The trip spurred from a controversial recent court ruling. In the fall of 2013, the Dominican Constitutional Court ruled on a case that broadly implicated a redefinition of citizenship for the children (and all successive progeny) of undocumented migrants. The ruling—often referred to in the DR as la sentencia— narrowly defines citizenship rights to DR residents who can trace their lineage through legal immigration and/or blood citizenship. Supporters attest that the ruling serves as a clarification, not an alteration, of the Dominican constitution, ratified in 1929, just a year before Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo took office. Critics argue that the ruling retroactively strips thousands of Dominicans—most of Haitian descent—of claims to Dominican citizenship, rendering these residents stateless. We traveled to the DR to learn more from experts—including government officials, lawyers and judges, and community organizers—with different perspectives on the ruling. We also went to hear about the lived experience of those affected by it.
Over the course of the week, our conversations took place in several locations throughout the city and surrounding region. It was not uncommon to spend the morning in a retired judge’s office and the afternoon in a batey (sugarcane workers’ village). Our conversations were peppered with passionate defenses and critiques. The students were tasked to think on their toes, weighing the ruling in terms of both the personal and political, and more often than not straddling Spanish and English through real-time translation. In between our meetings and cultural immersion in Santo Domingo, the group debriefed: What does this ruling actually mean? How do these issues figure into Dominicans’ daily lives? What happens, and what is felt, beyond the realm of policy? While learning about the legal, cultural, and moral complexity of the migration case, we began to think more deeply about the city and country’s history and our relationship to it as representatives of an American university “visiting” for spring break.
The reflections that follow were written by the 10 students several weeks after returning from the DR. The students, who journaled throughout the trip, were encouraged to meditate on a certain theme, encounter, or image that stuck with them since being in Santo Domingo. The pieces, accompanied by photos taken by the students, chart a complex arc, both of the ruling’s implications and of our time in the DR. Some pieces explore the legal framework of the sentencia; others wrestle with issues surrounding race, identity, and feeling like an outsider. No matter the topic, these pieces say, as Dechen Lama writes, [we] are still student[s] and [we are] still learning.
Old Domincan men love to play chess. At least, that’s the impression you get when you walk down any alley in Santo Domingo. A group of gray haired men crowd around a tiny table. In the middle is a chessboard that’s aging just as fast as they are.
On the plane ride over, I read the book we were assigned: This is How You Lose Her. Inevitably, the stories of Junot Díaz colored everything I saw.
It forced me to look for things. Is that woman being oppressed? Is that fruit vendor discriminated against? Is that McDonalds a sign of American hegemony? Is this our fault? Is this their fault? Is there something I need to do? What now? And now?
Stop asking questions, I thought. But I can’t help it. I needed to justify my presence there. I am a Duke student, studying immigration. I was given prime access to one of the most pressing immigration crises in the century.
I thought I was learning. I would see a Haitian man, and assume I knew. That poor man; he’s probably affected by this ruling. His poor children. And that woman? She must be suffering. I looked for parallels with my readings.
Why do we do that?
We dehumanize them. Their assumed suffering becomes all we see. We quickly trivialize their experiences, and analyze them. We appropriate their lives for our intellectual meditation. We write about them. We want to use them for the next Start-Up Challenge.
You know what I love about Junot Díaz? He disarmed this tendency of mine. He left me unsettled, and raw—forcing me to marinate in the ambiguities. He dismantled my guard, and forced me to confront the nuances of loss, love, poverty, and life. He did not blind me from the larger questions, but gave me a pair of tender, unflinching glasses to see them through. He gives you humanity first, and your reductive speculation comes second, if at all.
In Santo Domingo, I wish I saw the humanness in my interactions. Instead of analyzing, I wish I spent more time listening. Instead of assuming, I wish I just observed—without a specific purpose. Without seeking to understand, or appropriate, or speculate, but to allow the people I meet to enter in and out of my life. I wish I just welcomed them, and let them dictate what I could learn from them. Seeing their humanness, and remembering: they’re just living too.
Old Domincan men love to play chess. But I forget that sometimes.
