The presence of Dominican immigrants in Washington Heights has been established for many years. New York City is home to the largest concentration of Dominicans outside the island nation itself. Here we start to discuss the history of Dominican immigration to New York City.


juan4u-1-web.jpg
Juan Rodriguez in center wearing blue. Charles Lilly painting courtesy Schomberg Center for Research on Black Culture

Who was Juan Rodriguez?

Juan Rodriguez was the first immigrant to Manhattan in 1613, and he was from the Dominican Republic. He boarded a Dutch trading ship, the Jonge Tobias, heading towards what is now New York. He liked it so much that when his ship left Manhattan for Holland he decided to stay back and make the island his home, the first permanent, non-native, person to settle in Manhattan. As discussed in Bennett Park the Dutch would not establish New Amsterdam for another 12 years. This portion of Broadway, stretching from 159th street to 218th street, will be renamed Juan Rodriguez way in 2013 in honor of not only Juan Rodriguez himself, but to honor the Dominican presence in Northern Manhattan and the contributions of Dominican immigrants in New York City (10).

The Feast of the Goat

While what is considered the "modern" era of Dominican migration did not start in the 1600's with Juan Rodriguez, his historic immigration does set the tone for our discussion of what has now become known as the Dominican diaspora. Before exploring the trends in immigration, it is important to take a moment and look back at a dark era in Dominican History, the Trujillo Regime.

The United States and the Dominican Republic have had a long history of economic and political ties. From 1916 to 1924 the United States occupied the island nation in order to protect their investment in the sugar cane industry amidst a tumultuous political climate. During this occupation US forces disarmed the Dominican population and created an apolitical National Guard in hopes to create a stable southern neighbor to protect US interests in the Caribbean. Rafael Trujillo was the leader of this ostensibly apolitical National Guard (18).

In 1930, Trujillo overthrew the Dominican government and established a fascist dictatorship that would last more than thirty years. With seven secret agencies protecting him, he set up one of the most authoritarian governments the modern world has ever seen. Many historians liken him to a Hitler of the western hemisphere, drawing parallels with the 1937 genocide of 12,000 Haitians in an effort to "ethnically cleanse" the

island. To divert attention to this blatant massacre, he offered refuge to 100,000 Jews from Europe. The most upsetting part of this story is that it worked. Trujillo would not lose power until his assassination in 1961 by revolutionary fighters. Over those 30 years the Dominican people would bear witness to countless human rights abuses, culminating in the brutal murder of the Mirabal sisters on November 25th 1960 (18). Known as the Butterflies among fellow underground revolutionaries, their brutal murder served as a catalyst to the assassination plot against Trujillo and is commemorated as the international day to eliminate violence against women.

On the right is the song "Mataron al Chivo/They killed the goat" which was released only days after Trujillo's death (Trujillo was known as 'El Chivo').

During his tyrannical reign, Trujillo limited emigration from the Dominican Republic with numbers averaging as low as 9000 emigrants a year. Many of these were political refugees and exiles. After his assassination mass immigration to the United States began (6).
This was the beginning of the Dominican Diaspora.

Dominican Diaspora

After Trujillo's assassination, emigration to the United States increased ten fold with 93,292 immigrants in the 1960's. This number has only increased since then, reaching 335,251 in the 1990's. The Dominican Republic ranked fifth in the early 1990's for largest population of immigrants admitted to the country, behind much larger countries like China and Mexico. In the late 1990's this growth stalled, likely due to anti-immigration policies in the US across the board (6).

This large migration over the last few decades has made Dominicans one of the largest Latino populations in the United States with a little over 1 million Dominicans estimated to be living in the US in 2000 (6).

This diaspora has been studied by ethnography scholars in terms of phases. The first phase, in the 1970's, being characterized by the immigration of rural poor searching for a better financial future. The second phase, in the 1980's, saw a higher proportion of middle class and professional Dominican immigrants, as well as the establishment US communities and social networks. Now, in the current stage of Dominican migration, transnationalism is the focus, with a clear emergence of a business class whose existence is owed to financial stakes both in the United States and in the Dominican Republic (6).

