Haitian laborer in the Dominican Republic

Why 'Naturalization' Laws in the Dominican Republic are not just a "Domincan Problem" 
By: Amberly Alene Ellis/ Photo credits: Amberly Alene Ellis

When Haitian representative of the Nation of Islam, Joseph Makhandal spoke at the Justice or Else March led by Louis Farrakhan in October, whispers and chattering from the lips of black and brown faces spilled through the National Mall.

Though the conflict of naturalization in the Dominican Republic is not a new development, the subject has recently surfaced in mainstream media outlets. At most, the coverage has been severely shallow. Many black and brown American people do not know the deep history of the issue or what it means for their own collective struggles in the United States.  I argue for fighters against the devaluing of black American bodies to critically access the global infrastructures of racial injustice. In particular, these fighters for justice in America should examine how injustice is sustained for their very close neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean.

I first urge American blacks, as African diasporic people, to stop thinking of the Caribbean as merely a vacation destination. The history of black people in the Caribbean is vast and the contributions of Caribbean people to the struggles against racism and oppression is nothing short of tremendous. Our struggles are separated only by a short distance of sea. 

Haitian farmer in the Dominican Republic

Makhandal brought an important issue to the forefront. Black American people should be just as attentive to this issue as they are to the Black Lives Matter initiatives taking place across the nation from coast to coast. Makhandal said firmly, “I am here with my brothers and sisters …We want to show to the world that we are not going to be divided anymore, because the division of our people is to the benefit of the enemy and the unity of our people is to the benefit of our people.” His words struck a cord in me.

Mainstream news outlets will not explain that the island was originally divided as a result of the division of the colonial rule over black and brown people.

The island of Hispaniola, a term coined by Bartolomé de las Casas was once entirely controlled by the Spanish. The name “Hispaniola translates to the phrase “Spanish. Land”. Thirty years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, between eighty to ninety percent of the indigenous Arawak population that once inhabited the island would die of disease, warfare and famine.
The Spanish would rule the island until the French colonized a portion of it under King Louis XIV. The French named the Western side of the island Saint Dominique.  The economy of Saint Dominique quickly grew to overshadow their Spanish neighbors as a result of its system of slave labor to harvest and grow sugar cane. What would happen in St. Dominique after two centuries of French reign would change the history of the struggles of enslaved peoples of the Americas forever.

Haitian fisherman in Port au Prince, Haiti

In 1804, under the command of military leader Toussaint Louveture, Haiti successfully gained its independence from France. Haiti was the first black nation to free itself from a colonial European power, but the victory of the Haitian people would not come without cost. Haitis economy was almost entirely reliant on the labor of slaves. Slavery was abolished in Haiti after independence, but the nation never recovered from the damage of such a brutal system. In fact, France did everything in their power to suppress the success of the Haitian economy.  For their freedom, France would demand that Haiti pay 150 million francs (the modern equivalent of $21 billion) for their sovereignty.

With the coming of the 20th century, new problems would arise for Haiti, as dictator Rafeal Trujillo in the Dominican Republic waged a campaign of anti-Haitian and anti-black practices. Trujillo even bleached his skin to remove the presence of his African heritage.

In 1937, in what is now called the Parsley Massacre, Rafael Trujillo would order the death of thousands of Haitian people on the borderlands of the Dominican Republic. For many years after the Haitian revolution, Haitian labor on sugar plantations would feed the Dominican economy.  Haitians migrated back and forth between borders, but many found a home in the Dominican Republic. They found themselves reunited with the eastern side of the island that once was unified as one.

Naturalization policies in the Dominican Republic have a long history of discriminatory practices. The fate of Haitian people at the Dominican border in the Parsley Massacre rested on a persons ability to pronounce the Spanish word perejil, which means parsley in Spanish. In Haitian Creole, the r is pronounced as a uvular approximate making it almost impossible to pronounce the alveolar tap or trill of the r in Spanish.

