Borders, much of the time, are complicated places, and the 224-mile border dividing the Dominican Republic and Haiti is no exception.
Over the centuries, the border has been the site of revolutions, wars, and even a bloody massacre—which is the topic of Latino USA’s recent episode, “A Border Drawn in Blood.” Today, the border continues to be a source of tension as high immigration from Haiti in recent years has led to an increase in anti-Haitian sentiments in the Dominican Republic. One Dominican politician, Pelegrín Castillo, even suggests building a wall on the border.
The border is more than wars and walls, however. When Latino USA producer Marlon Bishop and Dominican photographer Tatiana Fernandez traveled to the northwest border area to research the episode, they found a fascinating region where Haitians and Dominicans interact everyday, for all sorts of reasons. And like so many borders, the lines between people are blurrier up-close than they may seem from afar.
Here are some of the images they captured, and some of the words of the people they met on both sides of the border.
Text by Marlon Bishop
Photographs by Tatiana Feranndez
The Massacre River, named not for the 1937 massacre but an earlier massacre, divides the Dominican Republic from Haiti in the country’s Northwest. Haitians buying and selling frequently cross the river to avoid Dominican and Haitian customs officials on the bridge that serves as the official entry point.
Haitians crossing into Dajabón, Dominican Republic over the bridge on market day are asked to wash their hands on the way, in a measure to control the spread of cholera to the Dominican Republic. A cholera outbreak in Haiti happened in 2010, months after a devastating earthquake hit the country, and killed thousands. In 2016, the United Nations admitted it had played a role in accidentally causing the outbreak.
Every Monday and Friday morning in Dajabón, hundreds of Haitians cross the border freely to participate in the binational market. The market is held in a giant cement structure right next to the border. Haitians come mostly to buy agricultural products that are unavailable or too expensive in Haiti, and they come to sell mostly clothing and medicines, much of which arrived in Haiti originally as donations.
Louis Gastin buys used clothes in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, and sells them here in Dajabon at a profit. He says the Dominican authorities treat Haitian sellers very poorly and often solicit bribes. “There’s no basic courtesy, no politeness,” he says, in Haitian Creole. “The only way we could resolve this is if we also had the market one day on the Haitian side. Then we could treat them the way they treat us and they’d see how it feels and maybe change.”
Angel Figueroa, 19, studies agronomy in a Dominican university. He lives about an hour from the market, but sometimes comes to the market to find deals on clothing, which he says is much cheaper here than in Dominicans stores. “Haitians are good people, hard workers,” he says. What does he think when he hears people speaking badly about Haitians on Dominican television? “That’s racism. I don’t agree with it.”
Haiti doesn’t allow the purchase of eggs in the Dominican Republic—as a way to protect the domestic egg industry, but people buy them and bring them in illegally anyway since there’s not enough production in Haiti. “Sometimes the customs officials stop us from crossing the river and we lose the eggs we bought. We take out loans to buy the eggs, so we lose that money as well,” says Madame Ruben Dejisma, a Haitian egg seller purchasing eggs in Dajabón.
In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered a massacre of Haitians and their descendants living in the Dominican Northwest, particularly by the border. Francisco Pierre, 90, was born in Loma de Cabrera, Dominican Republic to Dominican and Haitian parents. When he was ten years old, in October 1937, a man passed by his house and said, “Jump up and go across to Haiti right now, because they’re killing people in the village.” He and his family narrowly escaped the massacre. To this day he lives in Ouanaminthe, Haiti, just a few miles from the border. He’s only returned to the Dominican Republic once, when he was ill and needed to visit a hospital there. “I was afraid of Dominicans,” he says.
Willy Azema, president of the Dosmont colony in Haiti, close to the border, is a descendant of survivors of the 1937 massacre. He believes the Dominican Republic should pay reparations to residents of the town, many of whom are descendants, by building a health clinic or supplying clean water. “Our relatives came here with nothing, but the clothes on their back,” he says. “Look around, we aren’t living the way a human being should live, and it’s the fault of the people who committed the massacre.”
Dosmont colony, Haiti was set up as a refugee colony for survivors of the 1937 massacre fleeing Dominican Republic for Haiti. Today, many of the residents are descendants of survivors. Believers in the Haitian vodou religion hold a procession through town, dressed in ceremonial clothing. Vodou is treated as a symbol of national pride in Haiti. A variant of the religion is widely practiced in secret in the Dominican Republic, especially by Afro-Dominicans in the countryside, but rarely discussed in public. During the Trujillo era, vodou was banned in the Dominican Republic.
Pierre Jugnace, a lawyer and notary, sits in his office off a busy street in Ouanaminthe, Haiti, right across the border from Dajabón. The name of the city—Ouanaminthe—pronounced roughly “Wanament,” comes originally from Spanish “Juana Mendez.” Place names throughout the border region reflect the long history of both French and Spanish presence.
In many ways ranging from food to music to entertainment, Haitians and Dominicans aren’t so different. On both sides of the border, playing dominoes is the classic afternoon streetside activity. Men enjoy a game in Ouanaminthe, Haiti.
Padre Regino Martinez is a Jesuit father based in Dajabón, Dominican Republic. He’s been a loud supporter of civil and human rights for Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic, which has made him unpopular at times. He believes that elites encourage tension between Dominicans and Haitians as part of a “divide and conquer” strategy. His argument is that as long as there’s enmity between the two nations, Dominicans won’t publicly support better conditions for Haitian migrants. “It’s in the interest of the rich to maintain the tension to be able to continue to use cheap Haitian labor,” says Martinez.
Restauración, Dominican Republic lies in the hilly border region, just a few miles from Haiti. Before the 1937 massacre, residents say, it was a “completely Haitian town.” Survivors who fled left behind land and animals that they, generally, never recouped.
Nancy Betances poses in front of her grandfather’s house in Loma de Cabrera, Dominican Republic. Her grandfather Rafael Enrique Betances was a Dominican military officer stationed in Loma de Cabrera during the massacre. “He had to participate and kill,” she says. Now she tries to make amends by helping Haitian immigrants, volunteering with local non-profits. “People say that [my grandfather] defended the country,” she says, “and that he’d be rolling over in his grave if he knew what I was doing.”
In Capotillo, Dominican Republic, a massive cement monument commemorates the Dominican Restoration War, in which Dominicans, with help from Haiti fought to kick out the Spanish between 1863 and 1865. Throughout Dominican history, the border has often been an area where revolutions have been plotted. That’s one of the reasons scholars say Trujillo was so intent on “hardening” the border with Haiti.