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Reviews of Dominican Cultures: The Making of a Caribbean Society

“When this collection of essays by prominent Dominican scholars was first published in Spanish almost three decades ago, the Dominican Republic was experiencing an exciting period of political democratization spearheaded by the then-center-leftist Dominican Revolutionary Party, voted into government after the twelve years of the Reformist Party’s right-wing regime. Within that context, the book brought to the fore of public discussion what, for the country’s traditional ambience, was a new, less Eurocentric and more multicultural and multiracial view of Dominicanness.

“Consisting of seven chapters and a brief commentary, the book discusses important aspects of Dominican cultural identity. Chronologically, it covers the entire span of the formation of Dominican society and culture, including the legacies of the Taíno Amerindians, the Spanish colonizers, and the enslaved Africans, as well as the cultural impact of more recent waves of immigrants into Dominican society: Jews, Chinese, Arabs, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Haitians, Anglo-Caribbeans, and twentieth-century Spaniards. Prior to its publication, most writings about Dominican culture privileged the old-time Hispanocentric, Catholicism-centered, anti-African, anti-black, and anti-Haitian views upheld by the most conservative elements of Dominican society.

“Bernardo Vega’s chapter on the Taíno heritage, which opens the book, is a detailed description of the agriculture, foodstuffs, arts and crafts, settlement concentrations, religion, music, and vocabulary of the pre-Columbian Indians that have survived or made their way into contemporary Dominican national culture.

“In this chapter – ‘Commentary’ – Dominican anthropologist-archaelogist Marcio Veloz Maggiolo supplements Vega’s analysis, expanding on some aspects of Taíno agriculture, and pointing to the need for studies that try to identify the ways in which elements of this culture, while surviving, evolved with a changing historical context, shifting in their meaning or social application.

“For Carlos Dobal the Spaniards had the largest influence on Dominican culture, permeating also the temperament and the way in which Dominicans see the world and the things in it. Institutions like the cabildos or town councils were seeds of democracy and the cofradías or religious associations allowed African slaves to preserve their identity and self-realization. Dominicans have also inherited from the Spaniards a system of values that includes positive traits such as the courage and honor of Dominican patriots, and negative ones, like the pessimism found among some prominent Dominican thinkers.

“Carlos Esteban Deive warns about the challenges of disaggregating the discrete ethnic heritages from the hybrid mix that makes up Dominican culture. He challenges the paternalistic view that slavery in the Dominican Republic was less brutal and violent than that of other colonies, documenting cases of prejudice in legislation concerning blacks, in marriage practices that emphasized the preference for ‘purity’ or whiteness, and in descriptions of subordination of blacks in their interactions with whites.

“Rubén Silié deals with the development of a Dominican creole culture. He examines the coexistence and interactions, especially from the eighteenth century onwards, among the numerically dominant ethnicities and racial groups of Santo Domingo. The isolation the colony experienced, he argues, generated a creole culture dominated by Spanish and African components that is shared and practiced by most Dominicans of all racial ancestries. Yet this creole culture, he observes, shows a lack of identity, or a lack of self-understanding that is fully inclusive and equally appreciative of all of its racial/ethnic components.

“José del Castillo describes the impact of immigrants in Dominican society since the second half of the nineteenth century – entrepreneurs and merchants from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the United States, and Western Europe, and technicians, skilled workers, and field-hands coming for the most part from the non-Spanish speaking Caribbean islands and Haiti. They all moved to the country to invest or work in the then-nascent sugarcane industrial production that later became the number one source of income for Dominican society.

“Frank Moya Pons offers an overview of the modernization that took place from the early twentieth century on, pointing out both its benefits and detriments for Dominican society. In his view, socioeconomic changes in the country were closely associated with alterations in the international world during the period. Events ranging from the world wars, the realignment of capital, and the U.S. invasion-occupation in 1916-24 to the penetration of global political ideologies, the development of tourism, and the massive emigration process by more than a million Dominicans all transformed collective behavior in the country.

“Unfortunately, very few people in the Dominican Republic have taken on the challenges that this book introduced three decades ago, and relatively few writings have been published since then on these topics. This English version, a verbatim translation of the three-decades-old Spanish original, does not offer any update of the authors’ initial contributions. For those interested in the quasi-neglected field of Dominican cultural studies, though, it is a useful tool, a preliminary road-map of the issues that have been dealt with by Dominican scholars as well as the many that remain to be studied and which have direct or indirect cultural implications, such as the value of the cultural and racial African heritage in everyday contemporary Dominican culture, the different manifestations of resistance emanating from the marginalized cultural groups, attention to social class extraction in the integration of immigrants into Dominican society, or differences between the experience of immigrants in general and that of native Dominicans. ”
— Anthony R. Stevens-Acevedo, New West Indian Guide, vol. 85 no. 1 & 2

