Sunday, September 4, 2011

Los Santos, Altagracia, A Little History

Los Santos
         Altagracia used to make extra money by reading taza, or tea leaves, although she usually uses coffee instead of tea and reads the drips that run down the outside of the coffee cup after the person has drunk and then turns the cup upside down over a candle to scorch the dregs to increase their resolution. She might be able to tell you what your spouse is up to nights when he or she is out, warn you about upcoming health issues or see other things in your life that might be making you unhappy. Afterwards she gives the client a prescription that is usually a perfume or soap or shampoo, never anything ingested. She read taza for Britannia a week before Britannia got in a knife fight and when I asked if she had foreseen such an event she said no, but that she happened to know that Britannia never took her prescription. She was very matter of fact about this talent when she explained to me that, yup, her father had it but that she was the only one of her 13 siblings who had it, so it goes.
         The other evening Altagracia announced that she would like a rum and coke so we dispatched Niningo to the colmado for a half pint of Brugal, the most popular local brand and the one that many people think actually comes from drilled wells in the ground rather than from a distillery, and a large bottle of coke and when she finished that we sent him for more. Altagracia frequently announces that she is going ot get drunk but she scarcely ever has more than a sip and it has become a joke that when she says, “I am going to get stinking drunk tonight”, we say, “Not again!”. But tonight was different and, as she drank while we  watched television, she became quieter and quieter and eventually she nodded off for a few seconds but when she awoke she said clearly and in her own voice, “I am Anahisa.” Niningo happened to be heading out the door but when he heard this he called for Chavela and he grabbed a notepad and we all sat down in front of her to listen and Niningo took notes.
         We listened intently as Anahisa, who is the Voodu derivative of Saint Anne, addressed each of us in turn and warned us about certain possible although vague dangers looming in our lives and recomended a balm or tea to help avoid them. After a few minutes Altagracia’s head dropped again but she rewoke after a few seconds and announced that she was now San MIguel and she again advised us and Niningo took more notes and after a few minutes she dropped back off and awoke as Santa Marta. During allof the visitations she spoke clearly and in her own voice, perhaps a little more deliberatley than usual. After Santa Marta left her she reawoke sleepily as Altagracia and looked at us a little confused  because we were sitting in a row in front of her in straight-back chairs paying close attention-- which is unusual for us-- and she listened curiously as we described what had happened. When I asked her where I might find the shampoo named Arame that Anahisa had prescribed for me she said that she had never heard of it and I could not tell if the little smile that flickered across her face meant that she was telling the truth or not.


         When Altagracia is in a happy chattery mood, chuckling on about food, love, clothes, her hair and work there is no one like her, and when she is complaining about this house that is no good that is in this barrio that is no good, these children who are no good, that she has nobody to help her, that she is going to die soon from anemia because she has run out of blood and does not have one drop left in her and that Luis, her not so dearly departed ex knew what concoction to give her to cure her anemia but that I know nothing about anything, there is no one like her either. On these bad days she wakes up like after being hit by a bus and says that everywhere hurts and that she has no strength and is dizzy and cannot walk and hot coffee does not taste hot and even though it might have 4 teaspoons of sugar in it it does not taste sweet either. She says she is hungry but will not eat and says she wants anemia medicine but when I hand her the bottle of Ferro-sul from on top of the refrigerator she will not take any. It is 6 in the morning by now and she wakes up Chavela to give her the school lunch money for the day and tells her that she is putting too much salt in the food and that is why nobody can finish their lunch and it winds up getting thrown out and that she is forbidden to wear clothes through which her panties can be seen and that she better hurry up and get married because there is no money here to feed her. Then she wakes up Niningo and tells him that he is going to die if he doesn’t stop being constipated and that he better quit school and quit fooling around with that computer and either get a job or sign with a major league team because there is no money here to feed him and she is sick and tired of working 8 hours cleaning the pension and 8 cleaning the house and washing clothes by hand when she gets home.
         Altagracia is an anomaly in a country that has been renown for its laziness for over 500 years. We have running water in the house and in the utility sink on the patio but Altagracia fills the 55 gallon drum by hauling water out of the cistern using a bucket on a rope. We have a portable washing machine, called a lavadora, but Altagracia usually washes and wrings the clothes out by hand because she can separate the colors better even though she believes that it is having her hands in strong detergent so much that gives her migraines. At 9 o'clock last night, after work and after bleaching the bathroom and washing the dishes leftover from the noon meal, she washed 5 dresses by hand that had not been worn but had been hanging too long, she figured, in the closet and were getting dusty. The day before was her day off and she spent that day double-mopping the entire house because Chavela misses the corners on her daily moppings, scouring her cast aluminum cookware and ironing. She does this fueled only by a breakfast of coffee with hot milk, a 15¢ sleeve of heavy gum drops on the guagua commute home, a plate of rice with beans around 5PM and a late dinner of bread and cheese with boiled platanos or yucca. When we have chicken she only eats the feet and necks.

