About two hours to the South East of Santiago lies a small community called Villa Altagracia. Like so many in third world countries the people of Villa Altagracia have know the agonies of sweatshops, however unlike many they have escaped the cruel grip of unfair pay, harsh hours and unbearable working conditions. The main sweatshop in the community, BJ&B, employed 3,000 people making hats for universities in the United States. The workers joined forces with United Students Against Sweatshops to fight for fair working conditions. They won and life improved for the workers until BJ&B was forced to close because the new demands of the workers made it impossible to compete in the market. 3,000 people were now unemployed and had to travel farther from Villa Altagracia to find work which meant they barely ever saw their family. The workers and United Students Against Sweatshops worked with Knight Sports Company to open a new factory, Altagracia. Altagracia was founded on free and fair trade principals. They pay their workers fair wages, have good, safe working conditions including fans and music, they have breaks throughout the day, and the company gives them opportunities to grow. If you ask the workers what the best change from BJ&B to Altagracia was they would say the amount of time they have to spend with their families. The company also helps the employees with obtaining loans that are necessary to buy a decent house. We visited the house of one of the employees. It was made of cinderblock, which is a big step up from the wood and tin houses most people have. To us the house looked very simple, but it was clear by the pride on the man’s face that his house was one of his most prized possessions. Altagracia produces t-shirts sold in many universities across the United States including Creighton. The issue is that of the hundreds of racks of clothes in university bookstores often only one of those is from Altagracia. The other hundred are likely still made by people working in sweatshops. The way to fight this problem is not by boycotting merchandise made in sweatshops, but educating the public about these travesties and educating the company owners and employees about the benefits of a free and fair trade company. Education ignites change.
After visiting Altagracia, we continued on to the capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo. Christopher Columbus and his family founded Santo Domingo. The city has a rough history of chaos, dictators, wars, and pirates. Because it is a port city, it has a lot of European influence in the architecture and the culture. We visited several museums and went on a walking tour of the city to learn about the history, which connects to what we are learning about in our classes. We all tried the local drink, Mama Juana, which is made by letting rum, red wine, and honey soak in different herbs and barks. It was surprisingly delicious! Only a few of us tried an alternative version of Mama Juana that supposedly has hallucinogenic effects and is made with some questionable ingredients like turtle. It tasted like dirt and nature; I wish someone had taken a picture of our faces. Later that night we went out to the local dancing bars and spent the night dancing away. We signed our names along with “Comunidad 19” on the wall of one of the bars. The European style hostel we stayed in felt like a huge slumber party! We stayed up laughing and talking until the early morning. The next day was free to explore the city. The girls couldn’t pass up the opportunity to shop, so we headed to the tourist areas. I bartered for a beautiful silver ring with a blue “love” stone native to the Dominican Republic asking for the Dominican price instead of the posted tourist price. We had lunch at an Italian café overlooking the bustling town square. It was so relaxing to watch the little kids chase the pigeons and listen to the rag tag band play under a twisted old tree. After visiting Christopher Columbus’s remains at the mausoleum (that ironically resembles the buildings of the Aztec people he persecuted) we headed back to Santiago.