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5 posts from March 2011


27th de febrero vs. 4th of July

Boy carnival

Every year, in the month of February, something curious happens throughout the Dominican Republic.  Each Sunday the people gather in the streets, dressed up in elaborate costumes and masks, wielding enormous whips and inflated bladders, to drink, dance, sing and be merry with each other.  The season of Carnival not only represents a time to, for lack of a better description, “let loose and act like a crazy fool,” but also a time to celebrate with friends, family, and communities on a national scale. 

 This sense of community very clearly stood out amidst the chaotic flurry of colors and sounds I encountered when I went to Carnival in La Vega, both in the groups of parents and children watching the parade to the assembly of people marching in it, representing various clubs and organizations within the community.  Nowadays, the celebration of the last day of Carnival has been incorporated with the country’s Independence Day.  Watching Dominicans march past wearing red, white and blue, I couldn’t help but think of our own nation’s celebrations of our freedom: a BBQ or cookout in someone’s private backyard.  Compared to February 27th in the Dominican Republic, our July 4th does not command a sense of shared history or unity, but rather represents a time for personal, private relaxation, a tradition I find both ironic and befitting of our nation.

 The idea of collective participation transcends national holidays in the Dominican Republic; truth be told, the idea of solidaridad is one of the cornerstones of the Dominican culture.  Most families, communities, and institutions are all organized around the idea of shared experiences, responsibilities, and values.  From my experience here, I have gathered that children live with their parents until they are married, usually after as well, neighbors raise each other’s children as their own, and family businesses and farms seem to still be thriving in the growing economy; the epitome of a collective society.  On national holidays, such as 27 de febrero, entire cities shut down in preparation for the festivities, ensuring that every person has the opportunity to celebrate with their family and friends.

 However, as much as the institution of “The Family” is revered here, the counterculture of the Dominican youth has begun shifting its values more closely towards individualism.  Many Dominicans view the US as being the ultimate achievement, a place where you can become whatever you want to be, independent of the familiar responsibilities and social values of a collective society.  Perhaps it has something do with its geographical proximity to the US.  Maybe it’s the long, intertwined history between the two countries and therefore the cultural infusion that has developed.  Or maybe we should just chock it up to being a generational thing.  But here in Santiago, despite all the importance placed on family and community, there are still those who are eager to shed the traditions, the responsibilities, even their Carnival costumes, for just a taste of social independence.

 Yet as satisfying as that liberty may seem to be, when one from a collective society becomes a member of an individualist one, are their personal and cultural sacrifices really worth it?  When I reflect on the US, I see the values of individualism permeating almost every facet of our society, from our education practices to our family organizations to our power distributions.  We leave home as soon as we turn 18 and are in university, our organizations are more often than not single-handedly run by CEOs and Presidents, and our idea of “privacy” has more or less become a guaranteed human right.  We value “The Individual” to such an extent that those who demonstrate “dedication” via abdication of family time in exchange for 80-hour workweeks are the one who are rewarded.  On some of our most important national holidays, such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and of course, 4th of July, we still demand that there are people working at our movie theaters and restaurants rather than spending time with their loved ones. 

 I wonder what these Twenty-something Dominicans would think if they came to work and live in the U.S.  Would the lack of family be worth the overwhelming competition?  Would they rather have the peace and privacy of the 4th of July, or the shared insanity of Carnival?

 Personally, I chose insanity, chaos, and everything in between, at least when it comes to the holidays.  I prefer to be surrounded by family, friends, and even strangers, all sharing the same feelings of excitement, unity, and love.  Don’t get me wrong; I love spending time with just my Mom, Dad, and brother.  But the instant our small group of four joins the rest of my enormous, crazy Irish family, everything becomes, just, well, better.  Keep the backyard barbeques and give me bladders and whips, best friends and weirdoes; I want a party, and I want it with everyone.    

Kendra O'Connor

The George Washington University

Take a walk on the wild side


I am a punctual, efficient, responsible person. Up until last week I was very proud of that.

My friends and I have been using our “cultural magnifying glass” to better understand the cultural differences between the US and the Dominican Republic in terms of time. According to this magnifying glass, Dominicans live in accordance with what is happening at the present moment, while Americans dwell on the future. This can lead to much cross-cultural miscommunication, as Americans often think of Dominicans as “lazy” or “not conscious of other people’s time”, whereas Dominicans view Americans as “uptight” and “too focused on being punctual”.

 So where does this leave me? Well, living in Rio Limpio helped me to have a little taste of what it is like to let go the American time regime. Rio Limpio, a small, mountain community near the border of Haiti, has a long history of organic and biodynamic farming. My friends from CIEE and I spent the week working in the fields and building a giant, clay stove in the kitchen of the agriculture school. The mornings were cold and misty and the days long with lots of laughing and jokes. I was filthy all the time and rarely thought about my next obligation or goal. Instead I lived one hour to the next.

