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.
The George Washington University