Dominican Republic: Summary of Interview with Dr. Rei Berroa

Dominican Republic: Summary of Interview with Dr. Rei Berroa

Dr. Rei Berroa was born and raised in the Dominican Republic and is a Professor and the Chair of the Modern and Classical Languages Department at George Mason University. In 1970, he completed his undergraduate studies in Philosophy at the Catholic University of Puerto Rico and then taught Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry in the Dominican Republic. In 1975, he began his graduate work at Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas in Spain and Middlebury College in Madrid. He spent four years in Spain writing poetry and researching all aspects of Spanish poetry, life, and culture. In 1979, he moved to the University of Pittsburgh to complete his PhD in 1982. Originally interested in the cultural myths of Native Americans, he completed a dissertation on ideology and rhetoric in the writings of Spanish poet Miguel Hernández. Before arriving at George Mason University in the summer of 1984, he taught at Humboldt State University in California (1982-83) and at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois (1983-84). Dr. Berroa has published more than 50 books of poetry, literary criticism, anthologies, and translations in Argentina, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, India, Italy, Mexico, Romania, Spain, the United States, and Venezuela. His poetry has been translated into English, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, Turkish, and several other languages. 

Immigrants in the United States

Thinking about what it means to be an immigrant, Dr. Berroa asserts: “I really think that the human being is an immigrant. An immigrant that goes from the nothing that we were before our birth to the nothing that we will be after we stop talking. The human being is an immigrant that travels from nothingness to nothingness. And in this middle we call life that could last 11 years, 11 months, 11 decades. In this brief span that we are given, we do wonderful things to advance humanity or terrible things to degrade it. There is a group of marvelous people who do amazingly positive things: Socrates, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Cervantes, Mozart, Cavafy. And then there is another group that use this short time to destroy and do evil things: Draco, Nero, Napoleon, Hitler, Donald Trump.”

He continues: “The experience of immigration is different for every group and every individual. I want to believe that I am a completely different Dominican immigrant from -I would not say everybody because that won’t be true- perhaps 95 percent of Dominicans who migrated from Santo Domingo to the U.S for completely different reasons. I knew that the best education anyone could get, was available to me in the U.S. and I aimed to get it.

Even though in the U.S. the foreign is the other (the one coming from another language and another culture), at that time access to the university as student and, in the future, as professor, was not unattainable, as it was in Spain, for instance. Here, the Canadians are not perceived as foreigners (the last administration did not want to put a wall in the Northern border but in the South). In the South, because they speak another language and they look different, they are perceived as thieves, criminals, and rapists. The Statue of Liberty does not say anything to a black or brown person. The Statue of Liberty that we placed there as ‘Madame Liberty’ welcoming everyone doesn’t say anything to one that came in here as a slave, not just 200 or 300 years ago but nowadays. Children, women, for whom the Statue of Liberty is a cactus in the desert of Arizona; in a way, the tree that harbors people that decide to escape brutality and abuse, is their representation of the Statue of Liberty. I have known so many students whose parents came walking from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua. Walking! Think about it, how can someone walk three months in order to reach a place that is not their home? I don’t have the strength to do that. So, I have so much respect for these courageous people. So much reverence for their decision to find a better place, a better condition, a better situation. Nobody should be ashamed of abandoning everything they had in order to have a better life for themselves but especially for their children. Never! It should be a matter of pride; we should all celebrate that. So, the person who walks through the desert, the experience that this person has is totally different from the experience of the one that takes a plane and lands in JFK or LAX, or from the one who in the past took a boat and entered through Ellis Island because the experience that each one of us has as an immigrant is totally different; and it enriches us, it enriches others.”

