By Fran Siracusa
It was a muggy evening in the batey. Inside the warm and stuffy room of the Learning Center, our small group of teens and moms eagerly listened to Amy as she spoke of the history of a divided Dominican Republic. It was hard to hear, however, due to the knocking and rattling of the Center’s blue wooden door and chain, as five little boys shrieked and giggled trying to open the door and join us. Amy kindly but firmly yelled out to them in Spanish to stop banging the door and come back by in a little bit. But next, the door flew open, and as I looked up, I saw the batey boys throw something into the room, and then begin to shriek with laughter. I thought for sure “it” was a toy. My sons then cautioned me not to look, and so then I thought for certain that it was a large insect or lizard. Amy yelled at them again, asking them to come pick “it” up and take “it” out. She had a funny look on her face, as did my sons. The children grabbed “it,” took “it” out chuckling, and then returned five minutes later with “it,” now tied up inside a plastic bag. They threw this back inside, whereas Amy then picked up the bag, and tossed it out to them and told them not to return with it. Amy proceeded to double-lock the door, so as to prevent any more interruptions. But we could still hear them, playing and snickering right outside the door. We could even see their little hands and feet reaching under the slit at the bottom of the door, pleading for our attention. And later I found out what “it” was: it was a dead rat!
In shock, I questioned if the batey boys were playing a practical joke. We heard them calling our own boys’ names, inviting them to come outside and play with them. Was it a cry for attention? Perhaps, were the batey boys angry with our kids, and instead making an underlying point with the dead rat, perhaps asserting their place or position in their hometown, while we were mere visitors? Were they trying to maintain the upper-hand, like a power play? All these thoughts drifted through our minds.
After spending a couple days at a homestay in Batey Libertad, I witnessed the overwhelming poverty of the batey’s people. Whether it was the simple wooden and tin structures that existed as homes, the dry clay or the wet mud of the streets all over my sneakers, the thick charcoal-smoke-filled air that made my lungs tighten, the dark and small community-shared latrines, the police raid for illegal charcoal, or the frustrating and constant shutting-off of electricity and water supplies, I thought about what fate had placed me in my homeland of America, and not here in a rural settlement of a Caribbean island. I pondered the way life seemed to pass more slowly in this community, maybe due to the incredibly warm temperatures and Spanish-sense of time and clocks. I reflected upon the happy spirit of the batey people, constantly listening to upbeat bachatas and merengue music coming from boomboxes. I watched as little ones walked around the streets, seemingly unsupervised, sometimes not fully clothed. I puzzled over if this was because of the hot temperatures or because of poverty. And, what really stood out to our group was how everyone was always “out and about.” Women sat outside their homes, enjoying each others’ company and the breeze, while they peeled the pigeon peas over large steel bowls. One could see women carrying water jugs on their heads as they probably headed back to their homes to provide hydration relief to thirsty family members. As evening rolled around, the batey was alive with even more activity, whereas people strolled, chatted, attended religious services, or cooked dinner on outdoor charcoal stoves.
In Shamanic Native American traditions, the rat is a symbol of security and survival. The rat can get by on scraps, live on wit, and is immune to the toxins of its environment and food. I think about the symbolism of this animal, and especially in descriptor words such as adaptability, resourcefulness, survival, intelligence, and withstanding negative public opinion. I cannot help but compare these positive characteristics to the people of the batey who have been denied their human rights to education, citizenship, freedom of movement and dignity. We learned during our service-learning program that residents of over 400 bateyes in the Dominican Republic were mostly of Haitian descent by way of grandparents and great-grandparents. Their relatives were recruited from Haiti many years ago by Dominican landowners, seeking cheap labor to work in the sugar cane and rice fields. At first, the bateyes were formed as settlements of barracks where the workers lived. But over time, instead of returning to their homes in Haiti, the Haitian laborers settled in the Dominican bateyes with their wives and children. The settlements continued to grow, but unfortunately, workers’ rights to fair pay, fair working conditions, sanitation, and city development were stifled. As we learned during our program and through research, the issues of inequality were not, and continue to NOT be addressed by the national government. With specific reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created in 1948 by the United Nations, and the Youth for Human Rights booklet, I feel compelled to advocate for our Dominican brothers and sisters whose rights are unfairly denied and that I witnessed:
- We are all born free and equal.
