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Living in limbo

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Photos and words by Shelby Wolfe

The first thing that strikes you about Bernadette Pierre is the way she bundles her long skirt together when she walks, tiptoeing around her own family members to avoid drawing attention. She glances at her husband and kids, smiles sweetly and looks away. She spends most of her day in her small, crowded kitchen mashing plantains and cooking rice. She serves her family first and takes whatever is left for herself, sometimes only a fourth of the first three portions.

Even though she hasn’t felt accepted since she decided to come to the Dominican Republic, taking care of her family and members of the community comes first.

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This is a story about a family that is both Dominican and Haitian in a country that says, officially, you can’t be both. They live on a bateye, a community where generations of Haitians were housed to provide cheap labor in the sugar cane plantations. The family members own their land now but they are still poor subsistence farmers. Both parents want a better life for the children but the new law denying Haitians citizenship threatens their ability to break the cycle of rural poverty by denying the children access to higher education. However, the family still has faith that somehow their lives can change for the better.

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David is the youngest son and was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Most days he walks 14 kilometers from home to help his father harvest plantains, yucca and potatoes as a source of income. His dream is to become a lawyer so he can help people achieve justice and peace, but the law won’t allow it. When he returned home one day after work, he laid down in the middle of the concrete floor next to the worn and feeble dining set. He stayed like that, staring at nothing, for a long time as if he was stuck, knowing he’s destined to follow his father’s footsteps in the plantation fields.

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The man with the gap in his teeth

Words and photos by Cara Wilwerding

The first thing that strikes you about Elinson Diaz Ramirez is the slight gap in his front teeth, noticeable only when he smiles at his father, a chef supporting a family of five. The family lives in a two-bedroom apartment with concrete walls, no plumbing and no doors. Elinson’s white teeth glimmer in the Caribbean sun as he washes sedans and rusty pickups outside of a cock fighting arena in Lo Fraile. He clenches these strong teeth as he slices up dead roosters, or gallos, after each fight, watching the blood dribble from their necks, yanking off stiff feathers with his reddened fingers and scooping out the entrails. The birds’ stomachs are still full of corn from the morning feeding. The gap in Elinson’s teeth shows up as he grins at old friends leaving the arena, often lending them money for 40-ounce Presidente beers and menthol cigarettes. But Elinson doesn’t go out drinking with them. Instead, he takes the remaining cash, sometimes as little as 200 pesos, home to buy rice and beans for his family.

This is a story about cock fighting, a brutal, loud and bloody affair commonplace to Santo Domingo’s neighborhoods, street corners and barrios. It’s about one man who dreams this sport can serve as an escape from his family’s poverty. About leaving high school to spend afternoons covered in dirt, gravel and rooster guts, surrounded by men shouting “Blanco!” and “Azul!” as they place bets on which gallo will survive another day. About brotherhood and camaraderie in a place where one bird’s death is another’s triumph. This is a story about the adrenaline, power and pesos many derive from cock fighting. A long shot at putting a meal on the table, a Christmas gift for two crying brothers, a means of survival.

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‘You’re grown now': Sex work in Samaná

Samaná, a cruise ship port town on the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic, draws ­thousands of tourists to the island each year. Colorful sarongs, postcards, and Dominican paintings fill souvenir shops along the main road. The locals can lead you to authentic restaurants, idyllic beaches, and, if you can spare a few pesos, girls of all ages.

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“This place is a man’s paradise,” said one tourist. “These girls just love to have sex.”

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Berenice, Yolei and Chabeli – best friends, mothers and sex workers –  will do whatever it takes to feed their children. So in the town of Samaná, where job opportunities are limited, the three women sell their bodies for money.  

Jan. 6 was Dia de los Reyes, a national holiday for Dominicans. To celebrate, the girls packed their bags with bikinis, snacks and orange soda, and headed to the beach with their children.

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With polka dots on her shirt and a light blue bow in her hair, Chabeli looked more like a child than a mother.  The 15-year-old was 13  when she told her parents she was pregnant. She was given three days to pack her things, leave the house and find her own way.

But Berenise, 23, has been a sex worker for almost 10 years. With two children, ages 11 and 4, she knows what it takes to support a family through sex work. She has taken the responsibility of teaching Yolei and Chabeli their lifestyle leaves little time for fun and games.

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“No eres tan pequeña, eres grande ya,” Berenise said to Chabeli at the beach.

“You’re not little anymore, you’re grown now.”

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A shortstop takes batting practice at the Centro Olimpico baseball field in Santo Domingo. Photo by Nickolai Hammar

He dreamed of the Fenway Park lights

Words by Faiz Siddiqui
Photo by Nickolai Hammar

On a sunny afternoon in San Cristobal, a 17-year-old lies unconscious, splayed out across a pitcher’s mound before a crowd of 300. The boy’s name is Jesús Cebollo Ulba, and today was supposed to be the most important day of his life. Though Jesús can’t hear anything, cries for help are muted by the sound of an incoming ambulance.

A few hours earlier, around 8 the morning of his big audition five years ago, a plate of eggs and fried plantains sat on his kitchen table untouched. On the counter beside him was a tall, empty glass he’d pulled from the sink. His mother pleaded with him to eat before his big game that afternoon.

