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




Woman roasting peanuts
A woman roasting peanuts in Daniela's neighborhood

Face to face with the catalyst for this case, revisiting the Butterfly sisters, and bewilderment as the country mourns a dictator

SANTO DOMINGO, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — At last it was time to meet Daniela. As readers of these dispatches may recall, Daniela is the Dominican teenager expelled from school because she had no birth certificate (see About the Project).

MUDHA staff members Sirana, Elba, Mariela and I piled into MUDHA's SUV. Ruben was behind the wheel, which was a good thing because there are no seatbelts to be found in the back and Dominicans cut, swerve and dodge on the road with as much fervor as they do on the dance floor — but with much less grace. The midday sun was pounding down ferociously on Santo Domingo, and between the stifling heat and the suffocating dust and exhaust swirling up from the roadway, we chose the latter, and rolled down the windows. At each intersection, roaming vendors strolled by the windows hawking water, peanuts, gum, and cell-phone accessories.

Ruben guided us out to the edge of the city, where the landscape opened up, revealing the foothills that roll away into the volcanic mountain ranges occupying the center of the island. We were in what must be a suburb of sorts: a paved street lined with one-story, cement-block homes on which decorative but sturdy ironwork covers all possible points of entry.

Every 100 meters or so, we passed massive speakers blasting bachata, salsa and merengue music at incredible volume to announce the presence of a "colmado." In the Dominican Republic, colmados service the basic needs of the surrounding homes with a limited supply of household goods, canned foods, simple vegetables, a few wheels of cheese and some meats for slicing, as well as a truly impressive quantity and variety of liquors, from the obligatory "Presidente" brand beer to carefully aligned rows of whiskey, rum and mixers.

Daniela's neighborhood

Turning suddenly at one of a hundred dirt alleys between the cement-block homes, Ruben took us off the main road. We shot past the suburban fringe and entered the world of the batey beyond. The paved street gave way to packed earth roads that cut through dwellings of wood and scrap tin. The buildings look hastily constructed, though they are probably the product of a laborious collection of materials over time.


Does she
wonder, like me, what difference it will all make in the end?

Everyone in the batey was engaged in avoiding the sun. A group of adolescents concentrated on a game of dominos under the shade of a mango tree. Two old men peered out from just inside the dark interior of a doorway. A woman selling small bags of peanuts wandered down the lane under cover of an enormous umbrella. A pack of the ubiquitous mangy dogs occupied the gutter beneath a house.

Ruben and Mariela shouted out greetings to friends, and a few folks emerged briefly to exchange a few words. Clothes were hung out to dry around almost every home, draped over power lines, bushes, barbed wire, doorways. The prodigious collection of plastic tubs and buckets lying about testified to the residents' ongoing struggle to keep a sufficient supply of water on hand.

This is Daniela's neighborhood.

Ruben parked the vehicle under a tree, and we followed a trail winding between dwellings until we arrived at the house of Daniela's family. They came out, greeted us warmly and ushered us into a shady patch in the yard with a few chairs. As we sat down, Sirana took charge of introductions. The cast of characters that had existed for me primarily in the pages of legal briefs and memos now took shape. Across from me was Yolanda, Daniela's older sister; to my right, Miranda, Daniela's mother. (As usual, I am changing the names.)

I didn't need any introduction to the young woman on my left. At 16, Daniela is tall, slender and beautiful. She has a serious look that broke into a shy smile when I shook her hand.


"It scared me to think that they might pick me up and take me away. That's happened to several people around here."


I was tempted to ask her a thousand questions: what does she make of all of this? Is she aware that her case could set new precedents in international law for this hemisphere? Does she imagine the law students and lawyers, in offices and universities in Santo Domingo, Costa Rica, California, New York and Washington, D.C., who have spent late nights over the past five years nurturing her story into a legal argument? Does she wonder, like me, what difference it will all make in the end? Is it worth it to her?

But I reminded myself that Daniela has never seen me before. Better to start off with something simple. So I asked her how the school year went.

"Fine," she replied.

Protests erupted from the other members of Daniela's family: "She was one of the top students this year! And last year, she was the head of her class. She's a very good student."

Daniela smiled down at her lap. I could tell she was both a little proud and a little embarrassed by her family's acclaim.

