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Ethnic Communities in New York City: Dominicans in Washington Heights

Pauline Nguyen and Josephine Sanchez

I. Introduction

         Washington Heights stretches roughly thirty-five blocks across the northern tip of Manhattan island. It encompasses a broad tract of land, taking in 160th Street to about 189th Street and all that lies between the wide avenues of Broadway, St. Nicholas Boulevard, and Fort Washington. The majority of its occupants are the smiling, chestnut-skinned immigrants of the Dominican Republic, whose steady arrival accounts for 7 percent of New York City's total population, and makes up its highest immigrant group .

         Like other immigrant groups, many Dominicans choose to cluster within the same geographic grid. In the Washington Heights neighborhood where a large number of them have settled, a distinctly Dominican community has emerged, and flourished: restaurants offer ethnic delicacies; shops frequently advertise in both English and Spanish; church services are conducted in keeping with traditional Dominican customs; and medical assistance is completely available, not only in general Spanish, but in the specific Dominican dialect of Spanish. The language on the street is Spanish, and the Dominican flag flies proudly beside the stars and stripes from balconies, apartment windows, and storefronts.

         For the immigrant, it is better, perhaps, to live among so many from the native country while adapting to the lifestyles of a new one; no doubt it is more secure, more familiar. Things are less foreign, and there are fewer opportunities to stumble linguistically and culturally in a community that attempts to offer the services and manners of the old country. The difficulties of transition are drastically reduced, even completely deleted. It is with the children of immigrants, with first generation Dominican-Americans, that the benefits of this community might compromise their assimilation-and ascension-within the dominant, English-speaking culture. On streets where Spanish words greatly outnumber English ones, in coffee carts that have been transformed into portable patelito stands, one must wonder how well ethnic identity and "American" identity coexist, and how the striking linguistic differences between the immigrant and dominant cultures interact, accommodate, and sometimes overwhelm the other.

II. Demographics

         Dominican children compose a remarkable 10 percent of those attending a New York City public school; Dominican families make up 7 percent of the entire population of New York City . In her book, Over Here It's Different: Carolina's Story, Mildred Leinweber Dawson notes that the Dominican Republic sent approximately 252,000 people to the United States between 1981 and 1990, putting it "among the top ten countries sending immigrants here" (2). Unfortunately, the high rate of influx has yet to mirror their economic success: a 1997 study released by Columbia University's Latino Studies Program and City University of New York's Dominican Studies Institute at City College entitled Dominican New Yorkers: A Socioeconomic Profile, 1997 revealed that Dominicans have the lowest income of any other major ethnic or racial group in New York City-only $6,094 per family . In the late 1990s, when the nation and New York City were experiencing an economic upturn, 45 percent of Dominicans remained below the poverty line. Despite dismal economic statistics, Dominicans continue to immigrate to the United States, with 60 percent of them ultimately choosing to live in New York City.

III. Home

     Three Dominican boys whom we met during our study unanimously agreed that the home was a central part of the Dominican world, a kind of nucleus around which their sense of community, loyalty, and identity sprung and continues to revolve. It is in the privacy of this sphere that children acquire their cultural identity, where kids learn what it means to be "Dominican" and "American." They learn here, often first in Spanish, then in English, about their roots and ethnic traditions. They develop a palette for Dominican cuisine, adopt the values of their family and their people, and absorb the full meaning of their Dominican personhood, and to what extent they can become "American" before it is compromised. Some Dominican children, for example, are given an extremely strong sense of linguistic priority in the home, being taught that English is restricted to the public domain, and, even there, relegated to necessity.

     The home is additionally the stage for behavior. Children are quick to imitate the behavior and attitudes of older family members. Dominicans are honest, they argued, and whatever they had to do-an inference to the "drug dealing"-was justified so long as it was the means by which they supported their family. As to the perception that Dominicans were defensive or pugnacious, they clarified that they were merely a protective group, and one whose paternal instincts were not limited to members of their own ethnicity: they would uphold anything fair, and likewise attack anything unjust. The comment is particularly suited to the tight sense of community that takes its roots from the family and home. A strong bond connects somehow connects all Dominicans, a warm camaraderie largely maintained by their shared Spanish tongue that allows them to do favors for one another, even those with whom they are not personally close. As we walked up Juan Pablo Duarte Boulevard-named for the father of Dominican independence-we observed with amazement the ease with which our Dominican "guides" were able to interact with various shopkeepers and restaurant owners, who, after a few words of Spanish, gestured for us to snap the pictures they were shy and apprehensive about before.

