An Afro Dominican Guide
Written by: Saudi Garcia
At a recent Harriet’s Apothecary event in Brooklyn, I joked with a vendor that I needed to learn how to wrap my curly hair in a protective style because as a Dominican, “no one really teaches you how to be black.” With this joke, I was pointing out my feelings that Blackness and African culture in the D.R. are tacitly embedded into who we are, but not enunciated, reflected upon or acknowledged enough. This leads people to erroneous and generalizing assumption that Dominicans “don’t know that they are black” or that they hate the traits that make them part of the African diaspora.
Yet, if Dominicans were entirely unaware of their own blackness, why would they spend time, money and effort to approximate whiteness in their hair texture and skin color? Such actions may indicate that Dominicans have internalized the feelings of inadequacy that come from facing discrimination while existing at the imperialist and colonialist cross-hairs of two powerful majority-white societies: Spain and the United States. Efforts to dissemble the African features of the majority of Dominicans (in particular women) and to police the color line between Dominicans and Haitians on the island and African-Americans in the U.S. through everyday discourse and even legal actions only highlight that for many Dominicans, blackness is so inherent, so ingrained in our makeup that it has required a constant, anxious, white supremacy-rooted system of policing and regulation.
And for a long time, this system has been largely successful in producing an Iberian-steeped, state-sanctioned vision of Dominican identity. The majority of representations of Dominicaness focus on the Spanish and European influence on the island, rather than the Afro-influence that has been discussed in many previous articles in La Galería Magazine. As Marylin Zuniga recently wrote for La Galería, our island and its diaspora “is in need of a new narrative” about Blackness and the fight for our freedom from the various intersecting “-isms” that limit our opportunities.
In the recent “Black Dominican Studies” edition of The Black Scholar, editors Raj Chetty and Amaury Rodriguez challenge the prevailing assumption about Dominicans’ relationship to blackness. They write that “exaggerated attention to Dominican xenophobic nationalism and Dominicans’ supposed denial of their own African heritage can only lead to the conclusion that Dominicans are not invested in forging ties with their international brothers and sisters in the region nor even in the U.S., this distorted view of Dominican society is a disservice to social change, not only in the Dominican Republic, but also in neighboring Haiti and elsewhere in the Americas,” (2015: 3).
A project of highlighting the black roots of Dominican culture then carries with it the possibility of building radical solidarity with our Haitian [and other Caribbean] neighbors, the kind of solidarity that comes from mutual respect and a shared sense of identity as people of the African diaspora. It looks to the past for inspiration: To the slave rebellions and the maroon communities of the colonial period; the anti-imperialist struggles against the Spanish and the solidarity with Haiti in fighting against France in the 19th century; to the Black internationalism of Carlos A. Cooks, the sugar cane worker-led strike in the 1940s and its present day iteration in the movement for pensions led by cane cutters. What I am proposing is not simply accepting the knowledge that Dominican culture is rooted in Africa. Instead I am proposing a loud and proud claiming of that ancestry.
My goal is to move away from denigrating Dominicans as “ignorant” of their blackness and instead highlight the culture makers, artists and activists que estan poniendo en alto the African ancestry that is tacitly embedded in our cultural makeup. The first part of my “Afro-Dominican Resource Guide” highlights the music, aesthetics, artistic production and activism that can nourish, encourage and support a rising Afro-Dominican consciousness. Here, I make the distinction between identity and consciousness: Identity can sometimes be a point of rest, a place that we need to arrive to for our own sake, but that can sometimes be static (I am a woman. I am Dominican. I am Black, I am at the intersection of these and more, etc.) Consciousness, on the other hand, is ever evolving and reflecting, constantly seeking new knowledge and enchanted, disappointed, in love and heartbroken by what it finds.
This guide points to strides that Dominicans in many areas are making towards embracing and enunciating blackness and provides the beginnings of an open conversation that invites contribution from readers. It cannot cover all subjects and is bound to my blind spots as someone who lives in the diaspora and is less aware, for example, of Afro-Dominican religious practices through Las 21 Divisiones.
Music and spoken word that point to our specific brand of Dominican blackness can feel like a balm and an affirmation at the very same time. For this reason, I curated a sound-track on Soundcloud.com that includes musica de palos; Afro-affirming merengue and bachata songs; Latino USA’s coverage of recent Dominican activism in the U.S. to protest the denationalization of Dominicans of Haitian descent; Afropop Worldwide’s 2009 episode on Afro-Dominican music and spoken word by several artists, including La Galería’s own Amanda Alcantara.
