Living in the Dominican Republic Today

What is it like to live in the Dominican Republic today? What are the benefits and burdens of being a Dominican resident? In this chapter, we take a look at the Dominicans today in order to better understand the people and their way of life.

A CULTURE IN TRANSITION

The Dominican culture has been flexible, influenced as it is by various domestic and foreign variables. Unless they are extremely isolated, cultures usually change as they adapt to new practices, interests, needs, and circumstances.

The arrival of the Spanish, first led by Christopher Columbus in 1492, signaled the start of many changes to the local culture. The Spaniards introduced many aspects of their own culture to the island. These included their language and religion, food, class structure, and management systems. They also introduced a number of elements harmful to the local culture, including infectious diseases, forced labor, and torture. Thus, a culture can undergo change in ways that are either positive or extremely painful when forcefully imposed. From the time of the Tainos, Dominican culture has been evolving continually. Influences have come from many sources, including aboriginal, Iberian, African, French, American, and others.

During recent decades, Dominican culture has undergone yet another important and often difficult transition. It has gradually shifted from a traditional folk way of living to a more contemporary lifestyle deeply enmeshed in popular culture. A hallmark of this transition is a change from self-sufficiency, a lifestyle by which people provide for their own needs, to a modern economy and urban lifestyle in which people are dependent on others. You may have heard the terms less developed or developing countries and references to developed lands. Less developed countries or developing countries are not fully industralized and have less advanced financial, social, and legal systems and low standards of human rights guarantees for their citizens. Commonly called Third World countries, most have economies based on agriculture and citizens who earn poverty-level incomes. The countries contend with high inflation and debt and large trade deficits due to large loans from the World Bank (an international institution that offers loans to poorer countries). Despite their less advanced state, these countries want to do better socially and economically, and the levels of development may vary from one country to the next, with some developing countries having higher average standards of living than others.

Think for a moment of the way you live. How does it differ from the way of life experienced by an individual in a traditional society in some remote area of Asia, Africa, or Latin America? How many differences can you think of? One need not go back too many generations to find that many people in the Dominican Republic lived in a very traditional “folk culture” way. Today, most Dominicans at least aspire to enjoy the comforts and opportunities found in developed countries like the United States or the United Kingdom.

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX

While Dominicans are better off than many others in the Caribbean, they still have an economic situation far worse than people living in Canada and the United States. While basic needs are usually met, problems exist in daily life. In fact, the Dominican Republic ranks ninety-first on the Human Development Index (HDI), just about in the middle among the world’s nations. The HDI is a measure of human well-being based upon several factors, including life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living. Among Caribbean countries, at least 10 rank higher than the Dominican Republic on the HDI. They include Barbados, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and several smaller island countries. The Dominican Republic does fare much better than its island neighbor, Haiti. In fact, Haiti holds the lowest rank of any Western Hemisphere nation, a dismal one hundred fiftyeighth out of the 179 countries ranked.

Fortunately, living conditions in the Dominican Republic are far better today than in the recent past, and they continue to improve at an impressive rate. The key to human well-being is complex, but two conditions stand out if people are to thrive, prosper, and reach their potential as a society. First, the country must have a stable government that is responsive to the needs of the people. Second, a country must have a productive and growing economy. Fortunately, the Dominican Republic now appears to have both working in its favor.

HOUSING

The Dominican Republic faces a serious housing shortage. Poverty, of course, is one of the reasons that many people live in inadequate housing. Other important influences include the rapid pace of urban migration that has resulted in the explosive growth of non-rural populations. A second factor that affects housing and homelessness is the damage inflicted by severe weather, like Hurricane Georges in 1998. The fierce Category 4 storm was the second most destructive storm of 1998, affecting numerous countries, including Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, the United States, and Puerto Rico—a commonwealth of the United States. In the Dominican Republic, Georges caused one billion dollars in damages and devastated nearly 10 percent of the country’s housing from winds and flooding. A confirmed 438 people were dead or missing, about 155,000 people were left homeless, and damage to houses and public buildings reached an estimated $400 million.

Housing in the country consists of individual homes, single rooms, and apartments. Construction is usually done with concrete, wood, and palm. Compared to the cost of homes in the United States or Canada, housing prices are reasonable in the Dominican Republic. With significantly lower incomes, however, many people are unable to purchase homes.

EDUCATION

The level of educational attainment in the Dominican Republic is somewhat lower than in Canada and the United States. The literacy rate—the rate at which people are able to read and write—is 87 percent for Dominicans, whereas it is 99 percent in both Canada and the United States. The average Dominican attends school for 12 years, compared to 17 years of schooling in Canada and 16 in the United States. Schooling is free and required until the eighth grade. Only 59 percent of Dominican youngsters attend secondary schools after their required primary schooling.