He then reflects on the case of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 while he and his family were trying to reach Europe, but also the case of Elián González as examples of the infamies that societies create that also involve innocent children: “Elián González was a child whose mother decided to join twelve more people to go from Cuba to Florida in a small boat that was good only for three or four. In the middle of the Caribbean, they all drowned except for the child and a young couple. The five-year old child was rescued by two fishermen off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. It became a sensational issue because the father in Cuba was asking the U.S. to return the child to him, and the Cubans in Miami said that they were not going to send that child to the father because he was coming from a Communist country. President Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, tried to negotiate with these Cubans in Miami that it didn’t matter what type of government a country had: a child belongs with his family and they had to send a SWAT team to seize the child by force from these people and send the child back to his father in Cuba. Today, we witness similar infamies, for instance, at the time we are speaking there are more than 500 children whose parents the government cannot find. That is a crime against humanity.”

Regarding the vital role of immigrants in communities, Dr. Berroa mentions: “Nowadays, immigrants build houses and buildings, give food to the people that go to restaurants, take care of the sick in hospitals and nursing homes. For example, here in this region you can go to Somali, Eritrean, or Yemeni restaurants, all these are people giving a flavor, sharing the flavor of their land and of their culture with everybody in this country. So, it would be devastating of the U.S not to pay attention to their voices.”

Professor Berroa reflects on Mason’s diverse community: “A few minutes ago, I was in a university meeting with seventy-five people, and I think that at least 70 percent were immigrants. Not just because of their names, but because of the way they talked, you immediately recognize yourself in their accent and you tell yourself: oh, that sounds like a Swedish person, or that’s a German, Spanish, French sound. It is so amazing that here at Mason we celebrate, not just respect, but we celebrate the voice of those who are different. In my department (Modern and Classical Languages), thinking about all our professors, I can tell you that the professors who teach Chinese are Chinese, the ones who teach Korean are Koreans, but the professors who teach French, two are from the US but educated in another country, another one from Laos (third person I have ever met from this country), and others from Romania, France, Pakistan. You realize that the immigrants have brought so much knowledge of all sorts to the country. They are really the backbone of this nation in spite of what these white supremacists are trying to say, we are this country because we collect the fruits and vegetables that are going to feed people, but we also planted them, distributed them, and now, with the pandemic, we bring them to every one’s door. We do everything for the country that has given us work and the possibility of a decent life. Why not reciprocate in the same manner? Is this much to ask?

If people judge us just by the color of our skin, or the form of our hair, by the shape of our eyes or the different accents we reproduce when we speak (a richness that comes with being multilingual and multicultural) they really diminish themselves instead of the persons they are trying to diminish, as they do not understand what the human being is about. We need to educate ourselves and each other that the minute we see a human being, we see a human being not a child, an old person, a brown, tall or gendered person. Educating ourselves is the best way to help educate others about looking at the reality of humans and then behaving accordingly. We have to advocate for equality for everybody, so whoever comes after us builds upon the notion of equality that we try to create for ourselves and share this experience of breathing the same air. Nowadays, we have to be careful when we breathe the same air because it may come with a lot of yellow viruses in the form of a crown or corona (laughs). That’s why we go around with a mask, but we really breathe the same air, we eat the same food, we are sharing these things together and this togetherness is what we have to continue after we eliminate these coronas from the common air.”

Life before migrating

To understand these insights from Dr. Berroa, one should know his personal journey, a fascinating story that eventually led him to George Mason University.

Dr. Berroa says: “My life begins in Gurabo, a little tiny town, in the center of the country.” He highlights an interesting distinction between English and Spanish languages: “Although in English we say 'giving birth,' in Spanish we say 'dar a luz' which means giving light. This is because we were in darkness and we went from being that tiny thing to slowly develop into something that spontaneously desires to come to life.”

He continues: “So, it was in that tiny town of the Dominican Republic; a very fertile valley in the center of the country, and contrary to all expectations I survived. The first child was a stillborn, the second child is my sister who is my best friend, then me, then another brother, then another brother, then finally a sister. I joke, I always say that my mother began with the right child, a girl, and ended with the right child, another girl. In the middle she had three “failed attempts” because I am very jealous of women. They can give light; the gods were unfair to men. They gave the possibility of giving life, of giving birth, to women and did not give us that possibility. For me, poetry has become my way of giving light since I cannot give birth.

