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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Your Stories of Living Under Authoritarian Rule
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Readers share their stories and their family’s stories of what it was like living under a violent oppressive government. To contribute your own, please email hello@theatlantic.com.

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Three generations of Reynoso men (starting with the black-and-white photo, going clockwise): Luis’s father serving under Trujillo, Luis as U.S. Marine, older Luis as U.S. Army soldier, and Luis’s two sons in their U.S. Army uniforms    

Reader Luis’s father—like my grandfather—worked for Trujillo:

Dear Ms. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams,

I read your family story in The Atlantic about Rafael Trujillo and his influence in the Dominican culture. I want to share my own story with you.

I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. My father was also one of many Dominican men who served under the dictatorship of Trujillo. My father was a man of his time. He arrived in the early ’50s to the capital of Santo Domingo from the province of Puerto Plata. Back then he was a young man with dreams of becoming a high-ranking individual in La Guardia de Trujillo. He could barely read and write but he always had the ambitions of being near El Generalissimo. Trujillo was his idol and he intended to emulate him at all costs.

In those days, the Dominican military was a way to upper mobility for men like my father—men of humble backgrounds and little education who aspired to rise up in the ranks and become a general or part of the military mystique that was well-respected and adored by many Dominicans of his generation. My father would eventually become the chauffeur for one of Trujillo’s senior ranking officers. This was a duty that he was very proud of because it was a highly coveted job.

“Trujillo took pride in the military,” my father would say “and if you were one of his soldiers, you were respected by all,” he would conclude. “Guardias were respected and nobody would dare commit a crime against a guardia,” my mother would add.

All photos courtesy of Luis Reynoso

I remember listening to my parents relate stories after stories about how good things were when Trujillo was in power. According to them, life was a lot simpler and the country enjoyed a much more prosperous economy. The crime rate was also low because anyone who was caught committing a crime would face a quick justice. “You could sleep with the door open and nobody would dare steal anything from you,” my mother always commented.

Trujillo did not bother with the small trivialities and bureaucracies of the justice system. And as in any society ruled by an oppressive dictator, Trujillo had a secret police that terrorized the population and instilled fears, creating suspicions among many.

El Generalissimo was assassinated in May 1961, the year I was born, and so by the time I was a teenager in the late ’70s, many of those who served under him were still around my neighborhood. Some of the men were still in the military. The mystique of Trujillo was very much palpable among the people.

Joaquin Balaguer, at one point Trujillo’s right-hand man, became president. Many people viewed his presidency as an extension of Trujillo’s reign but without the mass appeal and adulation from the masses. Balaguer was a hardliner, a well-educated man who despised university students and showered the poor with food baskets and toys. He was also a quiet and calculating operator who used his political shrewdness for political gain.

In short, Balaguer was a typical Latin American strongman. Unlike many men who were by Trujillo’s side and had climbed to the top by brute force, Balaguer did it by being his scribe and the architect of his policies. Balaguer did not take care of the military but rather used it as a tool of government. This and the fact that he was a lifelong bachelor and wifeless created rumors about his manhood—a dangerous thing for a leader in a country that values machismo. Yet, Balaguer was able to maintain a cozy relationship with the military.

And so in the late ’70s, right around the time of my adolescence, many people felt that the good times had already gone by. The Era of Trujillo had maintained a stable economy and even paid off the national debts. The ’70s, during which Balaguer was mostly president, were mired by oppression, political discourse, student protests, workers’ strikes, killings and disappearance of anyone labeled by the government radical or communist. There was also a stagnant economy and a public distrust of the uncontrollable private sector that raised the price of basic necessities at their own leisure. More than 15 years after the demise of Trujillo’s regime, the country was still trying to find itself.

Rafael Trujillo

Many had forgotten Trujillo’s crimes and his reign of brutality against the country. There was a sense of nostalgia, yet collective amnesia. They longed for the stability, prosperity, and a sense of national security that was common in the ’50s, even if it was at a price: the nonexistence of civil liberties and prevalent human rights violations. Trujillo’s regime had a paternal appeal for many Dominicans and it’s not a surprise that one of his many titles was Benefactor of the Nation.

By the late ’70s, my father had long left the military and emigrated to New York. “The military was never the same after Trujillo was killed,” my father lamented.

I was mostly raised by my mother, while my father left the country to look for a better future in Nueva York. Many times, I found myself going through my father’s old belongings. I admired his collections of military metals, photos, and a magazine of Trujillo that he so zealously kept private.

There is a photo of my father wearing the Dominican Air Force uniform with a ribbon on his chest and a picturesque background of palm trees and the ocean [seen in the collage above]. His dream was finally realized in this photo. There is another picture of my father with my mother and my grandmother [seen above]. They all look proud. My mother, next to her husband, who could count on him to provide for the family as long as he was in the military. My grandmother, who could also count on my father to help her economically and send her money to the countryside.

It was probably around the time these pictures were taken that my father was carrying out El Jefe’s crimes.

In response to Juleyka’s callout for stories of living under authoritarian rule, reader Annika flags an episode of the Reply All podcast (embedded above). She writes:

Even if you don’t post it, I definitely recommend giving it a listen or at least looking through the transcript at the bottom of the page. It starts off on another tangent but ends up settling on a truly amazing story about how a group of Western adults in China during the time of the Japanese invasion kept their kids relatively protected from the worst of the horrors by turning the experience into an extended Girl Guides (Girl Scouts) camp as best they could.

