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MODERN DOMINICAN CULTURE

Throughout the centuries, as new waves of people have set foot on the shores of the beautiful tropical island known first as Quisqueya, then as Hispaniola, they have been enchanted by its fertility, diversity and potential. The Guanahatabey, Pre-Igneri and Igneri peoples blended their genes and their cultures to become the Taínos. The Taínos, other Indian peoples, and a multitude of European (mostly Spanish) and African peoples blended their genes and their cultures together here over the past five centuries to become modern criollos, modern Dominicans. Despite the passing of time, one can still say the same thing as Columbus did about the people here: Dominicans are, perhaps, the most beautiful, charming and friendly people in the world.

Criollo Foods-One of the most fascinating areas in which to study the blending of cultures that became "Dominican" is through foodways. Extensive Taíno influence is found here in the choice of foods-yucca, squash, beans and other root vegetables are still daily staples, as they were in the days before Europeans arrived. Taíno influence is evident in how those daily staples are grown, for many Dominican peasants still grow them on conucos (the Taínos' term for their gardens) using coas (the Taínos digging sticks).

And Taíno influence is evident in how foods are prepared-cassabe bread is still made in the traditional way, and the Dominican national dish of salcocho or sancocho, a stewed dish made with several meats and root vegetables seasoned with onion, peppers and bitter orange, is obviously a relative of the Taínos' traditional ajiaco that was a stew made of whatever protein was available (mainly fish) and root vegetables seasoned with peppers and the juice of bitter yucca.

The island's people quickly adopted Europe's domestic chickens, cows, pigs and goats, garden vegetables such as lettuce, parsley, onions, garlic and carrots, citrus fruits, bananas and plantains, and the carbohydrate staple that was introduced into the Spanish diet by the Moors-rice.

The Spaniards also introduced sugar and rum, and coffee, all of which are important to Dominicans today. From Africa came more vegetables (okra, eggplant), a taste for beer, and new cooking methods, such as steaming foods in palm leaves, cooking them with coconut milk, and preparing quipes (these are the Dominican equivalent of the Arabic raw ground beef, whole wheat and spice mixture called kibe, but Dominicans roll it into cones and deep fry it).

Song and dance here are like breathing!-The Taínos celebrated weddings, births, deaths, visitors, coming-of-age ceremonies, all manner of victories, planting and harvest events, etc., with areitos, communal song and dance celebrations. Music, song and dance were equally important to the Africans who came both voluntarily and involuntarily, and, to a lesser degree, to the Europeans. Today's Dominicans continue that ancient island tradition.

Music is a necessity of life here! You will hear the lively sounds of merengue, the national rhythm, as well as bachata and salsa blaring from radios and loudspeakers everywhere-at the beach, in buses and taxi cabs, and along the street, where it emanates from houses, stores, road-side stalls and passing vehicles. Dominicans sing and dance while they walk, while they work, while they play…. Small perico ripiaos, groups composed of musicians playing the güira (a scraper instrument), tambora (a special small drum) and button accordion or guitar stroll the streets and sidewalk cafés, playing and singing their lively tunes. Live concerts are set up many weekends and every holiday along the Malecón, the broad boulevard that runs along the Caribbean's edge in the Capital, fronted by luxury hotels, restaurants and bars.

Concerts also take place in the parking lot of the new Puerto Don Diego, the port in the Zona Colonial where the cruiseships dock. On nights when there's no live concert, there's radio music blasting from 20'-high speakers and hundreds, if not thousands, of Dominicans of all ages to enjoy it until the wee hours of the morning.

You may find the music too loud, and if you understand Spanish, you may find the lyrics too boldly suggestive, but you'd have to be dead not to move your feet to the infectious, dynamic rhythms of Dominican music. If you are lucky, you might witness an ancient Dominican musical tradition-the serenade. (The gift of a song was one of the most valuable gifts one Taíno could give another.)

Today it is mostly country men who serenade the women they love, but sometimes a man in the city will also do so, hiring some of his friends or professional musicians to play while he sings his heart out, hoping to win the woman's favor. If you are very lucky, the lady will be you!

CARNAVAL!!!--The month of February is an especially festive time in the Dominican Republic-it's Carnaval time!-with music and dance celebrations throughout the month, increasing in frequency and intensity as the 27th approaches, for Carnaval is not only a pre-Lenten festival here, it's also a celebration of Dominican independence. And at the end of August/early September, we celebrate the Merengue Festival across the island.

There are also nationwide celebrations of Corpus Christi and Semana Santa (Easter Week), not to mention that each of the cities and towns has its own patron saint, who is honored with lively fiestas patronales. All of these fiestas incorporate song and dance along with other traditional rituals. One of the most popular is the feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24…. There's always something to celebrate here in the Dominican Republic! And music and dance are as important to Dominicans as eating or breathing.

