Seventy-five years ago, a shocking event took place that permanently scarred relations between two countries that share the same island in the Caribbean.
Under the brutal regime of the Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, in the fall of 1937, up to as many 20,000 Haitians (perhaps many more) were massacred -- many in the most horrific ways -- by Dominican soldiers and civilians wielding machetes, bayonets and rifles.
The mass slaughter has since been known, bizarrely, as the Parsley Massacre. In a test to identify who was Haitian, Dominican border guards would ask people to pronounce the word “perejil” (Spanish for “parsley”). Haitians, who spoke French and Creole, could not pronounce the word properly and often paid for this phonetic inability with their lives.
The bloody purge -- some would call it genocide -- occurred across only five days.
No Haitian (or dark-skinned Dominican suspected of being Haitian) was spared -- women and children were as mercilessly slaughtered as the men-folk.
Dominicans who tried to help Haitians escape the violence were also targeted for death.
Under Trujillo, who took over the Dominican Republic in 1930, a move was made to prevent the migration of Haitian laborers who sought work in local sugar plantations as the global economic depression weighed on sugar exports and the Dominican economy as a whole.
As such, Haitians were looked at as a liability and scapegoat.
During a speech at the border town of Dajabón, Trujillo spelled out his plan for the Haitians:
“For some months, I have traveled and traversed the border in every sense of the word,” he said. “I have seen, investigated and inquired about the needs of the population. To the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, thefts of cattle, provisions, fruits, etc., and were thus prevented from enjoying in peace the products of their labor, I have responded, ‘I will fix this.’ And we have already begun to remedy the situation. Three hundred Haitians are now dead in [the city of] Bánica. This remedy will continue.”
In another touch of the macabre, the bodies of dead Haitians were deposited en masse in the Massacre River, a body of water between the two nations that was named so after prior conflicts between colonial powers Spain and France.
The killings also had a decided racial angle, hence the term “genocide” favored by some scholars who studied the massacre.
Dominicans, like many Latin American societies, were ruled by a white Spanish elite who lorded over a population principally comprised of mixed-race mulattoes or those who were of mixed European-Amerindian blood. Haitians, in contrast, were overwhelmingly of unmixed black African heritage.
Ironically, Trujillo (like his contemporary Fulgencio Batista of Cuba) was himself a mulatto – but that fact did not engender any warm feelings on his part towards the black people of neighboring Haiti. Quite the contrary.
The killings left an indelible stain on the island.
Prior to the massacre, Trujillo was hailed as a strong ally of the U.S. government. However, after the U.S ambassador in Santo Domingo, R. Henry Norweb, characterized the scale of the murders as "a systematic campaign of extermination,” President Franklin D Roosevelt demanded that Trujillo pay reparations to the families of the victims (money which never reached its intended recipients).
Trujillo sought to justify the killings by citing Haiti’s occupation of the Dominican Republic one century before.
However, Trujillo’s actual motives for perpetrating this mass bloodletting remains a mystery -- some claim he wanted to expand Dominican territory, others claim he was paranoid about Dominican exile groups based in Haiti that sought to overthrow him, while others cite pure racism as the major driving force (i.e., Trujillo wanted to wipe out the black race on the island).
Ironically, the two nations enjoyed generally peaceful relations prior to 1937.
“It’s not true that this anti-Haitianism that you see today is timeless,” said Edward Paulino, a Dominican-American history professor at the City University of New York, who commemorated the massacre through an organization called Border of Lights, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
“Much of it began with the massacre in 1937.”
Julia Alvarez, a Dominican-American novelist, told NPR that she grew up not knowing much about the massacre.
“There's been this enormous silence, so I grew up not knowing about this,” she said. “It took coming to this country [the U.S.] and connecting with Haitians and Haitian-Americans and with my own Dominican people that were here that I began to learn more and more of the history, and I think that's when this revulsion for something that had happened that had never been addressed or redressed properly filled me.”
Seventy-five years later, the borders between Haiti and the Dominican are open again, but ill will lingers on both sides.
"We have more in common than the differences," Lesly Manigat, a Haitian doctor living in the Dominican town of Santiago, told the BBC. "Trujillo tried to rid the Dominican Republic of its Haitian roots, but our cultures and lifestyle are very similar. The French, the Spanish, the Africans -- it's a shared history."
However, given Haiti’s extreme poverty, Dominicans resent the presence of at least 1 million illegal Haitian immigrants in their country.
"After 1937, the Dominican culture became exclusive," Paulino told the BBC. "On a local level, people could work together and could accept that we have a society that's mixed, of which Dominicans of Haitian descent are a part. But at the state level, there's still this sense of rejection of dark-skinned Haitians."
For example, Dominicans of Haitian descent were recently stripped of citizenship and are regarded as foreigners, even if there were born on the country.
Felicia Persaud, CEO of Hard Beat Communications in New York and an expert on Caribbean affairs, noted that the Parsley Massacre was perhaps of the 20th century's least-remembered acts of genocide “and it’s truly amazing that people remember the slaughter of Jews by Adolf Hitler but not so much, the murder of some 20,000 by Trujillo."
There also appears to be a “schism” between the large Dominican and Haitian communities in New York City.
"I have not seen much collaboration between the two sides at all,” Persaud stated.
“Haitians live in their own communities, like Brooklyn, while nationals of the Dominican Republic live in Upper Manhattan, and the void between them is stark."
She added: “Whether this is a direct [consequence] of the Parsley Massacre or not, I'm not sure. What I do know is that there is some level of discrimination that exists in the way Haitians are treated in the [company towns] of the Dominican Republic and in the way that descendants of Haitians are treated in the DR. There is racial prejudice towards Haitians in the DR and their Dominican-born children are refused citizenship because they are considered ‘in transit’ and are as such left stateless.”
Yet, others express hope for the future.
"For all of the tragedy and horrible things that happened, it's been great to see people in the Dominican Republic say that these people are our neighbors, our brothers and sisters,” Cynthia Carrion, one of the organizers of Border of Lights, told Germany’s Deutsche Welle.
“We hope to change from a border of tension to a border of light, a place of peace."
“None of our governments have paused for a moment of silence in 75 years to say that this was a sad and painful chapter in our history," Edwidge Danticat, a prominent Haitian author, told the Christian Science Monitor.
"And we have to learn from it in our daily dealings as a state and as part of a total island.”
“It's important to reflect on both sides of the border what this history means in terms of our dealings from now on, how we see each other as island neighbors, consumers and producers, and, in some cases, as binational family members and generally as human beings.”
Indeed, as Persaud herself points out, Dominicans were the first to offer their help with the devastating earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.