I have come to the end of my time here in the Dominican Republic, and I find I have much left still to consider. In one of our reflections sessions with our groups of volunteers, we are asked to define and discuss “Social Justice.” The result is a pantheon of values and opinions but never a concrete solution. Like “solving poverty” or deciding if “development is good”, there are no simple answers because the topics all rely on answering key parts of the human condition. It is a struggle as old as civilization. A struggle that many religions have tried to solve. That we have reached no solutions as humans speaks to how difficult they are to solve.
Here in this one small town in the mountains of the Dominican Republic, I have pondered many parts of these questions daily. I work with and around children who have very little in the way of material goods. I will return with vivid memories of handing small children single hot wheels and seeing their eyes light up and their imaginations take shape as they hustle off to play in the dusty, rocky road. A single jump rope galvanizes a group of preteen girls into action, leading to song and play, with a fervent declaration of “more” from kids less accustomed to having friends and thus not included in the group’s fun. A tube of bubbles elicits the same giggles here as anywhere. There is also much suffering. I have watched many a child without any friendship skills or power struggle as another, larger or older child takes away a ball or game. Here the Platonic explanation of how might does not make right is fully unsupported. If you have the larger share of size or friends, you get what you want. I cannot explain the regular iron taste I get in my mouth, and the tightening in the pit of my stomach as injustice unfolds and a child’s happiness is dashed. There are so many kids here without present parents that there often isn’t even anyone to comfort or succor those in need.
It is as if time and life have passed this village by. Girls getting pregnant at 14, several volunteers remarked a few weeks ago, is medieval. Yet it is the way here. When my English classes faltered and attendance shrank from dozens to a trickle, I was not surprised. I’d already noticed that I had but a small window of grace to teach in. My only viable students were the boys and girls who had yet to reach puberty and who were not athletic enough to play sports all afternoon. The one or two older ones who had already learned some English all had other responsibilities, one ran her family’s small store, another was constantly off to help his father and uncle with farming and husbandry. When I had so many students attending, I knew it wouldn’t last. They came in a crowd, as though a whole clan had left behind the Bachata and sitting in the shade to come see this Americano in action and see what was up. There were women ranging from 13-25 there, and a gaggle of four or five small children who belonged to those ladies. I never got more than a few minutes of attention from my students, as that is all they have to give in a culture where no one has ever expected them to concentrate on learning.
I felt this same lack of discipline whenever I helped the volleyball or baseball teams practice. The kids spend so much of their lives just surviving, there is no room for strength in other less important areas. It’s wonderful and thrilling to have them playing sports together. Truly when the alternative for these girls is sitting around and waiting to get pregnant, I know that whatever this volleyball team gives them is a blessing. As the boys run laps and stretch together more and more before their baseball scrimmage, I am constantly hopeful for how their team will develop over the months and years. However, it is hard to feel the progress and credit it as meaningful in its impact when it falls so short of the potential of people their age. I feel so commonly here a stifling density, a weight of poverty burdening the people that is so heavy that they dare not lift their head or give over their concentration to any other form of diversion lest the load crush them.
The few children who seem to have a possible path out, I wish the best, even though I can feel the draining of resources from an already meager existence. If the smartest children with a little more means to scrape by manage to escape from this town, then what hope do the people left over have. When the hope of change is gone, there is nothing left to do but join together into a tighter family. If everyone has nothing, at least they can have each other. This is the happiness of the Dominican Republic. I have been told here by several people with pride that it is the happiest nation on earth, and that when international surveys are taken, people here have more joy and a better sense of togetherness than other places. Under that pride is a sick, savage reality. Many children here are raised by their grandparents or not at all because one or more parents have died and the other is off making money in the capital and sending it home. So many of these children are completely illiterate and don’t know their own alphabet at 12, 13, or 14, and cannot think in more than one step. I have been overjoyed to lose to a few of them in Checkers or Connect 4, because those that can fathom the strategy and win have learned how to think. There are many kids here who are nine, ten, or eleven and already their chance has passed. Their peers all just say “he doesn’t know” when you try to talk to the child. When I’ve gotten a moment with these kids, they seem simply shy, and downtrodden. Likely suffering in silence because they have some difference or perhaps fall on some spectrum that goes unidentified here. Once fallen behind, they have fallen victim to the Pirates Code and are left behind. They tag along at the edges for now. I can only assume they eventually join the ranks of drunks and crazies that often stumble through town only to have insults thrown their way by the hordes of unattended children, with no recourse but to throw rocks as the peals of laughter and screams of fear echo for blocks.
