Silvio Torres-Saillant Speaks at the U.S Capitol Visitor Center About Why a National List of Dominicans
WHY A NATIONAL LIST OF DOMINICANS
(Prologue of The Dominican List)
Silvio Torres-Saillant, Ph.D., Syracuse University
The Dominican List showcases an impressive array of individuals with extraordinary accomplishments and talents who have made enormous contributions in cities throughout the United States in areas ranging from education, law, health, politics, and sports, to science, technology, and the arts. These individuals represent the tip of the iceberg. Many more have achieved outstanding feats in sites less reachable by the reporter’s camera or the journalist’s beat. They have reenergized neighborhoods which they found languishing, taught the discipline of dance or athletics to youngsters after school, or used their ingenuity to create jobs when the country’s economy did not provide them one–in street vending, sidewalk eateries or artisanship, among others. The Dominican List, for the sake of expediency, begins with those Dominicans whose stories are more accessible because their occupations have brought them into visibility. Still, one might ask what motive the Dominican American National Roundtable and the National Dominican American Council (NDAC) might have for compiling and publicizing such a distinguished gathering of remarkable people of Dominican ancestry. Among the many plausible reasons that come to mind, one strikes me as the most likely, perhaps even the one subsuming all others. People of Dominican descent in this country must still continue to engage in ethnic advocacy.
I had a first sour taste of the urgent need for ethnic advocacy in our community when I joined a cadre of estimable City University of New York colleagues in the effort to create an organization with the mission of collecting, preserving, and disseminating information about the Dominican experience in the United States and elsewhere. After much activism and the backing of outstanding Puerto Rican and African American colleagues—chiefly Frank Bonilla and Donald H. Smith—in 1994 we prevailed upon the Board of Trustees of the City University to approve the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute at City College as a permanent research unit of the municipal university system. At the time, no Dominicans figured among the authors of academic books and articles about our people. When we arrived on the scene we reacted against the narrative that prevailed about our community. We found that in the literature our compatriots most often appeared as people on the move, as immigrants who spent their time plotting their return to the native land or shuttling back and forth between here and there. We felt that this narrative, which rendered Dominicans in American society permanently alien, did not tell the complete story.
Our research revealed a story of the Dominican presence in the United States that went back many more decades than scholars had accounted for. We took note of Dominicans settling in this land after the 1850s. The renowned Pedro Henríquez Ureña, who arrived in New York City in 1901, spoke of the many Dominicans he found living in the building near Columbia University where he first made his residence. The wall of the U.S. Pavillion’s theater during the 1939 World’s Fair featured art by Francisco Rebajes, an artist who in 1922, at age 16, had arrived from Puerto Plata and settled in New York, where he became one of the first craftsmen jewelers in the city’s Greenwich Village before establishing a nationwide chain of stores with company headquarters on 5th Avenue. The indefatigable educator Mary Ely Peña-Gratereaux has long promoted the story of the role of Dominican women and men in the workforce that fueled the prestigious Madam Alexander’s Doll Company from the 1950s onward. The incomparable performance artist, poet, and teacher Josefina Báez years ago designed an exhibition called Dominicaras, Dominicosas that included black and white photographs depicting family scenes of Dominicans in New York during the late 1930s. That was also the time when Rhina P. Espaillat made New York City her home. At age seven, she relocated with her family from Washington, DC, where they had been living before. As a student in New York City public schools, she excelled in English, astonishing her teachers with her poetic compositions. A teacher took the liberty of sending Rhina’s poems out to publishers, and by 1947, with publications to her credit, she had become an upcoming literary star. At the tender age of 16 she was inducted into the Poetry Society of America as the youngest poet ever to have received the honor. A superior American poet, the author of many award-winning poetry books, Rhina today remains jovial and genial, enjoying the respect of poets and readers nationwide, including many in the New Formalist movement who view her as a guiding light. These examples show that Dominicans have grown deep roots in this North American land, roots which become even deeper with the story made public in 2010 by Dr. Ramona Hernández, the dynamic Director of the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, and associate Director Anthony Stevens-Acevedo. I refer here to the story of Juan Rodríguez who arrived in New York on a Dutch ship from Santo Domingo in 1613 and decided to stay, becoming the very first non-Native American settler of the area.
