My class, Social and Ethnocultural Identity in the Contemporary Caribbean (there’s a mouthful for you), takes field trips every so often. A few weeks ago, our teacher took us to a batey, which is basically a dumping ground for illegal Haitian immigrants to the Dominican Republic. During the height of the DR’s reign as king of the sugar industry, tons of Haitians crossed the border to work on the sugar plantations cutting cane (a craptastic, dangerous job). The price of sugar dropped and big sugar importers (i.e. the U.S.) took their business elsewhere and started using cheaper things like high fructose corn syrup to sweeten Coca-Cola and other tasty delights. The business left but the bateys stayed. Haitians and their children, who may or may not be of Dominican descent too, live in limbo; they have no papers, making them neither Dominican or Haitian, technically. No papers means no money.
Batey Lecheria is on the outskirts of Santo Domingo at the foot of beautiful mountains. During the sugar boom, other farmers jumped on the Haitian bandwagon and soon there were bateys on all types of farms and later in the cities. When we got there, we could see the smoke from a trash fire in the foothills. Bateys are the poorest areas you’ll probably find in the Dominican Republic. Our van dropped us off on a ‘street’ looks like in those informercials you see late at night when that old guy holds up a starving/HIV-positive/worm-infested orphan, begging you to send just a few dollars each month to give him food and medicine. From the window, we could see this old woman beating the living crap of a girl that couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 years old. There are little shacks made of tin in lots of different colors. There were chickens pecking in the dirt, trash piles burning in the streets and a strong stink.
We toured a Montessori school set up by an order of American nuns with the help of the Clinton Foundation. The school was the nicest place in the batey, which isn’t very big. One of the teachers, named Luz, explained that while the school teaches the usual reading, writing and arithmetic, they also have to teach the children how to use a toilet and wash their hands, since they’ve never really had to do it before. The school works with children of all ages, but the older kids don’t come until a bit later. We met the smaller children, who I think were only about 5 years old. They were so precious, and so excited when the blonder, whiter students from my program stooped down to say hello. The school also works to improve the health of the people living in the bateys; on the second floor, they have a doctor’s office.
This girl from a small town in Connecticut signed up two years ago to work with this program. She was short and pale to the point of looking sickly and had a weird, high voice. Something was off about her. Her Spanish was crap, even though she said she majored in Spanish in college. She gave us a tour of the batey. She showed us these wood and tin buildings where families lived in single rooms. We passed a cheerful fat woman sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a wooden shack. The girl knew a lot about the batey and it was nice to be able to ask her questions in English. She told us about how at night people from outside the batey come to sell drugs, how women in the batey sell drugs themselves, how the men do construction in an illegal sandmine and the women work in rich houses for a living, how sometimes mothers accept money from neighbors in exchange for sleeping with their daughters, how there’s a lot of prostitution and teenage pregnancy and yet the clinic at the school only gives out condoms if you have a prescription–they’re Catholics, after all–and how the people in the community are her friends.
On the ride back, we talked about how horrible all of this is and why the hell would the government pump hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars into building a metro line with maybe 6 stops while people are living in unbelievably bad conditions. It was weird, too, though to walk through as a group and peeking into houses. I felt like such an intruder. I can’t believe our teacher asked us to bring cameras.