Dominican Republic Culture, Traditions & Important History to Know Before Your Trip

Hello dear reader, it seems you’ve clicked right into a Dominican culture pop quiz! A couple of questions for you:

  • In the Dominican Republic, do you kiss both cheeks when saying hello or just one? 
  • Is it appropriate to turn down homemade food when offered to you? 
  • Are Dominicans Black? White? Indigenous? 
  • Which religions do you come across in the Dominican Republic?
  • Which are the best Dominican dishes to eat?
  • Best Dominican film and books to read?
  • When exactly is the disputed Dominican independence day?

If you got stuck on any of these questions– no worries, we gotchu!

The Dominican Republic is a hot spot for tourism in the Caribbean, most evidently because of its plethora of beautiful beaches (check out our Best Beaches in the Dominican Republic list) and the several ecotourism opportunities across the country from hiking Dominican waterfalls to parasailing and kitesurfing! 

But did you know that the Dominican Republic is more than a resort destination? It is a beacon of history intrinsic to the Western hemisphere as we know it, and a culture that despite being small in size has an enormous impact globally. In fact, as the first country to be colonized and enslaved by Europeans, the Dominican Republic is actually the birthplace of the “Latino” identity as we know it today!

That said, we have compiled some important must-knows about Dominican culture, history, and traditions that will help contextualize your Dominican experience! From etiquette to spirituality, we got you covered. Now let’s get started…

Quick History of the Dominican Republic & Our Multicultural Influences

The story of the Dominican Republic begins with Ayiti (meaning high/mountainous land), the island that in 1492 became Hispaniola (little Spain), which eventually split into what we know today as modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. That’s because Spain colonized the entire island until 1795 when it ceded the western half (Haiti) to France. So it’s important to note that while the Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island, they have different colonial and revolutionary histories.

Before either of these European colonizers arrived on the land, however, it was inhabited by indigenous Arawak and Carib people, today known as the “Taino” people.

Taino is short for “ni taino” meaning “good man.” My Intro to Dominican Folklore professor in Santiago taught us that when the Spanish arrived in Ayiti, the Arawak folk identified themselves as “ni-taino” to the Spanish, hoping to be spared from their pillaging violence. Alas, between 1492-1548, nearly all Taino on the island had been murdered due to brutal abuse, famine, and genocide at the hands of the Spaniards. Pleading to spare the last few Taino left, Bartoleme de las Casas convinced Spain to bring enslaved West Africans to work. Heartbreaking.

Today, our cultural influence is Taino, West African, and Spanish. Remnants of our Taino ancestors can be found in our language, music, spirituality, food, and mannerisms. And due to the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, we Dominicans also have a rich cultural influence from West Africa. While we can’t pin down exactly which West African countries (due to slavery), many of us get Nigeria, Togo, Congo, and Senegal on our DNA/ancestry tests. Lastly, we of course have Spaniard influence since they colonized, exploited, and enslaved us all for hundreds of years; from the Spanish language to the Catholic religion that was beaten into our ancestors.

The Impact of Foreign Invasions + Our Fights for Liberation & Independence

There have been many liberation movements for independence and freedom in the Dominican Republic. We’ve had a tragic history of U.S.-backed dictators and colonization/enslavement at the hands of European colonizers. All these disruptions, exploitations, pillaging of our land and people have caused a deep wound we’re all still healing from. Not just economically and psychologically but in unpacking our sense of cultural identity and inner-selves. That’s why it’s important to understand these movements which have shaped the Dominican Republic to where it is today.

December 1, 1821 – The First Dominican Independence

After the Haitian Revolution, there was a brief independence in the Dominican Republic from Spain in 1821. The next month, Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer annexed Santo Domingo in 1822 with an army of 10,000 Haitians. He unified the island and liberated Black Dominicans from slavery. Most Dominicans will narrate this history as “Haiti invaded the Dominican Republic.” It’s complex. But if you decide to do your own research on that time period, think critically.

