• Stand With Us at the 2019 Border of Lights Virtual Vigil

    Julia Alvarez Commemorates the Victims of the 1937 Haitian-Dominican Republic Massacre

    There is a tradition in Latin American of the testimonio, in which those who have been the victims of violence bear witness to what has happened. The triumph of any oppressive system is complete if it results in silencing those who can speak to the atrocities it has committed.

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    In 1937, a little-known massacre occurred on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Beginning on the night of October 2nd—some historians place it a few days earlier—and ongoing for a couple of weeks, the Dominican dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, ordered the slaughter of any Haitian caught on the wrong side of a border, a border which had been recently redrawn and which had always been invisible to all but those privy to maps.

    Historians differ on the number of casualties—from a conservative estimate of 6,000 to upwards of 20,000. Some of these historians focus on the inaccuracies of the high-end count, as if a lower number would somehow absolve the Dominican perpetrators of murder. This divergence has been used as a smoke screen, as if without an exact head count, the fact of the massacre cannot be fairly evaluated. These naysayers will never be satisfied as the dead cannot speak and those thrown in the sea left no trace behind. Additionally, they absolve the nation of culpability by explaining the massacre as an act of self-defense, citing an invasion that took place a hundred years earlier when Haitian troops overran the Dominican Republic.

    The massacre is popularly known as “the parsley massacre.” Purportedly, the herb was used to distinguish between dark-skinned Dominicans and Haitians, who claimed to be Dominican to avoid slaughter. The would-be victim would be asked to identify the sprig of green, perejil. If the word was mispronounced—a Haitian Kreyol speaker would not trill the r as a Spanish-speaker would—the man, woman, or child would be decapitated or stabbed or bludgeoned to death. Trujillo’s soldiers had been ordered not to use ammunition, so that the killings could not be traced back to his regime.

    Since the massacre is rarely studied in history classes, it was no surprise that very few participants had even heard of it.

    To this day, 82 years later, the Dominican Republic has yet to openly and honestly address or adequately redress this crime against humanity. As a Dominican, proud of her country and its people, it pains me to see this shameful refusal to acknowledge this disgraceful chapter of our past. For those who argue that we have to move forward, the past is past, we need look no further than the ruling (#168/13) passed by the Tribunal Constitucional, the highest court in the land, in late September 2013, just over a week before the 76th anniversary of the massacre. In it, the Tribunal retroactively revoked the citizenship of an estimated 300,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent, rendering them stateless and legally non-existent. As Padre Regino, a Jesuit priest and activist commented to me, “We eliminated them with knives in 1937, now we do it cleanly with laws.”

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    Please consider joining Border of Lights 2019 for its online/virtual vigil on October 5, 2019, #belights #belights19, from 8:00-10:00 pm. You can also find us on Twitter or Facebook for more information (@border_oflights)


    Those of us who have spoken up are accused of being traitors and have received threats and denunciations on a number of social platforms. This vehement defense of a violent crime is painfully ironic given that we are the country that gave the world the shining example of the Mirabal sisters, whose murder by Trujillo’s calies brought down the dictatorship. In 1999, in honor of their sacrifice, the United Nations declared November 25th International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. We, Dominicans, should feel compelled to uphold a high standard of nonviolence and justice in their name.

    In the spirit of the patriotism they modeled with their lives, a group of Dominicans and Haitians of the Diaspora in solidarity with citizens from both countries and other advocates formed a movement called Border of Lights. On October 2012, the 75th anniversary, we gathered to commemorate the massacre and initiate a series of collaborative community programs between the border towns of Dajabón and Ouanaminthe.

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    In the following year of 2013, soon after the ruling, we were not permitted by authorities to mass at the border for a vigil. Rather than admit defeat, we leapt over that firewall by instituting a “virtual” vigil whereby supporters around the world could post “a light” and a message of support. The participation proved even larger than if we had contained ourselves to boots on the ground. Since then, we have continued to conduct annual Border of Lights gatherings, a core group participating on the ground with community members and organizations, some of us joining in from afar through online participation and donations to fund collaborative programs and projects between the two countries.

