It is possible to argue that the term “Latin America” was coined by the French, specifically Napoleon III. Supposedly his goal was to expand the notion of Spanish-centric “Hispano America” in such a way that included the possibility of the French language, thus the need for “Latin”. You see, at the time it was important to him that a man named Maximillian became the “emperor” of Mexico. This French-influenced Mexican empire was not the only place where the two languages came into conflict in the Americas. Indeed, some of the Europeans’ first settlements in the “New World” were on the island that today is known as Hispaniola. Columbus arrived there in 1492 and the French colony was officially declared in 1665. The island was split in two with one side pertaining to Spain and the other to France. Thanks to the exploitation of slaves in the French portion, “Saint Domingue” became known as the “Pearl of the Antilles” and was one of the most productive and wealth-creating colonies in the history of colonialism. However, the large number of slaves also meant revolt and eventually the French lost their jewel to the very people they had dehumanized to make it prosperous. Indeed, Haiti was the first country in Latin America to free itself of European colonialism with their declaration of independence in 1804.
To this day, the Spanish-speaking east continues a tense relationship with its French-speaking neighbor. Language and history play important roles in this conflict, but it is possible to argue that race is the overwhelmingly central point of contention: Haiti is proud of its blackness while Santo Domingo is incapable of recognizing what is so obvious in the mirror. This dichotomy has taken many ugly manifestations over the years with perhaps the most infamous being the Parsley Massacre when Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered his troops to commit genocide against the Haitian population living in the borderlands between the two countries. Last summer many Haitians were deported across the same border. These deportation were done in the name of curbing undocumented immigration, but it is difficult not to wonder if uglier racial issues hide beneath bureaucratic euphemisms.
Perhaps the best way to comprehend Hispaniola’s complex past and the way that history marks today is to watch the wonderful documentary Black in Latin America created by Henry Louis Gates Jr. The series’ first episode focuses on Haiti and Santo Domingo and there is much to be learned.