February 27, 1844  – The Second Dominican Independence

When France bullied Haiti into paying billions of dollars for its independence and freedom from slavery, things got messy on the island. Eventually, Haitian President Boyer was overthrown and in 1844, Santo Domingo declared its independence from Haiti.

March/July 1865  – The Third Dominican Independence/“Restoration”

This one is embarrassing. After 17 years of independence, in 1861, Dominican President Pedro Santana decided to RETURN the Dominican Republic to Spain in 1861. A three-to-four year long guerilla war between nationalists and the Spanish military finally led to independence from Spain (again). In 1864, Spain withdrew and annulled its annexation of the Dominican Republic. By 1865, the Dominican Republic was established… again.

This second independence of the Dominican Republic from Spain is known as “La Restauracion” or “the Restoration.”

1916 – The First American Invasion

When the United States invaded the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924, we lost the autonomy and self-sovereignty to rule ourselves. While we eventually regained most of our independence back from the Americans, their occupation resulted in the notorious dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. A U.S.-trained and U.S.-backed brutal dictator who reigned for 31 years until his assassination in 1961.

1965 – The Second American Invasion

In 1965, the United States invaded the Dominican Republic again because they didn’t like our new democratically-elected president: Juan Bosch (think Bernie Sanders of the time). Free access to education, empowering campesinos, and freedom from the oppressive grip of the Catholic church sounded too socialist. So tens of thousands of U.S. military men invaded the Dominican Republic. Heartbreaking.

The U.S. once again deprived us of our self-determination. This American invasion also resulted in another US-backed brutal dictator: Joaquin Balaguer. Since then many, including Juan Bosch have argued that the Dominican Republic “ is United States property… the American occupation began in 1965 and continues today because Balaguer will give the Americans everything they want so long as he can remain in power for life.” Source: New York Times interview

These last American invasions have affected not just our country’s economy, migration patterns, and safety but also our culture. Our economy and political systems have been forcibly modeled after the United States. A model that is barely sustainable in the United States, let alone a country that’s still recovering from 500 years of genocide, colonization, slavery, and foreign invasions. 

Dominican Traditions

Dominicans have a range of traditions that are passed down from generation to generation. These traditions tend to be musical or religious in nature. The cool thing about Dominican traditions is that because of the diaspora, some of these traditions are enjoyed within the country and beyond! 

Music & Dancing

The music of the Dominican Republic is arguably the most notable and globally recognized facet of our culture. Here are three genres of Dominican music that are intrinsic to Dominican culture:

  • Merengue– Merengue is the golden child of Dominican music. Merengue was cemented as key to the Dominican identity by Trujillo, and re-popularized in the 80’s and 90’s by Dominican television shows showcasing live bands and their dancers. To dance merengue, just grab a partner and sway your hips side to side while lightly stomping each foot.
  • Merengue Tipico/Perico Ripiao– I come from a tipico family. My grandfather played the diatonic accordion, and he taught his son Rafael, who taught his son/my cousin, Carlito Arias. Merengue tipico differs slightly from Merengue just in tempo– it moves much quicker! Also, while other forms of merengue don’t need all three of the national instruments present, merengue tipico is not merengue tipico without the accordion, guira, and tambora present. Check out this video of my cousin going nuts with his band.
  • BachataBachateame mama! If you’re a sucker for romance, the guitar, and dancing pegaito, then bachata is the dance for you. It originated in the campos of DR in the late 1950’s and Trujillo found bachata to be peasant music, ultimately banning it from being played. 
  • This led to bachata finding home in low key bars and brothels across the country. To dance it, remember this: One, two, three, HIP. One, two, three, POP. One, two, three, BOOM. Whatever you need to remember in order to add that subtle bounce at the end of the third step. 