Convinced that Dominicans are not birds of passage in American society, in 1995 we reached out to African American educator, Dr. Allen Lee Sessoms, who had just been appointed as president of Queens College. We sent him a letter of introduction, a thick package of information, and an invitation to have Queens College partner with Dominican Institute projects. We did not hear from Dr. Sessoms for about two months. Then sometime later I met him in person when we were introduced at a CUNY reception. After the conventional cordialities, I used the opportunity to tell him about the Dominican Institute, asking if he had received the materials we had sent him. To my delight, he remembered the correspondence, and his eyes sparked up when said that he had “acted on it.” When he explained how he had done it, my delight disappeared. Basically, he had affixed a note of endorsement to our materials and shipped them to Washington D.C. in care of the Ambassador of the Dominican Republic whom he had met prior to coming to CUNY. I sadly realized that, while we had written to him as fellow educators in the US academy in hopes of forging bonds of collaboration across ethnic lines within this country’s minority populations, Dr. Sessoms had placed us in his mind within the division of foreign affairs.
The specter of the seemingly insurmountable foreignness of US Dominicans resurfaced in a 22 April 2012 New York Post article by Gerson Borrero in connection with the challenge posed by New York State senator Adriano Espaillat, a legislator of Dominican ancestry, to incumbent Representative Charles Rangel for the congressional seat in the city’s 13th district in the primary election that would take place less than a week later. Borrero intriguingly chose to alert New Yorkers about the hemispheric implications of Espaillat’s attempt to unseat Rangel in the upcoming primary. He put it thus: “if Espaillat defeats Rangel and then is elected in November, he not only becomes the first Dominican to serve in the House but, arguably, after the president of his homeland, the second most known and powerful Dominican politician in the world,” stressing the “considerable interest among 9 million Dominicans in the Caribbean in his elevation to Congress, which would make him the only congressman with a foreign ‘constituency’, giving him considerable clout.” Apparently unable to see the challenge to the incumbent by a Dominican American in the 13th congressional district as a chapter of New York politics, the columnist placed it flatly in the faraway arena of foreign affairs. I doubt that Borrero would apply the same type of geopolitical frame when gauging the potential of candidates of other ethnicities. Borrero’s editor at the Post might even fail to see the logic of bringing into the New York political equation the entire population of Italy or Ireland to analyze the chances of an Italian American or an Irish American running for office. Borrero’s article was found fit to print probably because the Post’s editor too has learned to see Dominicans in the United States through the narrative of perpetual foreignness. I fear that in expanding the constituency of Espaillat to the entire population of the Dominican Republic, Borrero might have wished to alert non-Dominican voters about the dangers of allowing the political control of the district to fall into foreign hands. New Yorkers beware! The Dominicans are coming!
When Borrero finally put the story of the race for the 13th congressional district in a local context, his emphasis shifted to preaching civility and ethnic inclusiveness to Espaillat’s supporters. “Many in the community see Espaillat as the Dominican candidate, not necessarily a Latino candidate,” said he without revealing the source of his data. Overly “enthusiastic Dominican supporters of Espaillat,” Borrero warned, in “pushing the Dominican flag and nationalistic pride” may fail to display “a degree of respect towards other groups,” which “could result in a voter backlash.” Fortunately, the initial results of the primary election held on 16 June 2012 did not confirm a widespread indictment of Espaillat’s supporters playing “too many ethnic cards.” The initial outcome made public the next day by the New York Times gave Rangel only a small advantage over Espaillat (43.9% vs. 41.3%), with the other three candidates, all African American and free from the suspicion of nationalistic pride, receiving less than 15% combined.
