Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Dominican Republic-Haiti Situation

Stories from the BATEYS
(the old sugar cane labor camps)
Where Rosa considers buying a mother


By Tim Griffiths
Berkeley Student Journal

SANTO DOMINGO, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — So far, I have been able to visit three "batey" communities since my arrival in the Dominican Republic. The bateys date from the heyday of the Dominican sugar industry, when the government recruited laborers from Haiti to work the cane fields and the refineries. The industry constructed these small company towns called bateys to house the workers and their families.

Because of their history, the bateys today are home to the Dominican Republic's largest concentrations of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent. Not coincidentally, the bateys are also among the most marginalized, isolated and impoverished communities in the Dominican Republic. Over the next few days, I hope to send a few stories that report on my visits to the bateys and the people living there. Here is the first one:

Batey Altagracia: Rosa's Dilemma

"I need to buy a mom," said the woman.

I'm supposed to know what's going on here, but I confess that this request threw me off completely. We were standing in a small clearing in Batey Altagracia amid homes cobbled together out of wood planks, scraps of tin roofing and tree limbs - a village that is a collage. I had come to Batey Altagracia to listen to the stories of the residents and their efforts to obtain nationality documents for themselves, or for their children. Lico Augustín, a MUDHA staff member who grew up in Batey Altagracia, recommended that I speak to Rosa (not her real name), the middle-aged woman who now stood before me. Her hair was wound in tight braids around her head and she wore a long colorful sun dress. Years of constant exposure to the sun gave her skin an almost leathery look and she seemed elderly before her time. She also had no teeth, which made me wonder if perhaps I simply had not understood her correctly.

"Pardon me, señora, what did you say?"

"I need to buy a mom," she repeated, "but they're very expensive."

"I'm sorry. I'm not sure I understand. What do you mean you need to buy a mom?"

"That's what they told me in the office of the civil registry. I went to get my papers so that I could register my daughter. She's in the seventh grade. They told me that I had to have papers from my mother, but my mother died 15 years ago in Barahona. They told me maybe I could buy a mother."

"You mean that you would hire someone to pretend she was your mother, is that it?"

"Of course. But I can't afford it right now. Mothers are very expensive." Rosa pointed down the path towards some other dwellings. "Gina has the same problem. Her daughter is also in seventh grade. I'm not sure what we're going to do…"

Sadly, I don't know what Rosa and Gina are going to do either. I'm at a loss as to what to tell them. There does exist an incredibly long, tedious and expensive bureaucratic process by which they could try to get themselves registered, but it would require multiple bus rides halfway across the country, tracking down witnesses and officials (not to mention probably having to coax them into action with a few extra pesos on the side) and potentially multiyear waits for the government to process the documents. Who am I to say that buying a mother, if Rosa and Gina can somehow scrape together the cash - and if they can get away with it - is such a bad idea?

Meanwhile Rosa and Gina's daughters are a year away from having to take the National Exams that would allow them to go on to high school studies. But without birth certificates, the two daughters probably will not be allowed to take the exam. Perhaps they will drop out … and have children … who may very well also go unregistered … and so on … just another set of links in the chain of grinding poverty and hopeless government bureaucracy.

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