I reflect here daily on some of the absurdities of American culture and individualism. People here are reasonable to be shocked by parts of American culture that require independence, as it is wholly foreign to them. I have come to a sort of balancing description of our differing cultures that I think sums things up fairly well: In the United States we are more independent and take more individual responsibility for things, but have less group responsibility for the people around us. In the Dominican Republic they have little individual responsibility but take care of groups like family and neighbors. On the flip side, our personal independence and ability contribute to an overall society that is more responsible and productive than the Dominicans. Here much of progress is stifled by what we would call corruption, but to them is far less insidious since it is simply people making short term decisions that help each other look out for their own smaller circles.
I do not mean to imply that our individualism and personal responsibility mantra is without fault – for there are many Americans left behind by our creed, and many more subjected to daily micro-aggressions as a result of ignored privilege from those perpetrating the micro-aggressions (or blatant bias or racism, but I have the privilege of always trying to give the benefit of the doubt). Many a Bernie supporter would tell you that our system needs to be dismantled. Most of those people also come from a position of privilege and would be well served by coming here to learn more about their own privilege and the true power and value of our supposedly malignant institutions. There is certainly room for improvement to our system. You need look no further than the Black Lives Matter movement to see the need for accountability and an end to racial violence amongst our honorable men and women in uniform. Likewise, for an apt comparison to the problems faced here in Derrumbadero, you need only look at the suffering of many lower and middle class Americans through the Rust Belt who voted for Donald Trump because they see in him a strongman who will try anything and speak up for their forgotten and missed lives and livelihoods. People here in Derrumbadero voted in their own corrupt mayor for another term last year because he distributed bags of rice and beans on election day. To put it in a way that seems to get through to many of our American volunteers here, planning for the future is a privilege, and people don’t have that privilege here. If you spoke, patiently and with deference, to Trump supporters who voted for him as a means of grabbing the bull by it’s balls, they might be able to figure out some of the longer term damage he is capable of, or connect the dots between his reductivism and reactionary Twitter use with the reasonable fear of putting him in charge of a nuclear arsenal. You also might find that many of those people couldn’t get to that logic. They’d stop somewhere along the line of “but he’s going to change things and that means I might have a chance again”.
Culture and change are messy affairs. Here in the Dominican Republic I have had several conversations with people who voice legitimate gripes about the current president (for example he said during his Independence Day speech in February that there are not poor people in the Dominican Republic). These same people also have voiced a desire to keep him in power, or at the very least gratitude that he is the president. In this country, there have been many terrible presidents, some dictators, and occupations by various countries (including the United States). Danillo, the current president, may enjoy a good photo op more than he enjoys the hard work of solving problems, and he may be disastrously out of touch with some of the problems in the southern part of the country, but what he lacks in strengths, he also lacks in vices. With luck and time, the next president may be better, and help lead this country forward. There are, after all, many trees being planted here to help forestall the erosion and damage like they have experienced in Haiti, and many roads have been built. Unlike the slogans ironically shackling every town’s entrance, poverty has not been eradicated in our generation. I have little hope of that here. But with a youth center, a new road, potentially running water again by year’s end, and the dedication of a few forward thinking families, this town can grow and prosper.
Ultimately I have gained here in Derrumbadero some lessons I hope to grow on for the rest of my life. I have another family. Flor, my host mother, is always taking in more. From what I can count, she has three adopted children who she simply started feeding and housing because she could. No matter what anyone has, they can always give. It reminds me of the Bible passage (Mark 12) where Jesus praises a woman who gives her only coin to the temple while chastising the rich men who gave only a small portion of their vast wealth. It is not what you have but what you give. I have learned how deep my education goes. I continue to learn how much I owe to my parents and their diligence in raising me to be a thinking, reading young man. If the children here were as lucky as I am in the parents I have, I am certain that the world would be at their fingertips. Every time I read a book to the smallest children here, I felt the weight of my parents’ and siblings commitment to reading that helped me learn so strongly to love books. I have learned here an expression for pain and happiness that I wish I’d known sooner, for it so aptly describes life’s waxing and waning emotions. It comes from the graphic novel Persepolis, and since I have not read it in years, sadly I am paraphrasing: A person only has so much room for pain. When they are filled, there is nothing left but to be happy.