People and Culture

Nearly 10 million people call the Dominican Republic home. Most of them are of mixed European and African ancestry. Most Dominicans live in cities, although much of the country's rural landscape is densely packed. In this chapter you will learn about the Dominican people. You will get a glimpse of their demographics (demography is the science involved in the study of population numbers) and settlement. You also will learn about who they are (ethnicity) and how they live (their culture, or way of life). Are you ready to meet the Dominican people?


The Dominican Republic has the second-largest population of any Caribbean country, at nearly 10 million people. In July 2009, its official estimated population stood at 9,650,054. According to some estimates, however, there may be as many as one million Haitians in the country, most of whom are undocumented (in the country illegally). So any population number is guesswork. Regardless, the country has about one million fewer people than Cuba, the most populated country in the Caribbean Basin. It also has about one million more people than its island neighbor, Haiti, which is the third most populated country in the West Indies. Only four factors can determine whether a population grows or declines: births, deaths, in-migration, and out-migration.

Using this information, there are a number of ways to measure population change. One is the annual rate of natural increase (RNI). This figure is 1.5 percent for the Dominican Republic. It means that currently the population is growing by about 145,000 people each year as a result of there being more births than deaths. Worldwide, the figure stands at about 1.15 percent, so the Dominican population is increasing at a rate somewhat higher than the world average. In 2008, the country experienced about 22.4 births per 1,000 people and only 5.3 deaths, the latter figure being one of the world's lowest. This suggests that the country has a young and rather healthy population.

Another way of viewing population change is the total fertility rate (TFR)—the average number of children to which a woman will give birth during her fecund (fertile) lifetime. In the Dominican Republic, the figure is 2.8. This is well above the replacement rate of 2.1 (the .1 is because some people do not have children).

Migration is still another factor that contributes to population change. Because of its relatively poor economy and, until recently, poor government, the Dominican Republic has long experienced a relatively high rate of out-migration: Currently, it stands at about -2.2/1,000. This means that each year between 21,000 and 22,000 Dominicans leave their island home. Many of them move to the United States. This, of course, helps keep the population in check, despite the country's relatively high RNI and TFR.

Throughout history, people have moved about in search of a better life as often measured by economic gain. Dominicans have a per capita income that is nearly six times greater than that of their island neighbors, the Haitians. In addition to being the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere, the Haitians are also among the most crowded, with nearly 800 people per square mile (310 per square km). As a result, many Haitians, perhaps as many as one million, have migrated to the Dominican Republic, most of them illegally. At the same time, a substantial number of Dominicans flee eastward across the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico. There, as illegal immigrants, they seek better jobs and higher incomes.

Yet another way of viewing a population is by its age structure. This is best done by looking at a population pyramid (see chart). As is true of most developing countries, the Dominican population is quite young. Nearly one of three residents is 14 or younger. On the other hand, only about 6 percent of the population is 65 or older. (Figures for the United States and Canada, respectively, are 20.2 and 12.8 percent that are 14 or under, and 16.1 and 15.2 percent that are 65 or older.) Overall, the Dominican population on average is just under 25 years of age (versus 37 years of age for the United States and 40 years of age for Canada).


Various demographic data also can tell us a great deal about the well-being of a selected population. There are many different indices that experts use to determine how well off a selected population is relative to others. In Chapter 7, you will learn about the Human Development Index (HDI); it is one measure of well-being that takes into consideration a number of factors. Here, we will stick to demographic data.

Life expectancy of Dominicans—on average how long they live—is almost 74 years. This is about seven years longer than the world average. As is true nearly everywhere, women outlive men in the Dominican Republic. Life expectancy for females is nearly 76 years and for males about 72 years. Another significant indicator of a country's living standards is its infant mortality rate. This figure is a measure of deaths from birth until age one. The number is an excellent indicator of medical care, health services, sanitation, child safety, parenting, and other factors. For the Dominican Republic, the figure is 26 deaths per 1,000 live births. This places the country just about in the middle among the world's nations. But it remains quite high relative to infant mortality rates in developed lands. In the United States and Canada, for example, the figures are 6 and 5 deaths per 1,000, respectively.