From Gurabo, the family moved to several different places until one day when the priest in the church in Santo Domingo where we were living told my parents: this boy is very quiet and very smart and that means that the Lord has separated him for His service.  So, I was sent to the seminary. The priest convinced my parents, and I was sent to the seminary when I was 11. It was the best thing that happened to me, not just because of the amazing world of learning I would have never had, but also because little by little I became an atheist; a man that became to understand that it makes much more sense to have gods that are in charge of different compartments of life: a god for wine, a god for light, a god for knowledge, etc., instead of having one single god in charge of absolutely everything, a despot of the heavens, like in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim societies where there is only one god who is in charge of everything, obviously the result of powerful and insecure monarchs who plotted with religious high priests to create this madness. I think this is problematic because it obviously gives the image of absolute power. Men create religion in the image of their own perception. Have you noticed that religions were created by men, insecure men that could not handle their insecurities: Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad? Women do not need to create religion, because they know where life comes from. It is from their own body, there is no external force taking care of it. The moon has nothing to do with it and the gods have nothing to do with it. It is the body of the woman, period.

At the same time, the seminary gave me something that I have cherished all my life which is the responsibility of work. I learned Greek and Latin and that has been something that has accompanied me throughout my life. It has given me a tremendous approach to so many things and also have made me a better teacher, a better researcher, a better poet, and a better human being. As you may imagine, I stayed for quite a long time in the seminary until I began to question everything that had been given to me as I explained a minute ago. That was when they told me: Faith is acceptance, if you don’t accept this, it is not for you. So, I responded: If I cannot question anything there is no reason to live. Count me out. And I left.”

Life in Spain

After he left the seminary, Dr. Berroa went to Spain: “I spent one wonderful summer in Spain with a small grant from the Ministry of Education. Then, I went back to Puerto Rico, where I taught Ethics, Philosophy, founded the school choir, and founded and coached the soccer team. I always loved any subject since I was someone connected with the Greek past: Pythagoras, Euclid, Heraclitus, and Socrates. All these Greek thinkers were mathematicians and philosophers and I am a poet and philosopher who loves music, mathematics, philosophy. I have always been someone looking for the reason of things.

In Puerto Rico, he spent a couple of years and then went back to Spain where he lived from 1975 to 1979. He mentions: “I was a student at the Middlebury College in Madrid but at the same time I was writing and I was playing the guitar. I traveled through a very large number of towns in Spain with my books in one arm and my guitar in the other, bringing poetry and music to many people in Spain. It was very hard for a Dominican because there was a lot of discrimination against Latin Americans in general, but specifically for some groups. I realized that I was not going to find a good place for me in Spain. At the same time, I arrived in Spain in August 1975 during the last hours of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco who died on November 20. The Spanish society went through a very convulsive period, but also in a somewhat orderly way. Just two years after the dictator’s death (1975-1977), Spain went from being the last dictatorship in Western Europe to being the country with the youngest constitution, a constitution in which  not one single woman was invited to take part in its writing. Again, a text written and signed by men for men.

Between 1930 and 1961, we in the Dominican Republic had our own dictatorship in the person of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo a reign of terror that ended with the assassination of the despotic ruler. He gave himself the title of doctor, called himself the father and benefactor of the new country, and even asked the Catholic Church to proclaim him Benefactor of the Faith. Quite similar to what has been happening here in the US during the last four years. I never thought that something like this could happen in our country here. Tyranny takes many forms, but many times it begins with the appearance of a democratic system dressed in the country’s flag.”

While he was still in Spain, Dr. Berroa remembers an important moment that influenced his work, poems, and life: “One day, somebody knocked up the door of the small apartment where I was living in Madrid at that time. It was this Mapuche from South Chile.* I looked at him and asked if I can help him somehow. He introduced himself and told me that he had written the cultural mythology of the Mapuche and had come to Spain to see if he could publish it. He told me that he had asked some professors to give him a hand, but they thought they should be co-authors of the book. A Brazilian friend of mine who was a PhD student at that time, told him to come to talk to me. We began to edit the text that same afternoon and worked on it for about four months and he published it somewhere in Europe, but I never saw the book. After this encounter, I decided that I was going to take advantage of all I had learned from this man and wrote the prospectus for my dissertation: The Influence of European Mythologies in the Mythologies of the Americas. I think that all of these belief systems are mythologies, although we have a tendency to call what we believe religion, and mythology what other people believe.”

