The adjacent countries of the Dominican Republic and Haiti share an island – as well as a troubling history that has influenced the Western Hemisphere, from as far north as Canada to southern Argentina.
“The island is for me the birth of our racial caste system across the Americas,” according to Michele Stephenson, whose documentary “Stateless” premieres this weekend at the Tribeca Festival and will air on PBS in July.
“This is where the first Europeans arrived, where the first Africans arrived, where the first genocide took place, and the racial caste system manifests itself on the island before spreading throughout the hemisphere,” Stephenson, of Panamanian and Haitian descent, told NBC. New.
“Stateless” follows Rosa Iris Diendomi, a young Dominican lawyer and immigration advocate of Haitian descent, as she struggles to run for Congress in the Dominican Republic.
The documentary, also known for its Spanish title “Apátrida”, shows Diendomi as she visits sugarcane towns known as “bateyes”, home to many Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. It presents the struggles of a widely exploited group that were disenfranchised nearly a decade ago, when the Dominican Supreme Court retroactively removed citizenship from many Dominicans of undocumented Haitian parents, even those born in Haiti. Dominican Republic.
The decision left more than 200,000 people of Haitian descent without nationality, according to the documentary. Although the government, under international pressure, took steps in 2014 to allow children born in the Dominican Republic and some others to apply for citizenship, thousands of people have been deported from the Dominican Republic, many with petitions. valid Dominican citizenship.
“The court’s conviction is a reflection of a country which, despite its mixed racial identity, refuses to accept anything to do with its African origins,” Diendomi told NBC News.
Throughout her unsuccessful congressional candidacy, Diendomi was littered with threats against her life and that of her son, forcing her to ultimately flee the country. Since taking refuge in the United States, Diendomi has worked with Stephenson to use the film as an opportunity to engage community groups and international organizations on issues of anti-black racism and migration.
On camera, Stephenson links the racial tensions of the island’s past to the current racial politics of the Dominican Republic.
The tragic story of a dark-skinned young girl named Moraime ends the film. Her life is told in voiceover, as viewers see other children in the bateyes and sugar cane fields. It describes the Perejil massacre in 1937 which executed thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic.
“On a dark October night, Moraime had to hide,” Diendomi recounts in a voiceover. “Dictator Trujillo has decided to whitewash the race and settle the so-called Haitian problem. He murdered many of them, including Moraime’s mother, because of the color of their skin.
An Associated Press article published by the New York Times on December 8, 1937 reported that Haitian President Sténio Vincent had accused “8,000 Haitians of having been victims of” mass murders “on Dominican territory since October. The article also said that the Dominican State Department dismissed Haitian reports of the murders as fantasies.
More than 80 years later, the film shows footage of Dominican President Danilo Medina (who served from 2012 to 2020) denying accusations of racism against Haitians.
“How can the Dominican Republic be a racist country when more than 80% of our population is made up of blacks and mulattoes? How can we accuse Dominicans of being racist towards Haitians when they live and cohabit with us all over our country? he said.
The former Dominican president also reportedly denied that Dominicans of Haitian origin were targeted and stripped of their citizenship.
“The number of stateless people in the Dominican Republic is zero,” he said.
Beyond physical and political borders
Despite the racial tensions that have existed on the island since Spanish and French colonial rule, Stephenson hopes Dominicans and Haitians can look back on their history to transcend the physical and political borders that divide their countries.
On the east side of the island, when Dominicans brag about Santo Domingo, they can proudly say that it is the oldest European city in the Americas – founded in 1496, over 100 years older than Jamestown (1607) – and that the city grid has become the model for many future cities in Latin America.
Dominicans can also claim that Thomas Aquinas University in Santo Domingo is the oldest in the hemisphere – founded in 1538, almost 100 years before Harvard University (1636).
And on the west side of the island, Haitians can also defend the fact that their country was second behind the United States to gain independence. But Stephenson pointed out that Haiti is in fact the first and only successful slave revolt against a colonial power.
“It’s not just the fact that it’s the second country to gain independence from this hemisphere after the United States. But this is the only ever successful revolt of enslaved people – blacks who were slaves defeated Napoleon’s army, ”the filmmaker said. “And the Haitian Revolution does not even get the credit that should be given alongside the American and French revolutions because of the invisibility of the history of resistance.
It should also be noted that Haitian independence played a role in the success of the first Latin American democracy, offering el gran libertador (the great liberator) Simón Bolívar refuge and support in his struggle against the Spanish Empire.
Stephenson and Diendomi both agreed that more conversations about race needed to take place to break the cycle of discrimination.
“I think there is a historical reality where people have been educated to think or inherited the belief that there are inferior people based on their origin or race,” Diendomi said. “And both in the United States and beyond, when we see the struggle of other marginalized groups, we see the same cycle repeating itself. It is a race based struggle.
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Nicole acevedo contributed.