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The teacher had pronounced an unfamiliar word: "Dajabón ..." It was the name of a village far from where I lived. This was in the class called "Geography of the Nation," and referred to a place on the border between the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Haiti, both situated on the island of Hispaniola or Santo Domingo, one of the Caribbean's Greater Antilles.
The teacher spoke monotonously. He didn't know his country. He was from an illustrious family in the capital and had never been to "those villages." The inhabitants of the capital spoke contemptuously of "those villages" in their own land. Limited to their small colonial city, rife with rancid prestige, they were proud of the fundamentally antinational urban landscape that separated them from the other provinces, villages, and territories. In his tastes, the teacher was a foreigner. In short, an important man of the capital who read the Times and exotic magazines about sports, art, and fashion. "This is civilization!" he would say, as he thumbed through those foreign magazines. But those villages ... "Those villages must be unbearable ..." And a disagreeable expression would come to his thin lips, all of him so like a confessor figure, a frustrated priest. "Those villages, out there ..." (he was referring to faraway villages with their gray, centuries-old images, beached like broken-down boats upon their landscapes of hills or plains; like old trees that never move, always in a place of honor). Those villages, their histories heroic and yellow with age.
The teacher wasn't interested in anything about those villages.
"Dajabón ...!" The strange name intrigued me, and I wondered what that faraway bit of our territory across from Haiti was like.
WE STUDENTS, children of the rich, lived behind thick and useless white walls; that flat architecture Spain left its poor colony, with neither palaces nor ostentation, no mines or loadbearing Indians. A miserably poor colony that ended up living off the famous handout sent by Mexico. They say our grandparents spent their days looking out to sea, waiting for the galleons that would arrive with wages and aid for the miserable colony. Despite all that, after centuries we became an ostensibly free country, and I and my provincial compatriots, sons of landowners and wealthy merchants, were far removed from it all: from the nation, its dramas; far removed, in short, from Dominican life. Our only interests were Sunday soccer, baseball, tennis. And, above all, we received our instruction from a sonorous authority: the schoolmaster's whistle calling us to order. San Roman School. A tranquil high-society life, like that of the sugar barons on our eastern haciendas.
My father had vast sugarcane fields. I didn't know their landscape, nor the barracks where the black field hands lived, nor the harshness of their sun. I knew nothing of what was inside those sad low shacks.
In my town, I had seen the broad port, profuse with foreign ships that carried sugar to distant lands. I saw the dirty laborers, men who sang sad melodies in the port at dusk, when modern electric lighting illuminated the young and restless city. They seemed like another class of men to me. Their hardness made them repulsive. Still, I watched as they loaded the ships with sugar. Like a child looking through a book with grotesque drawings of strong and dangerous animals.
Back then, sugar was earning astronomical prices on the international market. In the fields, the stalks of cane rose proud, higher than the men who cultivated them. Automobiles and laughter also existed in my town. People chewed gum, spoke English, played tennis, and then frequented the movie houses or exclusive clubs where parties were held. I remember the waltzes at those parties, and the gentlemen's ostentatious manners: the rich merchants of my town. Sometimes, in the middle of a party, the sound of winches and hoarse foghorns of ships could be heard coming from the nearby port. At other times, one could hear the trains that carried sugar to that port. The trains belonging to North American companies ran right through the city, as if it was just another North American hacienda. The street bore a pedestrian name: Locomotive Avenue.
NOW, IN OUR SCHOOL'S refined atmosphere, our consciences were being shaped by a sophisticated teacher, full of vacuous courtesy and lacking any nationalist sense. Look at him there: all measured and refined, like in the stores. His luxurious Sun King's mane, his well-trimmed moustache, always wearing an out-of-style black suit, like a prior's wimple, his surname sonorously colonial. Princely salesman in a gray shell. He spoke slowly and ceremoniously. We thought he must be afraid of everyone, dead and alive. Afraid of governments most of all.
