Mercedes gives us the best family china cups
filled with pitch tar from the tin pot,
two heaping lumps of sugar to cut the bitter,
before we bathed in rust-brown water.
It fills the mouth like solid food–
“Petrol por humanos,” John says brokenly–
and slides into the belly warm and black.
The afternoon’s muddy trail cut through
a dirt farmer’s field of platinos and coffee–
we see him lashing his ox with sharp cries
and leather sting, grinding plow in ground–
and I touch a green coffee bean with timid finger.
On the bus going east on the army highway to Haiti,
we passed fields of sugar cane–
nickel-a-day wages for los Negros–
and in our village I stood in a ruined refinery,
its walls pledged to Ballaguer and Bosch both.
I cradle the demi tas in my fingers
as though it were a fragile bird made in Taiwan,
and gently kiss its eggshell lips
while swallowing the black island.
In the summer of 1990, I spent a month in the Dominican Republic, in a village on the Haitian border. It was part of a youth ministries program based in Orlando, Florida; I was an intern at the Green Bay Catholic Diocese, and I was along to gather information to write a grant to support a similar program.
It was a great experience, especially for a middle-class American kid. I stayed with a family in the village, sharing quarters with a priest from Scranton, PA, who was along to determine whether to accept a mission calling. The mother of the family, Mercedes, prepared meals for us, and I especially remember the breakfasts: thick slices of toasted bread, sweet fried platinos, milk with clots of fat still floating in it, and incredibly strong and thick coffee. The hospitality that the village gave us was incredible.
This section of the Dominican Republic is off the beaten track for tourists; we had to get there by bus, sharing space with crates of chickens. On the outskirts of the town was a ruined mansion that once belonged to Trujillo, the Dominican dictator from 1942 to 1961; a little further down the road, less than mile, was the border with Haiti. It’s a dry, dusty, mountainous area, and the people get by as best they can on subsistence farms, and sugar and platino fields.
This is the sort of place Americans ought to see. It’s poor, grindingly so, but also dignified, not at all like the Third World poverty Americans are likely to encounter on the edges of cruise ship destinations. Family and church were very important to the village, and an ethos of mutual aid and support suffused the culture. Isolated from the world and largely ignored by the government, the people in this region did their best to make a civilized life with limited resources.