Dancing in the Dominican Republic

Not to generalize, but dancing is intrinsic to the Dominican culture and way of life. Gatherings, celebrations, and holidays will usually revolve around music and dancing for most Dominicans. Make sure to brush up on the above genres and their moves before your next trip!

Baseball

Baseball is hands down the most popular and important sport in the Dominican Republic. Known as pelota to those who play on the island, baseball is a unifying tradition for young Dominican men. With the Dominican Republic being the second major producer of baseball players for the Major League of Baseball in the US, the game is also a symbol of social mobility and success for Dominican players with big dreams.

Family/Collective values

Dominicans are very community and family-oriented. Many Dominican values reflect a special respect for courtesy and hospitality, as interpersonal relationships with family and members of their community thrive in the home. For example, it is not uncommon for neighbors to share afternoon coffees together at their homes, and several generations of family members often share the same roof.

This collective value is so intrinsic to our culture, that we wrote an article unpacking both community and individualistic values as Dominican-Americans.

Dominican Holiday Traditions

Now, we’re sure you’ll travel to the Dominican Republic during some holidays. But what are the key Dominican holidays? What traditions come from these holidays? Let’s break this down by the most popular and celebrated. For a full list, check out our month-by-month guide of when to travel to the Dominican Republic.

  • Christmas and Noche Buena: On December 25th, we celebrate Christmas. But don’t get it twisted– Christmas EVE on December 24th is when all the fun happens for Dominicans! Rather than opening presents on Christmas morning, some Dominican families stay up all night to open presents at 12am! 
  • New Year’s Eve & Day: New Year’s Day is usually a day of rest after New Year’s Eve celebrations. Both days are traditionally celebrated with your family. Unlike in the U.S.A, where it is celebrated with your friends in the club.
  • El dia de los Santos Reyes – also known as the day of the Three Kings. It’s a day to commemorate when the three kings in the Bible visited Mary and baby Jesus. Although it is close to Christmas time, this day is another holiday in which young Dominican children can expect gifts under their beds brought to them by the three kings.
  • Carnaval: Dominicans celebrate Carnaval throughout the entire month of February, with the biggest celebration happening on February 27th, the country’s most celebrated day of independence. Carnaval is a joyous celebration of Dominican culture with roots in all three ethnic backgrounds of the Dominican identity: Taino, Spain, and Africa. 
    • It is rumored that the first Carnaval in DR happened when Spanish slave masters decided to give the enslaved Taino and African people a day to decompress (dique). 
    • Spanish colonization brought Roman Catholicism and the African slaves brought their own dances, masks, and instruments. 
    • The Dominican Carnaval has popular characters such as la Roba Gallina, el Diablo Cojuelo (who is rumored to be a representation of the evil white man with a whip), and La Ciguapa. 
    • There are ruins in La Vega that suggest that Carnaval has been celebrated in the country since 1500, making it one of the most ancient traditions in the Americas!
  • Viernes Santo: Sometimes in March but mostly in April, Dominicans celebrate Viernes Santo, also known as Pascua, also known as Good Friday. Dominicans refrain from eating meat on this day, and instead turn to vegetable alternatives like berenjena guisa (stewed eggplant) or seafood based dishes like locrio de sardinas (rice cooked with sardines). 
  • Easter tends to land in April, and one of our favorite Dominican food traditions is habichuela con dulce. Habichuela con dulce is a special sweet dish normally eaten during the first week of Lent. It is made from blended kidney beans with sugar, cinnamon sticks, and sweet mini-biscuits.
  • Day of Restoration: In August, Dominicans celebrate the Day of the Restoration on the 16th. This day celebrates the restoration of the Dominican Republic after Pedro Santana annexed the country to Spain. It is a day full of music and community! 

Dominican Language & Dialect

[To watch the video Click here]

A surprise to no one (we hope), Dominicans speak Spanish! Growing up Dominican in Queens meant that my Dominican accent was the target of many jokes from the kids who had Colombian, Mexican, Ecuadorian accents. The Dominican accent, like the Cuban and Puerto Rican accent, sounds VERY different from the rest of Latin America.