I asked them to tell me the whole story.

Barred from school

Daniela was born and grew up near Sabana Grande de Boya, close to the center of the Dominican Republic. Miranda, her mother, is Dominican. Her father, who no longer lives with the family, is Haitian. Though she did not have the required birth certificate, the teachers at the local school allowed her to attend anyway. Then, in 1997, Daniela's family moved to their present home near the capital. This time, when Daniela went to enroll in the local school, the administrators said no. Without a Dominican birth certificate, they could not permit her in the classroom. Daniela's family was distraught. They went to MUDHA for assistance, and MUDHA helped them prepare the papers for a late birth registration. But the civil registry rejected the petition. She's Haitian, the officer declared, and there was nowhere to appeal the decision.

Batey Lecheria classroom
Twelve of these schoolchildren don't have birth certificates. Unless things change, they will be prevented from continuing beyond eighth grade.

To keep up her studies, Daniela enrolled in a night school for adults. Daniela hated night school. She had to walk home in the dark. Fights broke out frequently. One night, one of the students was stabbed.

A year later, on the orders of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, school officials permitted Daniela back in the classroom. But Daniela was still afraid.

"It scared me to think that they might pick me up and take me away," she said, referring to the fact that, without papers, she could be deported to Haiti at any time. "That's happened to several people around here." The shy smile had now faded from Daniela's face.

"She had a lot of trouble sleeping back then," Yolanda added. "There were rumors going around about her. She was really afraid. When they were learning in school about the Mirabal sisters, she started to think that maybe the same thing would happen to her."

The discussion went on. I updated them on the status of the case and gave Daniela the diary that Hillary Ronen, the Berkeley law student who worked on the case last year, had sent. We took some photos. By the time we began to say goodbye, the mood had lightened and Daniela's smile had returned.

Butterfly dreams

But Yolanda's comment about the Mirabal sisters stuck with me. When I got home that evening, I searched Raquel's bookshelf, pulled down a copy of "In the Time of the Butterflies," Julia Alvarez's book chronicling the lives of the Mirabal Sisters, and began reading fervently.

Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa Mirabal were key leaders in the clandestine movement to topple Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who kept the Dominican Republic under his brutal command for 30 years until his assassination in 1961. Code-named the Butterflies, the sisters became heroes of the anti-Trujillo resistance. In an attempt to bring them under control, Trujillo imprisoned the women for months and tortured their husbands.

But under international pressure, the dictator finally released the sisters. Two months later, they were ambushed on the road to visit their husbands (who were still in prison). After smashing the sisters' heads repeatedly until they were dead, Trujillo's henchmen hauled the vehicle into a ditch to make it appear as if there had been a terrible auto accident. No one was fooled.

Let it be...

I think back on the conversation we had that afternoon in Daniela's family's yard. When Yolanda mentioned the Mirabal sisters, Sirana had been quick to intervene.

"Trujillo is dead," she said, but there followed a silence that indicated that neither Sirana nor anyone else present thought that settled the issue.


Ask the Author:

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

I have been thinking about this a lot over the last three days. Early Sunday morning, former Dominican president Joaquin Balaguer died at age 96. It is no secret to anyone that Dr. Balaguer, as he was known, was intimately involved in the later years of the Trujillo dictatorship. He may very well have been in on the plot to kill the Mirabal sisters. Nor does anyone seriously deny that Dr. Balaguer presided over the disappearance, torture and murder of his political enemies during at least his first term in office as president. Nor, finally, does anyone really pretend that Balaguer was not the author of the 1994 presidential election fraud that brought him briefly back to power.

And yet the government, controlled by a huge margin by a party supposedly opposed to Balaguer, has declared three official days of mourning, during which politicians, priests, journalists and the president have fallen all over themselves to eulogize this man. The outpouring of devotion has taken up nearly every page of the newspapers and hour after hour of television programming. All without a single word of criticism or mention of controversy.

Trujillo is dead. But the mental servility that he demanded of the Dominican people casts a long shadow into the present. It is still better to let things be; still best not to pursue justice too loudly nor truth too vigorously; still wisest to praise the powerful and scorn the gadfly.

For Daniela and her family, I now realize, the real struggle is — as much as anything — against that legacy.

—Tim Griffiths


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