How Dominican Republic Traditions Work

What's the Dominican Republic like beyond the resorts?
What's the Dominican Republic like beyond the resorts?

Because of its picturesque, white-sand beaches, mountainous landscape and temperate tropical climate, the Dominican Republic is a well-known tourist destination. Its popular resorts and activities make tourism a major industry for the country. So, when most people think of the Dominican Republic, they think of the perfect vacation. Fewer people are familiar with the country's rich history and local traditions, however.

The Dominican Republic makes up the eastern end of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The country neighbors Haiti, which makes up the western end of the island. Today the Dominican Republic is home to nearly 10 million people, the majority of whom are mulatto. Most Dominicans are also Spanish-speaking and Roman Catholic.

To understand the traditions of the Dominican people, we’ll have to take a look back at the country’s past for context. Its history is one riddled with political and civil tensions. When Columbus arrived with the Spanish in 1492, he found an island inhabited by a group of indigenous people known as the Taínos, an Arawak-speaking culture. These people lived in villages and were hunters and gatherers as well as having a limited knowledge of agriculture and farming.

Unfortunately, due to disease brought over by the colonists and harsh working conditions that they were forced into, the Taíno population on the island dwindled from approximately a million to a mere 500 in the matter of a just 50 years [source: U.S. Department of State]. It didn’t take long for the Spanish colonists to bring in slaves from Africa to replace the Taíno workers on the plantations.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, control over what is now the Dominican Republic changed hands several times. The Haitians conquered the whole island in 1822 before the Dominicans gained independence in 1844. In the 1860s, the Dominicans ceded control back to the Spanish for four years before getting independence again. After a U.S. occupation between 1916 and 1924, the Dominicans established a democratically elected government. However, this did not end the political strife that continued on and off throughout the 20th century.

Despite the country's fractured past, however, some traditions have endured.

The Dominican Republic's Traditional Food

Like many traditions that have survived in the Dominican Republic, the cuisine is a blend of Spanish, African and even Taíno influences. The particular type of cuisine is known as comida criolla, which is also found in other Caribbean areas and adapts classic Spanish and African recipes to indigenous ingredients and Taino cooking methods.

Dominican cuisine is generally heavy on starches, and the commonly used starches include rice, potatoes, yucca, cassava and bananas. One of the most popular dishes in the Dominican Republic -- and one you'll find on nearly every restaurant menu -- is la bandera ("the flag"). La bandera is a meal of stewed meat over white rice with beans (usually red beans), fried green plantains and salad. Another common dish is a sweet bean soup with root vegetables known as habichuela con dulche. And the Dominicans' variation on the Spanish dish of paella is known as locrio, which uses rice colored with achiote instead of saffron.

Bananas and plantains are especially popular in the Dominican Republic, and are commonly boiled, stewed and candied. Mangu is a popular recipe, which consists of boiled and mashed plantains. You can also mash boiled plantains with garlic, olive oil and pork rinds to make Mofongo.

Popular meats in the Dominican Republic are pork, beef, chicken and even goat. A roast pork dish, known as lechon asado, is particularly popular, as well as cuchifrito, which is a stew of pork innards. Roast beef served with ham, onion and spice garnish is known as carne mechada. Goat meat stewed with a tomato sauce or roast leg of goat with rum and cilantro are also favorites.

So, although the Dominican Republic isn't considered one of the world's culinary leaders, you'll find plenty of delicious local fare to feast on.

The Dominican Republic's Traditional Clothing

A 20-peso bill, which features the image of Gregorio Luperón wearing 19th-century military clothing.
A 20-peso bill, which features the image of Gregorio Luperón wearing 19th-century military clothing.

The traditional clothing of the Dominican Republic is predominantly a result of Spanish and African influences. Even if the Taíno population hadn’t shrunk to next to nothing under Spanish rule, they’d still have little to pass down in the way of clothing traditions. That’s because they didn’t really wear much of anything.

As Columbus noted in his correspondence to the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, “the people of this island... all go naked, men and women, as their mothers bore them” [source: Deagan]. However, he did add that some women cover themselves with a loincloth. Indeed, it was only married women who were expected to cover themselves in the Taíno culture. They wore short skirts called nagua.

The little fabric the Taínos wore was made of cotton or pounded bark fibers. However, they did wear jewelry of bone, shell and gold (which make up some of the few artifacts that we have left of the Taínos). They also were known to paint themselves for rituals or going into battle. Historians have pointed out that the heavily clothed Spanish, who probably seemed just as strange to the naked Taíno, were at a disadvantage in the Tropical climate, as the natives were able to smell their presence before an attempted ambush [source: Deagan].

However, the Spanish prevailed, of course, and so did their culture. Although the Taíno population was struggling, intermarriage with the Spanish was common. By 1514, it is believed that approximately 40 percent of the male Spanish colonists had taken Taíno wives or concubines [source: Forte]. Though intermarriage helped continue the Taíno race, these women were expected to take on Spanish beliefs and customs, including clothing, such as long, colorful dresses.

Carnival, a traditional Dominican celebration with medieval European roots still lives to this day. It features colorful masks and characters in elaborate costumes, including a horned devil. Today, Dominicans have largely adopted U.S. styles, but many still take pride in their dress. For instance, many men wear long pants and dress shirts even in the heat. If tourists want to fit in, they should plan to dress smartly, especially if they plan on going to a church for Mass.

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