The Dominican Republic

The land

Cibao Valley

The Dominican Republic is located on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with Haiti. Its capital is Santo Domingo, the first city established in the New World by the Europeans. Because of its great beauty, it shouldn’t surprise us that Christopher Columbus loved this island more than any of the other places he discovered.


The Cordillera Central (mountain range) separates the country into two parts: the eastern part is very developed while the western part is virtually unexplored. Although the people living in this underdeveloped are live in extreme poverty, this part of the island is extremely beautiful.

Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the region (3,174 meters) is a popular place for tourists. In addition to mountains, there are various lakes, many beaches, and 108 rivers in the Dominican Republic. It is believed that Lago Enriquillo, a lake located below sea level, has as much salt as the Dead Sea. Because of its fertility, Cibao Valley is the center of a lot of agricultural work, such as livestock farming and the cultivation of tobacco. Sugar, fruit, coffee, meat, tobacco, and cacao are the most exported products in the country.

Indigenous people

When the Spaniards arrived at the island of Hispaniola, they encountered the Taínos, an

The Tainios
The Taínos

indigenous group whose culture was fairly developed. In fact, their culture was in the process of becoming an advanced civilization. The Taínos were very skilled at pottery, the making of gold jewelry, and manipulating stone. The majority earned a living by hunting, fishing, and farming, and each village was directed by a leader that was called the cacique. These villages were grouped in districts directed by a single, powerful cacique. If the cacique directed a large village, he received advice by a witch doctor (the behique).


The Taínos valued the capacity of contributing something to the community. For example, even children had to work at taking care of the conuco, a section of land in which yucca was grown. Elderly people were thrown out of the community if they couldn’t work. Nevertheless, the Taínos were a peaceful people and they didn’t have slaves.

According to Christopher Columbus, the Taínos were a generous and beautiful people. Thus, it was easy to take advantage of them. After the arrival of the Spaniards, many Taínos died because of abuse, war, and sickness. It is calculated that about 85% of the population had been exterminated by the beginning of the 16th century. Nevertheless, the influence of the Taínos survives in the language, art, agriculture, and religion of the modern Dominican Republic.

Food and music

La bandera
La bandera

The Dominican Republic has a large variety of foods. Some basic ingredients in the Dominican gastronomy, of course, are beans and meet. Beef and chicken are quite common, but goat and pig meat are also eaten. La bandera, for example, is a typical dish composed of rice, beans, and meat, and is eaten with a salad and fried plantains. If you like coffee, you would love the Dominican Republic, where people take a cafecito (cup of coffee) during any part of the day. Dominican coffee is extremely rich and thick.

Music is a central part of Dominican culture – you can hear music everywhere. In fact, many musicians play in the streets! In regards to folkloric music, this genre has roots in the music of the Taínos, Africans, and Europeans. Some common instruments are pallitos (little sticks), maracas, the guayo, and the  güiro. La bachata is a type of Spanish music/dance in which the guitar is the principle instrument. It’s a bit sentimental and melancholic because it often focuses on themes of love and rural life. The national dance is el merengue.

Traditions and celebrations

Pilgrims of the Virgin of Altagracia

Like other Latin American countries, the Dominican Republic has many holidays and
celebrations. The national festivals are Independence Day (February 27) and Restoration Day (August 16). Although Christmas and Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) are the most popular holidays, there are several unique celebrations as well. For example, the Day of the Virgin of Altagracia (the country’s patron saint) is celebrated on August 10th. On this day, many pilgrims  travel to the Basilica at Higüey and venerate the saint. This tradition, which comes from the Spaniards, is extremely important. In fact, about 8% of Dominicans are named in honor of the Virgin of Altagracia. During the journey, the pilgrims spend time together, dance, and taker care of the bulls that they bring as an offering to the Virgin. The pilgrims hope that the Virgin will help them amidst the pains and difficulties of life.

Carnival, which is celebrated before Ash Wednesday, is another important festival. This week is characterized by parades, masks, floats, and excitement because for a moment the barriers between societal classes are forgotten. Carnival was a pagan tradition until the Spaniards converted it into a Catholic celebration.

The government

President Sánchez

The Dominican Republic is a representative democracy with three branches like those of the United States: executive, legislative, and judicial. Its capital is, of course, Santo Doming. The current president is Danilo Medina Sánchez, who was elected in 2012. Since the country so small, many of the politicians are related and personal connects are very important.

Although the Dominican government has tried to establish good relationships with other countries in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Western Europe, there is a great deal of political (and social) tension between the Dominican Republic and its neighbor, Haiti. Still, the country has a close relationship with the United States. The two countries work together to combat drug trafficking, prevent illegal immigration, etc.