Thousands of Haitians would die because of this. Such practices mirror the Jim Crow policies of the Reconstruction era in the United States up until the 1960s that were used as a means to deter blacks from practicing their right as citizens to vote.

Imperialism and colonialism continues to divide Dominicans and Haitians today— the very same sickness that has infected colonized and enslaved people in all parts of the world. This is the sickness the great Caribbean psychiatrist and philosopher from Martinique, Franz Fanon described in his praised work, Black Skin White Masks. Fanon speaks of the divisions created amongst oppressed and colonized people. In post-colonial societies, those who can closely replicate their colonizers by means of language, culture, pigmentation, or religion are rewarded by society. Those outside of these constructions remain oppressed and are viewed as inferior. Such divisions keep the colonizing power in tact, even centuries after perceived state independence or sovereignty.

This issue of naturalization is not just a Dominican problem. We, as black Americans cannot point a finger at one group of once colonized and oppressed people and blame them for wrong doings against another group of once colonized and oppressed people without fully contextualizing the situation. What we must do rather, is recognize that racism is a global system that will remain in tact if fighters against racial injustice do not seek to improve the lives of black people not just in our own territories, but in all territories and within all contexts in which black lives are devalued.
The Naturalizations laws that discriminate against Haitians in the Dominican Republic is a problem for all of us, if we call ourselves fighters for justice.

Oppression is changing its face and we fighters for justice must fight not only against the injustices in our backyards, but we must fight against injustice as it pertains everywhere. We must realize that these issues are all a refection of the same beasts of racism, of imperialism, and of colonialism.

We cannot fight against anything, if we do not understand its roots. We must grasp the roots. We must understand our common histories rather than further marginalize ourselves as people of color across the Western Hemisphere. 

Haitian-Dominican sisters in Santo Domingo, DR

Nuestra Cuba: Women, Filmmaking and Equality 
Amberly Alene Ellis 

After the Cuban revolution of 1959, cinema would become a major component in the socio-political revolution of the Cuban consciousness. Some filmmakers would experience a rise to fame, while the names of other filmmakers were almost forgotten in the public memory.  In March, as a graduate MFA candidate in the American University School of Communication, I embarked on the filming of Nuestra Cuba (Our Cuba), a documentary that follows the untold stories of the Institute of Cuban Cinematographic Art and Industry’s (ICIAC) first women and Afro-Cuban filmmakers: Sara Gomez and Gloria Rolando.  

Nuestra Cuba invites dialogue amongst historians, cultural producers, and scholars on the future of Cuban cinema, and the place it holds for the drastic minority of women in the Cuban filmmaking industry. The film confronts the long silence surrounding the impact of Gomez and Rolando not only in Cuba, but also in movements of counter cinema around the world. 
For years in Cuba, cinema has been an integral part of the reshaping of the nation’s identity. The world would come to know many Cuban films, by filmmakers such as Humberto Solas, Tomás Gutiérrez Aleaor Manuel Octavio GomezThe style of Cuban films after the revolution was distinct, and a direct rejection of the escapism of Hollywood cinema at the time, yet the role of director in Cuba remained overtly male dominated. 
Issues of racial discrimination and a lack of a national discussion on race that followed the revolution created an even more difficult space for Afro-Cuban women in cinema. 
Cuba’s First Woman Director
Born in 1943 to a middle class black family, Sara Gomez would grow to be Cuba’s first women to direct a film after the revolution. In her short lifetime, Gomez would produce 18 films with ICIAC, and she would become most recognized for her fiction film, with a documentary style, De Cierta Manera. Before joining ICIAC, Gomez was a journalist. She studied literature and Afro-Cuban anthropology. The themes of her films include race, religion and women’s issues. Her film DeCierta Manera, through a strong female lead, encounters the topics of sexism and class based prejudice. Gomez had a very stylized approach to cinema. Her work would later influence the rising cinemas of Latin America in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Her work even reached the west coast of the United States as black filmmakers during the LA rebellion would turn to the work of Sara as inspiration to their own movement of counter cinema. In 1974, at the very young age of 31, Gomez passed away in the middle of the production of her last film, due to complications of stress and asthma. Gomez left behind a great legacy and footprint on Cuban cinema, yet the general public’s recognition of her life’s work barley scratches the surface. 
Gloria Rolando and the Afro-Cuban perspective 