The Autonomous University of Santo Domingo is the oldest institution of higher learning in the Western Hemisphere. It was authorized in 1538 after Pope Paul III ordered that a Dominican seminary become a university. Classes didn’t begin until 1558. (The oldest university in the United States is Harvard, founded in 1636.) Today, the university has an enrollment of some 160,000 students, much larger than any university in the United States. More than two dozen other colleges and universities operate in the country today, about half of which are located in Santo Domingo.

HEALTH

Dominicans face a variety of health problems. Environmental problems such as water pollution and sanitation make the situation worse. Some of the diseases resulting from contaminated food and water include bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever. Insect-transmitted diseases, including dengue fever and malaria, also affect the country’s population.

AIDS has become the leading cause of death among teenagers and adults ages 15 to 49. Much of the HIV-AIDS problem is transmitted though the country’s thriving prostitution and sextourism industry. The HIV-AIDS rate for Dominicans is 1.7 percent. More than 66,000 people are believed to be HIV-positive today, and each year about 4,000 people die from the disease. Because Haiti and the Dominican Republic share many economic, migration, and health challenges, the two countries have mounted major joint health efforts, including mass vaccination campaigns and islandwide efforts to control tuberculosis. The two countries, along with the Red Cross, have agreed to work together on training community health workers, distribution of insecticide-treated bed netting in order to combat
insect-transmitted diseases, home visits for those with HIV or AIDS, promotion of mother-child health, immunization, strengthening of water and sanitation infrastructure, and promotion of personal and collective hygiene methods.

CRIME

According to a 2009 crime and safety report from the Overseas Security Advisory Council, the Dominican Republic has seen an increase in the number of incidents of violent crime and other criminal activity such as robberies, home burglaries, kidnappings, car thefts, and credit card fraud. Although the following are some of the most beautiful cities, they are also the country’s most violent: Santo Domingo, Hato Mayor, La Vega, Samana, San Jose de Ocoa, and San Cristobal. The crime rate is attributed to unemployment, large-scale urban migration, increased drug and alcohol use, the drug trade, and the widespread availability of weapons. In addition, the Dominican Republic has served as a hub for Colombian drug operations that supply drugs to the United States and Europe.

Foreign visitors are attractive targets, and travelers should particularly be alert during power outages, as criminal activity is known to increase at such times. According to the U.S. Department of State, it is best to avoid isolated areas and to stay vigilant.

LIFESTYLES AND ACTIVITIES

Life in the Dominican Republic is filled with local cultural activities that can be entertaining and fun for residents and visitors alike. During holidays and celebrations, cultural treats like Dominican foods, music, and art are shared.

Holidays and Celebrations

Many Dominican holidays are centered on religious events that are tied to the Catholic Church. Christmas is the most celebrated holiday in the Dominican Republic. Trees are sold and decorated just as they are in North America. Many Dominican weddings are held during the Christmas season to tie in with the religious holiday. Most towns celebrate the patron Catholic saint who they believe helps to protect them and their community. These events are parties marked with music, foods, and other events. One popular Dominican patron saint is Our Lady of Altagracia (altagracia means “high grace”) of Higuey.

Dominican legend holds that a treasured painting of Mary, the virgin mother of Christ, disappeared in the country shortly after two brothers had brought the painting from Spain in 1502. Amazingly, the painting later reappeared in an orange bush. The site of the bush was where the first church in Higuey was then built. Pope Pius XI decreed in 1922 that the Lady of Altagracia would be the spiritual mother of Higuey. The country’s president then declared that January 21 would become a national holiday dedicated to the patron saint of Higuey. Today, nearly one million people make the annual pilgrimage to Higuey. And one of every 12 Dominicans is named Altagracia. Many other holidays are also closely tied to the Catholic Church. They include Epiphany (January 6), Easter (March or April), San Juan Batista (June), and All Saints’ Day (November 1). Religion, however, is not the only stimulus for holidays and celebrations for the Dominicans. Many others are designated to recognize important historical events. These occasions include Dominican Independence Day (February 26) and Duarte Day (January 26), which celebrates the birth of the founder of the Dominican Republic, Juan Pablo Duarte. Restoration Day (August 16) celebrates the war Dominicans fought against Spain from 1863 to 1865 to stop colonization. Columbus Day (October 12), of course, remains an important historical celebration in the country, with events held by his grave site in Santo Domingo.

