Opening the Dominican Universe
featured image by Firelei Báez
Written by: Alejandro Heredia
According to First Blacks in the Americas, in 1502 there lived a black woman on the island of Hispaniola who brought people into her hut and healed them. Letters between European Officials dubbed her “the woman of the hospital.” There is little known about this woman other than what European officials wrote about her.
A few things strike the mind in response to ‘The woman of the hospital.’ First, it is striking that there was a black person on the continent so early on. Second, the woman-owned her hut and practiced medicine there, implying that she was a free woman. Lastly, that she was so influential that European officials wrote about her in high regard decades later. I refer to t story as a prime example of the limitations and promises of the Dominican universe.
In her book Colonial Phantoms, Dixa Ramirez writes:
“Ruling elites have been most able to record and disseminate their ideas of how to be in the world, but this is not the equivalent of subaltern subjects’ appearing in official or elite records in ways that have little to do with their own agency. Subaltern subjects have often been recorded for posterity precisely at the moment of their punishment and subjugation in the pages of government documents as well as in ‘scientific’, ethnographic, and travel accounts as imbricated with colonial and imperial projects. This is why those of us interested in understanding the lives of the non-elite, nonwhite subjects from earlier centuries have to sift through this deeply unjust archive, hoping we are reading ‘against the grain’” (Ramirez, 223).
Although the very few documents that mention the woman of the hospital depict her in high regard and not, as Ramirez argues, at a moment of subjugation, the fact remains that the little we know of this woman is written by the elite. We do not know her, or what her life might have been like in early colonial times, beyond what the white gaze might have imagined or deemed worthy to transcribe. The Dominican universe, at first sight, seems limited because of this very fact; the elites have written the story of that island for over five hundred years. There is so much that is not known.
As limiting as it might seem, for decades Dominicans in the diaspora have done significant work to expand the Dominican universe. Alvarez, Diaz, Baez, Cruz, and Acevedo, to name the most celebrated writers; Women and Black and poor and immigrant. These writers have expanded what it means to be Dominican beyond the white, upper class and male constructs that have dominated the way we, and others, view us as a people. Haitian writers like Danticat and Philoctète have also contributed greatly to the Dominican narrative by writing about the complex history of the island divided by two nations. As such, many writers from the island and in the diaspora work “against the grain” to unearth the stories that have not been told.
The diaspora, however, is not without its own limitations. A lot of Dominican migrants and Dominican Americans become preoccupied with repeating the same narratives. The archetypical immigrant narrative is the first that comes to mind, which usually centers on the hardships of immigration, the language of harsh winters and longing for home. Much has also been written about the complexities of being Dominican American. Finally, our Dominican obsession, and for which Dominicans have received the most literary acclaim: for writing about the reign and aftermath of El Jefe’s regime (Here, he remains nameless, only so that he will not drown another page).
I denote said tendency not as a critique but as an observation. Writers in the diaspora should continue to expand the stories we tell and how we tell them, because that is what art demands of us, to tell a new thing or to find a new way to tell it. The Dominican universe is complex, a site of rich creative energy and potential. We are a grand people, and there are so many more stories to tell than what has already been told.
Furthermore, while the narratives of immigration, Dominican-American identity, and the dictatorship have permeated much of our literary production, there is a fourth narrative that has been imposed unto us and has become the way many folks in the United States understand Dominican people. On social media and otherwise, Dominicans have become the face of anti-blackness in the form of self-hatred.
I once saw a meme that said: “from Dominican to Nigerian, how proud of your blackness are you?” While I did laugh, as there is truth and humor in most stereotypes, I found the meme reductive. Not only of the complexities of Dominican history, which writers like Dixa Ramirez and Ginetta Candelario have written about extensively, but also of the many people in the diaspora and on the island itself working tirelessly to dismantle anti-blackness in our communities.
The issue of Dominican anti-blackness is deeply historical and complicated. While it can and should be a topic of conversation, it should not be the only thing Dominicans are known for. At a public event a few years ago, I heard Silvio Torres-Saillant tackle the issue of Dominican anti-blackness in the most succinct way I’ve ever heard someone speak on the topic. He said, (and here, I paraphrase) “It is not that Dominicans have historically denied their blackness. It is, rather, that their Blackness has been denied to them.” Pride, knowledge, and empowerment of our African ancestry has been restricted to us by the few men in power who have written our history to reflect themselves, not the larger population of the country.
For over five hundred years, the few men in power have limited our knowledge and connection to our African ancestry by focusing primarily on white (or white adjacent) narratives. They have gone as far as to erase blackness from our newspapers, our hair salons, our museums, and our institutions. This has resulted in a lack of pride and empowerment in regards to our African lineage.
It remains necessary here to state that while this is our brand of trauma, anti-blackness plagues Black people everywhere in the western hemisphere, if not the world. To pathologize Dominicans as the most self-hating corner of the African Diaspora is, again, reductive of violence done to us by those in power, and negates the possibilities for an evolving Dominican imagination. We can hold Dominicans accountable for anti-blackness, and at the same time leave space for the possibility of growth and renewal. We can do both.
If Blackness, so obviously central to who we are as a people, has been withheld from us, imagine what else we do not know as we should: our relationship to land; women’s labor in every facet of society, from cultural to manual; and, most importantly to me, the potential for queer possibilities.
Some of the work required is deeply historical and sociological. We need critical voices like Dixa Ramirez, Ramona Hernandez, Ginetta Candelario, and Carlos Ulises Decena to do the complex work of unearthing the history that has been withheld from us, and to create new frameworks through which to understand the complexities of who we are. Likewise, we need writers; prose writers and poets alike, to pick up the work where the analytical work cannot reach. To go to the places where only the imagination can go, and imagine the interior mental and emotional lives of Dominicans whose stories have not been told yet.
For example, how might we open up the Dominican universe when we center a Black woman, a free person and a healer, as our origin story? What might we learn about ourselves then?
What if we write the woman of the hospital as a human being, not just as a disembodied symbol? Give her a name in Spanish, which she might have detested for all it stripped her of. Create a couple of patients she was particularly fond of. Imagine in great detail the hut she worked tirelessly to make her own. Draw up her mannerisms, the way she plaited her hair, the patience of her hands as she worked in the dry Caribbean heat. What if she fell in love with a man, he a slave, she a free woman? Perhaps, driven by that timeless longing of separated lovers, she plotted with a few freed men and they freed her beloved, the first Black insurrection in the Americas. Maybe the two ran off, free together. Out to the monte, the wild Dominican landscape. And maybe, just maybe, if we stretch her story through time, if we open up the Dominican universe, there she still is, half a millennia later. Waiting for us to find her.
First Blacks in the Americas. Dominican Studies Institute. http://firstblacks.org/en/
Ramirez, Dixa. Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the 19th Century to the Present. New York, NYU Press, 2018.
Alejandro is a queer Afro Dominican writer from The Bronx. He is the 2019 Project X slam champion and a Dreamyard Rad(ical) Poetry Consortium Fellow. He has featured in performances with The Bronx Museum, New York Public Library, And BAAD, among other organizations. Alejandro currently teaches a class series in The Bronx for queer and Trans Black Writers.