Junot Díaz Talks Gentrification, Trump and the Power of Theater in New Q&A

By Sameer Rao May 19, 2016

The People’s Theatre Project (PTP), a community theater and social justice organization in New York City, will honor literary giant Junot Díaz at a ceremony on June 21. The Dominican-American author recently spoke to The Uptown Collective ahead of the ceremony, addressing topics as varied as the PTP’s work, Donald Trump and his criticism of his native country’s ongoing treatment of Haitians. 

Díaz praised PTP’s work in the predominantly Latino (specifically Dominican-American) neighborhood of Washington Heights, which he said has been traditionally ignored by arts organizations:

Communities like ours have historically been under-served by arts organizations and when we’re talking about the Heights there’s no question that not enough of our young people have access to the performing arts. Theater is one of our oldest and most important art practices and it has the ability to open up a person, to change them, to give them hope, knowledge and wisdom. Theater is the closest many of us come to sitting around a fire and listening to a storyteller—it links us to a very old and very necessary human need for collective narratives.

He also spoke about how gentrification hit neighborhoods like Washington Heights:

Unless there is a radical movement on every level to create and sustain affordable housing, neighborhoods like ours are facing long odds. Folks who already own homes or who have cheap rents because of rent control will likely still be around, but the vitality that currently defines the Heights probably won’t be. It’s the singular tragedy of our current economic arrangements: poor people and immigrant peoples make a world but then the elites take it away from us. 

The outspoken Díaz also addressed the rise of Trump:

What more is there to say? Trump embodies a tendency in U.S. politics that has always been with us: a tendency that is pugnaciously nativist, racist, xenophobic, reactionary and White supremacist. The horrible irony is that the rage and dissatisfaction that has gripped many areas of the U.S. has at its root cause the neo-liberal policies that demons like Trump are the prime movers and beneficiaries of. Sometimes the U.S. leaves you speechless. 

Díaz also doubled down on his criticism of the Dominican Republic’s ongoing expulsion and racist treatment of Haitian residents, which was exacerbated by infamous dictator Rafael Trujillo’s policies:

Sure, I was shocked at the threats and the harassments, but not too shocked, if that makes any sense? Don’t forget I spent 11 years writing a novel about the legacy of the Trujillato, how his horror still lives inside of us Dominicans. Our elites, after all, still find it very easy to panic our community over the "Haitian question"—this is one of Trujillo’s great legacies. But if you want the truth, what surprised me more than anything was the amount of support that I received—how many people came out in solidarity. Viejitos who would write me notes, young people who would stop me in the street, families who shout out support to me from their cars—a couple of cats who were like,"We don’t agree with you, but we support a hundred percent your right to say what you want to say"—all that was surprising and truly inspiring.

Read the full Q&A here.