• Language and Culture in the Dominican Republic and Cuba

Last days of classes

WEDNESDAY

Today was the last day of our Spanish and dance classes and the penultimate day of our culture class. We started with culture class, in which we talked about Dominican sayings and jokes, hobbies and things the Dominican people like to do, mythology, and the immigration/emigration of people. Everything we talk about is really interesting, especially when you compare the certain aspects of culture here to those in the United States. It is fascinating to learn about the Dominican culture and then experience it at the same time as well.

Next, we had our last Spanish class. We talked more about accentuation of words and how that works, and then we talked about other grammatical aspects of the Spanish language. It was interesting and a different approach than I have ever experienced in any of my Spanish classes.

Our final dance class revolved around learning how to dance the salsa. It is a very smooth dance, with very basic, simple steps. It is pretty easy to follow, much like the merengue—bachata is a little harder to follow at times. It was a very fun class—a great way to end a long day of classes!

I read about blackouts in Santo Domingo before I came here, but didn’t worry about it too much because I didn’t think it was a very big issue anymore. However, in the middle of Spanish class today the power went out. We experienced our very first blackout in Santo Domingo! It wasn’t much—either the power came back on on its own, or the school has a back-up generator that turned everything back on. It wasn’t for long but it was kind of cool to experience what some people have put up with frequently.

We had the afternoon off today, so all ten of us decided to go to the Colonial Zone (La Zona Colonial) to shop and look around for a little bit. We got to shop for a little bit and then met back up and walked home. It was nice to just relax and be on our own time for a little bit.

THURSDAY

Today we had class at 8 am—our last culture class and our final class in the Dominican Republic. We had our final “Angelito” secret friend gift exchange and we all gave our secret friends a bigger gift since it was the last day. Most people gave food or candy with a nice note.

After a quick snack of fruit, we got into the van and headed for La Zona Franca where the Alta Gracia factory is located. La Zona Franca is a free-trade zone here in the Dominican Republic. More than 175,000 people work in factories in the free-trade zones on this island. The Altagracia factory, however, is different than most factories. Generally, the factories are run as sweatshops, where the workers have no rights, get paid hardly anything, and cannot earn enough to support their families.

Several years ago, the workers in the factory that was formerly called BJ&B formed a union and fought against the management. The factory was then shut down and moved to a different country where the labor would be cheaper, meaning that all the employees were out of a job.

This is when United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) stepped in to aid the workers in their plight. They managed to get a new factory up and running—Alta Gracia—and got the workers their jobs back with benefits and a living wage. We got the chance to interact with a handful of the workers while we had lunch with them at the factory and they all expressed how grateful they are for the factory and how much their lives have improved since the company has been taken over.

After lunch, we got a tour of the factory and got to see how everything works. The people who work there are genuinely happy and their quality of life has improved so much since the initiation of Alta Gracia. The factory is owned by Knights Apparel, a privately held company based in Spartanburg, S.C., that is the leading supplier of college-logo apparel to American universities. It has 130 employees and has been open for four years. Nobody leaves the factory, so it is very difficult to get a job there—many people want to work there because it is so much better than all the other factories. Here is a link to some articles that describe the history of the company in more detail: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/business/global/18shirt.html?_r=0 and http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/alta-gracia-showing-the-world-what-is-possible.

We also got to go to the home of one of the factory workers to see how much the quality of life has improved since the transformation of the factory. It was a really nice home, especially compared to the shack-like homes surrounding it. The town of Altagracia (for which the factory is named, in addition to the Virgin of Altagracia) is very small and run-down—the poverty is very evident.

However, the house of this worker was very nice. He has been working on it and it is still a work in progress. He and his wife have two kids and in their house, they have three rooms and three bathrooms. The kitchen has granite countertops, the appliances are stainless steel, and the floors look like marble. It is a really nice house and you could tell that the owner was very proud of all his hard work.

After the tour of the house, we headed back to Santo Domingo. We made a slight detour on the way back to FLACSO—a Dominican candy/sweet shop! The shop had traditional Dominican candy and sweets and we all tried different things. There were lots of sweets with coconut and various fruits. They were good, though different from most everything we have in the US. When we were done, we went back to FLACSO and parted ways.

I’m not sure when I will be able to post next. We have a busy weekend, filled with tours and I don’t know if I will have access to wifi consistently. I will try to post again before we leave for Cuba, so stay tuned!