Like many Caribbean cultures, Dominican Republic culture has roots in the peoples of diverse and far-flung places. It’s the most visited place in the Caribbean, and it’s easy to see why. Whether you like music, exotic food, arts, and architecture, or a good party, you’ll have a great time immersing yourself in the many unique experiences the Dominican Republic, and the Dominican people have to offer.
The Dominican People
When one looks at the history of the Caribbean, it resembles waves of different settlers. Some settlers came voluntarily, as explorers and traders. Others were forcibly brought as slaves. And, of course, there were the Taino, the Arawak speaking Amerindian people who were on the island first. Dominican Republic culture reflects all of these different people, as well as the influences of today’s modern cultures.
Today, the Dominican Republic continues to draw immigrants from all over the world. Thanks to a fast-growing economy — one of the fastest in the Americas — and a welcoming and tolerant culture, the Dominican Republic remains an attractive place for settlers from all over.
The Taino: the first Dominican people
The original Dominican Republic people were the Taino, who occupied much of the land in the Caribbean until the 15th century. The Taino were the original inhabitants of not only Hispanola (the area that is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), but also Cuba, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Their ancestors hailed from the area we now know as Central America. The arrival of Columbus in 1492 and the subsequent arrival of Spanish colonists were disastrous for the Taino. Some 50 years after Columbus’s arrival, slavery, brutal treatment, and smallpox had wiped out more than 90 percent of Hispanola’s original Taino inhabitants.
One can still find traces of the Taino in names of places and local plants. The name of Haiti, for example, comes from the Taino word Ayiti. It means “The Land of High Mountains.” The hammock swing (and the word itself) also came from the Taino, as did the maracas. Also, the word “hurricane” came from the Taino word huracan. Many of the names of various Caribbean foods have their roots in Taino words.
Spanish and American occupiers: Dominican Republic language and religion
Spanish colonists arrived on Hispaniola in the late 15th century. They established the colony of Santo Domingo, which became the seat of Spanish colonial rule in the Americas. The Spanish would retain control of the island for three hundred years. This occupation left a significant legacy in Dominican Republic culture. In fact, to this day, the official Dominican Republic language is Spanish. Remarkably, more than half of the population follows the Roman Catholic faith that the Spanish colonists brought with them.
In 1844, the Dominican people would fight — and win — a war of independence from Spain. The United States occupied the area between 1916 and 1924. Since then, the Dominican Republic has been successfully working its way toward representative democracy.
Afro-Dominican roots: the arts, music, and dance
Starting in the 16th century, several different groups with African ancestry would arrive in the Dominican Republic. First, the Spanish colonists imported slaves from Central and West Africa. Later, in the 19th century, black freedmen from the United States would make their way to the island.
The 20th century saw a wave of black immigrants from other parts of the Caribbean. Including immigrants from neighboring Hati who have recently crossed the border. In fact, you can see the influence of Afro-Dominican people on Dominican Republic culture most clearly in the unique music and dance of the Dominican Republic.
Starting in the 20th century, the Dominican Republic has welcomed immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, and the Arab world. Chinese immigrants founded successful businesses in the telecom, mining, and railroad industries. During and after the second world war, a large number of Jews also found a home in the Dominican Republic. The sizable Arab community continues to grow as well. In addition, economic opportunity has drawn immigrants from all over the rest of the Caribbean.
Some Highlights of Dominican Republic Culture
The many diverse Dominican Republic people have resulted in a rich, vibrant and exciting culture. You can experience Dominican Republic culture through the Dominican Republic’s unique foods, music, arts and architecture, and celebrations.
Food in the Dominican Republic bears the influence of many cultures. The Dominican Republic’s official breakfast dish, mangu, comes from Africa. Mangu consists of mashed, boiled plantains. It generally comes with cheese, salami, and eggs.
Lebanese food has also become very popular, due to the growing community of immigrants from the Middle East. You can enjoy quipes (fried bulghur balls) and arroz con almendras y pasas (rice with raisins and almonds) thanks to the more than 80,000 immigrants from the Arab world.
Some Taino dishes include casabe, a bread made out of cassava, and guanimos, which are similar to tamales. Experts have traced guanimos back to Mesoamerica, which is where the native Taino originate.
Plantains figure prominently, from savory mangu to pasteles en hojas — ground plantain “purses” stuffed with meat, to fried, salted tostones, that is, plantain chips. Cassava is also a popular ingredient in both sweet and savory dishes. Soups and stews with various ingredients are also common. And in fishing villages, you can find an abundance of seafood, including shrimp, marlin, mahi-mahi, and lobster.
Music in Dominican Republic Culture
Two popular forms of music began in the Dominican Republic, merengue, and bachata.
Merengue is a fast-paced syncopated dance music that employs brass instruments, bass, and piano. It also uses instruments unique to the Spanish speaking Caribbean, such as the tambora and guira. Merengue originated in the 19th century. It became popular in the United States, beginning in the 1930s, and experienced a second peak in the 1980s and 1990s, with a new wave of Dominican immigrants. Meringue has three main variations: merengue tipico, merengue de orquestra (big band merengue), and merengue de gitarra.
Bachata originated in the first half of the twentieth century. Bachata combines African, indigenous, and European influences in a way some have compared to the Blues.
The original name of the form was amargue, or “bitter music.” For a long time, many people looked down on bachata, because they associated it with the criminal element. However, two new bachata forms, Modern Bachata (which swaps steel guitars for nylon stringed guitars) and Urban Bachata, have made it an international phenomenon.
Arts and architecture
The first Spanish colonists established the colony of Santo Domingo, which is the capital of the Dominican Republic today. The “colonial zone” of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a great place to experience Dominican Republic culture through architecture. It’s in this part of the historic city that you can find the first cathedral, the first castle, the first monastery, and the first fortress in the whole of the Americas. It’s filled with examples of the baroque architecture that would influence later construction, with such features as stucco exteriors, arched doors and windows, and red tile roofs.
The Dominican Republic is also a good place to see the influences of the country’s Taino ancestors. The Taino made wide use of the native mahogany wood, as well as dried palm tree leaves, thatched roofs, and mud. They didn’t just use these materials in home construction, but also in furniture making, artwork, and crafts. Use of these materials resulted in a natural look that blended into the island’s natural surroundings.
Holidays and festivals in Dominican Republic Culture
The Dominican Republic people love to celebrate, and the year is filled with festivals and celebrations from many different religions and cultures. Each community celebrates its own patron saint, for example. Many national celebrations combine both Roman Catholic and voodoo traditions. And, just like many places in the Caribbean, Carnival is not to be missed. The Dominican Republic even celebrates two independence days. The first is on February 27, which is also the last day of Carnival. The second is in August. In addition, a variety of secular holidays celebrate different types of music and various national heroes. You can read more about various Dominican festivals and celebrations at iExplore.com.
Plan Your Trip Now
The Dominican Republic culture is rich and varied. No matter what time of year you come, you will find something that will please just about everyone. So, what are you waiting for? The Dominican Republic is waiting for you.