SANTO DOMINGO _ Sonia Pierre, a human rights activist who bravely fought discrimination against poor Dominicans of Haitian descent since she was a child, died Sunday, according to colleagues. She was 48.
The renowned activist died outside of the municipality of Villa Altagracia while being rushed to a hospital after suffering a heart attack around noon Sunday, said Genaro Rincon, a lawyer who works with Pierre's Dominican-Haitian Women's Movement.
Pierre's chronic heart troubles were first discovered in 2007 when she was in Washington to receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award honoring her work securing citizenship and education for Dominican-born ethnic Haitians.
Through the decades, her activism made her the target of threats in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, but it earned her recognition from overseas as a fierce defender of human rights, including an award from Amnesty International in 2003.
Pierre was one of 12 children raised in a dirt-floor barrack in a Dominican migrant worker camp and was just 13 when she was first arrested and threatened with deportation for leading her fellow Dominican residents of Haitian descent in a march for cane cutters' rights.
Since then, Pierre tirelessly fought to secure citizenship and education for the beleaguered minority of Dominican-born ethnic Haitians.
"She was like a sister to me," said Edwin Paraison, executive director of the Zile Foundation, a Haitian group that tries to improve relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. "The Haitian community has lost someone who was a huge advocate in the fight for Haitian rights."
An estimated 500,000 to 1 million ethnic Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, many in isolated village slums that dot the countryside. Most of those born in the Dominican Republic are descendants of Haitians who crossed the border fleeing violence or seeking economic opportunity.
When she won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2007, Pierre denounced what she said were "massive abuses" in the Dominican Republic against people of Haitian descent, particularly children.
"They suffer discrimination from the moment they are born," she said during the award ceremony in the U.S. Senate. "The authorities refuse to recognize them as Dominicans."
While Haiti has been plagued by poverty, violence and political instability, its eastern neighbor, with a population of more than 9 million, grew out of its own early struggles to be seen as a comparative land of opportunity even as many Haitian migrants are exploited as cheap labor.
Police arrested Pierre in 1976 when she led her fellow Haitian-Dominican neighbors in a march to demand rights for those who cut sugar cane. She was jailed for a day and threatened with deportation to Haiti, where her mother was born.
"I was crying because I didn't know anyone in Haiti," Pierre once recalled.
Her advocacy also has made her and her family targets in the Dominican Republic. She was once chased out of her Santo Domingo office by a man waving a pistol. She was also punched at a stop light by another man who told her, "I know who you are."
Pierre insisted she was trying to help her people and not malign the Dominican Republic. "I am not a critic of my country, and this is my country," she said. "I am a critic of my government."
Paraison, a former minister of Haitians living abroad, said Pierre is survived by three children.
Funeral arrangements were pending.