As is true throughout most of Latin America, Dominican settlement—where people live—is primarily urban. About 70 percent of the people live in cities and this figure is growing rapidly. In fact, between 2005 and 2010, it is estimated that the rate of urban population growth was about 2.6 percent. What is happening in the Dominican Republic is rather typical of trends throughout much of the developing world. Rural people—faced with poverty, inadequate or even nonexistent services, and often difficult lives—opt for better conditions in the city.

Population density is a figure that demographers, geographers, and others often use as though it has some meaning. Those of us who live in the U.S. interior know that the country's population density figure of nearly 130 people per square mile (50 per square km) is all but meaningless. Much of the Great Plains and interior West has fewer than 10 people per square mile (under 4 per square km). So, when you learn that the Dominican Republic has 509 people per square mile (197 per square km) know that this does not mean that each

square mile holds that many people. Some parts of the country, such as the southwestern highlands, have a very low density. Because of its isolation, very few people live there. Under existing conditions, it would be extremely difficult for them to make an adequate living in that area. On the other hand, the district surrounding Santo Domingo is home to several million people and has a very high density. For the country as a whole, however, the density is six times higher than that of the United States and a whopping 60 times higher than that of Canada.

Most Dominicans live in the large cities. The largest, by a wide margin, is Santo Domingo: Nearly three of 10 Dominicans, about 3 million people, reside within the city's urban area. Santiago de los Caballeros (usually shortened to simply Santiago), with a population of about 2 million, is the country's second-largest city. It lies in the fertile Cibao Valley in the north-central part of the Dominican Republic. Other cities with more than 100,000 people living within their urban area include La Romana, San Pedro de Macoris, San Francisco de Macoris, San Cristobal, Puerto Plata, and La Vega. Elsewhere, the rural and small-town population is scattered about, primarily in the fertile valleys and coastal plains. With few exceptions, the mountainous regions support the lowest population densities and have very few communities.


Three of every four Dominicans are of mixed ancestry, mainly black African and Spanish (Negroid and Caucasoid). The native Taino tribe was all but eliminated from Hispaniola, although some residents claim to have a small amount of Taino blood. Only about 16 percent of the population is “pure” white (if, indeed, such a concept is valid in the Dominican Republic or, for that matter, elsewhere!) and another 11 percent “pure” black. The country also has a large Haitian community with, as mentioned previously, some estimates running as high as one million people. Many, if not most, of the Haitians are illegal immigrants who came to the Dominican Republic in search of work. This is the primary source of the country's 11 percent black population. Of the 16 percent of Dominicans who claim white ancestry, most are Spanish. But there also are substantial numbers of people of German, American, Italian, Portuguese, or French heritage. Additionally, immigrants from the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia have added to the country's diversity. Thus, it is not unusual to meet Syrians, Chinese, Japanese, or Lebanese in the Dominican Republic, particularly on the streets of highly cosmopolitan Santo Domingo.

From the earliest period of settlement, the Spaniards imposed a strict social system—la casta—upon the island's population. Under this system, the Spanish divided society into social classes with those born in Spain being at the highest level. Following this elite class in descending order were Taino Indians, followed by zatnbos (persons of mixed Taino and African lineage), and finally black slaves who ranked at the bottom of the social structure. Many carryovers of this casta social structure are still deeply imprinted on Dominican society and culture. This has resulted in a social pattern of bias, with the elite being lighter skinned and the darker skinned being among the poor and relatively powerless. Fortunately, this pattern is beginning to change as people are becoming more tolerant of diversity.


Language and religion are other remnants of the Spanish legacy in the Dominican Republic. Spanish, also known by its local dialect, Castilian, is the country's official language. It is spoken by nearly all residents today. If you have learned textbook Spanish in school, don't assume that you could easily speak to or understand someone speaking Dominican Spanish! The language isn't necessarily the same as the Spanish spoken in Spain. Through time, the language has been “Dominicanized” through the addition of local words, meanings, and pronunciations, including many from the Arawak (Taino) language. Other languages also can be heard in the country, including French and English. French is largely the result of the cultural spillover from neighboring French-speaking Haiti. As a result, French in the Dominican Republic is spoken with a heavy Haitian accent. English is the primary language of globalization, including tourism. Each year thousands of visitors from the United States and Canada visit the Dominican Republic. The country wants to ensure that visitors have a pleasant travel experience, because tourism represents a significant and rapidly growing segment of the economy. Therefore, those in the tourist industry are encouraged to learn English in order to communicate with visitors. So, too, must people engaged in any type of international business, media, entertainment, communications, or sports.


