Dominican Republic: Background

The Dominican Republic, like many countries in Latin America, has a long history of violence and tyranny. From repeated sackings by pirates in the 16th-18th centuries, to wars and rebellions against Spain and Haiti in the 19th century, to the two US invasions of the 20th century, and the bloody reigns of dictator Rafael Trujillo and later his crony, president Joaquin Balaguer, Dominicans have suffered greatly. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of this history, this primarily mulatto country became a major producer of Latin American popular music heard around the world. In fact, many Dominicans consider their national identity to be based on music.

Columbus landed on the island native peoples called Quisqueya in 1492 and founded a colony at La Navidad on the north coast that same year (it was later moved to La Isabela, after the first settlers were killed). In 1496, he established the city of Santo Domingo, the oldest European city in the New World and current capital of the Dominican Republic. The aboriginal Taínos the Spaniards met on Quisqueya were a mostly peaceful people, unlike the neighboring Caribs, and were thus enslaved and consequently exterminated by the Spanish in short order. They are also said to have committed mass suicide rather than be forced into slavery. At any rate, their population had been reduced to only 500 by the mid-16th century, from an original number of perhaps a million. Because they had little time to pass on their ways to others, and because intermarriage was less common here than in other countries like Mexico, little of Taíno culture survives in contemporary life. A few words like “hammock,” foods like the casabe flat bread, and musical instruments like the maraca and guiro (gourd scraper) are all that remains. While both musicians and folklorists have tried to recreate their “Areítos,” or danced rituals, we have almost no factual information on what Taíno music and dance was really like.

The extermination of the indigenous people meant a new labor force had to be imported and exploited, and in 1503 African slaves began arriving in Santo Domingo, as the whole Spanish colony was by then known. By the 19th century, the population was about 26% Spanish, 26% African, and 46% mulatto. Currently, it’s estimated at about 75% mulatto. As might be expected, there is a large and important African legacy in Dominican culture today, from vocabulary to religious practices, from food to music and dance. Yet, in spite of the vast scholarship on Afro-Dominican culture by Carlos Esteban Deive, Martha Ellen Davis, Fradique Lizardo, Dagoberto Tejeda, Carlos Andújar, and others, many Dominicans remain ignorant of this legacy. This is partly a result of institutionalized racism and anti-Haitianism dating to the Trujillo era and earlier, and partly a result of their unique conception of race. Similar to other mulatto countries like Brazil, race for Dominicans is not a matter of two clear-cut categories but instead a continuum of gradients that depend not only on physical features but also on culture, economic position, and religious practices. “Indio,” or Indian, is also often used as a term for dark-skinned Dominicans that omits mention of African ancestry.

The Dominican Republic is rich in natural resources and scenic beauty, from Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Caribbean at over 10,000 feet, to the white sand beaches of Punta Cana in the east, Playa Dorada in the north, and the Samaná peninsula. Yet corruption and political turmoil have kept most of the population poor. Although Dominicans declared independence from Spain in 1821, and then from Haiti in 1844 after 22 years of Haitian rule, the country has seldom been free from either tyranny or foreign interference. In 1870 President Baez tried to annex the country to the US to save it from its economic crisis, but the US Senate did not approve this bid. Ulises Heureux, a black war hero, took over, establishing control as well as corruption. After 17 years of dictatorial rule, he was assassinated in 1899. After repeated overthrows of a quick succession of short-term presidents, the US marines invaded and took over for 8 years, 1916-1924.

In 1930, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, a military man trained by the marines, took power and established a 31-year, iron-fisted dictatorship responsible for the massacre of over 20,000 Haitians living in the DR and the killing of innumerable political enemies both at home and abroad, not to mention the sacking of the island’s riches for his and his friends’ personal benefit. After a military overthrow of constitutionally elected President Juan Bosch in 1963, civil war ensued briefly as the constitutionalists fought the military triumvirate in power. This was ended by another US invasion in 1965. The US-backed right-wing candidate Joaquín Balaguer took control for the next 12 years, continuing many Trujillo policies and killing approximately 3000 Dominican dissidents. The country has successfully carried out democratic elections since he stepped down in 1978, but economic crises continue to periodically reoccur, spurring ever more Dominicans to emigrate. The Dominican diaspora has now spread far beyond its original stronghold in New York City, and Dominican communities can now be found also in Miami, Boston, Spain, France, and Italy.

c.2006 Sydney Hutchinson


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