quisqueya Archives - The Jose Vilson


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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Arturo Schomburg by Marcano García at Taller Borinquen

A few weeks ago, a few people asked me why I helped create the now annual event Quisqueya, a celebration of Afro-Latino history throughout the Americas at Syracuse University. Honestly, it had a tinge of selfishness: by then, I helped run a series of workshops dedicated to understanding the relationships between Blacks and Latinos at a time when others kept seeing schisms. Plus, my Dominican-Haitian background spurred me to explore that in a more open forum, i.e. a celebration where I could subliminally prove that schism false. It’s also the most obvious representation of Blacks and Latinos on the same “field”, whereas other lands in the Americas aren’t known for this dual identity, even with the plethora of races occupying Brazil, Peru, Colombia, or Mexico, for instance.

To wit, as the education chair of La LUCHA at the time, I never got asked why it made sense to have such an event; it was obvious how much unity such an event would bring on a campus where the split even existed within organization of mutual interest. The questions of whether I should lead a Latino organization enraged me at the start of my tenure, but instead of taking a reactionary stance against the critics, most of whom never confronted me personally, I decided to take to the streets, finding ways to build bridges in spaces where I didn’t even know I could fit in.

As with any of these experiences, I learned something critical to my formation: the idea of Quisqueya.

“Quisqueya” is a word I’d known so commonly because Dominicans often referred to their part of the island as such. As it turns out, while La LUCHA and the Haitian American Student Association sought funding for Hispaniola, the original name of the aforementioned event, one of the members of the committee pulled us aside and asked us to change the name of the program to Quisqueya. Whereas Hispaniola is a name placed upon the island by people who never originated from there, Quisqueya (or Kiskeya, or “mother earth”) was a name the Tainos used to designate for the entire island, before the countries occupying the island split it into the current countries they are now. That made more sense for the purposes of the event, so we kept it.

This serendipitous lesson on Quisqueya planted the seed for me to go to an event at the Arturo Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at Harlem. It’s the first time I’d ever been to the museum, and the first time I’d ever heard about him. Naturally, I was annoyed for a bit because, even after I’d met so many  intelligent men and women in Syracuse U, no one ever told me about this man.

I think it was Howard Dodson Jr., head of the Schomburg Center, who said it best when he mentioned that Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s history was often ignored and ostracized when it came to Black history. He alluded to the fact that his contributions to Black history were only recognized later on in his career, even with the many allies he had. Thus, it was almost ironic to see that the primary center for Black history is under his name. Once equipped with knowledge, Schomburg found purpose for his work when others didn’t, or didn’t think he was the one who should do it. As a Puerto-Rican immigrant (an Afro-Borinquen at that), he had tons of battles, primarily for identity and membership.

For me, these were the most important contributions to history as a whole: he not only validated Black history, documenting and preserving the important parts of a history still not regularly integrated into our society, but he also validated Afro-Latinos as an essential part of Latino and African Diaspora history, because, while he may not have had the voice, he certainly had the knowledge, proof positive that history shouldn’t simply pass us by.

By being proactive in one’s history, you eventually become an integral part of that.

Jose, who should always write like this when we have snow days …