Bebe Moore Campbell
I traveled to Santo Domingo with a backpack that defied forward motion and a tote so heavy it begged for a more oppressive descriptor. Shuffling miserably through the airport, I struggled to remember why I had congratulated myself on a packing job well done. Nothing about this load was light, and weak efforts to redistribute the weight only made things more painful. I put my head down and traipsed on. At last I was able to sit down; I unloaded my things, arched my back, and closed my eyes. I thought about all the assignments that were expected of me upon my return to school; a 400-page novel, readings in political science, problem sets for statistics, and a 6-8 page Spanish paper, en español, on a topic of my choice. I adjusted my glasses and leaned back to think. The day before the flight, I met with my professor discuss my proposed topic, and to tell her that I would be visiting la República Dominicana in order to further my research. After enthusiastically approving, she took on a more serious tone; “Oh, but Ana,” she inquired gently, “What have they told you to expect of your color?”
I blinked. My color?
I hadn’t known how to answer the question. A full day later I reflected, still apprehensively searching for a response. After all such reflection I remained nervous and unsettled. I boarded the plane with my hefty backpack, the bulky tote, and, most taxing of all, the worrisome blackness of my very own skin.
“¿Y cual es tu negocio mamá?”
I blinked. She thought I was Dominican.
I hurried to translate the question the customs agent had posed. Her Spanish was fast and friendly. To be honest, I don’t even remember what she said to me. I remember speed, slang, and a final term of endearment. And I remember being figured out. I stuttered a response while the agent reviewed my passport, gave me a quick smile, then a slow “gracias,” no doubt reserved for tourists. I put my things away and moved on. But I couldn’t help but wondering; how had I fooled her? I scanned my surroundings and tried to make a decision. Besides our culturally diverse cohort, there seemed to be a clear divide. Tourists are white, that is, what I recognize as white, estadounidense white. Everyone else is black, black like me, to echo Langston Hughes, estadounidense black—some are Dominican white, lighter skinned, but nonetheless black, Hispanic in the eyes of an African-American, but ultimately black. So now, with this largely expanded definition of blackness, which was no longer equated with the blackness I had known in the United States, the historical blackness of inferiority, how was I to position myself in this sociological schema? I didn’t know. And for the first time in my life, neither did anyone else. No one knew how to place me, what to expect of me, because I was, quite simply, black.
For the next six days, I enjoyed the liberty of blackness in a nation that distinguishes between ethnicities. It was my joy to be afforded the pleasure of anonymity and to be approached in Spanish. It was curious to be told I was perceived as white. The heaviest burden of that trip—and I hesitate to call it a burden—had nothing to do with color. It had more to do with privilege—the privilege of citizenship, the privilege of living in the United States, the privilege of being educated at an elite university. Estranged from a racial identity that mattered very little in Santo Domingo, I felt liberated and enlightened. Though I had expected to shoulder an unusually difficult burden, I soon recognized my color as my joy.
Born and raised in a predominantly white community in suburban America with limited international travel experience, I have not had extensive exposure when it comes to issues of racial diversity. I’ve been used to being in a crowd of people who look a good deal like me. With that being said, since coming to Duke, I’ve been pleased to encounter exponentially more diversity; I’ve found that this sense of diversity has made my experience on campus that much more interesting. However, even at Duke, I am still in the majority—I could not have told you what it would feel like to look physically different than most of the people in any given situation.
That all went out the door the second I arrived in Santo Domingo. I had wanted to go on this trip because immigration issues had always intrigued me. I wanted to meet and understand how nations choose to treat those individuals who have left their homes to begin an entirely new life. Yet, I realize that the recent disputes over Dominican citizenship were not the primary takeaway from this trip—at least, not for me. Instead, I now know that what I would remember the most of the trip was how it felt when I became acutely aware that I was an American, white male in a predominantly Afro-Hispanic community.
I knew that this would be this would be the case when I applied to go on the trip. I knew it when I was packing for the trip the night before we left. I knew it when we left for the airport. I even knew it when I looked around at the other passengers on the plane flying into Santo Domingo to realize that many of them were non-white. However, I did not understand the gravity of this knowledge until I stepped out of our hotel the first morning to look around the city.
