The Sounds of Quisqueya Call Me Right Back

Jose VilsonJose, Race17 Comments

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 …

Comments 17

  1. Wow. This was a perfectly articulated representation of the conflict I’ve experienced being of two different cultures. I ceased saying I’m half-anything years ago. I revolt against anyone who would dare to categorize me. I am who I am, and I like me.

    “Just being yourself, being who you are, is rebellion enough.”

    Great post, sir.

  2. you know I had to come over here and read this, right? Anything w/DR or Haiti in the copy is like a siren song to me.

    It was a very interesting read because everything you said you experienced with your mom’s family I witnessed my family do to others. Especially people of Haitian descent. As a kid one thinks it’s ok because the grown-ups are doing it, but then later on (hopefully) one sees the absurdity of pissing on one’s brother like that, just to avoid being at the bottom of the totem pole.

    I’ve since wondered: what could we have accomplished as an island if we’d banded together instead of drawing lines in the sand. Or mountains, as the case may be…

    great post!

  3. Jose,
    This was an evocative post. The diaspora always has a way of calling you back. Before I visited Santo Domingo last November, I wasn’t really even thinking about it, because, frankly, I was embarrassed of how much self-hatred our people possess. And even worse, I can’t stomach all those mostly-American and European men who go down there to rent teenagers (and younger) for sex tourism. It’s disgusting. And it’s painful. But when I did finally go, screen my film and meet many of the younger people there (35 and younger), as well as some progressive older folks, I became totally inspired to continue a dialogue and, when time/money allows, go back to put in some work on the ground there. I guess we must face what turns us off, especially as it relates to our own, in order to confront the issues, address them, and steer the next generations towards a better place. A place that, as I stated in my post, can be mutually beneficial to ALL of Quisqueya.

  4. Wow! This is pretty intense & complicated. I can only imagine having more that the 2 identities that I have to deal with (unknown African & unwanted American). Ive read a few things on DR & Haitian relations & I found them to be troubling. 1 island 2 identities = negro craziness.

    Above it all, you are making it happen bro!


  5. It’s good to hear the perspective of somebody who is in a way a bridge between the two cultures.

    What I hate the most is that this problem gets worser everyday, fifty years from now who knows how we’ll treat each other.

    Answering your question: “Why do Dominicans celebrate their independence from Haiti but not from Spanish / French rule? ”

    As you probably remember, by the 1800’s Spain had already taken everything there was to take so they in a way discarded us. How can we celebrate a victory that was never there? We didn’t fight for our independence from Spain, they simply left us for Cuba, a more profitable place at the time, so the Spaniards didn’t need us anymore.

    This abandonment from Spain, hurt us and left us weak, in a certain manner, it facilitated the Haitian invasion.

    I’m glad that through Raquel I found this blog, a great finding,

    take care.

  6. J,

    Don’t know if I ever told you, but my grandfather on my mother’s side was from The DR as well. The way I see it we got the best of both worlds. As usual, great post!!

  7. This was a great post and though your specifics don’t apply to my life I think the struggle of African-Americans in the US not knowing their ancestry/heritage is the source of a lot of shame on their part as well.

  8. Great post, Jose. I can definitely relate to a lot of this – having to figure out your heritage from scratch, dissecting which part of which disparate culture you are piece by piece, and ultimately an “aha!” moment of seeing the commonalities of two of seemingly irreconcilable backgrounds. I see it now as living at the intersection of two perpendicular streets. Reading Obama’s “Dreams From My Father” was really the catalyst for this for me.

  9. Jose, this piece you wrote was exceptional. I can definitely relate to this….at one point when was younger, I thought I was the only one who felt this way. Thanks so much for articulating this down on print. If you have any more, please let me know. I would love to start looking at this topic alot more in depth. Yeah, Junot Diaz, is one of my favs! Sigue para alante!!!

  10. Post

    Wow, thank you all for the wonderful comments. Let me address them one at a time if possible:

    Reina, revolution suits you well. I’d love to hear your story in one form or another. Really, I would. You seem passionate about said topic.

    Thanks, JM, Tafari, Faith, and Carmen D. Always great to hear from you too.

    Jaded, banding together means a lot of deep issues would need to be cleared out. I honestly don’t know enough (which seems to be more than enough for some people) to say what Haiti’s done to wrong DR, but I do know that both sides have a lot of talking to do. Seems that even with them having so many similarities, they refuse to recognize each other as needing one another (except when it comes to, say, labor). It’s weird if you ask me.

    Raquel, first and foremost, thanks for the inspiration for the entry. It’s appreciated. Even with all the nastiness in my background and the countries’ background, we both get called right back. It’s insane to me how that works. I wonder how many people feel that sort of love / hate with their countries.

    Thanks for the correction, amiga. I’ve seen both spellings, but Wiki and you turned out to be reliable resources.

    Baakanit, I didn’t know that tidbit about DR / Spain. Either that or I forgot. Maybe it’s also because their resources were getting wasted with all the fighting they were doing for their other lands / territories. Thanks for dropping the knowledge, fam.

    James, I didn’t know that either. You are a bank of Vilsonian history.

    Jared, I need to read that Dreams of my Father. Really I do. I have it in my bookshelf, waiting for me to touch it once more.

    Julio, please refer to the related links right under the post. That should take you where you need to go.

  11. I go thru that same business being west indian and panamanian. In my house we spoke spanish. I went to bilingual elementary schools. But when I speak spanish in front of people they ask me how do I know spanish? Aren’t you black? What do you know about latin music? Its all so ridiculous. I also get heat from other west indians. Not knowing how to cook certain foods or been to certain places. I’ve learned to just tune it all out now. Their opinion of me holds no weight.

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  13. Late to the game but just wanted to say great post for us all to learn from. I try not to make many definitive statements on this issue, as more exposure to it shows me how complex it is. One thing I do like to remind people who are surprised by the animosity is the old saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. Family fights can be the most acrimonious of all. Sadly there are many places around the world where people with shared borders and similar histories simply refuse to get along.

  14. Hey,
    Great post and definitely great to see people trying to dissect the Dominican/ Haitian relationship. I am Dominican but to many I look black. I speak fluent Spanish and have caught people talking crap in Spanish not knowing that I can understand everything. I wish Dominicans would realize that Haiti is not the enemy. We should become one and use the resources we have to strive for progress. However I see corruption, ignorance and the habit of denying our blackness as an inherent problem.

    Cuidate, Melgily

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