The Dominican Republic Is Not Our Paradise: Indhira Suero and Dominican History
Indhira Suero is a Dominican journalist and TV host. Her TV personality “Negrita Come Coco” became a cultural icon that represents the resilience and humor of Dominican Women.
She traveled to Miches, Dominican Republic with her good friend Carolina Contreras. They were giving a lesson at a summer camp for young brown girls living in poverty and they asked the girls to draw themselves.
All of them drew white, blonde girls with blue eyes.
Carolina Contreras grabbed a brown crayon and colored over the drawing of an eight-year-old girl.
“This is your color, this is who you are,” said Contreras.
The little girl ripped the paper in half and got incredibly angry. This represents the state of our nation.
Indhira Suero grew up in La Vega, Dominican Republic. The term Negrita Come Coco is mostly used to insult women of darker skin or with phenotypically African features. The phrase, like many others in the African diaspora, has been repurposed and reused as a term of endearment. The pen name has become Suero’s journalist persona that fights for the equality and acceptance of afro-descendants in the DR.
In the Dominican Republic, there are little to no opportunities to reflect on race in any institution. Only in the United States was Suero able to take a race and gender class to conceptualize these constructs.
I asked Indhira, “What does being a Black Woman mean to you?”
Suero paused and carefully formulated her response.
“I prefer Afro-descendant to Black Woman,” she said.
The word Black is a term mostly used in the United States to describe the descendants of West Africans who were taken and sold during the transatlantic slave trade. She felt the word afro-descendant is more inclusive in countries like the DR.
The Dominican Republic historically has many issues defining race and identity, being the first place the Spanish colonized in the Americas.
“A combination of things made it difficult to define who we are. It is something that happens in the Caribbean,” she said.
This makes Dominican patriotism almost contradictory. Dominicans are very proud of their identity. We embrace our deeply-rooted culture while having significant racial identity issues. We need to acknowledge our origins before we can move forward.
“The United States needs to understand that even though you group the diaspora into one category, you need to acknowledge the fact that our countries are different,” Suero said.
While Dominicans must accept that our diverse origins are part of who we are, we cannot deny that the majority of our population descended from Africa. However, we are not only African descendants. We are a mix of cultures and identities.
“I think that the government and people in positions of power have a lot of work to do to educate the public about our origins and who we are.” Suero said.
The same system that confuses Dominican youth, educates our government leaders.
“If you have a country that is mostly of African origin and people that do not acknowledge that African origin, you will have a group of very confused people,” Suero stated.
She highlights the aspect of extreme confusion, specifically in the rejection of our African origins in the Dominican Republic. These African influences are present in our music, religion, and self-expression, yet, we do not embrace what they represent. We have been taught to dislike and reject anything that represents blackness and the continent of Africa.
A person who is considered “white-passing” in the Caribbean looks phenotypically mixed race to an American. Race as a construct is much more complex considering the majority of the country is generationally mixed race. Due to segregation, the mixing of races was illegal in the U.S. In other countries like South Africa they “invented” new races like colored, which describes generationally mixed race people in South Africa. The Creole in New Orleans are another example of a racial classification used to describe Franco-African descendants in Louisiana. All of these categorizations break the western binary of race. Therefore, they do not fit into a neat little box that can be checked off and forgotten.
Indhira, like many Afrolatinas, has experienced the ramifications of this confusion in her everyday life.
“There are two things I felt as an afro-descendant, or a person of Black origins. Mostly with my hair, when I was little. I grew up in La Vega,” Suero recalls. “I was the only girl with afro hair and a darker skin tone. All of my cousins and neighbors and everyone around me was lighter. Well, white in the way Dominicans conceptualize whiteness,” Suero said.
The core values and beliefs of a nation always present themselves no matter what the public is told to think. Racism happens in our families, in our schools, in the hospital, and at times even within ourselves.
“In school the pretty girls were the lighter skin girls. I knew I was pretty, but they were prettier,” Suero revealed.
As she grew up she became more conscious of her African heritage. She tried to embrace it as a part of who she is.
Dominicans are told to mejorar la raza, or “better the race”. This refers to marrying and having children with lighter skinned people to erase the presence of our blackness.