I didn’t feel like anyone in the city was surprised, annoyed, or angry to see me. I didn’t feel isolated or scared or sad to be one of the few white people in the city. There was nothing inherently negative about my experience of being white in Santo Domingo. For a lack of better words, it just felt strange to have these roles reversed. Then I began to question if this really was the case. While certainly I was white in a predominantly Afro-Hispanic community, I soon realized that there was another important distinction to make: I was an American in a Dominican community. The Dominicans could tell from the moment they saw me that I was an American, and I think that this fact also had a significant impact on my experience.
Over the next week, we interacted with political officials, protest leaders, and locals, all of whom spoke to us about the recent court ruling as well as the underlying racial tensions between Dominicans and (mostly Haitian) immigrants. Yet, not once did I feel any outward negativity from a local; rather, it felt like a constant sense of muted tolerance. People let me pass by without objection, but they would not greet me with the same sort of enthusiasm with which they greeted their family, friends, and neighbors. I could only begin to question as to why this might be; yet I did at times get a sense that I, as a white American male, was being seen as someone who inherently had money, or influence, or authority. Ostensibly, they tolerated me out a sort of deference—at least to my potential tourist dollars. Still, assuming the role of the foreigner was an eye opening and refreshing experience. It was one in which I was able to further develop my understanding of the existing dynamics between Americans and those we may too-quickly call “others.”
On our first day we had the opportunity to speak with a judge who believed that the Dominican Republic was not obligated to provide citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants born in the country. According to the judge, Haitians and Dominicans were too different to be able to live together given their unique histories of colonization and development, which to me was absurd. They lived on the same small island and shared many cultural practices! I could sense myself becoming more resolute in my viewpoint.
The following day we had the opportunity to have dinner with leaders of the opposition movement against the ruling. As the dinner progressed, the more we spoke with the leaders, the clearer it was to me that this ruling was inhumane. The state has an obligation to care for those within its borders, especially its citizens. Many children born of undocumented parents grew up in the Dominican Republic and strongly self-identify as Dominican. They often feel weaker ties to Haitians with whom they only shared a common ancestry. They feel as Dominican as anyone else—and according to the traditional understanding of the Constitution, because they were born in the country they had a right to citizenship.
It was not until we spoke to the Director General of the Department of Migration that I started opening up to the pro-ruling position. Director General José Ricardo Taveras Blanco pointed out that the Dominican Republic itself was not a resource-rich country. Historically and currently, being the richer of the two nations on the island, the Dominican Republic has tried its best to aid its neighbor. They provide medical and educational support to Haiti, recognizing that the growth and development of their own country is partly contingent on the well-being of their neighbor.
But how much can the Dominican Republic afford to give to Haiti, being a resource-tight country itself? Citizenship is one of the most valued relationships an individual can have to a state, because it is the easiest way to access resources and rights. Thus, granting citizenship to ethnic Haitians would pose a further strain on the Dominican Republic.
After meeting with Director Blanco, I realized how unfairly righteous I had been, mainly because it was so easy. Issues of resource allocation, migration, and race relations in the Dominican Republic were “luxury issues.” I did not have the onus of addressing them in all their complexity, but instead I had the opportunity to study them over a spring break trip. Once I boarded the plane back to my elite American university, I did not have to think about these issues. At the conclusion of our trip I felt so unsure of what to think and felt all the more confused and perhaps that is okay. I am still a student and I am still learning.
Visiting the batey, walking down the street outside our hotel, waiting outside the Department of Migration office, I kept asking myself “what should I do to be the most respectful?” I felt self-conscious wherever I went, hoping to not appear disrespectful as I observed the Dominicans in their home and everyday lives. As a country that relies heavily on tourism, the Dominican Republic is no stranger to tourists from America, which creates an interesting dynamic between residents and visitors. Our whole group stood out wherever we went, obviously being from America. We smirked at tourist groups trying to believe that we weren’t like them, but we were just like them. As much as we tried to immerse ourselves into the culture and interact with Dominicans, I had a feeling of disconnect and outsider-ness that came from looking different. Being American implies power and privilege, which at times made me feel guilty as I saw the poverty around me.
