Saturday, July 5, 2014

Centro León: Luz, Sabor, Vida (Saturday Week 4)

"Light, taste, life"

Before I start writing about this week, there are still a handful of things from the week before that I need to catch up on.

Last Tuesday (June 23), we spent the afternoon visiting private health centers in Santiago. The first hospital we visited was Unión Medica, a private clinic only a few minutes from the university. The atmosphere was completely different from that of the public hospitals. We were greeted by about seven PR/administration type people, who took us on a tour of the clinic in small groups. Unión Medica is quite large--it would be called a hospital in the US, but here it's called a clinic because it's private. They have inpatient floors, outpatient offices, multiple emergency rooms, two MRI machines (including an open one for bariatric/claustrophobic patients), advanced lab tests, and a rehab department. Unlike in the public system, they focus on providing technically advanced and specialized care for complex cases, and they place much less emphasis on primary care and prevention. They seemed to have many more nurses and support staff than the public hospital, and they also had a computerized medical records system. After the tour, they showed us a video about the hospital, the director of the clinic held a small Q&A, and served us snacks (again, totally different than the public hospitals). Although I'd like to have more information to compare quality of the medical care, not just the material resources, the visits emphasized the tremendous influence that socioeconomic status has on healthcare in the DR.

After visiting Unión Medica, we visited Hogar Crea, which is a private rehab clinic for men who have problems with drugs or alcohol. One of the men who is currently going through recovery gave us a presentation on the organization and its philosophy. It sounded like an admirable and successful program. Their approach seems similar to AA: different steps of recovery, acknowledging the influence of a higher power, self-examination, long-term dedication to staying clean, etc. Unfortunately, I missed a lot because I had a hard time understanding the presenter. Although my Spanish is getting a lot better, I still have a long way to go before I can fully comprehend street Dominican Spanish!

Luz, Sabor, Vida, Color, Mezcla: words that describe the identity of the DR
Last Wednesday, we visited El Centro León, a museum of Dominican art, history and culture. The entire visit was guided, and (unfortunately) we weren't allowed to take any pictures inside. The whole museum was very modern and sophisticated, and because there weren't a lot of guests on a weekday morning we could really take our time in the exhibits. The first exhibit was an anthropological look at the different societies that have lived on the island and formed the Dominican identity. Teh exhibit opened with a photo montage of words and images that describe the DR, including luz, sabor, vida, color, and mezcla (Light, taste, life, color, mixture). They had a really awesome exhibit on the manglares or mangrove forests, an ecosystem that's unique to the Dominican Republic and the home of the first society on the island, the recolectores. I was especially interested in learning about the manglares because we got to see some during our beach trip at the end of the first week. The exhibit had brown metal pipes from floor to ceiling in the form of the roots of the mangrove trees, and fishing line criscrossed the room between the pipes a few feet above our heads, giving the illusion that we were standing under the water. Cases on the walls showed the types of fish and other animals that live under the water, and there were leaves projected on the ceiling to mimic the tree canopy. My description doesn't do it justice, so just trust me when I say it was really cool.

The manglares from our trip to La Ensenada during Week 1
The next part of the exhibit covered the colonial era. Columbus landed on the northern coast of the island on Dec. 5, 1492, and by about 1535 the native Taínos were virtually wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of slaves were also brought to the island to work on sugar plantations. Ever since Columbus' arrival, a great deal of racial mixing has occurred so that most Dominicans today are of mixed race. However, for a variety of reasons, Dominicans tend to emphasize their Spanish and indigenous roots and downplay their African heritage. This was evident even in the museum, where the colonial Spanish artifacts were displayed in brightly lit glass cases, while the African pieces were literally hidden behind a wooden wall with little slots that you peeked through to see the items. When we were discussing this with our program director, he told us about a Dominican saying that reflects their attitude about race: "In the DR, everyone has a little black behind their ears," meaning that everyone is at least a little black, but they don't want to admit it. Even though this is a public health program, I'm glad that I've gotten to talk about and think about the concept of race a little bit more while I'm here. It's such an interesting topic, and it's so central to the history of this country. Of course, it's central to the history of the US too, but discussions of race in the US are so fraught with strong emotions and fear of causing offense. Here, I feel like the program has encouraged us to combine historical facts and cultural observations with our personal experiences, allowing us make measured comparisons between the US and the DR and reflect more objectively on our own opinions and ideas.

Painting by Yoryi Morel
The last part of our visit to Centro León was the art gallery on the second floor. The art was arranged in roughly chronological order, from the colonial era to modern times. The styles and types of artwork were incredibly diverse, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, graphic design and installations. Although having a guided tour was really educational, I wished I could have had more time to just look at the artwork instead of just listening to what the guide was saying. Some of my favorite works were by Yoryi Morel, a painter who focused on depicting rural Dominican life. One cool feature of the art gallery was that they had accommodations for blind visitors, with a textured line on the floor for them to follow, audio descriptions, and miniature 3D reproductions of 2D paintings for them to touch and "see" what the painting looks like. Overall, it was an awesome visit and it was way more fun than going to class!

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