Just when I thought that I had maximized all the opportunities this fellowship had to offer and was mentally preparing for my return to Jamaica, my host organization presented yet another great learning opportunity.
When the Regional Director of Latin America and the Caribbean approached me and asked if she could have word with me, I thought nothing of it. I quickly replied sure and, turned with the most attentive ‘I’m all ear’ demeanor ever. However, when she beckoned to her office, my heart skipped a beat – trauma from being sent to the principal’s office at least 3 times a every week during my high school years. It stopped completely after I walked into her office and she said to close the door behind me. But, with her question ‘how would you feel about working from our office in the Dominican Republic (DR) for the next 6 weeks’ as if receiving defibrillation, the heart was restored to its normal rhythm and in one breath I responded how??- When? As in when do I go?
Gleaming with excitement, I skipped out of the office and spared no time in messaging all and sundry in circle of highly valued friends. One by one they responded with delight at yet another opportunity for me to immerse into the Spanish Language. However, unlike my last trip to Mexico, the ensuing messages were not places to see and food to try, this time they were loaded with articles about the race relations in the DR. Specifically, the government’s discriminatory and racist policies against Haitians and Dominicans of Haitians descent. Articles upon articles explaining the history of the efforts of successive government to ‘whiten’ the population by importing Europeans/Puerto Ricans; the massacre of thousands of Haitians and persons of Haitian descent; and, more recently the 2013 court ruling that stripped tens thousands of Haitians immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent (more than 4 generations) of their citizenship.
With each article came tips- ‘tricks of the trade’- for travelling to DR when black. The most notable being ‘Try not look like a Haitian’. Of course, my brain went into overdrive. First, how does a Haitian look? A far as I know, they are of African descent and hence black – and, as for long as I have known myself I am also of African descent and hence black. So naturally my next question was how does one not ‘look like a Haitian’ i.e. black?
While there were no concrete and guaranteed plan of action, below is a summary of the ones that stood out in my mind.
1. Undo the box braids – very much ubiquitous to the black community- sure sign of blackness
2. Ensure your face is beat (well made up) at all times (Dominicans are very shallow)
3. Ensure that you are well dressed once you step outside your house
4. Do not wear your hair out; ensure it always in a twist. If you decide to wear it out, please ensure to use a lot of gel to bring out the curls so you look more mixed.
5. If approached by a police officer- do not attempt to speak in Spanish, just go straight English and ensure you make it known you are not from there.
6. Relating to the previous tip, do not leave your passport at any given time- knowing myself, the passport is safer at home than on my person.
Fortunately for me, I was aware of the situation in the DR. In fact, HAI’s team in the DR has been working with persons of Haitian descent educating them of their rights and ensuring they are able to assert their rights to nationality through the provision of legal and accompaniment services. As for ‘looking like a Haitian’ I cared ZERO about how I would be perceived by Dominicans, I was more concerned about the high level of crime in the country and particular, petty crimes for which tourists/ visitors were the primary targets.