For 50,000 Haitians and Dominicans, the pronunciation of the letter “r” was the difference between life and death.
In October 1937, on the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, soldiers under the orders of president Rafael Trujillo (nicknamed El Jefe) assassinated thousands of people with machetes, bayonets, and rifles. For five days, the soldiers carried around a sprig of parsley and asked their soon-to-be victims what it was that they held. The correct answer––and the one on the side of life––was “perejil” with a trilled “r” sound, the Dominican “r”. If you answered “perejil” with a wide, flat “r” sound––the Haitian “r”––you would not have been left alive.
And so went the Parsley Massacre. The vast majority of the victims were Haitians or people of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic; however many Dominicans were killed trying to protect the Haitian victims. Trujillo’s motivations for the Parsley Massacre remain unclear, although most attribute the massacre to Trujillo’s pro-Nazi sentiments and hope of racial-cleansing, to “whiten” the Dominican population. After the massacre, Trujillo commissioned reports that sought to justify the killings by emphasizing the 22-year Haitian occupation of the Dominican Republic – which had ended more than a century earlier. Trujillo also presented these actions towards Haitians as punishment for crimes committed against Dominican farmers. On October 2, 1937, he gave a short speech to the effect:
For some months, I have traveled and traversed the border in every sense of the word. 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…This remedy will continue…
Because Haiti consists mostly of rugged, mountainous terrain interspersed with valleys and coastal plains, many Haitians migrated (and continue to migrate) east where they could work more fertile lands. But despite their attempts to create a better life, Haitians in the Dominican Republic continue to face discrimination and threats of deportation. About half a million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, most of whom work menial jobs. About 210,000 more people were born in the Dominican Republic to one or more Haitian parents. Haitian families who have been in the Dominican Republic for generations––whose children were born on Dominican soil––are refused citizenship and the rights to citizenship grants, such as a birth certificate and the chance to go to school.
On June 17, a registration policy that allowed Haitians in the Dominican Republic to prove that they are in the country legally expired, leaving the vast majority of Haitians in the DR to wait and see the measures the government will take against immigrants they deem illegal. A little over 200,000 Haitians or Dominicans of partial Haitian descent started the application process, but only 5,000 completed it, leaving the vast majority of Haitians in the DR in limbo. The government claims that there will be no mass deportations, but Haitians in the DR are still left to fear the uncertainty of their situation. Ninety percent of the Dominican Republic’s agricultural workforce is comprised of undocumented Haitians; in cities Haitians and their children make up a sizeable portion of menial job holders. The economic advantages of allowing Haitians to work in the Dominican Republic are clear; but how the government will choose to act with respect to nonlegal Haitian residents remains to be seen.