Vol. 1, No. 2 December 14, 1998

OH, THE GAMES THEY PLAY!

by John McLaughlin

Just a soft clicking-- nothing more, nothing less. To someone who'd looked away from the table for a minute, as I had, it was just part of the game, the sound of domino pieces being played, slapped down on the table and pushed together. For the eight men seated around the table, however, it meant that all bets were off, right then and there.

The morning of Thursday, October 29, was relatively quiet in Batey Libertad, especially considering how many people could be found. In the month since Hurricane Georges ripped through this country, the weather here in the Cibao region was pleasant, with almost-daily showers that sapped the air of its normally fierce thickness and left fresh breezes in their wake. For better or worse, the residents of this batey were able to enjoy the break from the heat; the hurricane significantly delayed this year's tobacco crop, and the vast majority of Haitian men were without work as a result.

I found a few of them gathered around a domino table when about 11 am, I went walking through the batey to check on the progress of some trees that had been planted recently, part of a project sponsored by a Catholic church in Virginia. Cholo, a Haitian boy of 18, led me from tree to tree, explaining the different varieties that were now sprouting up quite well because of the rains. We went to the back area of the batey, where I recognized some of the men playing dominoes. I greeted them from a distance and continued talking with Cholo.

Then the clicking, so innocuous that it didn't catch my attention. What did was the sudden widening of Cholo's placid eyes, darting to look over my shoulder toward the table. Two Dominican police sergeants, with calm, serious expressions and voices never raised above polite conversation level, were placing handcuffs on the eight men (all Haitian) sitting around the table.

The first four were cuffed in pairs by the taller, lighter-skinned sergeant, who lead them a few yards away while he waited for his partner. This second sergeant, still wearing thick gold-rimmed sunglasses despite the shade of the overhanging trees, was waiting as well-for the ‘perro’ and his son.

Telima, a silver-bearded man of 57 who has lived in Batey Libertad since 1960-- just a few years after it was chopped out of the then-present sugar cane-- sat beside his 20 year-old son of the same name, the two of them carefully stacking the dominoes back in their box. On his ear, Telima wore the clothespin of ’el perro’ (the dog); in the tradition of the Haitians of this batey, the player at the bottom of a domino game is the dog, and in good fun, is treated as one. He must place all double pieces, shuffle at the end of a round, and keep score. And the clothespin must hang from his ear like a jestful scarlet 'A.' Some days, the game is for money, but today it was not-- and really, the batey residents claim, it hadn't been in weeks. Without work, there's hardly money for food, much less gambling, and the game is merely a way to pass the time.

The sergeant waiting over Telima, however, didn't see it that way. As Telima closed the box, the sergeant plucked the clothespin from the man's ear and cuffed him to his son. I later learned that the sergeant saw the clothespin as proof that the men had been gambling.

The group, as it was led to the main strip of the batey, seemed like a magnet dragged through iron filings. Within minutes a great crowd followed behind, forming a chattering and puzzled procession; upwards of 300 people gathered on the main strip to watch the men step into the back of the small red pick-up truck, a truck that one could easily mistake as belonging to one of the many vendors that bring bread, vegetables, or sodas to be sold in the batey's colmados (bodegas). The sergeants who arrived in this truck had something to sell too, but they hadn't yet named their price.

The adjunct office of the Esperanza police station sits at the cross, as it's called here, a spot about five kilometers from the batey, the place where the road to Montecristi forks and provides a route to Esperanza. It's a small, unassuming, painted green pine wood and tin roof house, that, if not for the national and municipal flags out front, could easily be passed over as just another one of the many bodegas and small cafeterias at the cross. Attached to the right side of the building is a tiny patio, covered by a sloping thatched roof; it was there that Romero and I found the two soldiers some 30 minutes after they left the batey, sitting in plastic chairs and taking in the day's refreshing breeze.

Romero, 37, is a life-long batey resident, and health coordinator for the community. In the last year he has managed the resources from the Virginia church to build outhouses and a sanitary shower area in the batey. He has also managed to prevent his own arrest, by the Guardia or by the police, throughout his entire life, a very rare feat indeed for someone who "appears Haitian," as he does (his parents are Haitian, but he has Dominican birthrights). One way he has done this, he told me just before we left for the station, is that he has stopped playing dominoes. For two years now he hasn't sat under those trees out back and slapped down the pieces; in fact, he hasn't even played inside his own house.

Romero was surprised it happened on a Thursday. "Usually they come on the weekends," he said, "when they're thirsty and they know people have just been paid." During the time of Balaguer, Haitian residents in Batey Libertad were arrested for anything-- "for living, really"-- and sent to jail until they paid a fine to be released. Detainees who couldn't or wouldn't pay were put to work cleaning the municipal jail building in Esperanza, and though they were, in doing so, saving the police some work, it wasn't uncommon to hear grumbling among the officers about how they'd just rather have some money for beer. The arrests these days are less frequent, but they still occur: the police made similar sweeps three times in the past October. And they are more justified, according to a certain way of thinking.

