Living in the Dominican Republic? Here’s How to Be a Better Expat

So you’ve fallen in love with the warmth of the Caribbean and are hoping to make the Dominican Republic your home.  

Becoming an expat in the Dominican Republic is about a lot more than ditching cold winters to lay on the beach sipping mojitos. And while there are entire platforms dedicated to the logistics of moving abroad including a 2020 New York Times guide to becoming an expat, these resources fail to encompass the full realities of becoming an expat.

There is simply not enough research or even reflection encouraged on the negative social, cultural and political impact of expats throughout the world and especially in developing countries. This is the case in my hometown of Cabarete, Dominican Republic, where expats reign with impunity, often enforcing inequality one haggle-over-the-price-of-a-coconut at a time. 

But you don’t want to be one of those expats in the Dominican Republic. It’s 2021 after all, and expats aren’t just retirees looking to spend their pension and Social Security. Expats can be young and innovative digital nomads with a simple idea of community and possibly a desire to change the world. Whatever your reasoning, let’s channel those wishes mindfully so that your decision to live in the Dominican Republic is a conscious one.

Already a part of the Dominican Republic expat community? Then this guide is especially for you. 

How to Be a Better Expat in the Dominican Republic

1) Understand the implications of “an expat” vs. “an immigrant”

Some conflicts start with the language that we use to define ourselves and others. This is the case with the controversial label “expat.” A Dominican man who moves to New York, regardless of his intention or economic status is considered an immigrant. An American man who moves to Puerto Plata, regardless of intention or economic status is considered an expat. The latter has a connotation of superiority. We have been conditioned to associate “immigrant” with gritty images of families fleeing poor countries; while romanticizing the European or American “expat”.

In the Dominican Republic, like many developing countries, expats are regarded as white people. And on the off chance that they are a person of color, by joining expat communities they often unconsciously further gentrification and displacement. Such was the case of the Black couple who went viral after publishing a guide to moving to Bali and were subsequently deported back to the states.

Extreme capitalism has fueled myths about tourism to such an extent that members of marginalized communities (ex. Black Americans) can in turn drive settler colonialism in their search for a place free of the civil rights violations back home. But make no mistake, it is that blue American passport that creates an illusion of freedom in places like Bali and the Dominican Republic. Black Dominicans do not have the luxury. 

It is important to understand that in a country like the Dominican Republic (which is majority black and brown), when you decide to adopt the expat label, you are putting on layers of armor consisting of social and economic privileges that the local citizens are not afforded in their own country, let alone if they were to travel abroad to your home country. 

2) Beware of expat groups, blogs and forums

Many expats love the idea of living in the Dominican Republic… without Dominicans.

A few months ago, an acquaintance was attempting to move with his family to our town in Cabarete. After spending a few weeks exploring different homes, his family decided against it and continued their search elsewhere. The father mentioned that a big part of their decision was driven by how miserable all of the expats in Cabarete are. His experience was that expats are often grumpy and unpleasant to be around because they are not transparent about business transactions and have relied on the lack of infrastructure to exploit their local workers while also spending 99% of their time trash-talking Dominican society and culture. 

This may be one of many experiences, but the question that you may ask yourself as a wanna-be expat is: are you willing to adapt to the conditions of the Dominican Republic? Living in the tropical paradise of the Dominican Republic can only get you so far if you have a disdain for Dominican culture and its people. This friend’s experience is that many expats, specifically on the North Coast, love the idea of living in the Dominican Republic… without Dominicans. 

What good are the warm sunny days and palm trees if you have deep-rooted aversions and prejudices towards the inhabitants? You are no better than Christopher Columbus; you will be miserable, and you will make others miserable.

An expat and a tourist will never be able to appropriately explain Dominican culture, history and lifestyle better than a Dominican

This phenomenon is evident in online expat Facebook groups, blogs and forums, where a population of expats take turn to publish demeaning and xenophobic commentary towards Dominicans. Proceed with caution in spaces that generalize and exaggerate any aspect of the Dominican lifestyle.

Yes, you should always research the cultural landscape of where you plan on visiting, and of course, where you’d like to relocate to. But an expat and a tourist will never be able to appropriately explain Dominican culture, history and lifestyle better than a Dominican. If you are too quick to distance yourself from Dominican culture, and your circle of friends is only expats, you will put a target on your back for those who are looking to extort and exploit your economic advantages. This is not an approval for seeking out a token Dominican friend who can negotiate for you. That would be exploitation. 