In 2014, the Dominican Republic was classified as a 32 in a range from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Evidently, corruption continues being a problem in spite of the democratic advances of the country, especially in the security forces, private businesses, and civil government. Notwithstanding, many governmental groups are striving to combat corruption, such as the National Ethics and Anti-Corruption Committee (created in 2005).

Major problems

Like many other countries, poverty is a huge problem in the Dominican Republic. In fact,

Poverty in the DR

more than 1/3 of the population survives on less that %1.25 every day. Of course, rural areas suffer more from poverty than do urban areas. Farmers don’t have the technology and the resources they need to make a profit, and the government doesn’t invest much in the rural areas because it is focused on tourism.

Because of its economic problems, the country also suffers from social and economic inequality. Only 30% of children finish their primary education. Without an education, these children aren’t capable of improving their situation and they will never be able to reach a higher status in society.

Another problem is the lack of drinking water and clean toilets. According to one person, “At times, some women have come to me and told me, ‘I turned the faucet on in my house to drink water and I saw some birds and water insects'” (Inzaurralde). The influx of Haitian immigrants has only made the problem worse. In fact, the cholera epidemic that has caused so much devastation in Haiti is spreading to the Dominican Republic.

In addition, it is difficult to receive proper medical attention, especially in rural areas. Unfortunately, President Sánchez doesn’t seem to be worrying himself over rural communities. He is more focused on increasing tourism.

Daily life

Street in Constanza

A young boy draws near to a car parked at the traffic light and washes the windshield to receive a few coins. His family had left the fields to move to the city in search of a better life. Upon arriving, they discovered that the city did not offer many job opportunities because of overpopulation and the class system, in which people with darker skin face more obstacles in improving their economic situation. Although the boy’s father has a small food vending business and his sister works as a servant, the family has a hard time making a living.

Note: the above story is fictional, but it is based on the experiences of many people living in the Dominican Republic.

It is common in the Dominican Republic to see various people sitting outside, evidently not doing anything. In reality, these people do not have jobs and cannot do much because of the heat. Because of that, they sit outside and spend time together. The sense of community they create is essential for the well-being of the people.

Photo Credits

El Valle del Cibao –

Los Taínos –

La bandera dominicana –

Peregrinos de la Virgen de Altagracia –

El Presidente Medina –

Una casa – Imagen del autor

Un calle en Constanza – Imagen del autor


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3 Dec. 2016.



The Leaf Pile

High among these branches,

autumn breezes dally

with the leaves, which crinkle

in the wind (like pages

waxed with scarlet-orange).


Overhead a sparrow

grooms her feathers, sheltered

by a leaf (discretely).


Gently I extend my finger

toward her creamy under-

side, but she – offended –

flutters off the branchlet.


My foot slips


and I let go




into leaves that smell like

mildewed, musty pamphlets,

drying sunlight, cedar

chests embalmed in balsam,

pots of potpourri…


The sparrow (disappearing

into the bronze horizon)

baffles gravity –


and in this soggy dirt where

earthworms wriggle, I wonder

why leaves (and people) are always

falling, never flying.

The Wind-Road

A stream of blackbirds strokes the sky:

Jade, emerald, sigh-silver smoothed into

Ripples of rolling black. Cloud-drips

Dribble from worked wings, watering the highway.

The birds pass people who pant for freedom.

Grim in their grandeur – free, fierce, fearless –

They follow the wind-road rolling to the South.

Take me there, blackbird burnished

By sun. Teach me the mastery of wind…

Sky…sea. Free me from soul-

Anesthetizing love of land. Bear

Me on you glint-glazed, sunset-swimming

Wings that skim along the wind-road.


El Divino Niño

The bustling panorama of Constanza, a Dominican town a few hours to the northwest of Santo Domingo, stretched along the mountains opposite. Standing by the statue of el Divino Niño, I inhaled the breeze, which (having shed the motorcycle fumes and street dust from Constanza on its way up the mountain) tasted like August sun and the vapor rising from a faraway river.

Some man erected the statue years ago as a way of thanking God for healing him of cancer. He never took God seriously before that experience, but one night during the chemotherapy stage, his deceased mother appeared to him in a vision and urged him to cling to the Divine Child for healing. The man did, and his cancer left him. Some people donate to charity when they’re healed of cancer; they send money to starving kids in Africa to prove that their lives are useful to the rest of us. Instead, this man advertised his healing by erecting a monument on top of a mountain in the middle of the Dominican Republic to prove that miracles are possible. We all need that reminder.

