Excerpt from Chapter 3, “Trekking the Triangle” Tomorrow Will Be Better
My first trip to Haiti was in August 2013. With a small group of fellow students, I walked in from the Dominican Republic, where we had been interviewing garment workers to help them get better pay and safety conditions in their factories. We accomplished this by coming back to the United States and talking with the buyers about what was really going on. As we crossed the border into Haiti, what stood out to me most was a deaf mute boy being beat by Dominican border guards for a reason that was unclear. The boy was crying out in sounds, not words, and did not appear to understand what was happening. The guards had rifles and AK-47s while the boy did not even have on a decent shirt and pants.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti have a tense and complicated history with each other. Our first day crossing into Haiti, we wanted to observe what was happening at the Border Market so that we could report it from the perspective of seeing it with our own eyes. This makeshift mall was basically just a big concrete warehouse where the Dominicans let the Haitians come sell stuff that they had gathered from charity drops. Imagine, big trucks rolling into Haiti every day with a bunch of stuff that Americans have donated to help the needy. Some of these items are helpful, like food. Some are not helpful, like blenders, when most have no electricity to power them.
Haitians run and collect all of this stuff – some to keep and some to sell. They need the money to eat, to get to work if they have a job, and to send their children to school. School is not free in Haiti.
Before the border market opens at 8:00 am, thousands of Haitians are lined up behind a barbed wire fence waiting to get in and find a good spot to set up what they have collected to sell. Our group got there around 7:00 am and stood near the gate. A border guard instructed us to move back because the Haitians were “like animals” that will “stampede you over”. What an insensitive thing to say about human beings trying to live and feed their children!
Near us, there was a shallow river that ran parallel to the border. The border actually bridged over it. This river was famous for being the site where over 40,000 Haitian men, women, and children were murdered with machetes in 1937 so that the Dominicans could push Haiti’s border back and make their own country larger. Dominicans are not bad people. There was just a horrible president in office at that time and his name was Rafael Trujillo. He was like Hitler and the Devil put together.
When Trujillo decided to undertake this tragic initiative, no one could tell the difference between a Haitian and a Dominican really, because they were both Black. So, the test to see if a Black person was Haitian or Dominican was to ask them to say the word perejil, which is parsley in Spanish. If they didn’t roll the r like a Dominican, off with their head.
I write all of this to set up the context for a poem that I wrote while there, which may better illustrate my experience. We were frightened young Americans, scared of the military police, the experience, and the possible dangers. As we watched Haitians press through the opening gate running towards economic opportunity, we pushed ourselves back against the wall of the immigration building bracing ourselves against each other.
While they may have hoped to make five or ten dollars so that they wouldn’t have to starve or sell their bodies, we held expensive phones and cameras, afraid to be touched by the very people that we were there to help – so many contradictions. These are the realities and contradictions that you too may experience if you begin to take these journeys. Can you imagine?
Dajabon Border Market
We stand en masse
Near the Massacre River
Sneaking pictures with i-phones
Cringing from native touch
A thousand bodies
Poised behind barbed wire
Where blood spilled like hibiscus
For parsley’s “r”
What did the border guard say to the gringos?
“These Haitians are like animals,
They’ll stampede you over.”
Queue the laugh track.
Like Columbus and his compañeros stampeded the heart of Hispaniola?
Like Walmart and Chiquita building their empires on neo-plantations?
For every heaven, there is a hell,
I wipe the sweat from my cheekbones.
To my left, a graceful girl with bantu twists speeds ahead
A warrior queen
In the throb of pulsing bodies
In a prom dress and flip flops
She sold her Tom’s shoes for mangoes,
On her head,
She’ll vend dried fish and peanuts,
A mall up in minutes
At the hands of the poor.
A boy, maybe 15
Gatorade, on his shoulders
Three 4 by 6 cases
An Atlas under the world.
A young woman
Holding only a baby,
What did she come for?
What will she sell?
Last night, you grabbed everything valuable
Rice, garlic – left by the UN,
Your daughter’s shoes,
Your grandmother’s purse,
Sell it, sell it,
Your hope, your soul, your dignity,
Keep only survival.
Built with wood from a charity drop box
Plastic scraps for roofing
Cardboard for a door.
You don’t cry, you collect,
Straw hats for tourists,
Tennis balls (did they think you would play tennis?),
From descendants of the men who raped your country
You collect, anything you can sell.
You are at the border market
Your feet aching
From waiting at the gate since 2:00.
Your bag unfurls,
A flag of red beneath you,
You clutch your rosary,
And imagine a God that looks like your oppressor,
You pray and you wait,
You pray and you wait.