 In Santiago, I let my due dates and obligations of my work become who I am; what I thought about, dreamed about, and typed furiously about on my computer. Having a week away from my investigation and project, however, gave me proper time to give myself a much-need evaluation. In Rio Limpio I met lots of high schoolers who were incredibly impassioned about their work with the land; they didn’t learn just to gather information but rather because they loved what they were doing. This realization led me to understand that my work and my life can be united as one.

 As my friend Paula in Rio Limpio told me, “In order to arrive at the future, one must first pass through the present.”

You can take this quote as you like, and I do believe it should be taken and liked. For me, it means I will go up and sit on my roof more often, that I will write my Spanish papers with vigor, that I will care for my friends and that I will eat to taste and not to finish.

 I do, however, recognize the importance of the American sense of time. I believe it is important to be responsible when it comes to completing tasks and dealing with the expectations of others, especially in work like community development. Through the constant scrutiny of my newly acquired cultural magnifying glass, I will work to be conscious of my use of time as a way to better understand two cultures. The Dominican way of living that I found in Rio Limpio is something I want to take with me, but I also want understand the strengths of my future-centered, American goals. I must learn to live with a balance.

 Lila Trowbridge

Clark University


Rio Grande



Rarely back home do we know where all of our food on our dinner plate comes from. But in our weekend stay in Rio Grand, we got a first hand experience of living off the land. With banana, plantain, cocoa trees, and yucca scattered throughout the community and surrounding land, these were the staples of our meals. In a variety of forms our dinner was as fresh as it could be. One dinner consisted of a scrumptious pile of a type of freshwater crab, caught on the river banks the night before, which was an utter delicacy for myself.

But the real treat of the weekend was something near and dear to the heart of the community. Chocolate. I had the privilege of being a part of the entire process of making their version of hot chocolate from start to finish. The cocoa beans (in a coconut like shell and covered in white gew) are dried out, roasted, ground into an oozing molasses like gel, combined with spices and flour, smashed some more, and made into balls.  The following morning the chocolate balls where grated and mixed with water, powdered milk and sugar, for a tasty hot cocoa.

Every resident we encountered had one thing to say about the chocolate. They made a fist, clenched their arm, and stated that their chocolate makes you strong, and was even the secret to why their residents live so long. When we were giving health charlas/lessons in the community, I/my group expected the community to be faced with many kinds of health problems, especially with their lack of access to any kind of healthcare. But to my surprise, we met many of the elderly in the community over 90 years old, and many telling us that they/their families very rarely got sick.

This certainly left me acknowledging the ethnocentric view I came to the community with, that this place was faced with real poverty. They could hardly ever starve with their sustainable diets based off the land, the lack of health problems was surprising, and even more so was the joy radiating from every person. But just because a lot of money does not exchange hands, are they poor?

 Jacob Taddy

University of Wisconsin, Madison


Encouragment in the Campo


 When our group arrived at Río Grande Abajo, it looked like everyone from the community had been waiting to greet us. I wondered if the forty or so faces smiling at me had congregated for some kind of event, but I didn’t see any sources of entertainment…just the ten of us gringos emerging awkwardly from our gigantic silver van. We had come to Rio Grande that day for a weekend of painting trashcans and giving charlas (educational talks) with an environmentalist group called Brigada Verde, or the Green Brigade, which was founded by a former Peace Corps volunteer. It is comprised of a dozen or so youth from the community who seek to educate their neighbors about topics such as the consequences of pollution, the risks of endemic diseases, and the dangers of delinquency. I greatly admired their mission, but had no idea how we were going to help them give important charlas about topics that we had literally just Wikipedia’ed the night before. Still, I was ecstatic to be breathing air outside the city and to be entering such a laid-back and friendly environment. As I grabbed my backpack, I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up to see that a man with a large machete hanging from his pants was gesturing me to follow him. I must have looked as bewildered as I felt, because Marcos, one of our directors, laughed and told me that the man was my “new dad.”

Once I figured out that Luis’s machete was for harvesting cacao, I was much more receptive to his family, which included my wonderful host mom Jocelyn and her three children. After we all shared a big, greasy, delicious Dominican dinner, CIEE students and the jóvenes (youth) from Brigada Verde gathered to play some getting-to-know-you games. The electricity had gone out, and since it would have been near impossible to learn names without matching them to faces, we congregated in the community discoteca (dance club), one of the only common spaces with a power  inverter. After some very animated icebreakers, we all got down to work in creating informational posters about dengue, cholera, and pollution that we would use during our charlas at two local elementary schools the following morning. Brigada Verde was impeccably prepared with concrete facts about each issue, and I could sense that everyone from CIEE was relieved to have gotten by without doing their homework. But whereas we couldn’t fathom being solely responsible for communicating the prevention and treatment of cholera or dengue to our entire neighborhoods, the youth of Rio Grande had assumed the role in order to avoid what could surely become an epidemic in their small, isolated community.

