A Quarantine Farewell for Francisco Antonio Santos


Francisco Antonio Santos, Dominican labor leader, 1940-2020. Photo by the author.

by Tim W. Shenk, CUSLAR Coordinator
Ver versión original en español.

On April 15, a mentor and friend, Francisco Antonio Santos, passed away in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Santos, a labor leader, was a tireless fighter for the rights and dignity of all people. He survived the repressive Joaquín Balaguer regime and was instrumental in building working-class formation, analysis and organization for six decades. Today, if not for the social distancing measures necessary to contain the coronavirus, would be the
novenario, or the celebration of his life. 

It is the ninth day since the physical departure of Francisco Antonio Santos. The street in front of his house is not empty. Look again – the dry leaves, the shadows, the hot breath of the wind – they are us.

I am not quarantined, and neither are you. We are under a tarp in the middle of Calle 1ra, barrio Maria Auxiliadora, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. This short street, only one block long, has been closed at both ends by tattooed boys in Kobe and Lebron jerseys. They’ve put out a few orange cones they got from somewhere, and the tires are in place but not yet on fire.

It’s fitting that his nueve días should fall on April 24th, a day to remember heroes. A day of insurrection against the loneliness of dying, the blind rage of hunger. A day to prepare a new generation of dreamers and fighters, to put seeds in the earth.

You and I and so many others will embrace anyone who comes close. Embrace, laughter, tears. Most of all, long silences. We’re sweating through a summer afternoon that has come, like death, out of nowhere and before its time.

People keep streaming in. Whole families disentangle themselves from atop motorcycles. People come on foot and on crutches, children running out ahead, sandals slapping the hot pavement. They come from the barrios in cars held together with wire and shoestrings. A pickup truck pulls up with 30 people in the back, and they hand down sacks of lemons, bunches of plátano and muddy bags full of yuca dug this morning.

They bring the dust from the road. Their cracked, hard hands are fists. They unfurl the flags of the campesino organizations: yellow and green, red and black. Each person is greeted with fruit juice and a welcome as warm as the day. Handkerchiefs are produced out of pockets to mop brows, then are used to dab at wet eyes. There are baseball caps from every team.

The coconut man puts the brake on his tricycle for a moment to say his pésame, to share his sorrow for the loss. The señora of the avocados lowers the tub from her head and goes inside to give her ripest to the señora of the house. She is given juice and savors it. The mechanic from up the street has closed his greasy shop for the day. He is passing around a bottle of Brugal Extra Viejo that doesn’t seem to run out.

There is only one argument all day. That’s when a candidate for one of those piece-of-shit parties pulls up in his Lexus jeepeta and tries to make his way into the crowd. The boys on the corner tell him that this isn’t the time. They tell him not to waste his time coming closer. Well. They don’t say it in exactly those words. The candidate sees he doesn’t have a great hand. His jeepeta roars and leaves an angry swirl of dust. The few people who notice the brief exchange make a mental note to thank the boys later.

This is my story, so I am going to say that what happens next is that Santos himself makes an appearance at his own nueve días. Excuse me. I’m telling this story. If you don’t like it, write your own. Santos is just another specter among all of the specters here today, and we’re all happily haunting each other. Santos loves every minute. He looks younger, but with the same bald spot, the same mustache and the same hoarse laugh.

Among the stories being told under the tarps under the hot sun, are stories about la Central General de Trabajadores, the flag under which all of the labor unions stood as one. The CGT was, in the 70s, a primary target of the state’s repressive forces. The old men remember the strikes. They recall the printing presses printing illegal words with illegal ink, and the young men and women who slunk through the darkness stuffing pieces of paper into tailpipes of cars. The next morning when the cars started – ¡fuaaaa! – the paper flew like doves. The breezes took them to every door. The strike was announced.

Santos didn’t cower. He was one of the few who dared to speak aloud and into a microphone to denounce the abuses of the Balaguer regime. This he paid for from time to time with jail time, but they didn’t succeed in killing him like they killed many of those who walked by his side. He can be heard saying, “They who renounce their dreams, renounce life.” He reminds the crowd that working people have never stopped dreaming or fighting for life. He sings. In his hoarse voice, he sings, and we stand with him. Agrupémonos todos, en la lucha final, y se alzan los pueblos con valor, ¡por la Internacional!

It’s 6 PM. The heat hasn’t given an inch. Out of the air appear plates piled high with food. Boiled plantains and green bananas with beef. With cod. With fried salami and eggs. What had happened was, a line of buses arrived in the afternoon from the countryside: from the cane fields and fishing towns of the East, from Los Haitises, from the central mountains and La Vega. Each bus carried the fruits of their labor. The señoras from up and down the block all put on their largest pots to boil and spent the afternoon peeling plantains and bananas.

It’s enough to feed five thousand. The street is overflowing with people eating. A silence falls, like fog, like tear gas. There was hunger. The majority hadn’t eaten since the morning. A miracle has been performed, and there is avocado left over.

Nightfall. The people are trying to find excuses not to leave. Someone has put on one of the old records: “Y es que no es cierto, señor gobierno, que alguna idea, puede estar presa”. It’s not true, mister government, that you can lock up an idea. The handkerchiefs come out again. Santos was a leader in the CGT and gave the closing remarks at the wildly popular music festival, “Siete Días Con el Pueblo”. Seven Days with the People. The festival, which was put on by the labor unions in 1974, was a cry for freedom. No, it was more than that. It was an act of open rebellion, being that it fell smack in the middle of los 12 años de Balaguer. “¡Señor gobierno, abra las rejas!” Open the gates, demanded Santos, referring to the song. There were a lot of political prisoners then. There was also a lot of combativeness. There still is – you’ll see.

It is now completely dark and still the crowd hasn’t dispersed. Maybe it’s because we are all ghosts on Calle 1ra and we don’t want to go back to our quarantine. The señoras on the block have finished washing out their pots. The guy from the colmado sets down another case of rum. Se va la luz. Pitch black. Suddenly everything is lit up again with a thousand candles. The tires are lit too, here and on other corners. Santos isn’t gone. He has become smoke.

Other links:

Obituary: Fallece sindicalista y político Francisco Antonio Santos
Tribute: Francisco Antonio Santos: La leyenda de la epopeya – Dagoberto Tejeda Ortiz


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