According to Silvio Torres-Saillant, a leading Dominican studies scholar, “Blacks and mulattoes make up nearly 90% of the contemporary Dominican population; Yet no other country in the hemisphere exhibits greater indeterminacy regarding the population‟s sense of racial identity.” The Dominican Republic was the first port of entry of slaves in the Americas, and the site of the first slave revolt in the Americas. Although Dominicans have this historical African heritage, it is denied and neglected in contemporary Dominican society. For example, in text books and museums, Spanish and Indigenous lineages are praised for their contributions to Dominican society while African identities are given little to no space. This lack of public space for African ancestries manifests itself in Dominican racial identity. Most of the Afro Dominicans trace their African ancestry to West Africa and Congo.
Dominican girls Luz Freiney Paulina, from left, Esther Celeste Santana, Mayelin Eloisa Valdez and Melisa Valdez, comprise the dance troupe Las Nizas.
Dominican identity is built on three principles. The first is Hispanidad or Hispanicity, an appreciation of Spanish culture, Catholicism, and whiteness. The second principle is the appreciation of the indigenous Taíno culture and people within Dominican identity. After the Spanish arrived on the island in 1492, the native Arawark population, the Taínos, were decimated by Spanish diseases and the slave labor system, leaving only Spanish settlers and African slaves. Contrary to this history, Dominicans assert that they are mostly of Indian and European ancestries only.
According to Frank Moyans, preference for use of Indio or Indian as a racial category has enabled Dominicans to avoid being black.“By calling themselves Indians, Dominicans have been able to provisionally resolve the profound drama that filled most of their history: that of being a colored nation ruled by a quasi-white elite that did not want to accept the reality of its color and history of its race. Somehow Dominicans assimilated the romantic discourse of the “indigenista” writers of the 19th century, and found it instrumental in accommodating their racial self-perception to the prejudices of the elite, by accepting their “color” while
denying their “race.”
Afro-Dominicans performing their traditional Cocolos cultural dance they brought from Africa
The final component of Dominican identity is the concept of not being Haitian. Haiti was the first black republic in the Americas. When Haiti invaded the DR from 1822-1844, it established rule for 22 years,
fostering resentment among Dominicans. Dominicans defiantly fought to topple Haitian rule, and as a newly independent nation, the DR sought to distinguish itself from its „black‟ neighbor. Building on these feelings towards Haitians, Dominican leaders such as Trujillo, distanced the DR from Haiti by establishing anti Haitian rhetoric, which negatively painted Haiti as the poor, black, ugly neighbor. Being Haitian is equated to being
black, therefore Dominicans have been indoctrinated not see themselves as black.
Carmen Mojica is an Afro-Dominican. She is a writer, teaching artist, dancer, certified birth doula and reiki practitioner.
History of Afro-Dominicans Through the Lens of Silvio Torres-Saillant
(The tribulations of blackness: stages in Dominican racial identity.)
Afro-Dominican Actress Zoe Saldana
Dominican society is the cradle of blackness in the
Americas. The island of Hispaniola or Santo Domingo,
which Dominicans share with Haitians, served as port of
entry to the first African slaves to set foot on Spain’s newly
conquered territories following Christopher Columbus’s
eventful transatlantic voyage in 1492. Nine years into the
conquest of what thenceforward became known as the
New World, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella appointed
Fray Nicolas de Ovando governor of Santo Domingo,
authorizing him to bring "black slaves" to their colony
(Saco, 1974: 164). Marking the start of the black
experience in the western hemisphere, the arrival of
Ovando’s fleet in July 1502 ushered in a social and
demographic history that would lead in the course of five
centuries to the overwhelming presence of people of
African descent in the Dominican Republic today.
Afro-Domican Lady with her nation`s flag
Blacks and mulattos make up nearly 90 percent of the
contemporary Dominican population. Yet, no other country
in the hemisphere exhibits greater indeterminacy regarding
the population’s sense of racial identity. To the
bewilderment of outside observers, Afro-Dominicans have
traditionally failed to flaunt their blackness as a collective
banner to advance economic, cultural, or political causes.
Some commentators would contend, in effect, that
Dominicans have, for the most part, denied their
blackness. Faced with the population’s tolerance of official
claims asserting the moral and intellectual superiority of
Caucasians by white supremacist ideologues, analysts of
racial identity in Dominican society have often imputed to
Dominicans heavy doses of "backwardness," "ignorance,"
or "confusion" regarding their race and ethnicity (Fennema
and Loewenthal, 1989: 209; Sagas, 1993). I would like to
invite reflection on the complexity of racial thinking and
racial discourse among Dominicans with the purpose of
urging the adoption of discrete paradigms in attempts to
explicate the place of black consciousness in Dominican
society and culture.
A large part of the problem of racial identity among
Dominicans stems from the fact that from its inception their
country had to negotiate the racial paradigms of their North
American and European overseers. The Dominican
Republic came into being as a sovereign state on
February 27, 1844, when the political leaders of eastern
Hispaniola proclaimed their juridical separation from the
Republic of Haiti, putting an end to 22 years of unification
under a black-controlled government with its seat in
Port-au-Prince. The Haitian leadership originally resisted
the idea of relinquishing authority over the whole island
and made successive attempts to regain the eastern
territory, which resulted in sporadic armed clashes
between Haitian and Dominican forces until 1855. As the
newly created Caribbean republic sought to insert itself
into an economic order dominated by Western powers,
among which "the racial imagination" had long since taken
a firm hold, the race of Dominicans quickly became an
issue of concern (Torres-Saillant, 1993: 33-37). In
December 1844, near the end of President John Tyler’s
administration, U.S. Secretary of State John C. Calhoun
spoke of the need for the fledgling Dominican state to
receive formal recognition from the United States, France,
and Spain to prevent "the further spread of negro influence
in the West Indies" (Welles, 1966: 76). As would
many other American statesmen and journalists
throughout the nineteenth century, Calhoun conceived of
Dominicans as other than black.
