By Ezra Fieser
DAJABÓN, Dominican Republic – A river called Massacre flows on the western edge of this town, crossing under bridges that connect Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haitian women wash clothes in its shallow, clear waters, while their children play nearby. Haitians who refuse to wait for the official border crossings to open, walk across it, carrying baskets on their heads, filled with anything they can sell.
It’s a peaceful scene that masks the river’s history. Seventy-five years ago, bodies of Haitians killed under orders from the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo were thrown into this very river. Dominican soldiers and civilians chased down thousands of Haitians – or dark-skinned Dominicans – and killed them. They shot them, stabbed them with bayonets and slay them with machetes.
Haitians and Dominicans, descendants of slaves and colonists, have formally shared the island of Hispaniola since the Dominican Republic declared independence from Haiti in 1844. In their oft-troubled relationship, the massacre of 1937 was among the darkest moments. The killings became known as the Parsley Massacre, a reference to the sprigs of parsley, supposedly employed by the killers to tell Haitians from Dominicans. Haitians refer to it as kout kouto-a, creole for the stabbing. Dominicans call it el corte (the cutting). Few here remember the killings. It’s not taught in classrooms and receives only brief mentions in history books. Most historical investigation into the massacre has come from foreign researchers. “Generally it’s not something that we talk a lot about on our side of the border,” the Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat told me. Danticat’s historical novel “The Farming of Bones” is based on the massacre. “I think there are so many challenges in Haiti right now, as well as in the recent past, that sometimes it is difficult for people to look back and ponder long ago horrors when they are dealing with so many current horrors. I have had people say to me, ‘we are facing so much right now that we cannot sit back and think about this type of thing for too long.'”
Nevertheless, scholars have pinpointed the massacre as a pivotal moment in a relationship that is marked by distrust, acts of violence and, often, outward hostility. The cutting was more than a campaign of terror against Haitians who had long co-existed with Dominicans – even married them in many cases. The massacre helped redefine the relationship. It fed, even created, some have said, a state-led anti-Haitianism that continues to this day. And among the government’s prime targets was voudou, a practice commonplace in both countries that, for Dominicans, became seen as something associated with Haiti and, therefore, evil.
In early October, I took the 6-hour trip from the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, to Dajabón, the last stop on the bus route, to attend an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the 1937 massacre. By the time I arrived, some 100 people had already made a much longer trip; most came from the United States. Among them were university students, human rights activists, and volunteers. Most were not Dominican or Haitian, but drawn to the event through human rights organizations for which they volunteered such as the Mariposa Foundation, named for the Mirabal sisters who were killed by Trujillo in 1960 for opposing him politically. Organizers had planned three days of events they called Border of Lights, the highlight of which was a candlelight vigil at the river’s banks in which people from both sides of the border came together in a show of unity.
That night, we walked from the Catholic Church in the center of town for several blocks until we reached the river’s banks. An outspoken Jesuit priest who works in Dajabón and advocates for the rights of Haitian immigrants, walked off to the side of the crowd, speaking into a microphone. His voice blasted through speakers mounted on the back of a pickup truck. Bright green, yellow and blue neon LED lights outlined the speakers, as if to draw the attention of anyone who didn’t already know it was the source of a jet engine-decibel speech. “Tonight,” he repeated, “we break the silence.”
As we gathered at the river’s edge, people began to place their candles on the waist-high fence that had been erected by the Dominican military to stop Haitians from crossing. The orange sun that backlit the rough concrete block homes in the neighboring Haitian town of Ouanaminthe had given way to a deep darkness. A trail of lights began to appear from Ouanaminthe, descending to the river’s edge like lanterns floating through space. After a few moments, they let those lanterns float down the Massacre River.
The event was organized by two Dominican-Americans from New York: Edward Paulino a fresh-faced, energetic professor of history at the City University of New York; and Cynthia Carrion, a youth organizer who cashed in her vacation time to organize the event and travel to the Dominican Republic. As Dominicans, they carry the guilt of having been the perpetrators of the massacre. But they are also the victims of a dictator’s legacy. They are of the generation that grew up to parents and relatives who fled Trujillo’s tyranny. Many left their home country for the United States during Trujillo’s three decades of rule. As Paulino told me, “we go to bed with the ghosts of the era.”
