This summer, I had the privilege to go to Dominican Republic with Live Like Ally. It was an experience that truly changed my perspective on the world. My visit there was focused on sustainability, but I got to experience and learn so many things not only about this, but also about the DR’s people and culture.
This community was the first one we visited, my first taste of Dominican culture. We were there to visit a women’s cooperative that made marmalade. When we first got there, the women were not actually there yet to show us around the marmalade factory. This was my first lesson in Dominican culture: Dominicans run on their own time. They aren’t as enslaved to the clock as we are, and while it can be frustrating to Americans, it is also refreshing to meet people who aren’t always rushing from one place to the next.
After the women arrived, we took a tour of the community. I was amazed as we walked through the streets and our guide pointed out fruit after fruit that just grew throughout their community. There were mangos, star fruit, a type of cherry, and countless others. It is incredible how much they grow themselves, compared to the majority of people in America, who could not survive without the grocery store.
One of the highlights of the tour was Fabio, a 10 year old boy from the community who was walking around with us, and whose favorite entertainment was to poke us in the sides when we weren’t paying attention and laugh at our bewildered faces.
Also on the tour, our main guide would call out to people in their yards or in the streets, wanting them to just come say hi to us. This was another lesson I learned that day: just how strong these communities in the Dominican Republic are.
The last thing that struck me on this tour was the sense of pride that the citizens of the community had in their town. By our standards, it was a poor community, lacking many things that we would consider necessary. However, when our guide insisted we come in and look at their brand new clinic despite our mentor’s insistences that we had no more time , I saw that they were so proud and thankful for every single thing they had, and that was truly inspiring to see.
We also got a chance to take part in the process the woman do everyday to make marmalade. As I was slicing(or attempting to slice) mangos, I had so much respect for these women, because it’s definitely not an easy process. They are experts though, and it’s a chance for them to be independent and be part of something greater.
The machismo culture is still very prevalent in the Dominican Republic. Women are definitely not seen as equal. It struck me, towards the end of the trip, that I never really saw teenage girls in the communities, despite seeing many teenage boys. I realized that the reason for that was because most girls my age already had one or two kids, which was mind-blowing to me. Sexual harassment in the streets and sexual abuse at home are also not rare in the Dominican Republic. That’s what made this cooperative so inspiring. Through it, the women make money for themselves and have their own lives, not just lives in the household.
Throughout the trip, we learned about the relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. So, it was really interesting to go to this center. The focus is to improve relations between Dominicans and Haitians and to help Haitian immigrants who have been mistreated in the Dominican Republic. They also work to help the children who were born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents who have no nationality. While we were there, we were working to build a clinic in the center.
We learned about the center from Michele, who runs it. His story is fascinating. He was born in Haiti, and then traveled with his mother to work in the sugarcane fields of the DR. Now, he works tirelessly to educate Haitians of their rights as immigrants, to help Haitian women who were lured to the DR under false pretenses and basically kept as slaves, and to just generally try to improve the issues between Haiti and the DR. It was so interesting to hear from this man, who has experienced the issues first hand. Many of these issues are so intense that they are hard to hear. For example, I learned there are many children who were born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents, and these children are nationless. They are claimed by neither Haiti or the Dominican Republic. Basically, their identity has been taken from them. The fact that I am part of a nation was something I had taken for granted before, but after learning about these children who have no country, and who face the challenge of belonging nowhere, I realize how lucky I am that it was just a given for me.
Another issue that was particularly hard to hear about is something that the center is trying to help with. There are people who go into communities in Haiti, and offer to take young women into the DR, where they are promised a better life with a Dominican husband. They are basically sold away. The families of the women think they are sending them to an improved life, but almost always, they are sent into an abusive household. They are usually up in the mountains and isolated, far away from help. The Haitian-Dominican center has emergency housing for these women who want to get back to Haiti, and they help return them to their families. While it was comforting to see that someone is doing something about this issue, it’s also hard to learn about, because there are so many more women who are still in abusive households. What bothered me so so much about this whole problem is the fact that these women are taken advantage of in such an intimate way. The people who lure them into the Dominican Republic take advantage of their poverty and their family’s desire for them to have something more. They use love for profit, and there is something so fundamentally wrong about exploiting people in this way.
Cocos de Abajos
Cocos de Abajos was community where we spent the majority of our time, and subsequently, it was the most impactful for me. The work we were doing there was adding on a classroom to the school building.
The technique that we used for building is an innovative idea that takes trash out of the communities while simultaneously building something useful. Around any community in the DR, one will find empty soda bottles on all sides, simply thrown to the sides by the residents. In the poorer communities, there is no system for trash disposal, something else that I realized I take for granted. For our project, we, and people in the community, gathered the bottles, and stuffed other trash inside the bottles. Then, we nailed chicken wire to both sides of wooden frames. We would stack the bottles inside the chicken wire as insulation. The final step was to cement the outside. We worked side by side with the people of the community. The children would help collect the bottles and stuff trash in them. The older members of the community would help with nailing and cementing. The feelings of accomplishment and community gained from building this classroom was incredible.
The people of Cocos de Abajos were the most kind hearted people I have ever met. They welcomed us into their community with open arms and helping hands. My first day, I was swamped by children who just wanted to hang out and play games. I especially connected with two girls who were eager to try out the English they had learned in school. I would point out objects and tell them the words in English. In return, I would ask them to correct me when my conjugations were incorrect, or when I didn’t know the word. The time I spent with these girls is a great summary of my whole trip. I went in thinking that I would just be helping some community, but it was so much more than that. The most important thing was this cultural exchange. It wasn’t just the change in the community that was important, it was the change in me. I became a more conscientious, thoughtful, and open-minded person, able to return and teach others about my experiences and everything, so that people can see what communities like the ones I visited are really like.
While there were so many other amazing things we did in the communtiy(finding bottles to use in the building on the beach, learning Dominican dances, playing dominoes) one last highlight was the soccer game we played on the last day. As a soccer player myself, I observed some things. The technique was horrible. The communication was chaotic. But the feeling of that moment was golden. The fact that we were all running around like chickens with our heads cut off just made it even better. It didn’t matter who was Dominican or American, male or female, 8 or 18. We were one for a few shining moments, and they were some of the best of my life.
There were so many more moments that I could describe in painful detail, but I’ll wrap it up with a few broad lessons I learned from my time in the Dominican Republic.
- The phrase “they look after their own” doesn’t capture the culture of the Dominican Republic. They do look after their own, but they also do so much more. They will welcome total strangers into their homes and treat them like family. Saying goodbye to the people of Cocos de Abajos, who I had known for maybe a week, was so much harder than I expected, because I never suspected that we would become so engaged in the community.
The people of places like the Dominican Republic are not lesser than us is any way, mind, body, or soul. It’s easy to mix up economic privilege with intelligence or beauty or humor or any other positive attribute. However, it became so clear to me that these people are just that: people. They were just born in a different place under different circumstances. They are intelligent, hilarious, beautiful inside and out, and the most generous people I have ever met.
Lastly, and so importantly, I learned that it’s not our job to go in and fix the lives of people in places like the Dominican Republic. Just because we have more material wealth doesn’t mean they need our pity. Rather, it’s our privilege to help them to improve their communities in some small way. It’s our privilege, because once you enter their community, you become part of that community, and that is the most amazing thing that can ever happen.
I hope that my time in the Dominican Republic was something that Ally would have seen as worthwhile, and I hope that I acted in the same manner as imagine she would have. Even though I never met her, what I have learned about her has made her such an inspiration to me. I hope that I made everyone at Live Like Ally proud, and I just thank them for helping me gain such an amazing opportunity.