DR HIstory
I am reading the Manual of Dominican History by Frank Moya Pons and it seems that at no time in its history since Columbus did anyone really want to live here. The indigenous culture was dead within 40 years of contact with Columbus. In the early days the European population was comprised of sailors and soldiers many of whom married indigenous women to then live on in poverty. The gold rush was short lived and the gold rushers moved on to Mexico where there was more. Africans were imprisoned and brought here by force to replace the local population which was rapidly being exterminated through disease, slaughter and overwork; in 1546 there were 12,000 Africans to 5000 whites. Natives of the Canary Islands, who were even poorer than Dominicans were encouraged to immigrate beginning in 1684 with gifts of land and again in 1687 and 1690 to replace those previous who had died of smallpox and other pestilence. The money here has ALWAYS been concentrated in the hands of a few aristocratic types living in Santo Domingo or in Spain-- most the population has always been poor. Other than cultivating and refining sugar cane--which is a lot of work for, often, small profit, the most consistent source of income from export was shooting escaped and feral cattle and selling the meat and hides. The colony was always dependent on financial aide from Spain which was sent through Mexico and sometimes arrived years late due to piracy and negligence. The general tone of depression, hunger and fear of invasion by either England or France of the first 250 years of colonization gave way to fear of invasion by the western part of the island,i.e. Haiti, which came true in 1803 and lasted until 1843; and the Dominicans racial distrust and dislike of Haitians stems from those years. The nominal Father of the Dominican Republic, Juan Pablo Duarte, was highly educated, enlightened, principled and honest and is, today the most honored figure in the history of the DR and who inspired the revolution of 1844 along with Mella and Sanchez, but in the months following the successful revolt Duarte was exiled by the military and never led or was able to beneficially influence the country. The Dominican Republic’s very first years as an independent nation were spent under the ruthless military dictatorship of Pedro Santana who led (off and on in between overthrows and deportations) from 1845 through 1862, who was then followed by a string of about 20 presidents and generals until 1916-24 when the US Military occupied it and in 1930 began the 30 year reign of the dictator Trujillo followed by the 20 year presence of the only slightly more benevolent Balaguer.
         The Dominican Republic has had a different history than, say, Massachusetts, which was begun on a basis of belief rather than of conquest and greed and was populated by the people who wanted to be there and who thought about where they wanted to live and could read. I wonder if the roots of the sensibilities of the tigueres who rule the streets of Santo Domingo today can be directly traced back to the histories of all the pirates who have stolen here from Francis Drake and the other corsairs and buccaneers to Pedro Santana to the U.S. Marines who ruled the streets in the 20’s to all the presidents who have counted their own ballots and to the rich 300 year history of smuggling across the border with Haiti or through customs. Despite what one might say about any contemporary political figures in the US, and despite what uglinesses US foreign policy has wrought or is working, the basic desire there is the desire for justice, for just behavior, just rewards and for just punishments. Even if this underlying principle is perverted beyond recognition 99% of the time, it is still the underlying principle. In the DR justness is not the underlying principle, profit (or at least evading loss) is and any laws that favor fairness over gain are ignored. Columbus came for profit, as did Drake the pirate, as did Napoleon and as did Toussaint and Soulouque the Haitian invaders and, it is safe to say that outgoing Presidents of the Republic today still enjoy sacking the treasury on their way out the door, if not on their way in as well, when they can manage it.

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