Student Journal: summer dispatches from the field The Dominican Republic fighting for the right to go to school
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The Dispatches

1- Amid the swirl of passionate conversation, and the rhythm of merengue and bachata

2 - To be dark-skinned in the Dominican Republic is to live under suspicion of being Haitian

3 - Forced expulsions of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent

4 - Humberto's 'disappeared' family and Enron in the Dominican Republic

5 - Life in the batey communities where Rosa seeks to buy a mother

6 - Meeting Daniela, the catalyst for this case — and reaching an understanding about the country




Tim Griffiths at work in Santo Domingo

The Dispatches
The Dominican landing cheer, hopelessly gringo, the swirl of passionate conversation, and the rhythm of merengue and bachata pouring out at tremendous volume

SANTO DOMINGO, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - It is now approaching a week since I arrived here in the Dominican Republic. Already time is flying and as I stop to think about it, I realize that, in a certain sense, time is also already running out. There is a lot to be done.

I have come here to work in collaboration with the Movimiento de Mujeres Dominica-Haitianas (the Dominico-Haitian Women's Movement or MUDHA) on two human rights cases currently pending before the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights. One of the cases involves the denial of the right to access to education; the other involves arbitrary expulsion from this country of undocumented individuals. I have tried to write up a description of each of the cases and no doubt the kindly folks who manage the UC Berkeley Web site will somehow come up with clever, visitor-friendly ways for you to browse through all of this. (Editor's note: See links!)

Already I digress…

I arrived in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic on May 29th in the afternoon. There was a burst of applause upon touchdown on the airstrip of the "Airport of the Americas." Cheering upon landing is a Dominican tradition, of course, as it is in many countries of Latin America (and perhaps elsewhere, I suppose…), but in the wake of the crash of a New York to Santo Domingo flight late last fall, the celebration seemed particularly robust this time.


Ask the Author:

Tim Griffiths has agreed to answer your questions, time permitting. Email Tim in Santo Domingo.

I have been in the Dominican Republic once before, in December 2000, to visit my friend Monisha Bajaj, who was then working here on a Fulbright fellowship. I am fortunate, therefore, to know several people here, including the two women who inhabit the apartment where I am staying. I haven't had chance to discuss this online journal business with either of them yet, so for now they will remain anonymous. Hopefully, they will agree to allow me to describe them and some of our collective adventures around the house, since they are two brilliant, dedicated and unbelievably wacky human beings.

The apartment is located in the Zona Colonial, a neighborhood situated geographically in the corner created by the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Ozama River on the other. Historically, the Zona Colonial is the center of the old, colonial city. Santo Domingo was one of the earliest and most active centers of European settlement in the Americas and the Zona Colonial was at the heart of this settlement.

In a short walk from the apartment, for example, you come across the oldest functioning cathedral in the Americas (as a side note, Dominicans often claim that this cathedral was the first to be built in the Americas, but according to the Lonely Planet Guide, the Mexicans beat them to it; it's just that the Mexicans later tore theirs down…), the oldest European style university in the Americas, the home of Diego Columbus (Christopher's son), the former haunts of Sir Francis Drake, and more. You get the idea.

What you will not see is any evidence of the folks who were here when the above-mentioned Europeans decided to turn up. The indigenous population of the island of Hispaniola - estimated at roughly a half-million people (primarily Taínos) at the time of Columbus' first appearance - was wiped out. Nonetheless, for historical interest, convenience, cultural activities, and night life, it is hard to beat the Zona Colonial. So I am very lucky.

I picked up my bags and was waived through customs without even a cursory inspection of declaration, so I quickly found myself out in front of the airport. It is hot here and ludicrously humid. For a fellow who sweats a lot as it is and who prefers to wear shorts whenever I can possibly get away with it, it could be a long summer. Dominicans are almost always immaculately and formally dressed and that definitely means long pants, regardless of the temperature. At the Newark airport, where I changed planes en route from San Francisco to Santo Domingo, it was easy to identify the departure gate by the iron-creased slacks, pristine shoes, and pressed shirts that come along with a heavy Dominican presence. In this respect, I'm afraid I am hopelessly gringo: my usual wardrobe goes no farther than shorts, a well-worn t-shirt and some aged tennis shoes. However, I understand that dressing appropriately is an important indicator of respect and with the help of Boalt classmate and friend Liz Eng's fashion consulting, I have arrived laden with what I hope will qualify as appropriate attire.

I took a taxi from the airport to my apartment in the Zona Colonial. From conversation with the taxi driver, I learned that the aftershocks of September 11th have been felt here in a fall-off in tourism, that the current Dominican President, Hipólito Mejía seems to have his eye set on re-election, that the most recent legislative elections would seem to have boosted Mejía's chances given that his party, the PRD, won in a landslide, and that this year's Miss Dominican Republic is supposed to be among the favorites to take the crown of Miss Universe. All of this news came to me as we swept along the spectacular Dominican coast, lined with palm trees and short rocky cliffs dropping off into tranquil, azure seas and on into Santo Domingo. As we crossed over the Ozama River and into the narrow streets of the Zona Colonial, chaotic traffic zigzagged around us, horns wailed, street vendors cried out, and a mixture of dense exhaust fumes and the odor of trash lingering in gutters wafted through the taxi window, altogether the classic sensations of urban life in a tropical, so-called "developing" country.

The nature of the work I am here to do means that I am likely to spend much of my time criticizing the Dominican Republic and in particular, its government. So maybe I should take a moment a say a few things about what I really like about this country. Not that my opinion should matter to anyone, but just so as not to come across as hopelessly negative.

First, the place is spectacularly beautiful. The coastline is the stuff of tropical travel commercials - palm trees, white sand beaches and crystalline waters. The history of this island, as I have mentioned is fascinating, if not always terribly uplifting. The Dominican people, as a sweeping but frequently quite accurate description, are wonderful. One common and entertaining attribute of Dominicans, as a Dominican acquaintance was pointing out to me the other day, is that they are quick to engage in conversations. For example, a brief trip to the corner market to buy milk is not complete - in fact, the milk-purchaser would be considered quite rude - if it did not include at least a short speech about something or other, perhaps the recipe to which the milk is to be applied, or maybe a history of the purchaser's ancestor's involvement in dairy production. Moreover, the chances are excellent that the speech will inspire soliloquies on related topics and/or provoke raucous debate between the clerk and onlookers. The result of all of this is a nearly ubiquitous swirl of passionate conversation and colorful language. Dominican music is also sensational. The people here compose, play, listen, dance, and one could even say live to the rhythm of merengue and bachata. The music pours out of homes, cars and businesses, often at tremendous volume, which might be irritating if bachata and merengue weren't so good.

Having said all of this, I now realize that I haven't even managed to report any further than my taxi ride from the airport. The afternoon of my arrival, I unpacked, took a nap, chatted with my new housemates and took a walk around the neighborhood. The next morning, Thursday, I awoke and headed to the offices of MUDHA for my first day on the job. And that is where I will pick up next time ...

—Tim Griffiths


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