In the beginning of most guidebooks are sections describing the local culture and people. Dominicans are some of the most friendly people on the face of the earth. And while I'm not a sociologist, I'd certainly like to further detail some of my own observations and experiences to help travelers better understand your local hosts.
As a whole, Dominicans are poor but proud people and their nature of hospitality will compel them to give even if it means they do without. They are eager to share their lives with visitors and the passions with which they live them. Passionate conversations can be one of the initial shocks...and not in terms of "affectionate". It's not uncommmon for Dominicans to sound like they're continually in the midst of heated arguments with each other, or even when making simple conversation with you. Mildly put, they're very expressive people...not angry, and the loudness technique, whether warranted or not, has been cultivated for being heard over the myriad of other noise bombardments you'll quickly need to become accustomed to.
I've received personal messages from IgoUgo readers asking why the men seem to be so friendly and the women so bitter? The DR is a "macho" society and except in Santo Domingo and larger cities where women have begun to carve out newer, independent identities, the male-dominated culture still thrives and is not only accepted, but expected! For the most part, males work and have the freedom to socialize while the women stay home, often working twice as hard, and are the catalyst which manages and holds the family together...though the genteel sexes would NEVER admit either or.
For women who've dared to step beyond the home now working out in public, their freedom has yet to liberate them from the life-long tasks of servanthood...and taking care of family is one thing; tourists quite the other. Further compounding apparent coldness and hostility toward female tourists is the all-too-common fact of knowing their men have long been attracted to and strayed with far too many of the light-skinned visitors who come looking for the "Latin Lover" encounter. Call it a jealous envy thing!
With the changing times and obvious needs for income, more and more women are being forced out of homes into the public workforce which is something they likely haven't personally accepted or are scorned for - hence, the seeming bitterness. Another form of domination - of an evening when the men are out congregating, "decent" women are still expected to stay at home or at least out of the public's eye. Those who do break this social rule are often quickly labeled only to further succumb to the stereotype that presets a double standard that often allows the males to have their cake...and eat it too!
Closer to home, I don't appreciate the fact the women of my family's house work hard cleaning, cooking every day and of an evening set the dinner table for males of all ages...and then all but leave returning ONLY when we're finished to clean-up and eat whatever's left. I was also chastised by both genders for ironing clothes as that's something a guy just doesn't do!
Another apparent touchy subject seemed to stem from taking pictures of females and the whole respect issue. Photographing family members is one thing, but even their close lady friends avoided the taboo of wanting/having their picture taken. And for me to have photographed a willing subject I wasn't properly acquainted with would have made me just as scandalous...which is why my photos reflect the country and people - male dominated!
The city of Santiago is the country's cultural capital and where the long-standing image of the typical Dominican "caballero/gentleman" became engrained and expected of males in society. It's very comparable to the traits of the States' image of a gentleman from the pre-Civil War, old south era. And much like America, where older genrations have struggled to hold onto ideals and ways, they've quickly slipped out of practical style here, too. This has not only been the source of downfall and inner-struggle with younger Dominicanos here in the country AND for immigrants to the States, but it's also set their double-standards of pushing the limits of social freedoms most females have yet to obtain or experience. "Papichulo" is a common term and personna used to describe a lady's man who overtly exercises his "machismo" to the fullest...often with direct yet excused opposition from a true caballero who at least practices discretion.
To the Dominicano, nothing is more important than family and children...though fathering them and later providing for them are unfortunately not often enough the norm which is why its largely the females within an extended family who've stayed home to provide ALL the rest. But a man's freedom to socialize has created what I, as a foreigner, consider one of the greatest experiences from Dominican culture.
The concepts of "male bonding" and building solid friendships/camaraderie with depth is a rewarding element of their lives we American males seem to be missing. Segregating the boys from the girls starts from birth and is even carried out today at the local church where ladies sit on one side, men on the other. This life-long process creates a "pack of Lone Wolves" who stick together in all aspects of daily life with loyalties that are cultivated from childhod and aren't easily broken. Extending these same privileges to me as an honorary local and family member has provided some of the most rewarding experiences from time spent here. However, I also struggle knowing these perks come from/with the superior mentality that often keep the women subdued who further sacrifice to pay for this gain.
Regardless of how functional or fractured the family structure may be, there's nothing like witnessing or first-hand experiencing how these people can come together to seemingly make the best AND most out of often too little. Amid the poverty, pain and bitterness...which is the muse for the country's Bachata music, watch closely as an extended family enjoys time together at a beach or social gathering. They've perhaps a naive appreciation for enjoying the more simple life where there's little else to get in the way of having and treasuring each other.
Children are truly the pride and joy of the people. Dominicans still tend to have large families despite a high infant mortality rate and knowing the tough road ahead for a culture who's average life expectancy still doesn't surpass the age of 70. Public education in most villages still doesn't go beyond the 6th grade though by the ages of 11-12 most students have already been expected to enter the dismal workforce and help provide family income. Regardless of age, respect for elders is also a foundation laid by firmly practicing - "it takes a villge to raise a child."
You'll see the carefree innocence of the children reflected in their smiles while playing in the streets which will likely melt your heart...and perhaps conjure up compassion and even pity. Yet consider - if they know not what they're missing, are their lives as bleak as they appear? Get to know any Dominican of any age...and you'll quickly realize who's the one missing what's truly important in life.