Written by: Marylin Zuniga
On May 13th , I was fired from Orange School District for political reasons.
“Let her teach! Let her teach! Let her teach!” The energy was high. The old auditorium—where the Orange Board of Education (BOE) meetings are held every month – hadn’t featured that many people in over 30 years. The room vibrated in chants as Johanna Fernandez, a Black Dominican professor and freedom fighter, pointed to a Haitian BOE member and stated, “You are not standing in the tradition of the Haitian Revolution.” Despite the vehement backlash I received from conservative media, I also received several opportunities to broaden my experiences as an educator. This summer I traveled to the Dominican Republic with a group of teachers. There, I met with educators and organizers as well as labor and teacher union members. I went to better understand the interconnectedness between anti-Black state violence here in the U.S and DR.
Storytelling of other nations, and their peoples, have the potential to be both reductionary and essentializing. It is important to recognize the complexity of the experiences of Black Dominicans. This article embraces the powerful, and oftentimes untold, work being done by organizers in the Dominican Republic. It begins with the premise that their narratives not only help us understand the world we live in, but they also help us imagine a new one.
Fedotrazones and Alta Gracia
Auriela Cruz is “sort of like a vice president.” If Fedotrazones practiced hierarchical leadership, she would be president. When I asked her, “So who is the president?,” she explained that a president is unnecessary since everyone in the group works hard. Fedotrazones is a free trade zone union federation made up of factory workers that organize and unionize workers across Santiago. Their work targets companies that set up shop in communities suffering from high unemployment – companies that pay their workers as low as 85 cents an hour. In our meeting with 25 teachers and 7 Fedotrazones members, testimonies were shared of extreme verbal abuse, excessive unpaid labor, and unsafe working conditions, all of which are violations of basic human rights. Free trade zones were initially marketed to the community as an opportunity for economic empowerment. Despite the extreme exploitation of factory workers, this mythological narrative makes it difficult for Fedotrazones to convince workers that they need to be unionized.
The day after we visited Fedotrazones members, we went to a unique factory setting where workers were prideful and filled with positive energy. Alta Gracia is a success story. Workers enjoy livable wages, benefits, safety trainings, more flexible schedules, and safety hygiene committees. Many believed that Alta Gracia would not be sustainable. But it has been successfully running for over six years. They partner with United Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) for their products to be sold on university and college campuses.
El Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitianas (MUDHA)
“I have the right to receive an education in a school where they don’t hit me, scream at me, embarrass me or humiliate me. I have the right to play, enjoy myself and also to rest. I have the right to a name and nationality. I have the right to participate in sports, games and activities. I have the right to love, and for people to love me, to laugh and to dream.”
I cried reading these words.
In the midst of anti-Black, and specifically anti-Haitian, violence in the Dominican Republic, students of Haitian descent in Santo Domingo are learning that these words apply to them. The “derechos” listed above are a translation of the words found on a classroom wall in a small batey called Palmarejo. The school was started due to thousands of children not having access to the national education system because of their Haitian heritage. As educators, we had the privilege of visiting “Anaisa,” a school that is not recognized by the state and therefore does not receive government funding. This colorful and vibrant small school community is operated off the strength of 3 teachers, 200 students, independent donations and a whole lot of resilience and commitment. Sonia Pierre, known as the “Cesar Chavez of Dominicans of Haitian descent” and founder of MUDHA, is largely responsible for the school’s emergence. The members of MUDHA are committed to political education and social action around issues of deportation and denationalization. Their work carries on the legacy of Sonia Pierre and all freedom fighters who struggled for liberation on the island.
Changing the Narrative
Proximity to Blackness in an anti-Black society makes communities around the world vulnerable to violence. Anti-Black state violence manifests in a variety of ways. It is Mike Brown laying in his blood for 4 and a half hours. It is Tulile’s lynched body in 2015. It is thousands of students denied their basic right to an education. An anti-Black society also targets teachers committed to providing a true understanding of our history. I was fired because I allowed my students to write get well letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Black freedom fighter and political prisoner who practices the art of storytelling for liberation.
What I witnessed in the Dominican Republic, and social movements around the world, is the need for a new narrative. Freedom-fighting stories are everywhere. We hear them in the Movement for Black Lives in the claim that black lives do not matter in the eyes of the state, but in fact do matter to the people. We hear them in the Podemos movement in Spain where the people created an alternative to combat the stale two-party political framework. We hear it in the voices of MUDHA, where Dominican women of Haitian descent are able to tell their learners at “Anaisa” that they have “derechos a tener un nombre y nacionalidad.” We hear them in the sweat, blood and tears of Auriela Cruz, Fedotrazones, and the success of Alta Gracia.
Narratives create the condition for the possibility of a new world. A new world where Tamir Rice can play with a toy gun on the playground without being shot. A new world where Tulile is not publically lynched for being of Haitian descent in Santiago. A new world where Mumia can be free or, at the very least, receive the lifesaving medical treatment that he rightfully deserves. A world where our young Black brothers and sisters do not have to fear walking out of their home. A world where undocumented immigrants can dream without the fear of being snatched from their home. A world where our children can have a childhood. A world where…Black lives indeed matter, internationally, from Orange board of education to the bateys of Santo Domingo.
Marylin Zuniga is an educator organizer based out of Newark, NJ. She works alongside local, regional, and national organizations to address issues such as police brutality, educational inequality, and the school-to-prison pipeline, as well as larger issues of racism, sexism, poverty, and homophobia. As a member of The Maroon Project, her recent co-projects include the launching of a monthly program, “Books and Breakfast,” in Newark that is an extension of the original started in Ferguson, MO by Hands Up United. The program provides families with the opportunity to nourish their bodies and stimulate their minds with free books and hot breakfast.