther you get from the local, the more universal everything seems.

The Latin immigration phenomenon, for example, is writ large in a small way here. Even as Haitians slip across the border to seek a better life in the Dominican Republic, many Dominicans are leaving to search for better times in the United States, legal or not.

Eliot Spitzer's adventures with $5,000-a-night call girls smack of corruption, abuse of power and perversity (as well as incredible stupidity), but as scandal it's small potatoes here in the Dominican Republic, where the police are busy cracking down on child prostitution rings. The fight like the one between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would be a luxury in a country where blacks and women can be employed for a pittance.

The color of skin, alas, is pervasive, with shades ranging from white through various shades of cinnamon, brown and black. Dominica was founded by the Spanish, but most Dominicans trace their ancestry to black slaves from Africa, a few native Indians and European settlers, and often call themselves "Indio" to hide their African heritage. The hardest hit by racial stigma are the darkest blacks.

Prejudice falls heaviest on the newest immigrants from Haiti, with which the Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola. Most of the Haitians here were born here, but the border is wild and remote, and increasing numbers of Haitians, seeking low-paying work in sugar cane fields, slip in illegally. Backbreaking work at low pay is better than no work and no pay. Consequently, the citizenship issue is often blurred.

Until recently children born of Haitian parents were granted citizenship, just as children born of immigrants in the United States are American citizens. Children of diplomats were denied citizenship because their parents were considered "in transit," and recently the Dominican Supreme Court ruled that children born of Haitian workers are "in transit," too. Many perfectly legal citizens began to have "problems" with their Dominican birth certificates.

Sonia Pierre, a dark-skinned woman born of Haitian parents in the Dominican Republic, founded the Movement for Dominican-Haitian Women and crusaded for others who suffered prejudice in housing, education and citizenship. "Like Robert Kennedy, I live in a time of racism, discrimination and violence," she said when she went to Washington to accept the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2006. "In my country, Dominican children of Haitian descent suffer discrimination from the moment they are born." Her human rights advocacy goes back three decades. When she was only 13 years old, she was arrested for heading a protest march against the exploitation of sugar cane cutters.

Not everyone sees her as "Saint Sonia"; the Dominican foreign minister accuses her of "smearing" the nation's reputation by deepening and exacerbating racial divisions. Haitians are invariably blamed for crimes against tourists, sometimes legitimately, sometimes not. It's hard to tell who the criminals are when the police can't catch them in the act, or soon after.

When our rented house was burgled in the middle of the night and the thief took only a laptop computer and a pair of tennis shoes, the landlord, a man of a vanilla shade, blamed "a Haitian." Whoever he was, the burglar chose well: The laptop would move quickly at a flea market, and we found his discarded shoes a few yards from the house. He was eager to put on the stolen running shoes. Eerily, he left behind a large machete. It was just as well, perhaps, that we all slept through the burglary.

The racial divisions in this small country are palpable, and if blonde is not considered the only source of beauty, fair has its privileges. "On TV, the maids are always black and the models are always white," Sonia Pierre told the New York Times. When several beautiful black Dominican children visited with the children of our American friends, they doted on the fair-skinned blonde child as if she were a princess.

Last week, the Dominican-born writer Junot Diaz won the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction with "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," which tells another kind of story of identity divisions. He depicts a second-generation Dominican family in New Jersey, juxtaposing their experiences in America with life in the "mother country." Junot Diaz is famous locally for his short story capturing what's happening now with an ironic, self-deprecating, self-help title: "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie."

Such advice may be local, but it sounds universal.