Vol. 1, No.5 February 28, 1999

 

Dominican Carnival festivities coincide each year with the anniversary of the February 27, 1844 independence from Haiti. Set alongside each other so, these two celebrations illustrate the paradox of the way the two countries share the island of Hispaniola: distinct from each other but joined together nonetheless. Carnival celebrates cultural differences; by doing so it brings together people in spite of --or often because of--their differences. Independence Day commemorates the separation of the two nations of Hispaniola, but also the formation of a republic.

Cynical politicians have long abused the cultural, racial and linguistic differences between Dominicans and Haitians; in nationalist rhetoric, they have particularly focused on the turbulence in their shared history. In "Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola", Michele Wucker argues that culture can be a source of reconciliation on Hispaniola just as easily as it can be a weapon used to stir discontent. "Why the Cocks Fight" has just been published by Hill & Wang/FSG. The following excerpt from chapter nine, "The Other Side," is included here by permission of the author.

"THE OTHER SIDE"

by Michele Wucker

At dusk the mist rises from the cane fields at Palave, just outside of Santo Domingo. As the deep gold of the sunset hits, the mist ignites against there maining dark clouds of a late-afternoon rain shower hovering like smoke over the horizon. When the French- and Kreyol-speaking Haitians occupied Santo Domingo in the nineteenth century, these fields were called Palais Bel, beautiful palace, after the coral mansion that graced a small hill above the cane. Like the once-steady walls of the palace itself, now in ruins, the words Palais Bel have since disintegrated, into Spanish sounds, Pa-la-ve. Flocks of small white Dominican herons, garzas, billow over the remaining stumps of the old palace walls and into the trees nearby the way they always do as the sun sets.

As dark settles, preparations begin for Carnival. Sugar cane is being harvested in the fields all around. For weeks before and after Mardi Gras, residents of the nearby towns and cane barracks dance and sing in the streets the whole night long. They celebrate aggression and sexual exuberance, of music and dance, of breaking all the limits set during the rest of the year. Similar celebrations in Haiti, called rara, take place between Ash Wednesday and Easter, peaking in Holy Week when the rest of each country shuts down and the yearly calendar of Vodou ceremonies is quiet. When Haitian migrant cane cutters transplanted the rara to the Dominican Republic, the Spanish attempt to pronounce the French "r" turned the word into gaga, an unintentional but appropriate play on the word's other meaning, "crazy."

There are various theories about where the name rara came from. In colonial days, the 1658 Black Code guaranteed the slaves of Saint-Domingue vacation days on Saturday nights and Holy Week. "Lalwadi," the slaves might have cried, creolizing the French la loi dit, "The Law says so!" affirming the few days that were theirs and defying the plantation owners who might have said other wise.

Anthropologist Harold Courlander suggests the word rara may come from a Yoruba adverb that means loudly. During Carnival season, there are often so many raras out on the roads that they inevitably meet at a crossroads and face off to determine which will turn aside to let the other pass. They dance faster, play louder. As the groups battle musically to establish right of way, members at the edges sometimes resort to physical struggles.

The procession thus begins at a cemetery, the domain of the spirits of the dead, of crossroads and highways. In Vodou cosmology, the place called crossroads marks the path between the human and divine worlds, divided by a cosmic mirror. Maya Deren, a filmmaker and anthropologist who fell in love with Haiti in the 1940s, describes the crossroads as a metaphor for the depth of the mirror reflecting from one world into another. "It is, above all, a figure for the intersection of the horizontal plane, which is this mortal world, by the vertical plane, the metaphysical axis, which plunges into the mirror," she wrote in Divine Horsemen, her study of Haitian Vodou.

The crossroads and mirror express the unconscious, the world of the divine, departed ancestors and the spirits. But they also have a political content. After the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haitian Grammy-nominated roots pop band Boukman Eksperyans, warned the military in the hit song, "Kalfou Danjere/Dangerous Crossroads," that the soldiers, too, would have to passthrough the crossroads. The military banned the group from the 1992 Carnival celebrations. In their journey from this life to the next, the band warned, everyone must pass through the crossroads. The military murderers, the song implies, are turning away from the crossroads, where the Vodou deities judge their actions on earth.

Running through a mirror which reflects two linked but separate facets of the same world, the center post of Vodou cosmology is also a metaphor for the Dominican and Haitian border: reflecting worlds kept separate despite their similarities. The cross and the mirror, choice and reflection, divide and link Us with the Other: the hunter and the prey, the Dominican and Haitian, those to be glorified and those to be forgotten, the living and the dead. The line that divides myth from reality, east from west, north from south, self from other, is like the Dominican-Haitian border not impenetrable.