The massacre began in the early days of October 1937. On Oct. 2, Trujillo gave a short speech at a celebration held in his honor in Dajabón in which he said Dominicans living in the borderlands had complained of cattle and produce theft at the hands of Haitians. “I will fix this,” he said, according to Richard Lee Turits in his 2002 essay, “A World Destroyed, A Nation Imposed,” an account of the massacre. By that point, Trujillo told the crowd, 300 Haitians were already dead in Bánica, a border outpost. “This remedy will continue,” he said.
And it did. Historians continue to disagree about the number of people killed in the massacre. In the months after the killings, Haitian authorities registered around 12,000 deaths. But other estimates have placed the number between 8,000 and 30,000, with many settling around 20,000.
In its aftermath, Trujillo’s propaganda machine launched a campaign that sought to demonize Haitians, using voudou as a principle identifier. “’Dominicanisation formed part of a racist ideology which the dictatorship put forward after the massacre. To achieve this Trujillo co-opted one of the country’s leading intellectuals, the historian Manuel Arturo Peña Batlle,” wrote Bridget Wooding in her account of Dominican-Haitian relations “Needed But Unwanted”. “Peña Batlle gave a speech in Elías Piña on the border on 16 November 1942, in which he proposed ‘the creation of social barriers and relevant legislation to save … Dominican nationality from the influence of our neighbors.’ Another of his targets was the Haitian culture and the ‘monstrous practice of the fetish of voudou.’ He stated: ‘There is no genuinely cultured and civilized government in the world which does not take decisive action against so serious a menace.’” Practicing voudou was outlawed, penalized by two years in prison or deportation.
“For the Trujillo intelligentsia voudou, as a marker of difference [between Haitians and Dominicans] became a central theme, post-massacre. Some of the civilian killers had ethnic Haitians as neighbors and thus co-existed in peace prior to the massacre, but afterward voudou became a negative and state-defined synonym to describe Haiti,” Paulino said. “There is still the belief of Haiti being a ‘retrograde un-religious bastion of voudou and un-Christian people that persists not only in the Dominican Republic but also in the U.S. with hyperbolic Hollywood portrayals.”
What many Dominicans are loath to admit is that they practice a form of voudou although even practitioners are hesitant to call it as much. They prefer Devocion de los Misterios or Las 21 Divisions, a reference to the twenty-one families of African-derived and creole spiritual entities that, in exchange for gifts, confer blessings, such as good health and protection. In reality, the practice shares much with Haitian voudou but the rejection of the voudou label reflects the Dominican resistance to identify with anything associated with Haitians. While the country’s anti-voudou history continues to affect how Dominicans see the practice and, by extension, Haitians, there is also a prominent practice within Dominican society. Martha Ellen Davis, a Santo Domingo-based anthropologist who has written widely on religion in the Dominican Republic, says the practice of 21 Divisions is increasing. “Why? Maybe because people are looking more for answers to real world problems, to every day problems,” she says.
Still, Dominicans seem reluctant to openly admit to the practice. I spoke with several people, including a priestess, who asked that I not publish any information that could be used to identify them. In the case of the priestess, her reasons were clear: She said members of high society came to her altar in a modest building just outside an upscale neighborhood in the capital, Santo Domingo. “They come when they have problems or their family members do,” she said. “Because I’m [part] Haitian, they think that I am powerful.”
A day after the event, I sat down in a two-story restaurant off one of Dajabon’s busy streets. Motorcycles and scooters buzzed outside. A school bus passed, painted blue, with children screaming and whistling through half-opened windows.
The owner entered the otherwise empty bar, poured a glass of rum and plugged a microphone into a computer. For the next 20 minutes, he belted out classic Spanish hits through a karaoke machine with crackling speakers.
It was so distracting that I barely looked at the food. When I did glance down, I saw two sprigs of parsley — bright green and healthy.
