Dominicans in Denial

In visiting the Dominican Republic, The Root's editor-in-chief discovers that its citizens claim they're anything but black.

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Perhaps I was overreacting. Still ... I wondered if there were any monuments to the Dominican Republic's black heroes. I looked around hopefully, but I saw nothing suggesting a connection to blackness in this quasi-Spanish square.

(Of course, in the United States, we celebrate all those early European ancestors because we believe that the Native Americans don't count as much, having been driven off their land or killed, and because we believe that we are all descended from those early Europeans in an almost cosmic sense. I think that even African Americans share a version of this, though of course they interpret the story of colonial America through a filter of slavery, and -- unlike the way Mexicans and Peruvians might see their relationship to the conquistadors -- most African Americans don't see themselves as having been colonized.)

I asked my driver, Adolfo Guerrero, if he could take me to such a monument. He turned his head one way and then the other, looked back at me and shrugged. The quizzical expression on his face spoke volumes. I did find a statue eventually, honoring Lemba, a great leader of the Maroon slaves in the 16th century. It was positioned not in the central square but at the entrance of the Museo del Hombre Dominicano in Santo Domingo. But that discovery was still in the future.



I told my driver about my project, learning about the black experience in Latin America, and I asked him about blackness in the Dominican Republic. He told me amiably that Dominicans don't think of themselves as black. They call themselves indio instead, in a reference to the color of their skin, echoing a myth about the extent of their genetic descent from the island's indigenous inhabitants.

I knew those tribes were long gone from the island. So I asked him to define indio for me more clearly. I wanted to understand why the term is used to describe a people who, back home in the States, would be described as black. But he struggled to find an explanation that would satisfy me.

It seems that anyone who isn't white -- whether the person is lightly tan, medium brown or dark black -- self-identifies as indio. It is more about being Dominican, he explained, than being African or indigenous. Who is black? Who is "negro"? Why, the Haitians!

And the fact is that if we applied the United States' "one-drop rule" to Dominicans and made Indian ancestry that one drop, most Dominicans would, in fact, be descended from Taíno roots, as DNA evidence reveals quite clearly. I sat back, thinking about that, as we neared the hotel.

The Dominican Republic was born a Spanish colony named Santo Domingo, and as it became a maturing nation, its Eurocentric ruling elites identified it as Caribbean but proudly declared that its heritage was primarily "Spanish, Catholic and white." And this in a country where mitochondrial-DNA evidence reveals, as the anthropologist Juan Rodríguez pointed out to me, that "85 percent of the residents ... have African ancestry, 9.4 percent Indian and less than 0.08 percent European! And on the father's side, through Y-DNA, we now know that only 1 percent of us descend from an Indian male and 36 percent from an African male. Yet the average person here describes their race as indio."