A Discussion with Father Mario Serrano Marte, S.J., National Director, Social Sector of the Society of Jesus, Dominican Republic

With: Mario Serrano Marte

June 1, 2017

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in June 2017 undergraduate student Mary Breen interviewed Father Mario Serrano Marte, S.J., national director of the Social Sector for the Society of Jesus in the Dominican Republic. In this interview, Serrano Marte highlights the greatest social issues facing the border city of Dajabón and his understanding of Jesuit education.

Can you describe the greatest challenges you face at the border here in Dajabón?

There are many. In general, in the whole border poverty is the biggest challenge. Poverty exists at the border on both sides because Haiti is poor and on this side of the Dominican Republic the poorest areas are in the border. There is a lack of investment by the government in the border in social issues—housing, lack of jobs, lack of school, possibilities in order to get health services, and also there is not a lot of help for the countryside people. 

The second one has to be the violation that immigrants suffer in the hands of the military—the people who are controlling the entrance of the border. And I mean the CESFRONT [Specialized Border Security Corps], which are the border patrol here, and also the people at the gate on market days that bribe the Haitians and take their money from their pockets. These people are asking for money to let the Haitians cross even if the Haitians are doing everything legally. This is a very challenging one, because in Dajabón we depend on this market. We depend on the good relationship between Haitians and Dominicans and on the business that they develop. So, the income that Dajabón receives also depends on that relationship. It is not only an issue of humanity but also an economic issue, a real economic issue. 

The third challenge we have to face here is the lack of health services in the city. This is a very huge challenge because most of the money that a family has to spend goes to health problems. There are some poor families here that have to spend the few incomes that they have on private health service because the public health service is not working, and we have a bad health service system. I think that is the third important challenge that we face in this city. 

Really, poverty is the biggest challenge in the border; second, the migration relationship—how we deal with Haitian immigrants and all of the violations that they suffer; and third, health services.

In 2014, you opened the shelter for unaccompanied Haitian migrant boys in Dajabón (Christ's House [El Hogar de Cristo]) with two teachers that give short lessons of mathematics, language, and other subjects. Then, you created the shelter in Wanament, Haiti, where the boys live while they’re attending Jesuit schools in Haiti. In what way does education play a role in the issues you just mentioned?

It depends what kind of education. It is not only education but an education that helps you think by yourself and think through the lens of ethical values. It has two important elements to help you learn. First, to think by yourself in a critical and documented way, you need to have data. Second, to think based on ethical values. It is not only to be literate and go to university. Knowing how to think by yourself and even more based on ethical values are two very important things. With the shelters, the shelter on the Dominican side is temporary, and the shelter on the Haitian side facilitates the boys’ transition into school. 

Why did you choose to have these nighttime classes at the Dominican shelter here on this side in the shelter? And why is it so important that the boys have a place that facilitates a successful transition into a Jesuit school in Haiti? What is the relationship between the challenges you described at the beginning and education?

That link is not an easy link. The first thing I am offering to the kids is just education. The second is to help them realize that they care for somebody. That is a very important formation because that enhances your self-esteem, and also it’s a kind of seed of love that you plant in the heart of a person. That is more important even than education. There are many educated people who are harming this world; it is not only to give education but to help people learn how to live in community and have concern for others. I don’t think that all of our institutions as Jesuits are teaching the people that, which for me is more important than to instruct people. There are many people who have attended school in this area but their lives aren’t based on values, and I think that’s more important than getting a high school or university diploma. In order to overcome poverty and to face justice, I have to refer to an education that helps you think critically about society and helps you think about how you have to live with others and the others are your brothers and sisters, and to think also based on ethical values. 

As I am the national director of the social centers, for us formation is very important. We start by just accompanying as I was doing with the kids on the street, as I was just eating with them in the park. Then, accompany them but also organize them. The third one for the social centers is to train the people, to train them giving them data, helping them have a social analysis of their reality, giving them some instrument to research a way to plan and build a grassroots organization and a ground for loving and advocacy. That’s the formation in which I place most of my time: in training people to learn how to fight for their rights. That’s the educational side, and I don’t think we give a lot to it in our systems. 

How are Jesuits specifically contributing to this, and what is different about the education, schools, organizations, and work that is done with the ideology of the Jesuits behind it?

Sometimes in our formal education, like high school and schools in general, I don’t think we invest the time which is necessary to form, to educate people for justice and peace and brotherhood or sisterhood. I don’t think we invest enough time for that in Jesuit schools. Jesuit schools are meant for that. Other people can do whatever, just teach the people how to write and read, but our mission is to educate people for justice and peace, brotherhood and sisterhood, and to build a better world. I think we are not investing the time that we should invest in that. 

What about informal education that comes through Border Solidarity [Solidaridad Fronteriza] and organizations like this?

We try that. I can tell you that we try that, and it doesn’t mean that we succeed. Sometimes I find my staff just giving some content and not helping the people to think by themselves and to think based on ethical values. Sometimes they also focus on just doing one activity because the project or the grant says that you have to do that activity, but not because you are in the process of training the people in that way that I have explained to you. So, even with our staff we have a lot of difficulties in order to reach what I have told you, but that’s our goal. 

Right now, what is your greatest concern here for life at the border in Dajabón?

My greatest concern here is to help the people in Dajabón to be more active in facing their challenges. I tell you this because people here have a lot of meetings, but they are caught by the politicians that do not like them to be free and to think and act based on ethical values. Most of the politicians have caught our people, but most of those politicians are corrupt. That is my main concern—how to help people be more active so that they can change and face their challenges and not wait until those politicians who are very corrupted come and lie to them or try to cut them based on their needs. My concern is how to open the eyes of the people and the organizations in this place. The second concern is also linked to the Christians of Dajabón, and it is to help them remove their prejudice against Haitians. That one is a very very hard one and I think as part of the Society of Jesus, which has been here for such a long period, our process of evangelization has affected very few on that specific issue.

Is there anything else that characterizes this border area in a very unique way?

This is a very exciting border and I will tell you why. This border is a very exciting one because you have two twin cities just three meters from each other. There are so many different activities going on—many associations, organizations—and at the same time it is a very vibrant place with the market, schools, radio, non-governmental organizations trying to do something, and the relationship between migrants and Dominicans. If you want to think like in a laboratory about the reality of the Dominican Republic and the relationship between Haitians and Dominicans, this is a very good laboratory because it’s together in one small area. 

At the same time, we have these two people so near so you also have the chance to meet Dominicans and Haitians and relate to them and see their values and their negative sides. As Caribbean people, we are very nice people, Haitians and Dominicans, in the way we relate to foreigners. You can have the opportunity to relate to two different countries that are very excited to have you. At the same time of course, they are two people that are facing great challenges, big challenges, but in the midst of those challenges two people that live happily in the midst of their problems, in the midst of their challenges. That’s an example of how hope remains in the midst of difficulties, and that helps us keep on dreaming that we can change this world through love, through engagement, through relationships, through solidarity.

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