When in 1845 American Agent John Hogan arrived in
Santo Domingo with the mandate of assessing the country
for an eventual recognition of its independence, he sided
with Dominicans in their conflicts with Haitians and
therefore soon became concerned over the predominance
of people of African descent in the country. Directing
himself to the Dominican Minister of Foreign Relations
Tomas Bobadilla, Hogan wondered whether "the presence
in the Republic of so large a proportion of the coloured
race" would weaken the government’s efforts to fend off
Haitian aggression. Bobadilla assuaged his fears by
replying "that among the Dominicans preoccupations
regarding color have never held much sway" and that even
former "slaves have fought and would again fight against
the Haitians" on account of the oppressiveness of the
latter’s former regime (Welles, 1966: 77-78). In a
dispatch addressed to U.S. Secretary of State John M.
Clayton, dated October 24, 1849, American Commissioner
in Santo Domingo Jonathan E. Green reported that Haitian
violence had given "force and universality to the feeling in
favor of the whites in the Dominican Republic" to the point
that a black "when taunted with his color" could
conceivably remark, "I am black, but white black" (cited in
Welles, 1966: 103-104).
Nineteenth-century foreign observers of the Dominican
scene had ample occasion to note the reluctance of
Dominicans to flaunt their black identity, but they
themselves remained ambivalent about the racial and
ethnic characteristics of the new republic’s population. One
thinks, for instance, of the genealogy of Dominican political
leaders published by the New York Evening Post on
September 2, 1854, with the intention of frustrating
Secretary of State William Marcy’s plan to secure the
granting of official U.S. recognition to the Dominican
Republic. The Evening Post highlighted the blackness of
Dominicans to spark antipathy against them in public
opinion sectors of the United States, but a book published
six years later by a writer seeking the opposite result
undertook to underestimate the black element of the
Dominican population - representing the Dominican people
as "made up of Spaniards, Spanish Creoles and some
Africans and people of color" (Courtney, 1860: 132).
Two strains appear to stand out in the observations of
Americans commenting on racial matters in the Dominican
Republic at the time. One is the sense that "no austere
prejudice against color prevails" in the country, as one
author put it, or, in the words of another, that "distinction of
color, in social life, is entirely unknown" (Santo Domingo,
1863: 10; Keim, 1870: 168). The other strain is the
insistence on magnifying the white component of the
Dominican population. Thus, the U.S. Senate Commission
of Inquiry who went to the Dominican Republic in early
1871 to assess whether the country was ripe for
annexation to the U.S. territory found people there to be
"generally of mixed blood," with the great majority being
"neither pure black nor pure white" but showing areas
inhabited by "considerable numbers of pure white" people
and noting that "generally in the mixed race the white
blood predominates" (Report, 1871: 13). Even in the
twentieth century, during the administration of Theodore
Roosevelt, one could find U.S. voices attesting to the
presumed whiteness of Dominicans. One contended
unambiguously that the inhabitants of the small Caribbean
republic "with very few exceptions" were white, citing racial
hostility, that is, "the refusal of the white Dominican to be
governed by the black Haitian," as the cause of the
partition of Hispaniola into two countries (Hancock, 1905:
50). In the same vein, an anonymous writer asserted that
"white blood preponderates" in the Dominican Republic by
contrast to neighboring Haiti, where "the black race is in
complete ascendancy ("Romance," 1995 : 18-19).
Given the foregoing series of fluctuating pronouncements
on Dominicans and race, the mixed testimony in the late
1920s of yet another American commentator, Envoy
Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary Sumner Welles,
should come as no surprise. While asserting that "race
discrimination in the Dominican Republic is unknown," he
deemed it "one of the most noteworthy peculiarities of the
Dominican people that among all shades, there is a
universal desire that the black be obliterated by the white.
The stimulation of white immigration has become a
general demand," and an interest in curtailing or regulating
black immigration carried "similar force" (Welles,
1966: 909). Welles described what proponents of
structural causes for attitudes about race would
characterize as a contradiction, since his scenario
insinuates that negrophobia can exist independent of racial
oppression. I would like to take this baffling possibility as
starting point for an inquiry into the concept of race as it
has developed historically in Dominican society.
It is no accident that this inquiry should spring from the
statements of Welles and the other North Americans, for
Dominican identity consists not only of how Dominicans
see themselves but also of how they are seen by the
powerful nations with which the Dominican Republic has
been linked in a relationship of political and economic
dependence. It is not inconceivable, for instance, that the
texture of negrophobic and anti-Haitian nationalist
discourse sponsored by official spokespersons in the
Dominican state drew significantly on North American
sources dating back to the first years of the republic.
BLACKNESS AND NINETEENTH-CENTURY POLITICS
Consistent with their large presence, Dominicans of
African descent have played an active and decisive
political role in their country. The black or mulatto
Francisco del Rosario Sanchez (1817-1861), one of the
founding fathers of the Dominican nation, and the black
general Jose Joaquin Puello (1808-1847) were important
in bringing the dream of Dominican independence to
fruition. Beyond this, blacks and mulattos, by defying the
original separatist movement, ensured the republic’s
formally espousing democratic ideals. Blacks had valid
reasons for hesitating to support the separation from Haiti
espoused by a liberal elite from Santo Domingo; they
owed their freedom to their brethren from the western
territory. Slavery had been restricted in 1801, under
Toussaint, and abolished in 1822, with the arrival of Boyer
(Alfau Duran, 1994: 370). Moreover, the leadership of the
separatist movement had proposed a national anthem
written by the poet Felix Maria Del Monte (1819-1899) that
emboldened the patriots with the exhortation "Rise up in
arms, oh Spaniards!" (Franco, 1984: 160-161).
Since an association of the nascent republic with imperial
Spain, which still enslaved blacks in Cuba and Puerto
Rico, would have imperiled the freedom of many
Dominicans, within hours of the independence
proclamation, an uprising of people of African descent led
by Santiago Basora in the Santo Domingo section of
Monte Grande challenged the new government. The
rebellion forced the leaders of the incipient nation to
reaffirm the abolition of slavery and to integrate the black
Basora into the country’s governing structure (Franco,
1984: 161-162). The very first decree promulgated by the
Junta Central that first governed the country, on March 1,
1844, was the abolition of slavery (Alfau Duran, 1994: 13).