That morning in National Geography class — always a nightmare for him — he spoke about the Dominican Republic's border and said, "Yes, my children, yes ...! The border is here ... [and he pointed with his thick finger]. Here there is a river named El Masacre ... right across from Haiti." (I watched his thick fingers and carefully cared-for hands that had never swung an ax or handled a horse's bridle.)
BUT THE WEALTH OF the Antilles isn't something mastered here. It is managed on foreign stock exchanges. On these Caribbean islands, where the economy is based on sugar planted and harvested by black labor, there are some astonishing surprises. There, not here, the prices of our products are determined, which means that there, not here, the price of our labor is calculated. Wall Street's market! Pricing court supreme! Roulette wheel that makes a man rich or condemns him to misery.
Our people, who love the sun, approve. A winning ticket and up we go! A losing ticket and we're done for!
And we, the happy inhabitants of Macorís del Mar, had lost at sugarcane poker!
The brilliant and sunny landscape of my town turned gray and nostalgic. Farewell to the exotic sailors, blonde and drunk, who overflowed the port and its dives. Farewell to the smoke from giant factories. Only memories remained, and isolation.
The jovial city had been transformed. Daggers of hunger pierced the heart of my town, which had seemed like a big gangly and sporting young man, like the Yankee student with his history of machinery, ships, sugar, and blacks as frenetic as the cranes in the port. It's true. We'd lost at sugarcane poker.
Now, after the pause imposed by my father's death, and besieged by economic penury, I went to the old capital to enter the university and pursued my study of the law.
When he died, there were only a few coins left with which to cover the final obligation, that of his burial. We paid for it without asking for help from friends.
How did it happen? Our family wealth, in money, sugarcane fields, and haciendas, had evaporated. My father had decided to pay even his most insignificant debt, to give everything to his creditors, even our ancestral home, the wealthy mansion where we were born. All that was left of our yesterday was my father's unanimous fame in the mouths of bankers, usurers, merchants, and above all the poor. Everyone said he had been "the town's most honorable man."
I returned home to a loneliness, a sad almost macabre tranquility, circumscribed by my mother's expressions and prayers. And then the landscape of the town itself: flat, gray, miserable.
MY REFUGE IS THE tavern favored by the workers of Santa Barbara, in the rundown hotel belonging to Teodora Jáquez, a black woman who is half matchmaker, half holy woman and always mindful of the pain of others. A poor tavern frequented by a few provincial students but mainly workers, men from the port and the factories, who show up tired, with the urge to shout and accuse, but who remain silent.
In Santo Domingo, expressing one's thoughts is prohibited. We are allowed to speak only if we are going to praise the President. At the bar, my country's basest words: the lewd story, the high-pitched libidinous songs of the Caribbean, and the broad white smiles of blacks and mulattos, strong as bulls. Most, landless peasants or owners of some small parcel in litigation, talked about their rights and looked for unknown grandfathers, swallowed by years, from whom they might inherit. None of them work the land. They are all selling it. And, a last resort, the port. These are my café companions: ex-peasants. Now they are stevedores, watchmen, idiots of every vice, especially alcohol, which consumes everything they earn. The tavern is picturesque: the latest song, the ghostly prostitute retired and reduced to begging now, the waiter who greets us with hey or with what's up because he does not understand the meaning of respect or courtesy. And in the corner, the students' pale faces.
We students talked and dreamed. Of what? Our future, the nation's problems, the country's social situation. We had to do this discreetly, for fear of being denounced, which commonly meant death. Illusions, hopes ...!
I COULDN'T PAY THE taxes that would have enabled me to obtain my degree. Everyone else had been able to do so. I saw even the most ignorant of my classmates become the head of some important law firm. Despite my brilliant academic grades, I walked the streets, looking for someone who might take pity and give me the few pesos I needed to get my degree and pass the bar. There was no one. I thought then — and still think — this is a land without gentlemen.
