Dominicans (Dominican Republic)

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Dominicans (Dominican Republic)

LOCATION: Dominican Republic; United States (primarily New York City)
POPULATION: 9,507,133 million in the Dominican Republic; around 1.2 million in New York City
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Evangelical Protestantism; Voodoo


The Dominican Republic is one of the islands that make up the West Indies, located in the Caribbean Sea zone that goes from the tip of the Florida peninsula to the north coast of South America. The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the nation of Haiti. Christopher Columbus sighted Hispaniola in 1492 and, four years later, his brother Bartolomé founded Santo Domingo, the present-day capital of the Dominican Republic and the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere. Because of its strategic location in relation to other trading ports in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic came under the rule of a succession of foreign powers, including France and Spain. The Dominican Republican has experienced severe political conflicts since achieving its independence under the leadership of national hero Juan Pablo Duarte in 1844. The government has remained unstable with power passing not just from dictator to dictator, but from nation to nation.

When Christopher Columbus landed in Hispaniola, he encountered an indigenous group called Taínos, who lived on hunting, fishing, gathering, and farming. A few years after the arrival of the Europeans, disease and cruelty on behalf of the Europeans dramatically diminished the aborigine population. Once the Spanish crown discovered new and richer territories, such as Mexico and Peru, the Dominican Republic was totally neglected. In this complete state of abandonment, the island became prey for other colonial powers, which depleted the Dominican Republic's natural resources. Consequently, the Spanish crown lost its influence over the island and, in 1697, France claimed one third of Hispaniola, the western territory that would become Haiti. One century later, France came to own the complete island after Spain agreed to sign the Treaty of Basel. However, Napoleon's invasion of Spain in the early 1800s stirred a deep sense of resentment against French rule among the criollos (first generation of Spanish born in the island), who with British support recovered the Dominican Republic for Spain in 1808. After Haitians inhabited the island for 20 years, Dominicans struggled for independence and achieved autonomous rule in 1865.

After 50 years of self-rule, the United States occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. In 1930 the 30-year rule of Rafael Trujillo—direct and through handpicked surrogates—began. Although Trujillo expanded industry and introduced economic reforms, his regime ruthlessly suppressed human rights, engaging in blackmail, torture, and murder to ensure its hold on power. Trujillo was assassinated in 1961 and writer Juan Bosch came to power briefly before being ousted in a 1963 military coup. After a period of instability that included U.S. military intervention in 1965, former Trujillo appointee Joaquin Balaguer was elected president. Even though democratic elections were held every four years, and other candidates were elected in 1978 and 1982, Balaguer remained a powerful figure.

In the 1996 presidential election, the candidate of the Liberation Dominican Party, Leonel Fernández, won the highest office. During Fernández's rule the economy improved significantly with a rate of growth of 7%, the highest in Latin America during that period. Despite economic growth, Hipólito Mejía, the candidate from the Socialist Dominican Revolutionary Party, won the 2000 presidential race. During Mejia's term the economy shrank and poverty increased. As a result of the economic crisis during Mejia's administration and the complex diplomatic relationship with Haiti, the Dominicans decided to rely on a familiar and experienced politician and reelected Leonel Fernández in 2004 with 57% of the votes. Fernández was reelected to a third term in 2008.

Even though the economy gained leverage during Fernández's administration, reaching a growth rate of 8.5% in 2007, the country remained highly unequal, Dominicans living under the poverty line represented more than 40% of the total population, and unemployment affected 15% of the workforce.


With an area of approximately 48,741 sq km (18,819 sq mi), the Dominican Republic is about the same size as Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the south by the Caribbean Sea, and on the east by the Mona Passage, which separates it from Puerto Rico. The country is very diverse geographically, with terrain ranging from semiarid desert to fertile farmlands and mountain peaks. Both the highest and lowest points in the Caribbean region are found in the Dominican Republic.

About three-fifths of the country's terrain is covered by four mountain ranges. The largest is the Cordillera Central, which runs through the center of the Dominican Republic from east to west and extends into Haiti. It contains the Caribbean's highest peaks, Pico Duarte (3,175 m or 10,417 ft) and Pico la Pelona (3,168 m or 10,393 ft). The Cordillera Septentrional runs from east to west in the northern part of the country, and two lower ranges, the Sierra Neiba and Sierra de Bahoruco, stretch across the country's southwestern region.