The strange thing about el Divino Niño is that rather than facing outward to embrace Constanza, the statue turns his back on the little town. What did those hundreds of poverty-stricken people do to make el Divino Niño turn away? In stories, he always welcomed the sick, the lame, and the blind. But that was, after all, 2,000 years ago. Maybe el Divino Niño got tired of dealing with humanity’s messiness and gave up on us all. Maybe healing that man’s cancer was the last miracle that he was willing to perform.
During the ride up the mountain our truck had jerked and lurched and rattled, constantly threatening to eject us out of our seats. Our entire mission team had hopped onto that truck: Heather, with her t-shirt and a pair of neon sunglasses; Lucas, with his ruffled blonde hair and the intensely introverted look he always wore; Sue, Adam, Lauren, Kiki, Bethany, Chris, my mom, me – so many clashing personalities thrust together in a single truck. We hadn’t known each other very well at the beginning of the trip, but we shared our testimonies throughout the week – our testimonies of how we had come to this place, this placing of going up the mountain to see el Divino Niño. I whipped out my phone and tried to capture the ride on video, but nothing could reproduce those bumps, the earthy air, and the mountains rippling over each other. I felt so alive, as if my life in America was all a dream and this was the only real thing. Had I never been alive before?

Finally, the truck eased to a stop and we all looked expectantly toward el Divino Niño, a huge and somewhat disproportionate statue of Christ set onto a platform. Robed in rose-petal pink and wearing a spikey halo around his head, the statue wasn’t exactly a Doryphoros, but the radiant expression of his face gave him a unique attractiveness. Each culture, including the Greeks, has manufactured its own standards of beauty, but that of el Divino Niño is Classic in the fullest sense. Unlike the mole dotting Marilyn Monroe’s artificial upper lip, no one will ever get tired of el Divino Niño’s smile.

Under the influence of that gentle smile I examined the poor town of Constanza, which lay sprawled out like an open briefcase full of papers that some businessman had dropped: a mess of squares and rectangles surrounded by green fields and humping mountain-tops. I couldn’t make out the therapy clinic where I worked as translator or the shop where we bought ice cream flavored like coconut and pastel de tres leches. Someone pointed out the orphanage and school where we led VBS, but the individual faces of the children had melted into the stone walls of the buildings, too miniscule to pick out. Where was Wilson with the scar on his face? Or the boy with the piercing green eyes and freckles, the one who always watched me like a sly cat? Or all the little girls with their braids and happy, dirty faces? If I, standing on this mountaintop and straining my eyes, couldn’t glimpse them, then how on earth could el Divino Niño see them with his back turned?

CandlesIn the Dominican Republic every year, thousands of men and women go on pilgrimage to the Basilica of Higüey to venerate la Virgen de Altagracia (their patron saint), hoping that she will alleviate the immense suffering that encompasses their daily lives. I’ve never been to the Basilica of Higüey, but I wonder if la Virgin’s back is turned like that of el Divino Niño. I suppose that people go on these pilgrimages because they believe their prayers won’t get heard any other way. They think they have to push themselves into la Virgen’s face for her to notice them. I wonder if that’s how they feel with el Divino Niño.
Inside the statue I found a little room full of candles of all different shades of pink and red: vermillion, coral, salmon, crimson. I admired those little flames, the embodied prayers of Dominicans begging el Divino Niño for the health of a loved one, for their daily bread, or for a job that payed more than a few pesos.

One day during that mission trip we visited a young widow who was trying to scrape enough money together to finish the construction of her house. Her husband, a pastor, had been killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving her alone with her two little girls. It was a barren place without doors or windows (just openings cut out of the chalky-white walls), probably smaller than the size of my living room and kitchen combined. Her two little girls played among the dirt and rubble inside the house where the floor should have been. Did that widow venture to el Divino Niño to light a candle, asking for enough money to finish that house?

Wherever you go in the Dominican Republic, you run into a cluster of children staring at you with smiling faces. It isn’t like in America, where children don’t bother to glance at you, or their own mothers, over their iPads. Dominican children at the bottom of the social hierarchy – illiterate children, campesinos – don’t have iPads, and you don’t usually see them with their mothers (or fathers, if they have any). They don’t seem to belong to anyone except to the mountains, or the streets, or even the little ravines sighing away from the road. The moment that these children see a friendly face they latch onto it, like a dewdrop attaches itself to a rose. I don’t understand much about the relationships between organisms, but I’d call this one symbiotic: the rose prevents the dewdrop from melting into the dirt, and the dewdrop softens, irrigates, and bejewels the rose. I don’t know much about psychology, either. I’ve just observed people, and street children in the Dominican Republic are like those dewdrops: fragile, hopeful, beautiful, transitory. Looking into their faces as they latch onto you, you’re afraid that they’re going to dribble into that mud and be absorbed at any moment. And most of the time, the earth does swallow them. There’s nothing really that you can do about it.

