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Shape-shifting and storytelling in Hispaniola

The bacá (baka in Haitian Kreyol) — spirit demons that can transform themselves and humans into animals — are present throughout the island of Hispaniola, but interpreted differently in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, says UCLA historian Robin Derby about her current research.

Shape-shifting and storytelling in Hispaniola

Director of the UCLA Program on Caribbean Studies Robin Derby. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, May 6, 2019 — “I was walking around during market day in the central frontier of the Dominican Republic and hearing about people who had encounters with animals that were not animals," recounts UCLA Associate Professor of History Robin Derby about the inspiration for book she is writing on tales of the bacá (baka in Haitian Kreyol) — spirits that can transform themselves and humans into animals.

Derby, who became director of the newly created Program on Caribbean Studies of the UCLA Latin American Institute in 2016, is a social historian of the Caribbean, particularly the island of Hispaniola — where both the Dominican Republic (DR) and Haiti are located.

“I didn't know if these animals were enchanted or diabolical — because they flip!” she continues. “At first, I thought that this was an enchanted idea of nature, but then I realized that these are really scary spirit demons. They can harm you and make you sick.”

Her book, says the UCLA historian, attempts to explain an important form of storytelling in Haiti and the Dominican Republic about sorcery that turns people into animals. And it seeks to interpret this tradition of storytelling within the context of the peculiar animal history of the island. “Because the feral animal commons on the island once enabled people to survive outside of slavery, I think there is a kind of nostalgia that has made these stories culturally important because they conjure a space of freedom that not everyone in the Caribbean had,” she says.

Research interests and the Program on Caribbean Studies

Although her work on the bacá began a decade ago, Derby’s roots in the central borderlands of the Dominican Republic go back to 1989, when she and fellow Caribbeanist Richard Lee Turits, conducted oral histories of people who had survived the 1937 massacre of Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. A collection of articles on the topic written by the two scholars at the time will soon be published in Haiti as «Terreur à la frontière: le massacre des Haïtiens en République dominicaine en 1937» (Port-au-Prince, Haiti: C3 Editions, forthcoming).

The UCLA historian’s interest in the region spans Latin American political regimes, authoritarianism, U.S. imperialism and popular culture, as reflected in her published books, articles and book chapters. Derby’s monograph, “The Dictator's Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo” (Duke, 2009), for example, describes the lived experience of the Trujillo dictatorship (1903–61) in the Dominican Republic, particularly the ways in that regime extended the domination of the state into civil society via ritual, gossip, gift exchange and witchcraft.

The book has since been published in Spanish, “La seducción del dictador:La política y la imaginación popular en la República Dominicana,” Rosmina Valdés-Cassá, translator (Dominican Academy of History, 2016).

Derby’s other works include the volumes, “The Dominican Republic Reader” (Duke, 2014), co-edited with Eric Roorda and Raymundo González, and “Activating the Past: Historical Memory in the Black Atlantic” (Cambridge Scholars, 2010), co-edited with Andrew Apter.

Her most recent contributions to edited volumes include “Cómo hablar con cuatro ojos: reflexiones sobre la matanza desde la perspectiva fronteriza,” in “80 años de masacre haitiana en la República Dominicana” (Santo Domingo: Fundación Juan Bosch, 2019), edited by Mattias Bosch and “Zemi, Zonbi, Mama Juana: Indigenous Traces in Popular Sorcery on Hispaniola,” in “Medicine and Healing in the Age of Slavery,” (Louisiana State University, forthcoming), edited by Sean Smith and Chris Willoughby.

From 2006 to 2011, Derby and her colleague Jorge Marturano — a specialist in Caribbean literatures and cultural studies in the department of Spanish & Portuguese at UCLA — organized a Working Group on Cuba and the Caribbean under the auspices of the Latin American Institute (LAI). A number of years later, Derby helped launch UCLA’s first travel study program in Cuba in 2015, which proved highly popular, but has been temporarily suspended due to the tightening of travel restrictions under the Trump administration.

The working group became an official LAI program in 2016, with Derby as its founding director (Marturano served as interim director in 2017–18). Today, the Program on Caribbean Studies regularly organizes events that feature scholars, librarians, writers and other leading Caribbeanists to speak on contemporary and historical issues.

“There actually quite a few Caribbeanists on campus, but they are scattered across fields. These events are important because they bring us together to talk to one another,” she says, mentioning Katherine Smith of the department of world arts and cultures (who works on Haiti); Patrick Polk, a curator at the Fowler Museum; and César Ayala of the sociology department (who works on Puerto Rico), as examples.

“The program also builds bridges across linguistic regions often kept apart; in fact, many of us already do research in multiple locations,” she reflects. Derby also believes the area studies focus of the program helps students understand issues in the region — such as current U.S. foreign policy toward Venezuela and Cuba — in better comparative perspective. The Caribbean, like Central America, has a long history of U.S. intervention and militarism.

