After weeks of investigation, logistics and preparation of the methodological proposal for the study and having it approved, I finally got to the fieldwork stage – by far my favorite and what I’ve been looking forward to for so long! The goal of the study is to locate those communities that have lost their homes during hurricanes and tropical storms during the last 35 years, who have been relocated “temporarily” by the State into a refuge until their houses are rebuilt, and who have been completely neglected by the government, literally forgotten of, and still live as refugees after 5, 15 or 30 years of “waiting.”
Most of these communities are today poverty-stricken and socially marginalized: not only have they been betrayed by our government, but have also been particular targets of the injustices of a dysfunctional and corrupt political/capitalist system. Under what conditions do they live in? What have been their mechanisms of resilience? I selected 6 different communities across the country as the investigation’s study cases, each one of them affected by a different hurricane or storm.
Up until that moment, I had spent weeks engaged solely on academic research: investigating public policies, looking up precedents, focusing on civil rights and what kinds of violations the State was committing against this population. Certainly a very important task, but a potentially inconsequential one unless you can apply it for practical uses and ground it on everyday reality. Visiting these communities reminded me what it is that I really like: working with people.
I had to organize and conduct focus groups within these communities as well as in depth interviews with community leaders. A beautiful and enriching experience indeed. But it did not come without its obstacles. I was taken back to my sociology and anthropology courses, and to my politics research methods class. As a researcher, you must necessarily take into account the effects that your presence can have within the population you’re investigating, right? I’ll explain.
My country is overwhelmingly mulato (the genetic mix between white European colonizers and African slaves that emerged as a result of the colonial period) and has a very small black and white minority. And though I had no say over the color of skin I was born with, it inevitably (and unfortunately) plays a role in determining the social relationships around me.
As an international student studying in the USA, I am a Latina woman – a person of “color” – and as such I am subject to the prejudices it entails, like being discriminated for supposedly being a “Mexican-speaking immigrant,” though I’ve never planned to live in the USA, I am not from Mexico but rather from the Dominican Republic, and speak a language that whose actual name is Spanish.
Interestingly, this exact same color of skin is subject to the opposite kind of discrimination in my country. In the DR, I am a blanquita, a “little white girl” and often called rubia, “blonde,” regardless of my dark brown hair: I am part of a racial minority that is subsequently assigned with a deep set of stigmas and automatic socioeconomic stereotypes. But in addition, I also happen to be a woman, and I happen to be young. What does all of it matter? One might ask. The answer is, A LOT.
Even before I can say a word, my physical appearance has already spoken. The combination of these three characteristics (being white, woman and young) in a country that is culturally incredibly sexist, where racial prejudices are deeply rooted into the collective psyche and age hierarchy is very latent, proved to be a very interesting thing to deal with. As a social researcher, I was forced to be extremely self-aware of attributes outside of my control and try to counterbalance them in the best way I could. I would be frequently dismissed or distrusted – for being a young, white and female – until I could prove I didn’t necessarily fit into the common prejudices against these age, race and gender stereotypes. It was a challenge, but one that I am grateful for. Once the initial barrier was broken and they saw me for what I am beyond my physical attributes – simply another human being – the conversations and interactions were truly enriching.
In all, visiting these communities was extraordinary. Their faith, patience and overall resilience and determination to not give up in the face of adversity and injustice is simply admirable and inspiring. It is because of communities like them that keep demanding their rights that my country still has hope. And I believe they are not recognized for this as they deserve.
The massive worldwide industry of humanitarian NGO’s is more often than not afflicted with the “white-savior industrial complex,” as a 2012 article by Teju Cole so accurately describes it. As noble or well-intended their motivation might be, the world of humanitarian “aid” is focused exactly around that, aiding. Not empowerment or resilience building, but around the white-privileged rhetoric of “saving” and “helping” others, often invalidating or not even recognizing their political and social agency. NGO’s go into the field knowing what is “best” for the communities they are “helping” and telling them how they should go about living their own lives. Rarely these programs take a pause and simply listen. Truly listen. Ask what it is they want, what it is they believe they need and how they think they can achieve it.
And due to this paternalistic and immobilizing aid-culture, people are not used to being asked what they want either – many are shocked or skeptic, with all due reason. I’ve known since I was a little girl that I want to be a humanitarian worker. But one that hopefully contributes to shattering this paternalistic cycle and helps offer an alternative, more respectful and human way of doing it.