Seventy five years ago, thousands of Haitians were murdered in the Dominican Republic by a brutal dictator. It was one of the 20th Century’s least-remembered acts of genocide, as Mark Memmott reports for NPR.
As many as 20,000 people are thought to have been killed on orders given by Rafael Trujillo. But the “parsley massacre” went mostly unnoticed outside Hispaniola. Even there, many Dominicans never knew about what happened in early October 1937. They were kept in the dark by Trujillo’s henchmen.
This week, people from around the world are expected to gather in the Dominican Republic for a “Border of Lights” commemoration that aims to “honor a tragedy long forgotten, and unknown to many people.”
Writer and Middlebury College professor Julia Alvarez, the daughter of Dominicans and someone who lived there as a child, said on Tell Me More today that the killings must be acknowledged and testified to. “We can’t change the present of the future unless we acknowledge what has happened,” she told guest host Celeste Headlee. “There’s no place on this planet anymore where that should be happening. It’s time that the people themselves say … ‘that’s enough.’ ”
Trujillo, as the Border of Lights website explains, fed and nurtured anti-Haitian sentiment and created an atmosphere that still excludes ethnic Haitians from becoming part of “the Dominican melting pot.”
The method his soldiers used in 1937 to try to identify those who would be killed was cruelly unique. When confronting someone in the lands along the border with Haiti, they would hold up a sprig of parsley and ask what it was. If the person responded by trilling the “r” in perejil (Spanish for parsley), he would be free to go. Anyone who didn’t trill the “r” was thought to be a Haitian Creole speaker — and was likely to be killed.
On Tell Me More, Alvarez and Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat demonstrated the slight difference in speech that cost many people their lives. Danticat’s book The Farming of Bones tells the terrible tale of the 1937 massacre “through the eyes of a young domestic servant.” She was among the 2009 winners of a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”
As for Trujillo, he stayed in power until 1961, when he was assassinated. Last year, the BBC spoke with one of the army officers who killed the dictator. “The only way to get rid of him was to kill him,” Gen. Antonio Imbert told the BBC.
October marks 75 years since a dark period in the Dominican Republic’s history. In 1937, President Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ordered the execution of thousands of ethnic Haitians. Guest host Celeste Headlee discusses the “Parsley Massacre” with two noted authors, one Dominican and one Haitian: Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat.
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I’m Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we talk to Keija Minor about becoming the first African-American editor-in-chief of a Conde Nast publication, Brides magazine.
But first, it’s been 75 years since a dark and nearly forgotten period in the history of the Dominican Republic. In October of 1937, then president, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ordered the execution of thousands of ethnic Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. It came to be known as the Parsley Massacre.
The two nations share the island of Hispaniola and a long and very stormy history of mistrust. Here to talk about the massacre and what some people are doing to bridge the cultural divide – two authors, one Dominican, one Haitian. Julia Alvarez is the author of the novel, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” and most recently, “A Wedding in Haiti.” And Edwidge Danticat, the author of the novel, “The Farming of Bones,” and more recently, “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.”
Welcome to both of you.
JULIA ALVAREZ: Thank you.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you for having us.
HEADLEE: Julia, we want to talk about Trujillo first. He ruled your country for decades, but many in this country may not have heard of him. Let’s take a listen here. This is a clip that announces his assassination in 1961.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A 31 year reign of terror and bloodshed comes to an end in the Dominican Republic as dictator Rafael Trujillo is shot down by seven assassins. His victims were numbered in the tens of thousands during his iron-fisted rule of the island nation, a rule which created fabulous wealth for a few and the grimmest of poverty for the majority. He ruled by the gun and died by the gun.
HEADLEE: So, Julia, tell us a little bit about this man and his importance in your country.
ALVAREZ: Wow, that just gave me goose bumps to hear that. Of course, we were elated. We were already in New York, but, you know, this was 31 years of an oppressive, bloody dictatorship and killed thousands of Dominicans and you’ve already brought up the Haitian massacre, a shameful atrocity that his soldiers committed. And they used bayonets to make it look like a popular uprising against the Haitian invader, but it was a military order to kill all Haitians.
HEADLEE: Well, Edwidge, let’s talk about this from your side of the border. You’ve done a great deal of research about the Parsley Massacre. Can you explain to us what happened? And how is it remembered by Haitians?
DANTICAT: Well, the time of the massacre was a spread of Nazism throughout Europe and Trujillo was a great admirer, it turned out, of Hitler. And so there was an attempt with this massacre to try to whiten the Dominican Republic and reduce the Haitian influence there, so thousands and thousands of people, as Julia just mentioned, were killed. It’s also called El Corte, the cutting.
And, from our side, unfortunately, people – my generation, even older – did not really know about this massacre. It’s not something we heard about. It wasn’t in the history books, I think, in part because it was a shame, this sort of collaboration among the elites of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. And this was basically done to a lot of poor people, so there was a silence about it over time.
HEADLEE: Edwidge, can you explain to us why it’s called the Parsley Massacre?
DANTICAT: It’s called the Parsley Massacre because a sprig of parsley was held in front of people and they were asked to say the word, perejil. And you can see by the way I’m saying it that I would not have made it and there is a difference between the way Dominicans and Haitians trill the R and certain linguistic differences, so it was a giveaway, a test.
HEADLEE: Well, let me hear it. You say the word again, Edwidge.
HEADLEE: And, Julia?
ALVAREZ: Perejil. We trill the R and the Haitian Creole has a wide, flat R pronunciation, although it’s pretty good.
