As part of the Hispanic / Latino voting bloc, Dominican Americans exercised their right to vote in record numbers these past 2016 general elections. In the United States, Dominican Americans comprise one of the fastest growing ethnic groups. According to the 2010 Census, Dominican-descended people account for 1.5 million of the U.S. population. Citizenship and incorporation is not necessarily a new concept among Dominicans. When discussing Ellis Island migration, scholars and writers in general often overlook non-European immigrants. A little known fact—thanks to pioneering research currently being conducted at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute—is that between 1892 and 1924 more than 5,000 people from the Dominican Republic—mostly affluent—entered the United States through New York’s Ellis Island port. Nonetheless, people from the Dominican Republic have a long and well-documented history serving the United States as government officials, military personnel, thinkers, sports figures, and also in other capacities. The Dominican presence is not a new phenomenon. In the early half of the twentieth-century, María Montéz captivated television audiences, garnering the title of Hollywood’s “Queen of Technicolor” due to her work on the silver screen. Also in the 1940s and 1950s, U.S. opinion leaders including members of the press crowned Dominican diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa as the original playboy and jet-set king. It has been noted that Rubirosa inspired James Flemming’s James Bond character. A decade later, Baseball Hall-of-Fame pitcher Juan Marichal won more games than any other professional Major League Baseball player in the sixties. Dominican Americans have undoubtedly impacted U.S. pop culture.
A Presence since 1613
The examples noted above are of individuals who have reached mainstream audiences, yet unbeknown to many still, Dominican-descended people have had a presence in the fabric of United States society since 1613. Santo Domingo-born Juan Rodriguez arrived on the Dutch merchant ship Jonge Tobias that docked on present-day Hudson Harbor, New York. Rodriguez’s name is etched in history as the first non-native resident of New York, as per archival sources. As an empowered man of color during the colonial era, Rodriguez exercised his right as a free man when he refused to return to Holland in the seventeenth century. Dominican-descended people who follow suit by migrating to the United States also exhibit that spirit to exercise their rights in the United States through their vote and by leaving an imprint on America through their unique contributions. Approximately 250 years after Rodriguez’s arrival, President Abraham Lincoln promoted José Gabriel Luperón to the rank of captain for his service in the U.S. Civil War. Luperón may ring a bell for those familiar with Dominican history as Captain José Gabriel Luperón was the brother of President Gregorio Luperón, a champion of democracy and prominent leader who battled Spain to reclaim Dominican Independence in 1865.
Defending America’s Values
Following in the footsteps of Captain Luperón, Dominican Americans have served the United States government in a multitude of capacities as military personnel, elected officials, and as other types of government representatives. For instance, more than 300 Dominican women and men served in the United States military during World War II. Between 2003 and 2004 the Dominican Republic deployed approximately 600 soldiers to Iraq in partnership with the United States. In addition, many more Dominicans and Dominican-descended people served in other capacities, especially during moments of crisis such as the Vietnam War, Korean War, and other critical moments in U.S. history. On the November 8th elections, Daisy Baez made history when she was elected to the State of Florida House of Representatives. Baez, who was born in Santo Domingo, joined the United States Army at the age of 19. Unlike Luperón and Baez, however, the stories of countless Dominican Americans who served the United States—and who in some cases lost their lives—will never come to light, yet this does not mean their efforts should be forgotten.
Today we celebrate Dominican scholars such as Junot Diaz and Julia Alvarez, each whose works have crossed the mainstream. Diaz was the first Dominican and second person of Latino / Hispanic heritage to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008). Alvarez received the National Medal of Arts from President Barrack Obama in 2013. Alvarez’s award-winning poetry and prose have garnered her multiple awards. Her novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) has been adapted into films and screen plays. Prior to this boom in Dominican writers, Dominican intellectuals and their descendants have been leaving their literary imprint since as early as the nineteenth century. Las Novedades, a Spanish-language newspaper founded in New York in the late eighteenth-century, underwent Dominican ownership between 1914 and 1918 when Francisco José Peynado and Juan Bautista Vicini Burgos purchased the New York-based paper. Renowned writers such as Manuel de Jesús Galván and Pedro Henríquez Ureña served among the contributors. Pedro Henríquez Ureña, one of the earliest Dominican migrants to earn a doctoral degree in the United States from the University of Minnesota in 1918, taught at Minnesota and also at Harvard University. Having survived multiple foreign occupations and internal conflicts such as the thirty-year dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (1930-1961), Dominicans and their descendants come from a tradition of civic engagement and political involvement, that migrants have brought with them to United States soil. In 1991, Guillermo Linares and Kay Palacios made history when they were elected into public office in New York and New Jersey, respectively. Several Dominican Americans followed suit being elected to office or as appointees. However, decades earlier Dominican Americans founded civic, cultural, and social aid organizations such as the Hijos de Duarte in the 1930s, the Centro Cívico y Cultural Dominicano in 1962, and Dominican Women’s Development Center in 1988. Today, Dominicanos USA (DUSA) engages young people and adults by instilling them with pride and building political power. DUSA accomplishes the aforementioned goals through voter registration and by providing a path toward citizenship. Most of these organizations have provided assistance or an important service to Dominicans and non-Dominican communities throughout the United States. Among the services such organizations have provided include after school programs for the youth, mental counseling, and assistance with alcoholism and drug addiction. Dominican Americans have been instrumental in shaping policy, delivering crucial information to their communities, have educated many Americans, and prestigious awards have been bestowed upon them as recognition. Contributions by Dominican Americans cannot be forgotten and should be discussed.
- Ramona Hernández, “The Dominican American Family,” in Ethnic Families in America: Patterns and Variations, 5 th ed., eds. Roosevelt H. Wright Jr. et al (Boston: Pearson, 2012), 151.
- For more information, see Anthony Stevens-Acevedo, Tom Weterings, and Leonor Álvarez Francés, Juan Rodriguez and the Beginnings of New York City (New York: CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, 2013).
- Silvio Torres-Saillant, “Before the Diaspora: Early Dominican Literature in the United States,” vol. 3 of Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, eds. María Herrera-Sobek and Virginia Sánchez Korrol (Houston: Arte Público, 2000), 258.
- Sarah Aponte and Franklin Gutiérrez, Autores dominicanos de la diáspora: apuntes bio-bibliográficos (1902-2012) (Santo Domingo: Biblioteca Nacional Pedro Henriquez Ureña, 2013, 11.
- Silvio Torres-Saillant, “Before the Diaspora: Early Dominican Literature in the United States,” vol. 3 of Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, eds. María Herrera-Sobek and Virginia Sánchez Korrol (Houston: Arte Público, 2000), 106-107.
This article was written by Nelson Santana from research he conducted for the article, “An Intellectual History of Dominican Migration to the United States,” published in Papers of the Fifty-Ninth Annual Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials (2014), edited by Dr. Roberto Delgadillo.