A Week for One Man, a Giant Leap for Mankind: The Dominican Republic Through a Socio-Politico-Economic Lens of the African Diaspora

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As I stepped out of the airport in Santiago, Dominican Republic, with my luggage, my professor, my curiosity, and my sweaty palms, I was beginning a journey that would alter my view of international philanthropy, tourism, and voting behavior. “Volvamos Pa’Lante, Leonel Presidente” were the first words I read on a street sign as we headed to our lodging facility in Santiago. Neither my professor nor I knew that we had arrived during the week of the first round of the presidential election—comical how things align.

While in Santiago, we had the opportunity to tour the campus and converse with the incredibly welcoming faculty at Universidad Tecnológica de Santiago over lunch. The conversations ranged from funding, college success courses, and history. Already having an idea of the anti-Black and anti-Haitian sentiments of many Dominicans through historical literature, I was eager to learn how these sentiments have been maintained despite sharing the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Utilizing my Spanish-speaking skills, I asked, “En la universidad, ¿se enseña historia africana?” (Does the university teach African history?), a question that was met with a firm and polite “No,” the staff member replied, “Nosotros enseñamos historia dominicana” (We teach Dominican history). This response gave me the notion that Dominicans do not identify as part of African history or acknowledge Africa as part of Dominican history—a shocking revelation, given that African American history includes the Dominican Republic as one of the boat stops of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Next, we visited the Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración (Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration), the highest building in Santiago, originally built during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, a name I was familiar with through my reading of Black in Latin America by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. While sightseeing at this beautiful monument, I witnessed about three schools visiting the monument on what seemed to be a field trip. As expected, most of the artwork within the landmark depicted the historical giants that fought and won the Dominican War of Independence from Haiti in 1856 with European features. These European features were not at all similar to the African features I had encountered moments earlier at the university, nor to the features in the children touring the monument with me, nor to most of the Dominicans I had interacted with since landing. I began to wonder if a lack of representation had been fostered through historical hypocrisy as a mechanism to encourage anti-Black and anti-Haitian sentiments in the Dominican Republic.

After tasting the best empanadas of my life, we took a metro bus for about an hour and a half to Puerto Plata, where we enjoyed the view of the Silver Bank from the top of Loma Isabel de Torres, a mountain with a statue of Jesus with arms wide open at the top. We reached the top of this mountain by way of the cable car, a scenically beautiful and heart-skipping excursion that emphasized the Roman Catholic influence on the Dominican Republic. After settling in Cabarete, we exchanged our USD for pesos, where I realized that 1 USD is worth 58 Dominican Pesos. This experience made me think about whether tourism is helping or hurting the economy and relations within the community. As Americans are typically depicted as white globally, I wondered how this difference in currency might further enforce anti-Black rhetoric or the notion that Black and poor are synonymous. Nevertheless, we proceeded to the supermarket with community-oriented people who I now affectionately call my Dominican family. This family is headed by a single boss woman who serves as the matriarch, owning a nearby laundromat in her community of Eugenio Kunhardt Los Charamicos. The blended Dominican-Haitian family welcomed us with a dinner consisting of a call-and-response prayer in Spanish followed by delicious authentic cuisine like mangú with onions, fried cheese, and fried salami, la Bandera with shrimp, and plantains.

One of the many highlights of this experience was visiting the Fundación Casa Niños Felices, an orphanage for Haitian and Dominican children in Puerto Plata. I had the opportunity to connect in depth with a 13-year-old child named Jonathan. He and his two older siblings were born in Sosúa, Dominican Republic, a place infamously notable for its sex tourism and human trafficking. Jonathan’s favorite subject is English, he likes the color blue, his favorite rapper is XXXTENTACION, and he loves a good classic cordon bleu dish. He expressed his interest in joining the military once he became old enough to do so; however, he couldn’t tell me why he chose this for his dream occupation. Sadly, I understood that he couldn’t give me a reason because he had never thought of why. Does he feel like this is his only option because of the lack of representation around him? Does he know that he comes from African people who had great civilizations before being enslaved and brought to the place he now knows as home? These are the questions I began to ponder along our journey to the beautiful Haitian art museum, Castillo Mundo King (Mundo King Art Museum).

Wrapping up this incredible and informative experience, I took note of many things that left me puzzled and began forming more questions that I plan to answer as I forge my international path. For example, I noticed that the Spanish they spoke in the Dominican Republic seemed to be a fusion of the native Taino language, Haitian Creole, and, of course, Spanish. I wonder if there are words within their dialect that trace back to any of the indigenous African languages. After touring Universidad Tecnológica de Santiago and spending time with the Fundación Casa Niños Felices, I wonder how exposure to African history among the youth would affect the way they identify and their aspirations. Lastly, after noticing that all the political figures campaigning appeared to be very indicative of European descent, I wonder how the identification phenomenon and tourism affect the way people vote in the Dominican Republic.