Dominican Republic Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ethnicity is an important part of self-identification, but how is it defined? In this lesson we'll look at ethnicity in the Dominican Republic, and see what it reflects about national attitudes and history.

The Dominican Republic

The island of Hispaniola, located in the Caribbean Sea, is a place of complex identities. That's partly because this one island is home to two nations. Simply identifying a person as being from Hispaniola would be like calling someone North American, and ignoring whether they are Canadian, American, or Mexican. It just doesn't work, especially since the two nations of Hispaniola have not, historically, always gotten along. Roughly a third of the island is the nation of Haiti, while the other 2/3 make up the Dominican Republic. These nations may be neighbors, but they have little in common. Particularly amongst Dominicans, the desire to distinguish their part of the island from Haiti has become a defining trait of nation, and ethnic, identity.

The Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic

White and Black Ethnicity in the Dominican Republic

To fully understand what ethnicity means in the Dominican Republic, we're actually going to start by looking at the minority groups of the nation. About 16% of Dominicans identify as white, generally referring to Spanish heritage, but also including American, British, and French influences on the island. Identifying with pure European ancestry is not extremely common in the nation, and those who do tend to belong to segregated, albeit elite and privileged, parts of society.

The other major minority group in the nation is the 11% of people who identify as black. In the Dominican Republic more than nearly any other place, this is an extremely loaded term, and it's all because of Haiti. Haiti was a French colony that achieved independence through a slave rebellion. Black slaves killed off most of the white population, many of whom fled to what was then the Santo Domingo colony on the other side of the island, and established a proudly black nation. As a result, the concepts of being ethnically black and being Haitian have become virtually indistinguishable amongst Dominicans. Black identity is seen as a Haitian trait, not a Dominican one, and we can see how the ideas of national and ethnic identity become very closely associated here. This has had violent implications, and the Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo used this animosity to launch a genocidal campaign against black Haitians in the Dominican Republic in the mid-20th century.

Ethnic tensions are very visible at the Dominican-Haitian border
Border of the nations

Mixed Ethnicity in the Dominican Republic

So, how do the majority of Dominicans self-identify? While Haiti is very unique in its national identity, the Dominican Republic considers itself very much a part of Latin America, and has similar ideas about national and ethnic identity. This means that the majority of people, about 73%, identify with mixed heritage, which is commonly upheld as the national ethnicity amongst Latin American nations. However, this means something unique in the Dominican Republic. Generally, mixed ethnicity in this part of the world is encompassed by the term mestizo, which is a person of mixed European (de facto Spanish) and Amerindian ancestry. The majority of Dominicans identify as mestizo, but this is one of those cases where self-identification may not always match genetic reality. That's okay, self-identification is really what matters, but as with most islands of the Caribbean, the native Taíno population was almost entirely killed within decades of Spanish arrival. They were replaced by African slaves, so there is little evidence of Taíno culture or heritage left on the islands. Still, the fact that most Dominicans identify with this ancestry demonstrates a cultural desire to belong to Latin America, as well as to distance themselves from neighboring Haiti.

The complexity of identity in the Dominican Republic is captured in the fact that most people identify with mixed ethnicities

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