IV. Church and Religion

     Religion is secondary, or, perhaps closely intertwined, with the importance designated to the home in the Dominican perspective. The three Dominican boys who helped us collect research for this project attests to that; we came upon the high-school age trio as they were leaving confession at the Church of the Incarnation, an old stone Roman Catholic church along St. Nicholas Boulevard. They indicated that religion was a telling characteristic when ascertaining a person's Dominican identity, and instructed us to take notice of the passerby in front of the church. Those who did not bless themselves as they passed were probably not Dominican, they stated, and we watched patiently as the majority of the crowd did, indeed, bless themselves as they walked by the church.

      Dominicans mainly profess to be Roman Catholics; a small percentage are Protestants and a mere 1 percent are Spiritists. In keeping with the conservative beliefs of the Roman Catholic faith, then, it is not surprising the opinions held by the boys concerning homosexuality, an idea which they introduced and adamantly rejected. They gave no specific reason as to why, suggesting that their repugnance is the result of emotion and morality rather than one of conventional logic. Their presence in the church at all on a sunny weekday afternoon implies considerable devotion to their faith, as well as to the presumed dedication of other Dominicans, many of whom stopped by to say a prayer and light a candle.

      The church itself was stocked with missals in Spanish-only a handful of English missals were available-and the statue of the Virgin Mother, Mary, at the altar, read "Maria," the Spanish version of her name. Other saints and statues stood behind Spanish versions of their name, evidence that religion is a revealing marker of linguistic significance, and that, in this community, Spanish, not English, holds the upper hand.

V. Schools

      Education is a top priority in the Dominican mentality; the researcher Anne Canty says that the community views education as a channel through which one can progress and move upward in life , and this opinion allows schooling to take some precedence in a child's life. English is spoken in both public and private schools; passage through the grade levels, and certainly, any honors to be received, are heavily dependent on a child's ability to communicate clearly and effectively in English. As in most New York City public schools situated in densely-ethnic, native-speaking communities, bilingual classes are available, but two high school boys and one elementary school boy spoke dismissively about them, waving them off as a kind of pathetic option for those "fresh off the boat." The older boys in particular identified English with being American, and Spanish with being Dominican, two cultures of which they were both very much a part and between which they moved freely, depending on the location, but agreed that a grasp of English, even in the dominantly Dominican community, was a necessity, not an option.

      It is a bit surprising to learn that the New York State Regents Exam, the annual set of tests administered to high school students to qualify them for graduation, is available in Spanish-that is, one can pass the test in Spanish and be awarded a diploma, not having known enough English to pass in English. Retired New York City high school teacher Maria Sanchez notes that the Spanish option was, perhaps even more surprisingly, not frequently utilized . Most people are unaware that many Spanish-speakers are hindered by illiteracy in their native tongue, and unable to fully comprehend the formal Castilian Spanish-not the dialect under which they were reared-in which the tests are given.