DANTICAT: Ours is – I guess it would be like – more like a W, where…
ALVAREZ: Like perejil.
DANTICAT: Yeah. Perejil. Yeah.
ALVAREZ: Perejil. And we would say, perejil.
HEADLEE: That R was the difference between life and death.
ALVAREZ: My goodness, exactly, because there were Dominicans, dark-skinned Dominicans, who were massacred and many of them with Haitian backgrounds and that was the litmus test because, of course, Haitians would also say, but I’m really Dominican, so how would you pronounce this little sprig of green?
DANTICAT: That also shows, I think, how much people had blended, that you needed this kind of differential, that you needed them to open their mouths and speak before you could tell them apart.
HEADLEE: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We’re taking a look back at the massacre of thousands of Haitians that took place 75 years ago in the Dominican Republic. Our guests are the authors, Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat.
As you say, Edwidge, there wasn’t a lot of reporting on the massacre. We looked back and tried to find some. There’s not a lot, but it ended up having a pretty big impact on the people, on the culture, the literature and even the poetry. We want to play you a piece of Rita Dove reading her poem, “Parsley.”
RITA DOVE: (Reading) El General has found his word: perejil. Who says it lives. He laughs, teeth shining out of the swamp. The cane appears in our dreams lashed by wind and streaming and we lie down. For every drop of blood, there is a parrot imitating spring. Out of the swamp, the cane appears.
HEADLEE: So that’s Rita Dove and you, of course, wrote a book, as well, “The Farming of Bones.” Why choose this as your subject matter and why approach it through fiction?
DANTICAT: Well, there’s a very strong element of testimonial, even in the poem, even in Julia’s work and other work that concerns this era, you know, this era of massacres through Trujillo and fiction and poetry, I think, is a way of bringing all these different voices into one voice in which you can tell so many different stories through a kind of testimonial that fiction and poetry and even song allows.
HEADLEE: Julia, your most recent book, “A Wedding in Haiti,” is actually a non-fiction. It talks about your visits to Haiti and it talks a lot about the cultural divide between the two countries. Some of that branches back to Trujillo. He banned any reference to Haitian culture. What kind of influence has that had on the relationship between the two people?
ALVAREZ: Well, as Edwidge pointed out, there’s been this enormous silence, so I grew up not knowing about this. It took coming to this country and connecting with Haitians and Haitian-Americans and with my own Dominican people that were here that I began to learn more and more of the history and I think that’s when this revulsion for something that had happened that had never been addressed or redressed properly filled me.
And, from way back, we started talking about doing this border gathering to commemorate and give voice and shine a light on that history because, even though it happened in the way past, that same massacre mentality is there to this day with the way that the human rights of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian origin are denied in the Dominican Republic. So it’s an important moment and it’s something that we of the diaspora can bring back and there are many people on the ground that are going to join us.
HEADLEE: You’re talking about the Border of Lights event, which is meant to commemorate the 75th…
HEADLEE: …anniversary of this massacre. So there’s Julia talking about how it was removed from the history books in the Dominican Republic. How about on your side of the border, Edwidge? Do Haitians – do Haitian children learn about this in their schools?
DANTICAT: Well, the thing is, you know, the Dominican Republic is probably Haiti’s biggest trading partner in all of these – you know, for a lot of border people, you can walk across and back and forth. As I mentioned, it’s not something that we talked about, but it was transmitted through all history. I had people in my family who went to work in the sugar cane in the Dominican Republic, and it is an atrocious situation that’s current. It’s not one of those situations where you say, this is over.
You know, but there are still things that, even as we come together to remember, the fact that people can be in the Dominican Republic for generations and not get a birth certificate and they can’t go to school and all, these things that are sort of part of the current migration, so the history sort of overshadows the present at the same time and there’s always a fear of repeats, which is why it’s so important when people come together to talk about the past, not just for the sake of talking about the past, but also to talk about how we can create a different future with what we know of the past.
HEADLEE: Is that the solution here, Julia? It’s been 75 years and yet you felt revulsion when you first learned about it. Does it require a real examination with a microscope of this massacre and what happened in order to kind of put it behind you?
ALVAREZ: Of course, it does. I mean, it requires us acknowledging it, giving testimony. One of the things we’re going to do during the Border of Lights gathering is have a kind of StoryCorps booth where people can tell their stories; what they knew of the massacre, if they heard anything from their families.
We can’t change the present or the future unless we acknowledge what’s happened and, also, you know, acknowledge some of the collaborations that have happened because we are – you know, I say that in “A Wedding in Haiti.” We’re – Haiti – when I went on those travels to Haiti, Haiti was the sister I never knew. You know, it was this other side, right on a small island, and it was kept out of my history books and out of our stories, and this is something that I think there’s no place on this planet anymore where that should be happening. It’s time that the people themselves – and this is why this is a people’s movement – say, that’s enough. And, you know, we have to do – we have to collaborate and we have to face the past.
HEADLEE: Julia Alvarez, novelist, poet, essayist. She’s also a writer in residence at Middlebury College and she joined us from their studios in Vermont. And Edwidge Danticat is also a writer. She joined us from Miami, Florida. Thanks to both of you.
DANTICAT: Thank you so much for having us.
ALVAREZ: Thank you so much.
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Click here to find a station that broadcasts Tell Me More.
For the original report on the story go to http://www.wwno.org/post/remembering-never-forget-dominican-republics-parsley-massacre
For the audio to the Program and the transcript go to http://www.npr.org/2012/10/01/162088692/dominicans-haitians-remember-parsley-massacre