“Café y Leche”: The Dilution and Erasure of Blackness in the Dominican Republic

by Ayer Richmond ’24 and Edmund Josef Jurado ’24

The Africana Research Collective (ARC) is a new initiative led by First-Generation, Low Income/Black, Indigenous, Students of Color and Allies (FGLI/BIPOC+) at Wesleyan. ARC is composed of 7 second-year students from across the three academic divisions. Our sense of the African diaspora is global in reach, including countries and geographies that have been erased or banalized within popular and academic understandings of the African diaspora.

“In Dominican society, being Black is synonymous with a past that we want to avoid. Being Black is an open wound for Dominicans, an open wound that no one wants to talk about.” June 18, 2022––Fernanda Berihuete is an Afro-Dominican historian committed to challenging the erasure of African heritage and Blackness in the Dominican Republic who gave the Africana Research Collective a tour of the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo. Fernanda explained that most Afro-Dominicans living in D.R. do not identify or think of themselves as Black. Accordingly, “I’m not Black, I’m Dominican,” is something we heard often, as well as the notion of Dominican people being “café y leche,” coffee and milk. Various conversations that we shared with locals and guides affirmed Fernanda’s insights, and it became quickly apparent that for many of the Afro-Dominican people that we spoke to, Blackness was to be discarded or, at the very least, diluted by Spanish––”leche”––and Taino genealogy. While some identified their heritage, complexion, and features as Black, they did not identify themselves as such. Evidently, our understanding of race within the context of the United States translated into the racial framework of D.R. as poorly as our frequent “English to Spanish” Google searches did. 

When our itinerary took us from Santo Domingo to the markets of Dajabón, which stands directly on the border between D.R. and Haiti, Fernanda’s assessment of being Black in D.R. as “an open wound” unfolded in such a way that we came to understand that to be Black in D.R. was, in a sense, to be Haitian. We found that the blatant aversion to Blackness in D.R. was largely directed towards Haitians as we spoke to many Dominican people who expressed sentiments of superiority or resentment against Haitian people. This was especially apparent in our conversation with a Dominican woman in Dajabón who sat hardly a hundred feet from the border into Haiti as she described Haitians as “lawless animals” incapable of culture. While in the market, we also interviewed Haitian vendors who refused to speak Spanish despite being proficient in it, similar to how many Haitians are fluent in French yet refuse to speak it as it is the language of their colonizer. We learned that while many Afro-Dominicans reject and subdue their Black heritage, they perceive Haitian people as indisputably Black and deem them inferior. 

As this quasi-unanimous reluctance to acknowledge Blackness in D.R. was a focal point of our research, our visits to various sites further enlightened us to how pervasive and unsettled these erasures are. We visited the Dominican Museum of Resistance, which made no mention of Dominican history pre-Trujillo; three former slave plantations that were left to ruin, save for the slaveowners’ lodgings and a Church still in use every Sunday; El Faro a Colón, a ​​mausoleum monument and lighthouse dedicated to Cristopher Colombus; El Alcázar de Colón, the first fortified Spanish palace built in the Americas; and the Dajabón market where we interviewed Dominicans and Haitians regarding how they understood their racial identities. Though we tried multiple times to contact La Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, we were unable to get in touch with them. Upon meeting Fernanda, we learned that she was a former student of this university, and that the institution did not support her research nor provide her any assistance as she attempted to research the ways in which Blackness is repressed and neglected in D.R.

Photographed by Finn; Top Row (left to right): Ethan, Ahmed, Prof. Bertholf, Ayer; Bottom Row (left to right): Lexie, Edmund, Fernanda, Yohely

 The university’s refusal to support Fernanda’s Afro-centric research and to meet with us to discuss our project demonstrates how societal reluctance to acknowledge and accept Blackness in D.R. is upheld by major institutions and systems in the country. As Fernanda says, in rejecting their Blackness, Afro-Dominicans hide a “wound”  that is held by all people of African descent. However, sheltering this wound and the painful realities it encompasses does not allow for it to heal. We, the Africana Research Collective, wish to amplify Fernanda’s voice and overarching mission to open this “wound” to the world and mend the negative connotations with which Blackness is understood in certain social frameworks such as that of D.R. In doing so, we hope to expand common conceptions of the Africana Diaspora so that it includes the rich culture and history of the Afro-Dominican people of the Dominican Republic.