On the first day that my fellow student researchers and I returned to Mata los Indios in the Dominican Republic, our trek was pretty muddy. As we squished and squelched our way to the batey, the velcro on my trusty Merrell sandals became so clogged that it wouldn’t function, leaving me with a raw, open blister on the inside of my right ankle. Through cement mixing, dirt sifting, and slogging across Cruz Verde in the rain, keeping it clean and dry was impossible. I tried to go barefoot when inside and to refrain from complaining, but during an even muddier return trip to Mata los Indios, it was painful and dirt-filled.
Mata los Indios, a small batey in the rural province of Monte Plata, is less than a mile from the village of Cruz Verde, where we were staying, but a world away economically. It’s hard to imagine that there is something smaller or more vulnerable than a village, but in the Dominican Republic, there is: a batey. A batey is a small company town that was set up for sugar cane workers decades ago. There are hundreds of them throughout the country, near the cane fields and usually owned by either the government or the owner of the fields. There have been times in the last century when workers were imprisoned on the batey until the work was done, and there was a time when all workers suspected of being Haitian were rounded up and murdered en masse.
A typical batey cement block structure. Inside it would likely be broken up into several different homes.
Most of the sugar industry left the Dominican years ago, but even when it was thriving, there was always a dead season. When there was no cane, the workers had no way of making money. Some would travel back over the border to their native Haiti each dead season, but others put down roots. They were not allowed to own their homes in the batey or elsewhere, but many have lived there for generations. Some of the people we met had never been to Haiti while others spoke no Spanish. To many Dominicans though, rich and poor alike, they are all equally Haitian: black, foreign, and suspect.
While we took bucket showers in the dark after the power cut out at 9 pm in Cruz Verde, Mata had few homes with any electricity at all. There were no bathrooms in Mata’s homes, only the occasional outhouse built by residents, like most bateyes. We were forbidden from ever being there after dark. While both villages were on either side of a highway, Mata lies at a lower elevation and the inbound dirt road floods throughout the rainy season, effectively cutting Mata off from the outside world for several months. Even Cruz Verde, Mata’s close neighbor is cute off. Just a couple football fields away, Cruze Verde’s residents have lighter skin, less obviously African features, but even those who look similar to their neighbors are more likely to be considered Dominican. Folks in Cruz Verde are more likely to hold a cedula, or government-issued ID card that grants them access to benefits like education, voting, owning land, and now, remaining in their own country.
The home I stayed in a short distance away in Cruz Verde.
Trekking through ankle-deep stagnant water with an open wound had me seeing a doctor not long after I returned home to make sure I didn’t contract hookworm, but it was worth it to finally do what I came to do: conduct some interviews in Mata. To finally be doing something real again in Mata. I was studying social entrepreneurship at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, and this field research summer semester had real-world implications for the communities we were hoping to help. It had only been two months since I had last been in this community, but finally witnessing firsthand the devastating effects of Mata’s floods made my skin itch to make good on our promise to do something, anything, for the people of Mata los Indios.
We spoke to San Juan (“like the city in Puerto Rico”, the boricua told me) outside of his home. He held two machetes and a piece of wood in one hand, which is entirely normal for a bracero, or cane-cutter. He worked in a cane field for a white man who pays him pennies a day at the end of every month for the skin-cutting, flesh-scarring, body-ageing, back-breaking labor. With no industry nearby, no cedula to allow him to own land or have rights in a town or city with a more robust economy, and too poor to pay for transportation to and from the capital for better work, cane-cutting was his best bad option. For Haitians and their descendants (or anyone suspected of being one), there is the added hurdle of discrimination from many Dominicans, excluding them from certain work like food service.
Elders of Mata los Indios meet with my research group to welcome us.
After we finished the interview, which was the first in Mata los Indios for Nico, a Puerto Rican student on my research team, Nico told me he couldn’t believe how sad the man’s eyes were. There are so many more men like him in that batey, and the hundreds of other bateyes throughout the country. Alone, boney, aged, and poor. Resigned to their life. Worn clothing hangs off shoulders like scarecrows, and the rubber boots that are their only protection from the razor-like sugar cane blend in with the calloused skin that shows through where chunks of rubber have worn away over the years.
Audrey took San Juan’s photo in front of his house for our survey, and they got to chatting. As Nico and I were discussing how Mata and is similar or different o the typical batey. We moved on and interviewed others, but the batey is small and we were focused on his quadrant. Between interviews, we saw him lift his pant leg. The small movement of cloth revealed a white, rancid wound. He had been injured while working the cane and got nothing for it from his employer.
When I got close, a dry, acrid smell surrounded me. His left foot was white, como el Blanco who owned the cane fields, he told us. This discoloration came from the powder the clinic gave him for the wound, he said. Flies freely picked at his raw skin. Audrey identified it as a staph infection.
A typical scene in the batey: more homes built onto or repairs done to the original cement structure. Each of those doors would be a different home. These housed single men, like San Juan.
There was nothing I could give to him, do for him, or say to him. Audrey reminded him of the free clinic. I could only thank him for his time and his help with our survey, quietly and earnestly. In light of such an urgent, persist problem, the careful, lengthy process ahead of us to connect this community to sustainable development, such as microfinance loans, seemed woefully inadequate.
Like so many others, San Juan could not just wait until he gets home to go see the doctor. He cannot afford a few days off to let his leg heal. There is no infectious disease specialist, no injection, no penicillin, no Neosporin, and no band-aids. There’s just him, those machetes and his old boots, getting torn apart by cane every day until the dead season. Every year until he is too weak for the work.
There’s nothing I or the others could do for him. He has my thanks and my thoughts. The best I can do is tell his story.
When I think back on this now, I think about whether he and his neighbors have been kicked out of the batey of Mata los Indios yet, since they have no rights to the abandoned company town and the government can kick them out at any time. I think about whether he or any of his Haitian-born or Haitian-ancestry neighbors have been kicked out of the country altogether, now that the few of them who had cedulas have lost them due to the Dominican government’s recent law. I wonder if a poor, injured, dark-skinned boriqua will get caught up in the deportations and sent to a country he has never seen before, where he has no connections or ties of any kind. And I wonder why we can’t seem to do any better by San Juan, or the many others like him.
A boy in a batey plays with a homemade kite made from a plastic bag and some string.