A Discussion with José Ramón López, S.J., Principal, St. Ignatius of Loyola Technical Institute, Dajabón, Dominican Republic
May 24, 2017
Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Fellowship, in May 2017 undergraduate student Mary Breen interviewed Father José Ramón López, S.J., principal of St. Ignatius of Loyola Technical Institute (Instituto Tecnológico San Ignacio de Loyola, ITESIL) in Dajabón, Dominican Republic. Throughout the interview he explains the relationship between immigrants and the education system and the fundamental role education plays in transforming lives, particularly the role of values in Jesuit education.
How long have you served as director of the school?
On two occasions. The first time, I was a teacher from 1994 to 1996. From 2000 to 2003, I worked as a teacher again, and I was the director from 2003 to 2005. I have been the director again since 2015.
How many years have you lived in Dajabón?
Before this time, where did you work?
How would you characterize your experience living at the border?
I like Dajabón because although many people who live in other provinces perceive it as a violent place, I do not visualize this violence as great as in other provinces of the country or state. Here, you are still able to go out at night. Sometimes there are robberies and crime, but Dajabón still does not have problems as serious as parts of other provinces in the country—Santo Domingo, Santiago, San Cristóbal, La Vega. I visualize it positively, and I like living in Dajabón very much.
Can you tell me a little about the school? I understand it was founded by the Jesuits in 1946. What was the main reason for its founding?
The Jesuits returned to the Dominican Republic for the second time in 1936. They were present in Haiti and came from Wanament. They arrived in Dajabón, and at the time Trujillo had his policy of Dominicanization to get rid of the influence of Haiti at the border. This included bringing people from other countries—for example, in the 1950s the Japanese. There is still a community with a strong presence of Japanese people, but they also brought people from Spain. It is interesting that the Jesuits discovered that a fundamental part of education was able to form people. So, after 10 years this school was founded in 1946 (only for boys). In 1943, the school of Alta Gracia was founded only for girls, so it was a little bit of a response to this. It is a regional school—only students from Dajabón come—but we also have students from Puerto Plato, Santiago, Monte Cristi, Mao, and in some cases students come from Santo Domingo to study here. There are some foreigners, such as a student from Mexico, one from the United States, and various students from Haiti. Students come here for two reasons: they come directly from Haiti because their families know the school and they want to study here, or students of Haitian origin that have a Haitian mother or father married to a Dominican study here. Specifically, we have a good group of students from Restauración with last names that are of Haitian origin.
How many students attend this school?
What are the normal ages of the students here?
Between 12 and 18 [years old].
Do the Haitian students face challenges in the school or in this environment?
It is interesting. I do not think there are any problems between the Haitian students and the Dominican students. There is not a profound problem between the students. There have not been any type of attacks or any case of a student saying "You are from Haiti." What is a little difficult for them is the language. Everything is in Spanish, so comprehension can be a little difficult for the Haitian students that study here.
A Haitian student who wants to attend this school would need documents, correct?
Yes, any foreigner needs documents. The Ministry of Education has rules; if you were born in the United States, you need to go through the process of legalization and authentication. It is the same in the case of the Mexican student. It is the same for Haiti and for every country and student who wants to study here.
Can you explain the influence of the Jesuits on the education, students, or environment here?
Although the school was founded by Jesuits in 1946, in its first phase the school was led by another religious organizations, the Sisters of St. John the Evangelist. However, there was always a spirituality of the Jesuits. In 1968, the Jesuits returned to the school because the Sisters of St. John the Evangelist left. The Jesuits were present in the 1960s, first because there was a government crisis. Since 1968, there has been a Jesuit presence. Evidently, there has followed the same Jesuit criteria that marks the school, including responsibility and discipline. The mark of the Jesuits is in every student.
What do you think is different about the work of the Jesuits in education?