For over 35 years, and since the passing of Sara Gomez, ICIAC would only produce one more Afro-Cuban female director. Gloria Rolando began filmmaking in the 1990’s immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union and the start of the Special Period in Cuba. Gloria’s work is heavily influenced by Sara Gomez, and in fact she makes and ode to Sara in her feature film,Roots of my Heart. Gloria’s films are centered on the importance of memory, and the unrecognized history of blacks in Cuba. Unlike Sara Gomez, Rolando was able to form her own independent filmmaking company, Voices of the Caribbean, based in Havana. Rolando has stated that lack of funding and issues of support for the concerns of Afro-Cuban history and narratives have pushed her company to seek alliances outside of Cuba. Writer and activist Alberto Jones explains that on every level; education, employment, and housing, that black women in Cuba are consistently handed the shorter stick. Jones has been writing regularly on issues concerning race in Cuba since 1998. In Nuestra Cuba, Jones shares that the outlook for black women Cuba is one of lessened opportunity. A dialogue for change, as Gloria Rolando presents in her films, is what is needed in Cuba. For many, it is a change that is long overdue. 

Because you are Beautiful, and Black Like Me: Reflections on Cuba, Race and Adolescence
By: Amberly Alene Ellis 

Memory may omit things people say to you, but emotions tied to words spoken are hardly ever forgotten. For weeks I have been searching for a piece of paper with the name of a little girl who I cannot get out of my mind. If I could stretch my memory to recall the name she revealed to me, then I would feel so much closer to this little girl—a little girl who changed the entire direction of my research in Cuba.

There is a small neighborhood outside of Havana, Cuba called La Piedra. In La Piedra groups of Cuban-born Haitians and Haitian-born Cubans have found a home. It is here that I met the little girl who now, as I write, has become my source of inspiration.

When a friend of mine, a Haitian filmmaker living in Canada, first told me of the community named “La Piedra,” I quickly told him to double back; I knew he was wrong. La Piedra is a community in the Dominican Republic; an isolated, resource-poor community outside Santo Domingo, the Dominican capitol. This community is where I have worked, filmed and built strong friendships during the past four years.

In Spanish, “La Piedra” literally means “The Stone.” The harsh farming conditions in La Piedra are a result of land that was once coral, submerged under the sea. When the water left the region, a rough, rocky terrain was left behind. This undesirable land is what poor Dominicans and Haitian immigrants have been left to manage.

But my filmmaker friend insisted he was right. I immediately examined whether there was a connection. Haitian people have been subjected to isolation on two separate islands, in communities without the resources that their Dominican and Cuban counterparts have access to. Furthermore, Haitian people on both islands are typically darker-skinned people who face discrimination and exploitation.  The similarities were striking.

I found that in Cuba, La Piedra was not only home to Haitian people, but also many darker-skinned Cuban people. These groups of people have maintained many syncretic African religions, such as Santería, Abakua, and Palo Monte. In contrast to Havana, La Piedra felt more like Santiago de Cuba, home to the world’s first Carnival, and to the largest population of “Afro Cubans,” a term coined by historians but often rejected by many Cuban people.

When I arrived in La Piedra of Cuba, everyone invited me into their homes, introduced me to people, and treated me as if I was a friend. After I was made comfortable, I was offered a beer, and I conversed with my Canadian filmmaker friend. Within moments there were spectators around us, entertained at the oddity of two black people speaking English.

We shared a few laughs, and then a little girl walked past. I said something else to my friend and she turned around. She nearly tripped doing so, and looked back again almost three times, her eyes wide, before covering her mouth and running down a rocky roadside. The neighbors laughed, but in seconds she was back with friends. A little brown boy with eyes identical to hers and a girl no taller than her with copper-colored skin and sandy hair clung to her side.

