Solidaridad

By Connor Toomey
Oct. 11, 2020

In that moment, the chofer might have had the money he was asking for, but he didn’t have what I had: Solidarity.

I winced as I folded myself into the back seat of the small carro público that would take me from the parada at Kilometer 9 to Pantoja, the sprawling urban barrio outside of Santo Domingo where we had our first Peace Corps trainings. These carros are too small, I thought to myself as I heaved my big orange hiking backpack onto my lap. It was big, but it still fit on my lap comfortably enough to leave space for other passengers. The passenger on my left was a case study on tigueraje, and my hand automatically moved to cover the pouch that hid my passport and money. Tigueres, literally “tigers,” are young Dominican males who make a living by cunning and illicit means, often by hustling others. This guy had the look. Young, heavily muscled, form-fitting, bright clothes, shaved designs in his hair…the works.

Each carro público, or four-door sedan, runs a fixed route through the capital, and pedestrians and choferes, or drivers, use a series of hand gestures to communicate which route is which. Choferes hold up fingers to show how many seats they have left in their car, and pedestrians point in the direction of the route they want to take. One finger wagging down means straight, a pointer finger stretched forward means a left at the next major intersection, and so on. This sign language is important, because with four people sitting in the back seat, two people in the front passenger seat trying to give the chofer enough space to work the gearshift, and the chaotic, ant-like traffic patterns of Santo Domingo, getting in and out of these circa 1990 carros can be difficult.

Now, the carro I sat in pulled away from the parada, but something felt different. I looked around and counted. Coño. Including me, there were only three people in the back seat, which meant that the chofer might be planning to make me pay for the extra seat because I had the backpack with me. I had been through this before with choferes. According to the unspoken rule on Dominican public transport, he should have asked if I was planning on paying double—if I was planning to pay the price of an extra seat for my backpack. He should have asked but, instead, he assumed I would pay the difference.

I pulled my thoughts back to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he miscounted his passengers before he left the stop and made an honest mistake.

Maybe.

I sighed to myself and leaned back in the seat. Usually I fought stuff like this. It wasn’t the money—30 pesos is less than a dollar—it was the principle. As Peace Corps Volunteers, the expectation is that we work and live at the local level. That’s our promise, our commitment.

Today, though, I didn’t feel like fighting. It had been a long travel day, and all I really wanted to do was be in my friend’s house in Pantoja. I decided to talk to the chofer when he went to cobrarme and, if he insisted, I’d just pay the difference. After all, the backpack was big.

When we arrived, the chofer rubbed his fingers together in the universal money sign, and we passed him our money. I handed him 30 pesos—one standard fare—and waited. I didn’t have to wait long.

Falta 30 más. You owe me 30 more.

In a calm voice, I asked him why he didn’t ask if I was planning on paying for two seats when we left the parada. I pointed out that there was room for another person to sit because I had put the backpack on my lap. He shook his head and rubbed his fingers again.

Falta 30 mas.

Sighing, I began to move to grab my wallet. But, suddenly, the tiguere spoke up.

E’ verdad. ¿Por qué no lo preguntó? He’s right, you should have asked him.” As the tiguere and the chofer began to argue over who was right, I sat in disbelief. Never once on public transport had someone stuck up for me and now, of all people, this tiguere, was fighting my fight. The rest of the passengers all chimed in.

Eso no se hace. You can’t do that.

Tú ve, la tiene ahí en el regazo, no puede cobrarle pa’ do’ asiento.’ Look, the backpack is on his lap. You are overcharging him.

As the argument escalated, I still hadn’t said a word. I was in complete shock that the passengers were sticking up for me. On public transportation I had never experienced such solidarity. With the entire carro against him, the chofer was getting angry and defiant, arguing that this was business and he needed his 30 pesos.

Suddenly the tiguere was thrusting coins into the chofer’s hand.

Mira mi ‘mano, tenga tu cuarto aqui si te procupa tanto. Ahí tu tiene to.’ Here bro, take this money if you’re so worried about it. You have it all now.

In that moment, the chofer might have had the money he was asking for, but he didn’t have what I had: Solidarity.

A potentially nasty situation had turned into a moment of true solidarity. Host members of a country I didn’t belong took my side simply because it was the right thing to do. The ride that day lasted maybe twenty minutes, but it is one of the memories that sticks with me and that I hold on to as an example of the kindness and generosity of the Dominican people.

Solidarity. I’ll say it again. Solidaridad. A quick web browse brings up a few common definitions: The unity of a group or class based on common interests or standards. Providing a favor for another with no expectation of reward. Fellowship. Community.

As I sat down to write this, I started to think about other moments of solidaridad I saw in country. I didn’t have to think long.

That time when my host dad Lao, who is in his early 70s and barely mobile, walked 1.5 kilometers uphill, then climbed the steep, rocky loma to my house to visit me when I had giardia. For the three days I was sicker than I’d ever been, he brought limoncilllo and ginger tea, sandwiches, and company.

Or the oración de gracias, or Thanksgiving Prayer, that I attended. It was a community event organized to give thanks for the survival of a father and a son who were stabbed in a failed robbery. The family who organized the event provided food for over 200 people, while the church choir led songs of thanksgiving in the front yard.

And definitely the countless velorios, novenas, and rezos I’ve been to since I moved to this country. These are Catholic traditions where community members visit a deceased member’s family for nine days and nine nights after the death, sharing in the grieving process and easing the emotional burden of the loss.

Then there was the time my neighbors stuck up for me after I went three months without electricity in my house. They convinced my feuding landlords to put aside their differences and hook my house up to the electrical line. In doing so, my neighbors weakened the already frail electrical current in their own houses.

And, of course, the example of my 45-year old host sister Nelly, who, when her niece was diagnosed with suicidal depression, slept by her side for eight days in a badly neglected mental ward at the local hospital. In my 24 years I’ve never seen two people clasp hands so tightly.

Solidaridad. It’s a hard word to say in Spanish, at least for me. Too many syllables, and letter “D’s.” But if I was forced to encapsulate the Dominican experience in one word, I would be hard-pressed to find one that more aptly sums up this island nation.

Here in Peace Corps Dominican Republic we have a saying—to ‘Third Goal something.’ The Third Goal, as laid out by John F. Kennedy when he inaugurated Peace Corps in 1961, is “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” When it comes to this magnanimity of spirit, solidaridad is the Dominican trait I genuinely hope I bring back with me.


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