Culture and IdentityHistory and PoliticsQuisqueya Ahora

‘Tus Papeles?’ (“Your Papers?”): Thoughts on Dominican Citizenship and Diaspora

Photo taken by Rafael C. Gomez

Written by Rafael Gómez

 “Tus papeles?” (“Your papers?”) asked the guard, looking straight at me while the bus I was on from the border town of Bánica, in the province of Elías Piña, heading toward Santo Domingo, reached one of the many military checkpoints along the road. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was expecting that moment. After all, I was only one of four or five Dominicans riding a bus filled with Haitian passengers. I am not used to being asked to produce my papers so casually; not in the Dominican Republic nor in the United States where I have lived for over 20 years now. Still, no amount of mental preparation could make me ready for that moment—the moment where I am asked to prove who I am and that I legally belong in my country of birth.



I was overcome with sadness and million things went through my head as I handed him my freshly-minted U.S. Passport. “Can’t he see that I am Dominican? Do I look foreign? Is he mistaking me for Haitian? If so, what is his criteria for determining that?” Another thought went through my head and this had to do with the guard questioning me. The cynic in me could not help but notice that his skin-tone was arguably darker than mine. In a different (and more perverse) universe, I would have asked him, “y tú abuela donde está?” (“and your grandmother, where is she?”) to show him I could be “more Dominican” than him. Instead, I submissively complied.

Selfie taken by Rafael Gomez
Selfie taken by Rafael Gomez

He quickly gave me my passport back. Whatever discomfort I experienced, could not compare to the discomfort and harassment experienced by Haitian migrants and workers on the same bus, even those who had the proper documentation. A lot has been written about the fallout of “La Sentencia”—the 2013 ruling by the Dominican Republic’s constitutional tribunal and the climate of social insecurity it has created for Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent all throughout the Dominican Republic.[1] Without a doubt, the ruling has had a ripple effect in communities throughout the Dominican Republic, as Haitians and their descendants have been thrown into a dehumanizing legal limbo with very little protection. Due to the brevity of my travels in the Dominican Republic and my status as a U.S. citizen, I will never experience what Haitian immigrants and their children are currently experiencing. However, my travels did allow me to glimpse the present realities of Haitians and their descendants as they navigate throughout the Dominican Republic.



There was another—and just as curious—moment in my encounter with the guard. This was the moment when I handed him my passport. For some reason, I could not help but notice how unsettling it was that I, someone born and raised in the Dominican Republic, was using a U.S. passport to both identify myself and account for my presence in the Dominican Republic.

Such is the reality of voluntary and economic migration for some returning members of the Dominican diaspora. This reality is one in which an outside entity (in this case the United States) mediates our very presence in our “own” country. Of course, this would not be an issue if it were not for the rather peculiar relationship between the United States and the Dominican Republic; a relationship marked by the repeated intrusion of the United States into Dominican affairs, leading to an indiscriminate imbalance of benefits benefitting primarily the United States.

In the past 50 years, the Dominican Republic has become one of the largest sources of migrants to the United States.[2] In fact, the voluntary economic migration of Dominicans to the United States has been, perhaps, the central story of the post-Trujillo trajectory taken by Dominicans, both as a nation and as individuals. Inevitably, such outflow of people and the emergence of a sizeable Dominican diaspora has led to a reconsideration of what it means to be a Dominican citizen, particularly since migration has meant the inclusion, integration, and accommodation into American society. At the very least, the outflow of Dominican citizens and the rise of its diaspora in the United States, European countries, etc., requires a decoupling of the understanding of Dominican citizenship from the physical or territorial Dominican nation.



As noted by historian Kevin Kenny, the word diasporá comes from the verb of the Greek word diaspering, a conjunction of the terms “dia” (“over” and/or “through”) and “speirein” (“to scatter or to sow”) and “in all its various uses diaspora has something to do with scattering and dispersal”.[3] For the Greek philosopher Epicurious, the word diaspora entailed a process of corrosion associated with rottenness as well as the disintegration of units into much lesser and tinier parts, separating the whole.

Never before had I felt as scattered, detached, and dispersed from the Dominican Republic as I felt during that exchange with the guard. My identity as a Dominican felt fragmented and completely removed from who I understood myself to be. Those feelings of detachment were amplified as I realized that even as I self-identify as Dominican, such identification is now tightly bound to my life as an American citizen. For better or worse, the United States has become the place where I see myself most deeply at home. On the other hand, the Dominican Republic felt as a place in which I am a detached outsider.



[1] See Mejia, Nicia C. “Dominican Apartheid: Inside the Flawed Migration System of the Dominican Republic.” Harvard Latino Law Review, Vol. 18 (2015)., pp. 201; see also, Hannan, Monique. “Soy Dominicano: The Status of Haitian Descendants Born in the Dominican Republic and Measures to Protect Their Right to a Nationality.” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 47 (2014)., pp.1123.

[2] Hernández, Ramona. The Mobility of Workers Under Advanced Capitalism: Dominican Migration to the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

[3] Kenny, Kevin. Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 2.


About the author: Rafael Gomez is a PhD candidate at the University of Albany and an adjunct instructor at Borough of Manhattan Community College – CUNY. 



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