Merengue and bachata are not the only rhythms that figure prominently in the Dominican musical tradition. According to Dr. Martha Ellen Davis, “The Dominican long-drums (palos or atabales) are associated with Afro-Dominican religious brotherhoods (cofradías) as the voice of their patron saints. The Dominican cofradías are derived from the medieval Mediterranean phenomenon of guild-based societies, each associated with a parish.” Cofradias were established by the first Africans who arrived on the island in 1502 and were converted to Christianity. While palos have been played prominently in local communities, Kinito Mendez’s 2002 album “A Palo Limpio” brought more attention on this musical form.
Musica de Palos continues to be played and enjoyed in religious and ritual celebrations in communities all around the island and the diaspora. The documentary Cimarron Spirit highlights the celebrations of the descedants of maroon communities in Elias Pina and Barahona. According to the film makers, “These resilient and resourceful “outlaws” have long developed their own celebrations, many of which mock a society that enslaved and branded them…Our documentary examines cimarrón syncretic cultural celebrations and beliefs that are full of magic, fantasy and popular religiosity.” In New York City, the group Gaga Pal’ Pueblo is a steady presence in the Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood each summer. Dancing to palos lifts my spirits up and reminds me that my ancestors forged a culture and a world all on their own and that their strength lives within me.
Two female artists, separated by more than thirteen years and by the Atlantic Ocean, have produced songs highlighting their experiences as afro-descendant Dominican women. Dominican-born and Spain-raised MC Arianna Puello’s 2003 “Asi es la Negra” not only shouts out Caribbean queen Celia Cruz, it also scorches haters and racists alike with these lyrics:
No soy morena, soy negra ¡apréndetelo!
No te equivoques conmigo ¡recuerdalo!
Oye racista ignorante, asúmelo.
Vas a tener que aguantarme,
si vuelvo a nacer quiero ser lo que ahora soy,
de la misma raza, mismo sexo y condición.
Maluca La Mala, known for her psychedelic club anthems like “El Tigeraso,” recently dropped a track whose opening lines highlight her “pelo malo, pelo suelto como una bruja,” and the allure it produces. Last but not least is Rita Indiana y los Misterios’ “Da Pa’ Lo Do” a song and video that serves as an allegory on Dominican-Haitian relations, pointing out that Dominicans and Haitians have “Dos ojos, dos pies, dos manos/Es que somos hermanos.” This video was recently analyzed by Karen Jaime, who argues that Rita Indiana critiques “the prevalent narrative in the Dominican Republic where Haiti often figures as the “dark” counter-image and threat against which a Dominican nationalism is discursively constructed as within the realm of whiteness.”
Aesthetics and Art
Aesthetics and art are spaces where Afro-Dominicans can express their frustrations with cultural norms and social injustices. It is also a space where we can curate an image of ourselves that feels more authentic than the often white-washed visions offered by mainstream accounts of Dominicanidad. In this article, aesthetics refers to practices associated with one’s own body, while art represents a more formalized medium for political and social messages. These two categories are by all means not mutually exclusive.
My Afro-Dominican aesthetic is tied to my identity as a woman, a fact that is historically important in the context of the policing of female bodies in order to blanquear la raza, or achieve a higher degree of whiteness. In the Dominican context, an everyday war is waged upon the bodies of women when they are told who to marry, how much time to spend in the sun, the necessity of lightening their skin and how to style their hair. Women experience constant pressures to straighten their hair in order to take photos for their cedulas, attend school, receive proper service in public institutions and even go to work.
“Tu Afro No Cabe En La Foto” by Alex Guerrero (2015) (Paper, 22” by 30”) Exhibited at La Lucha: Dominican Republic and Haiti, One Island.
Given that hair is such an important avenue for expressing blackness, learning how to care for my hair is an important way for me to affirm my identity. This choice to provide tender love and care for my curly hair has been made easier by Carolina Contrera’s Miss Rizos salon. According to Sandra E. Garcia, “The mantra at Miss Rizos is ‘Yo amo mi pajón,’ or “I love my puffy, or Afro-like, hair.” It’s an attempt to aid in the discovery of the beauty in natural hair.”
