I'm pleased to announce that my first ethnography, Materializing Poverty: How the Poor Transform their Lives (2013, AltaMira) is now available for pre-order. A big thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way!
Between 1930 and 1961, the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo took firm control of nation-building in the Dominican Republic. More than any political power before him, Trujillo forged a unified nation, but he did so via a politics of exclusion. Many scholars suggest that the state bears the burden of responsibility for the persistence of racism and denial of African roots.
It appears, then, that Trujillo’s politics of exclusion continues to define domincanidad (Dominicanness) today. Far from being generated spontaneously among the population, the political and intellectual elite entrenched their version of national culture via formal and informal social institutions.
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.
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?