Carnival

Perhaps the most anticipated holiday of the year is the famous carnival that is held in February. Throughout the country, this event features exuberant partying. Festivities include elaborate parades, pulsating music, festive dancing, vibrant costumes, spiritual masks, and other wild activities, all of which are flavored with Dominican culture. Major carnival events have been held during the entire month of February, ending on Independence Day (February 27), in Santo Domingo, La Vega, and Santiago since 1867. In fact, Santo Domingo’s carnival dates back to the mid-1500s. La Vega’s carnival is believed to be the oldest in the Dominican Republic—dating back even further than Santo Domingo’s—with proof of carnival found in La Ruinas de la Vega Vieja (Ruins of the Old Fertile Valley). The people during that time disguised themselves as Moors (the Spanish term for Islamic persons) and Christians. During carnival, thousands of tourists flock to the country. The event provides them a great escape from cold winter weather in northern latitudes and a wonderful holiday celebration at the same time.

The Arts

Sharing Hispaniola with Haiti has allowed for some similarities in the arts, including music. Some music forms, like merengue, have Dominican roots that include Spanish and African influences. The traditional merengue is fast and often features some or all of the following instruments: maracas, saxophone, tambora drum, box bass, and accordion. Newer versions can feature electric instruments and incorporate other music forms such as salsa and rock and roll. The merengue rose out of the lower socioeconomic classes in the country and became popular during the reign of Trujillo (1930-1961). The music also translated into the dance steps that are also called merengue. Still very popular, the merengue is the national dance of the Dominican Republic. Other popular Dominican forms of music include bachata, which also rose out of the slums and rural areas, and Dominican rock, which has a distinctive sound.

Other music styles are popular in the country. They range from music imported from outside the country  o local variations on existing styles of music. One of these is reggaeton (which originated in Panama and was popularized in Puerto Rico), a mix of American hip-hop and reggae, with a little bachata, merengue, and other Latin rhythms. A number of Dominican musical stars perform the country’s popular musical forms. Some also find audiences far beyond the country’s borders. Many of these are Dominican expatriates who live in the United States and other countries.

Art in the Dominican Republic began to develop its own styles after the country gained its independence in 1865. Thereafter, the Dominican lifestyle began to mix with the country’s European heritage in paintings and other artwork. The country’s African heritage also mixed this art style with images often inspired by folk tales, myths, and religion. Landscapes and portraits were also popular. In the twentieth century, imported styles such as impressionism and modernism influenced Dominican artists, who began to paint more realistic works showing images of the country and its people. Traditionally, literature has been produced by the country’s elite. With the elite tied to Spain and Europe, much of the literature has had a European flavor. However, authors like Julia Alverez are working and writing in a manner that leaves Spanish influences behind to create a Dominican style of literature. Even though she moved from the country to New York at the age of 10, she has sparked a Dominican style of writing that focuses upon local culture. Many of her works highlight the roles of women in the Dominican Republic.

THE DOMINICAN SPORT-BASEBALL

The answer—El beisbol!!! And the question is: What sport are Dominicans crazy about? Baseball is a major part of the culture in the Dominican Republic and the game has social, economic, and sometimes even political importance. Dominican baseball has also had a huge impact on the game in the United States and Canada, where Dominican players have become stars in the major leagues and legends back in their homeland. In 2006, one in seven major league baseball players in the United States was from the Dominican Republic. They include some of the best ballplayers playing the game today.

Since major league baseball was integrated in 1947, nearly 500 Dominican baseball players have played at the world’s highest level. The first Dominican ballplayer was Ozzie Virgil, who arrived in the big leagues in 1956 and played for the Giants, Tigers, Orioles, and other teams. He has been followed by hundreds of other Dominican-born players. They include Albert Pujols, Miguel Tejeda, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Tony Abreu, Robinson Cano, Bartolo Colon, Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Valverde, and Jose Mesa.

Dominican stars from earlier decades are held closely in baseball lore with players like Juan Marichal; George Bell; Rico Carty; Julio Franco; Raul Mondesi; Sammy Sosa; and Felipe, Matty, and Jesus Alou. Others such as Alex Rodriguez have a Dominican heritage and have lived on the island at times during their life. In 1983, Juan Marichal became the first Dominican elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Today there are more Dominican baseball players in the major leagues than there are players from any other country, excluding the United States itself. In addition, nearly 30 percent of the professional players in the American minor leagues are from the Dominican Republic.

Why Are So Many Major League Players from the Dominican Republic?

Why do so many major league players come from the Dominican Republic? There are a number of reasons. First, the country has a genuine love for baseball, and youngsters play the game starting from a very young age. The game was originally brought to the Dominican Republic by Cubans who were fleeing a civil war that lasted from 1868 to 1878. Since its introduction, the game has become more popular here than anywhere else in the world. Today there are baseball fields even in the poorest communities, and hundreds of thousands of children fantasize about their chances of following other Dominicans and making it to the major leagues. Traditional hot spots for baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic have been places like Santo Domingo, San Cristobal, Bani, Nizao, Santiago, Cotui, and La Romana.