Among various gestures to allay the concerns of blacks
and mulattos, the Dominican government went on to
reaffirm its commitment to abolition in several decrees
that, apart from stressing the finality of abolition, made
slave trafficking of any kind a capital crime and ruled that
slaves from any provenance would instantly gain their
freedom on setting foot on the territory of the Dominican
Republic (Enciclopedia Dominicana, "Esclavitud").
When, less than 20 years after independence, an
unpatriotic elite negotiated the annexation of the
Dominican Republic to Spain, an armed rebellion to
recover its lost sovereignty promptly ensued, and the black
General Gregorio Luperon outshone all others as the
guardian of national liberation. The participation of people
of African descent in that chapter of Dominican history,
known as the War of Restoration, was significant both in
the high command and in the rank and file. The nationalist
resistance leaders, aware of the decisive importance of
blacks and mulattos, launched a campaign calling
attention to Spain’s plans to restore slavery with a
document known as the St. Thomas Manifesto of March
30, 1861. Pressured by this campaign, Brigadier Antonio
Pelaez, commander of the occupation forces, hastened to
issue a decree of April 8, 1861, whereby Spain assured
Dominicans that slavery would never return to the land
(Alfau Duran, 1994: 12). Even so, the color of the invaders
contrasted sharply with that of the creoles, giving the war
racial overtones. With the "massive integration" of the
peasant population, "which consisted mainly of blacks and
mulattos," the armed struggle soon became a "racial war"
against a white supremacist power that preserved slavery
and "a truly popular war, as it directed all the energies of
the nation toward achieving independence and restoring
sovereignty" (Franco, 1992: 277; Moya Pons, 1995: 213).
Gregorio Luperon (1839-1897) on 20 Pesos Oro 2009 Banknote from Dominican Republic. Afro-Dominican military and state leader after the Spanish annexation in 1863.
General Jose de la Gandara, the last military commander
of the Spanish forces, suggested that the attitudes of his
soldiers, who were "used to viewing the black race and
people of mixed ancestry as inferior people," deepened the
opposition of Dominicans to the annexation and may have
brought its downfall (De la Gandara, 1975: 237-238).
Dominicans commemorate the War of Restoration, fought
against white Spaniards, with as much patriotic fervor as
they do the War of Independence, fought against black
Haitians; and the black general Luperon, who helped to
restore the nation’s sovereignty, inspires as much respect
and admiration as the white creole Juan Pablo Duarte, the
ideological founder of the Republic. Another salient figure
of the Restoration War, the black Ulises Heureux, whose
heroic exploits against the Spanish army earned him
national prestige, two decades later came to dominate the
country politically for more than 15 years. After achieving
distinction in various high positions in the Dominican
government following the war effort, he ran for president of
the country and was elected for the first time in 1882,
became head of state through electoral channels two other
times, and subsequently extended his rule by dictatorial
imposition until he was assassinated in 1899.
Afro-Dominican war hero
BLACKS AND DOMINICAN FOLK CULTURE
The African presence in Dominican culture of course
transcends the outstanding political acts of individuals.
Elements of African cultural survival in Dominican society
appear in the language Dominicans speak - the
ethnolinguistic modalities that characterize the people’s
handling of Spanish, which show peculiarities in lexical
structure and in phonetics, morphosyntax, and intonation
that suggest retentions from the languages of African
slaves in colonial times (Megenney, 1990: 233). There is
also evidence of a significant presence of Haitian Creole in
Afro-Dominican Spanish as a result of the intercultural
contacts that were "firmly cemented" during the unification
period from 1822 through 1884 (Lipski, 1994: 13).
Kalunga Neg Mawon
Folk Feet Circle Round, traditional dance of Afro-Dominicans
original culture of the slaves has probably found its way
into the oral tradition of the Dominican people, and the
contributions of blacks to Dominican cuisine take the form
of both cultural transmissions from Africa and creole
innovations traceable to the plantation regime (Deive,
1990: 133-135). But in no other realm are African cultural
forms more evident in Dominican society than in spiritual
Carlos Esteban Delve has convincingly posited
existence of a Dominican voodoo with an indigenous
pantheon and other characteristics that distinguish it from
Haitian voodoo (Deive, 1992: 171-174, 182-183). People
of various class backgrounds normally have recourse to
the services and rituals of this folk religion, which has as
much currency in urban areas as in rural ones (1992: 17).
In fact, the majority of voodoo practitioners consider
themselves officially Catholic, having received baptism and
remaining active in the worship of that faith (1992: 211).
Further research has not only supported the existence of
voodoo as "part of Dominican folk religious expression" but
also identified it as a crucial resource for popular medicine
(Davis, 1987: 423, 221-223). Davis has highlighted certain
kinds of folk spiritual expressions with "strong African
influences" that provide aid to the Dominican people in
many of the social functions of their daily lives (1987:
194-195). Following these insights, a team combining
mental health and social science specialists has stressed
the importance of voodoo and other folk spiritual
manifestations for understanding the Dominican people
from the perspective of psychiatry and psychology
(Tejeda, Sanchez, and Mella, 1993: 54).
Afro-Dominican beauty Queen
Naturally, the state-funded guardians of the official culture,
intent on stressing the predominance of the Hispanic
heritage among Dominicans, have vigorously rejected the
trace of any "pagan" forms of worship in Dominican
society. Unable to deny that Dominicans do engage in
African- descended spirituality, they have ascribed that
predilection to unwelcome foreign influence - a logic that
often has justified the persecution of folk religious
practices as a threat to morality and Christian values. In
the nineteenth century, the poet Del Monte construed
voodoo as a savage, anthropophagic ritual, and an 1862
ordinance proscribed a series of dances and festivities that
involved expressions of African origins (Del Monte, 1979:
246; Deive, 1992: 163). During the Trujillo dictatorship,
when the Dominican state became most emphatically
committed to promoting Eurocentric and white supremacist
views of Dominicanness, the official daily El Listin Diario
on August 16, 1939, reported the arrest of two men for
commemorating the War of Restoration by engaging in
voodoo practices along with other men and women who
had managed to escape (cited in Deive, 1992: 164). The
Trujillo regime outlawed participation in voodoo
ceremonies with Law 391 of September 20, 1943, which
imposed a penalty of up to one year in prison plus a fine of
500 pesos on anyone convicted of the crime either by
direct commission or indirect collusion (Deive, 1992: 186).
