AUTHORAlexis Thomas A junior in the College at Georgetown University, Alexis Thomas is pursuing a double major in Sociology and Spanish. While at Georgetown, she enjoyed working as a volunteer for Jumpstart, a non-profit organization that serves the educational needs...
November 4, 2011
December 14, 2011
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
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Colonial History Creates Religious Syncretism in the Dominican Republic
December 14, 2011 | 1 COMMENT
The statue itself displays the colossal figure of Colón in his glory with a Taíno Indian bowing below him in supplication. This image, combined with the Catholic cathedral behind it, presents a striking embodiment of colonization’s effects on both Dominican culture and thought. The Taíno population was wiped out in the sixteenth century and was replaced by Spanish colonists and African slaves. While the Spanish brought their rigid Catholicism to the island, the Africans brought their own various polytheistic religions.
Unlike slavery in the United States, where whites and blacks were strongly discouraged to cohabitate, slavery in the Dominican Republic experienced a sharp decline, forcing slave owners to often work alongside their slaves. Consequently, a unique culture emerged that possessed both European and African elements. A key example of this is religion.
While the country’s official religion is Catholicism, much of the campo (countryside) practices a form of religious syncretism that employs a strong belief in using certain potions in combination with rites and prayers to bring good fortune to one’s life. Even in Santo Domingo, different oils and lotions for this purpose can be found in the markets.
As my professor of Dominican Language and Culture Carlixta Cedano explained, “Estas creencias son importantísmas a mi gente. Aunque somos una gente mayormente católica, esta es la manera en que fuimos criados.” These beliefs are extremely important to my people. Although most Dominicans are Catholic, this is the way that we were raised.
Reflecting on my professor's explanation and on the religious reverence of the people in general, I believe that an interesting religiosity can be observed at every level of Dominican society. Not only do many Dominicans profess a strong belief in Catholicism, but they also possess a spiritualism whose origins can be traced back to Africa.
The celebration of Carnaval is perhaps the greatest manifestation of this religious syncretism. The celebration occurs before the Catholic period of Lent, and is a time to purge humanity of its shortcomings before the religious holiday. During Carnaval, the people wear masks that mock impurities such as gluttony and greed. They also dance to the rhythms of drums and tambourines while others sing and clap.
Interestingly enough, when I spoke to some Dominicans about Carnaval, many of them made a distinction between carnival-goers and those that do not attend. One woman noted that those that are visible in Church every Sunday are often not avid participators in the lascivious celebration. Likewise, those that celebrate Carnaval every year are not always regular Sunday church-goers. Thus, there exists a wide variety in terms of the people’s degree of devotion.
My own host family represents a common case of Dominican religiosity. They are a modern Catholic family that attends Church regularly, and their children attend Catholic schools. Their beliefs are central to their value system; however they are still open to listening to others’ beliefs. They may participate in some aspects of Carnaval in order to enjoy the processions, but their participation is not integral to their religious experience; Carnaval is more of a cultural manifestation. Thus, it is more important for them to attend Church regularly, yet they will still enjoy the cultural benefits of society in good taste.
Like other Dominican families, my host family possesses a quiet sense of goodwill that stems from their religious beliefs. I was greatly impressed by the kindness shared between neighbors on a daily basis. When someone is experiencing a hardship, Dominican networks of family, neighbors, and friends join to pray and to offer their assistance. They will greet strangers with phrases such as “May God bless you” in passing on sidewalks or in any other public area.
More than anything, Dominican society promotes a sense of community and belonging through religion and a common set of values. Even as a stranger, I experienced much kindness and positivity from many Dominicans.
The Dominicans that I encountered seem to share a common sense of pride and knowledge about their history. In this manner, I was able to learn about colonization and colonialism in ways that I never had before. I was able to look at the statue of Colón and the peering Catholic Cathedral behind it and subsequently draw forth my own inference and understanding.
For me, these two historical landmarks represent a history not only of subjugation, but also of cultural merging and understanding among people from all over the world. Dominicans are a people with both African and European heritage, and this heritage carries over to every part of their modern lives, including religious practice.
RESPONSE TO ALEXIS THOMAS FROM LAURA WEST January 11, 2012
Alexis, well done on your essay. I very much appreciated reading your observations because in them I think you highlight an important trend that I also witnessed while in Ecuador – the reclamation of cultures other than those of European descent.
Unfortunately one of the consequences of Latin America’s colonial history was the devaluing and at times complete subjugation of entire cultures. Although Ecuador does not have a very large Afro-Ecuadorian population, it is the most culturally diverse country in the world with fourteen different indigenous nationalities represented within its borders. Such vast cultural diversity should lend itself to a vibrant national culture that espouses a unique blend of religion, music, customs and traditions. However, with the chronic mistreatment of indigenous peoples in Ecuador their culture was diminished and marginalized.
In the twentieth century the indigenous movement started to take root within the country and progress has been made in strengthening the indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian presence within society. For example Otavalo’s, a small town in northern Ecuador, economic vitality has been restored by the expansion of an artisan market that sells goods made by the surrounding indigenous community. President Rafael Correa, while controversial on some matters, has instituted several measures such as making public addresses in Quechua (one of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in Ecuador) to better include the indigenous population in society.
What most intrigued me about your essay, though, was your observation of the pride that Dominicans feel toward their African and European descent. In Ecuador, only 7% percent of the population self-identifies as indigenous, which is far too low according to some experts and anthropologists. Although one does see a lot more reclamation of the nation’s indigenous roots, I feel that Ecuador still has much to do in terms of harmonizing its very diverse, but beautiful cultures.