They would whisper to one another and then shriek in laughter every time I spoke. One of the neighbors told them to come over to speak to me. I called them over, and they became giddy, making it a game to see whom they could push closer to me. The little girl fell right in front of me, doubling over in laughter.

The neighbors were all laughing at how silly the children were behaving. I asked her what her name was. She looked down at the ground and mumbled. I told her my name.  She looked directly at me, and smiled like no smile I had ever seen before. She didn’t say anything, just smiled, staring with such an intensity that I waited for her to say something to me, but she didn’t. She continued to stare at me.

The neighbor was laughing hysterically; she asked her, “Why are you so fascinated, sweetie? Why are you looking at her like that?” The girl didn’t say anything. I was now curious as well. Then without looking away from me she said, “Because she is beautiful, and black, like me.”

I think I cried; I know something was released in me in that moment. She’d said something that felt like someone tracing a line down my childhood. She had recovered that moment when I discovered that my color, my history, and who I was, was beautiful. In that moment I realized that for a young black girl in Cuba, sculpting your self-identity is a matter of scrapping from the images that lay at the edges of a culture. She had never encountered someone before who was black and who she aspired to be like.

In Cuba, there are many stereotypes of large, mammy-like black women with big red lips and handkerchiefs. Old archetypes from the days of colonial slavery are scattered throughout Havana. But on television, and in movies in Cuba, you rarely see black women. In popular culture in Cuba, the black female image is not an issue of misrepresentation; it is an issue of non-existence.

It was not until I went to Cuba, in my brown skin, that I learned what it felt like to be black and Cuban. Discrimination in Cuba caused me to leave the room I was renting because of maltreatment. I was turned away for services at hotels, and people ignored me completely in the street when I was talking to them.  

When I met that little girl, my eyes burned with tears because I had gone for weeks in Cuba, questioning why I felt I had been strong enough to come to Cuba alone and conduct research on the one thing that almost nobody in Cuba wants to talk about: race. 

The next time I saw the little girl I took a photo of her. When I look at the photo now, it is chilling. In it, I see myself. She is nervous, unsure, self -conscious. I see the journey that black women go through to find a level of comfort in their skin and their identities. She did not smile. She stared. She questioned me. I had thought of policy on a larger scale before I went to Cuba, in an effort to examine solutions to racial inequalities. But I have learned that the politics of race in Cuba are personal. How do we break the racism that is within the heart and mind?

If this little girl lived anywhere else, maybe I could call her. Or maybe I could email her, send her a letter and be sure that it would arrive at her address. But I am American, and she is Cuban. Her family relies on a phone in the neighborhood for calls, and her parents have no way for me to contact them without it. For now, her name remains to be a mystery to me, but her impact is profound.


  1. I love this. That little girl is beautiful!!!

  2. Wow Amberly this was beautifully written. Even though you don't remember her name, I am glad you two crossed paths. I am sure she will forever be positively impacted by the encounter. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great piece Amberly! I had no idea of the depth of racism that persists in Cuba until reading this.

  4. Awww girl, I can't I tell you how much you inspire me! This actually reminded me of an experience I had while in the Dominican Republic. I was giving a presentation to some high schoolers about the importance of the civil rights movement. At the end, I asked the audience what lessons could we learn from these leaders and their experiences. A girl seated almost at the very back of auditorium stood right up and in a piercing voice that I will never forget said, "Yo soy una negra orgullosa..." There was a moment of silence, and then the crowd erupted in applause. Having studied the Black Power movement, it wasn't like it was the first time I had heard that phrase. But for some reason, in Spanish, in that room, in that moment, it felt like the first time again. It was an experience that I will never forget. Your curiosity and thirst for knowledge and understanding makes the sky the limit for you hun... very proud of you!

  5. Wow, this is veryyyy beautiful. I am extremely touched by this and all that you do. You are inspiring to say the least. I pray to be able to do the same when the time is right <3.


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