LOCATION: Dominican Republic; United States (primarily New York City)
POPULATION: 7.8 million in the Dominican Republic; 0.5–1 million or more in New York City
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Evangelical Protestantism; voodoo
The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the nation of Haiti. Hispaniola was sighted by Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) in 1492. Four years later, his brother, Bartolome (c.1444–1514), founded Santo Domingo, the present-day capital of the Dominican Republic and the oldest European-founded city in the Western Hemisphere. Because of its importance as a trading port location in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic was ruled by several foreign powers, including France, Haiti, and Spain.
Under the leadership of national hero Juan Pablo Duarte (1813–76), independence from Spanish rule was declared in 1844, but the government remained unstable. The nation was again ruled by the Spanish between 1861 and 1865. The United States occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. The thirty-year rule of Rafael Trujillo began in 1930. Trujillo was assassinated (1891–1961) in 1961, and writer Juan Bosch (1908–) came into power briefly before being ousted by a military coup in 1963. The U.S. military intervened in 1965. Joaquin Balaguer (1907–) was elected president, a position he held into the 1990s. The country has basically been governed democratically since the 1960s.
With an area of approximately 18,819 square miles (48,741 square kilometers), the Dominican Republic is about the same size as Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Bordered on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by the Caribbean Sea, the island is separated on the east by a seventy-mile-wide body of water called the Mona Passage. The country includes rugged mountain peaks, rolling hills, rich valleys, lush sugarcane plantations, and fine, white beaches. The climate is tropical. Both the highest and lowest points in the Caribbean region are found in the Dominican Republic. Pico Duarte is the highest mountain, rising 10,417 feet (3,820 meters) above sea level. The barren area between the two southern mountain ranges is called the Culde-Sac and is the lowest point.
Almost 8 million people live in the Dominican Republic, 60 percent in the cities and 40 percent in rural areas. The capital city of Santo Domingo houses a population of a little more than 2 million people.
About one in seven Dominicans now lives outside of the country. New York City has more Dominicans—between 500,000 and 1 million—than any city in the world except Santo Domingo. Large numbers of Dominicans also live in Florida and New Jersey. The money sent home by these dominicanos ausentes (absent Dominicans), estimated to be about $500 million each year, is an important factor in their homeland's economy.
About 70 percent of the country's population is classified as mulatto (of mixed black and white ancestry), 16 percent as white, and 11 percent as black. The Dominican people actually use a more specific system of racial labeling. Blanco (white) refers to whites and persons of mixed white and Amerindian (native) descent (mestizos); Indio claro (tan) refers to mulattos, including those with Amerindian ancestry; Indio oscuro (dark Indian) describes anyone who is mostly black with some white or Amerindian ancestry; and Negro (not a derogatory term in the Dominican Republic) is reserved for persons who are 100 percent African.
Spanish is the official and universally spoken language of the Dominican Republic. Compared with other Latin American countries, Dominican Spanish is considered close to classical (Castillian) Spanish, but has a distinctive accent and includes many local expressions. Some English is spoken in the capital city of Santo Domingo.
Combining Catholic beliefs with African customs, formularios and oraciones are special chants that are used in the belief that they attract good luck or avoid the evil eye. Many Dominicans believe that the Catholic saints possess a kind of magical power, and express this belief in santos (saints) cults. Believers keep images of one or two saints in the house, and offer things to the images in the hope that their wishes will be fulfilled. On the "Night of the Saints" (Noche Vela), the saints are believed to be called to earth.
Reverence for religion in the Dominican Republic is demonstrated by the cross and bible in the center of the nation's coat of arms. Although 93 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, many Dominicans do not attend church regularly. Religious customs among Catholics include rosarios, which are processions organized to pray for help from a patron saint or the Virgin Mary.
Evangelical Protestantism has become popular in recent years. Its emphasis on family values and condemnation of alcohol, prostitution, and wife-beating, have made this religion attractive to low-income Dominicans, who traditionally have had unstable family structures.
Followers of spirit worship and voodoo, which was introduced into the country by Haitian immigrants, are thought to number about 60,000.
Many holidays in the Dominican Republic are religious ones. In addition to Christmas and Good Friday, the Day of Our Lady of Altagracia (January 21), Corpus Christi (June 17), and the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy (September 24) are celebrated. Secular, or non-religious, holidays include Día de Duarte, a commemoration of 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 non-religious activities; dancing, drinking, and gambling. The Dominican Independence Day (February 27) falls around the beginning of Lent. It is the occasion for a rambunctious Carnival celebration that draws more than half a million people each year to Santo Domingo.
Major life events such as birth, marriage, and death, are marked by religious ceremonies according to each Dominican's faith community.
When greeting one another, Dominicans use the formal pronoun usted instead of the familiar form tu, unless the relationship is a very close one.
