My Caribbean: 5 Vignettes


Sep 6, 2011


The lobby of the upscale resort where I was staying in Santo Domingo in late spring was a study in the colonial legacy of my mother country. There was a litter of mostly white men dressed in business casual and local women in every hue of brown feigning interest in them. The men cast knowing looks in my direction, undoubtedly mistaking me for a prostitute too.

It isn’t easy to place me. Although I was born in New York City, both of my parents are from here, and I lived nearby in Urbanizaci?n Para?so with my maternal grandparents when I was a child. I may have been rolling sans suit, but I was in town on my own business, filming part of a documentary. While the rest of the small crew I was traveling with filed upstairs to unwind, this dominiyorkian was looking for a much-needed ice-cold bottle of Presidente beer, to reflect on my time there.

So I headed for the bar, passing by the seemingly endless hallway to the left, the one festooned with tawdry frames featuring pictures of the Dominican Republic’s one-time F?hrer Rafael Trujillo chilling there in his heyday. The images were a contrast to the current and mostly unreported proletarian awakening of African and indigenous consciousness, especially among younger folks.

The island’s real history is too complicated to frame and hang on a wall. The Dominican Republic is the place where Christopher Columbus set up his second settlement in the New World, nearby in the Zona Colonial. However, that part of colonial history wasn’t what we were in country to see. We had spent one day navigating dirt roads and unmarked turnoffs to the ruins of two former colonial sugar mills, Engombe and Boca de Nigua, with the Caribbean historian Frank Moya Pons as our guide. As we stood on that sacred ground, he told us that in 1796, 200 slaves at Boca de Nigua rose up against the Spanish, setting the sugar cane fields and surrounding buildings ablaze. I dug my hands into the earth, trying to imagine those events playing out around me as the cows peacefully grazed nearby.

The next morning we started out at the Cuevas de las Marravillas, an ancient Taino cave about two hours outside of Santo Domingo, near San Pedro de Macor?s, where my father’s mother was born. Her mitochondrial DNA revealed a direct maternal connection to the indigenous people of the island. Those original inhabitants used the caves for religious and funeral rights, and for shelter against the forces of nature that sometimes ravaged the island. One petroglyph depicted what looked like a helmeted Spaniard, which made me shudder. And still, though we were literally enclosed in history, I felt something wasn’t quite right. The cave was so overly renovated it felt as if we were walking through an art installation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. An employee, likely sensing my dissatisfaction, pointed me to Pomier, a less-gentrified cluster of 55 caves she said contained some of the oldest and finest pre-Columbian rock art in the Caribbean.

We made a dash for our bus and drove for what seemed like hours. After a long wait, the unofficial boss man arrived on the back of a rickety moped. The jefe was a tall and imposing older man decked out in a military-issued uniform. His grin was both wide and menacing at the same time. I’ve seen that face before, on sketchy policemen in Rio, Tangier and Freetown.

After begging him to let us film the cave, the jefe left without saying a word, and a tall young man from a nearby hood, dressed in a neon green YMCA Camp T-shirt, long plaid shorts and flip-flops, appeared in his stead. He carried two small flashlights and began the tour with the uninflected tone of someone who would have rather been anywhere else. But his knowledge of the caves was masterful and his love for them fierce. He recounted an epic saga between the community and the companies that have put these caves in danger by quarrying limestone nearby.

Seeing the depictions of life before the Western invasion — and right before the cave’s inevitable gentrification — was mind-blowing. But all along, I felt a chill, as if this may not end well. Different scenarios played out in my mind, all ending with the jefe robbing us, and maybe worse. We emerged safely, though, passing by what looked like a used condom at the cave’s entrance before heading back to the hotel.

Later, sipping my rimy beer, I was grateful. The universe had allowed us to retrace humankind’s historic footprints. As the breeze shrouded me in its warmth, I felt it was well worth those moments of uncertainty.

RAQUEL CEPEDA is a filmmaker and the author of “Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina.”