Welcome to a blog series that I’m undertaking as part of a class project! As some of you know, I was in the Dominican Republic for three weeks as part of a January-term NYU study abroad program. One of the requirements for this program is a final project, which can take the shape of a research paper, interview, video, cultural portfolio or series of blog posts. Since I’ve already blogged a bit about my experience, I thought developing this project on my site would be a nice continuation. The working title is “The proof is in the plantain: The acceptance of African heritage through Dominican cooking,” or something like that.
My area of focus is Dominican cuisine. More specifically, by looking at the gastronomy of the DR, it is clear to see the cultural ties to African countries. However, some Dominicans adamantly reject their African roots, creating a hierarchy of skin tones and heritages. There is a selectivity to what aspects of African culture Dominicans appreciate versus what they reject, and this is the starting point for my research.
This first entry will serve as context for what the social stratification situation is currently in the DR. Here’s a brief introduction the event that probably had the largest impact on Dominican racial tensions. After January 1804, the island of Hispaniola was controlled by Haitians (read: a mostly African population comprised of slaves who were brought from Africa by the French to work on sugar cane plantations). This occupation/unification (depending on the point of view) lasted 22 years, until Juan Pablo Duarte organized a resistance in the 1830s. His resistance group defeated the Haitian rule and on February 27, 1844, the Dominican Republic was formed.
Since then, the DR has imported tens of thousands of Haitians as migrant workers to work on their sugar cane plantations during the early 1900s. This influx of minimum-wage workers definitely contributed to the Dominican population’s sense of superiority, based on phenotype. The country also dealt with a vicious dictator, Trujillo, who lauded light-skinned Dominicans, even powdering his own face to appear fairer. Yet it is hard to deny the presence of African heritage, through Haitians and descendants of those original slaves, in Dominican culture.
According to Henry Louis Gates’ episode of “Black in Latin America: Haiti and the Dominican Republic,” 90% of Dominicans are Afro descendants. Despite this fact, Dominicans typically refer to darker citizens as “Indio,” and while there aren’t any actual Taino Indians left on the island, as Juan Rodriguez says, “it’s a way to use the word Indio as a way to negate our African ancestry.” Rodriguez notes that African, for Dominicans, brings to mind the image of a Sambo character, the same character that was used to dehumanize African slaves in the United States around the 19th century. Therefore, for a Dominican to identify as “Black” would be an embarrassment and an admittance of inferiority.
The Dominican population sees Spain as the motherland, despite the fact that they don’t look like typical Spaniards. This can be seen in the artwork around the country, like the mural in the Monumento de Santiago, titled “The First Dominican Family.”
It’s very clear that the artist wanted to depict models with European features and skin tone, but after having visited the DR, it’s hard to imagine that these people are what the first Dominican family actually looked like. This supports what Gates discovers during his time in the DR: the statues of the Dominican “founding fathers of the are “whiteified.” Not only are they carved in white marble, but their features are much more European than expected, with no allusion to any mixed race physical characteristics.
I hope I’ve been successful in giving you a better idea of the tense relations that exist in the Dominican Republic. The following entries will focus more on the food, including pictures and recipes. However, I felt it important to situate the study of the cuisine in the current racial tensions.