By Thomas Zajac
“One Island, Two Worlds” describes the experience shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, both located on the one island in the Caribbean that is shared by two nations. Recently, the Dominican government has ruled to take citizenship away from all children of Haitian immigrants born after 1929. It is also the phrase that introduces the film Cristo Rey (2013), which recently made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The film is set in present-day Cristo Rey – a fictional slum in the Dominican Republic that is ruled by a gang leader. The main character, Janvier, is of both Haitian and Dominican descent (James Saintil, the actor who portrays him, is a Haitian who currently lives in the Dominican). In order to make money that he can send back to his mother in Haiti, he becomes a bodyguard for the gang leader’s daughter. He later falls in love with this girl in what is a classic element of cinema: a retelling of Romeo and Juliet.
Facts are not the main preoccupation with most historical films. Instead, they bring significant issues to our attention. These films motivate audiences to learn more about the issues portrayed on screen. This was particularly the case at TIFF, as Ron Deibert, a professor from the Munk School of Global Affairs, interviewed the cast about their experiences and the film’s political undertones after its screening.
Many of the current problems between Haiti and the Dominican Republic are based on the fact that millions of Haitians are currently living in the Dominican. Even though some of them were born in the DR, the police and the general public still mistreat them. They have been accused spreading cholera, taking jobs, and increasing crime. Cristo Rey is not the first film to deal with the issues experienced by Haitian migrants living in the Dominican Republic. The Price of Sugar (2007) is a documentary that shows how Haitian immigrants are exploited for the production of sugar. These films also speak to a recent policy by the Dominican government to crack down on Haitian immigrants, many of whom emigrated from Haiti because of continuing political instability and high unemployment.
Stories of immigration — and the issues that arise from it — are ones that many North American audiences can relate to. Yet the Dominican Republic and Haiti have a history of tension that existed long before the earthquake. The island of Hispanola was one of the first colonies of the Spanish Empire. It was later ceded to France during the French Revolutionary Wars 1795. During this period Toussaint L’Overture led a slave revolt, which led to the formation of Haiti (to date this is the only successful slave revolt). France still controlled the Spanish-inhabited portion of the island after Napoleon Bonaparte imprisoned Toussaint in France.
After Napoleon’s defeat in Europe in the early 1800s, the island returned to Spanish control, but Haitian forces succesfully attacked and controlled the territory, not for the first time. The Haitians imposed a heavy tax on the Dominican and nationalized most private property, both of which led to economic decline. The Dominicans rebelled against this Haitian government, and the legacy of animosity between these two countries grew.
This animosity reappeared in the worst way in 1937 when thousands of Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border were massacred by the Dominican army. Part of the anti-Haitian rhetoric is rooted in the propaganda of the Trujillo government, which was responsible for the massacre. A good book on this particular era is The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo (2009) by historian Lauren Derby.
The tension between both countries serves as one example of how many conflicts across the globe today have their roots in the conquests of colonial empires (whether it is Spanish, British, French, or otherwise). Since then, people have had to learn how to cope with the national identities and borders that were laid out for them by their colonial masters. Yet people today are not without agency and blame rests only partly on past aggressors. History provides us with lessons, but it should not be used to place blame on any one group.
Thomas Zajac is an Ontario Certified Teacher and currently a Masters candidate in the Department of History in York University.