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In Dominican Spanish la ñapa refers to "the little extra" added on at the end. Just when you thought you'd gotten all that you would get, along comes your ñapa, like a baker's dozen, with one more kiss, one more pastelito, one more mango at the mercado.

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Border of Lights, 2019

In 1937, a little-known massacre occurred on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Beginning on the night of October 2nd--some historians place it a few days earlier--and ongoing for a couple of weeks, the Dominican dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, ordered the slaughter of any Haitian caught on the wrong side of the border, a border that had been recently redrawn and had always been invisible to all but those privy to maps.

Historians differ on the number of casualties--from a "conservative" estimate of 6,000 to a possible 20,000, or more. Some of these historians focus on the inaccuracies of the high-end count, as if the massacre must be discounted until we have an exact head count. But the dead cannot speak and those thrown in the sea leave no trace behind. And would a lower number of victims absolve the Dominican perpetrators of murder? It was not murder, others argue, but an act of self-defense. After all, in 1822, Haitian troops had occupied the Dominican Republic. Who's to say they wouldn't try again in 1937, or any subsequent year, especially an election year when it is convenient to have an enemy on whom to blame the problems of the current administration.

The massacre is known as "the parsley massacre" from the purported use of the plant's name to distinguish between dark-skinned Dominicans and Haitians who claimed to be Dominican to avoid slaughter. The would-be victim would be asked to identify the sprig of perejil. If the word was mispronounced--a Haitian Kreyòl speaker would not trill the r as a Spanish-speaker would--the man, woman, or child would be decapitated or stabbed or bludgeoned to death. Trujillo's soldiers had been ordered not to use ammunition, so that the killings could not be traced back to his military. To this day, eighty-two years later, the Dominican Republic has yet to openly address or adequately redress this crime against humanity.

As a Dominican, proud of her country and its people, it pains me to see this shameful refusal to acknowledge a disgraceful chapter of our past. For those who argue that the past is past, we need look no further than the ruling (#168/13) passed by the Tribunal Constitucional, the highest court in the land, in late September, 2013, just over a week before the seventy-sixth anniversary of the massacre. In it, the Tribunal retroactively revoked the citizenship of an estimated 300,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent, rendering them stateless and legally nonexistent. As Padre Regino, a Jesuit priest and activist (I think those are redundant terms?) commented to me, "We eliminated them with knives in 1937; now we do it cleanly with laws."

Those of us who have spoken up are accused of being traitors and have received threats and denunciations on a number of social platforms. This vehement defense of a violent crime is painfully ironic given that we are the country that gave the world the shining example of the Mirabal sisters, whose murder by Trujillo's calies brought down the dictatorship. In 1999, the United Nations declared November 25th, the day of their murder, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. We, Dominicans, should feel especially compelled to uphold their high standards in defending the rights of those who are victims of violence and discrimination.

In 2012, a group of Dominicans and Haitians of the Diaspora in solidarity with citizens from both countries and other advocates formed a movement called Border of Lights. That October, the seventy-fifth anniversary, we gathered to commemorate the massacre and initiate a series of collaborative community programs between the border towns of Dajabón and Ouanaminthe. The following year, 2013, soon after the ruling, we were not permitted by authorities to mass at the border for a vigil. In response, we instituted a "virtual" vigil whereby supporters around the world could post "a light" and a message of support. The participation proved even larger than if we had contained ourselves to boots on the ground. Since then, we have continued to conduct annual Border of Lights gatherings, a core group participating with community members and organizations on the border, some of us joining in from afar through online participation and donations to fund the movement's collaborative programs and projects.

One of these projects took place the first year of our gathering. We wanted to assess what stories the townspeople on the border had been told about 1937. Since the massacre is rarely studied in history classes, it was no surprise that very few participants had even heard of it. (I myself only learned of the massacre in the States in my twenties when I read read Albert C. Hicks's chilling book on the dictatorship, Blood in the Streets.) Some townspeople knew of the massacre and believed the regime's propaganda about a Haitian invasion. We posted the testimonials on postcards hung on clotheslines in the town center for all to read. A town meeting followed with locals and historians sharing stories and listening to discussions and lectures about the two countries and our intertwined histories. We had facilitated a conversation which continues to this day.

In keeping with the postcard project, I wrote the poem, "1937: What Did They Tell You?" It is based on a story my tía Estela told me late in her life on one of my return visits. In 1937, she had been living close to the border on a farm, which was overrun by the guardia. She was able to save a few Haitians by hiding them under a pile of laundry. One of her neighbors hid a Haitian infant, left orphaned, in a wooden case in which was lodged the statue of a saint. That baby, José Francisco Peña Gómez, would grow up to run for president in the early 1990s, in elections marred by fraud, race baiting and xenophobic attacks. A vote for Peña Gómez is a vote to unite us with Haiti, ran one slogan. Some of his supporters showed up to vote only to discover their names had vanished from the rolls. The past is not past but continues to this day. As the historian, Eduardo Galeano, once noted, "History never says goodbye. History says see you later."

There is a tradition in Latin America of the testimonio, in which those who have been the victims of violence bear witness to what has happened. The triumph of any oppressive system is complete if it results in silencing those who can speak to the atrocities it has committed.

"Dar a luz," we say in Spanish. When a child is born, a mother gives him or her to the light. The speaker in the poem, born the night of the massacre, takes that phrase to heart, breaking the silence, to give her testimony to the light.

