June 9, 2019

Here is the fifth in our series of columns by pilgrims reflecting on our trip to the Dominican Republic, March 29-April 7. Today's reflections come from St. Joseph parishioner, Jared Perez.

In the Dominican Republic, I visited two regions with drastically different climates ranging from hot sunny days in the lowlands, to cool foggy nights high up in the mountains. While the climates varied between the two regions, as well as the crops they harvested, the commonality was the people working the fields. During our prep meetings we learned about the Dominican Republic’s history and social issues surrounding migrant workers and their rights. It was interesting to see first-hand that not much has changed from decades of oppression. Similar to the U.S., the majority of the country’s agricultural labor comes from the neighboring border country. In their case, it is Haiti. It is not surprising that most people emigrate to the DR from Haiti, as it is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and most people are seeking a better life with livable wages. I came to realize that the issues immigrants face in the DR are no different than here in the U.S.

Two of the places we visited, Batey Libertad and Batey Dos, are home to many immigrants. Some of them have been living in the DR for decades, supporting the local economy, yet are still not considered legal residents. Through the various discussions with locals, we learned that the process of obtaining citizenship is very subjective and could take years to complete. Others living in the towns are migrant workers passing through seeking a safe place to stay while they earn a wage. In these towns the government often comes through and conducts sweeps, deporting people who are in the country illegally or who they presume are there illegally.

We also traveled to the border town of Dajabon, possibly thousands of people pass between the two countries twice a week to trade goods in a market type setting. However, we witnessed first-hand that not everyone makes it through from Haiti to the DR to sell goods. We saw some people pass through the guarded checkpoint and others turned around for no apparent reason. People leaving the DR going to Haiti did not seem to be subjected to the same level of scrutiny. It was hot, crazy and claustrophobic to say the least. But to the locals, this was the way of life.

One experience that stood out to me was on our way back from Dajabon where we passed through several arbitrary check points along the main highway that leads to the big city. We were traveling with friends from the Batey, all legal residents, who were all of Haitian descent, so naturally dark in complexion. At one of the checkpoints we were stopped, and the “guard” proceeded to open our van door. He glanced over our group and narrowed in on the two darkest people in the van. He asked them to show him proof of citizenship, to which they replied casually in Spanish, “What proof do you need?” The interrogation ended at that, and we could only suspect that in hearing their response, he caught an accent that was not of someone coming fresh from Haiti. It seemed like this was not the first time our friends were subjected to this type of treatment. Being a person of color, I have faced minor occurrences of racial discrimination before, but I never picked up on these micro-aggressions until after the fact. In this instance, not being the person subjected to it, it was very obvious what was going on and disheartening to witness firsthand.

The experiences, things I witnessed and stories I heard in the DR leave me yearning to learn more about other cultures and the social issues they face. It has also galvanized my desire to understand more about the social justice issues in my local community. One way I can accomplish this here at St. Joe’s is by volunteering with established partnerships that focus on these issues.