"They don't have the right to play in the morning," the sergeant who had been wearing the gold sunglasses told me as we sat beneath the thatched roof discussing what had gone on that morning. He clearly wasn't pleased to see me-- he and his partner both shrugged their shoulders and held up their hands in a "What do you want?" expression when Romero and I arrived-- but as we talked, it seemed that he began to see our conversation as an opportunity rather than a threat, a chance to win the approval of an outsider-- and an Americano at that.

"In the afternoon, I don't have a problem," he said, shifting in his seat a bit and fixing his gaze on me. "But in the morning, it's bad. Just think about it. The little kids see these men gambling, not working-- they're a bad influence. They should be doing something instead of playing."

He pointed over to the holding cell, where Romero was passing a small tin bowl of beans and rice, sent by a Haitian woman in the batey, into the darkness. The eight men, standing inside the 10x10 foot windowless hut that was painted the same faded green as the police house, eagerly accepted the food before a guard shut and re-locked the door. "Why don't they help out with your projects," the sergeant said to me as Romero found a seat across from him, "and clean the batey? I'm really getting tired of having to go by there and keep telling them about playing in the morning. This is tobacco season, they ought to be working."

At that Romero sat forward and pointed out that in fact, no one in the batey was working tobacco these days because there was literally no work to be had. And if there was no work, then why couldn't a man spend his mornings as he wanted to, be it by playing dominoes or in some other diversion? "If I want to hang a clothespin from my ear, don't I have the right to?"

The sergeant looked to me as if for some consolation; he sighed, then persisted in his insistence that the morning domino game was a bad influence on the batey's children, until I asked him what punishment such an offense would earn. He shifted again in his chair and pointed down the road toward the center of Esperanza, explaining that the men would either pay a fine or be sent to clean the municipal jail. I nodded and told him that that was what I had heard.

"So you know these folks?" he asked. "They're friends of yours?" I explained that I knew them by sight but wasn't familiar with all of their names. "All right then, he said suddenly, "I'll give you two-for you-and one for this guy here," he said, gesturing toward Romero. "But no more than that, no way. What about my work?"

I was too surprised to speak when he asked me which ones I wanted released. I looked at Romero, who gave the guard three names, including Telima's son.

The released men walked to the patio, where the sergeant ordered them to stop. "You see, it's different with them," he said to me before he focused on the men standing silently behind me. "You all don't play like us, you don't play tranquilo," he said. "You people bring your machetes to the game, and when there's a problem, the blades go up and somebody gets hurt." Then he reached up and wiggled his earlobe. "And don't try to tell me this game's just for fun."

They didn't. They didn't say much of anything, in fact-- not when they were being cuffed, not when they left the station, and, for those five who remained in the cell until nearly 6 o'clock that afternoon, not when the price was finally named.

"You say something, they hit you," said Jimi, a tall, muscular man of 30 who was released to Romero and I before noon. He sat with Telima's son and I later that afternoon, outside his room, a tiny cubicle inside a shack made of flattened drums of cooking oil nailed to wood planks and secured by bottlecaps. Both told me that they had been picked up once before, in September, for playing dominoes in the morning. They were both working in local rice fields at the time; Jimi paid a fine of 150 pesos, Telima's son, 200 pesos. "It's better just to go along with them," the younger boy added. "They knew we weren't playing for money, and they know Dominicans who live here are playing in the morning too, but you just make it worse if you talk."

"They're making their own law," Romero said as we sat inside his house, awaiting a plate of beans and rice that his wife would soon serve us for lunch. "If you're Haitian, they can do anything they want to you. Try to complain, and it's your word against theirs. And who's going to win?" Telima, whom I saw three days later when he passed by Romero's colmado, seems to agree. "I won't play anymore," he said simply. "My son can keep playing if he wants, but I won't. I'm too old." Telima said the heat and the stench of the holding cell exhausted him to the point that he was almost glad to pay the 50 pesos the sergeants were asking. All the men were, and did, and were released. The sergeant's work, it seemed, got done somehow.

NOTES FROM THE EDITOR
The army and migration authorities have stepped-up raids and roundups of Haitians in the regions of the Cibao, Santo Domingo, San Pedro de Macoris, San Cristobal, Haina and Barahona. At the same time government functionaries are busy covertly contracting Haitian braceros for the sugar cane harvest. ------ The commission investigating the killing of a young Haitian by an Army Patrol, on the night of November 23rd in Laguna Salada, has not issued a report. Nor have they informed when will they complete the inquest. Is the government doing its best to "bury" the case?

CROSSING is published by John McLaughlin and the Centro de Reflexion, Encuentro y Solidaridad: ONE RESPE, for further information please contact: a.badillo@codetel.net.do