The relentlessness of the government’s campaign to
eradicate African spiritual expressions in Dominican
society is clear from an article published in the newspaper
La Nacion on October 5, 1945, in which Emilio Rodriguez
Demorizi, an ideologist of the Trujillo regime and a
consummate negrophobe, denounced "cucaya dance,cannibalism, voodoo, witchcraft, and other evil arts and customs" as rituals coming from "the land of Louverture and Christophe" that had occasionally tarnished "the simple habits of Dominicans," although he reassured his readers that the "dark roots" of those influences left no perceptible vestiges in the people.But despite the aberrant negrophobia of the scribes of the ruling class from colonial times to the present, with a population that is predominantly of African descent, it is inevitable that black contributions to Dominican culture are omnipresent. That contribution began in 1502 and since then, as Vetilio Alfau Duran (1994: 342) has put it, "it has remained constant and decisive." In addition to the areas of endeavor surveyed above, one could speak of the celebrity enjoyed by Dominicans of African descent in the fields of sports and popular music. Clearly, also, blacks have by no means lacked representation in the public sphere or in the regard of the Dominican people. The overwhelming popular victory in the 1994 elections of the black presidential candidate Jose Francisco Pena Gomez of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (Dominican Revolutionary party - PRD) against the two white elders Juan Bosch, of the Partido de la Liberacion Dominicana (Dominican Liberation party - PLD), and Joaquin Balaguer, of the Partido Reformista Social Cristiano (Social Christian Reform party - PRSC), is eloquent testimony to this. That the maneuvers of the Balaguer government prevented Pena Gomez from becoming president matters less to the present discussion than that the majority of the Dominican population went to the polls and cast their ballots in favor of a black man who, in addition, is reputedly of Haitian descent. In voting for him massively, the Dominican people disregarded an elaborate and virulent campaign orchestrated by the government and the conservative elite that aimed to cast doubt on his Dominicanness and make a vote for him seem unpatriotic. Dominicans showed through their actions that they had minds of their own.
DERACIALIZED CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE RISE OF THE MULATTO
Dominicans of African descent possess what one might call a deracialized social consciousness whose origins date back to the decline of the plantation economy in colonial times. After generating a widespread and massive influx of black slaves in the early 16th century, the Hispaniola sugar industry declined dramatically. The evanescence of the industry, concomitant with the constant exodus of white settlers, marked the texture of race relations in the context of the colony’s ensuing impoverishment. Throughout the seventeenth century, poverty afflicted the inhabitants of Hispaniola (Pena Perez, 1985: 10). A "mirror of utter backwardness," seventeenth-century Santo Domingo "wallowed in almost total wretchedness" (Bosch, 1986: 117). In a 1691 plea addressed to the Crown, Don Francisco Franco de Torquemada argued for the need to provide the colonists with black slaves "on credit" to help stimulate agricultural production (Franco de Torquemada, 1942: 84-85).
Worsened by the effects of Governor Antonio de Osorio’s depopulation of the eastern territories in 1605, occasional foreign invasions, pirate raids, and various natural disasters, the Santo Domingo economy deteriorated to the point that slavery became untenable and the rigid racial codes engendered by the plantation virtually broke down. The number of free blacks, a segment that had begun to surface toward the end of the sixteenth century, grew to a majority as the social distance between blacks and whites shrank significantly (Cassa, 1992: 76, 107-108). The testimony in 1763 by Archbishop Fernandez de Navarrete about the scarcity of pure whites, affirming that the majority of the free population "including landholders, was of mixed blood," highlights the pervasiveness of racial intermixture in Santo Domingo (Cassa, 1992: 109).
The decay of the plantation and the virtual destitution of whites helped to break down the social barriers between the races, stimulating interracial marital relations and giving rise to an ethnically hybrid population. The racial integration and ethnic hybridity that characterized seventeenth-century Santo Domingo explain the emergence of the mulatto as the predominant type in the ethnic composition of the Dominican population.Interestingly, despite the large presence of people of African descent at the time, many of the eyewitness accounts of the precarious state of the colony bewailed the scarcity of blacks as a primary cause of the decay. We begin to recognize here a tendency to limit the term black to people still living in slavery or engaged in subversive action against the colonial system. We know that since the sixteenth century, slaves had often resorted to marooning and open rebellion and the colonial government had to invest a good portion of its resources in counterinsurgency efforts (Cassa, 1992: 85)
The activities of maroons alarmed the ruling structure continuously east and west of Hispaniola. By the 1777 Aranjuez Treaty, when the Spanish and the French agreed on a formal partition of the island, the maroons were still a concern, and the imperial authorities wrote into the accord a strategy for addressing the problem in both Santo Domingo and Saint Domingue (Moreau de Saint-Mery, 1994: 424).Peaceful or cooperative mulattos and blacks, in contrast, seem to have become decolorized in the eyes of the ruling class, which probably explains Franco de Torquemada’s complaint about the absence of blacks at a time when free blacks abounded. Similarly, in the late-eighteenth century,the mulatto priest Antonio Sanchez Valverde attributed the poverty of Santo Domingo to the lack of blacks, in contrast to the wealth of the contiguous French colony, which teemed with them (Sanchez Valverde, 1988: 248). He, of course, meant slaves and groaned that even the comparatively few slaves who existed in Santo Domingo "work for themselves almost one-third of the year," objecting further to those masters who let their blacks go about on their own in exchange for a fee instead of employing them in efficient agricultural production (Sanchez Valverde, 1988: 249-250). Gradually, the sphere of blackness became associated exclusively with slavery and subversion, fostering a conceptual space that permitted free blacks and mulattos in Santo Domingo to step outside the racial circumscription of their blackness in configuring their identities or aligning themselves politically.The disruption of the plantation economy and its demographic impact on the population facilitated a split between biological blackness and social blackness. As the racial oligarchy originally generated by the plantocracy crumbled, pigmentation ceased to shape political action. Moya Pons, reflecting on the use in early nineteenth-century Santo Domingo of the term blancos de la tierra (whites of the land) by colored people to describe themselves, notes that paradoxically "while their skin gradually became darker, the mentality of Dominicans turned increasingly whiter" (1986: 239). But the context of this paradox is an earlier historical process, whereby social position had come to supersede skin color in the articulation of identity for people of African descent. Blacks and mulattos who approximated the level of their former masters through either their own social ascent or the white colonists’ descent were, indeed, the equivalent of former blancos. They lacked a material frame of reference in which to construct a concept of identity based on racial self-differentiation, that is, on affirmation of their blackness.
