Dominican Music and Film
The Caribbean island nation of the Dominican Republic is little known by most Americans, but America is ever present in the Dominican consciousness. Until Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire went head to head in the legendary homerun battle of 1998, few Americans were aware of any American-Dominican rivalry in western hemispheric culture. Nothing gave Dominicans more pride than to see Sosa hold Major League Baseball's homerun record, albeit for less than 24 hours before McGuire reclaimed U.S. dominance in "America's favorite pastime." Only merengue, a tropical music and dance form, exceeds baseball in its ability to raise Dominican nationalist sentiment vis-à-vis the United States. For years, Dominican musicians and actors, as well as important leaders, have employed merengue to combat cultural imperialism and encourage loyalty to home. A merenguero's power to raise nationalist sentiment and define debates concerning immigration between the Dominican Republic and the United States is most evident in Luisito Marti's Nueba Yol and Juan Luis Guerra's Visa Para un Sueño.
Brief Political History of Merengue
The first Dominican leader to fully harness the power of merengue for political ends was dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Although it was already the most important dance of Dominican origin, merengue was prohibited in many of the upper class Dominican ballrooms until the 1930's. Ynmaculada Cruz Hierro of the Dominican Newspaper Listin Diario explains that Trujillo saw to it that merengue replaced waltzes and polkas at high class parties because "at one time, when he was a junior official, Trujillo was not permitted to enter one of the those upper class parties." The promotion of merengue simultaneously disavowed European elitism and helped define a culture unique to the Dominican Republic. Merengue became a symbol of national unity and a preferred mode for disseminating trujillista propaganda. During the dictatorship, popular lyrics extolled the virtues of Trujillismo even as it was speciously based on terror and rule by a mano dura (iron fist).
After Trujillo was killed in an assassination plot that many Dominicans deemed heroic (see next page), merengue faced an uncertain future. Artists trained during the trujillato, including "king of merengue" Johnny Ventura, summarily dropped the overt propaganda, but they emerged from the Trujillo era with a heightened awareness of the power of their craft. Johnny Ventura would later become an active political figure, and in 1998, win the mayoral election of Santo Domingo, the capital and largest city of the Dominican Republic. In an interview in the summer of 2000, Johnny Ventura asserts, "I believe getting involved—not just the artists—in the search for solutions to the great wrongs and problems that we [Dominicans] face should be everyone's obligation." Of course the great majority of Dominican leaders are non-artists, but Ventura's statement highlights an...