I have a concrete example. On the first day of classes in the Dominican Republic, many schools, especially public schools, have 40 percent attendance. Here, you can have possibly 95 percent. The day after Easter, a public school may have 40 percent attendance, and here you have 99 percent. From the beginning, the students obey well. We also teach values. It is possible that you could find a school much stronger academically than this, but we place a lot of importance on values. We remember that the students are people, and values are very important. It does not matter that much if you know everything about agriculture or computing, if you are incapable of connecting to another person. We work on the techniques as well, but also how you are as a person. Another novel matter is the policy, the educational policies that are followed.
Do you think the values and formation taught at this school can contribute to a solution for broader relations between Dominicans and Haitians?
Yes, I think so. Here, there are many workers of Haitian origin that work with us. I think the relationship between them is good. For historical matters, we, unlike other Latin American countries, not only achieved independence from Spain, but also from Haiti. There is a very good relationship between everyone here. We live together.
Is it important that Haitian and Dominican students have the opportunity to connect with each other here at the school?
Yes, it is the only way in which they can live in peace. They are people. We are people. The only difference is that sometimes the workers come to a different country looking for a better life. It is possible that if Haiti were in a better economic position, we would be going to the other side. There is a greater consciousness, because sometimes people do not think about these things.
Throughout the province of Dajabón, how would you describe the education system in general?
There are three things that worry me most in Dominican education. The policy that influences education is worrying, because if the decision-making is done in political terms, there will not be better decisions. It seems that with the current Ministry of Education that we have now in the country, even if it is politically in charge, it has a different sense of the reality in education. For me, a great concern is the politics of education and the fact that decision-making is done in a political environment. Sometimes there are people who are not suitable in positions relating to education. For me, this is the greatest concern. The second concern for me is when you think about education, if you form individuals that are not critical, cannot interpret reality, and are not self-critical...for me this is worrying. The third concern is that we have a grand union, one of the best in the countries—the Dominican Association of Professors. I understand that the decisions they make can be just, but they can indefinitely halt opportunities for the greater quantity of students. If a professor decides to not attend class for a strike or protest then the students do not study.
From your experience, do many Haitians come to the Dominican Republic specifically to seek a better education?
At a higher level, there is a great number of people that come from Haiti to study at colleges here. They study medicine, agriculture, and other things. There is a great presence of Haitian students at the college level. It is much easier to come from Haiti and enroll in a college then to come for primary and secondary education. The difference is that you have to pay for college. In the Dominican Republic, primary and secondary education is free. If you come from Haiti to study at this level it is more difficult, because it is a free education. So, you cannot take a space away from a Dominican, since it is a national policy that is different than in Haiti. If you come to pay for college, it is not as difficult, because the majority study in private universities.
How would you like to see the situation change in the future?
I think there is a greater contribution that can be offered on the part of schools and society to the memory of Haiti, because until then they are going to continue coming. It is a natural factor—to want to see your life improve. If a person is able to improve his life, his state of living, because the environment facilitates it, the person is going to feel good about their country. Now, people talk about walls; the best wall is that Haiti progresses. Then, the people will not leave. Many people come from Haiti to work at the border, but there are not that many Haitians living in Dajabón. The reason being that they work in this area, but then they go home and live across the border with their family that lives in Haiti.
How do you think this is possible—with a change in the Dominican government, Haitian government, non-profit organizations, or something else?
I think we need to see a change in all three. I can give you a concrete example of a person working here. This person had tried for more than two years but could not obtain a passport from the other side of the border. We were able to regularize that person in terms of labor and provide social security benefits. The other side’s government was not able to resolve the issue of getting a passport. The person was able to get a visa and is legally in the country. People have to pay to get passports. Sometimes people have to pay between 5,000 and 20,000 pesos to leave, so it is not possible. If there are so many conditions for development, people are not able to develop. With the organizations, I hope that they incorporate the people more and get more volunteers.
Is there anything else you would like to share about the situation here at the border?
We should be more conscious of the personal stories and the fact that many people leave their countries to better their lives, change their style of living, or because they are thinking of their families. It is important to think about binational work and that education is able to be a fundamental factor in changing someone’s life. People can transform the reality in which they are living in this way.