Before I jump into the specific differences between the Dominican Republic and literally everyone else, I need to mention that our accent, the cadence of speech, the intonation… that comes from the Canary Islands of Spain. And Andalusia. Check out this Youtube video of their accents. It’s wild. They sound Dominican-lite. On top of that our way of speaking is also influenced by West African linguistics and, of course, the Taino language.

The Dominican Accent

  • You could argue that Dominicans are very efficient speakers. That’s because sometimes consonants at the end of words are unnecessary. Why say “mas” when you can say “ma?” Why “jamas” when “jama” sounds so sexy and is faster to stay?!
  • Many letters just straight up don’t get pronounced. “Hazme el favor” becomes “hame el favor.” “Voy para alla” becomes “voy pa’ya”
  • While seen more with older campo folk, sometimes an S or an R in the middle of the word gets yeeted out and replaced by a breathy g or j. Carne can be cajne. “Qué es esto?” becomes “Quejeto?” Dropping the R or replacing the S for a J is extremely common in Cuba too.
  • Also – we like J’s. In some regions, the J replaces an H. Estas harto? No, estas JJJJJARTO. Hoyo? Nah. Joyo. Come correct.
  • Oh boy, the letter Z (unless it’s the first letter of a word). We kind of just ignore her like the S, too. Arroz, maiz, raiz? Nope. Arro, mai, rai.
  • By the way, just like the rest of the globalized and American-invaded-world, it is common to hear Dominican words that are adopted from the English-American language. For instance, as we covered in our Guide to Dominican Slang & Phrases, the popular term pariguayo comes from party-watcher back when the Americans invaded us in the 1960s. Zafacon is actually from the American campaign of “Save a Can” during that same invasion of DR. Poloche is from Polo Shirt. So on and so forth.

Accents Within the Dominican Republic

While we may all sound the same to non-Dominican folks, the Dominican Republic has regional dialects. The south of the country sounds different from the north of the country which sounds different from the center of the country (shout out to my people in El Cibao)! Let me introduce you to some of our linguistics. The regional accents go hard! 

  • In the south-eastern part of the country, it’s common to hear folks drop the last or middle “R” from words and replace it with an L just like in Puerto Rico. “Voy a caminar” becomes “Voy a caminal.” “Parque” becomes “palque.” A lot of us Dominican-Americans in the NYC diaspora, may also adopt this R-for-L swap from our Puerto Rican neighbors in NYC.
  • Cibaeno Accent: In the middle of the country (El Cibao), it’s common to hear the “r” become “i.” Bailar becomes bailai. Caminar becomes caminai. La Capital? La Capitai

Quick Dominican Etiquette

  • Greetings – Finally, the answer to your pop quiz… Dominicans are a one kiss on cheek, people! To greet someone, it is customary to give a polite kiss on the cheek as a hello. If you are entering a public place such as a restaurant, it is appropriate to say a brief “Saludos”.
  • Food – Given the cultural value of hospitality, it is seen as rude to decline homemade food cooked for you. Additionally, don’t throw away food. Better to ask “serve me less” than to waste any!
  • Extroverted Values – In a society that values community and warmth, introversion may be deemed as rude.
  • Clothing – The Dominican Republic has a pretty consistently hot climate, so comfortable short clothing is acceptable. However, it is not uncommon to see Dominicans in corporate and government jobs in long-sleeved attire despite the heat.
  • Dating – We wrote this guide on myths to dispell and things to know when Dating a Latina.

Spirituality & Religion in the Dominican Culture

The constitution of the Dominican Republic provides freedom of religion and belief. The most notable practices are tied to our multicultural roots: 

Roman Catholicism

The majority of the population in the Dominican Republic practices Roman Catholicism. Several of the country’s holidays and traditions are rooted in Roman Catholic beliefs. The influence of Roman Catholicism on Dominican culture was forced during Spain’s colonization of the island.

