woman roasting peanuts in Daniela's neighborhood
Face to face with the catalyst for this case, revisiting the Butterfly
sisters, and bewilderment as the country mourns a dictator
DOMINGO, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC At
last it was time to meet Daniela. As readers of these dispatches
may recall, Daniela is the Dominican teenager expelled from school
because she had no birth certificate (see
About the Project).
staff members Sirana, Elba, Mariela and I piled into MUDHA's SUV.
Ruben was behind the wheel, which was a good thing because there
are no seatbelts to be found in the back and Dominicans cut, swerve
and dodge on the road with as much fervor as they do on the dance
floor but with much less grace. The
midday sun was pounding down ferociously on Santo Domingo, and
between the stifling heat and the suffocating dust and exhaust
swirling up from the roadway, we chose the latter, and rolled
down the windows. At each intersection, roaming vendors strolled
by the windows hawking water, peanuts, gum, and cell-phone accessories.
guided us out to the edge of the city, where the landscape opened
up, revealing the foothills that roll away into the volcanic mountain
ranges occupying the center of the island. We were in what must
be a suburb of sorts: a paved street lined with one-story, cement-block
homes on which decorative but sturdy ironwork covers all possible
points of entry.
100 meters or so, we passed massive speakers blasting bachata,
salsa and merengue music at incredible volume to announce the
presence of a "colmado." In the Dominican Republic,
colmados service the basic needs of the surrounding homes with
a limited supply of household goods, canned foods, simple vegetables,
a few wheels of cheese and some meats for slicing, as well as
a truly impressive quantity and variety of liquors, from the obligatory
"Presidente" brand beer to carefully aligned rows of
whiskey, rum and mixers.
suddenly at one of a hundred dirt alleys between the cement-block
homes, Ruben took us off the main road. We shot past the suburban
fringe and entered the world of the batey beyond. The paved street
gave way to packed earth roads that cut through dwellings of wood
and scrap tin. The buildings look hastily constructed, though
they are probably the product of a laborious collection of materials
wonder, like me, what difference
it will all make in the end?
in the batey was engaged in avoiding the sun. A group of adolescents
concentrated on a game of dominos under the shade of a mango tree.
Two old men peered out from just inside the dark interior of a
doorway. A woman selling small bags of peanuts wandered down the
lane under cover of an enormous umbrella. A pack of the ubiquitous
mangy dogs occupied the gutter beneath a house.
and Mariela shouted out greetings to friends, and a few folks
emerged briefly to exchange a few words. Clothes were hung out
to dry around almost every home, draped over power lines, bushes,
barbed wire, doorways. The prodigious collection of plastic tubs
and buckets lying about testified to the residents' ongoing struggle
to keep a sufficient supply of water on hand.
is Daniela's neighborhood.
parked the vehicle under a tree, and we followed a trail winding
between dwellings until we arrived at the house of Daniela's family.
They came out, greeted us warmly and ushered us into a shady patch
in the yard with a few chairs. As we sat down, Sirana took charge
of introductions. The cast of characters that had existed for
me primarily in the pages of legal briefs and memos now took shape.
Across from me was Yolanda, Daniela's older sister; to my right,
Miranda, Daniela's mother. (As usual, I am changing the names.)
didn't need any introduction to the young woman on my left. At
16, Daniela is tall, slender and beautiful. She has a serious
look that broke into a shy smile when I shook her hand.
"It scared me to think that
they might pick me up and take me away. That's happened
to several people around here."
was tempted to ask her a thousand questions: what does she make
of all of this? Is she aware that her case could set new precedents
in international law for this hemisphere? Does she imagine the
law students and lawyers, in offices and universities in Santo
Domingo, Costa Rica, California, New York and Washington, D.C.,
who have spent late nights over the past five years nurturing
her story into a legal argument? Does she wonder, like me, what
difference it will all make in the end? Is it worth it to her?
I reminded myself that Daniela has never seen me before. Better
to start off with something simple. So I asked her how the school
erupted from the other members of Daniela's family: "She
was one of the top students this year! And last year, she was
the head of her class. She's a very good student."
smiled down at her lap. I could tell she was both a little proud
and a little embarrassed by her family's acclaim.
asked them to tell me the whole story.
was born and grew up near Sabana Grande de Boya, close to the
center of the Dominican Republic. Miranda, her mother, is Dominican.
