Today I took my last hot shower for the next three weeks. Tomorrow, I get up at 5:00am to fly to the Dominican Republic. From the Santiago airport, I’ll be headed out to Batey Libertad, a tiny town that mainly revolves around the nearby rice plantation and factory. My homestay in the batey (the Spanish word for a plantation town) will be quite a shift from the extremely privileged, comfortable life I live at an American boarding school. If you’re wondering why, here’s a picture of Batey Libertad:
Like many plantation towns, Batey Libertad is primarily populated with Haitian-Dominicans and Dominicans of more distant Haitian ancestry. But to many Dominicans, any person of Haitian descent–or maybe anyone who looks like they’re of Haitian descent because of their darker skin–is simply one of los haitianos. People of Haitian descent can face severe discrimination in the Dominican Republic. In some ways, they’re perceived much the same as many Mexican migrants are in the United States–as outsiders who don’t belong, who take advantage of the country, who steal jobs, who are immoral criminals: much of the same racist, xenophobic rhetoric is applied to Haitians in the DR. Under Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the country until the 1960s, thousands of Haitians were even massacred.
Today, especially in bateyes, los haitianos are denied civil and human rights (like citizenship and the right to freedom of movement) and can be deported to Haiti even if their families have lived in the Dominican Republic for generations. Many bateyes have limited access to clean water, health care, and education. Fortunately, some organizations have stepped forward to improve life in bateyes, and this spring I have the privilege of working with Yspaniola, an organization that has helped bring improved sanitation and clean water to Batey Libertad. I’ll get the opportunity to work with Haitian-Dominican kids to improve literacy in Yspaniola’s Learning Center, learn about the plight of Haitians in the Dominican Republic alongside students from Yale, and learn about Dominican life from my host family. I’m nervous, but excited, and armed with a few choice Spanish-language picture books.
I know in the Dominican Republic I’m going to get sunburned. I know I’m gonna miss the conveniences that come with my cushy American life and that I’m going to have awkward language mishaps with my muddled, poorly conjugated Spanish. I know that I am going to face uncomfortable truths and realities I have never before had to confront, of poverty, racism, and discrimination. But I am going to do to what I learned at Westtown and lean into my discomfort rather than shy away from it, and I know I will come back to school having made deep connections across cultural barriers. I hope I will also return more humble, more grateful, and ready to continue on my journey to make change. This is just how I take my first step.