Afro-Indigenous Spirituality

Like many nations in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic has communities of people who practice African diaspora religions. Most notable are Las 21 Divisiones, also known as Dominican Vudu. Las 21 Divisiones is a belief system combining elements of neighboring Haitian Vodou with Roman Catholicism, in which each prominent Catholic saint has a Vudu counterpart that they are syncretized with.

Dominican Cuisine

Oh boy, our cuisine! It is so extensive that we’ve dedicated an entire article to: Traditional Dominican foods to Try & their Cultural Influences. But real quick we’ll start with the two most common dishes: Platanos (plantains) and La Bandera.

For many reasons, platanos are synonymous with Dominican culture. One reason is this video from the early days of YouTube which went viral. If you were a Dominican kid in NYC with internet access in the early 2000s, you probably have seen this video. But we digress.

The Cultural Significance of Dominican Plantains

Straight up– our platano dishes are diverse. You can do so much with a plantain. From the classic boiled platano con salami frito, to the mashed plantains (mangu) with los tres golpes (onions, fried eggs, and fried cheese), to our handy dandy tostones. Not only are they filling, but they are affordable and abundant on the island. 

The Typical Dish: La Bandera

Almost all our dishes tend to have meat, rice, and/or beans. The typical dish “la bandera” aka “the flag” is stewed beef, white rice, and stewed kidney beans. And beans have a special place in our hearts too. Have you ever had habichuela con dulce?

There are dozens of iconic, delicious, flavorful Dominican dishes to try. It is also a gluten-free paradise since we mostly eat rice and root crops. Since we have a strong agrarian culture, you’ll find several fruits, many of which are native to the island like passion fruit and jagua. Don’t miss out on our comprehensive bucketlist of Dominican foods to try.

Dominican Books to Read

Dominicans don’t just dominate on the baseball field and in music– we also have produced some of the most popular writers of the past two decades. Dominicans of the diaspora in the U.S. have seen great praise and received accolades such as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, and the National Medal of Arts. Below are some culturally meaningful books by Dominican/Dominican-American writers:

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz – Perhaps one of the most prolific works of fiction by a Dominican writer, this book is rich with Dominican history, folklore, and language. The book makes you feel like you’re time traveling through NYC and DR, and the footnotes tell their own stories.
  • Dominicanish by Josefina Baez – Reading this book will make you feel like you just witnessed a performance– probably because it is written by Josefina Baez, an important cultural icon in the world of Dominican American theatre.
  • Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo – This novel offers a sharp yet poetic contrast between the Dominican-American experience and the Dominican experience by showcasing two protagonists related by blood and distanced by circumstance.
  • The Dominican Republic Reader – This 560-page curation of Dominican knowledge is the best resource for fans of history, statistics, personal anecdotes, and general non-fiction.

If you are interested in finding more books by Dominican authors, check out the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Library. Or subscribe to our newsletter for future Dominican Republic cultural and travel guides.

Dominican Movies to Watch

When it comes to cinema, the Dominican Republic has traditionally kept its film industry within the genre of comedy. However, the past decade has changed that! The following films are the most notable films to come out of the Dominican Republic in the past few years. Each of the films below resists traditional Dominican storytelling and have done the best internationally:

  • Carpinteros (2016)- Combining romance and drama within the setting of a real-life prison called La Victoria, this film is a must-watch for its rugged cinematography and powerful performances. It was also the Dominican Republic’s first film to be screened at the Sundance Film Festival! Available to watch on Google Play.
  • Reinbou (2017)- A young boy retraces the history of his dead father to the Dominican Civil War of 1965 with the help of a magical book. If you’re like me and absolutely adore magical realism, this is the film for you. Available on HBO Max.
  • Cocote (2017)- An evangelical Christian man returns home to mourn his murdered father. This film is perfect for those interested in learning more about the different expressions of Dominican spirituality. Available on Amazon Prime via Topic.
  • Hotel Coppelia (2019)- This film is so good we even made a TikTok about it. It tells the story of a group of Dominican sex workers whose brothel turns into a site for revolutionaries during the second US-backed invasion of the Dominican Republic. Available on HBO Max.
  • Veneno: La Primera Caida, El Relámpago de Jack (2017)- This film is a fictionalized telling of the life of popular Dominican wrestler Jack Veneno. The film has impressive fight scenes, the perfect amount of magical realism, and the most talented actors in the Dominican film industry involved. Available on HBO Max.