Before setting out from Palave, the gaga salutes the Vodou deities who will safeguard their journey and bless the encounters that will take place on the way. It then moves out into the streets slowly, growing louder as the night deepens. By midnight, the gaga takes over the roads crisscrossing the cane fields of Palave.

Against a backdrop of laughter, singing and shouts, the steady beat of drums and the insistent single-note calls of the vaksin trumpets swell up over the sharp points of cane. Above a rise in the road, the gaga appears, a mass of bodies filling the space between the cane stalks, tall as men, on either side of the road. At the head of a group, leaders crack whips sharp, insistent. Behind them, players with drums and vaksin follow playing a melodic but not unpleasant music. The gaga surrounds any passing car, demanding a toll before continuing slowly, still singing, down the road into the darkness.

During the rest of the year, the swishing of the cane is normally the only sound here at this hour. Behind the gaga at Palave, a car full of Dominicans follows blaring merengue so loud that even the insistent hoot of the vaksin in the gaga fades behind it. The two musics compete for control of the night air.

Suddenly, the procession ahead stops. Shouts arise. Elma, a young woman from a nearby batey, has been dancing with a large, muscular young man not from the immediate area. She is tall and slim, with Yoruba cheekbones and fine long eyelashes. Her hair is cropped close. Even in a T-shirt and hand-me-down pants, she is elegant, sophisticated. If it were not for the haphazard scars on her face, childhood scrapes left untreated, she could hold her own on a runway with the elite models of Paris and New York. But tonight, she is not moving with the controlled tension of a fashion model. Like the other young women in the gaga, she has been dancing with abandon, thrusting her breasts in the air and swiveling her hips.

The young man she has been dancing with has taken her suggestive movements as an invitation. Roughly, he tries to kiss her. She shoves him away violently. Furious, he sees a metal rod lying nearby and grabs it. Brandishing his new weapon soothes his hurt pride. Almost before he has fully raised the rod, Elma's friends and relatives, the young men of her batey, come to her defense. They pull the offender away from the group and beat him bloody.

To an outsider, the abandon of the dance looks like chaos and debauchery. It is not. The unabashedness of the rara/gaga can only take place within shared limits. A common code allows everyone space to perform without fear. The undulating hips, strutting chests and breasts, dancing buttocks, bare skin and bawdy lyrics are not open provocations, but instead a show, re-enacting and releasing normally restrained drives.

As the gaga waits for the fight to finish, the Dominican car following the procession stops. Two young couples tumble out the doors. One of the young men zips around to the trunk, and opens it revealing giant speakers. His friend slips back into the front seat, ejects the merengue tape, and pops in a cassette of meren-hip-hop, a fusion of tropical brass riffs and hip-hop brought back from New York, urban music melding with countryside rhythms. The young Dominicans, taking advantage of the pause in the procession, take over the open road next to their car and begin dancing. One of the young men shows off, break-dancing, his legs flying into the air as he bounces from one formation to another.

For the Dominican middle and upper classes, these fields represent the unwashed masses, the hordes of poor immigrants taking over their country. The forces of history, economics, law, police force, governments and leaders have all aligned against the Haitian cane cutters. They are scapegoats for the fact that one in eight Dominicans has been forced to seek work and a better life elsewhere. Officially, Haitians and Dominicans can never mix.

During Carnival, the festival that flaunts limits and rules, real conflicts briefly disappear as Dominicans and Haitians celebrate their differences and their common roots. But soon, the cane cutters will go back to work; the politicians will attack each other again; the yolas filled with starving emigrants will keep leaving the island; the blackouts will continue.

But tonight at Palave, Haitian meets Dominican and blends in with New York. Haiti is no longer on the other side of the border, New York no longer across the water. They are here in the cane fields that have long represented the center of conflict between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The three worlds have fused into one.

 

NOTES FROM THE EDITOR

CROSSING would like to send "un abrazo grande y solidario" to Michele Wucker for appearing as our first guest contributor.

The US State Department released its annual "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" last week. In its report on the Dominican Republic, the introduction states:

"Discrimination and violence against women, trafficking in women and girls, prostitution, abuse of children, discrimination against the disabled, abuse of Haitian immigrants and their descendants, and instances of forced labor and child labor are serious problems. ...The Government restricts the movement of Haitian sugar cane workers... Workers in the state-owned sugar plantations and mills continue to work under unfair and unsafe conditions."

 

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