The 1937 massacre is widely referred to as the Parsley Massacre because some soldiers allegedly carried a sprig of the herb with them on their killing spree. The Spanish word for parsley – perejil – is nearly impossible for native creole speakers to pronounce correctly because of their pronunciation of the letter “R,” which can sound more like a “W.” It came out something like “pe-wah-heel.” Upon hearing the mispronunciation, soldiers and civilians who had been paid to kill assumed the speaker was Haitian, and killed them. Or so the story goes.
“It’s a myth. No survivors or people who witnessed the massacre have said anything about parsley being used,” said Lauren Derby, a historian at UCLA who has interviewed survivors and written widely about the massacre.
Calling it the Parsley Massacre adds another level of brutality to an already cruel chapter in Dominican-Haitian relations: A simple slip of the tongue, a mispronunciation, could get you killed. But it serves as an example of the misinformation that has come to define the massacre and, more generally, the Haitian-Dominican relationship.
While many generalize the Dominican attitude as being “anti-Haitian,” the reality is far more nuanced. The Dominican government has certainly instituted policies and laws that target Haitians, the most dangerous of which was a 2010 constitutional change that strips citizenship from Dominicans born to undocumented Haitian parents, creating an effectively stateless group of young people. On the other hand, the Dominican government was the first to send foreign troops and rescue workers to Haiti to assist in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. And on a personal level, I’ve met Dominicans who consider Haitians close friends. I’ve met Dominicans who have referred to Haitians as “beasts.” I’ve met Haitians who would never think of traveling to the Dominican Republic, even though it’s just a few hours away by car or bus and the most visited tourism destination in the Caribbean.
Paulino believes that the 1937 massacre helped create the multi-dimensional relationship that exists today. “The legacy of this event is what you see today in the form of these state policies that target Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent,” he said.
Haitians living in the Dominican Republic are subjected to regular deportation and harassment. Department of Migration buses regularly pass through Santo Domingo streets, rounding up anyone who looks Haitian and bringing them to a detention center to sort out citizens from non-citizens, undocumented from documented workers. All this belies the fact that the Dominican economy is largely built on Haitian labor. Haitians used to come to cut cane. Sugar is no longer the economic driver it was, however, so now they build apartment towers or the hotels that make up the heart of the thriving tourism industry. As the title of Wooding’s book suggests, they are “Needed but Unwanted.”
To get to the northern border crossing of Dajabón from Santo Domingo, you have to pass over Cordillera Central mountain range, the highest in the Caribbean, through the city of Santiago, long a destination for Haitian migrants, and finally turn west toward the border, passing through long stretches of arid, uninhabited land.
In 1937, the trip took several days. The borderlands were largely isolated from the political power centers in Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince. Indeed, those that lived near the border had little interaction with those in the capitals. Historical accounts of life in the borderlands at that time depict a pacific scene with a fluid, almost nonexistent border that both Dominicans and Haitians crossed regularly.
Historians remain split on what motivated Trujillo to order the killings, other than the idea that he wanted to “Dominicanize” the area. Some have suggested his desire to whiten the society – he later would offer visas to light-skinned European and Asian immigrants – was a factor. Others have suggested he wanted to take control of more land for the state to increase the production of export crops like sugar and coffee, bolstering the state coffers and therefore his own wallet.
Regardless, the scene that unfolded in small towns and villages over five days in early October was surely gruesome.
Initially, only spotty details leaked out to the international community. A report in TIME magazine, published almost a month later, said “only last week did news come from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to the world of a battle that in any country nearer a cable office would have made headlines.” The two-paragraph report said, “for years, overcrowded Haitians have been slipping over the border, squatting on Dominican land. Fortnight ago the border villages blazed with fire and the banging of musketry. When the smoke cleared, over 300 were dead on Dominican soil.”
The report grossly underestimated the death toll as researchers would later discover, which shows how little was known about the massacre in the days and weeks after it happened. Trujillo and members of his government took advantage of the uncertainty, suggesting in a publicity campaign that the massacre was due to a skirmish between Haitians and Dominicans living around the border; not state-sponsored violence. In doing so, Trujillo attempted to absolve himself.
That misinformation campaign still influences the understanding of history in Dajabón. Several elderly residents told me that el corte was a response to an invasion by the Haitian army or that Dominican soldiers were defending themselves.
