Here I am seated on the walls of the old city of Santo Domingo and I am in awe. I feel this way for a number of reasons but first, because this is where life in North America started for Europeans. Although the Dominican Republic was not the first place Christopher Columbus landed, he did arrive here on his first trip in 1492. It was also the home of one of the early Spanish settlements and its first city, Santo Domingo, became the first capital of the New World. It is a land with a rich history.
Another reason I am in awe is because of the way that life here is lived among and upon these historical places. From where I am seated at the moment I am looking across a plaza at the old Spanish Palace of the Royal Audience. Last evening there were couples seated among the turrets here on the walls and enjoying each other’s company. In that moment I saw something new being shared among something old. The old walls supported new love.
Walking through the quaint streets of the old city we later joined a crowd that had gathered around the entry of the old monastery of San Francisco to enjoy a traditional concert. Looking up I noticed people seated along the ruins of the historic monastery wall listening to the music. It was art, a new expression of a musical tradition enjoyed in a historic setting. In Santo Domingo old and join new join together in beauty and vitality
A third reason I am In awe is because this city is the base from which men like Cortez and Pisaro planned and launched their missions throughout the new world. Across the plaza from where I am seated conquistadors walked by to receive their orders from the Spanish royal presence. Their old homes are just up the street from here along the Calle de las Damas.
The conquistadors plundered the people they found in the New World and in places like the Dominican Republic they completely annihilated the native population. The fact that these walls and beautiful ornate buildings still exist here is not due primarily to the labors of the Europeans who settled here or to the slave labors of the natives they conquered. Slaves from northern and southern Africa were brought here to construct this old city. It is through the pain and grief of slavery that the populace of so many of these islands came to the Caribbean.
I recently stumbled upon an old gift that I had been given by someone who later hurt me quite badly. Whenever I see it I don’t what to do. Part of me wants to smash it against the pavement never to be remembered any more. I’ve considered gentler methods of disposal. Yet for some reason I still keep this gift in my possession. By keeping it around this gift has inadvertently become not only a reminder of past pain but also of the lessons and the ultimate good that have come from those difficult events. The “ruins” and “monuments” in our lives can tell better a story than merely one of pain. They are where old and new come together in our stories to produce new life.
The Dominican Republic is an expressive blend of both old and new. Its present beauty grows out of its past pain. The walls of old Santo Domingo could tell many tragic stories. Yet the grief of the past yields to the beauty of the present. A budding culture grows among the old cathedrals, walls, forts and palaces replacing grief with charm and sadness with joy. I will never forget old Santo Domingo, the first city of the New World and where old and new meet.