Certain blogs such as this guide of culture in the Dominican Republic gloss over some major social and cultural problems that the Dominican Republic inherited from colonization and imperialism such as the effects of poverty. And then other forums such as this one, mention that towns with high amounts of tourism and expats will be more expensive without the context that it is exactly such a presence that displaces Dominicans in their own country. 

3) The underbelly of tourism ranges from opportunistic dating to child sex trafficking:

“Do not act surprised or offended when you inevitably find out that they were only interested in your money, access, and resources to survive.

Towns with a high presence of the tourism industry have bi-products of the same inequalities that the industry creates and exploits. Part of the social privileges that foreigners benefit from is a power structure in relationships with Dominicans and Haitians. In Sosua and Cabarete, Puerto Plata, it is common to see young Dominicans and Haitians dating much older expats and tourists. Let’s be real; rarely are these cases of “love knows no age” or “interracial love.” What is occurring is more sinister. Many foreigners arrive looking to date and instead prey on young vulnerable women and men living in poverty. If you do this, do not act surprised or offended when you inevitably find out that they were only interested in your money, access, and resources to survive.

On the extreme end of the spectrum, yet still a part of a culture of foreigners that fetishizes and objectifies locals is sex tourism. There is an argument to be made for adult sex workers who are engaged with consent in this industry. But, in 2013 and 2014, the International Justice Mission ran an investigation on the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the Dominican Republic and found that 70.5% of foreigners were present in sex exploitation establishments in the towns of Bavaro, Boca Chica, Cabarete, Juan Dolio and Sosua—all with a large expat population. According to the International Justice Mission, this study found that “1 in 10 individuals in commercial sexual exploitation in the Dominican Republic is under the age of 18. In 90% of towns surveyed, local third parties affirmed their ability to locate and deliver a minor for sexual exploitation.”

As an expat, you can either contribute to these kinds of exploitations or you can help fight against them. Do not turn a blind eye, report what you witness to CONANI. Look around you; are you supporting an establishment that benefits from sexual exploitation? The aforementioned study found that higher percentages of sex trafficking of minors occur in bars, beaches, and parks of tourist destinations in the Dominican Republic. 

4) Do not haggle over $3, while enjoying the “expat” lifestyle

It is convenient to believe that Dominicans have a culture of haggling or bartering for better prices. This practice is out of pure necessity, not for the fun of it. The average Dominican makes less than $200 USD a month. Since we have already established that as an expat in the Dominican Republic you will arrive with certain economic privileges, bartering for what to you may just be loose change is exploitation and especially cruel if you live in security-gated communities with 24/7 electricity and water that is a luxury to the masses. 

When I was a yoga instructor at a popular yoga studio in Cabarete, I had many occasions where expats would attempt to get the discount designed for Dominicans and Haitians that can not otherwise afford the full rate. In one particular time, an older expat was furious that I would not give him the discount and proceeded to humblebrag about how he was a returning customer, owns properties next door and lives on the north coast six months out of the year while traveling back and forth from New York City. I should not have to write this out but if you live off real estate and have the privilege to travel, you can pay the $3 USD difference for a yoga class. 

Haggling ultimately affects the livelihood of the local population and in the case mentioned above, this man was not just bartering for a yoga discount but also trying to take up a spot reserved for those with fewer resources.

5) No, Gringo is not a derogatory term

While experts can’t quite narrow down the exact origin of the term, NO working theories define it as a slur or form of oppression towards foreigners. It simply does not have the historical background nor the systems of oppression in place that other slurs have (such as the N-word) to be derogatory. After barely surviving colonialism and slavery, the Dominican Republic has also been invaded by the American military twice just in the 20th century. Therefore it is by the miracle of imperialism that Dominicans are not more skeptical and weary of foreigners from developed countries. 

6) La Cienega & Playa Encuentro: Two tales of local displacement and foreign gentrification

Understanding the displacement and gentrification that occurs in your own backyard will be key in how you move and interact with the community as an expat. Two neighborhoods in Cabarete, La Cienega and Playa Encuentro, offer some insight into the inequalities present in tourist and expat driven areas. 

La Cienega, the largest neighborhood in Cabarete, is a shantytown with a level of poverty that is shameful for a town that brags about being the watersports capital of the Caribbean and where tourism is allegedly the biggest source of income for local families. Yet, displacement is the daily bread in La Cienega. Just this past 18th of February unfair and forceful evictions took place leaving entire families homeless.

Across the street from La Cienega, is Kite Beach. Famous for it’s top wind conditions that allow year-round kite surfing, Kite Beach does not have a single public access point.