Dominican national holidays:

  1. Jan 1, New Year's Day
  2. Jan 6, Three Kings Day (Dominican children receive their gifts on this day, not on Christmas Day)
  3. Jan 21, Feast of Our Lady of Altagracia (Dominican patroness)
  4. Jan 26, Duarte's Birthday (first of the three founding fathers)
  5. Feb 27, Independence Day " A Friday in April (variable), Good Friday and the second sunday in March is the National Carnaval celebration at the Malecon in Santo Domingo.
  6. May 1, Labor Day " A Thursday in June (variable), Corpus Christi
  7. Aug 16, Restoration of the Republic
  8. Sep 24, Feast of Our Lady of Las Mercedes (island's patroness)
  9. Dec 25, Christmas Day. Note that Christmas Day is not a big deal for most Dominicans, even if it is a national holiday. The real Dominican Nativity celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, when families get together to share a late-night dinner of too many foods and too much to drink--similar to the American Thanksgiving Dinner.

Home-based religion and healing-Although officially Roman Catholic, the average Dominican worships in ways quite different from those of strict orthodox Catholics. Many visitors report that Dominicans are "superstitious." It's more correct to say that their home-based religious beliefs and rituals are a vibrant, everyday part of their lives. These beliefs and rituals are a syncretic mixture of various Indian, African and European beliefs and rituals that are very similar to the Santería beliefs and rituals in Cuba that have received so much academic and media attention in recent decades.

For example, many Dominicans maintain home "altars" with images of their favorite saints, to whom they give gifts and pray to for favors. Each saint has his or her own favorite color, favorite gifts and special area of expertise-you can buy these items in one of the local botánicas. In scattered places in the countryside and in the urban barrios, you can find people invoking Dominican chanting and dancing rituals (most definitely a cross between Taíno and African rites) to induce the saints to "mount" their worshippers.

Across the country, the traditional dances, songs, musics and foods used to celebrate fiestas patronales have ancient roots among Indian, African and early Christian rites-try to see one of the Show Folklórico presentations if you cannot participate in a festival itself. As for healing, Dominicans seek out those who are wise in the ancient use of herbs and/or spells. They go to them for charms to improve their lovelife, their luck, their health, etc. And all Dominicans apparently know home cures for whatever ails you! Beware, however, if you tell a Dominican that you are not feeling well. First and foremost, he or she will most likely recommend the ancient Taíno cure-all of purging yourself at both ends

. "Racial" categories-Here in the Dominican Republic, the concept of race is very different than it is in the U.S. Here there is wide-open acceptance of what Americans call "people of color" at all levels of society, for most Dominicans are one of a wide variety of shades of brown, the result of centuries of intermarriage among Europeans, Africans and Indians. Nonetheless, it is far more difficult for morenos, very dark-colored Dominicans, to get ahead, for they are frequently mistaken for Haitians, and there has been bitter enmity for centuries between the two republics that share this one small island. In general, the whiter you are, the easier it is for you to get ahead and to get good jobs in the Dominican Republic, but with education, hard work and perseverance-and most particularly with money and/or political pull-even the darkest Dominican can enter the most elite business and social circles. In the end, what makes you "white" is less color-based and more based upon your level of education, your occupation, your friends, how you dress, etc.

Jobs and what they pay-In many countries of the world, workers work and lazy people do not. That is not the case here. Here, there are very few jobs available for the average Dominican, and most of those jobs pay very little-the average worker here earns RD$ 300 per day, about US$ 9, and is lucky to get that; female domestics earn half that or less.

So Dominicans use creativity to earn money. Little boys at the beach offer to run and buy you cold drinks or cigarettes for the peso or two of change they hope you will give them, or will shine your shoes in the park for RD$5, but are hopeful that you'll pay more. Young and old alike sell nuts, fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, tv antennas, and a wide variety of other products at the street corner or driver-direct when the traffic light turns red, as well as from impromptu stands set up in front of permanent stores, or they set up shop in parking lots, or sell door to door or along the beach.

They sell their services as guides, as drivers, as translators, as runners, as hair dressers and hair braiders... they sell their fruits and vegetables, and their hot, sweet coffee, and homemade empanadas, and candy and cigarettes, and lottery tickets, etc., etc., etc.

Wherever there are buyers, there are sellers here. If there is a market niche for goods or services of any kind, a creative Dominican will discover it and fill the niche. Dominicans are not "hassling" you, nor trying to "hustle" you. They are trying to earn enough money to live on and to support their familes. Unfortunately, some of the open niches are for prostitution and other unsavory activities, mostly because tourists come here to buy them. Drug use and sales, however, are both harshly dealt with by the Dominican police and justice system, so are not the problem that they are elsewhere. There's even a market niche for sympathy, which the multitude of beggars both young and old here fill in their own charismatic ways.

They are human beings trying to survive in a world without welfare, a world that depends on your charity. If you can't give money, at least smile and say hello.

Machismo-Much has been written about Latin American machismo, the ancient tradition that is so opposite to the ideals of modern Women's Liberation. If you are female, please do not be offended when a Dominican man opens doors for you, offers his hand or his arm, assists you across a street, or any of a number of other caballeroso (gentlemanly) things he may insist on doing, including commenting on your beauty, your charm, etc., in a way that may seem to you to be excessive or even rude (see "Piropos" in the section that follows). It is a long-standing Dominican tradition to be excessively, attentively a gentleman around women of all ages. (The only exception appears to be when they are driving, for Dominican drivers seldom grant right-of-way to pedestrians, even when the pedestrians are beautiful women.)

