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The Dominican Republic Reader: History, Culture, Politics

The Dominican Republic Reader: History, Culture, Politics

by Eric Paul Roorda, Lauren H. Derby, Raymundo González

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Despite its significance in the history of Spanish colonialism, the Dominican Republic is familiar to most outsiders through only a few elements of its past and culture. Non-Dominicans may be aware that the country shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti and that it is where Christopher Columbus chose to build a colony. Some may know that the country produces


Despite its significance in the history of Spanish colonialism, the Dominican Republic is familiar to most outsiders through only a few elements of its past and culture. Non-Dominicans may be aware that the country shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti and that it is where Christopher Columbus chose to build a colony. Some may know that the country produces talented baseball players and musicians; others that it is a prime destination for beach vacations. Little else about the Dominican Republic is common knowledge outside its borders. This Reader seeks to change that. It provides an introduction to the history, politics, and culture of the country, from precolonial times into the early twenty-first century. Among the volume's 118 selections are essays, speeches, journalism, songs, poems, legal documents, testimonials, and short stories, as well as several interviews conducted especially for this Reader. Many of the selections have been translated into English for the first time. All of them are preceded by brief introductions written by the editors. The volume's eighty-five illustrations, ten of which appear in color, include maps, paintings, and photos of architecture, statues, famous figures, and Dominicans going about their everyday lives.

Editorial Reviews

Richard Price

"A splendid introduction to an often-misrepresented nation, tracing its history from the pre-Columbus era through the Trujillo dictatorship to the ever-increasing influence—demographic, musical, literary, and sporting—of contemporary Dominicans in U.S. life. An excellent choice of brief texts makes this an attractive reader for undergraduate courses on the Caribbean."
Frank Moya Pons

"This is a unique reader that brings together essential historical documents with insightful essays and studies by a select group of outstanding scholars at the frontline of Dominican studies, a recent special field in contemporary Latin American studies. A very welcome arrival for college and graduate courses. Congratulations!"
From the Publisher

"A splendid introduction to an often-misrepresented nation, tracing its history from the pre-Columbus era through the Trujillo dictatorship to the ever-increasing influence—demographic, musical, literary, and sporting—of contemporary Dominicans in U.S. life. An excellent choice of brief texts makes this an attractive reader for undergraduate courses on the Caribbean."—RichardPrice, author of The Convict and the Colonel, Travels with Tooy, and Rainforest Warriors

"This is a unique reader that brings together essential historical documents with insightful essays and studies by a select group of outstanding scholars at the frontline of Dominican studies, a recent special field in contemporary Latin American studies. A very welcome arrival for college and graduate courses. Congratulations!"—Frank Moya Pons, author of The Dominican Republic: A National History

The Rough Guide to the Dominican Republic

"The best available collection of writing in English for anyone wanting a broad and varied introduction to Dominican history, politics and culture. Very much a book for dipping into, which works well for the appealingly diverse sections on religion, popular culture and the Dominican diaspora but means the history sections, necessarily lacking a consistent narrative, work better for those with some prior knowledge of the country's past."
Choice - W. J. Nelson

“Roorda, Derby, and González use source materials from onsite actors/observers, government officials, writers, and intellectuals (Dominican and otherwise) to add an intimacy and sense of familiarity to the book's narrative. They blend and merge important and formative events and actors that make up the formal history of the Dominican Republic with accounts designed to help readers understand the Dominican character and bases for social norms. The dozens of essays and accounts (some from contributors more familiar to casual readers, some less familiar), with an appropriate apportioning of emphases on nations influential in Dominican affairs (such as the US), complete a historiography that is both challenging and insightful.  In a collection of different tiles in the Dominican mosaic, nothing is really trivial here. Highly Recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above.”

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The Dominican Republic Reader

History, Culture, Politics

By Eric Paul Roorda, Lauren Derby, Raymundo González

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7652-1


European Encounters

Humans reached the shores of what was to become the Dominican Republic about 6,000 years ago, when the Casimiroid People came from the Yucatán Peninsula via Cuba. They made stone tools to fish and hunt manatees and sloths, driving the sloths to extinction. Around AD 250, waves of Amerindian newcomers began to arrive on the island, having moved up the archipelago of the Lesser Antilles from the coast of what is now Venezuela. They cultivated crops, made elaborately decorated pottery, cooked bread on ceramic griddles, and traveled in canoes made of whole trees. The word "canoe" is one of only a few words that survive of the languages spoken by their descendants, people known collectively as the Taíno. Other words with Taíno origins, including "hurricane," "hammock," "tobacco," and "barbecue," reflect other important aspects of their lives.