The fertile Valle de Cibao, containing the Dominican Republic's richest agricultural land, stretches from east to west between the two northern mountain ranges, covering about 5,180 sq km (2,000 sq mi), or some 10% of the country's terrain. In contrast, the area between the two southern mountain ranges, called the Cul-de-Sac, is the country's most barren and is home to only 10% of the population. It is the lowest terrain in the Dominican Republic and also in the West Indies as a whole. The other major low-lying region is the Caribbean coastal plain in the north. The country's four major rivers are the Yaque del Norte, the Yaque del Sur, the Yuma, and the Artibonito.

The Dominican Republic has tropical temperatures and mild oscillations. The annual mean temperature is 25°c (78°f). As a consequence, staples, such as sugarcane, coffee, and cacao, represent an important source of the national income. Other typical export-oriented goods are bananas, rice, tomatoes, and tropical fruits. Around one-eighth of the Dominican Republic's GDP is generated by the agricultural sector.

About 9.5 million people live in the Dominican Republic, 60% in the cities and 40% in rural areas. The capital city of Santo Domingo has a population of 2.1 million. The 20th century has been marked by massive rural-to-urban migration: the population of Santo Domingo approximately doubled every 10 years between 1920 and 1970. The second- and third-largest cities, Santiago and La Romana, also experienced dramatic growth, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.

International emigration is also a fact of life in the Dominican Republic, and about one in seven Dominicans now live abroad. New York City has the highest concentration of Dominicans of any city in the world except Santo Domingo. Florida and New Jersey also have substantial populations of Dominican immigrants. Some Dominicans emigrate because they are unemployed or are seeking better-paying jobs. Others leave in order to pursue an education or to join relatives already in the United States. Remittancesñmoney sent home by dominicanos ausentes (absent Dominicans)ñrepresents about $500 million dollars a year and is an important factor in their homeland's economy.

About 70% of the country's population is classified as Mulatto (of mixed Black and White ancestry), 16% as White, and 11% as Black. However, these broad classifications actually encompass a more complex range of racial distinctions. Blanco (white) refers to Whites and persons of mixed White and Amerindian descent (Mestizos); indio claro (tan) refers to Mulattos, including those with Amerindian ancestry; indio oscuro (dark Amerindian) describes anyone who is mostly Black with some White or Amerindian ancestry; and negro (which is not a derogatory term in the Dominican Republic) is reserved for persons who are 100% African.


Spanish is the official and universally spoken language of the Dominican Republic. While the Spanish of the Dominicans is considered relatively close to "classical" Castilian Spanish when compared to that of other Latin American countries, it has a distinctive accent and incorporates numerous local idioms as well as many African and Taíno (Amerindian) words and expressions. Some English is spoken in the capital city of Santo Domingo. Because of the closeness to Haiti it is not uncommon in the island to hear French Creole among Haitian migrants.


Combining Catholic beliefs with African customs, formularios and oraciones are special incantations intended to attract good luck or avoid the evil eye. Many Dominicans also have a quasi-magical belief in the powers of the saints, expressed in santos (saints) cults. Images of one or two saints are kept in the house, and goods are offered to them in exchange for carrying out the wishes of the worshipper. On the Night of the Saints (Noche Vela), the saints are believed to be called to earth.


The importance of religion in the Dominican Republic is reflected in the cross and bible at the center of the nation's coat of arms. A significant portion of the money that Dominican emigrants send back home is sent to their churches. While some 93% of the population is Roman Catholic, many do not attend church regularly, and, as in a number of other Catholic countries, the women are generally more observant than the men. Religious customs among observant Catholics include rosarios, processions organized to pray for intercession from a patron saint or the Virgin.

Evangelical Protestantism has become increasingly popular in recent years. Its embrace of family values, including strictures against alcohol, prostitution, and wife beating, has made it especially attractive to low-income Dominicans, who traditionally have had unstable family structures. Followers of spirit worship and Voodoo (introduced into the country by Haitian immigrants) are thought to number about 60,000.


Many holidays in the Dominican Republic are religious in nature. In addition to Christmas and Good Friday, they include the Day of Our Lady of Altagracia (January 21), Corpus Christi (June 17), and the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy (September 24). Secular holidays include Día de Duarte, commemorating the birthday of national hero Juan Pablo Duarte (January 26), Independence Day (February 27), Labor Day (May 1), and Dominican Restoration Day (August 16). Every town also holds a festival in honor of its patron saint, combining religious observance with such secular activities as dancing, drinking, and gambling. The Dominican Independence Day (February 27), which falls around the beginning of Lent, is the occasion for a boisterous Carnival celebration that draws over half a million people annually to festivities in Santo Domingo.


