The crowded city of SAN PEDRO DE MACORÍS, some 70km east of Santo Domingo, owes its uneven development to the boom-and-bust fortunes of the sugar industry. During the crop’s glory years in the early twentieth century, grand homes and civic monuments were erected along the eastern bank of the Río Higuamo. Today, with most of the area’s mills closed, these buildings are grimy and faded, their dusty facades now absorbed into the squalor of the surrounding neighbourhoods.
The town is well known for its Cocolo festivals held at Christmas and during the Feast of San Pedro (June 24–30), when two competing troupes of masked dancers known as mummers – the Wild Indians of Donald Henderson and Los Momises of now-deceased Primo Shiverton – wander door to door along the major thoroughfares in elaborate costumes adorned with feathers and baubles, and perform dance dramas depicting folk tales, biblical stories and events from Cocolo history, accompanied by fife-and-drum bands.
The decline of sugar prices and continuous urban migration have made the bulk of San Pedro a pretty miserable place, and the first view of its smokestacks and sprawling slums is off-putting to say the least. What redeems it for most residents and visitors alike is its Malecón, a wide seaside promenade with modest public beaches at either end, celebrated by bachata star Juan Luis Guerra in his song Guavaberry: “I like to sing my song/in the middle of the Malecón/watching the sun go down/in San Pedro de Macorís”. Guerra had it about right. Though easily the city’s most attractive public space, the Malecón only comes to life at night and, particularly, at weekends when the little green huts lining the seafront suddenly turn into busy bars and foodstalls, the discos crank up their sound systems and vendors weave through the crowds hawking fast food, boiled corn, sweets and Clorets, and the beer and rum flow.Read More
When the Dominican sugar industry was nearing its zenith in the late 1800s, plantation owners began to employ migrant labourers from a number of islands in the British Antilles to meet the increased work demand. These black English-speakers – many of whom prefer to be called “The English” – were termed Cocolos, a bastardization of Tortola, one of the islands from which the workers arrived. While many of them returned home to their respective islands each year with their harvest season earnings, growing numbers began to settle permanently in camps around San Pedro de Macorís.
The Cocolos lived in squalid bateyes, shantytowns that were vermin infested and tended to lack running water. Disease – malaria, cholera and leprosy mainly – was widespread, and residents often starved during the off-season. They were also the victims of widespread racism, which led many to embrace the pan-Africanism of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaica-born activist who moved to New York’s Harlem to spread his message of black empowerment. Thousands joined his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which encouraged community self-reliance and provided disability benefits for those injured in the mills, and donated a portion of their salaries to the Black Star Line, a black-owned and -operated fleet meant to repatriate New World blacks to West Africa one day. In August 1921 the Garveyites organized a strike to protest against the inhuman conditions of the bateyes, but the unrest was broken up by US Marines who occupied the Dominican Republic, and the local leaders of the UNIA were deported.
The community infrastructure begun by UNIA soon evolved into self-improvement organizations that pooled resources to better the conditions in the bateyes, establish and enforce codes of conduct and provide medical care. During nonworking seasons, members formed cricket teams that evolved into the sugar-mill baseball squads, which eventually produced some of the world’s finest players. Labour unrest continued as well – in 1946 the Cocolos staged the only successful strike of the Trujillo era – which made sugar companies turn westward to Haiti for cheap migrant labour.
The Haitian bateyes that surround La Romana and San Pedro hold exuberant Semana Santa festivities during the Christian Holy Week, which is also the most important Voodoo celebration of the year. The various satellite bateyes surrounding a sugar mill each have their own religious brotherhoods, headed by a medium known as a houngan (male) or a mambo (female). Each worships a patron deity and has its own gagá band – called rara in Haiti – which plays a repertoire of religious and Carnival songs in a processional orchestra of one-note trumpets and bamboo tubes that are blown and beaten in a cacophonous procession that can play all night long. On Ash Wednesday, the groups carry their senior officers on their shoulders in chairs, accompanied by gagá. This is just a warm-up to Good Friday when, just before dawn, four shrouded dancers parade into the perestil, where religious services are performed. The houngan “breathes life” into them one at a time, and they throw off their shrouds and lead the gagá bands in a parade around their batey, playing, singing and dancing to songs with lascivious lyrics, in keeping with the festival’s theme of regeneration and fertility. On Saturday and Easter Sunday they head out onto the road towards the sugar mill. Upon encountering another group along the way, a competitive jam session begins, which can, in cases, lead to fisticuffs. Though anyone is welcome to attend Semana Santa, if you look like you have money the gagá bands will repeatedly play for you, seeking money and rum in return; you’re best off bringing plenty of small bills for tips to the band, and arriving in a small group.
To familiarize yourself with the music of Semana Santa, you should purchase two things: the Smithsonian Folkways CD Caribbean Revels: Haitian Rara and Dominican Gagá, which features live recordings from Semana Santa festivals across the island, and Rara! Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora by Elizabeth McAlister, a terrific book with companion CD on the music and the culture that surrounds it.