Lauren Robin Derby became enchanted with the people, music and popular culture of the Dominican Republic and Haiti during a research fellowship following her graduation from Brown University. This associate professor in history has since devoted her career to studying the history of both nations.
Derby’s recent book is based on her doctoral dissertation, which focused on the authoritarian regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. “The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo” (Duke University Press, 2009) is a cultural history of the Trujillo regime as it was experienced in the capital city of Santo Domingo. Derby has just been awarded a Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies to work on her new project on demonic animals and the poetics of deforestation in the Haitian-Dominican borderlands.
Derby recently discussed her research on the Dominican Republic with Letisia Márquez, senior media relations representative in UCLA Media Relations & Public Outreach.
What motivated you to study Latin American history?
I majored in development studies at Brown University with a focus on Africa. After graduating, I received a fellowship to do research in Haiti. At the time, Haiti had the highest rate of male out-migration in the Caribbean, and I studied how women in Haiti were affected by this. I graduated at the height of the Contra War in 1984. I had worked on Capitol Hill in a Democratic think tank, and my plan was to go to graduate school and do something to fight U.S. militarism in Central America. But I needed to learn Spanish.
Since I was in Haiti, I found a summer program in the Dominican Republic. One thing led to another. I started researching Caribbean history and found it so fascinating that I decided to stick with an academic career.
Who was Rafael Trujillo?
He ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. It was one of the longest, bloodiest dictatorships in Latin American history, one of atrocious terror and violence. Among others, Trujillo was responsible for the infamous assassination of three Mirabal sisters who opposed the regime.
I delve into what ordinary citizens in Santo Domingo experienced during the Trujillato. Much has been said about the political assassinations during the regime, but far less, for example, about the everyday forms of repression which were equally oppressive, such as official denunciation of citizens who were accused falsely of sexual scandal or graft. These were deeply shameful and could end up destroying one’s career, driving some to suicide for fear that such accusations could land them and their families in jail.
How did Trujillo achieve such control?
The regime insinuated itself into people’s lives — it used networks of rumor and gossip as a form of social control, as well as gift exchange to entrap people into relations of indebtedness with the regime. Outsiders scoffed at the excesses of the Trujillo regime as a kind of comic opera, but I try to reveal how it was perceived as serious business by the poor and marginal. For example, I explore how Trujillo’s own rise from the son of a cattle rustler to one of the richest men in the Americas conformed to a mythos of race and class mobility which Dominicans reluctantly respected.
The U.S. government must have known about the Trujillo regime. Why didn’t they do anything about it?
Because of the Good Neighbor policy and the Cold War. The U.S. pledged to respect Latin American sovereignty so as to have its support during World War II. Later the United States government was fearful about the spread of communism in its backyard. The Cuban Revolution didn’t happen until 1959, but you had the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s and the regime of Juan Arévalo, who came to power in Guatemala in 1945. That regime initiated the reforms which led to the CIA-backed coup in 1954 of the Jacobo Arbenz regime.
This was a period of concern about Soviet infiltration in Latin America. So for that reason, even if there were critics of the Trujillo regime within the State Department, there was a feeling that, at the very least, Trujillo was securing U.S. interests and keeping communism out of the hemisphere. He also secured the support of the United States in other ways. He paid off his enemies. For example, a U.S. congressman from New York, Hamilton Fish, got very upset about the Haitian massacre of 1937. Trujillo, we know now, paid him off. Trujillo was very clever about generating the appearance of U.S. support. The University of Pittsburgh even gave him an honorary degree in 1942!
What finally lead to Trujillo’s demise?
By the latter 1950s, the U.S. was worried that there was so much opposition to Trujillo that if he failed to leave office they were going to, in fact, have a revolution on their hands. So the tide turned by 1961, and they realized that he had stepped over the line. The excesses toward the end of the regime were shocking. People were killed in large numbers, and blood was spilling on the streets. The U.S. realized that the writing was on the wall. So the CIA in the end supported the assassination that brought him down. They left the country alone for a few years before they intervened again in 1965 to oust the regime of Juan Bosch, due to concerns about his proposed land reform, which sounded a little bit too much like the Arbenz regime in Guatemala.
There were a lot of popular beliefs surrounding Trujillo. Can you discuss them?
I talked to a woman who told me when I asked her about the secret of Trujillo’s longevity that he had a muchachito, which is to say a guardian angel. She said this muchachito, to protect him, gave him the names of people who wanted to kill him off or people who might have been plotting against him. So rather than U.S. policy protecting him, she saw his supernatural assistant as the key explanation.
These beliefs are quite common in Dominican popular culture. Take La Feria, the regime-sponsored world’s fair in 1955, which was a huge debacle. Trujillo spent a third of the national budget on a yearlong fair, the centerpiece of which was crowning Trujillo’s 16-year-old daughter queen in the Carnival parade. But when I interviewed the women who were on the float with Trujillo’s daughter, Angelita, they told me that it was the high point in their lives. You could see that these types of state spectacles were what they lived for. I wanted to try to bring that perspective into the narrative as well. This regime of violence and corruption found ways of getting under the skin of many Dominicans, and their stories are told in my book.