They were divided into several different chiefdoms whose regional variations have their contemporary parallel in differences that continue to define Dominicans' regional identities. It is an ongoing debate in the Dominican Republic whether one's allegiance is stronger to the nation or to one's home region, or patria chica.

The Spanish invasion introduced dozens of devastating new maladies, including influenza, cholera, smallpox, and many other infectious pathogens, which assailed the Taínos' unprepared immune systems, destroying entire towns at a time. Their harsh lives, spent working in the conquerors' mines and plantations or hiding in the mountains beyond the conquerors' control, often ended prematurely. Adding to the toll, Spanish military campaigns to suppress native resistance sometimes culminated in genocidal reprisals carried out on horseback with the aid of guns, steel swords, vicious mastiff dogs, and the gallows. Between epidemics and abuse, the "pre-Columbian" population dwindled rapidly.

The People Who Greeted Columbus

Irving Rouse

The classic secondary source on the indigenous people of the Dominican Republic is the archaeologist Irving Rouse, who began digging at Taíno sites in Puerto Rico in the 1930s. The introduction to his book The Taínos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus summarizes the culture of the Classic Taínos, which was more complex than the societies of Western and Eastern Taínos and Caribs on the neighboring islands.

Columbus encountered large, permanent villages in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, each governed by a chief, or cacique. They contained an average of one thousand to two thousand people and ranged in size from a single building to twenty to fifty houses, all made of wood and thatch. Several related families lived together in the same house.

The houses were irregularly arranged around a central plaza. The chief's home, larger and better made than the rest, was situated on the plaza. Round, conically roofed dwellings called caney predominated. They were accompanied, at least during colonial time, by rectangular bohíos [houses]. The houses had dirt floors, and there were no partitions between families. Although some chiefs slept on wooden platforms, most people used hammocks made of cordage. Goods were stored in baskets hung from the roof and walls. The chiefs and other persons of high rank received guests while sitting on carved wooden stools, or duho, which reminded the Spaniards of the thrones they knew in Europe.

The villages were loosely organized into district chiefdoms, each ruled by one of the village chiefs in the district, and the chiefdoms were in turn grouped into regional chiefdoms, each headed by the most prominent district chief. The villagers were divided into two classes (nitaíno and naboria), which the chroniclers equated with their own nobility and commoners. They searched in vain for a still lower class, comparable to their own slaves.

Columbus took special notice of the Taínos' goldwork because it offered him an opportunity to repay his debt to his patrons, the king and queen of Spain. The Taínos mined nuggets of gold locally and beat them into small plates. Archaeological research has shown that they were used interchangeably with cut shell to inlay wooden objects and to overlay clothing and ornaments. The Taínos could not cast the metal, but their caciques did wear guanín, ornaments made of a copper and gold alloy, that they obtained through trade with South America.

The local artisans were also experienced woodworkers, potters, weavers of cotton, and carvers of wood, stone, bone, and shell. Some may have specialized in different crafts, but the Taínos do not seem to have developed any craft into a full-time occupation. They made fire with a wooden drill.

The men went naked or covered their genitalia with cotton loincloths. Unmarried women wore headbands; wives wore short skirts (nagua), the length of which indicated the wearer's rank. Both sexes painted themselves before participating in ceremonies, the men also before going to war. Red was the favorite color; this may have given rise to the misconception that Native Americans have red skins.

It was fashionable to flatten the forehead by binding a hard object against it in childhood, before the skull was fully formed. Ears and nasal septa were pierced for the insertion of feathers, plugs, and other ornaments; and waists and necks were decorated with belts and necklaces. The Spaniards reported that the chiefs were distinguished by headdresses adorned with gold and feathers. Pendants in the form of carved human masks, called guaíza, were also worn as a sign of rank.

The Classic Taínos had a sophisticated form of agriculture. Instead of simply slashing and burning the forest to make a temporary clearing, as is common in the tropics, they heaped up mounds of earth in more permanent fields to cultivate root crops in the soft alluvial soil. The mounded fields were called conuco. The mounds, three feet high and some nine feet in circumference, were arranged in regular rows. They retarded erosion, improved the drainage, and thus permitted more lengthy storage of the mature tubers in the ground. They also made it easier to weed and to harvest the crops. The inhabitants of the dry southwestern part of Hispaniola are said to have constructed extensive irrigation systems.

