I mention this event briefly in Haitian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition, but it deserves far more space and publicity than it received there.
Most people living in the Western world, when asked about genocide, immediately think of the Holocaust (HaShoah), or perhaps more recent “ethnic cleansing” campaigns carried out in various parts of Eastern Europe and Africa. They don’t usually associate genocide with the Western Hemisphere, at least not since the days of Columbus. We in North America in particular like to reassure ourselves that we’re too civilized to kill our own people, or our neighbors, at least in recent history.
Most of these same people would be very surprised to know that this week marks the 74th anniversary of the mass murder of more than 20,000 civilian men, women, and children — over a space of five days or less.
This unspeakable event – mostly forgotten by world history because it occurred during the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities related to the Spanish Civil war and the soon-to-begin World War II – would forever afterward be called Kouto-a by Haitians, and Corte by Dominicans. The word translates “cutting” in either language. For those who lived through it, it was one of the bloodiest and most horrible episodes of Haitian history, triggered by an ordinary linguistic mechanism called a shibboleth.
The Dominican Republic shares an island, currently called Hispaniola but originally named Ayiti, with the Republic of Haiti. Haiti comprises Hispaniola’s western third, while the Dominican covers its central and eastern sections. From the beginnings of joint French and Spanish domination over Hispaniola in the forms of the colonies of Saint-Domingue and Santo Domingo, respectively, there has been friction between the two parts of the island, and often, warfare spreading from one side to the other. But nothing that passed from one side to the other over any part of Hispaniola’s history since the coming of Columbus compares to the brutality and senselessness of the Cutting.
On October 2, 1937, Rafael Trujillo, the president of the Dominican Republic, responded to an ongoing complaint that Haitians had “infiltrated the borders” of the Dominican, taking up lands and jobs from Dominicans living along the eastern border they shared with the mostly poverty-stricken western nation. In a speech eerily reminiscent of modern conversations about Mexican immigrants to the southern United States, Trujillo promised to “remedy the situation,” where it was alleged Haitians were taking up jobs and land in the borderlands and encouraging trade and money to flow back to Haiti from its wealthier neighbor. Even more disgraceful, according to his stance, was that these immigrants were acquiring property and having children in the Dominican Republic – making them Dominican citizens and affirming their right to remain.
At Trujillo’s orders, Dominican soldiers headed to the borderlands. Unlike the immigrant situation in the U.S., where states like Arizona are content to pass controversial laws that simplify (and encourage) the investigation of people who “look Mexican” in the hopes of flushing out illegal aliens in the process, the Dominicans did not have such an easy task, since the majority of Haitians and the majority of Dominicans come from the same ethnic backgrounds. What does separate them is language, and particularly the way that the letter r is pronounced by both groups.
So a simple shibboleth was employed to distinguish who was “Haitian” and who was not. In the same way that Hutu and Tutsi loyalists were separated and massacred across various parts of recent African history in Rwanda and neighboring states, Trujillo loyalists went about looking for Haitians. Armed with their weapons and also with stalks of parsley, they would ask people to say what the name of the plant was.
Because the Spanish perejil is very difficult for a native Haitian Kreyol or French speaker to pronounce in the same way a native Spanish-speaker would, it was used to flush out the non-native Spanish speakers, who were taken away and executed, rather than arrested or deported. Trujillo’s soldiers were joined by local politicians, police forces, and even ordinary Dominicans who wanted to deal with the “immigrant problem,” once and for all, with the direct and tacit public approval of their president.
This is the sort of story you couldn’t make up if you tried.
By the 8th of October, more than 20,000 Haitians living along the Dominican Republic’s western border were dead. At least half of these innocent people were actual, legal residents of the Dominican Republic – citizens killed by their own nation for the crime of being born with the wrong native language, or the mistake of choosing to move to the wrong country. Haitian President Stenio Vincent, a puppet of the U.S. government, pressed for reparations via U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even though the U.S.’s official stance toward Trujillo had been summed up as “he was a son of a bitch, but he was our son of a bitch,” so many thousands of civilian deaths were too many to ignore. Eventually, after much argument, $750,000 US was paid by the Dominican Republic to the Haitian government as a payment to the survivors and the families of those who had been murdered – a reparation of less than $30 per victim – but that money never saw its way to the survivors, who were lucky to receive a penny or two if at all, thanks to government corruption.
Every time I read or hear an uninformed comment about immigrants, or the even worse “if they move here they ought to speak English,” I think about men armed with machetes…. and parsley.