This growing collection of stories makes me think of one we posted for our adulthood series, from a reader who grew up during the Communist dictatorship in Albania. Here’s a reposting of Valbona Bajraktari Schwab’s note:

Adulthood happened very early for me—the change, that is; that moment in time when you stop seeing the world around you as a big playground and you realize that it’s a minefield.

It was April 1985 in communist Albania. Our dictator, Enver Hoxha, had just passed away. I was 11 years old, in 5th grade, and as part of the youth leadership group of my middle school, I was asked to participate in the wake for our leader.

Responding to Juleyka’s callout for stories of family members living under authoritarian rule, reader Colleen touches upon the experience of her Dutch stepmother:

She spent four years in a Japanese POW camp in Indonesia—from age 12 to 16, and her brother from age 9 to 13. When they were liberated they went back to Holland as displaced persons.

The experience was NEVER talked about. No counseling. Nothing.

When she reached 18 she joined the Dutch Royal Navy, immigrated to Canada in her mid 20s, then to the U.S about age 28. She met my father and, for some unknown reason, married him. They had two daughters, who are now 53 and 52 (I’m 73).

My step-mom was a lovely, funny, gracious, manipulative control freak. Her mother taught me how to cook. Oma [“grandmother” in German] did not speak English, and I did not speak Dutch or German, but we flowed through the kitchen with smiles, laughter, and words that neither understood. Needless to say my step-mom had a wonderful effect on my life.

If you have a family story of living under a despot or during wartime occupation, please send us a note. For more context on Colleen’s note, here’s a bit of background on the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies, which lasted from March 1942 to the end of World War II:

The period was one of the most critical in Indonesian history. Under German occupation, the Netherlands had little ability to defend its colony against the Japanese army, and less than three months after the first attacks on Borneo, the Japanese navy and army overran Dutch and allied forces.

Initially, most Indonesians joyfully welcomed the Japanese, as liberators from their Dutch colonial masters. The sentiment changed, as Indonesians were expected to endure more hardship for the war effort. In 1944–1945, Allied troops largely bypassed Indonesia and did not fight their way into the most populous parts such as Java and Sumatra. As such, most of Indonesia was still under Japanese occupation at the time of their surrender, in August 1945.

A poster that was required to hang in every Dominican home during the Trujillato. It reads, "In this home Trujillo is a national symbol." "Rectitude. Liberty. Work. Morality." "1955: Year of the Benefactor of the Motherland" (Wikipedia public domain)

The Dominican Republic, where I’m from, is among the countries in the Americas that had authoritarian rulers for multiple decades. Almost all of my uncles and aunts, and both my parents, were born during Rafael Trujillo’s reign of terror, which began in 1930 and ended with his assassination in 1961. His influence on the country, and on my own life, is still felt today.

When I was growing up, adults in my family talked politics all the time, almost as much as they talked baseball. But in our family, politics was personal because my father’s father briefly worked for Trujillo, as an assistant of some sort. At our weekend family gatherings, some aunt or uncle could be found surrounded by nieces and nephews like me, breathing in a fresh retelling of a hand-me-down story from my grandfather’s past—in hushed whispers, of course. My grandfather himself never uttered a single word about his work with the dictator, and he took that part of his life to his grave a few years ago.

In some versions of my relatives’ stories, my grandfather was the official food taster, to whom his boss’s meals would be presented for inspection and sampling. (To this singular culinary task my family attributed his strict adherence to mealtimes and table manners.) Other renditions described him as a personal secretary of sorts, handwriting dictated letters to society families whose daughters were “invited” to lavish balls thrown at the executive palace, where many young ladies were summarily deflowered by the head of state in well appointed bedrooms.

(Having studied Dominican history, I am highly suspicious of the circumstances that may have led to my grandfather working for such a man. The autocrat was known for conscripting people into his service or else.)

I am partially a product of the codes and mores established by my grandparents, who raised most of their children during the Trujillato. I was raised to accept and respect strict hierarchies in my own family and in organizations in general. I was expected to prefer and defer to men for decisions, control, and public leadership—all things I slowly unlearned and relinquished as an immigrant in 1980s New York City, where the only valid code was hard work.

Dominican author Junot Díaz has said that all Dominicans are Trujillo’s children. I interviewed him in 2007 just before his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was published. Much of the plot takes place during the Trujillato, which the novel presents as a cosmic curse that befalls the island nation. This is what Díaz told me about Trujillo’s place in his own life:

The evil of the father lasts. The consequences of those kinds of patriarchal traumas last to the point where the person no longer has contact with the origins of that evil. I had no concept that I was Trujillo’s son. I had no concept until I was reading, got older, went traveling, and I was like, OK, my dad was a total copy of Trujillo. I mean he grew up in the military, during the Trujillato. He thought Trujillo was a great f* man, and we had in my family—and this is very common in many Third-World families—a dictatorship in the house. La dictadura de la casa. And everyone has different dictaduras, but the one that I lived under was a dictadura that would’ve made Trujillo very, very comfortable, because he helped design it.

The idea of having a genetic link to Trujillo—an evil force so pure that it warped an entire country—has stayed with me ever since. His legacy sometimes cautions me when I encounter limited thinking, when I consider untapped reasons for choices I’ve made, and as I raise two sons whose worldview I hope to make more capacious and expansive than mine.

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Did you grow up under an authoritarian regime? Did your parents or other close family members? Please share your stories with us at hello@theatlantic.com and describe how you think the dictator’s legacy shaped you.