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Issue 005 Winter 2023 Features

A Port Within an Island

An artist investigates the Dominican racial imaginary, from Philadelphia to Samaná.

A field guide by Lizania Cruz

Los Puentes de Samaná (The Bridges of Samaná) commissioned during the first twelve years of the presidency of Joaquin Balaguer. All images courtesy Lizania Cruz.

Brothers let us leave
For Port-Au-Prince in Hayti
There we’ll be receive
Grand as la Fayet-te
—Gary B. Nash

In 1824, when Hispaniola was the republic of Hayti, then-president Jean Pierre Boyer, sent a governmental official, Jonathan Graville, to the United States with instructions to recruit around 6,000 free people of color to settle on the island. In exchange, Boyer would pay for the passage of all the immigrants, compensate them for a four-month trial period upon arrival, and provide 36 acres of land to cultivate for every 12 laborers. Additionally, he agreed to pay for their return to the United States in the case they didn’t feel at home. Advertisements were placed throughout different periodicals, such as the Genius of Universal Emancipation and the Baltimore Courier.

However, most of those who ventured on the journey did so on the advice of Richard Allen, the first Black bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Philadelphia. They traveled from Baltimore, North Carolina, Philadelphia, and New York to start a new life in Haiti. Around two hundred of them settled in the northern east side peninsula known today as Samaná (now part of the Dominican Republic).

Almost two centuries later, Hispaniola, the land that once was one territory, is divided in two nations; Haiti in the west and Dominican Republic in the east. What was then a dream land for Black immigrants is now a nightmare for Dominicans of Haitian descent. In 2013, La Sentencia 168/13, issued by the Constitutional Tribunal, effectively stripped an estimated 200,000 Black Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, leaving them stateless.

An excerpt of Cruz's notas y comentarios (notes and commentary)

This is one of the latest antics of the Dominican state in its denial of our collective history. As a kid, I would go on vacation several times to Samaná with my family. I would always dream about its isolated beaches, the walking bridges as monuments, and how much I loved the coconut bread. Going back as an adult and an artist has forged a new perspective on the significance of this place culturally and geographically.

In 2021, I spent time in Samaná researching, conducting oral histories, and staging a happening to better articulate how this place—once a dream land for Black immigrants—fits into the Dominican imaginary. To better understand how our mythos—as people and as a nation—has morphed into this way of being, I started the Investigation of the Dominican Racial Imaginary (2019–ongoing), a participatory, research-based art project. Similar to a forensic investigation, the project collects and archives material evidence of the tools and strategies that the nation-state of the Dominican Republic has implemented to erase and suppress our African heritage from our consciousness. But most importantly, it hopes to formulate a counternarrative on how, despite these efforts, our Africaness and Blackness is present and vibrant today both in the island and in its diaspora.

Here, images and archival selections attempt to outline an alternative framework—a new kind of imaginary that centers our African heritage and sits with the effects of migration on our sense of belonging…

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