Being American also extends to assumptions about race that I learned work differently in the Dominican Republic. As an Asian American, I wondered if my appearance would lead me to be treated or seen differently, but on the whole, I felt just American. I felt judged more by how I dress and how I acted than the actual color of my skin. There were times when I wanted to be able to interact with the locals without the stereotypes and assumptions that surrounded my appearance as a barrier. But I realized that this barrier I felt taught me more about the Dominican Republic and its interaction with countries like the US than I expected.
There are deeply ingrained stereotypes that surround skin color, nationality, and place. These assumptions about power and privilege help define how citizens of countries interact with one another and how we fit into the world. But, these stereotypes do not all fit together, and I still believe that they are meant to be proved wrong.
After all, if there’s one thing that youth growing up in 21st century America are taught not to be, it is a racist.
But I didn’t grow up here.
Growing up in a mono-ethnic, mono-cultural society like China, racism doesn’t embody nearly as much negative connotation; neither is it a dominant societal issue.
The almost automatic feeling of disdain toward the dark-skinned beggars from the rural countryside kneeling on the side of the road wasn’t given a name like “racism.” The natural resistance to an “uncivilized” accent and rude behaviors wasn’t discouraged and condemned in the environment I grew up in. Being a member of the urban upper-middle class, I associate dark skin with agricultural labor in the field, and hence with less education. I was never exposed to the thought that my attitude, biases, and discrimination wouldn’t be accepted somewhere else—such as America.
With the past four years of Western education, I found myself able to identify cases of racism with ease. After all, discrimination is one of those things that when you see it, you know. But when some in our group quickly arrived at the conclusion, commenting on how unbelievably racist the DR and its citizens are, I found myself dwelling upon, and puzzled by, the disturbing similarity between some Dominican residents and me.
Without even realizing it myself, I found myself sympathizing with the “racist” Dominicans. Disregarding the fact that the discrimination of which I’m an active part is only towards less educated lower economic class citizens and not another race, how different is it from the “racism” we identified in the DR? Why do I frown at the roadside beggars anyways?, I asked myself.
I want to be economically better off and socially respected. I share a sense of pride when my historically touristy city, about a two-hours’ drive outside of Shanghai, starts to look like a metropolitan urban center of business, entertainment, and politics. I want to live in a society that embraces globalization and international recognition. I was a part of the upward-moving urban-ID-holding social class that can’t wait to say “bye” to the old, economically laid-back China.
Yet the darker skinned country-ID-holders weren’t a part of that culture I take pride in. So naturally I never considered that the materialistic society I am a part of inherently depends upon these rural immigrants’ labor to flourish. I never took issue with the government’s actively avoiding offering them equal access to resources and equal social welfare. And looking back, I can’t help but think, wasn’t my participation in this system blatant discrimination, if not racism?
Isn’t it something that we all do—regardless of whether we would like to admit or not? I found myself simply unable to call Dominicans racists anymore.
Amidst all my seeing, I was very excited when I noticed a large statue of three women in the middle of the road. I quickly walked towards it asking people around me if the statue was of the Mirabal Sisters. One of my mom’s favorite books is In the Time of the Butterflies, a story about the Mirabal Sisters who lived and were assassinated during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. The first thing my mom excitedly asked me when I told her I was traveling to the Dominican Republic was if I was going to see the Mirabal Sisters monument. As soon as I was close enough to see that the statue was in fact the monument my mom had asked me about, I eagerly ran toward it and took a photo. The monument was the first photo I took while in the Dominican Republic. I eagerly sent the photo to my mom thinking how cool it was that I got to see the Mirabal Sisters monument. When I was back in the US talking to my mom on the phone, she asked me if I was told the history of the sisters and the background behind the monument. I was silent for a few moments and finally responded with, “…well, I think Nassef [Perdomo, a prominent lawyer and our contact in the DR] told our group the story of the Mirabal Sisters but I was too far away to hear.”