The downside of machismo-ism is that women are expected "to know their place," especially once they are married. That is, married men can go out and have fun with the guys, drinking and playing dominoes and Lord knows what else, but the wives are expected to stay at home with the children, or spend time visiting with other female relatives and their kids. Also, the more women that men have "on the side," the "more masculine" they are considered to be by their peers, but women are supposed to reserve all of their attentions for their husbands.

And many professional positions are considered to be unsuitable for women, though this is changing more rapidly than other traditional aspects of machismo-ism. Today there are many female Dominican managers, engineers, lawyers, architects, computer technicians, doctors… but I haven't yet met any plumbers, electricians, carpenters, painters or other tradesmen, though women have been outstanding in the sales fields since the colonial era. Another downside to machismo-ism is that Dominicans are generally intolerant of homosexual behaviour, though they mostly just try to pretend that it does not exist. Interestingly, despite what is often seen by foreigners as too much machismo "posing," Dominican men are far more free to express their loving feelings and emotions with their children, friends, and family members, whether male or female, than most Americans or Europeans. (See "Hugging, kissing and holding hands," below.) It's not even unusual to see two Dominican men dancing together-merengue, of course, or other fast-paced music, not a romantic bolero.

Piropos (wolf calls v. compliments)-Many American and European women become upset because of all the piropos thrown their way by Dominican men. They interpret the remarks and suggestions as "wolf calls," but in point of fact the word is more properly translated as "compliments." Dominican women would be devastated if they walked down the street and didn't receive their fair share of piropos. The truth is that Dominican males and females are generally open, undeceptive people. And American and European women are "exotics" here, thus are almost all seen as beautiful.

When a Dominican man sees a beautiful woman, he can't help but comment upon her beauty and, frequently, how he'd like to spend time with her. In point of fact, a Dominican man would think it horribly rude and uncultured not to say something complimentary to a beautiful woman as she passes by. So please do not interpret either the remarks or the men who make them by the standards of your home country. The piropos are compliments by appreciative men. Smile, say "gracias," and walk on.

Time-A common complaint is that Dominicans are never on time. That's true, but not because they are "lazy" or because they are "careless" or "unthinking." The Protestant equation of "time is money" does not exist here. In the Dominican Republic, people are more important than things. If a Dominican has an appointment at 3 p.m. and is en route to keep that appointment, he or she would think it very rude not to stop and chat with friends and family along the way-far ruder than keeping you waiting. After all, they assume that you will be chatting with someone at the appointed location. And that's the best way to pass the time, socializing.

Also keep in mind that most Dominicans use public transportation, so have only limited control over how fast or how slowly they cover the route. And if they are driving their own vehicle or taking a taxi, there are all those tapones (traffic jams) to deal with, which are a fact of life no matter the hour in the Capital's busy, congested streets. So relax, they'll join you ahorita-flexible in meaning, the word initially meant "right away," but in the modern Dominican Republic it means "whenever."

No problema-Sometimes the Dominicans' tendency to say that there is "no problem" is a big problem for foreigners! It's a clash of cultures. Dominicans don't want to upset you by saying that they don't know, are uncertain, or that things are not proceeding in a positive way. So, for example, if you ask directions to a particular place, and they don't know where it is, they'll point you in a convenient direction, assuming that you'll ask again up the road and someone there will know and will give you the correct information. Try not to get frustrated, nor to think badly of them. No one is intentionally lying to you or misleading you. And who knows? You might just see something interesting along the unintentional route-you might have a serendipitous adventure. Remember that time is more flexible here, is to be enjoyed, not guarded as a scarce resource.

Pssssst!!! "What is that hissing noise?" many visitors ask themselves. It's a Dominican trying to get a pretty woman's attention, or his male friend's attention, or another cup of coffee, or perhaps he's trying to get his check from the waitor. Going "Psssst!" is not rude here, it's how things get done.

Getting the check at a bar or restaurant is not automatic in the Republic Republic. The waiter will not bring it to you just because you've finished your meal, your dessert, and your coffee. To do so would be considered the height of rudeness here! You virtually "own" the table until you call for the check (with a hearty "Psssst!" as described above), pay it, and get up and leave.

Hugging, kissing, and holding hands--Dominicans seldom just shake hands. That's considered to be too formal, too cold, maybe downright rude. They kiss each other hello and goodbye on the cheek. The trick is to turn your head slightly to the left and kiss his or her right cheek, while they're kissing your right cheek. The kiss will no doubt be followed and/or preceded by a hug. It is not considered to be unmanly for a man to greet another close male friend or family member in this way, either, although the Americanthump on the back or a hearty handshake is becoming more common.

Women friends walk hand in hand or arm in arm down the street without fear of being labelled gay--it's how friends show their affection. Likewise, mothers and fathers still cuddle their children, hug them, kiss them, and walk hand in hand with them in public, without the children being in the least bit embarrassed. It's wonderful