While the death of the plantation economy and indiscriminate poverty in seventeenth-century Santo Domingo contributed to the decline of slavery and the rise of people of African descent as a preponderant social force, they also eroded the bases for a sense of solidarity with blacks in general. As a result, we find, for instance, the mulatto Juan Baron (-1805) collaborating with the invading French forces against the black troops of Toussaint Louverture in 1802, despite the fact that the year before the Haitian leader had abolished slavery and encouraged racial equality in Santo Domingo. Similarly, the black Dominican warrior Juan Suero (1808-1864), popularly known as the Black Cid, fought vigorously against black Haitians during the independence war in 1844 and did not hesitate to side with Spain’s invading white soldiers when Dominicans were struggling to recover their national sovereignty during the annexation.
One could argue that for Dominicans of African descent, history had conspired against their development of a racial consciousness that would inform their building of alliances along ethnic lines. At the same time, their deracialized consciousness precluded the development of a discourse of black affirmation that would serve to counterbalance intellectual negrophobia.
Beautiful Black Angel Mio Almonte,2011 Miss Dominican Republic
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The Conflict Between Haiti and the Dominican Republic
Whites. In fact the two countries merely coexist on this small island -- conflict arises almost everyday between the two governments. These cultural differences may be at the root of the long-standing Haitian-Dominican conflict culminating in the murder of more than 25,000 Haitians in1937 by the Dominican dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molinas.
What is the explanation for these cultural differences? How did the island the Tainos called Hayti come to be divided into two countries, and inhabited by two peoples of such different cultures? A look at the colonial past of Haiti and the Dominican Republic contains the answer to these questions. Both countries have a colonial background that has made them into what they are today. The division of the island into Haiti and the Dominican Republic is a perfect example of how colonialism and the plantation system shaped the geography, demography and psychology of the New World; shaping it in ways that eventually led to perpetual friction, including the Haitian-Dominican conflict of today.
Afro-Dominican Haitian dance and drumThe present day division of the island of Hispaniola is a consequence of the bitter European struggle for control of the New World during the 17th century. When Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World in 1492, he named the island of Hayti where his crew disembarked Hispaniola – Little Spain. The Spaniards soon established themselves permanently on Hispaniola, building the city of Santo Domingo, from whence they ruled their colonies in the New World. By 1548 however, the Indians were decimated and the reserves of gold in the colony were declining. At about the same time, Hernan Cortes was discovering Mexico (1521) and Pizarro was overrunning Peru, both of which were rich in gold and silver. Santo Domingo then became of less value to Spain and most Spanish settlers quickly left the island for the richer lands of Mexico and Peru.
Then the first French settlers came to Hispaniola and established themselves on the island of Tortuga ( Ile de la Tortue) on the northwest coast of present day Haiti. These French settlers, known as buccaneers entered into trade with the Spaniards on the mainland. Then, in what Miguel Aquino has called a "tactical error of unimaginable proportions", the Spanish governor of Hispaniola, in1605 encouraged the Spanish inhabitants of the western part of the island to move to the eastern portion, in order to end the trade with the French. Contrary to what the Spaniard governor expected, over the next fifty years the French pirates settled in western Hispaniola establishing the impromptu French colony of St. Domingue, a translation of Santo Domingo. These French settlers entered into a bitter struggle with the Spaniards for more land.
By 1664, France created the French West Indian Company to signal their intention of permanently colonizing St. Domingue. During that time, Spain was in decline as a world power and could barely withstand the English, Dutch and French attacks on its colonies in the Caribbean. Therefore, by the treaty of Ryswick in 1697, Spain abandoned the western part of Hispaniola to the French, who then established the colony of St Domingue legally. The two rival colonies, Santo Domingo under the Spanish and St. Domingue under the French, followed different paths that would greatly effect their future.
About a hundred years later, Spain ceded the eastern part of the island to France under the treaty of Basle (1795). Toussaint L’Ouverture, the later author of the Haitian Revolution, was at that time fighting for the French, helping to unify the island under French rule. Thus in 1795 he declared that the island was "one and indivisible". In 1801, after taking control of St. Domingue in the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint invaded Santo Domingo to transform his words into action. In 1802, while battling the forces of Napoleon for the independence of Haiti, Toussaint, as part of his strategic plan, withdrew his soldiers from Santo Domingo. After the capture of Toussaint by the French General Leclerc, Toussaint’s successor Dessalines carried on the revolution and defeated the French, creating the State of Haiti.
From the very day that Haiti became independent, January 1, 1804, its leaders believed that in order for Haiti to remain independent the entire island must be unified under Haitian rule. The French retained a small foothold on the eastern section of the island and the Haitians feared that the French, or another European colonial nation, might invade from there. Henceforth Haiti’s policy toward Santo Domingo would be directed by this belief. The Haitian leadership wrote a clause into the first Haitian constitution that the island was indivisible. By 1805, Dessalines invaded the eastern part of the island and only pulled his forces back from capturing Santo Domingo when reports reached him that a French naval squadron was approaching Haiti.
By 1808, the Haitians, in their ongoing struggle against the French, helped Spanish colonists who had returned to Santo Domingo to expel the French. Santo Domingo was then returned to Spanish rule. Under the Spanish the colony plunged into economic decline. This period, known as EspaZa Boba ( Foolish Spain), convinced the Dominicans to seek independence along the same lines as Simon Bolivar’s Latin American state. On November 30, 1821, Jose Nunez de Caceres announced the colony’s independence under the name of Spanish Haiti, and sought to gain admission to the State of Gran Colombia created by Simon Bolivar. However, before the Dominican request could be ratified, the troops of the Haitian president, Jean Pierre Boyer, invaded the new nation, unifying the island.
