Dominicans Protested the Violence of Christopher Columbus Celebrations — & Were Attacked

Photo: courtesy of Jehdy Vargas, Acción Afro-Dominicana.
The UNESCO World Heritage agency describes Santo Domingo not only as the capital of the Dominican Republic, but of the West Indies historically, and romanticizes the province as a touristic destination with much of its architecture “almost unaltered” from its previous colonial saga. What goes ignored, unsurprisingly, is even a transitory mention of slavery or genocide. It exalts Santo Domingo as “the site of the first cathedral, hospital, customs house and university in the Americas,” but it does little to explain it as the portal to the so-called New World. It fails to underscore that by being the recipient of the first ships of enslaved Africans by virtue of the Middle Passage, this also makes present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic — originally referred to as Ayiti or Bohío — the cradle of Blackness in the Americas.
While disregarded internationally, the reality and legacy of colonialism and enslavement in Hispaniola are issues locals contend with daily. For nearly 20 years, Dominican activists have gathered on October 12 — known by Dominican ultranationalists in the country as El Dia de La Raza, a day to celebrate Christopher Columbus for his (forceful) mixing of the races — for a peaceful protest that denounces the invasion of Columbus and, instead, honors the legacy of Anacaona, a warrior chief among the Indigenous Taíno of modern-day Haiti-DR. Regarded as one of the most prolific Taíno caciques to have lived, the celebration of Anacaona aims to exalt Dominican Afro-Indigeneity and the aboriginal population of before. But this year, as groups like Acción Afro-Dominicana, Guabancex Viento y Agua, El Grito de los Excluidos, and many other collectives gathered at Parque Colón in the Zona Colonial district of Santo Domingo, the event that often includes reading poetry and playing music turned violent when the far-right paramilitary organization Old Dominican Order beat demonstrators with metal sticks and batons. According to the mostly women protesters, the attack was the latest violation of their human rights.

“This was state-sanctioned violence."

Jehdy Vargas
“This was state-sanctioned violence. Instead of protecting us and our civil rights, we are beaten by these neo-nazis and forced out of here through their violence and false indignation.” Jehdy Vargas, a performance artist with Movimiento Reconocido who was badly wounded during the attack, told Refinery29 Somos. She, like many activists in the city, believe that the Dominican police are complicit in the Old Dominican Order’s attack by not protecting demonstrators or categorically denouncing the assault as racist. “I’m still shaking. I cannot begin to think straight.” 
Photo: courtesy of Jehdy Vargas, Acción Afro-Dominicana.
To counteract the lack of local media coverage, protesters have been sharing videos of the attack on Instagram and YouTube. In one video, members of the Old Dominican Order can be heard shouting various insults and accusing protesters of being pro-Haitian or Haitian themselves. Some describe the Jaragua Massacre, the Spanish killing of Indigenous people from the town of Xaragua in July 1503, as a “Haitian voodoo ceremony.” Others credit Columbus for giving Dominicans their language and “hispanicness.” In one instance, a discernibly Black member of the Old Dominican Order takes the mic and doubles down on the violence that took place. “We are not Africa. We are Hispanic. We are Taino,” he said, bizarrely, in the same breath.  
Maribel Núñez, an afro-feminist writer and educator, co-organizes the event annually to spread awareness about the infamous “Massacre of Jaragua” through a highly artistic cultural act that redeems the aboriginal and Black identity.” According to the elder, who endured physical trauma to the hip and buttocks, the Old Dominican Order’s response to the demonstration is further evidence of her country’s intentional misremembering and need for education. “We, as a society, celebrate the arrival of Columbus. We do not talk about him as someone who committed genocide, femicide, rape, and colonization,” she says of El Dia de La Raza, or the day “race came to be.” 

"We, as a society, celebrate the arrival of Columbus. We do not talk about him as someone who committed genocide, femicide, rape, and colonization."

Maribel Núñez
“Our people desperately need the truth,” she continues. “Only when we come to know the truth can we begin to construct a different story, one free of social and cultural oppression. Because the caste system still prevails here. The caste of the Spanish, of the European immigrant. Our children are still dressing up as their colonizers in school. We are a majority Afro-Indigenous nation. This pains us.” 
Photo: courtesy of Jehdy Vargas, Acción Afro-Dominicana.
In addition to the annual demonstration, activists have been calling for the eradication of the Colón statue and petitioning for the renaming of the park from Parque Colón to Parque Anacaona. “This continuation of colonialism and the white ruling class that insists on negating the truth, made it possible to prop up a statue of Christopher Columbus, standing all triumph-like, in the heart of a nation he committed heinous crimes upon. And at his feet, una india, which everyone agrees represents Anacaona. The contradiction is massive. It’s worthless and deplorable that this was ever allowed,” says Núñez, who is still moving around after the attack, but sounds overfatigued on the other end of the line. 
In a proclamation Núñez wrote following the attack, she recalls the lasting impact of Anacaona’s bravery and leadership, denounces Columbus’ invasion and the evil the Spanish bestowed upon the original land and people, and demands the government of President Luis Abinader take responsibility “since it has assumed hate speech, and did not provide us any protection.” 

"The Dominican peoples’ ignorance is a result of being wholly denied of one’s history and truth. We have been perpetually denied the right to learn our story."

“The Dominican peoples’ ignorance is a result of being wholly denied of one’s history and truth. We have been perpetually denied the right to learn our story. We cannot gather to speak about slavery or genocide. We cannot talk about racism in a public space without risking our lives,” says Núñez. “We exercised our supposed freedom in accordance with the rule of law and as citizens backed by the constitution itself, yet we were met with these criminals in black uniforms.”
Núñez and Vargas, who organize together around Santo Domingo, say this year’s attacks by the Old Dominican Order hearken back to the Trujillo Dictatorship, which plagued and cost the lives of generations of Haitians and Black Dominicans for 30 years.
Photo: courtesy of Jehdy Vargas, Acción Afro-Dominicana.
“The police did nothing but stand around. This is why we must also dismantle the hateful structure of the police to serve and protect. Who do they serve and protect,” begs Vargas. “All we see them continue to do is kill our Black and Brown brothers and sisters at growing rates here like in the U.S.”
To read the proclamation in full, and for an overview of the events that transpired, visit Acción Afro-Dominicana.

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