The searing Dominican sun beats down upon Boca Chica Beach on Easter Sunday, making the cerulean, surreal-looking ocean waters glisten as crowds of seemingly carefree children and adults bask in the pleasure of one of the biggest party days of the year. A quick scan of the scene would likely detect nothing amiss or out of place.
And yet, a closer look reveals the brokenness and darkness that hover over this place, considered one of the premiere tourist destinations in the Caribbean. Along the shore, eager children carry buckets of “frituras” for sale. Sex deals over girls who think they have no other choice take place in broad daylight. And intoxicated teenagers, their hopes of a better future abandoned, whittle away the afternoon aimlessly.
This scene is reality for many young lives in the Dominican Republic, a place of carefree paradise perhaps only for those who selectively choose to ignore the poverty, unemployment and prostitution that protrude from almost every street corner of this often overlooked next-door neighbor of Haiti.
There would seem to be little reason for hope in a nation with a history of corrupt government where the richest 10 percent of the population feasts on 40 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, and where more than 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. For many, poverty is all they know.
“To be very open, while this appears to us looking from the outside in as a major problem, it is just a way of life in most third world or developing nations,” said Keith King, executive director at International Youth Initiative, a Christian organization that inspires young people in the Dominican Republic with the hope of Christ.
Some children try to escape cycles of poverty and crime by focusing on education, an institution on which their government only spends 2.3 percent of its funding. (The average Dominican child attends school for less than three hours a day.) Other children try carrying on their family trades like the street stands and beauty parlors that line city streets.
And some boys dream of finding a “way out” through baseball, making the Dominican Republic the leading foreign nation in U.S. Major and Minor League Baseball rosters. In the MLB’s 2011 Opening Day roster, 10 percent of all players were from the 10-million-person Dominican Republic. For many, baseball is not only their passion, but seemingly the only way out of a never-ending cycle of poverty.
It was with the intent to tell the stories that 13 journalism students and two professors from Biola University, accompanied by staff and translators from International Youth Initiative, ventured to the Dominican Republic in spring.
The result of the students’ eight-day interaction with people of the prisons and prostitute corners, baseball leagues and bars, schools and streets of the Dominican Republic was one book, The Dominican Dream: A Passion for Baseball, a Love of Family and a Hope for the Future.
In the weeklong trip, they discovered something their previous research could not capture—they encountered a people and a place as complex as they are vibrant.
“There’s just a huge difference between academically learning about something and then being there and experiencing it,” says photographer Mike Villa.
It wasn’t a mission trip in the traditional sense. Still, the team was reaffirmed of their project’s Kingdom value.
“I just realized these people wouldn’t have those stories told unless we were there to tell them—unless we were there to listen,” says writer Jamie Corder.
And listen the team did, interviewing everyone from 6-year-old baseball hopeful Euris Fria to Dominican MLB legend Junior Noboa.
Thousands of young boys turn to baseball to carve out a better life. The biggest wish of many is simply to buy a house for their families.
“I think it’s a passion, but we look at it as a way of getting out of poverty,” said Charlie Romero, manager for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s academy in the Dominican.
Few ever see their dream fulfilled. Still, a desperate hope that the rags-to-riches story will be theirs drives young boys to practice tirelessly under the hot equator sun, the pressure to succeed intensified by desperate circumstances.
“It is an everyday competition,” said Abraham Nuñez, who played for several MLB teams in the U.S. but now helps run a local boys’ league in the Dominican Republic. “Put it this way: It’s like a line. One guy gets signed, but there are a hundred kids behind him who want to get to this position. … The competition here is 110 percent every day.”
But even those select few who are signed by one of the 30 MLB teams to a Dominican-based academy, oftentimes with the assistance of a buscone—a talent scout who trains players in return for 25-45 percent of their signing bonuses—aren’t guaranteed further success. Only three out of every 100 who make it to an academy will ever actually reach the U.S. to play for the MLB.
Those who don’t make it, the vast majority, often end up training other boys in the sport. Abandoning education at a young age to devote themselves to the game, many young boys are—at 12, 13 or 14—ill equipped for building a career outside baseball.
“It was kind of difficult to see all these kids just loving the game but also needing the game in a way,” says photographer Job Ang.
But the Dominican people are not singularly defined by baseball, or by any other single passion or problem. That is what writer Lydia Ness hopes readers grasp.
“There’s much more going on there than people really understand,” she says. “It’s broken, but at the same time, passionate about making change.”
The journalism students arrived in the Dominican Republic hoping to bring about change. They left changed themselves.
Kathryn Watson was a writer on the “Dominican Dream” trip, and graduated from Biola University with a degree in journalism in May 2011. She now works as a reporter in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Photo credit: Harmony Wheeler