These Women Share How They’re Healing From Haitian-Dominican Conflict

When it comes to headlines surrounding Haiti and the Dominican Republic, they often center the countries’ long-standing conflict. Though they’re neighboring nations that share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and a history of colonialism and slavery, their unresolved past is still the source of extreme tension. Decades of atrocities and massacres have fueled a more

Dominican Haitian Conflict HipLatina

Photo: Courtesy of Jazmin Samora

When it comes to headlines surrounding Haiti and the Dominican Republic, they often center the countries’ long-standing conflict. Though they’re neighboring nations that share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and a history of colonialism and slavery, their unresolved past is still the source of extreme tension. Decades of atrocities and massacres have fueled a more recent time where Haitians — or anyone perceived to be of Haitian descent — are systematically stripped of their citizenship and immigration status. A reported 120,000 plus Haitians were deported from the DR in 2018.

The strained relationship between both countries and their people have fueled activism on and off the island. International development and conflict resolution specialist France François founded In Cultured Company to deconstruct the existing division and move Haiti and DR from a divided past toward a shared future. François and team host an educational event series titled Decolonizing Hispaniola where they unpack over 500 years of history.

“I wanted to do this through a conflict resolution lens and really think about what reconciliation, collaboration, and dialogue would look like between Haitians and Dominicans, and start to dismantle the systems of oppression that have purposely divided the island and kept the elite in power,” said François to Remezcla.

François is one of many women who has sought healing, through her work. We reached out to four women to delve into how their understanding of the Dominican-Haitian conflict has evolved and how they’re healing from this ancestral conflict:  

Cassandre Théano, international human rights lawyer and human rights legal consultant for MADRE

Photo: Courtesy of Cassandre Théano

Growing up in your household, what was your level of understanding of Dominican-Haitian relations?

I am always amused at how little I knew of Dominican-Haitian relations growing up; it’s almost as though the DR was not next door. We knew it was there geographically, but it was not a central part of the discourse in the country the way it is in the DR. It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. and enrolled into college that I learned, surprisingly, that there was tension between us and our neighbors. At the same time, the people whom I was closest to in college were Haitians and Dominicans because our cultures are so similar, so I was constantly confronting pushback and exclusion from Dominicans to welcoming warmth and understanding from other Dominicans.

How has that understanding changed?

It’s complicated. My understanding has evolved from the oblivion of my younger years to now seeing opportunities to tackle the stereotypes and heal the divide, and I am definitely not silent about pointing out racist political propaganda, which people often seem to believe without question. There are so many examples of great Haitian-Dominican relationships though, and I don’t want that to be overlooked. At the same time, harmful views of Haitians, Dominican-Haitians and Black people often make their way into law and policy in the DR.

How are you healing from the Haitian-Dominican conflict?

As a college student, I was introduced to BRA (Batey Relief Alliance), an organization that works with people, mostly of Haitian descent, in the bateys of the DR and to Sonia Pierre, the founder of MUDHA (Movement for Dominican Women of Haitian Descent). This left a big impression on me, and I have ever since been active in some way in fighting for the understanding of the common humanity of Haitians, as incredible and absurd as that sounds. It was a natural progression when I became an attorney to represent people who had been rendered stateless by the DR’s discriminatory nationality policies. But my activism is not confined to litigation, I became a thought partner to many of the activists in the DR. I helped  wherever I can by helping them get a seat at the table, by helping to fund their efforts; and also in the U.S. where I speak with Congress members, the Department of State, ambassadors, CARICOM members [and] even with the Haitian government about how statelessness affects people who are already vulnerable. I guess that’s what healing looks like for me — activism, advocacy.

Yirssi Bergman, Research Associate at Race Forward

Photo: Courtesy of Yirssi Bergman

Growing up in your household, what was your level of understanding of Dominican-Haitian relations?

Growing up I had absolutely no framework for Dominican-Haitian relations. I moved from DR to Spain at 4 years old and didn’t begin visiting the island regularly until I was 8 years old. My understanding of what was happening in the Dominican Republic around race took a few years to form as I witnessed family members make random derogatory comments about Haitian people. The comments would be dropped into the conversation easily, comfortably. Perhaps because I grew up in a white country, being othered due to my race and nationality of origin, I automatically clocked the racist, colorist, and xenophobic undertones, even if I didn’t have the language to name them until much later.

Initially, the comments would seem hypocritical to me. Some of these comments were made by a family member enjoying cheap Haitian labor to build a house, and all of the comments were made by the darkest people in my family. With time and many conversations, I began understanding that these same family members were treated as less than both within the family and by the community at large due to their skin tones. They held a lot of trauma around it and a lot of internalized racism because of it…a lot of Dominicans hold anti-Haitian beliefs due to misplaced nationalism, but what I witnessed closest to me was due to internalized racism.

How has that understanding changed?