“They have conflated historical events,” says author Julia Alvarez, whose novel “In the Time of the Butterflies” is based on the Mirabal sisters, political dissidents who were assassinated under Trujillo’s orders in 1960. Alvarez, who attended the commemoration, also interviewed several residents. She spoke to me in a sunny park in the center of Dajabón, just down the street from where Trujillo is said to have delivered his speech marking the start of the massacre. “And you also see that people are afraid to speak, or to give their names. That’s the influence of the Trujillo era, when even your neighbors spied on you.”
Trujillo was one of Latin America’s most notorious dictators. He ruled the country for three decades until he was killed in 1961. During his rule, he created a climate of fear and secrecy. His Military Intelligence Service (known as SIM for its Spanish acronym), patrolled streets in black Volkswagen Beetles. Those suspected of being enemies of the state were systematically tortured, imprisoned and often killed. It “created the sensation that Trujillo was always watching,” Derby, the UCLA historian and author, wrote in her book “The Dictator’s Seduction.” “A prominent psychologist who directed a mental hospital during the Trujillo period has even argued that, as a result of the regime, paranoia became a national characteristic.”
In the months after the massacre, Trujillo’s intelligentsia successfully capitalized on the climate of fear they had cultivated, defining Haitians as something akin to evil, with voudou being the most ungodly practice.
Outside of the places where it is practiced, principally northwestern Africa, the Caribbean and parts of the U.S., voudou—the spelling varies from voodoo, to vodou, vodun and others, depending on the place and culture where it is practiced—is associated with a sort of black magic, a Bourbon Street sideshow, a Hollywood thriller or simply myth.
Voudou dolls, zombies and body switching play a prominent role in the Hollywood interpretation of voudou. “White Zombie,” released in 1932 by United Artists is considered the first feature-length zombie film. Set in Haiti, it depicts the transformation of a young woman from bride-to-be to zombie. The movie came out during the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915-34) and added to a Catholic anti-superstition campaign that influenced popular imagining of voudou. Of course, numerous other zombie and voudou-themed movies have since been made.
Zombies, in fact, are part of the story of Haitian voudou. But they do not play a role in everyday ceremonies. During colonial times, a slave who worked the sugar cane fields believed that in death they would be transported back to lan guinée, a sort of heaven in Africa, by the voudou spirit, Baron Samedi, who dresses in a top hat and glasses with a blazer. Various Hollywood films have included a distorted version of Samedi, including Beetlejuice , and from the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die to Disney’s animated The Princess and the Frog. Samedi, the spirit of death, would dig up a dead person’s grave and transport them to guinée, unless the person had done something to offend Baron. In that case, the body could be controlled as a zombie, meaning they would be slaves forever. The fear of zombification was used by slave drivers to deter slaves from committing suicide in hopes of reaching guinée and returning to their beloved Africa. Voudou came to the Americas by way of West African slaves, specifically those from what is today the Republic of Benin. The Spanish started bringing Africans to Hispaniola in the early 1500s to replace the enslaved indigenous Taino population that was dying off. The practice of voudou spread from the Caribbean with the slave trade to New Orleans and other areas.
“To say it is misunderstood really doesn’t even begin to describe it,” said Hector Salva, a priest of both Haitian and Dominican voudou. Salva, who is Puerto Rican, began practicing voudou as a boy and was told he had a gift as a medium. He became increasingly interested in the Dominican practice—Las 21 Divisions—and later, in Haitian voudou. He lived in Haiti for years to study and continues to take trips back. He now lives and practices in New Jersey. I spoke with him by phone. “The most common thing people ask me is if we run around sacrificing animals and being possessed. The misconceptions are huge.”
Voudou is a “diffused monotheism,” meaning it revolves around a single creator and several lower spirits, in this case deities – known as Iwa – which are associated with nature. Practitioners say it is a three-tiered system, involving a god, spirits and ancestors. A voudou ceremony is led by a priest, who goes by different names depending on the practice. This spiritual leader, or priest, is a medium who calls the spirits in ceremonies that involve drumming, offerings such as food, song and altars that range from the elaborate to the simple. The spirits can take possession and speak through the participants. “When people ask me to explain it, I liken it to Catholicism,” Salva said. “I say, ‘You have a god and saints. We have a god and spirits.’ Obviously, there are a lot of differences, but when you make it seem similar, it begins to break down the misconceptions.”
