dominican republic Archives - The Jose Vilson

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Living Quisqueya

by Jose Vilson on April 19, 2011

in Jose


This past weekend, I spent some time with my Dominican parents. To be specific, my Dominican mother and stepfather, both of whom enjoy the Dominican satellite channels offered on Time Warner Cable. They’ll watch shows rooted in guttural comedy, scantily-clad voluptuous women, and nationalism sprinkled throughout the programming. They laugh, shake, dance, and yell at the television, even when the situation doesn’t call for it. My parents respond to the automatic trigger of the palm trees, the beige dust rising after Passats sweep by the rocks of the highways. I’m shaken by images of lighter complexions featured within the studios and darker hues outside of the studio.

Even from far away, their perceptions about Blackness get reinforced by the TV they want to see.

It was only a few years ago that I got my mom to admit her own Blackness. While I don’t believe all Latinos are Black, I find it disingenuous for one of the first colonies in the Western Hemisphere to deny any parts of their Blackness. Much of this was engrained into them by the founders of the national identity, who wanted no part of anything remotely Haitian. It’s as if the duel between Dominican Republic’s founders and Haiti’s founders lies in who wanted to appease their former oppressors. While Haiti celebrates its independence from a European country, Dominican Republic celebrates its independence from its own neighbor. This belief is so prevalent still that even a literal seismic shift in the form of an earthquake couldn’t mend the fences between these two countries.

But I’ve grown weary of trying to tell others that Haitians and Dominicans practically listen to the same music, eat the same foods, and appreciate the same weather. Our flag colors are the same, and many of our traditions descend right from the continent of Africa. I’ve been stuck in between these arguments where people who refuse to accept the others’ side of things, wondering when a people so similar will actually come together and take advantage of the plentiful resources of their own island.

I’m also tired of the lack of responsibility countries like The United States, France, and Spain have played in perpetuating the frictions and tensions in this relationship. While I admit that I don’t know much Kreyol nor have I been to Haiti, I consider myself every bit as Haitian as the next Haitian.

Thus, I commend Henry Louis Gates for the exposure and care he took to document these experience in the first installment of Black in Latin America on PBS. I just wish I knew what to do with all this information. Besides be myself.

Jose, who is black, no maybe …

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The Sounds of Quisqueya Call Me Right Back

by Jose Vilson on May 19, 2009

in Jose

Jose In The Dark

Jose In The Dark

Today, Raquel Cepeda linked me to a post about Dominican-Haitian relations that she wrote on her blog, and for those of you who know me, you know I had to jump on that quickly. Most of you know my story already: Dominican mom, Haitian father, grew up conflicted about my identity and how people sought to mold it for me through their often contradictory actions, and eventually, I found my way to an odd but pleasant understanding of how my identity will work for me. It’s a gross summarization / oversimplification of the events that led to the man you see before you.

And even still, I have so many unresolved issues with my “mix” that I almost feel like I’m going to have to write those answers into the history books myself. For instance, why do Dominicans celebrate their independence from Haiti but not from Spanish / French rule? Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to celebrate it from those powerful empires and not a neighboring country that helped them become independent in the first place? Of course, the answers to these questions partly lie in one of the most reviled men of Dominican-American history, Rafael Trujillo, who ruled absolutely, almost like a now and forever king, except much more evil.

The ideas he helped instill (and ideas that many Dominicans were readily willing to accept) made way for people who’ve lived on the same island for centuries, have similar skin tones, foods, music, and DNA mixes to look at each other as completely different. It’s the reason why, when people look at my face, hear my talk, see my fluidity in culture, they’re puzzled and fight that feeling by stigmatizing my being. As a young man trying to understand everything around me, memorable quotes such as “Your lips are so big; you gotta be Black” and “How can you dance? You’re not Dominican.” or even “Man, this is the way we eat food here; you weren’t raised Haitian, so how can you be?”

I couldn’t reply in Creole. I couldn’t tell them about zouk and kompa, or that Quisqueya was the term that we both used to talk about our country. I couldn’t jump into a conversation because I hadn’t developed the ability to interpret conversation based on facial expressions. I couldn’t tell how hard it was to make peace with my stepfather’s ignorance about Haitians and how I felt so unwanted by my mother’s family because I came from a Haitian. I could barely speak Spanish either, except from what I taught myself to read and write. I couldn’t tell them to stop laughing at me for not knowing the word for tooth, or that I’d been to Dominican Republic more times than them.

Because I wasn’t Dominican or Haitian, even though I was clearly both.

But something funny happened along the way. Amidst the prejudice and pride, I used that disposition to assert myself as a whole everything. I am a whole Dominican and a whole Haitian, despite anything telling my observers the contrary. I will dance, I will eat, I will hear, I will speak. Not that I need to always prove people wrong, but icing is a really tasty part of the biscocho. I researched more than most of you care to hear, and got familiar with topics important to both countries.

