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'Why The Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, And The Struggle For Hispaniola' by Michele Wucker

A history of Hispaniola

Sunday, August 01, 1999

By Rob Ruck


Why The Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, And The Struggle For Hispaniola

By Michele Wucker

Hill & Wang


Rising out of the Caribbean between Cuba and Puerto Rico, the island of Hispaniola remains a mystery to most North Americans.

France and Spain tore the island apart during the conquest, only to find themselves no match for the Africans they brought there to work and die in the cane fields.

The Spanish-speaking, baseball-playing Dominican Republic has diverged considerably from its French- and Kreyol-speaking, futbol-playing island neighbor, but the two nations share more than a porous common border.

Both endured long U.S. military occupations which began during World War I. More importantly, they remain dependent on, as well as obsessed with, each other. Haitians and Dominicans have gone back and forth across their mountainous border for centuries, with Haitians assuming a place at the bottom of the Dominican job ladder.

In recent years, the Dominican Republic has become the most wired nation in the Caribbean with its GNP growing faster than any Latin America country. Haiti, on the other hand, remains the poorest country in the Americas.

Hispaniola lately has attracted attention as the source of more than 2 million immigrants to the United States. It also has more hotel rooms than any other Caribbean island. Most are in the Dominican, where Americans have joined the European and Canadian vacationers. They have discovered that navigating their way around an island where Spanish, Kreyol, English and French are rapidly mixed together is bewildering.

If they want to know what is going on outside the wall separating them from the island, there’s no better way to begin a journey of exploration than with Michele Wucker’s book.

Wucker’s focus is the often tortured relationship between Haitians and Dominicans. These cocks fight, Wucker contends, for territory and power in a cockpit of an island. The stakes are cultural and psychological, sometimes a matter of life and death, in a fight that has been going on for centuries.

This is the first book I’ve seen that weaves together the histories and current plights of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. That’s a staggering task, but one Wucker pulls off. I came away with a clearer sense of the sweep of the island’s history and an appreciation of the resilience and underlying humanity of a people who have witnessed so much barbarity.

Wucker reveals how the island’s painful present is rooted in just as agonizing a past. She is at her best in describing the wretched conditions of Haitians cutting cane on Dominican sugar estates, the ambiguity of Dominican identity as it contends with the intrusion of Haitians and the Dominican exodus to Nuevo York, or the still powerful aura of Joaquin Balaguer.

Blind and physically decrepit, the 92-year-old former president is running for the presidency in 2000. It would be his seventh term if he wins.

Yet this book is about more than sorrow and the island’s often macabre past. Wucker neither romanticizes or demonizes Haitians and Dominicans. She respects and appreciates them and shows how an island that produced Papa Doc and Baby Doc also nurtured the radical Catholic theologian and former president Jean Baptiste Aristide, whose followers’ Catholicism is often little more than a patina on Voudou, or the music of Boukman Eksperyans and Jean Luis Guerra, or Sammy Sosa, the former shoeshine boy who won baseball America’s hearts last summer.

Wucker is especially good at putting you there -- in the cockfighting arenas on both sides of the island as birds slash at each other while men frenetically bet, the odds constantly changing during the match; or in the tiny rooms of Haitian merchants behind the market in Santo Domingo, ready to hide when the police come to shake them down; or in the cane fields where Haitian men harvest cane under a relentless sun for a few dollars a day; or along the mountain roads where the ciguapas (mountain sirens) and bienbienes (ghosts of runaway slaves) still cast their spell.

Wucker peels away layers of history and culture, revealing aspects of Dominican and Haitian culture few have described so clearly. As good as her eye is at capturing the visuals of this tropical tableau, Wucker’s ear is better.

Her fluency in Spanish, French and Kreyol reveals aspects of words and places which had long escaped me during my 15 years of visits. For example, the St. Lazarus lion’s true identity is papa legba, the Voudou god of the crossroads. Concealing their gods’ identities was a ruse slaves used when forbidden to worship their own spirits.

Wucker is at her best when she describes the people she’s encountered in her many years on the island. She constructs a thoughtful and provocative context for their lives, exploring the often contradictory evidence that these intermingled societies afford.

Well crafted, lucidly told, and full of insight, “Why the Cocks Fight” is an impressive debut for an author whose next book I’m already anticipating.

Rob Ruck is on the faculty of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.”

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