Who is Dominican? Race & Ethnicity

A Dominican person is someone with Dominican ancestry who participates in the Dominican culture, despite physical location. This definition is important to us at Dominican Abroad, as we recognize the hubs of Dominican diaspora communities around the world who bring the music, food, and traditions of Dominican culture with them. From NYC to Rome to Toronto, there are multi-generational Dominicans keeping their culture alive abroad. Being Dominican is more than a nationality. It is a culture.

Moreover, us Dominicans come in all shapes and sizes! As mentioned in our history section above, our history (and cultural influences) is composed of Spanish, African, and Taino people. Thus, today the Dominican Republic has a mix of people with mixed ancestral backgrounds! Therefore, Dominicans can be Black, white, Asian, Jewish, biracial, etc.

So dear reader, remember, “Dominican” is not a race. And it’s not just a nationality. It’s a history and a culture– and the shared experience of that culture.

Understanding the ethnic and cultural make-up of this country before visiting is important as we are truly a multiracial nation, and its multicultural ethnic and racial background are what make the country what it is today. The legacy of the Taino people is everywhere in our language and region; Spain left a religion that is now integral to the day-to-day of many Roman Catholic Dominican people; Africa left food and dance and the practice of certain spiritualities like Las 21 Divisiones.

How to Stay Informed on Dominican Culture, News & Travel

If you’re interested in learning more about DR culture and everyday life in the Dominican Republic, consider subscribing to our newsletter for upcoming articles and free guides on Dominican culture and travel.

And lucky for you, we are not the sole source of information on Dominican culture! Here are some social media accounts we recommend for continued learning. These range from local Dominican artists to Dominican historians for you to stay up to date on the Dominican lifestyle with:

  • Kiskeya Life – Educational YouTube videos on Dominican history, culture, and science.
  • Isla Adentro – Documentary-style educational YouTube videos of life in the Dominican Republic from different pockets of the island.
  • El Snack Report – Dominican Republic news and cultural updates.
  • Taino Studies – Research & workshop on Afroindigenous cultural studies, native medicine and Taino language.

Now you know what’s up. The Dominican Republic has such a rich culture and history often not captured in television or film, and only sparsely by some prolific Dominican writers in literature. As always, go out there and do more research– but I hope this article was the starting point you needed, dearest reader.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Greisy Genao (she/they) is a published poet and filmmaker from Queens, NY with a BA in English Writing and Film Studies. As a Fulbright U.S. Student Researcher, she has conducted research on Dominican folklore and film in the Dominican Republic. Their award-winning film work has been celebrated across the Dominican diaspora and praised at film festivals from Santo Domingo to New York City. Greisy has also produced “Stories of the Diaspora,” a series dedicated to capturing the narratives of multi-generational Dominicans in New York. As a multidisciplinary storyteller, Greisy seeks to explore and honor the connection between folklore and nostalgia as it appears in the hyphenated Dominican experience. Follow Greisy on Instagram @Grei-mg.

ABOUT DOMINICAN ABROAD

We believe in intentional and informed travel experiences. That means that we not only practice being mindful of the cultures and traditions of the countries we travel to, but that we also are keen on informing our fellow travelers on those cultures so that as a community we are traveling with knowledge and respect for the countries we visit. Follow us on Instagram to stay updated on upcoming trips, cultural guides, and travel articles.

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