Second, baseball is seen by many as a way of escaping a life of poverty. Becoming a professional baseball player can provide financial security for the player’s family. Star pitcher Pedro Martinez explained: “If you reverse time back 15 years ago, I was sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents to actually pay for a bus.” This economic incentive is powerful. Major league teams have taken advantage of this financial situation; historically, they have paid many Dominican players less than their American counterparts.

Today, all 30 major league baseball teams have academies in the Dominican Republic where they “mine” the country’s youth for talent. While a few, like the stars mentioned earlier, go on to fame and fortune, many other players fail in their search for prosperity. Unfortunately, nearly all of them fall far short of realizing their major league dreams. According to sports agent Joe Kehoskie in the PBS documentary Stealing Home, which explores Cuban baseball and its effects on society and also mentions baseball in the Dominican Republic, the sad reality is that many young players sign for 5 or 10 cents on the dollar when compared to American players. The documentary also shows that many young Dominicans quit school between the ages of 10 and 12 to play baseball. A few of these academy players may make the major leagues, but more than 99 percent never play an inning in the big leagues. Thus, after being cut from the roster, they have no high school or college education to fall back on.

Third, major league baseball can sign contracts with Dominican players as young as 16. This allows players to be signed at a fraction of the cost of American players who cannot be signed until they are 18. Signing at such a young age, combined with the academy system, allows players to rise, if they are able, through the system to play in the minor and major leagues at lower salaries. The academies quickly develop the skills of rising players with a tight time schedule, proper diet, and lots of baseball; however, the academies are also places where alleged money kickbacks (money or favors given in secret to perform a certain action or for a referral that benefits the person who gave the money) often take place and inadequate players are thoughtlessly discarded.

Little League Baseball

With baseball’s prominence in the Dominican Republic, it would seem likely that the country would also be prominent in the Little League World Series. Surprisingly, the Dominicans have been good but not great. In 1983, they were the runner-up, but this was the only time they reached the finals. This might be because many players become involved in the professional systems early. The Dominican Republic, however, was in the news in 2001 when an amazing pitcher, Danny Almonte Rojas, was found to be two years too old to be eligible for the series. Many forget that Almonte did not play for the Dominican team; rather, he was a member of the U.S. team. They had to forfeit all of the team’s wins because of the ineligible player.

Dominican Baseball Leagues

Dominican baseball is not just a quest by talented athletes to get to the major leagues; it is also a game that is adored by fans. No other sport comes close in its popularity. The winter league is very popular and features many major and minor league players who want to improve their skills during the United States off-season. Six teams play in the winter league, with each playing a 50-game schedule that runs from October to December. Two of the teams are located in Santo Domingo, with others in Santiago, La Romana, San Pedro de Macoris, and San Francisco de Macoris. The top four finishers in the winter league then engage in a playoff series in January that results in a national champion being crowned by February. The national champion then goes on to play in the Caribbean Series with Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Venezuela. Other leagues also exist in the country, with some having ties to the major leagues.

Baseball Problems

Baseball in the Dominican Republic is not free of problems. Some of these problems have included financial kickbacks and injustices done to potential professional players. In addition, the steroid problem in major league baseball has also touched Dominican players in a major way. In 2009, Alex Rodriguez admitted that he had obtained steroids in the Dominican Republic, and Miguel Tejeda was convicted of lying about having used steroids. Too many Dominican players have shown that they will do what they believe is needed to achieve financial security and fame, even if it means abusing their bodies. Thus, Sammy Sosa’s 600-plus home-run record has been tainted, as has Alex Rodriguez’s quest to become the all-time home run record holder.

According to writer Tom Fish, 57 percent of Dominican players in the major leagues have tested positive for steroids. This is a rate far higher than that of players from any other country. Poverty may lead many to steroid use, but most players are also not aware of the effects of the drugs on their bodies. Obviously, education is required to reduce the use of steroids among young Dominican ballplayers.

CHANGING TIMES AND A CHANGING SOCIETY

As with all societies, the Dominican Republic continues to change. While historic Taino, Spanish, and African traditions form the foundation of the country’s culture, many new elements are being introduced. Many of these new influences come from the Americas, including the United States, Latin America, and other Caribbean nations. Others come from faraway places such as China, Syria, Lebanon, and Japan, with each bringing new flavors to Dominican culture. Tourists also bring their cultures with them when they travel to the country. This has increased the amount of English spoken in the Dominican Republic. The globalization of cultures through mass media also brings foreign influences via the Internet, television, radio, movies, and publications. Thus, the Dominican Republic constantly changes with the times and reflects many new cultural elements in the daily life of its citizens.