Major life transitions, such as birth, marriage, and death, are marked by religious ceremonies appropriate to each Dominican's faith community.


When addressing each other, Dominicans use the formal pronoun usted instead of the familiar form tu, unless the relationship is a very close one.

Compadrazgo, a relationship resembling that of godparents in the United States, is an important part of the social fabric of the Dominican Republic. The compadre (literally, "co-parent") is chosen when a child is baptized, and the special relationship that ensues—with both the child and his or her parents—is a way of strengthening the bond between friends or even reinforcing other types of relationships, such as that between an employee and employer. Exploiting this dynamic, the country's long-time dictator Rafael Trujillo held mass baptisms where he became the compadre to thousands of peasant children in order to ensure their parents' loyalty.


Traditional rural dwellings are made of wood with roofs of thatch or corrugated tin and are often painted in bright colors. To keep the farmhouse cool, cooking is usually done in a separate structure with slotted sides that release smoke and heat. In the 35 years since the end of the Trujillo regime, which prohibited emigration within the country, rural-to-urban migration has created a severe urban housing shortage, and slums and squatter settlements have sprung up in the capital city of Santo Domingo.

The Dominican Republic's average life expectancy was 69 years in 1993. Hospitals and medical personnel are concentrated in Santo Domingo and Santiago, the two largest cities, with a lower quality of health care in rural areas. Health programs are offered through the nation's public welfare department (covering between 70% and 80% of the population) and the social security department (covering 5% of the population, or 13% of the work force). However, the country's economic troubles have resulted in shortages of doctors and nurses, medication, and surgical supplies. Public health care has been described as inadequate, with long treatment delays, and many who can afford it consult private physicians.

There are modern roads in the cities of the Dominican Republic, and a major highway connects Santo Domingo and Santiago. However, few Dominicans own their own cars— most of the nation's passenger cars are driven by either the very wealthy or by tourists. In rural areas, many roads are un-paved. The nation's railways are used mainly for transporting sugarcane.

Dominicans enjoy a better standard of living than their neighbors, the Haitians. However, lack of clean water, deficient housing, and lack of healthcare services has remained unsolved. In addition to these structural problems, deficient diet among the poorest segment of the society has contributed to a high rate of infant mortality: 27 children died per 1,000 births in 2007.


Traditionally, the extended-family household with a dominant father figure has been the norm among the middle and upper classes. In contrast, low-income people have less stable family ties, and many of their households consist of either a couple (with or without children) living together in a common-law marriage, or a female-headed household with an absentee father. While women still consider a man the head of the household, they have been able to exert increased authority within the family as they have won greater educational and employment opportunities and an increased measure of control over the number of children they bear.


People in the Dominican Republic wear modern Western-style clothing.


The popular Caribbean dish of rice and beans (arroz con habichuelas) is a staple in the Dominican Republic, where it is nicknamed "the flag" (la bandera) and served with stewed beef. Another favorite dish is sancocho, a meat, plantain, and vegetable stew. Plantains, common throughout the Caribbean area, are especially popular in the Dominican Republic. Ripe fried plantains are called amarillas, green fried ones are patacon pisao, and they become tostones when fried and mashed. Popular snack foods include chicarrons (pieces of fried pork) and empanadillas (tangy meat tarts). Puddings, including sweet rice, corn, and banana pudding, are a popular dessert.

Banana Pudding

6 overripe bananas, peeled and mashed
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons melted butter or margarine
3 egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks
1 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons sweetened shredded coconut for garnish

Preheat oven to 325°f. Combine bananas, melted butter or margarine, orange juice, and sugar with mixing spoon or electric mixer. Carefully fold in stiffly beaten egg whites and transfer mixture to buttered or nonstick casserole or baking pan. Bake for about 40 minutes or until puffy and golden brown. Remove from oven and sprinkle top with shredded coconut.


The estimated literacy rate of the Dominican Republic was 83% in 1990. Students must attend school for eight years, but many leave earlier to help support their families. Additional barriers to education include a shortage of teachers, especially in rural areas, and a lack of adequate facilities. Institutions of higher learning include the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo founded in 1538—the oldest institution of higher education in the so-called New World—and four private universities.


Historically, the Henriquez-Ureña family has been at the center of the Dominican Republic's literary heritage. Salomé Ureña de Henriquez was a respected 19th-century poet who also established the country's first higher education facility for women, the Instituto de Señoritas. In the 20th century, the critic Pedro Henriquez-Ureña was also deeply involved in education. Many consider Gaston Fernando Delingue, who wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to be the Dominican national poet. The country's best-known writer internationally is undoubtedly novelist, essayist, and short-story writer Juan Bosch, who served briefly as president following the assassination of Rafael Trujillo. The Dominican Republic has a National Symphony Orchestra, and a National School of Fine Arts, located in Santo Domingo.


