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Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola

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Like two roosters in a fighting arena, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are encircled by barriers of geography and poverty. They co-inhabit the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, but their histories are as deeply divided as their cultures: one French-speaking and black, one Spanish-speaking and mulatto. Yet, despite their antagonism, the two countries share a national symbol in the rooster--and a fundamental activity and favorite sport in the cockfight. In this book, Michele Wucker asks: "If the symbols that dominate a culture accurately express a nation's character, what kind of a country draws so heavily on images of cockfighting and roosters, birds bred to be aggressive? What does it mean when not one but two countries that are neighbors choose these symbols? Why do the cocks fight, and why do humans watch and glorify them?"

Wucker studies the cockfight ritual in considerable detail, focusing as much on the customs and histories of these two nations as on their contemporary lifestyles and politics. Her well-cited and comprehensive volume also explores the relations of each nation toward the United States, which twice invaded both Haiti (in 1915 and 1994) and the Dominican Republic (in 1916 and 1965) during the twentieth century. Just as the owners of gamecocks contrive battles between their birds as a way of playing out human conflicts, Wucker argues, Haitian and Dominican leaders often stir up nationalist disputes and exaggerate their cultural and racial differences as a way of deflecting other kinds of turmoil. Thus Why the Cocks Fight highlights the factors in Caribbean history that still affect Hispaniola today, including the often contradictory policies of the U.S.

281 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1999

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About the author

Michele Wucker

4 books80 followers
Michele Wucker coined the term “gray rhino” to alert people to the obvious risks that we are more prone to neglect yet have more power to manage than we might think. Her new book is You Are What You Risk: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World (April 2021). Her influential third book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore, has moved financial markets, shaped government policy and business strategies around the world, and inspired a popular TED talk expanding the idea to personal issues. She also is the author of Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola and Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right. She has been honored as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and a Guggenheim Fellow and held leadership roles at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, World Policy Institute, and International Financing Review. She lives in Chicago.

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5 stars
65 (23%)
4 stars
107 (39%)
3 stars
82 (29%)
2 stars
18 (6%)
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2 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 30 reviews
Profile Image for Purple Iris.
1,083 reviews4 followers
February 6, 2011
I have been looking forward to getting my hands on this book for years. It's cited a lot and I am fascinated by Haiti/DR relations. But, I've only gotten as far as the introductory notes and am already pissed off. The author explains that she pretty much spells things however she wants to, then says "Doubtless some Dominican and Haitian readers will disagree with some of the spelling choices; but the existence of the debate merely confirms the political power of language on Hispaniola". WTF? Um, no, it confirms that while you (or your editor) think it's important to respect the grammar and orthography of the English language, you somehow feel it's okay to disrespect those of other languages. I think that says a lot more about the political power of language in relations between foreigners and the inhabitants of Hispaniola. Yes, I wrote all that and I haven't even started chapter one. I really miss being near a research library, so that I could borrow stuff like this instead of having to buy it. At least I got a used copy.

Okay, unfortunately, this is not getting any better. I cannot believe the amount of random "facts" the author throws out there with no references whatsoever. Like on page 37,she claims that after the Revolution, Dessalines devised a test to determine which whites were Creoles and would thus be allowed to stay on the island. They had to sing a song in Creole. I have never come across the information in all my readings on the Haitian Revolution. It would be nice if Wucker had provided a reference. But, no, she does not.

I don't understand why people think this is required reading to understand the Haiti/DR story. Pedro San Miguel's The Imagined Island: History, Identity, and Utopia in Hispaniola is much better. Wucker should stick to the journalistic accounts and not venture into pseudo-scholarship.

I have now almost finished this book. It still hasn't gotten any better. I still don't trust Wucker's facts (she notes the many name changes of PAP's international aiport and lists Guy Malary as one of the names. Guy Malary is actually the name of the local/regional aiport located right next to the international one). The jumps in time do not serve the book well. It makes for a very confusing read. The other thing is I don't get the point of including a lot of what she considers "background". How are the political struggles of Dominicans in NY relevant to the story? It's almost as Wucker wanted to put every article she's every written on the DR or Haiti into this book. Not a smart move. And the cockfighting metaphor is distracting. It's constant for the first chapter or so, then the author seems to forget about it. And then she randomly remembers every 80 pages or so. Distracting.

But, I'm not finished yet. Maybe my opinion will change?

