Both Sides of the Massacre: Collective Memory and Narrative on Hispaniola

By Johnson, Kelli Lyon | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2003 | Go to article overview

Both Sides of the Massacre: Collective Memory and Narrative on Hispaniola


Johnson, Kelli Lyon, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat reveal how Dominicans and Haitians remember and commemorate the atrocities of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo's regime. While historical discourse is often inaccessible to marginalized communities, Alvarez and Danticat create narrative space that includes the experiences of women and revaloes their role in the preservation of collective memory and the construction of national identity.

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Together, Haiti and the Dominican Republic form the island named Hispaniola, and between Haiti and the Dominican Republic runs the Massacre River, named for the slaughter of thirty buccaneers by Spanish colonials in 1728. The river earned its name again in 1937, when Generalisimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians living on the border in the Dominican Republic. As Michele Wucker points out in Why the Cocks Fight Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola, the memory of the massacre in 1937 is still so strong that "even now, it is nearly impossible for Dominicans and Haitians to think of each other without some trace of the tragedy of their mutual history" (44). Remembering that mutual history and the regime that initiated it--the trujillato, the thirty-year reign of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic (1930-1961) is for both Haitians and Dominicans a painful negotiation of race, nation, and identity. As Neil Larsen asks "?Como narrar el trujillato?," we also ask, How do Dominicans and Haitians remember, and commemorate, the trujillato? Trujillo commemorated himself frequently and on a grand scale. Monuments, parades, and rituals were devoted entirely to him, earning him, for a dine, a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the leader who built the most statues in his own honour (Wucker 69). Those commemorations were the space Trujillo claimed for himself in which to construct the national identity of the Dominican Republic, his own attempt to shape the country's collective memory and identity.

Theorists of collective memory have revealed two opposing constructions of both its function and location. Pierre Nora has argued that memory attaches itself to sites, which he calls lieux de memoire, in contrast to history, which attaches itself to events (22). Because "memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images and objects," ijeux de memoire make concrete the abstract. These sites, Nora argues "are lieux in three senses of the word--material, symbolic, and functional" (18-19), and these lieux are the very monuments that Trujillo constructed, the portraits he commissioned, the ceremonies he commanded. In contrast to such sites, Susan Crane argues that "groups have no single brain in which to locate the memory function, but we persist in talking about memory as 'collective,' as if this remembering activity could be physically located!' According to Crane, "collective memory ultimately is located not in sites but in individuals" (1,381).

At issue in these two opposing locations for collective memory is space: the social, political, and personal space necessary for assertions of national and individual identity. Such postcolonial contests for space--geographical, political, linguistic, and cultural--define the recent history of Hispaniola as well. Homi Bhabha suggests in The Location of Culture that postcolonial cultures must create and inhabit "in-between spaces" that "provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood-singular or communal- that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestaton" (1-2). For Dominican American writer Julia Alvarez and Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, that in-between space is entextualized in the novel: between history and memory, the vernacular and the official, fiction and fact. The novel thus becomes a new narrative space. These novelists create and claim a new, literary space in which collective memory expresses a national identity that includes members of the mem ory community previously excluded from historical discourse because of racial, class, sexual, or national identity.

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