Dominican American Studies and Empowerment

There is no one best model to understand immigration to the United States. It is shaped – uniquely – by country of origin, politics, history, and people. dominican-americans

Two countries share the island of Hispaniola: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. From the early part of the 20th century and President Theodore Roosevelt’s interventionist foreign policy, the Dominican Republic’s history has been closely intertwined with the influence and ambition of the United States. The Dominican Republic was ruled by dictator Rafael Trujillo from 1930 until his assassination in 1961.

Immigration from the Dominican Republic to the US rose steadily after Trujillo’s death. By 1990, more than 350,000 people in the US claimed a Dominican heritage and that number increased to 879,000 in 2010. Approximately 75% of the immigrants have clustered in three metropolitan areas: New York City, Miami and Boston. Their culture is rich, dynamic and visible. Anyone who spends time in New York City recognizes the popularity of the “DR.”

Ana Aparicio explains this and more in Dominican-Americans and the Politics of Empowerment. Based on primary research and interviews in Washington Heights, New York City, the book looks at the DR community with a focus on identity activism and mobilization. It is social science informed by history. Layered throughout the work are questions of methodology. If one is to make real sense of the immigrant experience, it is essential to recognize the agency of immigrants in crafting their identities, Aparicio argues. It is a complicated process – and one that defies easy categorization.

Scholarship from generations ago promoted an assimilation theory of immigration. It prioritized one path to becoming an American. Recent scholarship is more sophisticated and less linear. Transnationalism emphasizes the poles of home and host country and community. It asks hard questions about agency and identity. Aparicio explain how change and agency is yet even more nuanced. She agrees that for first generation immigrants, international issues can appear dominant. Second generation immigrants do increasingly allocate resources for local influence. However, this is not a straightforward process. Aparicio explains that immigrants establish and use different identities for different situations. She explores situational identity and how it plays out in a complex environment.

Aparicio identifies two general types of activists: ethnic entrepreneurs and community organizers. Ethnic entrepreneurs adapt to local political machinery and structures to garner resources. Community organizers look to grass root support. These broad organizational tendencies are reflected in organizations, too. The Dominican Nation and Quisqueya United are the two most influential organizations for Dominican Republic immigrants in NYC. Quisqueya United positions itself as an umbrella organization for many smaller groups. Dominican Nation is led mostly by second generation immigrants who have sought a national agenda and power.

Aparicio is keen on making sure that scholars are not satisfied with simple narratives and models of immigration. Her argument makes sense, particularly when one thinks of the broader project of Latino Studies. We have to be extremely careful when making claims about immigration. Like all good scholarship, Dominican-Americans and the Politics of Empowerment raises difficult and provocative questions.

David Potash

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