So now comes the fun part (at least, for me). I want to take some time to reflect on my experience in the DR, focusing on my impression of Dominican racial identity. I’ll also talk about my impression on the food culture and African influences, as well the implications this kind of diet has on Dominicans. I’ll break my reflection into 2 sections, and in a final, eighth post, I’ll include a sort of annotated bibliography with resources that helped me, in case anyone wants to explore this topic more! If you haven’t already read the first entries, click here for #1, here for #2, here for #3, here for #4, and here for #5.
Impressions on cultural identity
To prepare for this project, I read an essay by Silvio Torres-Saillant, titled “Tribulations of Dominican Racial Identity,” published in The Dominican Republic Reader in 2014. I thought it did a great job of outlining the identity struggle Dominicans face:
“Marking the start of the black experience in the western hemisphere, the arrival of Ovando’s fleet in 1502 ushered in a social and demographic history that would lead […] to the overwhelming presence of people of African descent in the Dominican Republic today. […] Yet, no other country in the hemisphere exhibits greater indeterminacy regarding the population’s sense of racial identity” (423).
Torres-Saillant gives a detailed account of the history of the influx of African slaves to the island of Hispaniola and how that affected Dominicans’ perception of their identity as time went on. The importation of Haitians to work on sugar cane plantations in the DR certainly helped shape the mindset of darker skin equating inferiority. This mentality was then exploited further “by the malevolent manipulation of the Trujillo regime,” who coined the term taino (after the name of the indigenous population of the island) as a way to describe anyone who was nor white nor black, rather mixed-race (26). In a clear rejection of African roots, “the cultural commissars of the Trujillo regime preferred it primarily because it was devoid of any semantic allusion to the African heritage and would therefore accord with their negrophobic definition of Dominicanness” (426).
In fact, Dr. Frank Moya Pons, an expert on Dominican history and culture, stated, “while their skin gradually became darker, the mentality of Dominicans turned increasingly whiter” (425). The Dominicans I met during my stay were quick to admit that they are a mix of races, including African, and that darker skinned citizens are no less important which left me wondering if this racist mentality was becoming a thing of the past. I also wondered if it was simply a generational mentality, something that had a lasting grip on those alive when Trujillo was around but lost on the younger crowd. However, upon further exploration, it is a mentality that can still be found in the overall population.
I noticed an example of this is in the fixation with an “exotic other,” more specifically, women of dark skin. Having studied a lot of colonial literature in undergrad, I guess I’m always on the lookout for when an artist or author’s gaze highlights the fact that their subject is an “other.” What I mean by this is, for example, all the artwork I saw for sale in the markets and on the street that depicted black women had a similar style. The women were super curvy, sometimes hyper-sexualized, usually wearing stereotypical “African” clothes, carrying something on their head or working outdoors. Sometimes the women had distinct faces, while other times, they did not.
What interests me about this is that Dominicans seem to buy this artwork (perhaps not as much as tourists, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion), implying they like what they see. And yet, they claim to not see the beauty in the women of color around them in real life. This is the key problem with the idea of the “exotic other” – it tends to be the artistic exploitation of a subjugated population. These paintings and statues focus more on the body and exoticism of the women subjects and are clearly popular, because they can be found all over the country. While this may be an overly-critical judgment, I found myself bombarded by these paintings; I was intrigued by the fact that some Dominicans believe darker skin implies inferiority, rejecting their “African-ness” but yet will buy paintings (and statues) of black women. This is just one example of how I experienced the tenuous relationship Dominicans have with their African heritage in my day-to-day experience.
Installment #7 will feature my impressions of the dishes I tried while I was there and my overall experience with the food culture. I’m also going to talk about what eating a starch-heavy diet can do to you (spoiler: it’s not good news).