On a Sunday afternoon Johende Cepin and his father, Wilfredo , hang out together at Venus Restaurant, a Haitian place in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, in Brooklyn.
“I feel more Haitian than Dominican” Johende says.
Johende tells his father that Haitians are smarter but Wilfredo replies, “Just keep talking.”
Wilfredo was beaming while Johende talked to me. He proudly told me that his son speaks four languages: French, Creole, English, and Spanish.
But the Dominican-Haitian love might just stay in the family. Johende says that the Dominican news outlets promote negative stereotypes about the Haitians.
“They say in the news the Haitian people are bad. The Haitian people have the voodoo thing.”
The Dominican-Haitian feud makes for fun banter between Johende and Wilfred, but the history of the relationship between the two nations is no joke.
The Republic of Spanish Haiti
To truly understand how deep these roots go we need to go back… way back to the late 1700s when Haiti fought the first successful slave revolution.
Haiti gained independence from France while the Dominican Republic to the east continued to be governed by the Spanish crown.
Almost two decades after gaining independence, Haitian president Jean Pierre Boyer began his campaign to unite the island and defeated the Spanish crown in 1821.
For 22 years the island of Hispaniola was one nation: the Republic of Spanish Haiti. But then the Dominicans rebelled against the Haitians to gain independence.
In fact, when the Dominican Republic celebrates their independence day on February 27th – they are celebrating their independence from Haiti. They are the only Latin American country to celebrate independence from another country in the region.
A Border of Lights
Over the next century, things between the nations didn’t necessarily get easier.
“Estimates go from 4,000 to upwards from 20,000 haitians and dominicans of haitian descent were murdered.” Says Julia Alvarez, a Dominican writer and professor at Middlebury College in Vermont.
She is referring to a 1937 massacre, which is still denied by many in the Dominican Republic. Some know it as the parsley massacre because it was rumored that the president at the time, Rafael Trujillo, had ordered anyone who said the word “perejil” or parsley in Spanish with a french sounding “r” to be killed.
“When I was a little kid I was taught that the Haitians were this enemy next door. That if I didn’t eat my supper or go to bed the Haitians would come and take me away to Haiti where they ate little Dominican kids.” Alvarez says.
Once Alvarez was an adult she learned more about the actual history of both countries and on the 75th anniversary of the massacre, in 2012, Alvarez joined efforts with some colleagues to remember what happened.
“We had a procession, we had a service, the people in the border town joined us in the border. We lit up the border with lights.”
Alvarez says that hundreds of people from both sides of the border brought candles to honor the sad history. And they still do it every year.
“There was so much real, from the people, grassroots desire to really connect and make this a porous border. You know a border of lights.”
Yet the political relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti continues to be strained.
The Fight for Dominican Citizenship
Just last year in 2013, a court ruling made it so that anywhere from 24,000 to 200,000 people of Haitian descendant who were born and grew up in the Dominican Republic were determined ineligible for citizenship.
The woman at the heart of this case applied for a national ID card. She was denied on the grounds that her parents were considered “irregular parents.” They were irregular because they were what was deemed “in transit.”
“The general understanding of what in transit means it means you took a flight in and you’re flying out and you happen to have your baby,” says Allyn Gaestal, a freelance journalist who covered this court ruling.
The Dominican courts defined in transit differently.
“They kind of determined that anybody who was there without documentation or had overstayed their visas or anything besides having all their paperwork in line was considered in transit. And this applied especially to a lot of farm workers who had come on temporary work visas to work in the sugar cane fields. And a lot of those were at the invitation of the Dominican state.”
Another aspect of this case that made this whole situation complicated is that documentation in the Dominican Republic is kind of a mess.
“The birth certificate means something a little different in the Dominican Republic. It’s something you need to do a lot of things that you don’t need it for here. Like going to college you need your birth certificate, a lot of state services. So it’s something that people need a lot but it’s not something you necessarily get when you’re born.”
Deisy Toussaint’s Story
One such person, who did not get her birth certificate at birth, is Deisy Toussaint. Deisy was born to a Dominican father and Haitian mother. Since her father traveled a lot, when it came time for her to get her birth certificate her mother ended up giving Deisy her maiden name: Toussaint, a very common Haitian last name.
Even before Deisy’s last name ended up getting her into trouble years later, a bizarre childhood experience foreshadowed her strange relationship with the state and her status.
“When I was one and a half years old my fragile body began to balloon for some unknown reason. They decided to hospitalize me but my veins weren’t showing up. They had to give me the IV and all the shots into my head. I had a heart attack.”
The doctors declared Desiy dead.
“Since I didn’t have a birth certificate and was the daughter of poor people, it was difficult to sign off on getting the body removed from the hospital.”
But her mother was finally able to take what they believed was Deisy’s lifeless body out of the hospital and a wake was planned for that very day.
“They had commissioned an ambulance to take me from the hospital to my home and that same ambulance was going to take me from my home to the cemetery.”
At the cemetery, Deisy’s mom saw Deisy open her eyes right before they were supposed to bury her.
“The only person in the entire wake that sees me open my eyes is my mother. She grabs me out of the coffin and begins to run. She ends up taking me back to the hospital where I’m declared not dead. At that point the medics wouldn’t let the press or the police come into the hospital because they were the ones who had declared me dead that very morning. “
It turns out that Deisy suffered from catalepsy, a condition that is characterized by rigid muscles and a lack of response to external stimuli.
Deisy went on to become a writer and she actually won a national award for a short story she wrote about catalepsy. After winning the award she was invited to go to a book fair in Cuba. This is what happened when she applied for a passport:
“They say they can’t give me my passport because my last name is French. I think this must be a prank. I had seen stories about this before but it felt really distant from me. They treated me like I was a cheater. I had a birth certificate, an ID card, I studied, and everything was normal. but now…they tell me no. It’s like erasing my entire past. “
Since Deisy applied for a passport, she has been recognized formally by her Dominican father in court and is officially a Dominican citizen.
Deisy still has not been able to leave the Dominican Republic. Her visa to come to new york for a book fair this year was denied. She was going to present her latest work, “The Deaths of Deisy Toussaint.”
“I draw a parallel between the first death, the one by catalepsy, and the second death, my civil death.”
Deisy has been lucky. But for others in the Dominican Republic who don’t have her profile, being recognized by the state can be very difficult.
The 2013 court ruling received a lot of backlash and since the Dominican government has established a program that allows Haitians who have been living in the Dominican Republic to apply for residency.
According to a report from the AP released in late august, more than 115,000 people have signed up through the program since it launched in early June – but only 275 have met the criteria.
Nationality isn’t just an issue of whether you have papers – It’s how people identify.
“Most of the people who have not been able to get their identity cards or have not been able to register, they identify very strongly as Dominican.” Gaestal says, “Juliana Deguis, one of the most important cases, when I asked her if she felt Dominican, she said I don’t feel Dominican, I am Dominican.”