I was standing in the gift shop at el Divino Niño and glancing at the trinkets for sale when a little boy latched onto me (not physically, min

Mario Shirt Boy
My Mario Friend

d you, but emotionally). Once our eyes met there was no avoiding it. I like to imagine that he thought me kind, or gentle, or something eloquent, but he probably just liked me because I was “una americana.” The boy, aged about ten or eleven, observed me with a pair of chocolate-mocha eyes that were deep, serious, and lighthearted at the same time. You see that combination with children everywhere in the Dominican Republic – their childishness just manages to hold its head above the waters of abuse and misfortune, of street gangs and unclean water polluted by floating bird carcasses. Tall and lanky, the boy wore a baseball cap and a red shirt with Mario characters on it. Did he even know who Mario was? Some innocent American boy probably donated that shirt to the Haitians without realizing that the Dominicans would sell it on the black market.

We started a conversation in Spanish about something; I think I asked him about his family, but we both sensed intuitively that the words themselves didn’t matter. We were assessing each other amiably, determined to like each other. My little friend followed us back to the truck, and Fred (the missionary) invited an entire cluster of children onto the back to ride down the mountain with us. In America, some well-meaning elderly lady would have labeled us as kidnappers and called the police, but here those kids didn’t belong to anybody anyway (except, perhaps, to el Divino Niño). I asked one of them, a little boy (I can’t remember if it was my Mario friend), if he had any pets, and he shook his head. “¿Por qué? (Why not)?” I probed, gazing at his wistful face, even though I should have known the answer. He smiled and held up his hand, rubbing his fingers together. Of course – they didn’t have money for pets. Is that why he walked up the mountain to see el Divino Niño? To ask for enough money to buy a pet goat?

We smiled at each other the entire way down from el Divino Niño. If I could have, I think I would have adopted them all right then and there. But eventually we reached the bottom and had to say goodbye. The dewdrops rapidly dribbled into the dirt and disappeared. They all hopped out of the truck and scattered to tell their families that they had just seen a bunch of Americans. I wonder what they thought of us, with our iPhones and spare sneakers?

Whenever we drove through the city in our truck, we always waved and smiled at all the Dominicans in the various stages of mundane life: an entire family piled on top of a motorcycle; a group of men drinking in the shade; a bunch of dusty children wandering through the streets; a woman with her groceries piled on top of her head. When they saw us, their faces lit up and they waved back, their eyes following us down the road. Why do I look back at those faces and feel a throb of dissatisfaction, perhaps even guilt? Why do I somehow connect those smiles with a row of candles in a little chamber on top of a mountain? And why does my back as it rumbles away from each successive face remind me of the back of el Divino Niño, turned upon the town of Constanza? I wonder whether we, like el Divino Niño, were to those people more than a simple tourist attraction.
Our team leader warned us girls to be very careful around Dominican boys because they snatch up any opportunity to get on good terms with “las americanas.” Their attentions are hardly flattering. In reality, they see us as a fast and easy pass to the United States, the Land of Opportunity. It’s strange to be treated like a ticket, like some secret password for success.

Once again I think of the candles, el Divino Niño, and the pilgrims to the Basilica of Higüey. I wonder whether Jesus likes being treated like a ticket or a secret password. I wonder whether the people who hustle up the large steps to look at the statue’s face secretly harbor the hope that el Divino Niño will heal them, just like he healed the man with cancer. And when he doesn’t take them out of poverty, or prevent their family member from dying, or give them a good crop harvest, do they shake their heads and throw away the ticket as defective? No, because the flames of the candles keep on burning, day after day and year after year, and people keep on visiting that monument with its back turned to Constanza.

In America, too, we have tickets, but of a different kind. We have the tickets of luxury, and intelligence, and success – of impressive job resumes and Bath and Body lotion bottles with pretty flowers on the front. No one knows what the tickets are for in the end, but no one really cares. It doesn’t matter if they’re worth anything or not. The Dominicans look at us as tickets to material advancement, but if they lived in America, they would see all the dissatisfaction, depression, and anger and wonder what on earth they had traded their Divino Niño tickets in for. Not much, I’d say. The whole concept of tickets – the whole ticket industry – is skewed. You can’t trade in your ticket of materialism for happiness any more than you can go on a pilgrimage to Higüey hoping that all your problems will melt away. Maybe it’s time that we stopped treating Christ – or people – like tickets.

