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La Isla Española: Dissociative Cultural Identities

April 28, 2021


The European struggle for control over the “New World” during the 17th century left La Isla Española (Hispaniola) struggling with a split personality of native, French, Spanish, and African cultures. Hispaniola is the second largest island of the West Indies next to Cuba and lies within the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean Sea. During the vibrant period of global expansion, Christopher Columbus landed on the island and established the first European settlement in 1492 at La Navidad.

The Taino were an indigenous people of the Caribbean and the first people Columbus encountered in the New World. With no written language, the natives spoke the Taino language, which was a derivative of the Arawakan language group. Spanish colonists claimed the island in the 16th century but would later cede the western portion of the massive island to French pirates. In time, Saint-Domingue would become France’s most lucrative colony with over 800,000 slaves forcibly brought from Africa to work in the fields and mines.

Haiti Becomes the First Postcolonial Black Republic

Within a couple of decades, diseases like smallpox and measles that were brought by European settlers decimated the indigenous Taino population. Since 1697, the western part of the island has been predominately French with the eastern part of Spanish predominance. In the late 1700s, former slaves Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines overthrew French rule and Haiti became the first postcolonial black republic. As a beacon of abolition, the people were known for their self-determination and beliefs about racial equality.

Once the wealthiest colony in the Americas, Haiti is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

For more than a century, 80% of Haiti’s revenues were earmarked to repaying a French debt (equal to $22 billion today). This caused the nation to completely miss out on industrialization and economic development. Crippled by political instability, natural disasters, and foreign interventions, the former French colony has now suffered from underdevelopment for generations with more than fifty percent of the population living below the poverty line. Haitian Creole and French are the official languages of the Republic of Haiti.

The Dominican Republic Wins Independence

After twenty-two years under Haitian rule, the Dominican Republic won its independence from Haiti (not Spain) in 1844. Thanks to the sugar cane industry, the Dominican Republic would thrive throughout the 20th century. In fact, tens of thousands of Haitians would migrate across the border to work in the fields and lived in company-owned communities called bateyes. These poor rural communities have been integrated into the administrative system of the country but still have a rich multicultural make up of Haitian migrants, Dominicans, and Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Haitians in the Dominican Republic or Haitian Dominicans are citizen-residents of the Dominican Republic, but of Haitian descent.

Dominican culture is a mixture of Spanish colonists, African slaves, and the native Taino. Elements from all three have played a major role in Dominican food, religion, music, and family structure. Unlike Haiti, it is an upper-middle income developing country that is primarily dependent upon agriculture, mining, and the export of crops like bananas, coffee, cocoa, mangoes, coconuts, sugar, and citrus fruits. Although the official language of the Dominican Republic is Spanish, tourism is such a large industry that English is freely spoken in resort areas and the U.S. dollar is accepted along with the official currency, the peso.

The Intertwined History of Developing Republics

Haiti and the Dominican Republic continue to share the island and their intertwined histories are as rich and complex as their languages and culture. The relationship between the independent republics has proven heroic at times and contemptible at other times, as the nations have continued to develop in differing directions. Disturbingly, since the early 20th century, Haitians have been the largest immigrant population to the Dominican Republic. Nonetheless, the predominantly French Creole speaking descendants on the Haitian side of the border are ten times poorer than those born in the Dominican Republic. Since the beginning of the Cold War, the United States has fought to keep communist ideologies at bay and all of Hispaniola operating as democratic republics. Historically, which includes present-day, both republics have been prevailingly Roman Catholic. Nonetheless, local syncretism has led to an amalgamation of Hispaniola’s different cultures, languages, and schools of thought.

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