What do you write about the tíguere (tiger), the popular underdog figure in Dominican popular culture that climbs the social strata?
One chapter takes on the question of whether Trujillo was a tíguere — a particularly Dominican form of trickster — and looks at the genealogy of this term. I argue that Trujillo definitely was a tíguere because he gained power through political control, violence and ruthlessness, and publicly brandished about his female conquests. He was also a dandy and had a penchant for costumes. For the genealogy of the tíguere, I go back to the free blacks of the colonial period.
In the Dominican Republic, there was a lot more room for upward mobility because — unlike Haiti, Brazil or Cuba — the Dominican Republic experimented briefly with plantation agriculture; free blacks were the majority by the 1800s, which is very unusual for the Caribbean. I argue that there was a culture of upper mobility for free blacks that did not exist for slaves. It is this larger context within which we have to locate the tíguere. Freedmen, unlike slaves, could pass for white, and thus move up and into the corridors of power. The tíguere is black but hides this either through dressing up, staging himself as close to the centers of power or through marrying someone who is very powerful. So race also comes into play in that chapter.
What is the political situation like now in the Dominican Republic?
The current president is Leonel Fernández, a Dominican York, that is, a Dominican brought up in New York. Fernández has done many important things for the country. He’s really cleaned up the corruption of the civil service. I notice it because I work in the archives — I’m now engaged in a new research project — and the difference is incredible. He’s professionalized the staff, and it’s now the most digitized archive in the Caribbean. He’s also built a subway in Santo Domingo and put computer centers all over the country. Most importantly, he played an incredibly vital role in saving Haitians during the recent earthquake; he was the first international statesman on the scene, evacuating people to Dominican hospitals where many are still receiving surgery and trauma treatment.
Fernández has made some very important reforms, and I have to say we’ve seen a new kind of electoral mobilization that is also very important. He’s left-leaning but he’s not quite the full-blown populist that one sees in South America. For decades, Dominican presidents were still following the old dinosaurs from the Trujillo era. But Fernández has changed the rules of the game in Dominican politics. On the negative side, however, he’s very urban-oriented. I would like to see more investment in agriculture.
What research are you working on now?
My new research concerns the meaning of “shapeshifter” rumors on the Haitian/Dominican border. Shapeshifters are were-animals [e.g., werewolves]. They are spirits that can turn into animals and even people. I have stories from butchers who go to kill a cow and it starts talking, or about a pig with a cat’s tail or a dog with pig’s ears. Shapeshifters are a subset of zombi lore, which originated in Haiti. All of my elderly Dominican informants were born in Haiti in this region.
These beasts are evidence of a very materialist idea of evil. One line of argument I am developing is that these apparitions are a form of historical memory of the colonial period, in particular, a contraband economy that was very important in the Dominican Republic in the 17th century. At that time, there were many free blacks who had run away from the plantations. Christopher Columbus had brought cattle, dogs and pigs that went feral in the mountain forests of Hispaniola. Free blacks would go into the mountains, hunt wild pig and cattle and then make salted meat to provision the ships coming to the Americas. These demonic animals often present themselves as feral boars and dogs. My narrators cast themselves as heroic men waging war against them in the forest, and I think they may be popular memories of this old hunting economy when freedmen ruled the interior.
Yet these stories also have contemporary relevance. In October, when I was visiting my field site, the mayor from the adjoining township committed suicide. Many people said it was a bacá (a shapeshifter which appears as a black animal) because a rival mayor had wanted to do him in, and so he’d sent one of these animals to make the mayor kill himself. It was a very sad event since it was the first suicide anyone could remember but also, in a way, intriguing for my research. All of my other episodes have been in the past; all of a sudden, we’ve got two members of opposing political parties fighting it out via sorcery. It’s pretty wild stuff although not unlike the current vampire and werewolf craze in the United States.
Since you’ve done research in Haiti and traveled there a lot, is there anything you want to say about the recent earthquake there?
The recent earthquake is a cataclysmic event which has touched people in every nook and cranny of the country. It will take decades to rebuild and heal from the trauma. Haiti especially will need educational help since all the institutions of higher learning have collapsed. And the countryside, which is ravaged by land erosion, will have to absorb hundreds of thousands of urban refugees from Port-au-Prince. UCLA is now making a big effort to reach out to Haiti with medical assistance, but let’s not forget this proud country in the coming months and years. I would like to see UCLA play a part in helping Haiti rebuild, from providing training programs and school materials to solar cookers. That would help curb the use of charcoal as cooking fuel.
Derby was in the Dominican Republic conducting research when the earthquake struck Haiti and many of the injured were brought over the border for emergency medical care. See this UCLA Newsroom story in which she describes what she witnessed.