The Sounds of Quisqueya Call Me Right Back

Jose Vilson Jose, Race

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 …