What did they tell you?
Qué te contaron? Ki konte ou?

We lived in a small town on a border
we could not see, marked by a river
where women washed clothes, while
their children splashed in the shallows,
their laughter in Kreyòl or Spanish--
impossible to tell one from the other.
No one knew why the river was called
el Masacre: some said it was named
by Spaniards for the pirates slaughtered
in its waters--history so uncertain
when nothing was written down.
We knew only what they told us.
They told us 1937 was a good year
for crops: sugarcane, mahogany, campeche
the Germans bought for their dyes.
There was money to marry a sweetheart,
buy shoes for the children, silk stockings
for a querida, and for a wife a gold chain
with a medal of la Virgencita
to make her smile like a bride again.
Abuela helped a new generation of mothers
give birth. It rained almost daily,
a downpour, afterwards the air smelled
of scents released from the garden:
romero, oregano, cilantro, perejil.
They told us el Jefe announced a visit
for October, an honor for our town
far from the splendors of the capital.
For weeks, we prepared for his coming:
laid down hay on the streets to muffle
the noise of wheel carts, tamp down
the dust raised by horses. Young ladies
avoided the sun, posed before mirrors,
trying out their new gowns, draping
mantillas over combs like Spanish
señoritas. Who would his eye fall on?
At the welcome reception, el Jefe asked
about the border? Todo bien, Jefe,
said those with Haitians cutting cane
in their fields, mining salt
on their coastal plains. Todo bien.
But others complained, Ay, Jefe,
los Haitianos are stealing our cattle, raping
our women, converting Christian souls
to their Voudoo religion.
El Jefe's face
darkened. You must solve this problem
before Africa invades us from the west,
before we become so much like them,
no one will be able to tell
a Dominican from a Haitian.
They told us it was a quiet night, the stars
like sparks from our cooking fires, the smell
of leña in fogones, the víveres boiling in pots,
the sizzle of queso frito and huevos frying.
It was Sunday, feast day of Santa Cándida,
San Cipriano, San Maximiliano--mártires,
the priest called them, a word they told us
they did not know what it meant,
though before the night was over,
they would know thousands of them.
It was dark when they heard the howling
like an animal in pain, like the cries
of the condemned roaming the earth
for souls to pull down to hell with them.
They told us they banked their fires,
hurried the children indoors, clapped closed
the shutters, knelt and prayed in the dark.
My mother's legs parted as she labored
to give me to the light. No one dared
go to the well for water after the buckets
they had filled for my birth were used up.
There was a knock on the door. They told me
they all fell silent. Abuela stuffed a corner
of a sheet in my mother's mouth to muffle
her screams. Silencio, silencio. No one home!
But the knocker refused to believe them:
¡Abre! ¡Abre! a familiar voice shouted.
My father opened to the sight
of our neighbor Jacksaint, his skin
hanging from his arms like a shirt
he is taking off, a man who'd been to hell
and back. A martyr without an altar.
They told me they pulled him inside
and barred the door, just as my mother
brought me to the light. I wailed,
trying out my new lungs. I was wailing
when the guardia pounded at our door
¡Abran! ¡En el nombre de la patria!
My father gestured to Jacksaint to hide
under the bloody sheets of my birthing
Abuela had piled in the corner.
I was wailing when the guardia burst in,
thrusting their bayonets before them,
as if to wound the air, as if to open
a canal like a birth canal, wide enough
for the dead to pass through—
      as if as if as if. . .
—words failed them as they told us.
The guardia held up a sprig of green.
Name this! An odd command from men
with bayonets coated with blood,
machetes flecked with flesh, a question
a mother or grandmother might ask
a young girl, learning the names of herbs
in the garden. Perejil, my father cried out,
along with Abuela and tías gathered
to help my mother bring me to the light.
¡Perejil! ¡Perejil! ¡Perejil! they all shouted,
rounding their vowels, trilling
their Spanish r's to save their lives.
They told me the guardia were satisfied,
but as they turned to go, a young recruit
spotted the bloody heap of linens on the floor
and came forward, his bayonet drawn.
Abuela leapt forward, shouting:
Don't you dare ruin my linens, Pepe!
You owe me more respect than that.
I helped your mother bring you to the light.
They told me that man shrunk like the leaves
of the moriviví when touched; he took
his cap in his hands. Con su permiso, madrina,
he bowed, backing his way out of our hut.
They told me I wailed all night long.
My mother's breasts could not fill me,
her caresses still me, her cooing voice
reassure me. They told me Jacksaint
was saved but he never spoke again.
They followed his example: keeping
their own counsel to save their lives.
They told me if someone asked what
I'd been told about 1937, I should say:
it was a good year for crops--sugarcane,
mahogany, campeche the Germans bought
for their dyes--but for a scarcity of parsley,
not a sprig to be found in our gardens
to flavor the sancochos for navidad.
They told me never to tell what they told me;
they warned me what would happen:
I, too, would be sent to hell, come back
with ribbons of skin on my arms,
instead of satin ones in my hair.
But 1937 was the year I was born,
the year my mother gave me to the light,
not to the darkness of silence and lies,
which is why I am telling you
what they told me, bringing this story
to the light. Take it and tell it.
Do not let the dead die twice.
Julia Alvarez
October 6, 2019
Copyright © Julia Alvarez 2019-2020.
All rights reserved. No further duplication, downloading or
distribution permitted without written agreement of the author
(please contact my agent, Stuart Bernstein).
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