I went out into the plaza. There was a political debate going on. Everyone talked politics. Everyone unanimously praised the President. I thought one of those gentlemen might be able to help me. I remembered that my friend, a well-known poet, had introduced me to one of those important individuals. The generous man listened to me with a kindness uncommon among the emissaries of power in this country. He gave me hope. I should wait until he was able to arrange for my entrance into the judicial service. Then I would be able to take a seat on the tribunal of Santo Domingo or one of the provinces, in Macorís del Mar, for example. It might also happen that the powers that be, who didn't know me, could arrange for me to go to some remote village.... Who was I, after all ...? A young and unknown lawyer!
The truth is, politics is a thing of chance, a deck of cards. And the cards didn't favor me. The order came: go to Dajabón, the remote village across from Haiti, which that effeminate teacher had described in my childhood as some nondescript place.
SO HERE YOU HAVE ME, in a battered old car heading toward Dajabón. An old model — naturally — because no one would send a new car to such a desert habitat. Only remains of cars and remains of men travel to such places. Failed bureaucrats, lesser types, second-class teachers, tired old lawyers, in short, the system's leftovers. That's where I'm going. What will become of me ...?
AFTER SANTIAGO, A SUNNY HIGHWAY. Sad towns, and dry. Here, I thought, one would have to investigate life by means of secondhand equations. Skinny children, like ghosts. Algebraic goats. Low brown shacks made from cane. Sun, sun, sun! Everything beaten down by the sun. Turns in the asphalt now. Some crosses in a local shrine. And at last! The old and beloved sea.
When I asked the driver the name of the town, he said: "Monte Cristy." A sleepy town by the sea.
This had been the tragic site of our battles for emancipation and civil wars. I notice its formal yet attractive landscape, its friendly people who still know how to smile, and I think about their history, from the sixteenth-century exoduses ordered by Don Antonio de Osorio to frustrated commerce with the "heretics" who violated the prohibitions of the judgments of Santo Domingo and the mandates of the king. It was just about there that I felt like nodding off, as the car continued on its way. (My destiny was farther on, still deeper into the countryside.)
More isolation. The distance begins to impose itself upon my spirit. I sense the border, that land that none of the so-called wise men of my country know, only my country's soldiers — the "guards" — and barefoot laborers with neither shoes nor conscience.
DAJABÓN AT LAST!
A village of cane toasted by the island's strongest sun. Straw-colored town with an indigenous imprint, its three empty and drowsy streets ending at the banks of El Masacre, where the people wash their clay-covered feet.
Is no one here ...? Only a few souls. Almost all have fled. Here people have been emigrating since colonial times. I see frightened blacks, mute mouths.
A park, with robust laurel trees, like the hungry strapping sons of the town peddler. And ... silence.
What happens in Dajabón ...?
"The Cutting" was going on then. The Cutting ...! What did that even mean ...? No one had bothered to explain it to me. Not even the innkeeper herself. Later I would learn everything.
Today the old mail car brought an extra package. It was me! I was destined for the village Court of Law.CHAPTER 2
I didn't know about the depressive power my country's savannah had upon one's spirit. I have traveled the length and breadth of it, the last boundary of the old Marién holding. I have roamed like a dead man through the final days of my judgeship. I traveled those brown-gray scrublands where the cow abandoned by its owner grazes day after day on hard bristly grass, tenacious beneath the sun, the maicoté. It left me with a bitter and mystical taste of sorrow. I felt numbed and sad.
Sad cows — why did the cows seem so sad? — maicoté and sun. There are no more Haitian laborers now. Ever since Captain Windbag started "the Cutting," the Haitians have disappeared. The Cutting! What trembling and terror I saw on more than one thick mulatto lip, in more than one combination of ambiguous sounds made in an effort to speak good Spanish, to demonstrate that the person speaking was Dominican!
"The Cutting ..." You might as well say the Exodus. What afternoons of dust and sun! And long nights. (Night stretched out as if to aid and abet the crime. Awake in my bed, I longed for dawn. But dawn didn't come. Night was endless, overwhelming me.)