While in the Dominican Republic, it was not difficult to notice the privilege I embodied—my white skin, blonde hair, and nice clothes represented money, higher education, freedom, and the reminder that in reality we are not all living equally. However, it was not until reflecting back on my trip that I recognized the privilege of education and access to resources that may have kept me from fully embracing my experience. Although I tried to take in everything I saw in the Dominican Republic, I worry that I only allowed myself to see what I wanted to see. I took in the buildings, people, and sites in ways that subconsciously reassured me of the history of colonialism and the reality of the current political situation. I think this stopped me at the time from truly questioning the differences between what I was told, what I learned, and what I was actually seeing. When I saw the Mirabal Sisters monument, I did not recognize the importance of hearing the history told to me. I was too eager to take a photo to remind myself and others that the stories we have read, the stories we have been told, the work we have done to educate ourselves, is worth it.
Along the sidewalk cutting through the commercial district, we walked just out of easy sight of a crowd protesting the new immigration ruling. Though from afar details were unclear, the obvious energy of the crowd left me confused. They were bouncing and shouting to dancehall beats blared with a rhythmic flow of strong words. The rapper was talking about some kind of justice. We were far from the action, but I could feel his passion. Yet, to me it seemed as if beyond the boundaries of the roaring crowd, life was undisturbed, even somewhat peaceful. No one stopped their car, blinked an eye, or turned a head. No nothing. It was the most conspicuous sight, yet I could not tell anyone cared – I was beside myself. I wanted the message from the crowd to be heard. I was ready to take action, but a question kept passing through my head – Why was I standing on that sidewalk in Santo Domingo?
The Kenan Institute for Ethics fosters a saying: Think and Do. Was I standing on that sidewalk to think? I stood there imagining the social barriers that the crowd was protesting. I thought of how one’s national identity might dictate family stability and the course of one’s life. I considered how mentally, physically, socially, and even spiritually draining it might be for people to be rejected from a society that they thought to be their own. Or was I possibly there to do? I could have helped publicize the protest through social media. I was given access to people affected by the ruling, whom I could maybe have interviewed on film in order to broadcast the message beyond reach of the street protest. I was prepared to try to help create an environment that would inform the public more about the protest—but also give government officials a chance to thoroughly and clearly explain their opposing standpoint. But frustratingly for me, there was only space for me to think about doing. There was never any “real” doing.
I do not think that this situation was a problem. Lots of harm has been done in the world by people anxious to “do” things without thinking about their effects. For example, I argue that DukeEngage projects can sometimes be a bit underdeveloped, possibly even harmful to communities in some cases. Now, I am an avid supporter of DukeEngage, as I have led an independent DukeEngage project in Tanzania and I am teaching the DukeEngage House Course next semester. However, even from my own experience there were times when I wish I would have understood more about the community structure, had more time to listen, or more time to observe. On the other hand, it can be problematic if thinking never carries through to any doing. If I were to sit at the safety of my computer all day writing out my thoughts, I might get lost in meaningless paradoxes—issues that affect real people’s lives, like some of the people I met in Santo Domingo.
These thoughts raised a few questions: We can’t help but think—but when is it time to do? When have we thought enough to get engaged and start doing? What does it truly mean to do?
I wanted to think and do while standing on that sidewalk in the government district of Santo Domingo, but maybe that was not the point. Maybe I was given the experience to start questioning the relationship between “think” and “do.”
During a Duke club meeting that involves practicing the Spanish language, I turned to the girl next to me to strike up a conversation. I inquired about her spring break, discovering that she and her family had traveled to Punta Cana—a regular travel spot for them. Eagerly, I asked if she had a chance to practice speaking Spanish with the locals, since that is the native language. However, her response left me taken aback. “Oh, no,” she replied, “You don’t leave the resort in the Dominican Republic, so I never spoke Spanish. It’s a scary place in the cities…”
Unbeknownst to her, I had also just returned from spending spring break in the Dominican Republic in the capital, Santo Domingo, on an immersive trip. Unlike her, however, I had the opportunity to practice my Spanish all of the time. This was unexpected, though; during my previous travel experiences outside of the US (none of which have been to Spanish-speaking countries), I have always easily gotten by speaking English. Actually, all of the locals have always seemed eager to practice their English with me. Not knowing anything else, I expected my trip to the Dominican Republic to be the same in this regard. Though I hoped to practice my Spanish, I really didn’t expect to be challenged to hold a conversation and thought that I would pull my typical move: copping out and resorting to English out of nervousness and embarrassment when put on the spot.
