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Parsley played a crucial role in a brutal massacre

Parsley grows in a converted air-raid shelter in London.
Photo: Dan Kitwood (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Parsley massacre

What it’s about: One of the bloodiest incidents in the often fractious history of Hispaniola, the island split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the army to wipe out Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border in the northwest of the country. The following year, he sent the army south to carry out more killing. Soldiers determined who was to die by holding up a sprig of parsley; whoever pronounced the word “perejil” correctly in Spanish was deemed Dominican and was spared.

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Biggest controversy: Trujillo’s anti-immigrant rhetoric had pretty blatant racist overtones. He described Haitians as being “of pure African race, they cannot represent for us any ethnic incentive. Not well-nourished and worse dressed, they are weak, though very prolific due to their low living conditions.” He accused border-crossers of being thieves, and Haitians as having “diseases and physiological deficiencies which are endemic at the lowest levels of that society.” “That type is frankly undesirable,” he said.

Strangest fact: Many of Trujillo’s victims were Dominican-born. Because D.R. has a larger share of the island, and both countries have the same population, Haitians had long settled in sparsely populated areas just across the border in search of more farmable land. These Haitian communities survived for generations, meaning many of the ethnically Haitian victims of Trujillo’s pogrom had lived in D.R. their whole lives.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Hard to find much reason to be happy about ethnic cleansing, but we’ll try and find one silver lining. Trujillo’s efforts to solidify his hold on the borderland also involved modernizing the region, which meant building hospitals, schools, housing, and highway connections to the rest of the country, so Dominicans in the region benefited, even if Haitians were still being treated badly by the regime.

Rafael Trujillo, center, circa 1955.
Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images
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Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Even reparations went badly for the Haitians. Haitian president Sténio Vincent, supported by then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, demanded reparations of $750,000. Trujillo paid out about two-thirds of that (just over $9 million in today’s money), but Haiti’s government was so corrupt that survivors got an average of 2 cents each.

Also noteworthy: While the parsley massacre doesn’t get taught in many history lessons, it’s been well-remembered by literature. The massacre is a plot point in The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming Of Bones, and Roxane Gay’s short story “In The Manner Of Water Or Light.” It’s also the inspiration for Rita Dove’s poem “Parsley.”

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Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Another part of Dominican and Haitian history that gets left out of the classroom is that both countries were once U.S. territories. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson justified an invasion of Haiti because the country was in debt to American banks. The following year, the navy occupied the Dominican Republic, ostensibly to protect the Haitian occupiers from foreign interference. Wilson’s successor, Warren G. Harding, campaigned against both occupations, and in 1922, turned D.R. over to a provisional president until elections could be held. The Haitian occupation continued until 1934, when FDR turned over control of the country to the Haitian military.

Further down the Wormhole: The parsley massacre is sadly far from the only instance of ethnic cleansing in history, and these ugly moments in history are often made worse by people insisting they never happened. Genocides in Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Rwanda, and Germany all have their deniers. This particularly damaging type of conspiracy theory not only lets the perpetrators of genocide off the hook, but also it enables future crimes against humanity by extending the “it can’t happen here” mind-set all the way to “it didn’t happen there either.” On the other side of the coin, there are also conspiracy theorists who insist on the existence of wars that never happened, like that time in 2015 the United States tried to invade… wait for it… Texas. We’ll look at the bizarre Jade Helm 15 conspiracy next week.

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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.