Taíno Tales

Stephen Henighan

A package-deal paradise reputation curtails gringo knowledge of Dominican life.

Few countries are more visited, or less understood, than the Dominican Republic. The package tourists who book flights to Puerto Plata and Punta Cana see nothing of the nation where they toast their bodies in the sun. Ferried by bus from tourist-only airports to all-inclusive resorts, they interact only with each other and with the resorts’ English-speaking personnel. The Dominican Republic attracts six million tourists a year, the most of any Caribbean destination. The tourism boom has made this country of just fewer than 13 million people the largest economy in the Caribbean or Central America. Travelling on the clean, efficient subway system, which carries 35, riders a day around the capital of Santo Domingo, you feel that you are in a modern metropolis. Yet Dominican democracy is troubled. During a recent visit, I saw the governing party block most of downtown Santo Domingo’s streets for a political rally. The opposition’s rally the next night was confined by official mandate to areas where it would not disrupt traffic. I was told that a journalist who wrote an article exposing government corruption had been jailed. In spite of these stains, the Dominican Republic is more stable and prosperous than nearly all comparable countries in our hemisphere. Why don’t we know more about it?

One of the paradoxes of Dominican tourism is that the country’s reputation as a package-deal paradise drives away more adventurous travellers. The backpackers who are drawn to Peru, Chile or Guatemala avoid the Dominican Republic, even though its varied landscape of mountains, lakes and mangrove swamps offers much to explore. The dearth of independent tourism curtails gringo street knowledge of Dominican life. Having studied and taught Latin American literature and culture at various universities, I’m aware that the Dominican Republic is a country that is understudied. Its literature is almost unread beyond its borders. The two best-known novelists on Dominican themes are the Dominican-Americans Julia Alvarez and Junot Díaz, both of whom write in English. Novels such as Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies and Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are reminders that the Dominican Republic’s stability has emerged from the long shadow of dictatorship.

The dictator Rafael Trujillo treated the Dominican Republic as his private fiefdom from 193 until his assassination in 1961, torturing, raping and murdering at will. For four decades after Trujillo’s death, the country’s allegiances were divided between two cultured, yet authoritarian, men of nearly unadulterated European heritage. Joaquín Balaguer, a poet and essayist who had been Trujillo’s puppet president, had the backing of the United States in spite of the many human rights abuses he committed. Juan Bosch, an essayist and short story writer, was feared by Washington. Bosch was the better writer of the pair: with the exception of the elegant mid-twentieth-century literary critic Pedro Henríquez Ureña, he is virtually the only Dominican writer whose work is familiar to readers in other Spanish-speaking countries. But Bosch made it to the presidency only once, for seven months in 1963, before being overthrown by a military coup. In 1965, when he threatened to return to power, 42, US Marines invaded the country to prevent a Bosch presidency.

Bosch and Balaguer lived into their nineties, dying in 21 and 22 respectively. Bosch’s heirs have ruled the country for most of the years since, growing corrupt and losing their reformist zeal. The rift between the two men’s supporters remains an open sore. In Cuesta Libros, Santo Domingo’s largest bookstore, more than half of the books in the Dominican literature section are by either Balaguer or Bosch. As I paid for a collection of Bosch’s stories, the woman standing behind me in the check-out line said in a loud voice: “Imagine paying money for something written by Juan Bosch!”

The most destructive tension in the Dominican Republic is race. In 215, in Montreal, I attended a talk by Junot Díaz. Moving to the United States as a child, Díaz said, had made him realize that his family was essentially “African-American.” He recounted how badly his relatives in the Dominican Republic reacted when he shared this insight with them. In conversation, Dominicans speak enthusiastically of their descent from the Taíno Indigenous people. By the late sixteenth century, though, European diseases, mistreatment and miscegenation had put an end to recognizable Taíno communities in the Dominican Republic. While many Dominicans probably carry small amounts of Taíno DNA, the majority of the population is primarily descended from the enslaved Africans imported by the Spanish colonizers to replace the Taínos as a labour force. Eighty-six percent of the population is either African-descended, or of mixed African and Spanish heritage. Yet, in spite of the audible African influences in Dominican Spanish, and in musical forms such as the bachata, many Dominicans freeze up at the mention of an African legacy.

This reticence comes from history. Where other Spanish American countries gained their independence by fighting against Spanish colonialism, the Dominican Republic was led to independence in 1844 by the Trinitarian Movement: an insurgency of white intellectuals against the occupying army of neighbouring Haiti. To be Dominican, regardless of one’s colour, is to celebrate a victory of whites over Blacks, to repudiate the world’s first Black republic, and by extension, to suppress one’s own blackness. In 1937 the dictator Trujillo, himself one-quarter Haitian, committed genocide against Haitian immigrants, murdering 2, people. This crime, dramatized in novels such as Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat and Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, is the Dominican Republic’s most violent assault on the African heritage. It does not belong to the past. As recently as 215, the country was censured by the United Nations for deporting to Haiti the Dominican-born children and grandchildren of Haitian immigrants. As a thoughtful essay in The Rough Guide to the Dominican Republic notes, “the Taínos have been used by Dominican intellectuals in the past to cover up the nation’s more extensive African background,” a trend perpetuated by “widespread miseducation in schools.” The African-looking Dominicans who eagerly tell visitors of their Spanish and Taíno ancestry have been taught an untruth. If we in the rest of the hemisphere do not understand the Dominican Republic, it may be because Dominicans are reluctant to understand themselves.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.



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