VI. Politics

      The influence of the Latin voting bloc has swelled in recent years, and so too has the need to accurately represent them. Census 2000 data show clear segregation between Hispanic and non-Hispanics, a trend which is becoming increasingly popular . The average Hispanic now lives in a neighborhood that is 44 percent Hispanic, making him the largest minority . Washington Heights is a case in point: a district divided into one overwhelmingly Hispanic majority and another large mixed population, it elects two city councilmen to best address the needs of the diverse area. Guillermo Linares is the first Dominican-American to be elected to public office; he appropriately represents Spanish-speaking constituents and makes his office in Washington Heights. The other councilman, Stanley E. Michels, is a non-Hispanic whose main concentration concerns those voters outside the Dominican community, in Harlem, Central Park North, and non-Spanish-speaking portions of Washington Heights. Linares' projects are generally geared toward his Hispanic constituents, and he consistently seeks to better education and sharpen focus on the bilingual skills of Hispanic-Americans. His platform is so predictable, perhaps, because his ethnicity lends him a more extensive understanding of the issues troubling Dominicans, as well as the linguistic capability to best communicate to them the limitations of what he can and cannot do. That facility with Spanish is a political asset that boosts his credibility and support among Dominican voters. The oldest of our three guides offered the same trusting opinion about Puerto Rican mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer, who is, not coincidentally, perhaps, endorsed by Linares. The unity among Hispanics, culturally and linguistically, ought not to be underestimated: signs attached to lamp posts and telephone poles in Washington Heights rally passerby to elect another Dominican to office. There is no mention of his platform or agenda, maybe because it does not matter as much as his ethnicity and native tongue. That Hispanic sense of camaraderie, the protective nature, and the deep sense of family and obligation to one's own are gaining increasingly prominent roles in the political arena as these qualities become the qualifications which make a candidate appealing.

      Mayoral hopeful Mike Bloomberg positions political posters, in Spanish, to woo voters in Washington Heights to his camp. It is a good try, and a sincere intention, but one whose integrity may be dimmed beside the native Hispanic Ferrer who, Linares says "understands the issues of the Latino community because of who he is and where he comes from ." It seems to be to one's credit to be Hispanic, or, if one is not, to at least attempt to bridge the linguistic gap by advertising and campaigning in Spanish.

VII. Medical and Other Services

     The walls of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital tower above St. Nicholas Boulevard in the heart of the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, but it will bend to assist the needs of its home community. All of the signs are posted in both English and Spanish, and a number of doctors and nurses are prepared to translate options and procedures to Spanish-speaking patients and their families. (Translators are available in other languages as well, but not in bulk.) A non-Hispanic security guard who has been with the medical center for over sixteen years notes that one can employ the hospital's services without a word of English, receiving the same care and medication afforded to English-speakers. Despite these myriad accommodations, however, a linguistic barrier continues to strain communication between medical staff and Spanish-speakers. The guard observes the confusion of many Spanish-speakers over the seemingly simple act of entering and leaving through the building's automatic handicapped doors, a frustrating misunderstanding that is typically the result of illiteracy.

     A notable portion of Spanish-speakers still struggle with illiteracy, even in their native tongue, rendering the translated print services useless to them. In some cases, illiteracy is the outcome of years of stubbornness, refusing or not bothering to learn English when every aspect of life can be efficiently carried out exclusively in Spanish. The New Jade House Chinese Restaurant, for example, has translations of Chinese dishes into Spanish, and the Oriental cashier can count, in Spanish, up to fifty. It is essential to the success of his business for him to learn the language of his customers; conversely, a Dominican Spanish-speaker would not have to labor to achieve the same kind of communication. In the ethnic community, it is simply not needed, and yet, linguistic holes still need to be filled.

VII. Conclusion

     The Dominican community of Washington Heights is a vibrant, sociable group. Their collective warmth manifests itself in the neighborhood showcase that is a feast to foreign senses: brilliant assortments of exotic fruits and vegetables; the toasted, beckoning scent of a golden empanadas, and the lyrical, musical sound of a Spanish dialect easily distinguishable by the over-emphasized roll of the r's. They are a traditional group, fiercely loyal to their family, community, and linguistic heritage. Perhaps that is the difficulty in persuading Dominicans to revert to just one language: one would take from him his natural ethnic identity, and the other, the symbol-however broken and accented-of his new home. Languages do sometimes clash, but they do not compete, because they do not have to-the famous schoolteacher Annie Sullivan said, ""Language grows out of life, out of its needs and experiences." For the Dominicans in Washington Heights, it is the delicate balance of two lives: an English-speaking life within the doors of Intermediate School 90, and a Spanish-speaking life on the asphalt of 163rd Street, and on the sidewalks of busy St. Nicholas Boulevard. Language is, after all, more than just a method of communication, it is life: two flags, one from the Dominican Republic and the other, American red, white, and blue flying from the same fire escape.


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     Say." Columbia University News. 10 November 1997.
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