Voudou did not sit well with the Roman Catholic hierarchy on the colonized island of Hispaniola in the 17th century, leading to laws banning it. In 1685, with the slave population in the millions, French King Louis XIV introduced Les Code Noir, laws that banned the practice of any religion other than Roman Catholicism. (The laws directly affected the Jewish populations in the colonies). Les Code Noir also said that all slaves were to be baptized as Catholics.
These laws pushed voudou underground and elements of Catholicism were incorporated into ceremonies to disguise the practice—or perhaps to appease—Catholic priests. As a result, an altar almost always includes at least one depiction of God and the Virgin Mary. In fact, the blending of voudou practice and Catholicism has become so seamless that many anthropologists refer to the Dominican practice as Dominican folk Catholicism, rather than mention voudou, a label rejected by the practitioners.
“The biggest differences between Haitian voudou and 21 Divisions in the Dominican Republic are that the Haitian practice is stricter and you quickly lose the Catholic elements as the ceremony progresses,” Salva said. “In the Dominican Republic, you see much more of a mix of Catholicism and voudou.”
Voudou differs in each place it is practiced. In most practices, the spirits utilize a medium, sometimes referred to as a priest or houngan, to help people resolve problems. It is worth noting that Haitian voudou differs from Dominican voudou – although the two share many spirits and practices – and from other practices, such as the voudou of New Orleans.
In the Dominican Republic, the misterios (spirits) are separated into “white” deities, the Radá Legbá, which come from Western Africa, and “black” deities, the Guedé from Central Africa, as well as the deities of water of Native American origin. Misterios are each represented by laminated cards depicting their Catholic counterparts and placed on separate altars. For example, the popular “Belié Belcán” deity is represented by St. Michael. These misterios are called upon to help rid someone of an illness or problem, which could be caused by a spirit possession or bacá.
Catholic prayers are recited and the ceremony is often accompanied by music. A ceremony, sometimes referred to as a fiesta de palos, or drumming party, can include dancing and chanting before the altar. However, many ceremonies take a low-key approach without music or dancing and only simple offerings, anthropologists say. It’s therefore difficult to define the practice using a single example or to characterize the typical practitioner. Like other religions, voudou draws some people only when they or a loved one are in need. Others practice regularly. And while it has been suggested that voudou is a religion for the low class practiced in poor barrios, members of high society – many of whom publicly swear off the practice – have been known to visit the altar.
Long before the 1937 massacre, Dominican authorities feared voudou. From 1821 to 1844, Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic, a period still recalled by Dominicans for its brutality. When Dominican resistance fighters declared independence in 1844 (Dominicans still celebrate independence from Haiti, along with celebrating independence from Spain), a period of anti-Haitianism ensued. “You see these periods coming in waves, depending on the circumstances of the times. Then, it was the period after the Haitian occupation,” said Davis, the anthropologist. “You see a popular and ecclesiastical rejection of voudou.”
Several more laws passed in the mid to late 1800s banned the practice or the drumming and dancing it is known for. “The invading force, the Haitians, were black, they spoke different languages, and they were associated with voudou. That which was rejected by the state then becomes the official attitude,” Davis said.
By the time Trujillo took power in 1930, the relationship between Haiti, the Dominican Republic, voudou and Catholicism was already a complicated one. The massacre of 1937 would make it more complex.
The tragedy that unfolded over those few days in October 75 years ago will not be healed by a candlelight vigil and a few days of commemoration. The scars are deeper than that.
But by at least initiating a discussion about the incident, the ceremony was able to break the silence around it, as the Jesuit priest suggested.
On the night of the ceremony, I stood next to Carrion and Paulino as the lanterns floated away. Paulino leaned against the fence and rested his face on his folded arms. “Seventy-five years ago, people were throwing themselves in this river trying to escape the machete,” he said, wiping a tear from his cheek. “Today, the people … they’ve come to bear witness.”
 Published by the Catholic Institute for International Relations, 2004.