The Captain drank and drank and drank. And the savannah was huge, immense. All the dead fit on the savannah.
"Sargeeeennt ...! Sargent Pío ..."
"Here, my Captain!"
The Captain staggered as he spoke; he was drunk. He made an effort in his drunkenness, and in the dark realm of his mind a red light appeared, like a bloody sun. Trying hard, he answered the greeting and told the Sargent:
"I just receive a serio order. The government say cut the throat of every mañese we find. They no respect order, what the hell. We burn 'em live. Eh ...! Sargento ...! It's Captain Windbag talking! A drink! Anyone you find, bring 'em in! Understand! We gonna burn 'em live ...!"
Captain Windbag couldn't bear the weight of the tragedy he'd been given. He was charged with painting that whole countryside red, prairie and hills. In assuming his role as Attila, he took to the bottle. Killing thousands! Old people, children, women ... Why? He didn't know. It was an "order."
At one point, he remembered that his grandfather was born in Haiti ...! And he downed almost half a bottle of rum. His lips still trembled, and he gazed out over the savannah like an idiot.
ANTA AND OLD SURIEL are one and the same. But Anta is more poetic. Anta on the banks of El Masacre, where she washes and sings. Breasts as hard as the almonds of the arroyo. Hips like one of the mules at the agricultural farm. Orchestra of sweets, supple ass, and a deep voice heard singing on the banks of the river.
Captain Pirulí say he'll be comin' tonight....
Leave the door open and his shirt wash' ...
This is the Dominican side of the river. El Masacre, a small river that separates two countries.
Marcelle at that small river, El Masacre. Marcelle washes and looks suspiciously across to the other side. Marcelle, the Haitian woman. It seems she's still afraid.
Suunsuá ... Suunsuá, papá ...
Marcelle, the Haitian. Escaped from the Cutting. She's washing in El Masacre, that small international river. Beside Marcelle is the mangy dog, Pití. A Haitian dog, a runner, a fugitive, light as the dry chachá leaf.
Since her escape, Marcelle hasn't heard from her parents. The Sargent, from the fort, said her father was a cattle thief. Marcelle the Haitian says nothing.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "You Can Cross the Massacre on Foot"
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Table of ContentsCover Foreword Story of a History Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31
What People are Saying About This
“Freddy Prestol Castillo's testimonial-novel, You Can Cross the Massacre on Foot, is a key text in understanding the thirty-one-year dictatorship of Trujillo and the little-known racist massacre that occurred in 1937, the slaughter of 10,000-40,000 Haitians who found themselves on the wrong side of the border. (The total is still under debate—as corpses cannot report on casualties, many of them thrown in the sea.) Had it not been for an American journalist, Quentin Reynolds, who reported on the massacre in Collier's Magazine, the world might not have known about this atrocity. Even so, international attention was focused on Europe and the rumors and rumbles of the oncoming war. The Trujillo regime repressed all reporting, so the massacre was never officially or sufficiently addressed or redressed. Until the publication of Prestol Castillo's novel thirty-six years later in 1973, no Dominican writer dared tackle this atrocity. The value of Prestol Castillo's book is its basis in the eyewitness reporting of the author who at the time of the massacre was a judge stationed at the border. Troubling and eye-opening, the novel displays the origins of such genocides and the complicity of all those who remain silent. It's why the telling of the story is so important, as we consider the pervasive racism and violence towards others that persists throughout our hemisphere and within our own borders. Margaret Randall turns her considerable talent and compassionate imagination to a translation of this work, continuing in the footsteps of Quentin Reynolds and her own trajectory as author-translator-activist who has spent a lifetime giving voice to the silenced stories of our América. Her work has been instrumental in introducing many North American readers to our neighbors to the south, their history, literature, and struggles.”
“Freddy Prestol Castillo's account of the 1937 massacre, which effectively conveys the horror of the raw violence of slaughter and the claustrophobic fear so very characteristic of life under the Trujillo regime, is a provocative read.”