That night, as I rested under my mosquito net and tried to ignore what sounded like a small petting zoo having a fiesta outside my window, I felt anxious. I had never given a charla before, let alone about such urgent themes…was I qualified? Were any of us fit to teach young children information about the prevention of serious illnesses? My feelings echoed the anxieties that everyone in Service Learning was already feeling in their organizations in Santiago. We surely aren’t expected to be specialists in health, youth development, small business, immigrant law, or in any of the other areas in which we work, but I think all of us wished that we could at least offer a small piece of expertise to the communities where our final projects will take place.

The next day, the Brigada Verde made our program at the schools very dynamic and interactive, which made it a lot easier for us to just relax and connect with the kids. I felt relieved when many of them were correctly answering our questions about the symptoms and treatment of dengue and cholera, and the dangers of contaminating the soil with trash. Gently bribing them with lollipops didn’t seem to hurt, either. I have to admit that the charla experience was a little bit embarrassing, especially when it required skits, but despite our linguistic fumbles and awkward stage presence, the Brigada Verde kept us going with smiles and encouraging nods of understanding. I think it helped us realize that we are qualified to give charlas, whether in Rio Grande or in our communities in Santiago. Even though a few technicalities are lacking, our intentions shine through, and we will always have people to support us through the activity. The kindness and sense of community that we experienced in Río Grande Abajo truly showed us how to jump into our development work without inhibition. 

 Maggie Federici

Clark University

El Campo Versus the Countryside


During our first rural stay I was surprised and overjoyed to see so many similarities between country life in the United States and the campo or countryside here in the Dominican Republic.  Rio Grande Abajo is a small rural community in the north of the Dominican Republic, near Puerto Plata. It is estimated that there are about 200 families living there.  We visited Rio Grande on February 3 to the 6 for a work retreat.  The community was unbelievably welcoming, escorting us to where we would be living for the next couple of days. I immediately felt at home, then again I was raised in a small fishing town in Maine where neighbors move freely throughout each others houses and everyone knows everything about everyone else.  I began to realize that my community back home and Rio Grande had many things in common. The country is peaceful no matter where you are, whether you’re in the countryside of the US or in the Dominican Republic.  It is easy to forget how good it feels to be out there in the country when you’re so used to being in a city like Santiago.

In Rio Grande Abajo, the people work hard on their farms to provide for their families and the community.  Everyone works together.  All the food we ate, vegetables, meat, juice, chocolate, everything was grown in the community.  Obviously there are farming communities in the USA as well, but I’m not sure if they are completely sustainable.  As well as growing their own food, they sell and export it as well. 

My town in the States is a fishing and lobstering community.  The fish and lobsters are sold to local vendors and exported as well.  In my town, everyone knows one another and everyone trusts one another.  We leave our doors unlocked and wide open.  People stop by unannounced to sit and talk and eat.  This occurred in the campo as well.  Some of our group members found this to be odd because people were always in and out of the houses, but to me it was comforting.

The boys in the campo play baseball.  Baseball means everything to the kids here, and it seemed like if you don’t play or like baseball you don’t fit in.  In my little country town it’s football.  Football is everything, just like baseball is everything in the campo.  The entire town shows up for Friday night football games, and we have caravans to drive to away games even if they are four hours away.  It’s an unwritten law; you show up to support your team.  While I don’t think there is a formal baseball team in the campo, it was clear that the game itself is still important.  It gives a sense of community and bonds the community members together.

With the similarities aside, there are also differences.  Many of the kids we talked to in Rio Grande wanted to leave the community in order to find work because there is not much in the campo.  However, in my small fishing town, many kids decide to stay to continue fishing and lobstering.  If they do go to college, many attend Maine universities and then return to the town once they graduate.  I found it interesting that many of the youth of Rio Limpio were trying to leave, and would only return to visit family, but never to settle back down.

I think that in any given small town, whether it in be the countryside or the campo will have relatively similar qualities.  People are hard working and more than willing to put in the work.  Everyone who isn’t actually related to you still treats you like family.  There is a definite feeling of solidarity and support as well as acceptance of new people.  Whether it’s farming, lobstering, baseball or football any small town, despite the country it’s in, will have the same principles and feeling; community and solidarity are always important.    

 Lexa Panagore

Clark University