Dominican women like Carolina Contreras continue to make progress in creating spaces that allow other women and girls to embrace Blackness and be proud of their heritage. Furthermore, on November 30th, 2015, the feminist and decolonial scholar Ochy Curiel hosted a conference at the Fundacion Juan Bosch titled “El sentido politico del afro: La experiencia de la activista afro-americana Angela Davis.” According to Acento.com, Curiel’s talk discussed the cultural and political significance of the Afro through the experiences of Angela Davis, an intellectual, educator and militant revolutionary of the U.S. who was an activist against the oppression of African Americans and women in her nation. Such a discussion connects the everyday subversive practice of wearing curly hair in the D.R. to global struggles for black liberation and political activism.
Moving into the realm of visual art and performance, Marily Gallardo and her Kalalú Danza Artes Escenicas Afroantillanas school provides the young women of Los Mercedes, Villa Mella with a safe place to connect to their ancestry through dance. According to the project’s funding page, “Kalalú was founded 14 years ago in the rural area of Los Mercedes, Villa Mella. The tradition of salves is indigenous to this rural zone. The school promotes the practice of local traditions such as the music, song and dance of salve and gaga; and focuses its teaching on the exploration, discipline, and self-sustainability of its community using the interdisciplinary arts.”
Perhaps following on the footsteps of the great Dominican performer Josefina Baez, recently, several spoken word artists have burst onto the scene to offer their stories on finding their blackness and reconciling it with their Dominican cultural upbringing. Elizabeth Acevedo and Gabriel Ramirez’s poems “Hair” and “On Realizing I am Black” point to the ways that claiming Blackness as a Dominican is a struggle to reconcile not just the often negative messages from family and friends that invalidate the Afro-Dominican identity, but also the pain that is deeply ingrained within the African diaspora experience in the Americas.
Each poem is concerned with the ways that embracing Blackness as a Dominican is a complex journey that prompts an analysis our relationships to our elders and ancestors, to the systems of power in the United States and the Dominican Republic, and to our own sense of self-esteem, authenticity and self-worth.
Acevedo shares: “My mother tells me to fix my hair
And so many words remain unspoken
And all I can say is
You can’t fix what was never broken”
Ramirez writes: “I am not ugly
I am who allows you to be beautiful
Now, isn’t that the blackest thing
You’ve ever heard God say?”
The artwork of Scherezade Garcia, Firelei Baez, Joiri Minaya and Carlos Jesus Martinez Dominguez touches upon topics that are at the intersection of the Dominican experience of race, gender and sexuality as well as migration, displacement and translation. Some of these artists showcased their work at an art show started by artist Yelaine Rodriguez titled “La Lucha: DOM & HTI”. Also, The Taller Puertorriqueño comments that in their upcoming February 12th joint show “Unpacking Hispañola,” Garcia and Baez both are “channeling their own racialized experiences in the United States, [to] explore both Dominican and U.S. African-derived culture and history, challenging constructed racial hierarchies and inequalities in both countries.” Each artist contributes to re-readings of Dominicanidad in ways that are innovative and that mix media to create immersive and sometimes iconoclastic experiences.
For Dominicans on the journey to developing and embracing a renewed narrative and consciousness around matters of race, it is important to remember that blackness is global, despite the many narratives that try to limit it. This means that our expressions of identity will not necessary look like those of African-Americans, Africans or even other Afro-Latinos, regardless of the many cultural affinities we share. What matters is moving to an authentic vision of ourselves as individuals that were “raised Dominican, found Black” as Gabriel Ramirez put it. The goal is to make our cultural and racial heritage richer so that it may be passed down to future generations to counteract the negative messages that they may receive about themselves as Afro-descendants living in white supremacist societies.
 However, in the past few months, I have away moved from the debates about whether DR’s blackness should be understood within the context of the one –drop rule that applies to African-descendent folks in the U.S, or whether it should be understood within the context of the Moreno/Indio/Negro colorist spectrum that operates in the Dominican context. The fact that both of these systems are rooted in white supremacist ways of thinking often goes unremarked. In the U.S., the one-drop rule deeming that anyone with any kind of African ancestry, no matter how distant, was therefore a black person was used to disenfranchise women in the U.S. Claiming that women should be considered as Black because of whatever amount of African descent allowed white men to violate women with impunity, cohabitate with them and not support the children that were born out of wedlock in these unions. The Moreno/Indio/Negro colorist spectrum (and other variants of it in other places in Latin America) that is prevalent in the D.R. functions as a “Pigmentocracy” in which individuals with lighter skin and European-looking features are given preferential treatment in society.