"Un pie aqui, un pie alla"

This phrase, translating to "one foot here, one foot there" highlights the overwhelming bi-national identity of many, if not most, Dominicans who live in the United States. It speaks to the political, financial, and emotional ties between the US and the DR.

Transnationalism is a term that describes an immigrant community who has no severed themselves from their country of origin and instead nurture and foster the linkage to their home country. This link is cultural, political, and economic.

I. Cultural Transnationalism
Cultural transnationalism is what frames the discussion of what it means to be Dominican on the island and abroad. With Dominican newspapers readily available in bodegas throughout the community and the internet, it has never been easier to know what is going on on the island. One defining element of Dominican cultural transnationalism is dancing merengue. Many respondents in several different ethnographies explain that even if a second generation Dominican cannot speak Spanish and does not identify with Dominican culture, they can always dance merengue. Dominican accents while speaking Spanish was also cited as core part of their identity. Dominican food, comida criolla, is another point of cultural pride, to find out more about Dominican diet, visit Margot restaurant (9, 14).

While these customs we are discussing influence Dominicans abroad, expats culturally influence the Dominican Republic in a host of ways. When thinking about music, hip hop influences have started to not only permeate Dominican musicians in the United States but has crept into the mainstream of island based music as well. In literature, more and more Dominican writers are giving a voice to the hybrid identity of Dominican Americans including Julia Alvarez and Junot Diaz (Read more about their books at the word up bookstore).

II. Political Transnationalism
Another part of cultural transnationalism is the belief that one day, many Dominican immigrants will return to their home country. This desire to return to the island serves as another example of just how linked Dominican immigrants to the United States are to those remaining on the island.

Politically the ties between Dominicans in the United States and those on the island are incredibly strong. Firstly, Dominicans are notorious for for their interest in politics, particularly those of the DR and in local politics. Dominicans in the United

States are able to vote in national elections since 2004, similar to absentee voting. Dominican congress currently has a representative of the Dominican community in New York. He represents this community as if it was a Dominican city on the island (14)!

These political ties are no doubt strengthened by the economic links between Dominicans in the United States and the fiscal security of the Dominican Republic.

III. Economic Transnationalism
Many Dominican Immigrants have small businesses that they still operate in the Dominican Republic. The most common of these businesses include moving companies, small loan firms, laundries, car body shops, supermarkets and colmados, the equivalent of bodegas in the United States. There are also a number of Dominican Americans who make their money from selling goods in the US and in the Dominican Republic. For instance, a Dominican immigrant will buy goods such as jewelry and shoes to take to the Dominican Republic and sell. While there she will pick up Dominican sausage, candy, and rum and sell them in the United States. What is interesting about this method of making money is that the goods that are sold in the US are "Dominican" products, reaffirming the cultural transnationalism we discussed earlier (14).

The most significant economic influence is that of remittances sent to family still in the Dominican Republic by immigrants to the US. It is the "second main source of hard currency in the Dominican Republic" (12). The much more common form of remittances, however, is the Dominican practice of taking many large bags of gifts and merchandise to the island on trips, mainly trips during the Christmas holiday. This is a practice that is almost universal among Dominican immigrants (13). So engrained is this practice that one of the most popular christmas songs, Volvio Juanita by Milly Quesada posted above, is a song about Juanita, a Dominican immigrant, coming back to her homeland carrying a "suitcase full of hope" and gifts for her family.

This discussion on Dominican transnationalism is important to understand when treating Dominican patients. Because of this binational identity and lifestyle, often times patients will be spending weeks-months in the Dominican Republic before returning to the US. This means that there will be longer lapses between visits that you as a practitioner may prefer. With a healthy anticipation of this behavior, a health provider can better plan for these lapses in care with effective patient education and appropriate medication prescriptions

Next Stop: Dominican Diet