Such issues of rejection and denial of blackness are ever-present in Dominican society, permeating the safest of spaces, our homes. For instance, until 2015, the Identification card in the Dominican Republic still gave the option; Skin color: Indian.
“How should young Dominican-Americans and native born Dominicans deal with anti-black family dynamics?” I asked.
“We need to understand the fact that you cannot expect your grandparents and parents to have the same ideas as you. They were raised in a completely different context and environment.” Suero explained.
Suero does not think it is fair to expect our elders to have these nuanced ideas of what blackness represents.
“We could have these complex conversations with them not only regarding race but also sexuality. We can talk to them, but with the understanding that it has to happen in small steps. You can address issues and express your feelings in a lighter way that they can digest, where their opinions can be heard.” Suero said.
Responding to their trauma with anger is not the answer. However, avoiding this is difficult when major elements of Dominican culture are rooted in anti-blackness.
“I understand it can be frustrating for our generation and younger generations, especially when we are more conscious about certain terms. It is difficult to listen to family members you find offensive,” Suero voiced.
One of the terms she mentioned is pelo malo, a term used to describe anyone with textured hair in a negative light. The word mulatto is also a negative term with an ugly history. It refers to a mule, an animal that cannot reproduce because it is a mixture of two different animals with a different number of chromosomes. In essence, a quirk of nature that is not supposed to exist. It is a word coined by early Spanish colonists to racially classify the children they had with enslaved black women. Calling someone mulatto means they are genetically defective, not human. Although, during this conversation Suero caused me to reflect on the importance of the word itself. If other parts of the diaspora can reclaim words, why can’t Afro-Latinos do the same?
“I am constantly correcting my mom. When she says pelo malo I do not argue with her or insult her. I gently correct, ‘Mami you mean curly hair.’” She said.
While whiteness is weaponized against Dominicans with Afrocentric features, those who are not white passing and aware of their history understandably reject their European ancestry. Existing as children of the master and the enslaved person is conflicting in its own right. We have no consensus on who we are. Dominicans are lost. Yet we love our country and families with a sharp intensity. We identify so strongly with the symbols that represent our island. We love the sand and the stars, we love who we are, despite how ambiguous that might be.
“I think everything comes down to the fact that we were Columbus’ lab rats, the first colonial experiment of the continent,” Suero adds.
It is difficult to be comfortable in the middle. We are taught that we are white and to be proud of our European ancestry in a way that is clearly biased. Other people outwardly reject this, saying we are African, when the reality is that neither of those statements are completely true. We also have an indigenous community of Taínos that is the beating heart of our culture.
The Dominican Republic’s link to indigeneity is solely tied to our DNA. There are also Taíno words in our language, indigenous names of our town, and the cultural practices ingrained in our countries from our ancestors.
Blood quantum is the erasure of indigenous communities. Technically, Dominicans have more African ancestry than some other Caribbean populations such as Puerto Ricans. Yet, claims to indigeneity is always the center focus when it comes to cultural identification. PR’s African Ancestry is rarely in question, but the reverse is always up for debate. The people of the Caribbean have been programmed to fight each other on definitions and pronunciation so we ignore the way our colonizers still have their claws in the minds of our children.
Caribbeans are uniquely all three at once. Taíno, African, and European. Using blood quantum to deny our Taíno ancestry then using that same logic to justify homogenizing us as “Spanyards” is not only hypocritical but harmful. Diaspora wars are always a topic of conversation. Yet, within our groups we have micro-diasporic civil wars. We band together when another Black community makes a claim we do not agree with. We are stronger as one.
Suero’s best moments as a journalist are when she centers the voices of afro-descendants.
One of those moments was when she wrote an article for a Mexican magazine called GATO PARDO. Suero covered the story of Haitian sugar cane workers who were denied their pension despite years of work.
The sun burns their skin. The undocumented Haitians have to work under very harsh conditions. There are more men than women. The sugar cane industry is dominated by male workers. The few women that are there wear their headscarves with the vibrant colors of the Haitian flag.
Haiti, the poorest region on the American continent, borders the Dominican Republic, a country that has the largest economic growth in the Caribbean. While 23% of the Dominican population experiences poverty, a shocking 58.7% of Haiti experiences poverty.
The workers are tired and continue to protest against the country.
