Hispaniola and Latin America
by Kenneth Reeds
It is possible to argue that the term Latin America was coined by the French, specifically by Napoleon III (1808-1873), nephew and heir of Napoleon I and President of the French Second Republic and Emperor of the Second French Empire. Supposedly his aim was to expand the concept of Spanish-centric Hispano-America (Spanish America) in such a way that included the possibility of the French being part of it, thus the need for Latin, since the French language, like the Spanish language, also descends from Latin. You see, at the time it was important to Napoleon III that a man named Maximillian become the “emperor” of Mexico.
This French-influenced Mexican empire was not the only place where the two languages came into conflict in the Americas. Indeed, some of the Europeans’ first settlements in the “New World” were on the island that today is known as Hispaniola. Columbus arrived there in 1492 and a French colony was officially proclaimed in 1665. The island was divided with one side belonging to Spain and the other to France. Thanks to the exploitation of slaves in the French portion, “Saint Domingue” became known as the “Pearl of the Antilles” and was one of the most productive and wealth-creating colonies in the history of colonialism. However, the large number of slaves also meant revolt and eventually the French lost their jewel to the very people they had dehumanized to make it prosperous. Indeed, Haiti was the first country in Latin America to free itself of European colonialism with their declaration of independence in 1804.
To this day, the Spanish-speaking east continues a tense relationship with its French- and French-Creole-speaking neighbor to the West. Language and history play important roles in this conflict, but it is possible to argue that race is the overwhelmingly central point of contention: Haiti is proud of its African roots while Santo Domingo avoids recognizing what it is so obvious in the mirror. This dichotomy has taken many ugly manifestations over the years with perhaps the most shameful being the Parsley Massacre in 1937 when Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered his troops to commit genocide against the Haitian population living in the borderlands between the two countries. Last summer many Haitians were deported across the same border. These deportations were done in the name of curbing undocumented immigration, but considering the history it is difficult not to wonder if uglier racial issues hid beneath bureaucratic euphemisms.
Perhaps the best way to quickly grasp Hispaniola’s multifaceted past and the way that history marks today is to watch the enlightening documentary Black in Latin America created by Henry Louis Gates Jr. The series’ first episode focuses on Haiti and Santo Domingo and there is much to be learned.