Samaná’s Destiny

by Alex Berg

It is easy to see why “Conde Nast Traveler ” magazine named the Samaná peninsula in the Dominican Republic one of the top destinations in the world eight years ago. One photograph at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture exhibit featuring this unique landscape with its even more unique cultural heritage shows lush palms snaking along the pockets of sand lining the bright blue ocean water of Rincon Beach.

Another photograph in the Bronx center hints at the tension that underlies this would-be private paradise: Row after row of empty white beach chairs line the shore, reminders that foreign corporations have abandoned plans for development when the global recession hit. The news of stalled development for many locals was greeted with a mix of worry and relief.

Founded by former slaves from Philadelphia in the 1820s, Samaná has a rich legacy that many of its descendants in the Bronx and elsewhere are bent on preserving, said Wallace Edgecombe, director of the Hostos center.

“The locals are not trying to escape development,” Edgecombe said. “They just want it done right without displacing people and impoverishing people.”

The photos in the exhibit that is expected to run through Nov. 7 were taken by about 15 students and six professional photographers, faculty and staff who studied in Samaná last August and July. Students studied the eclectic aspects of this Afro-Dominican culture in Samaná, where English is the spoken language. The cuisine of choice includes American Southern food like Johnny cakes, for example. And the people are mostly practicing Methodists, Edgecombe said.

The area recently became coveted real estate after a road was constructed to the capital Santo Domingo, which cut the commute from eight hours to two, according to Carlos Sanabria, director of the Hostos Community College humanities department.

Edgecombe described one photo of a resort’s pastel façade – a block-long row of differently shaped attached houses with yellow, lavender, green and red paneling. It looked more like a Disney World imitation of a tropical bungalow than an authentic dwelling “an insult” said Edgecombe.

But most of the exhibit is dedicated to the rich cultural scenes of Los Afro-Americanos, as the locals are called.

“The idea of the photo exhibit is to inform people about these traditions so that they can have more of a sense of Afro-Dominican culture,” said Carlos Sanabria. In fact, the exhibit is part of Quijombo, a biennial festival celebration Afro-Dominican culture.

In one photo taken after a Methodist church service, adults and children join hands in a large circle on a field in front of the red and white paneled church. The women’s dresses, which are mostly blue, flow in and out the as their arms swing back and forth. The sun shines through trees creating shadows in the middle of the circle.

The circle is a variation of ring around the rosy, part of a series of games played after church services by the original Methodists who came to Samaná, according to Ryan Mann-Hamilton, a graduate student writing his dissertation about the area.

For Mann-Hamilton, the study abroad trip to Samaná resonated on a personal level. Mann-Hamilton is a descendant of Afro-Americanos and did not know anything about their history as former slaves until recently.

“My family was one of the families that migrated there in the 1800s,” Mann-Hamilton said. “I didn’t really understand what that migration entailed and how my family got to the Dominican Republic.”

Mann-Hamilton was surprised by the friendly reaction the locals had to the cameras and remembered one particularly poignant shot.

“There’s one of a young fellow, a child, really bulky, kind of strong,” he said. “I was just driving down the road with two other students and we stopped and he sort of came over to us.”

“We took a picture of him. He asked us to bring back the photo and bring back a bike. This is just the middle of nowhere. He just wanted something basic for himself.”

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