Cassava was the principal root crop, followed by the sweet potato. Cassava thrived in a broad range of local conditions, from wet to dry. It could be grown over a period of ten to twelve months and kept in the ground for up to three years. The men used digging sticks to plant cassava cuttings. Women grated its starchy roots and squeezed out its often-poisonous juice in a basketry tube to obtain flour, from which they baked bread on a clay griddle. The bread, too, could be preserved for long periods of time. Sweet potato was eaten as a vegetable.

Indian corn (maiz) was less important, as is evidenced by the fact that it played no role in the Taínos' religion. It was grown on the forest floor by the slash-and-burn technique, and its kernels were eaten off the cob instead of being ground into flour and made into bread, as on the mainland. According to Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, corn bread was inferior to cassava bread because it could not be stored in the high tropical humidity of the islands; it soon became moldy.

Other crops grown from seed included squash, beans, peppers, and peanuts. They were boiled with meat, fish, and cassava juice, a procedure that detoxified the juice. "Pepper pots" containing these ingredients were kept on the fire to provide food as needed. Alternatively, meat and fish were roasted on spits.

Fruits, calabashes, cotton, and tobacco were grown around the houses. The pineapple was cultivated, but not the peach palm and cacao, which were limited to the mainland and to Trinidad. Calabashes served as water containers. Tobacco was smoked in the form of cigars (tabaco), apparently for pleasure. Unlike the mainland ethnic groups, the Classic Taínos did not indulge in beer fermented from cassava or corn, nor did they chew coca. They collected a variety of wild fruits and vegetables, such as palms nuts, guava berries, and guáyiga roots, whose remains have been found archaeologically.

The chroniclers tell us that the Taínos caught fish in nets, speared them, and used hooks and lines. They also stupefied them with poison, trapped them in weirs, and stored both fish and turtles in weirs until they were ready to eat them. They drove hutias [a species of small rodent] into corrals by burning the prairies or chasing them with dogs and torches and kept them penned there until needed. They plucked iguanas off trees and decoyed wild parrots with tame birds. In the absence of large land mammals, they augmented their supply of protein by spearing manatees in the mouths of the rivers and by eating dogs. They may also have had guinea pigs, but the evidence for this is inconclusive....

The Classic Taínos also played ball on the central plaza and elsewhere. Their ancestors appear to have used nonstructured areas, which may be termed ball grounds. They themselves often constructed specially designed ball courts, applying the term batey to both the game and the court where it was played. The court is said to have been rectangular. Ordinary spectators sat on its stones or embankments, the caciques and nobles on their stools. The courts within the villages were for intramural games; other courts, in the countryside, were for games between villages.

Both men and women participated, always separately. The teams, each with ten to thirty players, occupied opposite ends of the court, as in tennis, and alternated in serving the ball. Players attempted to keep it in motion by bouncing it back and forth from their bodies to the ground inside the limits of the court. They were not allowed to touch it with their hands or feet. Its elasticity amazed the Spaniards, who had never seen rubber, the substance of which it was made.

Courts are said to have been in constant use. Wagers were made by the players and, in the case of inter-village games, by their caciques, who also offered small prizes—food, for example. The game was occasionally played before public decisions were made....

Unlike the present inhabitants of the West Indies, the natives traveled by sea whenever possible. They used canoes (canoa), which they hollowed out of logs by alternately charring and chopping them with petaloid stone axes, known [to archaeologists] as celts. Spade-shaped paddles were the only means of propulsion until the Spaniards introduced sails. The largest canoes belonged to the chiefs. They were carved, painted, and kept in special boathouses reminiscent of those in Polynesia. Columbus reported that they could hold up to 150 people. On land, the chiefs traveled in litters and the ordinary people by foot. The latter carried burdens suspended from balance poles.

Both men and women were eligible to serve as chiefs and, as such, to live in specially built houses, sit on thronelike stools, have special forms of transportation, and wear insignia of their rank. Each cacique presided over the village in which he or she lived. They organized the daily activities and were responsible for the storage of surplus commodities, which they kept in buildings constructed for the purpose and redistributed among the villagers as needed. They acted as hosts when the village received visitors, and had charge of the political relations with other villages. The caciques owned the most powerful statues of gods (zemis) and supervised their worship. They organized the public feasts and dances and, having learned the songs by heart, directed the singing. Because their canoes were the largest in the village, they were responsible for public forms of transportation.

Village chiefs reportedly had the power of life or death over their subjects. The district and regional chiefs did not exercise this kind of control but could requisition food and military service. Their ability to do so depended upon their personalities and political relations....