“This fine collection of essays offers a much-needed introduction to the historical formation of Dominican society and culture. Penned by several of the most prominent scholars of Dominican history and society, this translation will be very useful for teaching purposes since it offers a sampling of key scholarship that remains unavailable in English. Originally prepared for the national museum, El Museo del Hombre Dominicano, these essays made a splash when first published in 1981, since in highlighting the multicultural formation of Dominican society they challenged the Hispanophilia then dominant in Dominican textbooks. Some of the key features that distinguish the country from its neighbors — the early extinction of the indigenous population, the rise of colonial cattle ranching, and the eighteenth-century development of a freedman majority — resulted in a nation of maximal race mixture, yet one not without diversity, as this elegant volume clearly shows.

“The first cluster of essays evaluates the relative weight of the indigenous, Spanish, and African populations in shaping this nation of immigrants. The Arawaks contributed slash and burn agriculture as well as the intercropped conuco or kitchen garden, the preference for tuber crops, and the coa or digging stick still used in the rural interior. Vega’s essay raises some key aspects of early Dominican society that help explain its distinctive homogeneity. Unlike in the rest of the Greater Antilles, most Dominican slaves arrived early on and were not employed in plantation agriculture but rather worked on small farms producing ginger, yucca for cazabe flatbread, and corn. Colonial poverty encouraged a more paternalistic style of slavery than in the more prosperous neighboring plantation economies, where racial boundaries articulated along patterns of labor segmentation.

“Vega chronicles an impressive number of indigenous cultural retentions, including place names and folklore, while waging a frontal attack at the nationalist mythology promulgated by the Trujillo regime that Dominicans were in any way biologically indio or indigenous. A chapter by Carlos Dobal discusses the Spanish cultural inheritance, which has been renewed in successive waves of migrations, most notably from the Canary Islands and Cuba. The dean of Dominican slave studies, Carlos Esteban Deive, offers rich examples of African retentions from his extensive colonial research while carefully critiquing several schools of thought, including those of Frank Tannenbaum and Sidney Mintz, as well as the ‘cloak and dagger Africologists’ (p. 87) who see African retentions everywhere. He stresses that African-derived cultural forms have been diffused throughout Dominican society and adopted by phenotypic whites, which helps account for their apparent misrecognition by Dominicans. The lines of debate between Dobal and Deive could be useful as fodder for class discussion, since Dobal minimizes African features, while Deive highlights them; Dobal claims cofradias or religious brotherhoods as Spanish, while Esteban Deive notes that some colonial cofradias were founded to honor African deities, such as the sacred twins of the Dahomeyan Arara (p. 94).

“Rubén Silié draws from his important research on the rural hato or extensive cattle ranch, the basis of the eighteenth-century economy. While materially impoverished, these cowboys relied primarily on their own hunting skills, and when they could afford help, they hired free blacks on the ranch and only relied on a slave or two for domestic work. With little capital to afford slave purchase, the Spanish colony provided liberal manumission to runaways from the neighboring French colony of Saint-Domingue (today Haiti), who called themselves indios to distinguish themselves from their former status as slaves (p. 155). The hato and the conuco or provision ground were thus the formative engines of creole society. As Deive and Silié stress, without the plantation complex binding African-derived people and their cultural forms to one social location, their cultural forms spread throughout society.

“The final two essays treat the late nineteenth-century emergence of market relations, as sugar plantations fueled by U.S. capital transformed the economy and society. Contract labor from the British West Indies and Haiti became a solution to the labor shortage, but Germans, Spanish, Italians, Syrians, and Sephardic Jews also poured in, expanding the emergent commercial sector, and tobacco, coffee, and cocoa exports increased. Frank Moya Pons covers the U.S. military occupation (1916-24), which also spurred the process of modernization through road building and disarmament. By drastically reducing customs duties, the 1919 U.S. customs tariff flooded the country with imported goods, which curtailed local manufacturing and Americanized local tastes. Local manufactures were later spurred on by World War I, as Dominican industries benefited from the increased U.S. demand for sugar products. Moya Pons notes that after the Trujillo dictatorship (1930-61), increased tourism and travel to the United States fostered the emergence of a new racial consciousness among Dominicans, who came to identify with other Caribbean immigrants and peoples of color in the United States.

“Courses on the Caribbean often leave out the Dominican Republic because of the way it breaks with the plantation society paradigm. With the recent boom of interest in early slavery from Central Africa, this volume would be a fine complement to Linda Heywood and John Thornton’s recent work ‘Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660’ (Cambridge, 2007). It demonstrates very effectively the end results of early slavery and creolization processes, reminding us that the two-tiered racial system of the Anglophone world was not universally the outcome.”
Hispanic American Historical Review