In many respects, what took place politically in the 13th congressional district involving a Dominican American politician speaks eloquently to the longevity and maturity of our community’s presence in this land. The Dominican challenger terrified the incumbent and the establishment that supported him in a way that a member of a community that just got off the boat and is here temporarily may find it too hard to do. The incumbent had the power structure of the Democratic Party on his side, including the Latino establishment from the South Bronx, the endorsement of major media venues, and a bountiful fund-raising machine. In addition, the incumbent campaigned vigorously, which he had not needed to do any time before in the 42 years of his tenure as Congressman. He even refashioned himself as an immigrant advocate, hosting a fair aimed at assisting the immigrant community with free consultation, legal assistance, and other services two weeks prior to the election. To do so, he had to go against his previous record, a record that includes his joining 12 Republicans in proposing a Constitutional amendment “that would deny citizenship to the American-born children” of undocumented immigrants, an eerie bill that reminds us of the legislative logic dominant in the slavery period whereby the children of slaves legally inherited the bondage of their parents (Deborah Sontag, “Calls to Restrict Immigration…,” New York Times 13 December 1992). The Congressman even had the New York City Board of Election on his side as one can gather from the “troubling actions” among Board members reported by New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez (6 July 2012). With all of these assets to his favor, the incumbent still ended up with less than a thousand votes over his Dominican American challenger, and even that small number did not come without the sloppiness that caused his opponent to sue over vote-counting irregularities. In the end, the challenger dropped his lawsuit, conceding defeat, but the Dominican community that he came from had ample reason to see a major victory in the electoral process and the outcome. Perhaps Angelo Falcon captured the sense of that victory when he said, “After this, politicians will not take the Dominican community for granted ever again” (Sandra Lilly, “When Latino and African American Politicians…,” NBC Latino 3 July 2012).
Dominicans in the United States, as the contest for New York’s 13th congressional district illustrates, have already done much to assert themselves in the land. The case shows that the political status quo, which has long chosen to regard Dominicans as a recent population in this country, as one lacking a large enough pool of voters, as one whose members harbor political thoughts only in relation to their ancestral homeland, and as a population without the necessary seniority to demand a share of power, will find it hard to continue to get away with that story. Dominicans have simply become too difficult to dismiss. The political establishment will have to come to terms with the reality of the deep roots that Dominicans have grown in this country, too deep, indeed, for them to forego the role they could play in helping design public policy and contribute to shaping the future of the cities, the states, and the society where they live. The Dominican List perhaps is a way of saying that we are here; we have long been here. Dominicans want what all other segments of the US population want: to have their presence seen, acknowledged, and respected while being allowed to be themselves and, as such, to thrive materially and spiritually. As a bona fide ethnic group in the country’s population, they also want to be liberated from the narrative that imprisons them in the division of foreign affairs.
El Concilio Nacional Dominico-Americano (NDAC) es el órgano cívico de capacitación, apoderamiento, relaciones públicas, comunitarias y participación de la Mesa Redonda Nacional Dominico-Americana (DANR) compuesto por más de 120 concilios locales operando en los Estados Unidos y sus territorios, incluyendo Puerto Rico y la Islas Vírgenes, con la función de determinar la agenda nacional en la convención anual y abogar por el desarrollo socio-económico y político de nuestras communidades en áreas concernientes al desarrollo humano en general, incluyendo educación, desarrollo económico, salud, inmigración y apoderamiento comunitario.
The National Dominican American Council (NDAC) is the civic-community-engagement and public relations trainning organ of The Dominican American National Roundtable (DANR) composed of over 120 local councils functioning in the United States and territories, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, with the role of setting the national agenda at DANR National Annual Convention and advocating for the socio-economic and political development of all Dominican Americans and our communities in areas concerning human development, education, economic development, health, immigration and community empowerment.