Shape-Shifting and Storytelling in Hispaniola


Peggy McInerny (UCLA International Institute) writes about historian Robin Derby and her research on Hispaniola and its folklore.The bacá (baka in Haitian Kreyol) — spirit demons that can transform themselves and humans into animals — are present throughout the island of Hispaniola, but interpreted differently in Haiti and the Dominican Republic,” says UCLA historian Robin Derby about her current research. Here are excerpts; read full article at UCLA International Institute.

“I was walking around during market day in the central frontier of the Dominican Republic and hearing about people who had encounters with animals that were not animals,” recounts UCLA Associate Professor of History Robin Derby about the inspiration for book she is writing on tales of the bacá (baka in Haitian Kreyol) — spirits that can transform themselves and humans into animals.

Derby, who became director of the newly created Program on Caribbean Studies of the UCLA Latin American Institute in 2016, is a social historian of the Caribbean, particularly the island of Hispaniola — where both the Dominican Republic (DR) and Haiti are located. “I didn’t know if these animals were enchanted or diabolical — because they flip!” she continues. “At first, I thought that this was an enchanted idea of nature, but then I realized that these are really scary spirit demons. They can harm you and make you sick.”

Her book, says the UCLA historian, attempts to explain an important form of storytelling in Haiti and the Dominican Republic about sorcery that turns people into animals. And it seeks to interpret this tradition of storytelling within the context of the peculiar animal history of the island. “Because the feral animal commons on the island once enabled people to survive outside of slavery, I think there is a kind of nostalgia that has made these stories culturally important because they conjure a space of freedom that not everyone in the Caribbean had,” she says.

[. . .] Although her work on the bacá began a decade ago, Derby’s roots in the central borderlands of the Dominican Republic go back to 1989, when she and fellow Caribbeanist Richard Lee Turits, conducted oral histories of people who had survived the 1937 massacre of Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. A collection of articles on the topic written by the two scholars at the time will soon be published in Haiti as «Terreur à la frontière: le massacre des Haïtiens en République dominicaine en 1937» (Port-au-Prince, Haiti: C3 Editions, forthcoming).

The UCLA historian’s interest in the region spans Latin American political regimes, authoritarianism, U.S. imperialism and popular culture, as reflected in her published books, articles and book chapters. Derby’s monograph, “The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo” (Duke, 2009), for example, describes the lived experience of the Trujillo dictatorship (1903–61) in the Dominican Republic, particularly the ways in that regime extended the domination of the state into civil society via ritual, gossip, gift exchange and witchcraft. [. . .] Derby’s other works include the volumes, “The Dominican Republic Reader” (Duke, 2014), co-edited with Eric Roorda and Raymundo González, and “Activating the Past: Historical Memory in the Black Atlantic” (Cambridge Scholars, 2010), co-edited with Andrew Apter.  [. . .]

Derby’s work on the bacá (a word most likely derived from the Spanish word for cow, vaca) has proven a gateway to understanding spiritual beliefs in Hispaniola and their reflection of the island’s long history. Essentially, says Derby, the bacá are a kind of “sent spirit” — a form of sorcery — who can be used to make someone sick. “Haitians talk about zombies as ‘sent spirits,’” she notes, “and in that sense, they are just like the bacá. It’s a spirit that you trap from someone who has died and you can use it to make something happen, to make money, or even to, say, make a husband stop fooling around,” she explains.

Derby has spent a decade conducting archival research and collecting extensive oral histories about the bacá in the central borderlands of Dominican Republic and in Haiti. Unlike Cuba, little has been written about spiritual beliefs of the Dominican Republic, she explains, and most scholars of the region work on either Haiti and Dominican Republic, but not both.

“Work on the bacá has mostly been done in Haiti,” she says. “No one has really thought about how Dominicans think about or contend with these spirits, because writing on the subject has always cast it as a Haitian issue. But spirits don’t know borders.” [. . .]

For full article, see

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