Individuals traced their descent through their mothers rather than their fathers. Goods, class status, and the office of chief were also inherited matrilineally. A man resided in the village of his mother's lineage. If he chose a wife from another village, he brought her to his own.

Polygyny was prevalent. Most men probably obtained wives in or near their own villages, but chiefs sometimes arranged long-distance marriages for political purposes. A commoner had to temporarily serve his prospective bride's family to compensate it for her loss; a chief could instead make a payment of goods. Only a chief could afford to have many wives.

Trade was widespread. Parties or single persons undertook long sea voyages for the purpose. Some districts excelled in making particular products.... Residents of eastern Hispaniola and western Puerto Rico are said to have exchanged daily visits across the Mona Passage. Such interaction was facilitated by a common language.

The Classic Taínos fought among themselves to avenge murders, to resolve disputes over hunting and fishing rights, or to force a chief who had received a bride price to deliver the woman purchased. They did not themselves obtain additional wives by raiding other communities and had difficulty fending off the Island-Caribs, who did.

Only the chiefs and nobles attended meetings at which war was declared. A chief was elected to lead the attack; the nobles served as his or her bodyguard. Before going into battle they painted their bodies red, hung small images of zemis on their foreheads, and danced. They fought with clubs (macana), with spears propelled by throwing sticks, and, in the eastern part of their territory, with bows and arrows. The Ciguayan and Borinquen Taínos, of northeastern Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, respectively, are said to have been the most warlike, probably because they were forced to defend themselves against Island-Carib raids....

Because few women came to the original Spanish colony during the first twelve years of its existence, when it was being governed by Christopher Columbus and Bobadilla, we may reasonably assume that the custom of intermarriage between Spaniards and Taínos began at that time. Intermarriage continued through the terms of Ovando and Diego Columbus; the census of 1514 found that 40 percent of the officially recognized wives of Spanish men were Indian. Consequently, a large proportion of the modern population of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba is able to claim partial descent from the Taínos.

Religion of the Taíno People

Ramón Pané

Only a handful of accounts of Taíno culture were ever recorded by their conquerors. The best of these sources was also the first book ever written in the Americas, An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians, by Fray Ramón Pané, a monk from Catalonia. Brother Ramón, of the Order of Saint Jerome, was present at the convent near Barcelona when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received Christopher Columbus there in 1493, after the admiral's first voyage to the "New World." Pané accompanied Columbus on his return voyage later that year. After their arrival, the admiral ordered the friar to go live with the native people, learn their language, gather information about them, and report back. Brother Ramón lived among the native people from 1494 to 1497, first learning the Macorís language spoken by the people near the north coast of the island and then moving in with a different group who taught him the dominant idiom of the Arawak language spoken on the island. He probably composed his text in 1498, from notes he took during the years he spent with the indigenous people.

Fray Ramón Pané's original manuscript has been lost, but his account survived by a circuitous route. First it was transcribed by Columbus's son Fernando, whose copy was also lost, but not before being translated into the Venetian dialect of Italian by Alfonso de Ulloa. Peter Martyr and Bartolomé de Las Casas, the best known sources on the Taíno people, also summarized Pané's account in their narratives. Pané's book begins with a collection of Taíno beliefs about human origins, women, the sea, ghosts, and gods, sampled here.

Chapter 1: Where the Indians came from, and how

The island of Hispaniola has a province called Caonao, in which there is a mountain by the name of Canta, which has two caves called Cacibayagua and Amayauba. Most of the people who populated the island emerged from Cacibayagua. While they were living in that cave, they kept watch during the night, a job they entrusted to one named Marocael. He was late in getting to the door one day, they say, and because of that, the sun carried him away. Seeing that the sun had taken him away for his dereliction of duty, they closed the door to him, and he was turned to stone near the entrance. They also say that others, having left to go fishing, were caught by the sun and turned into jobo trees, also known as Mirobalanos. The reason why Marocael was looking out and standing guard was to see which areas to send the people to and to distribute them, and it only seems that he showed up late, to his great regret.


Excerpted from The Dominican Republic Reader by Eric Paul Roorda, Lauren Derby, Raymundo González. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Eric Paul Roorda is Professor of History at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of The Dictator Next Door: The Good Neighbor Policy and the Trujillo Regime in the Dominican Republic, 1930–1945, published by Duke University Press.

Lauren Derby is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of The Dictator's Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo, also published by Duke University Press.

Raymundo González is a researcher at the Dominican National Archives and Social Science Coordinator for the Dominican Ministry of Education. He teaches at the Universidad Iberoamericana and the Instituto Filosófico Pedro Francisco Bonó, both in Santo Domingo.

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