“The food’s getting cold,” she said.

Jesús refused. Too nervous, he said. Didn’t want to upset his stomach.

He had good reason. Today Jesús was to show off his 90 mph cut fastball to scouts from the Minnesota Twins, the Detroit Tigers and elsewhere. If the outing went well, the stocky, buzzcut-wearing pitcher might sign a six-figure contract to play professional baseball, a ticket to a new life in a new country. A ticket to supporting his newborn infant daughter. A ticket to potential MLB stardom.

He’d been known to throw wild pitches before, but today, of all days, Jesús couldn’t screw up. Neglecting breakfast, he reached into the cabinet and retrieved a jar of chocolate-flavored protein that had been mailed to his mother from a friend in the United States. He spooned the recommended dose of powder into the glass until it was a third of the way full, mixing the protein with water. He’d need the energy.

So he chugged another shake. And another. And another.

He’d never drunk so much before. And when he finally made it to the baseball field, he says, he felt great.

The feeling followed him to the mound, where in his sixth inning debut, he struck out two of three batters. Already, Jesús had begun imagining himself under the Fenway Park lights, relieving his favorite pitcher, Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez. This was his chance, and he was nailing it.

Until he sat down in the dugout to rest. Then, Jesús says, he began noticing something was off. His vision became blurry and he started feeling dizzy. His heart was beating faster than usual.

Jesús took the mound in the seventh anyway. He threw six more strikes, retiring two batters in a row. Then, he cocked and released, watching a fastball fly higher than the catcher could reach. The pitch bounced off the backstop. To gasps from the scouts and coaches in attendance, he threw a second wild pitch in a row. And a third. When his heart started beating faster than the pitches he was throwing, Jesús knew something was wrong.

A minute later he just laid silent on the ground. His teammates rushed over from the dugout.

In that five-minute span, any hopes Jesús had of making it professionally were crushed. Scouts didn’t give 17-year-olds second chances. Especially when they needed months to recover from the jolt. Especially when they were Dominican.

Jesús knew as much the second he woke up in a hospital bed, nauseated and confused with a tube stuck in his arm, as far from Fenway as ever.

A shortstop takes batting practice at the Centro Olimpico baseball field in Santo Domingo. Photo by Nickolai Hammar
A shortstop takes batting practice at the Centro Olimpico baseball field in Santo Domingo. Photo by Nickolai Hammar
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The last to die

Words by Joseph Moore
Photos by Kaylee Everly

Ultimo Gomez Cueba stands facing the tomb, one hand placed on top of the rectangular six feet by three feet structure, the other resting at his side. Gone is the wide, toothless smile that once seemed a permanent fixture on his weathered face. For several moments, he contemplates the words engraved in the stone. He stoops to remove clumps of weeds growing around the burial chamber before continuing down the narrow, rocky path.

The public cemetery in Cristo Rey, Santo Domingo, is a byzantine labyrinth of decaying concrete tagged with graffiti and overgrown with weeds. It’s easy for visitors to get lost in this miniature city of tombs, separated in places by only a few feet, in others by a few inches, but Ultimo has become adept at navigating the narrow alleyways between chambers. He has been carrying tools and bags of cement from one area to another for the last 16 years.

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He builds tombs for the newly departed, as well as those preparing for the inevitable. Five or six times a week he performs exhumations. He chisels away the face of a tomb, collects the bones of the deceased into a plastic bag and burns the clothing. This is done to make room for the incoming casket of a wife, a brother, a distant cousin or a perfect stranger.

Moving from one task to the next, Ultimo does not stop to read the names of the dead engraved in the tombs, with one exception. In a secluded area of the cemetery, far from the entrance where the gravediggers await the arrival of the dead, there is a tomb that gives Ultimo pause whenever he passes. Two nameplates, one on top of the other, read “Wilfrin Antonio Gomez Gomez, 30-6-1983 to 30-5-2009” and “Eddy Junior Gomez Gomez, 30-1-1992 to 30-5-2009.”

This tomb contains Ultimo’s sons, murdered on the same day.

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Twenty-five-year-old Wilfrin Gomez was an officer in the Dominican National Police. In 2009, he was given a transfer order to a new district – a promotion. To celebrate the occasion, Wilfrin went with friends to a pool hall to have some drinks. While there, one of his friends got into an argument with another group of men. The argument escalated and someone drew a 9mm pistol, shooting Wilfrin’s friend in the leg. After rushing his bleeding friend to the hospital, Wilfrin returned to the pool hall to confront the gunman. He was shot twice in the head.

That night, Wilfrin’s younger brother, 17-year-old Eddy Junior, received a phone call from the bar warning him that his brother was in trouble. He arrived at the pool hall in time to lift his brother’s lifeless body into his arms, turn toward the door and receive eight bullets in the back.

Nearly five years later, Ultimo does not get emotional when he tells this story. In a solemn, reflective tone he recounts the events of May 30, 2009. This is a stark contrast from the man who drinks beer at work and laughs with the other gravediggers as they wait for a hearse or an ambulance to drive through the cemetery’s gates, guaranteeing them some work for the day and some pesos to bring home to their families.

