The Dominican Americans:
Progress and Challenges
by Ramona Hernandez (July 12, 2010)
Much has rained down since the publication of the book The Dominican Americans, which I co-authored with Silvio Torres-Saillant over a decade ago. Today, an overview of how Dominicans have done since the end of the 1990s reveals positive gains on one end and the opposite on the other.
Between 2000 and 2008, the Dominican population in the United States has, according to the US Census, grown from 1,041,910 to 1,468,542, for a dramatic growth of 41 percent. This demographic growth among Dominicans today is fueled by a high birth rate that is progressively transforming the profile of the group. This growing second generation impacts the entire fabric of the Dominican people, from the relationship to their parents' homeland, to local politics and cultural life.
[NiLP Note: for a statistical profile of Dominicans in the United States, click here]
The gains in education by the second generation, those Dominicans born in the U.S. who were entering college and obtaining graduate degrees in record numbers, is surpassing those of similar groups. What continues to surprise experts today is that the educational advances of this second generation defies established explanations about educational progress in capitalist societies: most of this Dominican second generation comes from homes with the lowest incomes, from families headed by single women, and from parents who have not completed secondary school.
Equally noticeable is the rise of Dominicans elected to office or appointed to prominent government posts. These include two state senators, a mayor, and more than two dozen members of city councils and state legislatures across the U.S., from Massachusetts to Nevada. The number of parks, streets, and schools in the U.S., named after important Dominican historical figures have also increased, reflecting a desire to preserve the Dominican legacy and identity.
No one could have imagined that within just a few years Dominicans would have reached the White House in the manner they have, holding more than half-a-dozen of the Executive branch's most influential and prestigious posts for the very first time by children of Dominican immigrants.
In business, many Dominicans have done remarkably well. They have transformed their businesses by diversifying and expanding their investments. The local bodega counts on a growing chain of Dominican-owned supermarkets that encompass almost half-a-dozen brands ---from Pioneer, C-Town and Compare --- with current annual sales surpassing two billion dollars and locations extending from New York to North Carolina. There are even plans to expand into Europe to satisfy a demand among European Dominicans who long for Dominican goods.
The multi-service agencies that specialized in sending remittances and completing legal forms for their clients have been transformed into sophisticated accounting firms. These are venturing into franchising, and the successful small finance centers have been consolidated to form a mainstream investment bank whose largest number of shares is in the hands of Dominicans.
When Dominican Americans first appeared, we complained about the lack of research in the U.S. related to Dominicans. Today, Dominican Studies is recognized as a field of knowledge in academia, increasingly attracting students and scholars who are interested in writing about the Dominican people. An inventory of doctoral dissertations in Dominican Studies from 1939-the date of the first such dissertation on file-to 1998, reveals approximately 350 titles; by 2008, the number more than doubled to 750.
Today, it is much easier for outsiders to recognize the work of Dominican women in rooting the community and influencing its path. From the very beginning, women have dominated the migration process. The leaders of community-based organizations providing services to the community are predominantly women; and women exercise a decisive vote in the politics of the community-no one dares to seek an important post among Dominicans without negotiating with women. The pattern holds true virtually everywhere Dominicans settle.
Yet, Dominicans cannot claim victory as they review their position in the more than ten years since the publication of The Dominican Americans because social ills continue to afflict their community. Today, almost half of the Dominican people 25 years of age or older do not have a high school diploma in a society that has trouble incorporating workers who have not completed a high school education and are not up-to-date with marketable skills.
Unemployment and poverty among Dominicans have continued to escalate but now with a new ingredient: those numbers are high wherever Dominicans move and establish themselves in large numbers. Geographic mobility of Dominicans within the U.S. continues to be more a factor of their need to migrate than to a demand for their labor.
The number of Dominicans incarcerated adds to this sobering reality.
Although data is difficult to get on this, we have found that in 1995 approximately 70% of all the foreign-born incarcerated in the state of New York were of Dominican descent. By 2009, that figure remains practically unchanged.
In addition, the number of Dominicans deported continues to escalate year by year, a development that challenges Dominicans both here and in the Dominican Republic since many of those deported barely know family members back home while the families they do know stay behind. In fact, from 1999 to 2008, the latest figures available at the time of this writing, close to 33,000 Dominicans were deported. Dominicans must face the fact that deportation is being used as an effective mechanism to reduce costs associated with surplus population by forcing the return home of unwanted Dominicans.
Some unflattering perceptions about Dominicans remain, such as the portrait of Dominicans as people with one foot in the U.S. and the other in the Dominican Republic. This portrayal continues to appear in academic writing and in the corporate media, where Dominicans are described as the ultimate transnational migrants who live in two cultural worlds, leaving some readers with the impression that Dominicans have a tenuous commitment with either one.
Similarly, the assertion that Dominicans negate their blackness and desire to be white has gained credence, remaining as an absolute fact that does not need to be re-visited or challenged. This perception presents Dominicans as a passive group who needed to migrate to the U.S. to understand itself through a new, presumably "correct," pair of North American lenses.
Maturity has also changed the group from within as well as in its approach to mainstream society. Today, Dominicans depend on relationships that are based on an intricate web linking the community to the larger society.
Increasingly, education, experience, and a determined will are enabling Dominicans to venture outside the Dominican community. The process has opened the Dominican community to outsiders to view its inside and to interpret what they believe they see. It also brings back the young, transformed into what is sometimes perceived by the elder community activists as "critics that are too fast."
In this new context, the days of "washing the community's dirty laundry in private" are long gone. Prominent Dominicans may now dispute publicly risking irreparable damage to their reputations. Such actions, some argue, are healthy for the community since they keep people in check, making them more accountable, and, more importantly, in line with the larger society's ways of conducting business.
Others, particularly some community activist elders, think, however, that internal competition among Dominicans is untimely, that the group is still vulnerable, without sufficient decision-making posts under their belt, and with a few institutions of their own capable of protecting Dominicans from themselves and others who may be waiting for internal fractures to accomplish their sinister goal of pushing Dominicans aside.
The Dominican Americans: A New Edition
A new version of The Dominican Americans is scheduled for publication. The new edition recognizes that those Dominicans who have reached certain levels of success have done so not because this was ingrained in their blood or in their history but because they have followed in the footsteps of so many immigrants, once poor and unwanted, and have used the only possible channels open to such a people.
The hope is that a decade after the publication of this new edition, a subsequent evaluation of the group finds it in a better place, and in a better position to solve, if they have not done so, the problems they today confront. The ideal scenario will also show second and third generations protecting and preserving the extraordinary legacy elder Dominicans have constructed with their bare hands, with enormous limitations and against all odds, so that these new generations of Dominicans have a historical memory and, more importantly, the option to continue moving forward the Dominican people, not because their own survival depends on it, but because it is their choice and their conviction.
Ramona Hernández, Ph.D., is Director of the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, and Professor of Sociology at The City College of New York (CUNY). She is the author of The Mobility of Workers Under Advanced Capitalism: Dominican Migration to the United States(Columbia University Press, 2002), and The Dominican Americans, with Silvio Torres-Saillant (Greenwood Press, 1998). Dr. Hernandez can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.