From 1822 to 1844, the Dominican Republic and Haiti were united. In 1844, the Dominicans took advantage of the fall of President Boyer of Haiti, and regained their independence. The rebellion was carried out by the Trinitaria movement, founded by Juan Pablo Duarte in 1838. The Haitians repeatedly tried to invade the new nation; their last attempt only ended in 1855. A boundary agreement was finally signed between the two nations in 1936, establishing the definitive border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The final consequence of the European struggle for control in the Caribbean was the division of the island into two countries.
The division of the island into the two colonies of St. Domingue and Santo Domingo resulted in the creation of two distinct peoples. After the signing of the treaty of Ryswick (1697) between France and Spain, the two colonies on Hispaniola followed different economic paths. This would influence the development of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The French quickly developed St. Domingue into the most productive colony of the Hemisphere, if not the world. By the 18th century, St. Domingue’s production of sugar surpassed that of all the English colonies. This growth in production made St. Domingue economically important to France. To bring St. Domingue to this level of production, the French early on took a number of measures. The colonists on St. Domingue foresaw a growing world market for sugar, so they tried to maximize their profits by importing huge numbers of African slaves. By 1790, the Black population surpassed the Whites and a new demographic group was created: the mulattos. St. Domingue at that time had more than 500,000 Black slaves, compared to 30,000 Whites and 27,000 freemen, this last class of men containing both Black and mulatto individuals.
In Santo Domingo the Spanish colonists did nothing to develop sugar plantations. They were not motivated by the goal of supplying sugar to the European market like the French were. Since they were not as wealthy as their French counterparts, and less concerned with market pressures, these landowners did not import slaves in large numbers. This policy enabled the domestic labor force to practice subsistence agriculture as well as sugar cultivation. Thus by 1790, when St. Domingue was in the midst of a population explosion, Santo Domingo consisted of 125,000 White landowners, 25,000 Blacks or mulattos, and about 60,000 Black slaves. Clearly, on Santo Domingo, the Blacks were a minority. This was the demographic basis for the present composition of the population of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
When the Haitian Revolution broke out in 1791, thousands of Whites fled the colony both during and after the revolt to escape the wrath of their slaves. Those few remaining were massacred by Dessalines in 1805 to protect the revolution. As a consequence, Haiti was a nation with a large Black majority and a relatively small number of mulattos. In Santo Domingo, the contrary was true. Racial intermarriage between the Spaniards and the Blacks created mulattos who are today the majority. In 1822-1844, Boyer, the Haitian president, tried to influence the population composition of Santo Domingo. He encouraged 10,000 free Blacks from the U.S.A. to settle there. However, this policy failed since the majority of these Blacks quickly left the island. The remaining few had virtually no impact on creating a population similar to that of Haiti as Boyer probably wanted. This difference in racial makeup helped amplify and worsen Dominican-Haitian rivalry.
A third consequence of the treaty of Ryswick (1697) was to shape the mind-set of Haitians and Dominicans, causing them to view each other as irreconcilable enemies. Today, to be a Dominican is above all else not to be a Haitian. The Dominican definition of their identity as a people was based upon this. Schools and newspapers spread propaganda with the goal of dismissing the African heritage of the Dominican Republic and to distinguish between Dominicans and Haitians. The Dominican people are described as a White people of Hispanic descent. Trujillo, in the Dominican Republic, celebrated the concept of la Hispanidad (Spanishness). However, when a person’s skin left no doubt as to their Black heritage, a concept of "Indianness" was quickly created to explain that Dominican’s complexion. Thus, a Dominican whose skin color is midway between a mulatto and a Black is identified as being of Indian origin. Countless dubious studies were conducted to prove this "Indianness" of the Dominican people through analysis of blood types, facial features and varying dental patterns. Of course, the definition of the Dominicans’ identity as Indian is highly doubtful since the first inhabitants of the island were decimated in less than 50 years by the Spanish (see Tainos in History Page). This obsession by the Dominicans to define themselves as something as not Haitian and African, stems from relationship with Haiti, going back to the colonial era.
When Haiti freed herself from French control in 1804, she quickly undertook to protect her freedom by overrunning the island’s eastern parts, Santo Domingo. The Haitians saw the island as indivisible. Eventually the Haitians occupied the Dominican Republic for twenty-two years. Jean Pierre Boyer, the Haitian president, sought to secure his control of the Dominican Republic by the destruction of its Hispanic culture. He closed the university and prevented contact between the Dominican Church and the Catholic hierarchy in Europe. He broke up the large estates of the Dominican nation held by the Church. These policies increased anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic.
When Trujillo was elected president he defined the Dominican Republic as a Hispanic nation, Catholic and White, as opposed to Afro-French Haiti which largely practiced "vodou" as a religion. He portrayed Haiti as both a threat and the antithesis of the Dominican Republic. He dreaded the growing influence of Haitian culture in Dominican territory. His fear of Haitian "darkening" of the Dominican population led him to conduct a policy of "Dominicanness" which ultimately led to the murder of more than 25,000 Haitian on the Haitian-Dominican border. After having signed a boundary agreement between the Dominican government and Haiti, Trujillo realizing that the people on the border, Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, spoke mainly creole and used the Haitian gourde as their currency. He undertook to define Haitians as racially separate from Dominicans. Under Operation Perejil, Trujillo killed thousands of Haitians and dark skinned Dominicans residing on the border zone. These people were asked to pronounce the word "perejil", believed to be hard for Haitians because of the "r" and the "j". Everyone who failed at the test was systematically killed.
Years later, the Dominican president and Trujillo’s ideological heir, Joaquim Balaguer, continued his policy of discrimination and racism against the Haitians. In his book, La Isla al Reves, he outlined his hopes and fears for the Dominican nation. This book is a monument to the fear that Haiti, as an Afro-Caribbean nation, instilled both in the author and the Dominican people. It warns of Haitian imperialism as a "plot against the independence of Santo Domingo and against the American population of Spanish origin". Haiti is a threat primarily for "biological reasons", its people multiplying themselves "nearly as rapidly as plants."
Although we must acknowledge that the Haitian-Dominican conflict stemmed from the occupation of the Dominican Republic by Haiti, it would be dangerous, and unfair to the Dominican people, to attribute Trujillo and Balaguer’s acts and ideology entirely to the same origin. Balaguer and Trujillo were both racist mulattos and politicians who used the past for their own interest. The Dominican people did not participate in Trujillo’s massacre of the Haitians.