    One of these projects took place the first year of our gathering. We wanted to assess what stories the townspeople on the border had been told about 1937. Since the massacre is rarely studied in history classes, it was no surprise that very few participants had even heard of it. (I myself only learned of the massacre in the States when I read Albert C. Hicks’s chilling book on the dictatorship, Blood in the Streets and some years later Rita Dove’s masterful poem about the massacre, “Parsley.” Some years later, Edwidge Danticat followed with her novel about the massacre, The Farming of Bones.)

    Those who had heard of the “incident” had swallowed the regime’s propaganda about a Haitian invasion and believed that the Dominican Republic had been under siege. We posted their testimonials on postcards hung on clotheslines in the town center for all to read. A town meeting followed with locals and historians sharing stories and listening to discussions and lectures about the two countries and their intertwined history. We had begun a conversation which continues to this day.

    In keeping with the postcard project, I wrote the poem, “1937? What Did They Tell You?” It is based on a story my Tía Estela told me late in her life on one of my return visits. In 1937, she had been living close to the border on a farm, which was overrun by the guardia in pursuit of fleeing Haitians. One of her neighbors hid a Haitian infant, left orphaned, in a wooden case in which was lodged the statue of a saint. That baby, José Francisco Peña Gómez, survived and grew up to run for president, a dirty campaign full of race baiting and xenophobic attacks. A vote for Peña Gómez is a vote to unite us with Haiti. Some of his supporters showed up to vote only to discover their names had vanished from the rolls. The past is not past but continues to this day. As the historian, Eduardo Galeano, once noted, “History never says goodbye. History says see you later.”

    “Dar a luz,” we say in Spanish when a mother gives birth, giving her baby to the light. In the poem, the speaker, born the night of the massacre, takes that phrase to heart, breaking the communal silence, to give her testimony to the light.

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    What did they tell you?

    Qué te contaron? Ki konte ou?

    We lived in a small town on a border
    we could not see, marked by a river
    where women washed clothes, while
    their children splashed in the shallows,
    their laughter in Kreyòl or Spanish—
    impossible to tell one from the other.
    No one knew why the river was called
    el Masacre: some said it was named
    by Spaniards for the pirates slaughtered
    in its waters—history so uncertain
    when nothing was written down.
    We knew only what they told us.

    They told us 1937 was a good year
    for crops: sugarcane, mahogany, campeche
    the Germans bought for their dyes.
    There was money to marry a sweetheart,
    buy shoes for the children, silk stockings
    for a querida, and for a wife a gold chain
    with a medal of la Virgencita
    to make her smile like a bride again.
    Abuela helped a new generation of mothers
    give birth. It rained almost daily,
    a downpour, afterwards the air smelled
    of scents released from the garden:
    romero, oregano, cilantro, perejil.

    They told us el Jefe announced a visit
    for October, an honor for our town
    far from the splendors of the capital.
    For weeks, we prepared for his coming:
    laid down hay on the streets to muffle
    the noise of wheel carts, tamp down
    the dust raised by horses. Young ladies
    avoided the sun, posed before mirrors,
    trying out their new gowns, draping
    mantillas over combs like Spanish
    señoritas. Who would his eye fall on?

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    At the welcome reception, el Jefe asked
    about the border? Todo bien, Jefe,
    said those with Haitians cutting cane
    in their fields, mining salt
    on their coastal plains. Todo bien.
    But others complained, Ay, Jefe,
    los Haitianos are stealing our cattle, raping
    our women, converting Christian souls
    to their Voudoo religion. El Jefe’s face
    darkened. You must solve this problem
    before Africa invades us from the west,
    before we become so much like them,
    no one will be able to tell
    a Dominican from a Haitian.

    They told us it was a quiet night, the stars
    like sparks from our cooking fires, the smell
    of leña in fogones, the víveres boiling in pots,
    the sizzle of queso frito and huevos frying.
    It was Sunday, feast day of Santa Cándida,
    San Cipriano, San Maximiliano—mártires,
    the priest called them, a word they did not
    know, though before the night was over,
    they would know thousands of them.