While still in Madrid, Dr. Berroa had a lot of American friends: “The first summer that I spent in Middlebury, Vermont they asked me to read my work and sing some of my songs at the end of the summer during an event. After my presentation, a guy came to me and told me: Amigo, I like your music, I like your poetry. Uncle Sam has been very generous with me, and I want to be generous with you. Let’s live together in Madrid.” Rei says: “This person was Captain Frederick Lash of the U.S Army studying in Madrid and invited me to live with him in Madrid, telling me that I did not need pay for anything as long as I helped him with his classes. Imagine what an act of generosity this was. We are still very good friends. We drove from Madrid to Rome and he even invited me to his wedding (I think it was in Kansas). While in Spain I also traveled throughout Europe. During these trips, I tried to go visit places I knew from the writers I had read or visit sites from the images I had from the books I had read. We belong to a society where everything is connected to learning through the printed word. In fact, all of our cultures are bookish cultures. Either Gilgamesh, The Iliad or The Odyssey, the Rig Veda, the Bible or the Quran, we are connected by the cultures that we have experienced, and all of our cultures are bookish cultures. While in the Dominican Republic, I dreamed about seeing all of the monuments and sites that I had studied in the history books. On these trips, I fulfilled dreams of knowledge that I thought never possible when I experienced with my own eyes The Eiffel Tour, The Louvre, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Segovia Aqueduct, the Giralda in Sevilla, the Alhambra in Granada, Pisa, Venice, Firenze, Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the Acropolis in Athens and King Minos palace in Crete, among many other feasts for my eyes.”

Starting a PhD at the University of Pittsburgh

When he started applying for PhD programs, Dr. Berroa remembers that he prepared the prospectus mentioned before on the influence of European mythologies on the mythologies of the Americas and sent it to the Sorbonne, Oxford, Harvard, Berkeley, and several other universities. He also sent it to the University of Pittsburgh because they were publishing the most important journal on Latin American culture and literature, and they had Juan Cano Ballesta, the best professor specializing in Miguel Hernández, a Spanish poet who died immediately after the Spanish Civil War and about whom he had written his master’s thesis. These two elements drove him in that direction. A couple of months after arriving in Pittsburgh, Professor Cano called one day and asked him how many of the languages of these indigenous cultures he knew. Dr. Berroa says: “I only knew a few words in Mapuche. I didn’t know any Maya, Aymara, or Quechua.” So, Professor Cano told him: “Rei, in this country, if you’re going to do research on a group of people, the first thing you have to do is you have to learn their language. It’s going to take you 10 years at the very least to learn these languages, if you’re going to study the cultures of the Americas. You cannot study the Mayas, the Aztecs, the Aymaras, etc. without learning their languages first.’

Dr. Berroa highlights: “I realized that this was the word of a wise man. I left my desire behind and I devoted myself completely to study ideology and rhetoric in Miguel Hernández’s work. I finished my dissertation and taught at Humboldt State University in California and at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois, and then came to George Mason in 1984, and I have been here since then.”

Before settling into the DC metro area, Dr. Berroa had visited DC several times as a doctoral student. He remembers: “I used to come to Washington to protest. I came here about ten times to protest against Ronald Reagan’s policies, which were really damaging to Latin America, and especially to the Latino community in the U.S.” Apart from his vital contribution to George Mason, Dr. Berroa is also involved in creating a space for the Spanish speaking world: “I had joined forces with a theater in the Arlington area, Teatro de la Luna. I am their literary advisor and have been organizing with them an annual poetry festival we have called Maratón de Poesía now in its 28th year.”


If you would like to learn more about Dr. Rei Berroa’s work, poems, and books you can click here.

 

* The Mapuche are an indigenous group of present-day south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina, including parts of present-day Patagonia.