Ok, I finished. My opinion has not changed. This is one of those books that gets worse as it goes on. I'm not sure what the next to last chapter about Dominicans in NY has to do with anything. I feel like Wucker should have just written a book about 20th century Dominican politics and culture. There's some interesting info in there, but it's hard to know how trustworthy it is. She does not have as good a grasp of the Haitian political situation and it shows. This is a very uneven book. And the writing leaves a lot to be desired.
Profile Image for Paul Cowdell.
104 reviews4 followers
January 17, 2021
This is a very ambitious book. It attempts to use a cultural/anthropological reading of society across Hispaniola (and into the diaspora) to illustrate the two countries' complex history, essentially in a series of extended journalistic essays. I don't think she quite has the overall grasp of all these skills to pull this off, but the ambition and reach does elevate the book rather above the journalism she actually practises. (The interviews are fascinating, but their presentation is journalism rather than ethnography or oral history: that's not a condemnation, but does restrict how they can be used).

It makes for some circularity and repetition - think of each chapter as a standalone magazine-length long article and you'll have some idea - but it's stimulating nonetheless.
Profile Image for Ingrid .
1 review
November 14, 2008
Un libro fenomenal en enseña sin vergüenza la ignorancia con que Los Dominicanos se han criado. Digo yo porque hace unos anos me encontraba en esa ecuación. Lastimosamente todavía existe esa misma mentalidad en la Republica Dominicana. Una mentalidad que nos desvalorización como nación. Que nos hace mejor que ellos? Estar al otro lado del país? Nuestra Lengua? Nuestras Raíces? Nuestro Color? Que no todos somos iguales. Todos Somos Negros......
Profile Image for John.
402 reviews28 followers
December 12, 2015
Splendid overview of the complex, convoluted histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti

Along the southern coast of the island of Hispaniola, in the Dominican Republic, one can still see the scars of a cataclysmic event in Earth's distant past; a vivid reminder of the large asteroid which collided with planet Earth 65 million years ago, leaving behind a vast impact crater whose outline is now part of Mexico's Yucatan coast. Nearly twenty years ago, Alan Hildebrand, a young Canadian geologist I knew in graduate school, stumbled upon these scars; thick layers of sedimentary rock encasing haphazardly strewn boulders and other rocky debris that were deposited by tidal waves flooding the island soon after the impact; an impact responsible for the extinction of approximately 40 percent of Earth's animals, including nonavian dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops (He would also rediscover the impact crater at Chicxulub, Yucatan, Mexico, relying on geological maps and seismic data obtained from Pemex, Mexico's nationalized oil company.). In "Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola", journalist Michele Wucker tells with ample brevity and poignant prose, the cataclysmic history of the humans living on Hispaniola, an engrossing saga replete with tragic events which are as memorable in their own right as the asteroid impact from 65 million years ago. It is an engrossing saga told well by Michele Wucker, who has written the best account I have come across of Hispaniola's 19th and 20th Century history.

Wucker uses the popular Caribbean blood sport, cock fighting, as an apt analogy for the complex, convoluted, histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, emphasizing their cultural similarities, which are too subtle to notice to the untrained observer, rather than their perceived differences due to race and language. She begins and closes the book with an extensive discussion of cock fighting, occasionally interrupting her narrative to elaborate and to reflect upon it further, as though the book itself is a literary version of a cock fight, with the reader engrossed with bloody, vicious fighting in the arena. Soon she describes Columbus's discovery of his favorite Caribbean island, and then Spain's brutal enslavement of Hispaniola's indigenous peoples, most notably the Taino, decimated quickly by both arduous labor and deadly diseases like smallpox.

The most poignant chapter in Wucker's terse tome ("Rio Massacre") describes the 1937 genocide committed against Haitians residing in the Dominician Republic (Itself the setting for Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat's emotionally gripping novel "The Farming of Bones" which was published shortly before Wucker's book.) orchestrated by Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic's dictator (This bloody episode in Hispaniolan history still casts a dark shadow over relations between both countries; without question it is the pivotal, defining moment in their 20th Century history.). Wucker recounts the island's bloody 19th Century history as if these events were natural precursors to the Rio Massacre genocide, emphasizing the deep-seated hostility and distrust of Dominicians and Haitians towards each other, which regretfully still persists today (Both this hostility and distrust appears to be inexplicable and inexcusable, since both peoples share a strong passion for cock fighting and traditional folk music, and worship the indigenous Hispaniolan faith known as Vodou; all of which are virtually identical in both countries.). She writes passionately about battles and invasions and border disputes which linger well into the 20th Century.