    It was dark when they heard the howling
    like an animal in pain, like the cries
    of the condemned roaming the earth
    for souls to pull down to hell with them.
    They told us they banked their fires,
    hurried the children indoors, clapped closed
    the shutters, knelt and prayed in the dark.
    My mother’s legs parted as she labored
    to give me to the light. No one dared
    go to the well for water after the buckets
    they had filled for my birth were used up.

    There was a knock on the door. They told me
    they all fell silent. Abuela stuffed a corner
    of a sheet in my mother’s mouth to muffle
    her screams. Silencio, silencio. No one home!
    But the knocker refused to believe them;.
    Abre, abre, a familiar voice shouted.
    My father opened to the sight
    of our neighbor Jacksaint, his skin
    hanging from his arms like a shirt
    he is taking off, a man who’d been to hell
    and back. A martyr without an altar.

    They told me they pulled him inside
    and barred the door, just as my mother
    brought me to the light. I wailed,
    trying out my new lungs. I was wailing
    when the guardia pounded at our door
    ¡Abran! ¡En el nombre de la patria!
    My father gestured to Jacksaint to hide
    under the bloody sheets of my birthing
    Abuela had piled in the corner.
    I was wailing when the guardia burst in,
    thrusting their bayonets before them,
    as if to wound the air, as if to open
    a canal like a birth canal, wide enough
    for the dead to pass through—
    as if as if as if. . .
    —words failed them as they told us.

    The guardia held up a sprig of green.
    Name this! An odd command from men
    with bayonets coated with blood,
    machetes flecked with flesh, a question
    a mother or grandmother might ask
    a young girl, learning the names of herbs
    in the garden. Perejil, my father cried out,
    along with Abuela and tías gathered
    to help my mother bring me to the light.
    Perejil! Perejil! Perejil! they all shouted,
    rounding their vowels, trilling
    their Spanish r’s to save their lives.

    They told me the guardia were satisfied,
    but as they turned to go, a young recruit
    spotted the bloody heap of linens on the floor
    and came forward, his bayonet drawn.
    Abuela leapt forward, shouting:
    Don’t you dare ruin my linens, Pepe!
    You owe me more respect than that.
    I helped your mother bring you to the light.

    They told me that man shrunk like the leaves
    of the moriviví when touched; he took
    his cap in his hands. Con su permiso, madrina,
    he bowed, backing his way out of our hut.

    They told me I wailed all night long.
    My mother’s breasts could not fill me,
    her caresses still me, her cooing voice
    reassure me. They told me Jacksaint
    was saved but he never spoke again.
    They followed his example: keeping
    their own counsel to save their lives.

    They told me if someone asked what
    I’d been told about 1937, I should say:
    it was a good year for crops—sugarcane,
    mahogany, campeche the Germans bought
    for their dyes—but for a scarcity of parsley,
    not a sprig to be found in our gardens
    to flavor the sancochos for navidad.

    They told me never to tell what they told me;
    they warned me what would happen:
    I, too, would be sent to hell, come back
    with ribbons of skin on my arms,
    instead of satin ones in my hair.

    But 1937 was the year I was born,
    the year my mother gave me to the light,
    not to the darkness of silence and lies,
    which is why I am telling you
    what they told me, bringing this story
    to the light. Take it and tell it.
    Do not let the dead die twice.



    Please consider joining Border of Lights 2019 for its online/virtual vigil on October 5, 2019, #belights #belights19, from 8:00-10:00 pm. You can also find us on Twitter or Facebook for more information (@border_oflights)

    Julia Alvarez
    Julia Alvarez
    Julia Alvarez left the Dominican Republic for the United States in 1960 at the age of ten. She is the author of six novels, three books of nonfiction, three collections of poetry, and eleven books for children and young adults. In the Time of the Butterflies, with over a million copies in print, was selected by the National Endowment for the Arts for its national Big Read Program, and in 2013 President Obama awarded Alvarez the National Medal of Arts. Afterlife, a new novel, and Already a Butterfly, a new picture book for young readers, were published in 2020. Visit her at juliaalvarez.com.

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