Excavating history from tales of bravado and spirit encounters

Derby’s work on the bacá (a word most likely derived from the Spanish word for cow, vaca) has proven a gateway to understanding spiritual beliefs in Hispaniola and their reflection of the island’s long history.

Essentially, says Derby, the bacá are a kind of “sent spirit” — a form of sorcery — who can be used to make someone sick. “Haitians talk about zombies as ‘sent spirits,’” she notes, “and in that sense, they are just like the bacá. It's a spirit that you trap from someone who has died and you can use it to make something happen, to make money, or even to, say, make a husband stop fooling around,” she explains.

Derby has spent a decade conducting archival research and collecting extensive oral histories about the bacá in the central borderlands of Dominican Republic and in Haiti. Unlike Cuba, little has been written about spiritual beliefs of the Dominican Republic, she explains, and most scholars of the region work on either Haiti and Dominican Republic, but not both.

“Work on the bacá has mostly been done in Haiti,” she says. “No one has really thought about how Dominicans think about or contend with these spirits, because writing on the subject has always cast it as a Haitian issue. But spirits don't know borders.”

“There is a way in which these spirits both cross the border and rely upon the meanings, the antimonies, of Haitian and Dominican identity,” she explains. “Ultimately, Dominicans are encountering Haitian-created spirit demons that only Haitian magic can fully get rid of. So there is a way in which the border figures in these monsters.”

Finally, assumptions about the West African roots of shape-shifting in Haiti — whether in the form of women turning into poultry or into the syncretic Haitian-French idea of the loup garou (werewolf) — have obscured earlier, Amerindian beliefs that Derby believes also inform the tales of the shape-shifting bacá on Hispaniola. She points out that tales of shape-shifting are common in indigenous pastoral cultures the world over, including among the Sami people in Siberia.

The bacá, she continues, reflects the animal ecologies of the island — long before the DR or Haiti existed — and the continuing reality of cattle hunting and eventually extensive ranching in the Dominican Republic today. Most importantly, she believes that tales of the bacá represent a nostalgia for the freedom achieved by freedmen and runaway slaves before colonialism and nation states on Hispaniola, since hunting and contraband trade in meat and livestock enabled the poor to resist incorporation into slavery.

“Even before Haiti was founded,” she explains, “the buccaneers were entangled with animals. There was a contraband economy based on contraband sales of hides and cured meat within which fugitive slaves worked together with plebian European indentured servants, pirates and creoles. So this ecology of spirits and co-mingling of humans and animals is part of this longer history,” she reflects.

Animal hunting and later husbandry began on the island as a means of survival, with the animal products produced there eventually becoming essential to the sugar production process in Haiti in the west (the Spanish relinquished the western part of the island to the French in 1697). After its revolution of 1804, Haiti occupied the eastern portion of the island that is today the DR in the 1820s and freed the slaves. “So Hispaniola early became an island of freedom within a sea of slavery, because Puerto Rico and Cuba still had massive slave imports in that era — and remained part of the Spanish Empire until 1898,” says Derby.

Most of the oral histories that Derby has collected in the Haitian-Dominican borderlands concern men who have encountered trickster spirit demons in the form of dogs, pigs and cattle and highlight their bravery in fighting them off. Their tales of the bacá frequently take place at night and have an epic quality to them, sharing aspects of travelers’ tales, and can involve the notion of devil pacts about ill-begotten money. In Haiti, by contrast, men who are members of secret societies often recount stories of turning themselves into animals, especially dogs.

Meet Hans Nelson, a wizard, in his workshop in Port-au-Prince, holding up his tools for zombie making.
He can turn into an animal. (Photo: Robin Derby.)

Derby sees the role of animals as a masculine partner, foil and rival and the pleasures of artful braggadocio as crucial in the Dominican variant of the tales. “I think that today in the abandoned countryside, where a lot of Dominican men are located on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic totem pole, there is a lot of entertaining bravado in the telling of these tales,” she says.

“Dominicans have a wonderfully creative culture of oratory, jokes and banter,” she continues, “and storytelling is a big part of the arts of everyday life there among men.” The book, she remarks, celebrates this art form and is a reflection of a long history of free-range beasts and the men they sustained on Hispaniola.


Tale of a bacá

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The above tale, recounted by Diógenes De los Santos ("Cola Blanca") of Tierra Blanca, Cabral, Province of Barahona, is an except from a film directed by Martha Ellen Davis, "The Dominican Southwest: Crossroads of Quisqueya and the Center of the World" (2004, 56 mins.), DVD, Santo Domingo: Ministry of Culture. Excerpt published here with permission. The full film can be viewed in three parts on YouTube (Part I, Part II and Part III).

View interviews conducted in Spanish by Robin Derby in Bánica, Elias Piña, Dominican Republic about creole pigs, the swine flu slaughter of 1979 and a siting of a phantasmic pig bacá.  


This article was originally published on May 6, 2019; it was updated on May 7 with the video clip.