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The Dominican Experiment
A Teacher and His Students Explore a Garbage Dump, a Sweatshop, and Vodou
By Michael D'Amato, George Santos
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2014 Michael D'Amato and George Santos
All rights reserved.
We Can Do So Much More
A buena hambre, no hay pan duro. (To the very hungry, there is no hard bread.)
"Write down the first three ideas that come to mind when you think about the Dominican Republic" was the Do Now on the chalkboard as my eighth-grade students took their seats, engaging in some last-minute horseplay before class began. When the bell rang, half of them were already busy writing, while the rest were either flipping to a clean page in their notebooks or searching for pens.
One minute into class, I read the Do Now aloud as a subtle prod to the last two distracted students. Since we hadn't discussed the Caribbean much at this point in the year, I asked for a volunteer to share one thought she had so far. A hand went up, but before she spoke, I told the class that I was going to write down my predictions of what their responses would be. (Feel free to play along.) When I finished my short list, I went back to the volunteer, and she shared "white sand beaches" with a proud smile.
When most students appeared done, because they were perusing their current events magazines, I headed back to my lectern and held up my paper with the following terms on it: "tropical paradise," "beautiful Caribbean beaches," "summer vacation." "Please raise your hand if you wrote down any of these words," I said. (You too, reader.) The students took the customary look around the room and, as they saw some vertical movement, more hands slowly rose—nearly 100 percent.
"Okay," I said. "Now, keep your hand up if you had more than one of my words on your list." About half of the hands remained up. My next question revealed my psychology background: "Why do you think I wanted everybody to share their thoughts on the Dominican Republic in this format?"
"Probably to prove us wrong," a student called out with a mischievous grin, and he was quickly rewarded with laughter. After fifteen years of teaching, I have grown comfortable enough to be myself in front of students, so I joined in with a smile.
"No. At least not this time," I said. "Actually, your answers were very accurate. The Dominican Republic, 'the country of endless summer,' is a beautiful tropical paradise with the most pristine beaches I have ever strolled." I gestured to a nearby photo of the country. "With New Jersey being a close second," I said with a grin. "Your answers were remarkable, but as is often said, there are two sides to every story. What do you think I mean by that?"
"I think it means that we have more work to do," another brave student called out.
(It took many years to create a casual climate in my classroom, which has earned the nickname "our sanctuary"—a place where students may express themselves without fear of repercussions from me or their peers. Considering that my longest class is 101 minutes, and considering the stress of a typical teenager's life, class is much more enjoyable and productive when students feel in charge of their own learning and are not forced to work on stale, prefabricated assignments.)
Getting back to the notion that there are two sides to every story, I asked the students for an example. "It's sort of like when you teach about war," one said. "All countries involved are convinced they are the good guys."
Finally, a straight answer. (See, we eventually arrive at our destination. I just prefer to take a more scenic route.) "Excellent connection!" I said. "So, then, why do most people only give romantic descriptions when they first think about the Dominican Republic?"
"The media!" a chorus of students sitting next to one another called out, and I smiled.
"What if I told you that when I think about the DR, as a social studies teacher, the first words that come to my mind are 'poverty,' 'prostitution,' and 'exploitation'?"
A student challenged me. "I thought you don't use the word 'prostitution.'"
"You are absolutely correct," I said. "I have tried to stop using that word after a conversation with my good friend Webster. When I consulted the dictionary, I noticed terms like 'immoral' and 'unworthy' were listed in defining 'prostitute,' which years ago would have been fine, but after meeting with women who are sex workers who educate the new generation on issues from abuse to disease, a shift in my thinking took place. My current classroom stance is to start with the word 'prostitute,' which is the more familiar term, then quickly switch over to 'sex worker,' which, for some, is a tougher phrase."
As the last words fell off my tongue, I suddenly felt that I might have gone too far. But I also thought that, as a teacher who constantly encourages his students to go outside their comfort zones on class assignments, I had to occasionally put myself out there. Of course, the students' gaping jaws were easy to translate: Mr. D'Amato had meetings with prostitutes?
The context was this: On my first visit to the Dominican Republic in 2007, on a social justice tour run by my colleague Kevin LaMastra, a man sin pelos en la lengua (without hair on the tongue; not scared to speak the truth), we met with a few workers from CEPROSH (Centro de Promoción y Solidaridad Humana, or the Center for Human Promotion and Solidarity) to gain a better understanding of the problems faced by a large number of women on the island, many of them minors. As part of Kevin's prep talk for this meeting, he referred to sex work as a "byproduct of globalization." Admittedly, I was quite skeptical of this particular event on our itinerary, which had us participating in an hour-long discussion led by the organization's program director, a health-care specialist, and a sex worker. My doubts grew when the CEPROSH employees displayed the graphic pages of the comic book Maritza, featuring a play-by-play encounter with a customer, and then a detailed flip chart they use to teach young women about the dangers of their profession, similar to what you were forced to watch during high school health class.
