UCLA Professor Records Quake Evacuees' Stories
Research becomes journalism about victims who were overlooked by mainstream media, reports The Daily Bruin student newspaper.
Published: Thursday, January 28, 2010
In a way, not knowing gives you this strength and its optimistic, but in another sense, you cant move on.
By Brittany Wong for The Daily Bruin
ABOUT A MONTH ago, Professor Robin Derby arranged a trip to the Haitian-Dominican border to collect Haitian narratives for an extended research project on the “loup-garou,” the shapeshifting were-creature of Caribbean supernatural folklore.
After the 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti in the capital city of Port-au-Prince two weeks ago, the plan changed. Presenting herself as a journalist to those she spoke to and employing the Creole and Spanish she speaks, the history professor set out to interview as many Haitians in the central frontier as she could.
“People might think this crisis is really far afield from this little agrarian sphere I was working in, but it was affected. Essentially, I was covering it in a journalistic fashion,” she said.
In the makeshift hospitals along the Haitian-Dominican border where she conducted most of her interviews, Derby said she quickly realized that the people affected most by the earthquake were not the poor. Instead, it was the middle class – those who live and work near the capital city, not in the expendable tin-roof homes of the shanty towns, but in multi-storied buildings.
“I didn’t even have to ask their occupation, I could tell from their speech style that they had a lot of French,” she said.
“Immediately it came to my attention that these were the educated of Haiti, so there’s going to be a huge brain drain problem,” Derby said, mentioning a student she met who had lost his home and family members and was one year shy of getting his degree.
She urged him to finish his education for Haiti.
On Derby’s first hospital stop in San Juan de la Maguana, a town on the Dominican central border, she talked to a woman who insisted on being called “Madame,” a tell-tale status marker that told the professor the woman wasn’t from the regional border town.
The woman had fled Delma after her three-story house collapsed, killing her child, Derby said. Leaving the body of her child behind, she evacuated with a newly-orphaned child next door who was injured, forming an instant family in their search for a hospital. After being turned away from the first entry point of entry for evacuees in Elias Piña due to overcrowding, the two had been transferred to the rural border clinic.
“I have to be here. I have nowhere to go,” the woman said in Creole during one of the interviews Derby recorded. Watching the interview, still less than a week old, Derby was visibly affected.
“She’s got this pride in her carriage – it’s very heartbreaking,” Derby said, between rough translations of Madame’s responses.
The mass relocation to the central frontier is a result of the Haitian government’s push to get people out of Port-au-Prince, Derby said. Many of the hospitals established along the border to treat these evacuees were set up by the neighboring Dominican Republic, in spite of centuries of enmity between the two countries. But the hospitals are overburdened and ill-equipped to handle the kinds of injuries coming out of Haiti.
“Many patients have complex fractures and need morphine. They’re doing 60 amputations a day, because a lot of this is bone-crushing – legs and arms,” she said.
Along the border formed naturally by the Artibonite River, Derby interviewed Haitians who crossed over by foot, mule or canoe to reach the Dominican town of Bánica on Thursday and Sunday, the traditional market days. Derby said almost everyone she spoke to in the frontier town had relatives in the capital city, located eight hours from Bánica by foot.
“If you lost your family, you don’t know where they are, the only thing you have left is the one relative left in Port-au-Prince. … There’s this feeling of, ‘I have nothing left, so I’ve got to go back to Port-au-Prince to find that one person,’” she said. “That one person is home to them now, which is part of the trauma.”
Without televisions, Derby said, many along the border are left in the dark about the full devastation of the earthquake. Without telephones, she said, people must rely on word of mouth, leaving them without confirmation on the status of family members.
“In a way, not knowing gives you this strength and it’s optimistic, but in another sense, you can’t move on,” she said. “I had a sense of that when talking to these people. There’s delayed mourning process.”
Though the border towns Derby visited were a safe distance from the epicenter of the quake, she said the repercussions will be significant, as the money intended for poor families from migrant workers in the capital begins to dwindle.
“These families in these rural areas rely on remittances from Port-au-Prince and those remittances are gone. Maybe it was 100 pesos, maybe it was five bucks a month, but it was that little bit they needed to keep out of ‘hambre’ – starvation,” she said.
Over the extent of the two weeks, Derby estimated that she interviewed 50 people. While listening to their various personal stories, she said she was often left without a response.
“It’s difficult interviewing these people. I felt like I had to be a witness to their pain, but it was hard to probe them,” she said.
Derby’s colleagues praised the history professor’s decision to swiftly redirect her research and pick up a camera to cover a zone that has been largely underreported by the media.
“As a historian, this isn’t usually what she focuses on. This was an opportunity where, to her credit, she set aside the agenda of her research she’d normally be doing to cover something pressing,” said Bonnie Taub, an adjunct assistant professor at the School of Public Health who had Derby speak to her Latin American studies class earlier in the week.
Taub added that the personal narratives give a face to the high figures of mortality and injuries, making the magnitude of the disaster’s effect on the Haitian populace more concrete.
Another colleague, Katherine Smith, a World Arts and Cultures graduate student, said she looked forward to seeing the video footage based on Derby’s extensive body of work in regional studies.
“I have worked in Haiti for more than 11 years and no one else does comparative work on Haiti and the Dominican Republic with comparable depth, intellectual rigor or passion as Robin,” she said.
Since getting back from Haiti on Saturday, Derby said she’s catching up with work and talking to radio programs about her experience. To focus attention on the overlooked border towns, Derby plans to channel the interviews not into the expected academic writing, but into long-form journalism pieces, with the possibility of an op-ed piece.
“The thing that shocked me when I landed in Bánica and went to these hospitals is that there’s no press telling the story of these people,” she said. “But the tragedy is affecting everyone in the whole country.”