“Ay Bobo!” chanted the colorfully dressed singer of Kalunga, invoking the traditional call to the gods of indigenous Taíno Indians of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
Immigrants from both sides of that divided island – Haiti and the Dominican Republic – were gathered in an auditorium November 15 to protest a court ruling in the Dominican Republic that denies citizenship to anyone born after 1929 who does not have at least one parent of “Dominican blood,” effectively stripping more than 200,000 people of Haitian descent of their citizenship, as well as others who have lived as Dominican citizens for decades. The change has stirred political anger, prompting members of the band Kalunga to urge immigrants from both countries to unite in opposing it.
“If we can’t bring the island together politically, let’s do it culturally,” said members of the band, made up of Haitian and Dominican musicians. “This decision has been used to incite a backward, prehistoric nationalism,” said Estela Vazquez, a Dominican immigrant and executive vice president of the local 1199 Service Employees International Union, which sponsored the rally that drew over 100 people from both communities.
Artists painted murals depicting Haitian faces and clenched fists on large Dominican flags. In English, Spanish and Creole, firebrand keynote speakers expressed anger at what they saw as institutional racism by Santo Domingo’s ruling elite. At one point, everyone was asked to hold hands in a show of solidarity. Leaders of each community embraced each other tightly.
Since the September 23 ruling by the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court, there have been weekly protests across New York, some outside the Dominican consulate in Times Square, and some in community centers in Brooklyn and Washington Heights.
The ruling has also sparked international criticism, heightening tensions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in a relationship already fraught with historical acrimony. CARICOM, a Caribbean regional organization, and Amnesty International have demanded a retraction of the court order.
And in New York, home to more than 120,000 Haitians and 600,000 Dominicans, according to the 2012 American Community Survey, the ruling has reverberated heavily, strengthening ties and fostering unity between two peoples often separated by geography, language and history.
“The decision has brought us closer, because we’re both immigrants,” said Vazquez. “We as diasporas [sic] have the power to condemn this decision.”
For Haitian-Americans, the court ruling appears racially motivated.
“There is no issue bigger in the Haitian community than this,” said Ricot Dupuy, 50, station manager at the widely followed Radio Soleil D’Haiti in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. “There are racist and extremist elements in the D.R.” Radio Soleil’s daily programming, Dupuy added, has been dominated by the Dominican court ruling.
“This is an attack on human rights,” said Councilman Mathieu Eugene, the first Haitian-American elected to the City Council. Local, state, and federal channels, Eugene said, are being exploited to see what can be done to help pressure Santo Domingo into nullifying the order.
The tense relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is steeped in a history of colonialism and the racial divisions it produced. The divisions date back to the 16th century, when Spain colonized the eastern side of Hispaniola, opening the doors to European migration, while France transformed its holdings on the island into one of the largest slave plantation colonies in the Americas.
Centuries later, Haitians migrated to their neighbor, seeking extremely low-wage jobs as cane cutters in the country’s profitable sugar industry. There, they became targets of policies such as dictator Rafael Trujillo’s “Blanquismo,” or “whitening” policy; on his order an estimated 20,000 Haitians were slaughtered in October 1937.
Though Trujillo’s racist policies were later denounced, Dominican courts in recent years have upheld actions that barred Haitians born in the Dominican Republic from holding citizenship there.
One such ruling came two weeks after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, killing an estimated quarter million people. While the Dominican Republic opened its border to Haitians fleeing the earthquake zone, it passed a law saying that any Haitians born in Dominican Republic after that date would not be granted Dominican citizenship.
The September court ruling essentially makes that rule retroactive to anyone born after 1929.
Haitians have loudly protested, as have some in New York’s Dominican community. But opinions there are divided, said Moises Perez, a Dominican activist in New York and former head of Alianza Dominicana, a cultural institution in Washington Heights.
“There’s a group that thinks that this was done deliberately against the Haitians,” said Perez, “and another side that rejects these notions and thinks of it as a correction in Dominican law that was long overdue.”
“The Haitian and Dominican communities don’t have an enormous amount of relationships here,” Perez added. But, with the controversial court ruling and its vast implications, he said, there now exists “a greater affinity for Haitian immigrants.”
The strengthening of ties between the diaspora communities is not unexpected, said Myriam J. A. Chancy, a Haitian scholar at the University of Cincinnati.
Once they relocate to the United States, Dominicans are “treated as people of color” in their new home, said Chancy. “They come here and become Afro-Dominican, and that changes who you create solidarity with.”
At the rally last month against the Dominican court decision, the newfound bond between New York’s Haitians and Dominicans inspired a camaraderie often lost back home.
“Our fight is long but our course is right,” said the opening speaker, a Dominican-American. “We are commonly human.”