CULTURE: How the African Diaspora Left It’s Mark on the DR

In the Dominican Republic we often spend a lot of time talking about the Taíno and European contributions to our culture and identity and so little about African contributions. Part of it is intentional and another factor is pure ignorance, many in rural areas (so most of the country) don’t know that there were even African slaves in the Dominican Republic. Instead our Blackness is so embedded into our culture as to be inseparable from our national identity.

In honour and remembrance of the African slaves who built our country and who continue to live on through us I thought I could give a quick (by no means comprehensive) overview of the different ways the Dominican Republic has been shaped by and forms part of the African diaspora.

The first documented African slaves began to arrive in the Dominican Republic in 1503 and were sent to work in the fields and houses on plantations and the construction of many of the buildings in Santo Domingo which are now considered UNESCO Heritage Sites.

Although I couldn’t find an exact number of slaves brought to the country, between 1547 and 1606 estimates go up to 30,000. Through a combination of historical records and DNA testing it has been determined that most were from Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Benin, Ivory Coast, Togo, Congo, Cameroon, and the Southeastern Bantu people.

By 1522 tension had risen so much that the Wolof slaves on a sugar plantation owned by Christopher Columbus’ son became the site of the first major slave revolt in the “New World.” However, slavery wasn’t abolished until 1801 when Haitian general Toussaint L’Ouverture did so at the behest of the French Republic after the Dominican Republic came under French rule in 1795. It was re-established a few years later but was once again abolished, this time permanently, during the 22 years Haiti ruled the island of Hispaniola.

Contrary to popular belief slavery and our proximity and relationship with Haiti aren’t the only sources of the African diaspora taking hold in the Dominican Republic. Many freed slaves immigrated to the country in the 1800’s in two distinct waves. During the Haitian occupation thousands of Black folks from the United States immigrated and settled in the Samaná Peninsula and in the mid-to-late 1860’s another wave of Black immigration came to the country from neighbouring Caribbean islands.

One of the least obvious ways that being a part of the African diaspora manifests in the Dominican Republic is our language since as a former Spanish colony we speak a dialect of Spanish. However, embedded in that dialect are little acts of resistance, rejections of the “standard” both in terms of our syntax and the words that make up the Dominican lexicon.

As I’ve written before much of our syntax has its roots in African languages. Putting the pronoun tú before the verb in question forms (rather than after as is standard) has been attributed to African influence as has our tendency to use double negation “ellos no comen eso no” or “él no fue a la fiesta no.”

When it comes to words with African roots, most have to do with food or music (two aspects of Dominican life that are very much influenced by the African diaspora). Some such words are ñame, mondongo, mofongo, and bachata. Others are cachimbo (a pipe for smoking), fucú or fukú (bad luck/omen. In my research, fukú seems to be some sort of mispronunciation of the word fufú meaning the same thing in Puerto Rico which shares similarities to the word Ghanan word fufu from which it is said the Dominican dish mangú comes from), and féferes (rubbish or stuff).

It’s also worth noting that Samaná English is an endangered and unique dialect of English that is an integral part of the culture of that region.

Dominican food is another area in which the African diaspora is so strongly intertwined that its inextricable from our own culinary cultural identity.

One of the more well-known Dominican dishes of West African origin is mangú which stems from Ghanan fufu. But it doesn’t stop there, some Dominican culinary historians in the say that our preference for white rice comes from Guinea, while our love for concón as well as its name comes from Nigeria (the word konkon is Nembe for oily). One of my personal favourites moro de guandules is also a dish of African origin and the name comes from the kikongo word “wandu” or pea.

Other dishes are pasteles en hoja (similar to West African kenkey), chenchén, and ñame a yam which gets its name from the word nyami which means to eat in the Fula language. Also of African origin is our use of cinammon, sweet clove, and malagueta or allspice (which also gets its name from West Africa) in soups and stews.

Contrary to popular belief vudú is not only practiced in Haiti, but in the Dominican Republic as well. Dominican vudú (and some would argue Dominican Catholicism also) is a combination of belief systems from the Taíno, European Catholicism, and those brought over by the Yoruba, Fon, and Ewe people. Dominican vudú is particularly popular in rural areas and neighbourhoods of lower-socioeconomic background as the Dominican elite tends to be staunchly Catholic. This unique tie between music and religion of African origin can be seen in la Cofradía del Espíritu Santo de los Congos de Villa Mella or the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit of the Congos of Villa Mella, where music, religion and dance come together in a truly Afro-Caribbean way.

In rural areas, fiestas de palo are parties meant to celebrate the saints are another way our African roots manifest in everyday Dominican life—drumming, dancing, and song using traditional call-and-response are really a sight that should never be missed if you can catch it. Also a sight worth seeing are gagá (also known as rara) performances, typically during Semana Santa but which are also gaining popularity in more secular environments.

These are just some of the ways the Dominican Republic continues to be influenced by and form a part of the African Diaspora. Have anything to add? Leave a comment below or join the conversation on Facebook!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this awesome song that showcases afro-Dominican music. 

6 thoughts on “CULTURE: How the African Diaspora Left It’s Mark on the DR”

  1. Starchild Martinez

    I have a few co workers and a female in particular who states that she is not of African ancestry and her skin is blacker than black!! There are tons of Dominicans in NYC that deny there blackness!! My cousin’s boyfriend is Dominican and he had the nerve to check off WHITE for race on a police application. And my cousin asked why did he put white and he said cause he isn’t black and his skin color is blacker than black !! Now that’s pure IGNORANCE to the 10th power of ignorant so there are tons of Dominicans in Nueva York that think their black skin came from eating chocolate ice cream. In other words they are dum and ignorant of their African origin.

  2. Madelyn De Los Santos

    how did you find your sources, I am looking for secondary sources for a research paper.

  3. I currently live here. My family is also from here. On my father’s side the family is almost exclusively Black. I stand by my statement as many of the Dominicans I have encountered in my travels across the coast and the interior have thought that Blackness came from Haitians and only Haitians. Both your experience and mine can be true. We are not a monolith. There are many schools of thought and opinions on such a large island.

  4. This was a great article on the whole! I just wanted to comment on your statement at the beginning of this article that there is little known about African contributions. You said, “Part of it is intentional and another factor is pure ignorance, many in rural areas (so most of the country) don’t know that there were even African slaves in the Dominican Republic.”

    I’ve lived in Dominican off and on for 20+ years. I’ve attended school there and most of my family still lives there. I have cousins that express our African genes more than our European and Taino genes and vice versa. So my family is multi-racial and of various skin colors, as most Dominicans are.

    I have traveled all over Dominican, from Barahona (where my grandfather is from) to La Isabela (where my other grandfather is from) and visited with family that settled in deep rural areas in La Romana, Puerto Plata, Santiago, Azua, Samaná etc. etc. I have NEVER encountered one single Dominican that didn’t know there were African slaves in the DR, and was ignorant of the fact that we are descended from them.

    Some of my grand uncles and aunts are musicians and artists (we even have a few santeros in the family), and they are fully cognizant of the contributions of African (especially Western African) culture to our Dominican heritage. So I think maybe the people you spoke with are ignorant, yes, but because they want to be, not because our African roots are hidden away. They are very much celebrated and appreciated.

  5. Gypsy Guillen Kaiser

    Thank you for capturing all of our richness so accurately, simply and succinctly. We have so many rich and profound dimensions.

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