Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Gringos" in Las Terrenas

“Gringo” is a term used in many parts of the Dominican Republic to identify any foreign-born person. Traditionally the term is deemed to be derogatory towards people from the U.S. (USians), but in the local usage it´s not meant to be. Conversely, it is not used in the case of Haitians who are, instead, identified by their national origin.

Who are the Gringos in Las Terrenas? It’s commonly held that the French are the majority, but the French themselves are not a monolithic group. People make mistakes when placing all French people under the same category as they may hold the same nationality, passport and language, but there are many distinguishing factors among the French including geography, migration patterns, cultural identity, class and economic status, educational levels and even professional experience. Clearly, the same could be said about any group of expatriates anywhere but in Las Terrenas it’s particularly useful because of the large number of people of French descent.

Other groups, possibly in order of group size, are: Haitians, Italians, German-speaking (German, Swiss, Austrian), Spanish, Canadians, Dutch, a growing number of USians, Russians, Cubans and a handful of other nationalities. Though there’s no official count, it’s quite possible that there exist at least 20 nationalities in this little town that include other Europeans, Africans, Asians and Latin Americans.

There’s a lot of good resulting from the presence of so many foreign nationals in our midst. Many people speak several languages, people are exposed to a variety of outlooks and there’s a rich gastronomic offer in town as well. A small number of foreigners have married locals and/or have procreated children with them, creating a rainbow of people in every shade and appearance of skin colors. A good number of expats are investors or business people, some simply live here depending on their particular craft, skill or savings. A significant number of people are engaged with the locals, either in social, romantic or business liaisons, while a few are engaged in service to the community in one fashion or another. Certainly the community is better off as a result of the interest among some expats in helping the local community address some of its social problems.

Similarly there are vast references, some stereotypical, some prejudicial, about foreigners. An overall concern and comment that I’ve heard expressed by expats about expats is that many are here either a) because drugs are readily available, b) because they’re after the sexual excitement and opportunities that the place offers (including sexual exploitation of minors of either sex), and c) because some are running away from the law. In reality, it would be fair to say that some in each or most of the foreign groups, are here because of those three reasons but, of course, not everyone is.

It’s hard to pinpoint what Dominicans say overall about foreigners but, sadly, it tends to be negative (not all, but most) because of the difficulties involved in doing business across cultures, because of different traditions in regards to work standards, social standards and expectations about the handling of money. It is commonly held that Dominicans are very hospitable people, and we are, but one must remember that Las Terrenas is not the whole of the Dominican Republic and that some of its particular characteristics makes it, well, quite different from the rest of the country. In fact, there are strong differences between people in urban Las Terrenas and people in the country side. In addition, there’s a wide geographic presence of Dominicans in Las Terrenas, there’s hardly no province or region of the country that’s not represented here.

Something worth mentioning too, in regards to foreigners, is that places like Las Terrenas tend to attract a particular group of people. Around the world, foreign nationals who have chosen to live in another place tend to be what’s scientifically known as “outliers,” in other words, those who are outside the average of their population. They may be those who are open-minded, cultured and welcoming of cultural diversity to the extent of extreme individualism and even profound immersion in the host culture. They may also be in the other extreme, those who are very racist, class-driven and who do not mingle or mix with the locals. These appear to live under a pseudo-colonial mindset and benefit from lower costs of living or outstanding natural environments that make Las Terrenas what is.

It remains to be said whether the majority of foreigners in town fall under the negative range of outliers, or under the good range of outliers. The local experience is very mixed and I would tend the say that people from within each individual cultural group are in a better position to identify the constituents among their individual cultural groups than people from outside their culture. This would mean that Italians would do much better identifying who the Italians are in town than, say, the French or the Dominicans. Similarly, many foreigners tend to lump Dominicans under broad and detrimental labels, without regards to cultural, social, educational, economic, class and geographic distinctions from within the culture. No French citizen would want me to generalize about France and the French based on my experience with a thug from Marseilles who assaulted me in the Quartier Latin in Paris, and no Italian citizen would want me to generalize about Italy or Italians based on the drug-addict that put a knife next to my stomach under the arch in Milan. No English would want me to generalize about England or the English based on the waitress who refused to serve me tea at a small café in the Trafalgar Square area in London. And the USian paying parents token money so that he could live with their prepubescent daughter is hardly a representative of all USians here and elsewhere.

One should put a limit to the extent to which one could use personal experiences as the basis to judge a particular culture different from one’s own and withholding judgment is always a good practice until there’s more experience and knowledge about the host culture.

Regardless of conditions and circumstances, the truth is that the issue of cultural diversity, of a multicultural identity, of cross-cultural relations, is worth exploring further either informally or formally. People make assumptions, form impressions and even make decisions based on appearances, individual (and often erroneous) observations, or based on previous experiences. These processes go back and forth, from the Dominicans who feel that all gringos are abusive and exploitative to the foreigners who identify Dominicans as “hanging from trees.” Prejudice, stereotypical assumptions and even discrimination are common in most cross-cultural encounters. Human beings are not necessarily programmed for immediate understanding and acceptance of people who are different from each other, the opposite is rather, and sadly, the truth.

At the present time there’s nothing in Las Terrenas, formal and informal, that helps foster greater contact, communication, relationships and understanding among nationalities. Language barriers is possibly a reason, but also the pursuit of cross-cultural enrichment is hard work and it takes time, effort and resources.

The challenges of cross-cultural relations in town remains challenging, ever-present and difficult. It still poses opportunities that cannot be found anywhere else in the D.R. and, possibly, not in many other places around the world.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Kevin Carter

Photographer Haunted by Horror of His Work
Obituary: Kevin Carter 1960 - 1994
Johannesburg - Kevin Carter, the South African photographer whose image of a starving Sudanese toddler stalked by a vulture won him a Pulitzer Prize this year, was found dead on Wednesday night, apparently a suicide, police said yesterday. He was 33. The police said Mr Carter's body and several letters to friends and family were discovered in his pick-up truck, parked in a Johannesburg suburb. An inquest showed that he had died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Mr Carter started as a sports photographer in 1983 but soon moved to the front lines of South African political strife, recording images of repression, anti-apartheid protest and fratricidal violence. A few davs after winning his Pulitzer Prize in April, Mr Carter was nearby when one of his closest friends and professional companions, Ken Oosterbroek, was shot dead photographing a gun battle in Tokoza township.
Friends said Mr Carter was a man of tumultuous emotions which brought passion to his work but also drove him to extremes of elation and depression. Last year, saying he needed a break from South Africa's turmoil, he paid his own way to the southern Sudan to photograph a civil war and famine that he felt the world was overlooking.
His picture of an emaciated girl collapsing on the way to a feeding centre, as a plump vulture lurked in the background, was published first in The New York Times and The Mail & Guardian, a Johannesburg weekly. The reaction to the picture was so strong that The New York Times published an unusual editor's note on the fate of the girl. Mr Carter said she resumed her trek to the feeding centre. He chased away the vulture.
Afterwards, he told an interviewer, he sat under a tree for a long time, "smoking cigarettes and crying". His father, Mr Jimmy Carter laid last night: "Kevin always carried around the horror of the work he did." - The New York Times
Source: Sydney Morning Herald Saturday 30 July 1994