Her father, who no longer lives with the family, is Haitian. Though
she did not have the required birth certificate, the teachers
at the local school allowed her to attend anyway. Then, in 1997,
Daniela's family moved to their present home near the capital.
This time, when Daniela went to enroll in the local school, the
administrators said no. Without a Dominican birth certificate,
they could not permit her in the classroom. Daniela's family was
distraught. They went to MUDHA for assistance, and MUDHA helped
them prepare the papers for a late birth registration. But the
civil registry rejected the petition. She's Haitian, the officer
declared, and there was nowhere to appeal the decision.
of these schoolchildren don't have birth certificates.
Unless things change, they will be prevented from continuing
beyond eighth grade.
keep up her studies, Daniela enrolled in a night school for adults.
Daniela hated night school. She had to walk home in the dark.
Fights broke out frequently. One night, one of the students was
year later, on the orders of the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights, school officials permitted Daniela back in the classroom.
But Daniela was still afraid.
scared me to think that they might pick me up and take me away,"
she said, referring to the fact that, without papers, she could
be deported to Haiti at any time. "That's happened to several
people around here." The shy smile had now faded from Daniela's
had a lot of trouble sleeping back then," Yolanda added.
"There were rumors going around about her. She was really
afraid. When they were learning in school about the Mirabal sisters,
she started to think that maybe the same thing would happen to
discussion went on. I updated them on the status of the case and
gave Daniela the diary that Hillary Ronen, the Berkeley law student
who worked on the case last year, had sent. We took some photos.
By the time we began to say goodbye, the mood had lightened and
Daniela's smile had returned.
Yolanda's comment about the Mirabal sisters stuck with me. When
I got home that evening, I searched Raquel's bookshelf, pulled
down a copy of "In the Time of the Butterflies," Julia
Alvarez's book chronicling the lives of the Mirabal Sisters, and
began reading fervently.
Patria and Maria Teresa Mirabal were key leaders in the clandestine
movement to topple Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who kept the
Dominican Republic under his brutal command for 30 years until
his assassination in 1961. Code-named the Butterflies, the sisters
became heroes of the anti-Trujillo resistance. In an attempt to
bring them under control, Trujillo imprisoned the women for months
and tortured their husbands.
under international pressure, the dictator finally released the
sisters. Two months later, they were ambushed on the road to visit
their husbands (who were still in prison). After smashing the
sisters' heads repeatedly until they were dead, Trujillo's henchmen
hauled the vehicle into a ditch to make it appear as if there
had been a terrible auto accident. No one was fooled.
think back on the conversation we had that afternoon in Daniela's
family's yard. When Yolanda mentioned the Mirabal sisters, Sirana
had been quick to intervene.
is dead," she said, but there followed a silence that indicated
that neither Sirana nor anyone else present thought that settled
Ask the Author:
Griffiths has agreed to answer your questions, time permitting.
Tim in Santo Domingo.
have been thinking about this a lot over the last three days.
Early Sunday morning, former Dominican president Joaquin Balaguer
died at age 96. It is no secret to anyone that Dr. Balaguer, as
he was known, was intimately involved in the later years of the
Trujillo dictatorship. He may very well have been in on the plot
to kill the Mirabal sisters. Nor does anyone seriously deny that
Dr. Balaguer presided over the disappearance, torture and murder
of his political enemies during at least his first term in office
as president. Nor, finally, does anyone really pretend that Balaguer
was not the author of the 1994 presidential election fraud that
brought him briefly back to power.
yet the government, controlled by a huge margin by a party supposedly
opposed to Balaguer, has declared three official days of mourning,
during which politicians, priests, journalists and the president
have fallen all over themselves to eulogize this man. The outpouring
of devotion has taken up nearly every page of the newspapers and
hour after hour of television programming. All without a single
word of criticism or mention of controversy.
is dead. But the mental servility that he demanded of the
Dominican people casts a long shadow into the present. It
is still better to let things be; still best not to pursue
justice too loudly nor truth too vigorously; still wisest
to praise the powerful and scorn the gadfly.
Daniela and her family, I now realize, the real struggle is
as much as anything against that legacy.