Agriculture has traditionally been the main source of employment in the Dominican Republic, but today a growing number of Dominicans work in service-related jobs, especially in the tourism industry. Most Dominican farmers are sharecroppers or tenant farmers, and those who do own their own farms generally have fewer than 2 hectares (5 acres) and grow only enough food to feed their families. The country suffers from an extremely high rate of unemployment (an estimated 30% of the work force was unemployed in 1992), which led to widespread emigration. Race has traditionally dominated Dominicans' employment options, with higher-status jobs in business, government, and the professionals held by lighter-skinned persons. In general, the wages of female workers are lower than those of their male counterparts, their unemployment rate is higher, and many are denied full employment benefits.


The Dominican Republic's national sport is baseball, and thousands of fans attend the major games, which are usually held at one of Santo Domingo's stadiums. The United States currently has more Dominicans on its major and minor league baseball teams than players from any other Latin American country or any single state in the United States. The town of San Pedro de Macorís in particular has produced more professional players, including Juan Samuel of the Philadelphia Phillies and Joaquín Andujar of the Oakland A's, than any other locality in the world. Unlike the baseball season in the United States, the season in the Dominican Republic runs from October to February. Other popular Dominican sports include horseracing and cockfighting.


Dance is a national passion in the Dominican Republic. Even the smallest towns have a dance hall, and there are annual merengue festivals in Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata, and Sosúa. Since the 1970s, local dance rhythms have been influenced by U.S. disco, the steps have become less formal, and the music has gotten faster. Salsa music is also very popular. The major cities, especially Santo Domingo, have an active nightlife, with numerous nightclubs and gambling casinos, where patrons may (legally) play blackjack, craps, and roulette.


Dominican folk music reflects Spanish, African, and Amer-indian influences. A native percussion instrument, the güira, is a legacy of the Taíno people who were among the island's original inhabitants. Together with the maracas and the palitos (also in the percussion family), and the guitar, it is used to accompany Dominican folk songs called decimas, which are usually romantic in nature. Other popular folk instruments include the balsié (accordion) and pandero (tambourine). The national dance of the Dominican Republic is the merengue, which features a stiff-legged step that is something like a limp. Other folk dances include the yuca, the sarambo, the zapateo, and the fandango.

Local crafts include mahogany woodcarvings, woven goods, pottery, handmade rocking chairs (which have been popular ever since one was given to President John F. Kennedy as a gift), ceramics, macramé, and hand-knit clothing. Dominicans also produce hand-crafted amber jewelry as well as jewelry made with larimar, also known as Dominican Turquoise, a light-blue stone unique to the region.


The Dominican Republic suffers from serious economic and social problems, including a 15% unemployment rate, with an additional 20% of the work force underemployed. Migration from rural to urban areas has created a housing shortage and a rise in urban crime. In Santo Domingo, the capital, much housing is substandard and the water quality is poor. In the 1980s international drug traffickers attempted to use the Dominican Republic as a transshipment point for illegal substances, resulting in a rise in narcotics-related crimes.


From 1998 to 2001 the country passed seven new laws to strengthen women's rights, with special emphasis on migrants, health, social security, and women's political participation. Regarding education, 51% of school attendees in 1999 were women and the percentage of women with no schooling dropped from 16% to 11% between 1996 and 1999. In addition, women made up 70% of technical and vocational school enrolment.

To stimulate Dominican women's employment, the government has introduced benefits for unemployed single mothers, day-care centers, maternal and child health services, services for older people, survivors' pensions, and breastfeeding subsidies for the poorest women. In addition, to promote gender equity in labor programs and policies, the state created a gender sub-secretariat in the State Ministry of Labor and has developed micro, small- and medium-sized enterprises through credit facilities and technical, managerial, and vocational training. As a result, female workers accounted for 49% of the workforce in 1999, a 2% increase from 1996.

In politics, a growing number of women participate in the sector, thanks partly to a 33% quota for women candidates to congress and a stipulation that women must be nominated as mayoral or deputy mayoral candidates. Consequently, women hold 17.6% of executive posts and 14.3% of seats in congress. Women also comprise 33% of supreme court judges, 9% of local mayors, 17% of ambassadors, and 15% to 31% of trade union leaders.


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—by R. Wieder

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Dominicans (Dominican Republic)

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