We arrived in Santo Domingo after a much delayed flight, filled with giddiness and eyes opened wide. Amber and I sat next to each other on the shuttle from the airport to the hotel, pledging to each other that we would actually practice speaking Spanish. We started with street signs: “calle,” “dejo,” “via.” Then we attempted to hold a conversation with each other, frequently accessed electronic dictionary in hand. Our sentences came out broken, interspersed with embarrassed laughter. Our accents, American. It didn’t take long for us to resort to English. Given my track record, I can’t say I was surprised.
But the magical moment finally arrived—the moment I stepped up and took the initiative to speak Spanish. It might have been during our first meeting with a Dominican judge, when it became clear that he preferred to address us in Spanish. Or perhaps it was on our first taxi ride to the meeting. But wherever it was, it occurred like this: I understood a question posed to the group and knew the answer, but still, it felt like there was a closed door in my throat that blocked me from speaking up. After it was posed a second and third time, the door finally opened and I responded. And that was all it took. For the rest of the meeting, I was able to follow the questions and discussion as well as help translate for the group.
This gave me the confidence I needed to toss away the embarrassment and put into action the skills I had learned in the classroom. My ability to speak and understand Spanish became an asset, but most of all it became a way to connect. When we were relaxing at the beach one day, a group of teenagers were making some flirtatious and hyper-sexualized remarks in Spanish that were directed toward our group. However, when I responded in Spanish saying that I could understand what they were saying, the conversation took a turn. Their words became friendly, and I learned about their family, their jobs, their lives.
With my Spanish, I could ask whatever questions crossed my mind and really learn others’ stories. Every time the trip offered me the opportunity to converse in Spanish with Dominicans of all backgrounds and life experiences, I could take advantage of it. These conversations and my ability to connect with all types of people, despite differences of race, class, and privilege, are what I will forever remember from this trip. The faces, the stories, the fear, anger, and hope that lingered in their words—these are the things what will remain with me. I am forever grateful that I could “leave the resort” and experience this.
Deciphering my own opinion on the court ruling was especially difficult after hearing compelling arguments from people on both sides of the debate. Even the constitution, which I assumed would provide a relatively objective standard, was interpreted in different ways by advocates and critics of the ruling. Was the law responsible for protecting only those who had at least one Dominican parent? Or was the law responsible for protecting everybody who had ever believed wholeheartedly that they were Dominican? I got frustrated with the complexity of the problem at hand. If the law could not be reliably utilized to provide a concrete outlook towards the ruling, then what could?
But then we visited a batey, where about two thousand Haitian sugar cane workers and their families resided. I realized that I was so conflicted inside. On one hand, I wanted to neglect the law—what mattered most to me was the poverty I saw in front of my eyes. What mattered most were the people I saw. I wanted to argue that even if the law could not provide a definitive answer, human compassion could. I wanted to point out that it isn’t so much an issue of picking which group gets the most compassion, but making sure that no group is neglected from receiving compassion. From my standpoint, it was so easy to say that whether or not the court ruling had been motivated by racial or nationalistic reasons, had these factors been excluded, the political, economic, and social landscapes in the Dominican Republic would have been so different.
However, humanity is not so black and white. The structures of nationality and race that have bonded the Dominican Republic together cannot just be nullified in an instant. Yes, it would have been easy for me to state that race and nationality are merely human constructions to which we adhere too closely, even condemning people to death in order to protect our ideas of who we are, as we’ve seen in historical cases involving wars and genocides. It would have been simple for me to declare that as human constructions, we can amend them—even take them apart if necessary—whenever we want to. However, fixing the problem is definitely not as cut-and-dry as that.
After reflecting on the trip, I realize that simply because race and nationality are human constructions, and compassion is a human characteristic, does not mean that governments can throw the former out for the latter.