The only question I asked during the presentation was about the claim I had heard that, oftentimes, it was the sex workers' own parents who urged the young girls to take to the streets to earn money for the family. The professionals quickly debunked this myth, listing materialism followed by peer pressure as their top motivators. Surprisingly, the speakers made no mention of sex workers choosing the profession to provide a better future for their children. There appears to be a divide between those who believe sex workers choose the work primarily to support their families and others who claim they use that as an excuse to avoid stigma.
The workers reminded us several times during the meeting that sex work is legal under Dominican law, as long as "pimps" or minors are not involved. One bold teacher on our trip, moved by the CEPROSH meeting, actually went into a bordello and came out with photos of the colorful four-page menu the workers use to make it simple for tourists. She referred to it as the "McDonaldization of sex tourism."
During the workers' presentation, we learned that CEPROSH, which is well respected in the community, began in 1989 with three workers and now has more than one hundred serving more than twenty thousand women. All of its funding is international, with USAID being its main supporter. While the group has a medical laboratory at its home site to offer sex workers free STD testing, employees do most of their work at schools, bars, and bordellos, educating the women about disease prevention, discussing the myths versus realities of their occupation, and using role-play negotiations to ensure their safety. Since CEPROSH began its empowerment campaign, it claims the "level of violence against sex workers has significantly gone down." We learned from Sheila Calderon, the program director and outreach coordinator for CEPROSH, that they were able to make an agreement with the Dominican government that all rape cases would be referred to them.
Sheila, a charismatic Dominican looking dapper in her uniform white polo shirt with light blue tie casually knotted, went on to say that CEPROSH's biggest headache right now is that twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls are being pulled into sex work every day by older men who offer them cell phones, new clothes, and trips to the beauty salon. The organization distributes more than one million condoms annually and trains teenagers to work with high-risk peers, using musical acts and guerrilla theater to spread awareness and promote self-esteem.
CEPROSH's other major objective—in addition to the prevention of disease among youths and adolescents, with a focus on family planning—is dealing with HIV/AIDS patients. "It used to be tough to get an HIV test," a worker said. "Now they're free, and information and education are also provided." The worker ended her talk with a statement regarding those who choose to be sex workers: "One thing we're very proud of is that people's consciousness has changed, and their quality of life is constantly improving."
I believe my initial difficulty appreciating the mission of CEPROSH was mostly due to my rigid Catholic school upbringing. But the way Kevin designed the trip, with a thread connecting all of our activities and debriefing sessions making the connections clear, I was able to see that these women are products of their precarious environment—an environment that doesn't offer the plethora of viable opportunities that the United States does. That was the main word that kept resurfacing during our late-night poolside chats, as we tried to wrap our minds around the revelations of each day: "opportunities." The statistic I found most surprising was that sex workers actually have significantly lower rates of HIV/AIDS than do the other women on the island. From there, I was able to see their situations in a new light. The workers at CEPROSH also mentioned that 97 percent of the HIV-positive pregnant women to whom they provide medication go on to deliver healthy babies. I was blown away.
As our class dialogue picked up again, I noticed a few students who were Dominican giving me sour looks. I took the hint. "Before I continue, I feel the need to make a few things extremely clear," I said. "First off, I love the DR and think it is a remarkable country."
A student interrupted. "Then why are you saying so many bad things about us?"
"I see where you are coming from and am so glad you spoke up," I said. "I have had several students in the past make similar comments, and to that question I always reply that if I didn't love your country, I wouldn't have visited it ten times already.
"Taking a step back, you know I am a very critical person. Whether it's grading your papers, discussing politics, or comparing fine restaurants, I enjoy looking at things with a sharp eye. The same holds true when I visit another country. I have friends who are perfectly content sitting in a resort and being pampered for the entire week. I, on the other hand, learned very quickly that I am not the 'all-inclusive' type. During the first and only time I chose to stay at a resort, which cost seventy-five dollars a day for two of us, including all our meals and drinks, I felt totally disoriented and removed from the country. The food was actually quite good, and it was the same beautiful coastline as the beach I prefer a mile away. But one thing was glaringly missing: culture. There was no authenticity to the experience. A friend of mine recently came back from Aruba and said he much preferred his time in the DR because it was grittier. I love that word because it shows a respect for the tough stuff."
