|Part one of PBS' four-part series Black in Latin America premiered last night beginning with the Dominican Republic. Host Henry Louis Gates talked to Dominican Director of Cultural Diversity Juan Rodriguez who says that when it comes to color, "Dominicans are in complete denial of who they are."
Gates went on to learn from local historians that this identity of Afro-descendent Dominicans as "Indios" came about through the unique slave-owner relationships that existed on the cattle ranches of the D.R. after the collapse of their sugar industry in the 19th century. Because slaves had to be used as ranchers, there was very little difference between the master and the slave. As whites left Santo Domingo after the collapse of the sugar industry, Mulattos and blacks were needed to run the colony. They were called "whites of the land" and Santo Domingo, being the oldest Spanish colony in the Americas, held onto its "most Spanish" reputation, despite the fact that most everyone on the island was anything but European.
Interestingly, it was neighboring Haiti, a country that embraces its African roots, that helped to further push Dominicans away from their own African heritage. When Haiti invaded and occupied the D.R. in 1822, an occupation that lasted 22 years, the Haitian government taxed Dominican Catholics heavily and imposed French on them as the language of instruction. This angered locals and forged a separatism between them and their occupiers. When Dominicans freed themselves from the Haitians in 1844, they did their best to create their own identity through language, culture and, in some cases, race.
Years later, in the early 20th century, Haitians returned to the Dominican Republic as desperate immigrant workers, further reinforcing in the minds of Dominicans that Haitians are a race and class completely distinct–and beneath–their own. A tendency that the Dominican Republic's most notorious dictator, Rafael Trujillo, exploited with great success, maintaining the institutionalization of anti-Haitian sentiment well into the late 1960's.
Though today Dominican historians and cultural experts talk openly about the institutionalized racism that plagued the country through most of its history, expunging it completely from the culture is another matter altogether. But, last year, it was the Dominicans who were first on the scene offering support to their neighbors in Haiti after the devastating earthquake that left Port-Au-Prince in shambles(Dominican Watchdog Note: The only reason for that was that the DR had a direct and immidiate interest in preventing millions of Haitians crossing the border into the Dominican Republic).
Did You Know There's Blacks In Latin America?
"Between the 17th & 19th centuries more than 11-million Africans were taken to Latin America as slaves — 25-times the number sent to the United States."
Those are the opening lines of PBS' new documentary Black In Latin America which premiers tomorrow at 8 p.m. (ET). You should watch it. Why? Because black Latinos have always been misrepresented in American and Latino media. And PBS is as credible as these things get, right? Plus you'll probably realize there's way more African influence in your Latino-whatever ass than you know.