Compadrazgo, a relationship similar to that of godparents in the United States, is an important part of growing up in the Dominican Republic. The compadre (which literally means, "co-parent") is chosen when a child is baptized, and the special relationship of the compadre with the child and the child's parents is enduring, strong, and loyal.
Traditional rural dwellings are made of wood with thatched or tin roofs and are often painted in bright colors. To keep the house cool, cooking is usually done in a separate structure that has slotted sides to release smoke and heat. The extensive rural-to-urban migration has created a severe housing shortage in the cities. Slums and squatter settlements have sprung up in the capital city of Santo Domingo.
The Dominican Republic's infant mortality rate in 1993 was forty-nine deaths per one thousand births, and average life expectancy was sixty-nine years. Hospitals and medical practioners are concentrated in the two largest cities of Santo Domingo and Santiago. There is a lower quality of health care in rural areas. Health programs are offered through the nation's welfare system, which covers between 70 and 80 percent of the population. The poor economy has resulted in shortages of doctors and nurses, medicine, and surgical supplies. Those who can afford it consult private physicians.
Very few Dominicans own a car. Most of the passenger cars are driven either by the very wealthy or tourists.
Traditionally, the extended-family household with a dominant father figure has been normal among the middle and upper classes. In contrast, low-income families have less stable ties, and many of these 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. Women still consider the man the head of the household, but they have exerted more authority within the family, have won greater educational and employment opportunities, and exercised more control over the number of children they bear.
People in the Dominican Republic wear Western-style clothing suitable for their tropical climate.
The popular Caribbean dish of rice and beans (arroz con habichuelas) is a staple in the Dominican diet. It is nicknamed "the flag" (la bandera) and served with stewed beef. Another favorite dish is sancocho, a stew made with local meats and vegetables, often including plantains. Plantains, closely related to bananas and found throughout the Caribbean islands, 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 chicarrones (pieces of fried pork) and empanadillas (tangy meat tarts). Dominican food is rather greasy since most of the dishes are fried. Puddings—including sweet rice, corn, and banana—are popular desserts.
In 1990 the estimated literacy rate (percent of the population who can read and write) was 83 percent. The law requires students to attend school for eight years, but many leave earlier to help support their families. Additional problems with 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 and four private universities.
The Henriquez-Ureña family has been at the center of the Dominican Republic's literary heritage. Salomé Ureña de Henriquez (1850–97) was a nineteenth-century poet who established the country's first higher education facility for women, the Instituto de Señoritas. In the twentieth century, the critic Pedro Henriquez-Ureña was deeply involved in education. Many consider Gaston Fernando Delingue (1884–1946) the Dominican national poet. The country's best-known writer internationally is Juan Bosch, who served briefly as president. The Dominican Republic has a National Symphony Orchestra and a National School of Fine Arts, located in Santo Domingo.
Agriculture has always been the main source of employment in the Dominican Republic, but today a growing number of Dominicans work in service-related jobs, especially in tourism. Most Dominican farmers do not own their land and are sharecroppers or tenant farmers. Those who do own their own farms generally have fewer than two hectares (five acres) and grow only enough food to feed their own families. The country suffers from an extremely high unemployment rate, one of the main reasons Dominicans leave the country. Race has traditionally been a significant factor in the employment options of Dominicans. Higher-status jobs in business, government, and the professions are usually held by lighter-skinned persons. Women's unemployment rate is also higher and many are denied full employment benefits.
The Dominican Republic's national sport is baseball, with a season from October to February. Thousands of fans attend the games at Santo Domingo's stadiums. Major and minor league baseball teams in the United States have many Dominican players. Other popular Dominican sports include horse racing and cockfighting.
Dance is a national passion in the Dominican Republic. The most popular dance is the merengue , traditionally accompanied by music played by a trio. Even the smallest towns have a dance hall. There are annual merengue festivals in Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata, and Sosúa. Salsa music is also very popular. The major cities, especially Santo Domingo, have numerous nightclubs and gambling casinos where patrons may legally play blackjack, craps, and roulette.
Dominican folk music reflects Spanish, African, and Amerindian influences. A native percussion instrument, the güira, is a legacy of the island's original inhabitants. With maracas , palitos (also in the percussion family), and guitar, the güira is used to accompany romantic decimas ( folk songs.)
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 woodcarvings, pottery, handmade rocking chairs (which have been popular ever since one was given to U.S. president John F. Kennedy [1917–63] as a gift), ceramics, macramé, and handknitted clothing. Dominicans also produce hand-crafted jewelry of amber and 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 an unemployment rate of 30 percent. Another 20 percent of the work force is underemployed. Migration from rural to urban areas has created a shortage in housing and a rise in urban crime. In the country's capital city, Santo Domingo, much of the housing is substandard and the quality of the water is poor.
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