Hospitality marks Dominican culture
People are friendly, enthusiastic and have a good sense of humor
By Tony Staley
ELIAS PIÑA, Dominican Republic - A week in the Dominican Republic - or anywhere else for
that matter - certainly doesn't make anyone an expert.
That's particularly true when one doesn't speak the language and must depend on translators, a
few basic words, hand signs and intuition to get along.
But that said, we did pick up some impressions of the people in Elias Piña, where the Green Bay
Diocese has had a mission parish for more than 30 years.
The first thing we noticed is how out-going and friendly the people are. Walking down the street -
we easily walked three miles a day - everyone we met said Buenos dias (Good morning),Buenas
tardes (Good afternoon), Buenas noches (Good evening) or, as we usually heard at night, Adios.
Even that Buenos dias often was shortened to Bueno, the rest being understood.
When we weren't exchanging greetings, we had plenty of opportunities to watch the Dominicans
at other activities. In church, they were devout and active worshipers - singing, clapping and
enthusiastically exchanging the sign of peace with friends and American strangers. At one Mass, a
man shook my hand and said, "Welcome to my country." And when Fr. Mike Seis, the pastor and
an Antigo native, introduced us, they always applauded.
Away from church, they are equally gracious. Our group included five young women - all had
either just finished their junior or senior year in high school. They often talked about how
impressed they were by the generosity of people who had few material possessions. One told how
she had complimented someone her age about some jewelry and the young woman started to take
it off to give to her as a present.
It was hard, especially at first, to know who lived where because neighbors casually wandered
from one house to another. Because the houses were hot, people often sat out in front talking. We
spent one night entertaining each other, bridging the language gap with the universal language of
song and laughter.
Another night, two young boys occupied themselves for a half-hour or more by rolling a marble
back and forth on the floor. Blowing bubbles is another way to delight them, as is playing dodge
The Dominicans also seemed to have a good sense of humor, judging by how they enjoyed
bantering and laughing with Fr. Seis. The parish cook, Elvira - at whose house we stayed - often
joked with him. Fr. Seis' girth is often a target of their mirth. He tells of how, when he returns
from home visits to Wisconsin, the women on the staff measure him to see how much he gained
on the trip.
After a Mass in a campo, the rural settlements he serves, the people were asked what a difference
having Fr. Seis made to them. They pointed to the white sheet along the end of their open-air
church and said that since he arrived, they didn't have to have as large a sheet to block the sun.
As guests, we held the place of honor and never ate with the family. Instead, we ate first, unless
we were out extra late. One night, we looked at the two plates of food that our family would share
after we finished. Their meal for four was less than what they put out for the two of us - not
surprising in a country where hunger is a daily reality.
But despite the poverty apparent in meager meals, modest housing (barely larger than a two-car
garage for families of six or more), substandard plumbing (while some houses have flush toilets,
many have outhouses and most depend on dipping water from a container for baths), the
uncertainty of electricity (it can go out for hours or days at a time), the unsanitary water (even
then, the supply is unreliable), the Dominicans seem to make the most of life.
Their closets aren't bursting with clothes, but the clothes they have are clean - thanks to bleach
and plenty of scrubbing. Even though there are many fields and dirt roads and chickens living
indoors, the floors are clean, thanks to daily sweeping.
And it's not that they aren't aware of how people in the U.S. live - most people have color TV -
even cable. It's just that they accept and enjoy what they have, rather than fixate on what they
Which isn't to say that Elias Piña is the Garden of Eden. No place where hunger and disease are common can be called Eden. Nor are its people "noble savages." They have their disagreements and their mistrust of foreigners - in this case, Haitians, even though most of them have some Haitian ancestry. Plus one gets the sense that they would not be immune to our consumerism and materialism, given the chance.
Still, one comes away awed by the Dominicans and wishing that humanity could find a way to combine our material comfort with their welcoming hospitality.
Perhaps we could put the formula for that in a bundle on the back of the camel that successfully passes through the eye of a needle.