Black in a Foreign Land: In Defense of Dominican Identity

I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic until I was two months shy of turning 13. The Dominican Republic has a peculiar color metric system--not necessarily on race. So it should go without saying that I wasn't exposed to the clear cut Americentric, and very binary, concept of race in America until I set foot in the United States.

Since a very young age, I was aware of how both colorism and classism were prevalent back in the island. I noticed how people were treated and often saw how the socioeconomic standing of an individual trumped their color--up to a point if we're to test folks by the brown paper bag. I've said once or twice that a Black man with money is more white than a white poor man. In a third world country where the majority of people are mulattoes, and most of the darker population would be of Haitian descent, you'd be hard pressed not to find people of most shades within families. Some of those family members were better off than others, and often, I've found, they could be of any shade.

Of course, like any nation of the world colonized by Europeans, power and wealth is usually concentrated with their descendants, but it would be dishonest to say that most of the power and wealth in the Dominican Republic is owned and controlled solely by its small white population. There are people of color (and visibly so), in most power and entertainment structures. A lot more, I dare say, than most Latin American countries. If we go by the one drop rule, there have been Black public figures, Black businesspeople, Black athletes, Black entertainers, Black generals, Black presidents, and so on. If you put them next to most African Americans, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

Yes, I clearly recall the exaltations of anyone possessing "good hair" and anything to do with white: skin color, eye color, among others. [I wouldn't go as far as to make European standards of beauty based on symmetry standard since symmetrical people tend to exist in all races and ethnicities and, they too, are preferred without European influence. Universal standards of facial beauty exist and are influenced, to some degree, by resources (or lack thereof) and culture. Still, divine proportion (or 1 to 1.618), is as powerful as European standards of beauty to Dominicans, perhaps more, when choosing a mate. So much so that that has influenced Dominican culture to the point of exalting Black beauty based on universal symmetrical preference.] However, there are culturally relevant poems, popular songs, odes, paintings, conversations--you name it-- dedicated to Black women. Or, more endearingly, morenas. That includes Haitian women. Some would argue that that is only reserved for Black women, but that isn't the case. There's also the revered morenazo, a term reserved for tall, good-looking Black men. Both are desired more than white, albeit, through a somewhat sexualized lens but, then again, Black folks would not have visible positions in the aforementioned structures if they weren't seen beyond sex.

There are also derogatory terms reserved for white Dominicans and foreigners, too. Something hardly spoken about in popular discourse when discussing race and ethnicity in the Dominican Republic, just the same as the lack of mention of classism and the exaltation of Black beauty. Terms such as "pan blanco" (white bread) and "gringo de mierda" (fucking gringo) are often used to either make fun of or denounce American and European influence. And, like most Latin American countries, the Dominican Republic looks at white "invaders" (American and European tourists, expats, businessmen, etc,) and Dominican-born, with suspicion. Still, there is an obvious preference for white and Dominicans are indeed a happy, hospitable people despite their reservations with white foreigners. It's important to note that abject poverty and rampant under and unemployment plays a part in Dominicans' preference for wanting to marry a white foreigner.

White and foreign is usually associated with wealth. They are seen as an escape to their permanent underclass situation, and besides looking to "aclarar la raza" (advance the race), by marrying white, they're more concerned with marrying up than anything. Dominicans are very concerned with taking care of their families and being seen as wealthy a hell of a lot more, I dare say, than wanting to have lighter children. Collectivism trumps rugged individualism--so taking care of our extended families comes before our need to intra-marry. And, being that they associate white and foreign with money, it's no brainer that they would be preferred no matter how asymmetrical they might be. If money wasn't an issue, skin color, I highly doubt, would be as potent when choosing a partner. In fact, most Dominicans would probably choose a person of color before a white one. This can be seen by the mulato (or Black) partners, concubines, and chulos, numerous Dominicans leave (because they financially have to) or go back to visit after marrying white foreigners and becoming sojourners. That could all mean culture is calling them, but that doesn't account for having children with them or dumping their white partners for them once they amass enough wealth and have foreign residency. Of course, that isn't always the case.

I wasn't always concerned with race or color as much until I moved to the States. In fact, I didn't even think of race or saw myself as a minority--which comes with an innumerable amount of issues that influence the thinking patterns, health (mental, physical, and financial), and worldview of a newly racially and ethnically "maligned" people that rarely escape the "other" box. Perhaps because (and even though) we are an array of colors, Dominicans see themselves as a monolithic people and are more apt to separate each other based on region and class than color.

Full disclosure: I am what I would call an in-between. Not too light and not too dark. These observations can and will be influenced by the level of colorism I experienced--very low. So my words should not hold more weight than that of a darker Dominican and his/her experiences. I was also American-educated and I'm looking back at a people from a very Americanized point of view, but I like to think being a 1.5 generation and enough anthropology gives me more of an edge on objectivity than a foreigner or an American-born Dominican who has been indoctrinated and etched into their DNA American concepts of race. We risk becoming paternalistic and disguise our judgment and condemnation of foreign lands through American concepts of social justice. No different than when we invade foreign lands of people of color to supplant their theocracies and leftist governments with faux democracy.

Dominicans, just like any other people of the world, have the right to come up with their own identifiers without judgment or interference as long as they aren't subjugating any group of people. Wanting equality is a universal human trait, and being that the Dominican Republic has also been colonized by white supremacy, racism and colorism is prevalent, to an extent. Although, it shouldn't be enough to hold anti-Dominican sentiments like most people have in the States when discussing the dire situation of Haitian immigrants and their Dominican-born descendants. Because that hate ricochets to most innocent Dominicans who have absolutely no power to be racist, and it trickles down to those even more powerless than them; Haitian immigrants and their Dominican-born descendants themselves.

In here, I will embrace the Black or Afro-Latino identity because I have been treated like I am Black. But if Dominicans want to call me mixed, trigueño, or mulato, I have no problem with that either for neither identifier is greater or better than the other. And even though I'll continue to tell Dominicans to embrace their negritude (I have yet to meet one Dominican who says they have no African ancestry) and call myself a Black man in front of them in the States and in the Dominican Republic, I'll be damned if I try to force American concepts of race down their throats in their own land and enclaves. They can think and elevate themselves without my American savior complex. For imperialism is still imperialism even if it comes in the form of social justice and thought.

How would it make us any different than our oppressors if we judge and try to rescue others based on the same concepts our oppressors judge and subjugate us by? Does pan-Africanism skip the Dominican Republic? Or is the Dominican Republic only a negro nation for your condemnation? If you have the answers: Please educate us.

César Vargas is a writer, producer, advocate and social media PR and marketing strategist. He founded UPLIFTT (United People for Latinos in Film TV and Theater) and is president of Burning Ones Productions. His op-eds have been published on Fox News Latino, NBC Latino, Okayplayer, as well as his own blog at upliftt.com. He was named 40 under 40: Latinos in American Politics. You can reach him at vargas365@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @CesarVargas365 and Facebook: www.facebook.com/CesarVargas365.