January 5, 2007 Welcome to Santo Domingo

Photo Caption: St. Peter beckons the masses to enter the western gate of the Catedral Santa María La Menor. The first cathedral in the New World was completed thirty years after Diego, son of Christopher Columbus, set the cornerstone in 1514. The original statues of St. Peter’s Gate were stolen in 1586 by the English pirate Sir Francis Drake after he captured the city and held it for ransom.

History: On December 5, 1492 the native Taíno people discovered foreigners on their Caribbean island, which was christened Hispaniola and claimed for the Spanish crown by a miscalculating Christopher Columbus. Four years later, Nueva (New) Isabela, named in honor of Queen Isabella of Spain, was founded by Christopher’s brother Bartholomew. In homage to Saint Dominic the oldest European city in the Americas was renamed Santo Domingo. From here conquistadors set sail for North and South America to fill their treasure chests with silver and gold.

Prior to the European incursion, a few million Taíno natives called this island paradise home. A half-century after Columbus claimed the isle for Spain, only a few thousand “Indians” had survived the foreign diseases, forced labor, bloody massacres, and starvation. At the end of the 16th century, perhaps less than a few hundred Taíno lived on the edge of extinction. In 1503 African slaves were imported and Spanish colonists began to mix together to produce the modern Dominican race of mulattos. Soon the caste system took hold in Latin America and a rigid, racial order was carved into the population’s mindset. At the top were the peninsulares, those born in Spain living in the New World. One step below them was the criollo, an American-born Spaniard. Next in the order were the mestizos, Spanish and native blends, followed by the mulattos. Further down, the Amerindian preceded the zambo, a mixture between a native and a person of African descent. At the bottom were the black Africans. This prejudicial hierarchy still exists today.

Though nine out of ten Dominicans can trace their skin color to Africa, they are falsely convinced that they are a mix between the adventurous Spanish and the brave Taíno natives. Unlike other nations populated with descendants of black slaves, the Dominican Republic refuses to embrace its African roots. Some of this denial stems from the bloody, anti-white crusade carried out during the slave uprising in Haiti and the Haitian invasions in the first half of the 19th century. Fueling racism toward the ruling Haitians, revolutionary Dominicans proudly claimed to be white, Catholic, and Spanish, the antithesis of the black African who cast voodoo curses. Insulted if identified as black, a color reserved only for the “inferior” Haitian, Dominicans created new racial classifications based on the shade of their skin. In this country, truth is not seen simply as black or white. Here, people can be categorized as blanca oscura (dark white), casi negro (almost black), indio (Indian), canela (cinnamon), morena (brown), trigueño (wheat), or dozens of other tints.

Journal Entry: Landing on the island late on New Year’s Day, I was transported from the airport by my hosts in their Ford SUV at a high rate of speed as two of their offspring slept like angels in the back. It was not long before I learned that the only time this family was angelic was when they were sleeping. Thus, I began my three-month stay with this lively Latino family in a middle-class suburban home. Living behind an eight-foot wall crowned with spiraling razor wire my host family consisted of four children under the age of eight, volatile cohabitating parents, Yuri and Farah, and Farah’s mother. Adjusting to cold bucket showers and the tropical heat was the least of my concerns. At times I felt like a prisoner behind those barred windows and padlocked doors as the daily crying and shouting matches between family members ensued. Even the black live-in maid, who was deaf and mute, couldn’t escape the stress. At least the mosquitoes could come and go as they pleased through my second-floor bedroom window, free of glass or screens. I hope those bloodsuckers realize that the capital has been declared free of malaria.

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