I began gaining a better understanding of the history of the Dominican Republic and Haiti as I got older. I attended high school and college here in the United States, and for my capstone project in my senior year of high school, I did an involved project on the history and culture of the Dominican Republic. Our histories are, of course, intertwined, and so I began learning about what led to our current situation.

How are you healing from what many refer to as the Haitian-Dominican conflict?

The subject fell to the back burner of my mind until these past few years as we continue to witness the dehumanizing mistreatment of people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. I have tried to do my part by working with We Are All Dominican, and by trying to learn more about the subject, but as an activist, I feel powerless being here in the United States. My hope is that by attending events such as Decolonizing Hispaniola I can both learn, and also figure out ways in which we can better help.

Jazmin Samora, Photographer

Photo: Courtesy of Jazmin Samora

Growing up in your household, what was your level of understanding of Dominican-Haitian relations?

As a first-generation American, it was not taught in the public school curriculum in NYC. I knew I didn’t feel represented in media and, thus, I didn’t seek validation within the mainstream outlets. However, when I would visit my grandparents in Azua, a small, rural neighborhood located in the southwest area in DR, I could see and was taught firsthand by them. I’m grateful for my parents as well as they made it their business to continue to stay accurate with history.

How has that understanding changed?

It has only expanded, thankfully. It’s a shame that I always needed to seek accurate depiction and facts pertaining to pivotal years and moments: Quisqueya to Hispaniola, Dominican Republic, many Haitian revolutions, regressive taxation policies on either side of the island, lack of healthcare. It is ever evolving as it is easily accessible news. And while there are significant changes to tourism, transportation, local laws, government officials, trade and finance, education. There is still much civil unrest, power struggles, and nationalism.

How are you healing from the Haitian-Dominican conflict?

Orgullosa soy. I honor the people through my medium of work: photography. With so much nuance to identities, I allow a safe curated space in front and behind my lens. Through my work, I place priority on working with my Diasporic family. My spirituality is complex as I practice with several different modalities and do not subscribe to one particular religion, including but not limited to traditional Yoruba, Haitian Vodou, Santeria.  This aspect is important to me as my ancestors were simply dropped off in one place. I am honored to explore and honor these practices.

France Francois, founder and CEO of In Cultured Company

Photo: Courtesy of France Francois

Growing up in your household, what was your level of understanding of Dominican-Haitian relations?

I didn’t learn anything about Dominicans growing up. The DR isn’t even depicted on most Haitian maps of the island. We learned about the Parsley Massacre as a historical event but that was never equated to a total condemnation of the Dominican people. Thus, I am still surprised to learn how obsessively Dominicans are inundated with inaccurate information and distorted history about Haitians from every level of Dominican society from the schools to the church to the government as a basis of Dominican national identity.

How has that understanding changed?

The Dominicans I knew growing up were also immigrants to Miami and few had been indoctrinated in anti-haitianismo [anti-Haitian prejudices], so we had very normal interactions. However, when I got to college, I started meeting foreign students from the DR and some were openly hostile to the Haitian students. There was one girl in my masters program who was always visibly uncomfortable around me and would never speak to me directly. It was obvious that she was avoiding me because our masters program only had a handful of Black people and we all hung out together when we could. During our last semester, we were grouped together for a project and she finally admitted that she felt embarrassed around me because she’d grown up hearing that Haitians eat people and all kinds of other things, and she now realized that she hadn’t ever had a conversation with a Haitian person. She admitted that it wasn’t until she had experienced discrimination herself that she could empathize with Haitians in her country and that lack of awareness mad her unable to look me in the eye.

Now having gone to the DR with my Dominican husband and heard my ethnicity casually used as a slur in everyday conversations, or hearing the media and politicians repeatedly refer to a omnipresent nameless, faceless “Haitiano” that people should mobilize against, I am much more sensitive to how anti-haitianismo has functioned as an important tool of post-Trujillo national identity and state building. Due to my degree in conflict resolution, I am much more aware of how authoritarian-leaning governments create an “other” to blame to control their people and distract them from the corruption within.

How are you healing from the Haitian-Dominican conflict?

After going to the Dominican Republic and seeing firsthand how the state invested in keeping anti-haitianismo alive, yet few Dominicans had ever even had any meaningful reactions with Haitians, I founded In Cultured Company to challenge that paradigm.  In Cultured Company aims to work with our communities to build bridges where others have built barriers. While there are many ways to approach this issue, I decided to use my background in conflict resolution and build on the work that’s been done in other communities with histories of conflict like Hutus and Tutsis, or Israelis and Palestinians. To my knowledge, we are the only organization doing this work within the African Diaspora through a peacebuilding, healing and conflict resolution lens.  My team of Dominican and Haitians aim to sow the seeds of peace in the next generation of leaders in order to move from a divided past towards a shared future.

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