PELIGRO, MEANING “DANGER,” is one of the Dominican Republic’s many “bateyes,” settlements for sugarcane workers that sprouted alongside the mills. In some cases, a batey develops into a village of cement houses with tin roofs, running water, and electricity, but most of the time bateyes remain arid collections of shacks, similar to the ones that housed slaves in the 19th century. Peligro is one of the latter.
Robert Puasón, the son of a Dominican woman and a Haitian man, grew up amid this scenery of deprivation and ill-paid labor. Whenever his mother went out to sell sweets or kerosene for lamps and his father was working on the cane harvest, Puasón would look after his younger siblings. Sometimes he had nothing to give them to eat, so he would scrounge for money on his own. He collected trash, begged for coins by traffic lights, bought flour on credit at the corner store. Meat was a luxury reserved for weekends.
At the bottom of a system that allows for virtually no social mobility, the family experienced constant difficulty. When they managed to move out of the batey shack and into a house, they were thrown out for inability to pay the $50 in monthly rent. Puasón says he once asked God to forgive whatever he must have done to deserve all these miseries.
He speaks of these things with all the innocence of the 16-year-old he is, but they are now part of his past. On July 2, he signed a $5 million contract with the Oakland A’s — the latest in a long line of Dominican phenoms to seek fame in American baseball stadiums, from Juan Marichal, the Hall of Fame pitcher known for his high leg kick, to David Ortiz, the legendary Red Sox slugger who was shot in his homeland last month.
Puasón, this talented shortstop and switch-hitter with incredible skills for his age, is the hero of a fairy tale financed by the big leagues. Blessed with a discipline that distinguished him even as a child, he has been coveted by various franchises for years. His principal goal was to buy a house for his parents, a dream he has now fulfilled.
Every July 2, the start of Major League Baseball’s signing period for international prospects, a few select players receive astronomical sums. In a country where the working class sees baseball as the only “clean” way to climb out of poverty, the date has acquired near-mythical status.
But there is a long road between that first signature and a career in professional baseball. The Jervin Cabral softball league in Boston is one of many where Dominicans who didn’t make it get together to play ball. Some were signed as teenagers, but were slowed by injury or didn’t have quite enough talent to make it. The contracts, at least, allowed each of them to get their “papers” and work legally in blue-collar jobs in the United States. At the Cabral league, they bond over their shared heritage, chatter about the game’s biggest stars, beer, and the dream, now abandoned, that baseball would bring them great fortune.
For Dominicans on or off the island, the baseball dream is an obsession. Their relationship with the sport is immediate and formative, and a person like David Ortiz is not just a successful athlete but a superhero, a god who put them on the map.
The visibility of Dominicans in Boston was practically nil until well into the 1990s. Relegated to back-room jobs — cleaning, cooking, and washing dishes — they never appeared in newspapers unless there was an article about a crime in Jamaica Plain. Ortiz, Pedro Martínez, and Manny Ramírez changed all that. Their faces were everywhere — on television, at the White House — and they became the Dominican Republic’s best advertisement, alongside the already popular images of heavenly beaches and all-inclusive resorts.
That facade has been compromised in the past few months. The deaths of 11 American tourists in the first half of 2019, sensationalized by the media, and the attempted murder of Ortiz at a bar in Santo Domingo have sullied the good name of this half-island, and may damage a multimillion-dollar tourist industry largely responsible for the Dominican Republic’s growth into the biggest economy in Central America and the Caribbean.
But this economic growth, which allowed President Danilo Medina to declare the Dominican Republic a “middle-class country,” only benefits those with connections to power. That power consists of an intricate web of sellers of favors of all sizes, and it permeates all areas of public and private life. All those who live outside the containing walls of what passes for economic opportunity — beyond the bubble of the resort and the year-round golf course — derive no benefit from this deep-rooted clientelism.
A defining feature of life in the Dominican Republic, according to the World Bank, is its limited upward mobility. In the past decade, less than 7 percent of the population saw its income grow. This rampant inequality is obvious — you only have to leave the resort to see it — and, aside from the unpunished success of corrupt officials, it is the trigger for the country’s insecurity.
In his book “Papi: My Story,” David Ortiz describes the violence that surrounded him in childhood — a violence that has cut through him now, just when everyone thought him invulnerable. The Ortiz incident stands out for its notoriety, but hitmen are the order of the day. Armed robberies are so common they are now joke material.
In Ortiz’s case, the details of the crime, the much-doubted conclusion the authorities reached in record time, the undercurrent of gossip, and the loose ends are all pieces of the complex puzzle of power in Latin America, where efforts toward real whatever-the-costs-and-whoever-falls investigations are rare.
The fact is that Ortiz — adored by thousands in his country and outside of it, with a bridge in Boston named in his honor; the man who saved the Red Sox from the Curse of the Bambino; a celebrity noted for his generosity off the field — cannot enjoy a drink in peace in his own city.
Ortiz is known as a normal guy who likes to hang out with everyone, an open person, charismatic, but above all, humble. The photos of the crime scene speak of this humility: an open-air bar with plastic seats, the kind of place many wealthy Dominican baseball stars would avoid. That’s the message here: To survive violence in an atmosphere of complete distrust for the authorities, you have to stay within the bubble your money and your position permit. Until, of course, that bubble bursts — like all the bubbles will burst, if the Dominican Republic’s leaders keep evading social issues.
In the batey called Danger there is a crossroads. Nearby some children are playing ball with a broomstick and cardboard gloves. In spite of their makeshift tools, they play seriously; some already know their lives depend on it. Like a tropical version of a Grimm fairy tale, these crossroads hold three destinies.
The first ends in a glorious career in the big leagues — success, money, and freedom. The second ends in the inherited and permanent misery that often leads to a desperate criminality. The third, perhaps the most far-fetched of all, is the one where these children gain access to education, high-quality medical care, drinkable water, safe surroundings, and justly paid work. It leads to a future where upward mobility in the Dominican Republic is not just a fantasy, not just a desperate swing in the batter’s box.
Rita Indiana is a Dominican musician and the author of five novels. Follow her on Twitter @ritaindiana. This essay was translated from Spanish by Sydney Hutchinson.