The Parsley Massacre [also referred to as El Corte (the cutting) by Dominicans and as Kouto-a (the knife) by Haitians] was a government-sponsored genocide in October 1937, at the direct order of Dominican President Rafael Trujillo who ordered the execution of the Haitian population living in the borderlands with Haiti. The violence resulted in the killing of 20,000 ethnic Haitian civilians during approximately five days.
Origin of the name
The popular name for the massacre came from the shibboleth that the dictatorial Trujillo had his soldiers apply to determine whether or not those living on the border were native Afro-Dominicans or immigrant Haitians. Dominican soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley to someone and ask what it was. How the person pronounced the Spanish word for parsley (perejil) determined their fate. French and Haitian Creole pronounce the r as a uvular approximant—thus, their speakers can have difficulty pronouncing the alveolar tap or trill of Spanish. The Dominican soldiers realized that most Haitians had difficulty pronouncing perejil, so if the person could pronounce perejil with a trill, they considered person Dominican and let them live. However, they considered people who pronounced perejil without the trill Haitian, and executed them.
Though this term was used frequently in the English-speaking media during the Commemoration of 75 years after the events (October 2012), most scholars recognize that this is a misnomer, as research by Lauren Derby shows that this explanation is based more on myth than on personal accounts.
Trujillo, a proponent of anti-Haitianism (anti-Haitian bias) made his intentions towards the Haitian community clear in a short speech he gave in 2 October 1937 at a dance in his honor in Dajabón. He said,
For some months, I have traveled and traversed the border in every sense of the word. I have seen, investigated, and inquired about the needs of the population. To the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, thefts of cattle, provisions, fruits, etc., and were thus prevented from enjoying in peace the products of their labor, I have responded, ‘I will fix this.’ And we have already begun to remedy the situation. Three hundred Haitians are now dead in Bánica. This remedy will continue.
Trujillo reportedly was acting in response to reports of Haitians stealing cattle and crops from Dominican borderland residents. The massacre killed an estimated 20,000 people living in the Dominican border—clearly at Trujillo direct order. For approximately five days, from 2 October 1937 to 8 October 1937, Dominican troops killed Haitians with guns, machetes, clubs, and knives. Some died while trying to flee to Haiti across the Artibonite River, which has often been the site of bloody conflict between the two nations. Of the tens of thousands of ethnic Haitians who died, a majority were born in the Dominican Republic and belonged to well-established Haitian communities in the borderlands, thus making them Dominican citizens.
The Dominican Republic, formerly the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, is the eastern portion of the island of Hispaniola—and occupies two-thirds of the land while having ten million inhabitants. In contrast, Haiti, the former French colony of Saint Domingue, is on the western third of the island and is heavily settled, with an estimated 500 people per square mile.
This has forced many Haitians onto land too mountainous, eroded, or dry for productive farming. Instead of staying on lands incapable of supporting them, many Haitians migrated to Dominican soil, where land hunger was low. While Haitians benefited by gaining farm land, Dominicans in the borderlands subsisted mostly on agriculture, and benefited from the ease of exchange of goods with Haitian markets.
Due to inadequate roadways connecting the borderlands to major cities, “Communication with Dominican markets was so limited that the small commercial surplus of the frontier slowly moved toward Haiti.” This threatened Trujillo’s regime, because of long-standing border disputes between the two nations. If large numbers of Haitian immigrants began to occupy the less densely populated Dominican borderlands, the Haitian government might try to make a case for claiming Dominican land. Additionally, loose borders let contraband pass freely, and without taxes between nations, depriving the Dominican Republic of tariff revenue.
Furthermore, the Dominican government saw the loose borderlands as a liability in terms of possible formation of revolutionary groups that could flee across the border with ease, while at the same time amassing weapons and followers.
Despite attempts to blame Dominican civilians, it has been confirmed by U.S. sources that “bullets from Krag rifles were found in Haitian bodies, and only Dominican soldiers had access to this type of rifle.” Therefore, the Haitian Massacre, which is still referred to as el corte (the cutting) by Dominicans and as kouto-a (the knife) by Haitians, was, “…a calculated action on the part of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo to homogenize the furthest stretches of the country in order to bring the region into the social, political and economic fold,” and rid his republic of Haitians.
Thereafter, Trujillo began to develop the borderlands to link them more closely with urban areas. These areas were modernized, with the addition of modern hospitals, schools, political headquarters, military barracks, and housing projects—as well as a highway to connect the borderlands to major cities.
Additionally, after 1937, quotas restricted the number of Haitians permitted to enter the Dominican Republic, and a strict and often discriminatory border policy was enacted. Dominicans continued to deport and kill Haitians in southern frontier regions—as refugees died of exposure, malaria and influenza.
In the end, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Haitian President Sténio Vincent sought reparations of $750,000, of which the Dominican government paid $525,000 (US$ 8,384,201.39 in 2013 dollars). Of this 30 dollars per victim, survivors received only 2 cents each, due to corruption in the Haitian bureaucracy.
In popular culture
- Edwidge Danticat‘s novel The Farming of Bones chronicles the Haitians’ escape from the Dominican Republic, following the massacre and the spread of antihaitianismo. Edwidge Danticat’s short story Nineteen Thirty-Seven, from Krik? Krak! also refers to the Massacre River, as a site that divides Haiti from the Dominican Republic, and where the protagonist’s grandmother is killed.
- Rita Dove drew inspiration from the massacre for her poem Parsley.
- The massacre, along with many other incidents of the Trujillo era, is discussed in the book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Dominican-American author Junot Díaz.
- A fictional Haitian woman named Chucha is discussed as having escaped from this massacre in the book How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez.
- In the novel Massacre River, Haitian author René Philoctète tells the story of the massacre through his narrative of a Dominican man trying to save his Haitian wife.
- The massacre is a focus of Jacques Stephen Alexis‘ 1955 novel General Sun, My Brother.
- The Parsley massacre is chronicled in the novel El masacre se pasa a pié (The massacre crossed on foot) by Dominican author Freddy Prestol Castillo.
- In Roxanne Gay’s short fiction, In the Manner of Water or Light, a woman reveals to her daughter and granddaughter how she became pregnant with her only child in the Dajabón River during the Parsley Massacre.