Rural nostalgia as an urban coping strategy

March 20th 2013

In the Dominican Republic, el campo (the countryside) holds a positive value due to its important role in the cultural history of the nation. In contrast, el barrio (meaning a poor urban neighbourhood) is viewed as characterized by material and social degradation. Migrants from the countryside to Santo Domingo's barrios find that they lose their moral status, instead being cast as criminals and delinquents.

To counter their displacement, migrants must negotiate a more prestigious place in social imaginings of the city’s present. Although barrio residents generally agree that the barrios— and the city—are dangerous, they reject totalizing representations of barrio residents as immoral.

They assert a morality that is bound up with traditional rural values: family life, hard work, and religiosity. Memories of their rural past form an integral part of their imaginings of themselves as moral people with a legitimate place in the city. In this sense memory can offer a form of resistance to the urban moral order, albeit one that is ultimately bounded by normative understandings of space and morality.

Applying a coat of paint to crime: Urban poverty in the Dominican media

February 25th 2013

Over the last two or three decades, rising crime levels have become a major concern in Santo Domingo. Media reports on urban gangs, robberies and violent crimes reflect a climate of fear that has invaded public life. Taking these at face value, an outsider would be forgiven for assuming that Santo Domingo has become another Kingston or Port of Spain.

However, one does not have to spend long in the Dominican capital to realise that these reports overstate the case for danger. Crime has certainly increased markedly, especially opportunistic muggings, but Santo Domingo has a long way to go to catch up with its Caribbean cousins. Why, then, these fear-inducing representations?

When humanity trumps race: Changing relationships in fieldwork

February 14th 2013

"Look, the white girl's carting water!" exclaimed a middle-aged woman in surprise as I carried two buckets full of water up the street to the house where I was living. The water mains had broken, so my neighbors and I had been fetching water from two blocks away for the past three days.

I had been living in La Ciénaga, a barrio of Santo Domingo, for a couple of months. In the Dominican Republic, as in many sites around the world, light-skinned people tend to be wealthy and occupy a place of privilege, and dark-skinned people occupy the lower social strata and supply their manual labor to the wealthy. White foreigners are particularly viewed as privileged, since they come from wealthy countries and tienen la manera [have the means] to do as they wish.

A reluctant locality

February 4th 2013

In 2005 I was living in a squatter settlement in Santo Domingo for my doctoral research. I asked one of my neighbours for advice about a community survey I was designing. He took issue with one particular question I had framed: "Would you move away from La Ciénaga if you had the opportunity?"

My neighbour argued that this question was redundant, because every single resident would answer "yes." If they answered "no" they would be lying, because no sane person would choose to reside in La Ciénaga voluntarily.

My neighbour was not far off the truth. When I collated the results of the survey, 96 percent of the 300 respondents reported that they would leave La Ciénaga if they had a choice. Who, they argued, would want to live in a barrio marginado (marginalized neighborhood) characterised by delinquency, pollution and poor housing?