Legend has it that, in 1908, Liborio was carried away by a hurricane that swept over the Dominican Republic. His family observed a novenario, the traditional nine days of mourning in which friends and family member prayed for the departed. On the ninth day, however, Liborio appeared to them saying he had ridden up to heaven on a golden horse where God made him a prophet and sent him back to earth with a mission. He founded Ciudad Santa (Holy City) in his native Valle de San Juan near the Haitian border and began healing the sick and preaching a message of peace.
For decades the porous border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti forged communities which saw themselves as neither Dominican or Haitian but a bit a both. Haitians had crossed the border to fight in a civil war sparked by the assassination of the Dominican president in 1911. Around the same time, Dominicans were crossing the border to fight in the struggles occurring in Haiti. When over 300 U.S. Marines landed at the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in July 1915 and began a nearly two-decade-long occupation of the country, Dominicans again bore arms in solidarity with the cacos, peasant brigades of Haitian nationals fighting in the mountainous border region.
Then, less than a year later, the United States invaded the Dominican Republic in an attempt to protect U.S. economic interests. Viewing the communalistic practices of Liborio and his followers as a direct threat against the capitalistic system just then being developed on the island, the landed elite worked with the occupying forces, notifying the U.S. government of the liboristas‘ whereabouts and activities. (Interestingly enough, before becoming a prophet of peace, Liborio himself had actively been a part of the capitalization effort, working for a local caudillo who had privatized a plot of land which had been seized from rural peasants.) Ciudad Santa was raided and razed, and from then on, Liborio’s religious movement became a guerrilla campaign, as the liboristas conducted hit-and-run attacks against the pursuing U.S. and Dominican forces.
North American troops would finally ambush him in 1922, riddling him with bullets. His body was carried on the back of a truck to the nearby town of San Juan de la Maguana, where it was displayed in the Parque Central as proof that the divine leader was actually dead. Even then, many of his followers refused to believe it, giving rise to the belief that Liboria’s spirit walked the earth looking after rural peasants. Even today a photo of Liboria still adorns many household altars throughout the Dominican Republic.
In the early 1960s, a group of liboristas founded another commune a bit west of where Liborio lived and died. Led by a pair of twins from the Haitian-Dominican borderlands, the 1200-member Palma Sola practiced the same peaceful communalism that their Ciudad Santa forbearers had decades earlier. Like their forbearers, they too faced government persecution, first by the Trujillo dictatorship, and then by the U.S.-backed junta that ruled after Trujillo’s assassination in May 1961. The military dropped napalm on Palma Sola in December 1962, burning alive 600 men, women and children.
Remembering Liborio — and that the resistance against imperialism and oppression defies borders, whether geographical or racial — is how we celebrate our heritage.