This last weekend I traveled to Libertad, a small community three hours away. I went with my roommate Nico, a Dominican-born kid of 15 years whose parents immigrated here from Haiti, along with countless others, in search of work in the sugar cane fields.
We left Saturday afternoon and arrived as the sun was setting. Stepping off the gua-gua and walking along the single dirt street of the community, Nico and I greeted dozens of his friends and neighbors as we walked to his house. Everyone was so kind, with warm words of how if I ever needed anything, their doors were open. Nico's mother, step-father, brother and sister live in a newly-constructed house on the main road. It is one of the nicest in the community. An American NGO, Grassroots Soccer, built it along with several others in Libertad. Grassroots Soccer has also built communal latrines and is in the process of building a health clinic. Sixty years ago, as United Fruit Company made its way across the DR, developing bateys to harvest the sugar cane, the only provisions they provided for their workers were concrete apartments, closet-size rooms designed for the workers to only sleep in. No water, no windows, a single light bulb, no stove, no bathroom, no medical assistance, no roads, nothing.
Nico's father lives in such a room. Nico took me to meet him after dinnre, and we found him sitting in his room alone, an ancient radio blaring pachata muisc, a style of the Dominican campesinos. He has a bed for himself, clothes hanging on nails pounded into the concrete, and a table full of candles, matches, and random nic-nacs. Yucca and onions are piled on the floor next to his single bowl and fork. His bowl is crusted over with mashed beans from lunch. It seems he will not eat dinner. I shake his hand and introduce myself. His hands are sandpaper, tougher even. I have never felt hands like his. He sits tired, words dripping from his mouth, his Spanish thick with a Creole accent. His lips hardly move, and I can hardly hear him above the radio. It does not matter; he does not say much. The three of us sit in silence for quite a while, Nico occassionally inquiring to his father, his father muttering one-word responses. He simply looks ahead at the wall, and the only movement he makes outside of shaking my hand is to bend slowly over to the table for a match to burn a flea on the wall. When it is time, Nico nods at me and says good-bye to his father. We lock the door as we exit, leaving this lonely tired man to his radio and lightbulb.
Nico's father had no need for words. We saw him various other times--it is a small batey--and I heard him speak no more than answers to questions. Perhaps words mean nothing to him, for he works in the fields all day, and surely there are others who sit and talk idly on their porches all day. Perhaps he knows the danger of words, of the gossip that can destroy a man. Perhaps he wants no part of such dangerous and vain actions. Words, after all, have done nothing for him. Their promises from the mouths of United Fruit Company of $25/day did not come true. Words have not given him food; he has worked in the sun barebaked for twenty years to eat mashed plaintains and rice, to give his son chicken and kidney beans and eggs.
No, words do not matter. Instead, it is his hands, hands that when they rest by his side still grasp a machete. Rough and hard, his hands do not hold another man's as easily as they do the fruit of the earth, as comfortably as yucca and sugar cane stalks that grow in this fertile valley. Perhaps that is why he lives alone now--he has no need, and cannot remember how, to touch a woman. He has lost this in the sun, in the soil. Yet it could no longer be important to him, for as we leave him sitting in his room with the radio, he does not seem sad or lonely. Only tired, so tired I find it hard to believe he will work tomorrow in the yucca fields, and in September in the rice patties, and then the sugar-cane, and then avocados, and then he begins again. He is hardly a man of men, instead a man of the earth, a dark root walking alone and with shoulders hunched, hands open but not fully, not for men to grasp them.
He waits for something else, then" God" Could God's soft touch move a man like this" Or is his God different than how I imagine mine" After all, what could a meek God do" Could it break through his calloused hands" Is his God strong, ruthless, powerful" He sat quiet in church on Sunday morning, his eyes closed and rocking slowly to the Creole hymns, his lips fumbling over the words. His palms were turned toward the sky. Yet as I watched him, this God of Nico's father seemed to promise enough. Something soft, simple, pure. Yes, life is hard, and you will be beaten. He knows that. You will lose much, and people will not bear all your pain. He feels that. Yet when you come to me child, I will grant you comfort, rest, and shelter. You can lay your weary head down, and I will let you sleep. I will let you rest your tired body.
In a little church in a batey in the middle of the Dominican Republic, that promise rang through. Nico's father kept his eyes closed, waiting.
*** It was a good visit, and Nico's family were the nicest of the people I have met here in the DR. They were wonderful, laughable, people, sharing their home with me and teaching me much. I have never been in a poorer community, where people so little. Yet their smiles were clean and happy, and they made me feel good.