Dictator Joaquin Balaguer is undoubtedly the most important political figure in recent Dominican history; it is therefore no surprise that the latter half of "Why the Cocks Fight" revolves around the nearly forty years he was involved in the country's political life as either its de facto or de jure ruler. A less bloodthirsty figure than his mentor Rafael Trujillo, Balaguer was still nearly as ruthless, but willing to hold onto power by working behind the scenes, even when he was technically not ruling the country (For another, unique perspective on Balaguer, distinguished ecologist Jared Diamond portrays him as an accidental environmentalist in Chapter 11 of "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed", crediting him for preserving much of the Dominician Republic's forest, in stark contrast to the environmental destruction that occurred in Haiti.). Much to my surprise, Wucker discusses the rise of the Dominican-American community in the United States, most notably in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, but this is a sensible diversion, noting the significant role played by this community in its homeland's recent political history (Some other reviewers have questioned why Wucker has devoted less space to recent Haitian history, but in her defense, I suspect it is because Balaguer and his dictatorial regime proved to be more interesting than the equally harsh rule of Haiti by Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.).

Wucker concludes in the preface of "Why the Cocks Fight" with: "If the wealthiest countries of the world claim that their economies cannot support more people, imagine the effect of a massive flow of poor and hungry immigrants from one of the world's most impoverished nations, Haiti, to a country that is not much better off. As vast as the differences are between the United States and Hispaniola, the Dominicans' strategy is the same as ours. The struggles between Dominicans and Haitians are not just theirs. They are ours, too." This is an apt statement of her raison d'etre behind "Why the Cocks Fight", amply noting throughout it how the Dominicians have sought to restrict Haitian immigration into their country, with the Rio Massacre genocide as the most infamous example. But I beg to differ with her conclusion that the struggles of the peoples of Hispaniola are ours too; since the United States of America is too much of a polyglot ethnic mix of a nation to conform neatly to such a stereotype (But I will admit that possible exceptions may include both black and white race relations in the Deep South and between Mexicans and white Americans along La Frontera (the Southwest borderlands between California and Texas).).
April 4, 2019
While Wucker is thorough in her account of the political and economic turmoil of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, I felt this was a badly organized history. Very disappointing.
Profile Image for Derek.
1,390 reviews42 followers
November 29, 2020
I felt it was worthwhile to examine why so many people get so much out of cock fights. I also felt it was worthwhile to learn more about Haiti and the D.R.
Profile Image for Bob Crawford.
225 reviews1 follower
February 3, 2022
A World Apart and Confounding

I selected this book based on a question I was pondering one afternoon. “On the same island, why does it seem that Dominicans do better than Haitians.” Of course, I am a Californian who has never personally met a Dominican or a Haitian. My concept was born from following some star Dominican baseball players and reading in newspapers about Haitian earthquakes, violence and the massive corruption of the Duvalier family.

This book was not an easy read, but it makes a valiant effort to explain the clashing cultures of Hispaniola - in the end, life seems to establish pecking orders and seemingly we all envy the caste above us and denigrate the one below.

Dominicans and Haitians have a shared history and many cultural similarities, but it has served the interests of dictators who ruled each country, not to mention external powers like Spain, France and the United States, to keep the impoverished on each side of the border at each other’s throats.

Few Americans give much thought to Hispaniola, but should you be curious as I was, this book offers an intensive and even-handed view,
Profile Image for Anna.
302 reviews5 followers
December 26, 2018
Best when telling history or describing people and situations the author clearly met and experienced. (Although these are predominantly Dominican, for a book that's supposed to be about both Dominicans and Haitians.) I didn't enjoy the book as much when the author spent large sections of an entire chapter waxing poetic on a metaphor, be it cockfighting during the first chapter or The Tempest during the last. These felt, to me, like the forced academic language that I had to read a lot of in college.

Still, the author caught some really interesting interactions of Dominicans commenting on Haitians, and the history, especially of the sugar cane fields, was interesting. Even though it's 20 years old and there have been significant developments since it was written, it still felt relevant for today.
2 reviews
May 5, 2019
Interesting and informative but disjointed