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Earlier in the day, Ultimo supervised the burial of 56-year-old Marcelo Pena, who died of a brain hemorrhage. When members of Marcelo’s family complained that another laborer was not using enough cement to construct the tomb’s wall, Ultimo stepped in to ease the tension.  He spoke loudly in rapid Spanish, gesturing wildly with his hands, his smile wider than ever.

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Some of the family members accused Ultimo of being drunk and warned him that he too could end up in a tomb. Addressing the crowd in a loud voice, his smile undiminished, he reminded them all that his name is Ultimo – “final” – and he will be the last one to die.

Gipsy Veras and the death of a dream

Dominicans live and die by the sport of baseball. That’s true both figuratively and, as the stories of so many big league hopefuls here reflect, quite literally.

The contributions of the sport to the Caribbean nation’s culture are evident in Santo Domingo, where young boys hit line drives into traffic using broomsticks and branches collected on the side of the road. No country besides the United States has given rise to as many Major League Baseball players as the Dominican Republic.

Thousands in the country grow up with hopes of following in the footsteps of sluggers like Sammy Sosa, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez — Dominican stars who have cemented the sport’s status as a national obsesssion.

Gipsy Veras, 35, grew up admiring the Dominican stars of generations past: Felipe Alou, Cesar Geronimo, Pedro Guerrero. After signing a contract with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at 16, the lanky pitcher, newly enriched by a $27,000 signing bonus, traveled to the United States to follow his dream. But one afternoon in 2002, the sport he loved drove him nearly to suicide.

After a softball game they hosted for former baseball players, 35-year-old Gipsy Veras (left) and his brother Jose (right), who plays for the Chicago Cubs, meet young baseball players in Santo Domingo. Photo by Nickolai Hammar.
After a softball game they hosted for former baseball players, 35-year-old Gipsy Veras (left) and his brother Jose (right), who plays for the Chicago Cubs, meet young baseball players in Santo Domingo. Photo by Nickolai Hammar.

It was a few weeks after he’d been cut from the Giants and sent home: nearly a month after Veras stormed out of the team’s rookie facilities still wearing his uniform. Team staff had already cleared his locker and packed a bag for him. His flight back to the Dominican Republic was already arranged. Veras says he was the last to find out.

Now back in his mother’s home in Santo Domingo, a home his bonus check had expanded and remodeled, Veras laid in bed unresponsive. Saliva drenched his pillow.

He’d spent the day’s early hours locked in his bedroom, crying often, refusing food. Just getting out of bed seemed a monumental task. More than once, his mother came by to check on him.

“Gipsy,” she said, “Gipsy. You have to eat something.”

Veras remembered looking into the mirror, the feelings of failure as he made out the stocky figure reflected within it. Embarassment overtook him. Shock. Utter Disbelief.

Finally, he rose with sights set on his mother’s medicine cabinet. Veras grabbed the first bottle he could find, retreating to his dark bedroom. One by one, he slipped the unmarked prescription pills into his mouth until he started feeling dizzy. He faded not soon after the nausea set in.

For Veras, life in the pressure cooker of the Major League farm system had taken its toll. The pain in his right arm — his pitching arm — had become unbearable, a product, he says, of overwork and abuse at the hands of coaches. His fastball, once 90 mph, was losing its punch. The money that fueled weekend-long beach getaways in the northern Dominican Republic had long ago disappeared. Now back in his home country with no Major League contract, no education and no professional skills to boot, Veras had nowhere to go. Baseball was his life for 15 years. He didn’t know anything else. 

So with the dream suddenly out of reach, he tried to end it all.
Veras eventually woke up, confused but alive. Stories like his seem to be all too common for young Dominican signees, taught from an early age to live and breathe baseball, and then abruptly sent home as if a business investment gone bad. Right now, around 5,000 of those investments are chasing big league ambitions of their own, in the 30 Major League academies around the country. Of those lucky few, only about 100 will ever see their dream realized.

Thousands more will find themselves in Veras’ position, left to face the reality of life beyond baseball in the Dominican Republic. 

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Rosemary

With her two-year-old crawling on the table, her kid brother coloring underneath, her grandmother yelling to help her in the kitchen and her infant daughter crying for milk, Rosemary just breathes. She has to take some time to sit amongst the chaos.

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Rosemary is 15 years old and cares for her own two children, her siblings, cousins, neighbor children and her grandmother everyday.

Rosemary was 13 when she had her first child. Her mother was 13 when she had her first child. Her grandmother was 12 when she had her first child.

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In the Dominican Republic, teenage pregnancy rates are among the highest in the world. Many people don’t see it as a problem because it is so common, but most agree it needs a solution. Generations of young girls are dropping out of school and working low-paying jobs. They are taking care of the children they have while they are still children.

Rosemary with Vitali, 2 months

Rosemary says she was the first in her group of friends to become pregnant. So now she doesn’t have time to be a typical 15-year-old girl. She wishes she could still sing with the other girls and roam carefree around the neighborhood all day. She knows it will be a long time before she has the freedom to be a kid again.

--Anna

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