The last 200 years transformed the composition and the configuration of the country's elite. Nonetheless, at the end of the 1980s, the Dominican Republic continued to be a country where a relatively small number of families controlled great wealth, while the majority of the population lived in poverty. The middle stratum struggled (at its lower end) to maintain economic standing and to expand its political participation and (at its upper reaches) to gain greater social acceptance and economic prosperity. Hispanic-Mediterranean ideals about the proper mode of life and livelihood continued to be significant. The primary social division was between two polar groups: the elite (la gente buena or la gente culta) and the masses.
The first half of the nineteenth century had eliminated many of the noteworthy families of the colonial era. During the period of Haitian domination, many prominent landowners liquidated their holdings and left. The War of Restoration against Spain permitted some social and economic upward mobility to members of the lower classes who had enjoyed military success. An increase in sugarcane production brought immigrants of European extraction who were assimilated rapidly. Poorer elite families saw a chance to improve their financial status through marriage to recently arrived and financially successful immigrants. Even more well-to- do families recognized the advantages of wedding their lineage and lands to the monied merchant-immigrant clans. Although the Chinese were generally excluded from this process, and the Arabs encountered resistance, virtually everyone else found ready acceptance.
This pattern has repeated itself over the years. Each political or economic wave has brought new families into the elite as it imperilled the economic standing of others. By the end of the 1980s, this privileged segment of society was hardly monolithic. The interests of the older elite families, whose wealth was based mostly on land (and whose prosperity diminished during the Trujillo years), did not always match those of families who had amassed their fortunes under Trujillo, or the interests of those whose money came from the expansion in industry during the 1960s and the 1970s. The 1965 civil war further polarized and fragmented many segments of the middle and the upper classes.
Although rural elite families were relatively monolithic, in Santo Domingo and Santiago there was a further distinction between families of the first and the second ranks (la gente de primera and la gente de segunda). Those of the first rank could claim to be a part of the 100 families referred to locally as the tutumpote (totem pole--implying family worship and excessive concern with ancestry). Those of the second rank had less illustrious antecedents; they included the descendants of successful immigrants and the nouveaux riches who had managed to intermarry with more established families.
Family loyalties were paramount, and the family represented the primary source of social identity. Elite families relied on an extensive network of kin to maintain their assets. In difficult times, the family offered a haven; as the situation improved, it provided the vehicle whereby one secured political position and economic assets. Siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, and in-laws comprised the pool from which one selected trusted business partners and loyal political allies. This process of networking pervaded every level of society. The elite, however, profited to a much greater degree from kinship-based networking than did members of the lower classes.
The number of potential kin grew as an individual's net worth increased. The successful were obliged, as a matter of course, to bestow favors on a widely extended group of kin and confreres. Individual success in the political arena brought with it a host of hangers-on whose fortunes rose and fell with those of their patron. The well-to-do tried to limit the demands of less illustrious kin and to secure alliances with families of equal or greater status. These ties permitted the extended family to diversify its social and economic capital.
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