Borders and bodies

The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction
Lorgia García-Peña
2016, Duke University Press
174 pages, plates, paperback

A LOT OF exciting material is being published about the black Caribbean as scholarship increasingly tests dominant historical discourses on race – often to destruction. This book, which can be juxtaposed naturally with Haitian Connections featured beside it, is another example of the pioneering work that is reassessing how these societies have been racialized and the impact of this upon historiography. Lorgia García-Peña explores what it means to be a black Dominican and how narratives are projected upon racialized notions of the body in order to sustain forms of exclusion between social groups within dominant discourses of national identity. Observing how black people are symbolically expunged from the narrative of national identity in the Dominican Republic, she notes how they are also excluded from the countries in which they then find themselves “exiled” through poverty, such as the US. The author writes: “While black does not exist as an ethnically distinguished category in the Dominican Republic the way it does in the United States, being black (prieto, Haitian, or rayano) there inhibits social mobility through civic, political, and economic exclusion. A poor prieto, someone with dark brown skin, can easily be assiged the category of foreigner (haitiano). A poor prieto who migrates to the United States then becomes a Dominicanyork, her body doubly marked as black and foreign. The multiple geopolitical borders of dominicanidad – Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the United States – become visible through the body of the racialized Dominican Latino/a.” [p2] García-Peña argues that the US has played a formative role in creating this ambivalent dominicanidad, by influencing the geographical and symbolic borders of the Dominican Republic and shaping multiple ethnoracial identifications. In short, imperialism has overseen how the racial borders have been established between Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the United States. The author develops this argument by examining foundational moments in the history of the Dominican Republic, including the US occupation from 1916–24, the massacre of 20,000 people on the border with Haiti in 1937, and the terrible earthquake of 2010. Known in English as the Parsley Massacre, in Spanish as El corte “the cutting”, and in Haitian Creole as Kout kouto or “the stabbing”, the 1937 genocide – which, according to the author, the Dominican state still does not officially recognize as having occurred – claimed the lives of up to 20,000 ethnic Haitians and rayanos. Butchered by soldiers on the direct orders of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, the genocide speaks loudly about questions of nationality and race. The popular name for this incident derives from the idea that took root that Trujillo ordered his troops to determine whether those living on the border were native Afro-Dominicans or immigrant Afro-Haitians by holding up a sprig of parsley for them to name – their fate being determined by how they pronounced the Spanish word for this. García-Peña traces this incident back to the process of “bordering” that had in fact begun in 1907 when the US took control of custom houses and restricted border trade between the two nations of Hispaniola. She situates it within a broader desire among Hispanophile intellectuals to maintain an illusion of Dominican whiteness that fuelled state-endorsed racist ideologies. The Borders of Dominicanidad offers a radical challenge to the hateful anti-Haitianism that ensued and that has insinuated its way into representations of national culture to this day. – GO’T