- Don’t discriminate.
- No slavery
- No unfair detainment
- Freedom to move
- The right to seek a safe place to live
- Right to a nationality
- The right to your own things
- Social Security
- Workers’ rights
- Food and shelter for all
- Right to education
“Step in” my student Nathalie and her family. Or the volunteers from Yspaniola, or the community members of Batey Libertad, who choose to both address and fight issues of inequality. I was invited to participate in such an experiential service-learning program along with my sons and friends this past May. The Yspaniola service learning trip sounded right up my alley, as it is an organization “centered on education and solidarity… (with an) aim to show students from different parts of the world that their lives are intricately connected to people seemingly a world away.” Nathalie and Melanie had invited me to partner with them in ensuring access to quality education for the batey’s children. Specifically, they asked if I would voluntarily provide support by means of teacher training for the Learning Center teachers during workshops as well as materials for classrooms. They had secured funding themselves by way of grant-awarded funds for which Nathalie had applied the year before, and based upon the needs recommendation of the Batey Libertad Peace Corps worker the family met the year before. The Learning Center directly serves the batey’s children, who respectively benefit from the educational grant monies. After the Learning Center teachers explained their needs for better tools to effect change and improvement in the students’ capacity for literacy, a plan was devised.
As for myself, inspired by the request of UN Ambassador Dessima Williams when I first met her in 2017, I wanted to scale up pedagogical innovations in order to be a catalyst for educator work that can be repeated and sustained. With small steps to progress on eventual closing of the wealth gap or education gap, I felt I could attempt to make a difference pushing Global Goals 4 and 10: Quality Education and Reduced Inequalities (respectively). At the suggestion of the Peace Corp worker and the tireless funding efforts by Nathalie and Melanie, we worked in partnership to utilize technology as a means to move education forward. In doing this, we exemplified for all, but especially my sons, how we ought to understand that we have brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and that we are connected in solidarity. As Ambassador Williams described to me, we need to further champion “connectedness to each other, not just connectivity, but connectivity for solidarity.”
The Caribbean region is one critical area of the world that struggles with sustainable development. In the Yspaniola program and the two human rights organizations we visited (ASCALA and Centro Montalvo), we learned about disquieting facts and issues facing these batey communities. Specifically, we learned of the injustice of revoked citizenship, racism, discrimination, labor rights and lack of education. We were blessed to meet and work with community leaders like Julio, Wilson and Susana, teachers like Mayra, Maricela, Leidy, Daniel and Alejandra, volunteers like Amy and Tiffany, homestay moms like Cuca and Agustina, and neighbor children like Evelín, Darlín, Yuli and Alex. The Haitian/Dominican history and issues of which we learned now connected with the human faces and kind souls of our new friends listed here.
As I reflect back on the symbolism of the rat (this time, referring to Chinese culture and beliefs), I envisage the rat’s intuitiveness, and consider how he is an incredible survivor. Despite difficult circumstances, one has the power to use one’s resources to adapt, create, and problem-solve. The shrewd rat is relentless in taking care of its needs, remains suspicious of others, and exemplifies strong vitality. In another respect, the rat is yang and represents the beginning of a new day; may each of us reading this post consider anew our positions of solidarity, spread the Global Goals, and take action to “bring a deeper understanding of the world around us and provide better opportunities for everyone,” through Quality Education and Reducing Inequalities.
Connect with me to learn more about our experience, the Yspaniola organization, or to add or access materials for teacher-training for technology for literacy and social good. @ProfeEdTech
Click button here below for 360 degree view of Centro de Aprendizaje in Batey Libertad