Many Haitians were saved by good-hearted Dominicans who could not imagine and could not accept the killings of thousands of innocents for petty reasons. The best example of this fact is the Dominican politician, Jose Maria PeZa Gomez, who is believed to be of Haitian descent, and who escaped the massacre because a White Dominican family adopted him. He grew up to become Balaguer’s most feared opponent in the Dominican elections. Despite his color (a proof that color is not a real obstacle in the Caribbean) he was very popular among Dominican voters. To fight him Ballaguer had to cheat in the elections of 1991, and spread propaganda about his Haitian origin. The old Haitian-Dominican conflict was thus used by Dominican politicians to keep themselves in power; depicting the twenty two years of Haitian rule as a period of repression and savagery.
According to Juan Bosch this mythology was forged by traditional Dominican historians who deliberately "have falsified the historical truth". Bosch contends that the majority of the Dominican population welcomed the Haitians. For the slaves, it meant emancipation; for other Blacks it promised a break from the racist hierarchy of Spanish colonialism. Haiti at that time had a more developed economy than Santo Domingo. Union, it was believed, would improve economic conditions for the poor. Radical land reforms did indeed benefit the poorest section of the population. These reforms broke up many of the largest estates and Church-owned lands, which were then distributed to the small holders. This provided a basis for the economic independence of the Dominican peasantry. (http://www.allempires.com/article/index.php?q=conflict_haiti_dominican)
Afro-Dominican old man
Afro-Dominican music, some of the richest and least-known sounds coming from the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic is best known for merengue and bachata, two essential parts of the mainstream Latin music landscape. Both styles have heavy African influences, but aren’t considered “Afro-Dominican” music – that term is reserved for the 60 some-odd traditional rhythms found on the island, deeply-African sounds that make the complex grooves of salsa or merengue look like beginner’s stuff. There is an astounding musical diversity. Whole music traditions can change from one town to the next, each with its own choir of unique instruments.
Dominican Merengue dancers in an old Santo Domingo courtyardcredit: Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism
Although there are secular styles as well, most Afro-Dominican music is deeply integrated with Afro-Dominican religion, syncretic practices that fuse the Catholic saints to African deities, much like Cubansanteria or Haitian vodou. From energetic Saint’s Day parties to private ceremonies to mass pilgrimages, Afro-syncretic spiritual activities play a major part in the lives of many Dominicans, and music is always there at the center, providing an ecstatic, transcendent, communal way of interacting with the divine.
Young Merengue dancers
Afro Dominican music is a well-kept secret thanks to a long and complicated relationship between Dominicans and their strong African heritage, further nuanced by the 31-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who actively persecuted the country’s African cultural manifestations in an obsessive quest to Europeanize the country. Even though Afro-Dominican music is played every day, it is rarely discussed in public – it’s almost a taboo.
Nevertheless, the traditions are strong – this is living, breathing folklore. Whereas in some countries, traditional music is dead except for nostalgic recreations by folkloric ensembles, this music is thriving with virtually no support of any kind.
Palos and salve are the most common styles of Afro-Dominican music. In fact, some ethnomusicologists say that palos should be the true Dominican national music, rather than merengue, since it’s found in some form virtually everywhere on the island. Palos, which means “sticks”, gets it’s name from the trio of tall, skinny drums it is played on. The drummers are accompanied by the omnipresent Dominican guiraor metal scraper, and singers who venerate the Catholic saints and their sycretized African counterparts with call-and-response style melodies and improvised verses.
fiesta de palo,
The music is an essential part of Afro-Dominican spiritual life. Popular religious celebrations are often referred to as fiesta de palo, or palos party, after the dominant role of the drum. Ceremonies usually occur on the Saint’s Days of the Catholic devotional calendar. For example, October 20th is Santa Marta’s day, so her devotees might arrange an party in her honor. In towns or neighborhoods where she is the patron saint, there will likely be a novena, in which festivities occur for nine straight nights, culminating in a all-night party on the actual Saint’s Day. In either case, an altar will be made and palos drummers will play, often for hours and hours on end. As the music intensifies, worshipers may undergo possession, in which the deity descends to the Earth to give advice, relay messages from deceased relatives, or sometimes just to have fun. Once the possession stops, the person often has little or no recollection of what just happened.
These may be religious events, but they aren’t staid affairs in any sense – people drink, dance, sing, and have a good time, and its all about bringing the community together. While most palo songs are about the virtues and exploits of the saints and gods, many are just festive songs with secular topics.
Salve is a related genre that is played in a lot of the same contexts, but with different instruments and rhythms. The name comes from the Salve Regina, a catholic psalm, and many still sing a sacred, acapellasalve that preserves the medieval modes of old Spanish hymns. The ecstatic salve played at religious parties however, is all about percussion – featuring large numbers of tambourines playing interlocking rhythms and a melodic drum called the balsie, whose player alters the pitch by applying pressure with his foot.
Congos is a unique musical phenomenon that has intrigued anthropologists both at home and abroad for decades. It’s played by a group called the Cofradia de Los Congos del Espiritu Santo de Villa Mella, a religious brotherhood based in Villa Mella and the guardians of a musical tradition that dates back several centuries. The cofradia is thought to be directly descended from the religious-fraternal organizations of enslaved Africans during the Colonial Period. Africans from similar cultural regions on the continent often bonded together in these societies, and the music of the Congos is thought to be rooted in styles from Central Africa.
Congo song group
The group is organized into a hierarchy, with a king, a captain and other titles, and membership is passed down the generations. Their responsibility is to maintain and pass on a cannon of 21 songs, played on a unique set of self-made shakers, claves and drums. The music is most often played for the funeral rites of Cofradia members, helping the passage of their souls to the next world. After death, congosmusic is played for a nine-night novena, and the ceremony is repeated a year later and then again two years after that. The ritual displays a strong linkage to African ways of dealing with life and death.
The congos were recognized by UNESCO in 2001, raising the group’s national profile in a country hesitant to support Afro-Dominican culture. When long-standing Congos leader Captain Sixto Minier passed away in 2008, there was an impressive outpouring of affection. Still, the government has been criticized for not doing enough to support the group, and the congos continue to struggle in the difficult material conditions they’ve faced for centuries.