Why did the man make el Divino Niño face away from Constanza? Supposedly, the people who erected el Divino Niño turned him the wrong way by accident and the man didn’t have enough money to change it. On the other hand, el Divino Niño might have told the man to let it be; he might have chosen that position. That way, the only people smothered by that radiant smile are those who trek up the mountain seeking it. Each Dominican in Constanza knows that he’s there; they can feel his influence over the town even with his back turned. They understand that in order to see his face, they must hike up the mountain to meet him. El Divino Niño wants them to prove their loyalty to him. He wants to be adored for the sake of his beauty, not for his ticket-value, so he tests them. It’s like with the pilgrims to Higüey. No one promises those pilgrims that they will get what they ask for, but they continue to make that journey year after year. Why? Maybe they want to prove to la Virgen that they love her even when she doesn’t stop the street gangs or wipe out corrupt government officials.

I have a friend who has wandered away from the faith slowly but steadily; she seems to have given up on the idea of a faithful God.

“Have you ever tried to seek Him?” I asked her.

“Yes, I tried. And nothing happened.”

No, that’s all wrong! You can’t take just one step up that mountain and be overwhelmed by the presence of el Divino Niño. Don’t you realize that at first you must be content to see his back, knowing that you’ll soon see him face to face? Don’t you know that sometimes, on the curves of the mountain, you lose site of him altogether? He’s still there, I tell you, and he’s waiting for you. But he doesn’t want to be treated like a ticket.

I will never see that boy in the red Mario shirt again. I will never again look into the faces of those children who melted like dewdrops into the parched and thirsty soil of the Dominican Republic. And yet, I hope that little boy stayed far away from the witch doctor’s house that we passed on our way to the airport, with its satanic symbols dangling from the trees. Did he ever venture to travel up the mountain to el Divino Niño again? Did he ever put his candle inside the monument’s bosom? I don’t know. I also can’t stop thinking about those people whose eyes followed us as we chugged down the road in our truck. Did they ever get sick and tired of looking at the back of el Divino Niño? Did they ever trudge up the mountain to see his face – not to get something from him, but just to belong to him? I can’t say. But I hope so.

Looking Forward

DRIn the words of Mother Teresa, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” According to one estimate, there are over 150 million documented orphans in the world. This number can seem overwhelming at first – so overwhelming that we might be tempted to sit back helplessly and not do anything. However, God doesn’t evaluate our service based on how many people we touch, but rather by how willing we are to serve Him. He is concerned about our faithfulness, not our productivity.

Over the past few years, God has placed a burden on my heart for Latin America. As I fell in love with the Latin American culture, language, and people, I started to wonder whether God was calling me to serve Him in a Spanish-speaking country. This desire to serve the Latin American people only increased when I went on a short term mission trip to the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2016 and experienced firsthand the beauty – and brokenness – of that little country.

When I applied to an internship to the Dominican Republic with Kids Alive International, I hardly dared to hope that I would be accepted. During that week of waiting to hear back from the organization regarding my acceptance, I had a hard time sleeping some nights because the desire to return to the Dominican Republic was so strong. When I found out that I was accepted, I was – needless to say – thrilled. God is so good.

Kids Alive International is a Christian organization “committed to providing physical and spiritual care for orphaned and abandoned children around the world.” I will be interning at one of the Kids Alive sites in the Dominican Republic as a teaching assistant, so I will have the opportunity to engage my love of language, children, and teaching all at once.

Although I am extremely excited to spend the summer in the DR, I recognize that the internship will be difficult as well as incredibly eye-opening. Please pray for strength and unity for all of us interns as we leave behind our friends and families and venture out into the unknown. Pray that God will use this time to give me His eyes so that I will value and love these children as He values and loves them.

If you would like to help me financially, I would greatly appreciate your support! If you decide to support me financially, please mail all financial gifts to: Kids Alive International, 2507 Cumberland Drive, PO BOX 2117, Valparaiso, IN 46384-2117. Make sure to include all reply cards so that Kids Alive can issue you a tax-deductible receipt. If you would would prefer to support me online, you can go to and find me by clicking on “Intern Support” under the “Support our Work” tab.

Thank you so much for your prayers and support! I am so thrilled to see what God has in store for this summer.