Just down the road, in Playa Encuentro, you’ll find a surfers paradise waist-deep into another controversial fight for public access. Here, the next real estate development behemoth is being sold as a “privileged beachfront life” while La Cienega has constant water and electricity shortages and their garbage collection/waste management is non-existent. 

Encuentro Beach, Kite Beach and surrounding residential areas are by design inaccessible not only physically to Dominican locals of La Cienega (with security that denies many of them entrance) but also inaccessible through a surf culture created by expats and wilfully ignorant tourists, that is unwelcoming and overpriced for locals. 

Almost ironically, La Cienega residents also make up the working force behind new construction projects in their town that will ultimately keep them from accessing their birthright: the beaches and the paradise that is supposed to be driving development.  

Keep this in mind if you ever find the urge to say that “tourism drives the local economy” or that “locals need your foreign currency.” What we need is for our basic human rights and resources to be respected above the desires of the tourism industry.

7) Ditch the saviour complex

Many expats and tourists arrive with an understanding that there are serious problems in Dominican infrastructure and may genuinely wish to help. Do not fall for the trap of the white saviour complex. When you center yourself via images or content that dips into poverty porn or center your ego as the solution to problems that your ancestors created (and/or afforded you this same status that can now “solve” these issues) you are still participating in and maintaining systems of oppression. 

Remember (yes, a list within a list)

  1. Avoid poverty porn.
  2. Never take photos of people without their permission (especially children). Here’s why.
  3. Avoid patronizing those you wish to help.
  4. Helping others is not about you. Those in need are not your rehabilitation center.
  5. It does not matter how many jobs you have created if your employees live in poverty.
  6. If your business is going to hire expats consider the ongoing moral debate in giving employment to expats with more access: are they being paid the same as their local counterparts? Can a Dominican or Haitian immigrant manage this position? And if no other options are available, can they offer an apprenticeship and train a local resident for this position? 

So what are things I can do? 

I am not suggesting that you do not become an expat in the Dominican Republic but I am encouraging you to consider how your presence in this land may be disruptive and how your comfort is and will often be achieved at the backs of others.

Can expats effectively move through spaces in developing countries and help to create equity? Here are some habits you can adopt into your expat lifestyle to become an active ally and a positive member of our society:

8) Learn the history, listen and stay informed of current news 

Some expats are so privileged that they can easily create a bubble where none of the everyday problems or cultural developments of the Dominican Republic even reach their ears. You cannot be an active member of Dominican Republic if you do not take the time to learn our history and culture directly from the work of Dominicans. After you’ve learned Spanish, continue to read the classic works of Juan Bosch and Julia Alvarez as well as modern writers like Amanda Alcantara and Lorgia García-Peña (the Dominican Writers Association has great reading resources). Follow and support current activists, cultural critics and educators like Rita Indiana and Zahira Kelly-Cabrera and the majority of the content by El Mitin or Somos Pueblo. You should know what is going on with hot national debates such as #LasCausalesVan and support youth-led movements such as Barrio Alante. 

Only by staying informed can you make culturally appropriate contributions. Remember: try to listen and understand instead of judging. And make sure your voice simply amplifies the voices of those you want to support. 

9) Learn to appreciate not appropriate

Carnaval season in the month of February is arguably the biggest cultural tradition of the Dominican Republic. With a range of rich traditions, this is a wonderful time to learn, appreciate and support Dominican culture. Unless you are invited to do so, do not dress up in the traditional costumes. For content creators, do not sell images or videos of the activities without consent and without payment to the models featured in your work. That is the difference between appreciation and appropriation.

Have you been invited or welcomed by members of that community to don that costume or participate in that gathering? Or are you picking up an item for consumption without any context and awareness of its significance? If participating in this benefits you in any way, such as likes and follows on social media, how are you honoring and distributing that back to originators? Are you standing up for the rights and concerns of those people? 

10) Hold each other accountable

There is blatant discrimination going on in communities where expats are the privileged minority with some of the biggest examples being housing discrimination and wage theft. None of these practices are lawful but justice is rarely enforced. As an expat your presence holds weight. Use your privilege to hold your fellow expats accountable in both private and public spaces. 

11) Volunteer but first do due diligence

There are plenty of foreign-owned and funded non-profit organizations in the Dominican Republic. As a result, voluntourism has become a business that often causes a lot of harm when paired with the white saviour complex. When looking to contribute to a cause try to find out if this is a grassroots community organization? Are the leaders from the community that they serve? Or are they erasing and co-opting spaces that should be run by those affected? How are they amplifying and building from the voices of those they serve? Or are they imposing foreign belief systems and methods?