“Without cane workers, there is no sugar” they shout in protest.
The workers receive no pension despite cutting sugar cane for decades. Many of them were working when sugar made up 90% of the country's exports in the 1960’s. The Dominican state recognized the historical debt the sugar cane workers were due. Since these workers are undocumented the state cannot give them a pension.
They cannot get papers, pensions, or medical aid. They have kids and grandkids who are struggling to get their citizenship even though a few years ago they were considered Dominicans legally. Now they are stateless. They are unable to find jobs and unable to go to university. They are in limbo.
Dominican youth, no matter where they were born and raised, are Dominican and have a responsibility as citizens to be informed of the bad as well as the good.
The Dominican Republic cannot be discussed without mentioning Haiti. The two are politically and economically intertwined. Two countries. One Island. Part of the reason Dominicans struggle with anti-blackness is due to their history with Haiti, a more homogeneously Black presenting country. Haiti invaded and occupied the DR for 22 years. This caused a revolution and began a history of anti-Haitian and subsequently anti-black sentiment with the Dominican people.
In the Dominican Republic the word Haitian is an insult. When speaking about Haitian people in the press they must use the word “Haitian National.” This is the only country that requires this clarification.
Darker skinned Dominicans are terrified to leave their houses at night, afraid immigration officers will deport them to Haiti. When something looks Haitian, it looks African.
“Dominicans don't want to be Haitians, Haiti is the closest representation to blackness we have. We don't know about Africans, but we know it is important to reject it all.” Suero said.
This is in part due to the Haitian occupation of the Dominican Republic, colonization, and slavery. Along with dictators like Rafael Trujillo, who supported anti-black hate crimes and racial genocide on the island.
Suero expressed her deep love of her people. She implored Dominicans across the diaspora to educate themselves. To read and listen. To form your own opinions and stand up for your people.
This means learning the truth about where we come from. The struggle of our ancestors directly translates to political issues being determined today. Our criticisms and ancestral pains are the result of deeper issues the DR has as a nation. Unless we tackle the root of the disease, we will always experience symptoms.
In Suero’s opinion, first, second, and third generation Dominican-Americans express their nationalism and patriotism a bit more than native born Dominicans. This can happen when a generation is removed from the cultural hearth. It becomes more prevalent to fully embody one's nationality, so as not to lose the cultural essence that has been stripped away through immigration.
“Everyone with Dominican origins needs to be involved in politics and the things that are going on here.” Suero stated.
The U.S. census recorded 2.8 million Dominicans residing in the United States, in 2018 compared to the approximately 10 million residing in the DR, many of which have dual citizenship and voting rights. It is not uncommon to see a young Dominican person proudly waving their flag and strongly identifying with their country of origin, despite the location of their birth. But what does it mean to represent your country? Taping a worn out flag over your bed? Spending three weeks at a resort? What happens to the Dominican-Americans’ paradise when they leave the island? Do the problems of the people just freeze until the next summer?
Patriotism is beautiful. Standing up and being proud of your people's accomplishments is a wonderful quality to have. However, like with any relationship, we have to be there for our country when it needs us. We hear common phrases from Dominican-Americans such as: “I miss DR,” “take me back home,” and “I love being Dominican.” Where is that same sentiment when hard working people who live in the country they claim to love do not receive their pensions? This includes Dominican born American citizens who immigrated to the U.S. for better opportunities. The Dominican Republic is not our paradise.
If you are proud of your country, if you wave your flag with passion, if you are a dual citizen, it is your responsibility to be informed of the socio-political climate of the Dominican Republic, the state of your people.
“When their country of origin is struggling with peace, they are not as involved,” Suero said.
We are Dominicans for the good times, for the resorts and cheap prices, but we are not Dominicans for the problems happening in our country.
We do not need to put the word “activist” with a Dominican flag in our instagram bio’s to make a difference in our community. Listen to the stories of your elders. Despite their internalized anti-blackness, many of them offer first-hand experience of adversity as people of color and deserve respect. We must support our people by being informed voters and speaking out when we do not agree. Love is not easy. It takes work and commitment. If you love being Dominican, love every part. Especially the hard parts.
Edited by: Yumna Elhdari and Ava Emilione