I learned a great deal about the fractious, complicated history and cultures if the Dominican Republic and Haiti but was often frustrated by the authors’s disjointed jumping around in time and subject.
Profile Image for Lauren Coonen.
10 reviews
May 22, 2016
The two side of Hispaniola could not be more different. The Dominican side is Spanish speaking, generally lighter skinned, overwhelmingly Catholic, with a diverse economy and growing middle class. The Haitian side speaks Haitian-Kreyol, are proud of their African heritage, practice Vodou, and the country is the poorest in the Western hemisphere with poor desolate land that in many cases unsuitable for farming. The author describes the history of the island though a variety of lenses focusing on the early history, politics, the sugar cane industry, the Dominican point of view, the Haitian, and the immigrants in the U.S. The Haitian side of the island had control of the island for a brief point after the first and only successful slave revolt in 1793 which resulted in taking control of the country and moved onto taking over the Dominican side of the island in 1801. Once the Dominicans fought and won their independence in 1844, the island has remained divided and the Dominican Republic has remained the stronger force on the island. The Dominicans continued to call on their Haitian brothers with open arms when they needed cheap labor in harvest season, and deport them in masses when their economy was suffering in order to divert attention to the real issues in the country. The United States has also had its hand in shaping the history of the island by though military occupations, supporting military coups of democratically elected presidents, forcing embargos or establishing price floors on sugar imports, and allowing or denying refugees into the states depending on its own self-interest on the time. The history of Hispaniola is fascinating and truly demonstrates that history repeats itself. An important read for anyone interested in Dominican and Haitian relations and explains for the hostility that continues today.
Profile Image for Christopher Rex.
271 reviews
January 4, 2010
A must-read for anyone who lives in Hispaniola or plans to spend a significant amount of time there. The book tends to concentrate a bit more on the DR than Haiti (in my opinion), but is a very valuable insight to the history of the island - past and present. It starts to drag a little towards the end when it gets into the "modern" politics and those not familiar w/ the island's politics might get bogged down. But, overall a very good insight to a unique island and situation. Anyone interested in Latin American and/or Caribbean politics and culture should read this book. The analogy between cock-fighting and Hispaniola's politics, history and culture is an excellent one, even if not fully developed throughout the entire book.
140 reviews20 followers
June 3, 2012
This book is one of the rare books in English (at least that I've found) that really gets to the heart of the DR-Haiti conflict and explains the historical background for the difficult relationship. It's also really interesting because even though it's been over 10 years since it was published, so much is still true. The attention to detail and the spot-on cultural and historical analysis is wonderufl. But ultimately, the author can't decide what she wants the book to be: a memoir of reporting in NYC, the DR, and Haiti; a historical overview; or, worse yet, a New School-esque academic essay, which it turns into toward the end with parallels to The Tempest. The narrative is a little all over the place, but otherwise a good read.
Profile Image for Amber.
1,923 reviews
December 14, 2012
I'm fairly certain this is the work of a first time author, and while I support her work on such a contentious (and hard to find information about) the struggle for Hispaniola, the book is somewhat difficult to read. The history of island isn't chronological; instead it is lain out in a series of summaries that relate to the story told pages before - so you are constantly playing this loop of catch up. If it was chronological I think I could have given it 4 stars and would have enjoyed the book much more.
730 reviews
March 30, 2009
Wucker did a very interesting historical account of Hispaniola over the past 3 or 4 hundred years. I found the book very interesting pushed by the fact that our family spent the past 9 days in Dominican Republic. She textured their social, cultural and political life beautifully.
Profile Image for K..
268 reviews1 follower
February 14, 2018
Reread portions of this enlightening book while down in the Dominican a couple of weeks ago. Anyone traveling to the island of Hispaniola -- whether to the DR or Haiti -- should pick this up for the essential historical insights it provides.
Profile Image for Kristin.
225 reviews5 followers
October 22, 2013
An interesting rundown of the history of Hispaniola and some enlightenment on the conflict between Dominicans and Haitians. It is a little out dated and I would love to read more about the current political climate but this was great background.
Profile Image for Anne.
49 reviews3 followers
Want to read
June 28, 2007
Reccomended to me by a classmate at Spanish Camp who takes a school group to the DR every year. SHe tought I'd enjoy reading it before we go, so I'm trying not to forget.
38 reviews
February 17, 2008
My high interest level is due to the fact that I spent two years in the DR. Overall, a good book about the clash of many different cultures.
17 reviews5 followers
April 2, 2008
if you have any interest in haiti and the dominican republic... this is teh best book I've every read analyzing the tumultuous relationships on the little hispanola island.
Profile Image for Izetta Autumn.
417 reviews
Want to read
January 22, 2010
I'm not sure how I feel about the title of this one, but it comes highly recommended....so we'll see....I guess....but still: that title. Problems.
Profile Image for Alex.
613 reviews5 followers
March 10, 2012
Series of vignettes looking at the political and historical battles between Haiti and the DR. Good to understand some of the issues the two countries have today.
Profile Image for Greg D'Avis.
160 reviews7 followers
September 23, 2012
Very informative -- I learned a lot about a place I knew little about -- but the writing is over the top, and the book rambles and bounces around. Needed some strong editing that it didn't get.
Profile Image for Paul Cumbo.
Author 4 books17 followers
September 8, 2013
If you're interested in the cultural history of Hispaniola, this is a must-read.
Profile Image for Karen Davis.
40 reviews2 followers
August 2, 2015
Excellent explication of the history behind the rift between th Dominican Republic & Haiti.
Profile Image for Pascale.
1,116 reviews40 followers
April 9, 2017
A very readable and informative summary of the tragic history of Hispaniola. One gripe I have is that Wucker devotes much more time to Joaquín Balaguer than to any of the other major political figures on the island. More on Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Juan Bosch would have been helpful to me.
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