The dominant religious affiliation of Dominicans also can be traced back to the Spanish and their Roman Catholic faith. Columbus and Spanish missionaries brought their Catholic religion with them in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the Bible was later put into the curriculum in all public schools. Even with religious freedom being practiced today in the Dominican Republic, 95 percent of the people remain Roman Catholic in their faith. There are small numbers of Protestants, animists, and those who claim no religious affiliation. Dominican animism has its roots in Africa and its practitioners believe that all living things, including plants and animals, have a spirit or soul.


Foodways—what people eat and all of the customs associated with dining and diet—represent one of the strongest and least flexible traits of a people's culture. In the case of the Dominican Republic, the country's cuisine is like so many other aspects of its society and culture, reflecting a distinctive blend of the country's Taino, African, and Spanish heritages, with a spicy touch of other cultures thrown in. A meal may include Spanish, Taino, and African dishes at the same setting along with other foods that reflect the Dominican or regional mix of these elements.

Pork, chicken, a variety of seafoods, goat, and beef are common meat staples. Other diet staples include potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains (a banana-like fruit that usually is cooked), beans, corn, and white rice. Major fruits include banana, mango, papaya, pineapple, coconut, melon, passion fruit, tomato, and a variety of citrus fruits.

As is true throughout much of the tropical realm, lunch is the most important meal of the day. The practice, although common in much cooler lands as well, is a wonderful adaptation to the intense midday tropical heat and humidity. During the heat of the day, workers take an extended break that lasts from about noon until midaftemoon. (They then work well into the cooler evening.) A large and leisurely lunch is often followed by a siesta, or nap. This tradition comes from the Spanish, and the break is called la bandera. Many people believe incorrecdy that the siesta is associated only with the tropics and the region's intense heat. Actually, it has little to do with weather. The practice appears to be a widespread European custom that was brought to the Caribbean during colonial days. The Dominican national dish, relished by people at all levels of society, is sancocho.

Here are the ingredients (the full recipe can be found on various Internet sites; simply enter “Sancocho” for complete details):

Sancocho ingredients
Tocino (bacon or other cured meat)
Pork chops
Goat meat
Yucca (a root crop)
Malanga (a root crop similar to the potato)
Ears of corn
Naranja agria (bitter orange used as a marinade)
Parsley leaves
Cilantro leaves
Chicken bouillon cube
Spanish pumpkin
Sweet potatoes
Plantain bananas
White yam or taro
White vinegar
Worcestershire sauce; optional
Green bell pepper

Like the list of ingredients, the cooking instructions for the sancocho recipe are extremely detailed and complex and go on for two pages. Just for fun, can you do some research to determine the original source of the various ingredients used in the recipe? You may be surprised to learn that few, if any, originated in the Dominican Republic. Recipes, perhaps more than any other aspect of Dominican living, illustrate the incredible richness of the country's culture.


This chapter has explained how Dominican culture is a blend of traits contributed through time by many peoples. The original Taino people are long gone from the island of Hispaniola, but their imprint lives on in many ways. Some words we use today, such as hammock and canoe, for example, were borrowed from the Taino language. A number of crops and their use in foods also trace back to the Taino.

Spaniards contributed their language and religion, as well as certain lingering social patterns. It has been said that much of Latin America suffers from the continued influence of “sixteenth century Iberian [Spanish) cultural baggage.” In many respects, this is true. The Dominican Republic is a highly polarized society, with a few very wealthy and many very poor citizens, which is a carryover from the Iberian caste system. So, too, is the kind of political stability that results from a “strong arm” head of government. Leaders of such types of governments often are far more interested in lining their pockets while in office than they are in helping their people and country prosper.

Africans, several million of whom were brought to the Caribbean as slaves to work the sugar plantations, also have made substantial contributions to the region. Their influence is evident in the physical appearance of many Dominicans. They also have contributed to the language, food-ways, religions (including animism), music and other arts, and much more.

Today, Dominican culture is becoming globalized at a rapid rate. Many people, particularly in the cities, have been “Americanized.” They speak English as a second language, dress in the Western style, watch and listen to American media, and are dependent upon modern technological conveniences. For example, many, if not most, Dominicans use cellphones, have television sets, and have access to the Internet. This chapter has covered the most fundamental elements of a culture—its language, religion, and diet.