After lounging on the beach with my friends, I went to visit my best friend Lauren’s batey. Lauren lives in the east in a batey named Monte Coca. To clarify, a batey is a place sort of like my site, but they grow sugar cane and there’s more of a Haitian population there than most communities in the DR. It’s always interesting to visit other volunteers and see how they live and compare it to how you live. For example, I live in a community of 8,000 people and she lives in a community of 300 people. She knew everyone in her site and everyone knew her, and she seemed very well integrated. We sat at a lot of families’ houses and talked. I feel like I know a ton of people, but it’s such a big site that it’s hard to feel super integrated. On the flip side, because she lives in such a small community, people tend to talk about her more and criticize her whereas I get that a bit less than she does. We’ve all got our pros and cons!
On Sunday, we did a Chicas Brillantes charla in the batey next to where she lived named Construccion. Lauren had warned me that it was a bit poorer than the normal type of poor that we live in. I wasn’t really prepared for what I saw, and you know that’s pretty bad when a Peace Corps Volunteer is taken aback by a really poor community. There were only barracks for housing, and large amounts of people lived in one tiny room. There was hardly any vegetation, just dust and mud. Mostly everyone was wearing dirty/old clothing, and seemed very dirty themselves. Something about the Dominican culture is that they hate being dirty and bathe about twice a day, and they like to look presentable no matter their situation, so that was very different to see. I’m not sure how else to explain the community, but I remember just feeling grateful for my campo. I kept thinking about how much grass and trees I have in my site, how I have my own little, kind of crappy, wooden house to myself, and how at least some people in my community have a job, even if it is driving a moto or working on a farm. Then I was watching the little kids playing with some sticks/trash and felt overwhelming guilty about my childhood. Here was my thought processs: “I had a freaking POOL when I was a kid, I can’t believe how spoiled I was. AND I went to college! Do you think these kids know how poor they are? Do you think they know what else is out there? Do you think they know that they’ve been jipped when it comes to privilege and opportunities in life? I wonder if it’s possible for any of them to get out of here and make something of a life for themselves.”
After we left the batey, Lauren and I engaged in a conversation about poverty and being born privileged. I expressed my anger at the Dominican government for letting its people live like that. I said, “If Danilo (the DR president) came to that place and saw how his people were living, he would be ashamed of himself” and Lauren said he wouldn’t because “those weren’t his people”. I asked what she meant and she said “most of those people were Haitian and Dominicans don’t care about Haitians”. Which is absolutely true, the racism against Haitians here is incredible. Her point just made the situation even worse, because it probably doesn’t necessarily have to be like that for them, but it is because they’re Haitian. Most of them are probably undocumented, making it impossible to get jobs, own land, go to school, etc.
Being born privileged and being born poor is literally like picking pieces of paper out of a hat. It’s totally random, no one has control of the situation they are given, and there’s nothing no one did to deserve what they got. To me, it’s ok to spend some time feeling bad about being privileged. I need to feel bad to remind myself of what I was born with and what I have now, but not so bad as to let opportunities pass me by. I know my parents worked really hard to give me what they didn’t have, and I need to feel grateful for it but not feel bad about taking advantage of it. It’s quite the balance of feelings. No matter what, I’ve realized that doing what I’m doing now has given me an immense amount of perspective that I couldn’t have gained doing anything else. And that, in itself, is something to be grateful for.