And what about yourself as a volunteer? If you are paying to volunteer, are you arriving with zero skills? Or worse with skills and tools that are already available thereby taking a position from a qualified local? Sometimes the better option is to simply donate money. 

12) Be open to learning how you may be a part of the problem. 

And adjust as needed.

The Dominican Republic is the most visited Caribbean country for many reasons. The diverse topography offers a variety of stunning locations and options for visitors and those who call it home. As a developing country, it offers many incentives to outside investors and foreigners looking to relocate. But it often offers up paradise at the expense of everyday citizens. If you chose to put on the expat shoes, do so with self-awareness of your privileges and move with a conscious effort to not participate in the exploitation of natives. 

First steps when moving to the Dominican Republic (or anywhere else)

So you have read this article and are working towards gaining a better understanding of the impacts of your presence in the Dominican Republic. Here are some basic steps when moving to the Dominican Republic which many expats tend to skip over.

  1. The process of legally moving to the Dominican Republic starts in your current country of residence. Head to your nearest Embassy of the Dominican Republic to begin the proper process. No, you should not skip this step and hope to magically extend your tourist visa. Do not start on the wrong foot by ignoring and disrespecting immigration laws. This is particularly important if you hope to work or start a business in the Dominican Republic. 
  2. Before you settle your mind to one particular area, make sure to explore the different towns and cities. The Dominican Republic is larger than it appears and while you may have been sold on the beaches and palm trees, some parts of the country are nowhere near the ocean. Finding the best place to live according to your desires may take some time to find. This is particularly important for anyone moving with a family and children. Even in one city, you may need to test out homes and apartments for a few months at a time as you adjust your expectations to the realities of real estate in the different areas. 
  3. Learn Spanish. Do not expect Dominicans to adapt to your language needs, that is entitlement with an extra dose of settler colonialism.

About the Writer: Moraima Capellan

Moraima Capellán Pichardo is a Dominican-born, writer, visual creator, organizer, and yoga teacher. After living in Brooklyn, New York, Moraima returned home and is based in Cabarete, Dominican Republic. She has written for Oprah Daily, The Huffington Post, La Galeria Magazine, and Healthista, among others. Most recently, Moraima co-founded and is the Executive Director of Cabarete Sostenible. Find her work at moraimacp.com, or on social media at @moraima_cp.


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19 thoughts on “Living in the Dominican Republic? Here’s How to Be a Better Expat

  1. David McCord says:

    Very insightful and wise comments. Thank you. In 1966-67 I had the wonderful experience of being a Peace Corps vol. located in San Jose de las Matas, an experience that has impacted me to this day.

    • Isabelle says:

      Wow! I can’t imagine what it was like for you in the Peace Corps during that time. I ask my grandparents all the time about that decade. It was one of the most impactful turning points in the Dominican Repubublic… The Civil War/Revolution… Death of Trujillo… US Invasion…. And Balaguer’s early years. We’d love to hear all about your experience!

  2. Anonymous says:

    As an expat, this has made me reflect on the ways that I go about certain things. Thank you for taking the time to educate us all so that we can do better in your country which has welcomed us with open arms.

  3. Sheri says:

    Really appreciate this thoughtful, insightful and respectful article. I have had the privilege of being a North Coast “expat/snowbird for 8 years. This experience has enriched my life beyond words. I will always be grateful and humbled by the Dominican people and do my best to be a respectful guest in this country. Thanks for sharing.

      • María says:

        Hola
        I would like to connect with you on this very subject. I left DR as a teen and have been back and forth to Costambar for years now. I have spent my professional career dealing and teaching this subject in the USA for 20 years and have been digging more and more into it in DR.
        Dr. Rosario but prefer Maria. Gracias

    • Isabelle says:

      ” un faro no podria dar mas luz.” que gracia me dio esto! me encanta ese dicho. es muy amable usted. muchas gracias por su apoyo.

  4. Ravenmortal says:

    Brutally honest, insightful read. So nuanced, even in creating a clear distinction between the white and black immigrant experience as well as the (unconscious?) colonial settler and appreciative immigrant philosophy and approach.

    As a recent Black immigrant to a different Spanish speaking country, I can totally relate and many times thankful that I can be invisible and spared the burden and attention of the gringo or yanqui. La negra will do, thank you. Lol

  5. Mike says:

    Racist article and full of woke virtue signaling. Don’t assume everyone moving there is white or only white people create problems.

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