And the crux of this discovery came from the sounds of Quisqueya itself. Wilfredo Vargas, a Dominican merengue artist best known for “El Perrito (the dog)” dance, had a string of hits in the 70s such as “El Jardinero,” “Cafe Con Leche,” and “La Medicina,” all very country-sounding merengues and all excellently written. In 2002-2004, I’d have these songs on rotation alongside my other musical obsessions of the day because my Dominican family played this during gatherings and parties. In 2008, while hanging with my Haitian family in Miami, I heard a song blair out of my cousin’s speakers. Oh snap. It was the same exact riff from “La Medicina.” All the melodies were there, and even the background singers sang the way “La Medicina” had them.

As Junot Diaz wrote in his meritorious book The Brief Wondrous of Oscar Wao, in one way or another, the island of Quisqueya always has a way of calling back its diaspora. In one way or another.

Jose, who solemny swears by his truths …

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In The Heights and Why I Hated/Love Musicals

by Jose Vilson on January 12, 2009

in Jose

In The Heights

In The Heights

On Saturday night, I saw the exuberant, Dominican-New Yorker-inspired In The Heights on Broadway, a musical about a young Dominican man trying to discover his life’s purpose with the backdrop of a romanticized version of Washington Heights (around 181st St, Manhattan, NYC). First, I’d like to say that this was a really good musical: good storyline, great music, good characters, and an original screenplay. Working in Washington Heights, I don’t often get to see this “wonderful” side of where my students were raised, hence the romanticism comment. Critics (including my Lucy) mentioned that this play, in some ways, appeals to the lowest common denominator by watering down the harsh realities of said neighborhood.

Nonetheless, it made me contemplate why I never got the opportunity to see a play or musical that spoke to my interests. Growing up, I couldn’t be bothered with either plays or musicals, mainly because my family never had those interests and couldn’t afford them. Fortunately, my schools provided me with enough exposure to the arts that I took an interest in singing and acting during my formative middle and high school years. In middle school, we did Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and renditions of the New Testament (KRIST!) I also joined the choir, and that was certainly new to me.

In high school, I pursued similar interests. Yet, this time around, I was in a predominantly White high school, and when I auditioned for plays, I met boys (and girls from neighboring schools) who had already been in tons of plays, and had been singing for the majority of their lives. They grew up watching Grease, and having been to on- and off-Broadway shows with their parents. That culture difference and culture shock attributed to my tagline for most of my high school acting career:

“I hate musicals!”

And of course, I didn’t really hate musicals (though I really don’t like Grease). I just felt an aversion to them, really. It was only exacerbated after, when I mentioned my distaste for Grease, a person who I thought was a friend said, “You just need a little culture.” So you’re saying I don’t have culture because I don’t fall head over heels at the chance at wearing a black leather jacket, tight pants, a toothpick, and a button-open polyester shirt? You’re saying because I’ve never seen Chicago or Cabaret, I don’t get to memorize lines, sing bass, or enjoy the company of fellow actors and actress? Can I haz my spotlight now? No? I guess not.

In my senior year of high school, directors and organizers for the musicals changed, and more Blacks and Latinos joined the play than I had ever seen. A couple of years later, I was invited to see another show and I couldn’t help but feel some sort of gratification when 1/2 of the cast members were either Black or Latino. Not that I have anything against White people; to the contrary, I have so many friends and mentors who I have to thank for exposing me to that side of the arts.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if I had known about plays like The Color Purple, Othello, Anna In The Tropics, or A Raisin in the Sun, would I have adjusted a little better in my knowledge about theatre, having seen playwrights and actors like me who have starring roles on the stage. Hence, In The Heights actually made me emotional at the end. Almost made me wish I could go back and do it all over again …

Jose, who’s always been about pacencia y fe

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A-Rod Can Haz Dominican Culture Now?

December 8, 2008 Jose
Alex Rodriguez's Pledge of Allegiance

Back in July of 2005, the World Baseball Classic committees were just getting their international rosters, and most people stuck to their countries of origin, as stipulated by the rules. With 16 teams in the competition, many of us baseball fans almost salivated to the chin being able to watch these all-stars playing on the […]

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I Walked Across an Empty Land, I Knew The Backways Like The Back Of My Hand

August 14, 2008 Jose
dominican-republic-summer-2008-003

This is one of the lost blogs I wrote while I was at Dominican Republic. It was inspired by another Clay Burell post, regarding tourism and its caricatures. Thought I’d post it up tonight in light of the recent immigration post. I also updated a few things here and there, in brackets. Enjoy. Originally written: […]

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Ojala Que Llueva Cafe En El Campo (Hope That It Rains Coffee In The Field)

July 22, 2008 Jose
Kids In Front of School In Rain

Juan Luis Guerra’s quintessential song is “Ojala Que Llueva Cafe En El Campo,” a song that comes across more as a incantation that the poor and hopefully at the least have coffee somehow fall from the sky to bless them, as if to say that G_d might bless them with their basic necessities to relieve […]

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