One piece of advice that really resonated with me from the first day of orientation was “put yourself out there.” We were also told to step outside of your comfort zone when interacting with Dominicans in Spanish and to carry yourself confidently.  Having only been in the Dominican Republic for less than twenty four hours, I was very conscious of my every move and legitimately terrified to show my true colors to the program staff, my classmates, and the Dominican population. What will they think about me? Am I different than what they are used to? What do I think about them? First impressions are nearly impossible to prepare for because you simply can’t know what to expect. Have you ever thought about changing your appearance to please someone else? This is something we all have at one point or another. In our Poverty and Development class, we have been discussing how Dominicans identify themselves and all of the factors that play into their self-identity placing a strong emphasis on the history of the DR.

It is important to get a better understanding of how someone self-identifies and their reasons why. The racial diversity of the Dominican Republic was largely influenced by the colonization of the island in 1492 by Christopher Columbus.  After the colonization of the Island and the mixture of European and African blood with indigenous Taíno blood, the new mulatto, the Spanish word for mixed race, soon became the dominant race of the Dominican Republi6c, making it a melting pot of light to dark skin tones. Walking around Santiago, the city I currently live in, I can clearly see the diverse mix of races and backgrounds of the Dominican community. Dominican’s have different body types, facial structures, eye colors, hair colors and textures and skin tones. I think their varied skin tones are beautiful, adding even more dimension to their multi-cultural community, but this is not the mindset for many Dominicans.

During the reign of Rafael Trujillo, the infamous dominican dictator who took control of the DR from 1930-1961, the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic turned deadly. Trujillo attempted to “whiten” the Dominican Republic by killing thousands of Haitians, who have predominantly dark skin and created a racial barrier between light-skinned Dominicans and dark-skinned Haitians. Today in the DR, Haitians are often ridiculed because of their race. A unique example of the complexity of races in the DR is the record of a person’s skin tone on their identification card. Each card has a description of their skin tone, for example, Blanco (white) or Indio (darker skinned). There are many different words to describe the color of someone and many ways to define your ancestry. A person’s skin tone is determined by the person issuing their card. Before coming to the Dominican Republic I had a very “black and white” mentality on race. I am accustomed to clearly defined backgrounds and races which is not what I have found to be the case in the DR. The fluidity of race in the Dominican Republic took me by surprise and I am just scratching the surface to understand the complicated background of it all.

It is possible that even after the four months I spend in the Dominican Republic I will still have questions about race and identity. With such a big emphasis put on separating Haitians from Dominicans, is it really worth the trouble in the long-run? Why do we as humans create these categories of race and self-construct differences between our fellow humans? There is so much history that has affected the current opinions on race and identity and it will take me some time to sort through it all.  It will take independent research and direct contact with dominicans to get a better grasp on the topic of race.  It is fascinating that by talking about one aspect of race in the DR, you can open countless other doors to talk about different facets of race. I am grateful to have learned everything I have so far and I look forward to uncovering more of the complexities of race as the semester moves forward.

Hannah Loppnow is studying abroad in Santiago, Dominican Republic, with CIEE.