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Race and Dominicanness: A struggle for identity
Understanding race in the Dominican Republic can be a difficult and confusing task. The composition of Dominican society is influenced by a mixture of race, culture, history, and politics which has created an interesting mosaic of people, but it is understanding how Dominicans view themselves through these classifiers, and its effects on this society, that is difficult. What can be even more demanding is understanding how in the Dominican Republic there is an almost endless variety of classifications for skin colors, pseudo-race classifications, that encompass the whole skin color spectrum, without ever including Black (African) as a possibility. Fascinating also is the way that some Dominicans seemingly ignore some basic racial identifiers to justify their appearance, and ultimately their history. It is as if some Dominicans have created their own rules for understanding race. Though the origins of this confusing system can be traced as far back as the time of Columbus, and the Tainos who originally inhabited the island, it takes careful analysis of the racial, and “racialized,” history to come to understand the many layers in the island’s racial dichotomies.

When race is mentioned in the Dominican Republic the almost non-existent Taino culture is at the crux of the conversation, seemingly and somewhat purposely, ignoring the African influence on the country, and at the same time praising the European background of Dominicans. If we look back almost 400 years in Dominican history we begin to unravel the origins of this occurrence. In 1492 Christopher Columbus landed on Hispaniola, the island that now includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This event initiated what is believed to be by some as the Western Hemisphere’s first known genocide. Upon Columbus’s arrival there were an estimated 3 million Taino Indians inhabiting Hispaniola. As the need for development and exploitation of the natural resources grew, the Taino were looked upon to provide the physical labor needed for the development of the colonial economies. Unfortunately for the enslaved Taino they were not physically suited to the harshness of mining, building, or sugar cultivation. Similarly, initial physical contact with the Europeans proved just as destructive, as the Tainos weren’t prepared for the introduction of European diseases like smallpox or chickenpox. In the end death was what awaited the native inhabitants. In the first 20 years of Spanish presence on Hispaniola, (of which the eastern two-thirds would become the Dominican Republic) the Taino population dwindled to an estimated 60,000 natives, and in the next 30 years the population would be reduced to almost 5,000 native inhabitants, a decline of almost 98% of the indigenous population. An astonishing event, substantiated by these wrenching figures, this systematic annihilation of the indigenous population was thought to be just as unbelievable four hundred years ago. Future champion of indigenous rights Friar Bartolome de las Casas recalled that, "there were 60,000 people living on this island [when I arrived in 1508], including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery and the mines.” Even de las Casas pondered the credibility of these figures exclaiming, “Who in future generations will believe this?"

With so few Indians left on the island the remaining Taino Caciques (chiefs) fled to neighboring islands, or to the hills of Hispaniola, in the hope of saving their people. As fewer and fewer communities remained, war was the only survival option for the remaining natives. Of these, it was one native leader in particular who would come to be immortalized as the quintessential image of Dominicans. Enriquillo, a convert to Christianity who had been mentored by Bartolome de las Casas, would lead one of the final native rebellions. Beginning in 1519, Enriquillo led, what would become a 15-year war against the Spaniards, in hopes of freeing his people, and expelling the colonizers. Due to Enriquillo’s leadership, and the Tainos’ knowledge of the land, the Spaniards were forced to surrender to Enriquillo’s demands. In return for freedom, and rights of possession, Enriquillo promised to return any runaway slaves, who were increasingly of African descent. But this would eventually be of little consequence, as the decreased native population would eventually come under Spanish control. Nonetheless, from these events, a hero emerged, and the model of the Dominican image was formed.
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