One of the most popular sounds for Afro-Dominican revivalists, gagá is the music of the bateyes, the sugar-cane cutting camps where Haitians and Dominicans live and work side-by-side. Gagá is rooted in Haitian rara, a kind of street music played in parades during the Lenten season. It’s music for the forest spirits – for the renewal and rebirth found in nature, echoing Christian Easter themes of resurrection. The breakneck-paced music is played on drums and percussion, but also with a series of one-note homemade trumpets made out of wood and metal. The trumpets interlock to create haunting melodies in an effect known called hocketting.
Jose Figueroa and Kalunga Neg Mawon practice and perform the Afro Dominican-Haitian tradition of gaga (in spanish) or rara (in Haitian creole). Photo courtesy of the artist
Haitians suffer heavy discrimination in the Dominican Republic, thanks to a long history of anti-Haitian indoctrination from Dominican elites. Many Haitians illegally reside in the much more prosperous D.R. and are frequent victims of abuse by employers and police. Haiti is a major factor in the racial complexities of Dominican society. After rebelling against the French and declaring independence in 1804, Haiti conquered the Spanish half of the island. Dominicans won their independence from Haiti, not Spain, and have long constructed their identities in opposition to an African, Haitian “other.”
Despite widely held prejudices, the two countries have a lot in common and have traded culture back and forth across the years. For example, Haitian pop music style compa was inspired by golden-age Dominican merengue, and the Creole names for Afro-Dominican deities betrays roots in Haitian spiritual practices.
Gagá, while having undeniable Haitian roots, has steadily developed its own sound in the Dominican Republic, becoming a part of the Dominican cultural landscape. It’s performed primarily during Semana Santa.
For most of its history, sugar cultivation was the bedrock of the Dominican economy. In the late 18thcentury, migrants from English-speaking Caribbean islands came to the Dominican Republic to fill a demand for labor in the cane fields, settling in southeastern city of San Pedro de Macoris. The Dominicans called them the cocolos, thought to be a mispronunciation of “Tortuga”, a nearby island from which many of the migrants originated. The cocolos brought with them the mores of the Anglo-Caribbean. Their talent for cricket was easily adapted to baseball, leading San Pedro to be nicknamed “the city of shortstops” for the incredible numbers of Major-leaguers to emerge from the city.
The cocolos also brought their music traditions, referred to commonly as guloya. It’s an Afro-Caribbean adaptation of English Christmas pageants. The momises, as these mummers as called, retell biblical stories such as the battle between David and Goliath, mock-fighting in fabulously-colored costumes. The music is a take on English fife-and-drum music, played on triangle, snare drum, and homemade flutes. It takes on a rollicking, almost New-Orleans style feel in the hands of the cocolos.
Mumming-influenced traditions can be found across the Caribbean in places where the English left their mark. A popular masquerade, known as John Canoe, is practiced in the Bahamas, Jamaica, and even by the Garifuna people in Central America. In the Dominican Republic, guloya continues to be performed every Christmas season, though as the older generations die off, there is a danger of the tradition gradually eroding. Younger generations are more culturally Dominican, speaking Spanish as a first language instead of English
The diversity of living folkloric music traditions in the Dominican Republic is staggering, and one perfect example is the sarandunga. The sarandunga is played exclusively in Baní, a small city in the country’s South, a region with a particularly strong Afro-Dominican presence. What’s more, the sarandunga is played only on one event of the year, the festival of San Juan Bautista, or John the Baptist. The tradition is maintained by a local cofradia, not unlike that of the congos, and continues to be maintained without help from folklorists or anyone else. Sarandunga is played on its own set of 3 small drums, and contains three movements, the morana, the jacana, and the bomba, each with a distinct rhythm, melody, and lyrics.
The cofradía of St. John the Baptist in procession with the banner and the saint, singing and playing the morano.
Olivorio Mateo, better known as Liborio, was a messianic figure and leader of the Liborista religious movement that arose in the early 20th century. He performed miraculous healings, drawing a large following in the remote Cordillera Central, where many communities descend from cimarrones, slaves who escaped from the sugar plantations and found freedom in the mountains. In the 1920s, American occupying forces hunted down and killed Liborio, deeming his movement a threat. Today, he is a sort of folk hero. The music he used for healings, the comarca, lives on in the deep interior of the country. Played on accordion, it bears resemblance to the many folk dance genres found in the country, but also has a religious/magical connotation.
The bambula is yet another Afro-Dominican style with fascinating historical roots. It comes from the beautiful Samana peninsula on the island’s North-East, famous for migratory whale populations and off-the-beaten track beach towns. Samana is home to a group known locally as los Americanos. They are descendents of black American Garveyites, who followed the pan-Africanist teachings of Jamiacan-born activist Marcus Garvey. Garvey raised money to build a fleet – the Black Star Line – with the purpose of eventually re-patriating African-Americans to the African continent.
CAMARADAS el barrio Presents….. BAMBULA Door
The group in Samana arrived in the 1800s to become a part of the new Haiti, the world’s first post-colonial black-led nation and at one time the rulers of the entire island. Their music, the bambula, has roots in French-Caribbean music, but is also traced back to early African-American music coming out of New Orleans. Today, the bambula is infrequently played, though there is an initiative in development—the Bayahonda Cultural Foundation— to help rescue the tradition and encourage sustainable cultural-tourism in the Samana peninsula.
Afro-Dominican Fusion Music
Over the years, many alternative artists have drawn on Afro-Dominican music in their work, finding inspiration and power in the same African heritage so vehemently opposed by mainstream Dominican society. The first such group of note was Convite, formed in 1974 by young intellectuals at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo who went out into the countryside to learn about this music, bring it back and fuse it with acoustic instruments and rock and roll aesthetics. Convite eventually broke up, but its members went on to be foundational figures in folklore studies and anthropology in the country.
Afro-Dominicans doing their Afro-pop
Today, there is a new movement stirring, a new generation of Dominicans partially removed from racial attitudes of their parents. While it is still a fringe subculture, more and more Dominicans are embracing African roots and a crop of young bands are mixing Afro-Dominican folklore with reggae, rock and jazz, among other styles.