The students seemed to find my words sincere, but just in case a few were still on the fence, I offered a final analogy. "Think of your favorite sports team. You are probably very judgmental and outspoken when they have a bad game or make a terrible trade. Well, that's how it is for me when I think about countries and politics. I am very critical, but not less in love with 'my team.'
"So wrapping up today's Do Now: I love the DR—its people, the culture, and especially their food. In fact, there's nothing I would enjoy more than to be eating their flag right now." A few eyes lit up, while other students looked puzzled. I had a volunteer explain, with lip-smacking animation, that "the flag" is the nickname given to the traditional Dominican dish of meat (typically chicken, but sometimes beef, fish, goat, or pork), rice, and beans served numerous ways, typically with a salad. Her description led to a debate as to whether concón (the crunchy rice stuck at the bottom of the pot) is amazing or possibly the greatest thing ever. As that argument started to intensify, I decided to distract them by asking if anybody had ever eaten green chicken. Their looks of disgust disappeared once I explained that "green chicken" is the nickname given to avocado by poor families who have to use it in place of chicken in "the flag" to get their protein.
I finally tried to end the Do Now so we could move on with the lesson. "In conclusion," I said, "the DR is an amazing country but with setbacks that cause most of its people to struggle on a regular basis. Reality is that the average Dominican worker makes less than fifteen dollars a day. And while it's true that their cost of living is significantly lower than ours, most still live in poverty. Personally, I find it more interesting to learn about a country's multiple layers, and I believe people from the island feel the same way. Take, for example, the song 'El Niágara en Bicicleta' by Juan Luis Guerra. He likens the daily struggle to survive in the DR to crossing Niagara Falls on a bicycle."
* * *
Most of my experiences in the Dominican Republic have been through social justice tours run by Kevin LaMastra, my colleague and good friend. He's in his forties and has always reminded me of the lead singer of Green Day but with graying temples. Since Kevin performed at the old CBGB punk club in New York City and deejayed at New Jersey's grimy Fast Lane, I think the comparison fits. Late one night, while we were discussing influential films of our youth, he caught me off guard by mentioning a film I had never heard of called Billy Jack, about a Navajo Indian and Vietnam War veteran who sticks up for the community's at-risk and underappreciated students. He seemed disappointed when I said the hockey comedy Slapshot was my teenage favorite.
Kevin often talks about the "picture that started everything" with regard to his passion for social justice in the classroom. A local newspaper ran an article about Mexican day laborers who had been promised jobs and places to live before they came to the United States. The paper showed a photo of where one of the men slept—inside a cement mixer. The article led to a split in Kevin's community, because many people seemed appalled when church leaders and police brought the laborers sandwiches and coffee. That divide cost Kevin some valuable sleep.
Kevin and I have taught at the same school for a decade and a half, and we have partnered to run an extracurricular club, Friends Beyond Borders, for most of those years. Watching him expand the focus of the club—from learning about global issues, to organizing charity events, to bringing educators to a foreign country to befriend those living in extreme poverty, to getting our own students over there—has left me in awe.
Kevin has had a lifelong attraction to Caribbean culture. One of the first stories he ever shared with me was how, for his first time abroad in his late teens, he went to Montego Bay, Jamaica, for a reggae fair in 1982 with less than one hundred dollars in his pocket. When he arrived, his first mission was to find accommodations with a local family who could use the money. The money-changer brought Kevin, in his the Clash T-shirt, to a shantytown and introduced him to a family that tailored homemade dresses and had a jerk chicken stand in their front yard. He became a bit nervous when he noticed that their shower was just a PVC spout, but after the husband and wife graciously offered him their own bedroom and what would be his first taste of beer, Red Stripe, he knew he was in good hands.
The one thing in life Kevin is nearly as passionate about as global issues is music. In fact, I would wager that his favorite day of the year is the one during the student tour each summer when he rounds up the group to show off their musical chops at a random karaoke bar with more locals than Americans. Since my voice is weak, I sneak by with colorful limericks roasting the adults on our trip. It has become a tradition of his to take over the place and then lead several songs on a march back to our ride, which quickly turns into a party bus with loud beats, flashing lights, and aisle dancing.
Excerpted from The Dominican Experiment by Michael D'Amato, George Santos. Copyright © 2014 Michael D'Amato and George Santos. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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