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




Children at play
Children at play in the Batey Matamamon neighborhood

Unzip now, a singularly bizarre fruit, Enron and riots in the streets, and Humberto's "disappeared" family

SANTO DOMINGO, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - I have spent the weekend recovering from a bout with some sort of bug that sapped my energy and tormented my stomach. Fortunately, Cris, one of the wacky roommates mentioned in Dispatch One, has been on hand providing kindly medical attention and comic relief.

Upon learning of my ailment yesterday, she slipped into the kitchen and proceeded to brew up a sweet tea that smelt of lemons and cinnamon. A few sips and I felt a thousand times better. Today, as I lounged on the couch recovering my strength, Cris decided to undertake the download of a bunch of zip files on the computer. Since the download instructions all came in English, she took to reading them all aloud as they would be pronounced in Spanish and demanding translations.

The explanations were relatively straightforward through "download," "next," "search," "drive" and the like, until Cris located the file she was after, at which point the computer demanded to know if she wanted to "unzip now." When I explained to her what that meant - granted a more literal translation than the computer had in mind - her eyes went wide with alarm and she shot a look at the computer as though it had just goosed her. In the end, she was delighted with this English lesson, however, and she spent much of the afternoon downloading zip files, announcing each step in the process with greater and greater excitement until she came to the critical moment at which point she would throw her head back and holler "UNZIP NOW!" for all the neighborhood to hear. Despite the fragile state of my stomach, I couldn't stop shaking with laughter.

This was only the latest episode in what is the running circus of this household.

A singularly bizarre fruit

Mystery fruit
Cris, Raquel, and the mystery fruit: not the sweetest, tastiest nectar to be had on the planet

Last weekend, Raquel, Cris' partner in all the trouble-making, turned up cradling a gigantic fruit in her arms that resembled a de-quilled porcupine. Nobody seemed to be able to identify what kind of fruit it was and it reeked so badly it was hard to be in the same room, but Raquel was insistent that we had to make juice out of the thing. Apparently, whoever gave it to Raquel had claimed that the juice of this fruit was simply the sweetest, tastiest nectar to be had on the planet. So, gamely we ferried the thing into the kitchen and laid the thing on the counter. We were all a little frightened of the thing, and when Cris split the thing open with a knife, we all jumped back. The innards of the thing were truly revolting and, though it seemed impossible, they stank even worse than the unopened fruit. We went about dissecting the thing, which turned out to consist of little yellow citrus-ish satchels buried in a white, fibrous substance that looked something like part of a whale's mouth through which it strains plankton. No seriously, we're talking about a singularly bizarre fruit here.

After some confusion, we decided that you're supposed to eat the yellow part and, upon fishing out all the satchels out and deseeding them, we dumped them in the blender. We left it to Raquel to take the bold step of actually sampling the resulting yellow sludge. The contortions on her face said it all: far from the delicious nectar she had been promised, the fruit juice tasted as awful as the thing smelled. And to add insult to injury, no matter how much we lathered our hands with soap afterwards, there was no way to be rid of the smell. Even the ants, who tend to converge voraciously on anything smelly that turns up in our kitchen, maintained a respectful distance.

A riotous response to Enron

Cris and Raquel's antics are a welcome break from my work around here, which has been both fascinating and frustrating. The frustrating part has been locking horns with government bureaucracy and trying to track down vanishing clients. As to the former, I am trying to get my hands on just a few simple documents but at times it feels as if the entire Dominican government staff is paid to guard these precious parchments from outside eyes. The runaround is really quite impressive.

Coming up with these documents should prove easier than finding some of our clients, however. It's hard enough that they are migrants who are at constant risk of forcible deportation and are often on the move. But to make matters worse, I have to contend with riots. Yes, that's right, riots, which have consumed many of the poorest Dominican neighborhoods these past two weeks in protest of rolling blackouts.

It seems that the Dominican Republic -- on the clever advice of the World Bank and the IMF - privatized its electricity industry a few years back. It will come as little surprise to Californians that, lo and behold, the private electricity generators (including one "Smith-Enron") are now withholding electricity production until contracts - for more money -- can be renegotiated with the government. And I'm sure it comes as no surprise to poor Dominicans that, while in some areas there is power 24 hours a day, impoverished and marginalized neighborhoods across the country are going as much as 15 hours a day without electricity. Quite understandably, many of these people are angry and have taken to violent rioting to vent their frustrations. There have been several deaths and quite a few injuries. The problem for me is that some of our clients live in these areas and unless things calm down some, I've been told it would be absolutely insane for me to go. We'll have to see how all of this unfolds in the coming weeks…

Humberto's "disappeared" family

Meanwhile, Humberto (not his real name), one of the clients in the Expulsions Case, came by the MUDHA offices the other day. I'm at a loss to describe the feeling of meeting a client about whom you have read the most excruciating details of what is probably the worst thing ever to happen to him or her.

Here is Humberto's story:

Humberto is Dominican. He was born in the Dominican Republic in 1958. He lives in a batey community and works driving a motorcycle-taxi in one of the Dominican Republic's tourist areas. Humberto's wife, María Inés (not her real name), was born in Haiti and migrated to the Dominican Republic in 1978. Here, she met Humberto and together they had two daughters, both born and baptized in the Dominican Republic. The daughters are now about 10 and 12 years old.

Just before Christmas time in 1994, María Inés took the children to visit Humberto's family as Humberto's mother had just passed away. On their way to Humberto's family's home, María Inés and the daughters were captured in a Dominican migration operation and forcibly expelled to Haiti.

When news reached Humberto, he was distraught. He had no way of knowing where his family was, but he feared the worst. With MUDHA's help, Humberto tried to ascertain if his family was imprisoned in the Dominican Republic. No one was able to locate them.


Ask the Author:

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

Over the next three years, Humberto would make repeated trips to Haiti, trying to locate his family there. He was unsuccessful. Humberto also would seek information from Dominican migration authorities in an effort to find out what they had done with his family. The authorities had nothing to say. To this day, Humberto does not even know for sure if his wife and children are dead or alive.

Humberto and I talked about the logistics of yet another attempt to find his family in Haiti. It seems that he has received new reports about where they may be. If he can find them, his wife and children are now entitled to safe passage documents according to the decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (see The Expulsions Case). With such documents, Humberto's family could travel and reside safely anywhere in Haiti or the Dominican Republic which means that Humberto and his family may yet be reunited.

Understandably, Humberto is anxious to go. But there are arrangements to be made with the government. And I worry about getting his hopes up. Nothing at this point is a sure thing ...


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