Jovino was a small man who never smiled. He was bent from the waist owing to arthritis and so had to look upward, beneath his eyebrows, to meet your eye. He lived with his wife, Marcelina, in the palm board shack next door to me in a poor mountain village of the Dominican Republic.Marcelina made the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. She took the beans from where they lay drying in the rutted dirt road, and then roasted them with raw cane sugar in a flat cast iron pan. She pounded them in a big pestle and mortar, put them in an old nylon sock and left the grounds to soak in boiling water. I went over every morning for my coffee.
After nearly a year I worked up the courage to ask Jovino why he always looked so unhappy.“Because I’m going to Hell,” he said.
I got the story from Marcelina. In 1939, the dictator Trujillo decided to drive the Haitian population from the border areas. Haitians are African by descent, the great-grandchildren of slaves. Dominicans liked to think of themselves as white, though generations of mixing had turned them the same colour. Trujillo is rumoured to have spent fortunes on skin-lightening cream.He ordered troops to the villages near the border with Haiti. The local residents were told to identify Haitians who now lived in the community to the troops or face dire consequences. The army went away, and no one did anything. A week later they returned and shot the mayor in the road in front of the entire village. Everyone was told to kill at least one Haitian by the time they returned a week later, or die themselves.
The way to identify a Haitian was simple. As French speakers, Haitians pronounced the word for parsley as “pere-JEEL”, but the Spanish-speaking Dominicans said “pere-HEEL”. If you asked someone, and they pronounced it wrong, they were Haitians.As the week drew to a close, Jovino became more and more frightened. On the last day, the boy who carried water for the neighbours came by. Jovino approached him with his machete. “Say parsley for me!” he screamed, and when there was no reply, cut the boy’s head from his shoulders. He lugged the corpse to the road and added his body to the growing pile. When the soldiers came back, they nodded in approval and left
Meanwhile, back in Santo Domingo, Trujillo was entertaining some American diplomats. “While we are going chat-chat here, at the border, my people are going chop-chop,” he told them. A later count revealed that over 35,000 Haitians had been massacred in the purge.The next time I saw Jovino, I tried to reassure him. I told him he couldn’t have done anything else, and that if there was a God, he would surely be forgiven. But Jovino just shook his head.
“I’m going to Hell,” he said.“But why?” I asked.
“Because I would do it again,” Jovino said.