Anti-Haitian Rhetoric and the Monumentalizing of Violence in Joaquín Balaguer's Guía Emocional De la Ciudad Romántica

By Serrata, Médar | Hispanic Review, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Anti-Haitian Rhetoric and the Monumentalizing of Violence in Joaquín Balaguer's Guía Emocional De la Ciudad Romántica


Serrata, Médar, Hispanic Review


The life of things is in reality many lives.

-Philip Fisher, "The Future's Past" (587)

"L'histoire est trop riche, trop multiple et trop profonde

pour se réduire au signe de pierre qui s'en est échappé."

-Marc Augé, Le temps en ruines (38-39)

Many thanks to Lily Litvak for her insightful suggestions and support in preparing this essay. I am also grateful for the editorial assistance of Michelle Sánchez, Paloma de la Cruz, Rebeca Castellanos, Christa Prüden, and the anonymous reader of Hispanic Review.

1. I have borrowed the phrase "monumentalizing of violence" from W. J. T. Mitchell (378).

The first epigraph above refers to the series of changes that an artifact undergoes before finding itself in a Western museum. The second describes the limitations of a historicizing project that purports to read the ruins of an ancient city as unambiguous signs of the past. I have juxtaposed them here to suggest that architectural monuments display the signifying structure of artifacts in a museum. Indeed, the life of monuments is also many lives, to the extent that, just like collectible artifacts, monuments have been discon- nected from the flow of daily experiences and turned into something other than what they were meant to be. They are no longer places for work, prayer or housing, but points of access to the past, pathways to the achievements of a great civilization we may never fully understand.

The architectural monuments of colonial Santo Domingo are a case in point. Founded in 1496 by Christopher Columbus's brother Bartholomew, the city was destroyed by a powerful hurricane in 1502 and then rebuilt on the opposite side of the Ozama River by Governor Nicolás de Ovando, fol- lowing the grid model characteristic of ancient Roman towns.2 Santo Domingo became the point of departure for Spain's imperial enterprise and the site of many firsts, including America's first monasteries and convents, as well as the first cathedral, the first city hall, the first military fortress, and the first university. After the conquest of Mexico and Peru during the early sixteenth century, however, Spain lost interest in the colony. As Santo Domingo slowly degenerated into social and economic decay, many of the edifices erected during the colonial period deteriorated due to natural disas- ters, pirate attacks, wars, or neglect. Yet by the second half of the nineteenth century, these structures found new meaning when the Dominican ruling class discovered the advantages of using them for their project of civilizing an unruly population.

The first official measure aimed at turning Santo Domingo's colonial structures into monuments took place in 1870, just five years after the coun- try regained its independence from Spain. Proclaiming that all the "civilized" nations of the world showed a profound respect for their monuments, which they regarded as the purest source of history, the presidential decree sought to affirm a Dominican national past by placing a distinctively Western frame around the city's historical sites (Colección de leyes 205).3 The measure high- lighted the elite's ambivalent attitude toward Spain, as it established a rela- tionship of continuity between the Dominican Republic and the same power from which it had broken away. Such ambivalence can be attested to in the works of poets and novelists writing at the turn of the century, in which the ruins of Santo Domingo stand as a master signifier of Dominican identity.4 But the strategy of using the symbolic nature of monuments as an instru- ment of civilization may never be more readily accessible than in Guía emo- cional de la ciudad romántica, by Joaquin Balaguer (1906-2002).

A seemingly innocent celebration of Santo Domingo's monumental archi- tecture, the embellished text and photographs of Guía emocional evoke the topos of the romantic poet who strolls down the streets of an ancient city admiring the remnants of a glorious past. …

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