Gentrification of Washington Heights a Threat to Dominican Politics

Mariel Santos working in a Dominican-styled restaurant in the Bronx.

Mariel Santos working in a Dominican-styled restaurant in the Bronx.

By Cami Crawford

Recent signs of gentrification of Washington Heights have caused worry that the “epicenter of Dominican culture” will diminish as rent increases are forcing many to relocate to surrounding boroughs. The Bronx, specifically, has been an area where many Dominicans are founding new homes, but the community is scattered across many neighborhoods in the borough all of which are far removed from it’s traditional base of northern Manhattan.

Despite the scattering, Dominicans are continuing to flock to New York. The New York City Department of Planning said that more Dominicans live in the five boroughs than any other city in the world, barring Santo Domingo, and that Dominicans top the statistics as New York’s dominating ethnic group.

New statistics from CUNY’s Graduate Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies indicate that in 2013, 727,273 Dominicans lived in the five boroughs of New York City, a number that increased by over 140,000 people in the last three years. The rising number of Dominicans has been associated with greater political power, but the disbanding cultural center in Washington Heights leaves some concerned that Dominican political influence might dissipate with it.

Diana Ozoria, a first-generation American born of Dominican parents, is worried about this trend. “If the community is separated, people might think what is the point of fighting for something that doesn’t exist anymore,” she said.

Ozoria was born in Washington Heights but moved when she was six-years-old. A little over a year ago, she returned to the same neighborhood she lived in as a child and noticed a remarkable difference in the area. “I used to live on 171st when I was little. The community was entirely Dominican. Everyone knew each other. There were all these mom and pop stores,” she said. “I moved back to the same neighborhood last year. It’s completely different.”

But Maria Rodriguez does not think the gentrification of Washington Heights is a threat to Dominican politics. “Dominicans are passionate,” she said. “[Separation] doesn’t matter because being Dominican unites people politically.” Rodriguez is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and has lived in New York as a permanent resident for over 28 years.

Laird Bergad, the executive director of the CLACLS, arrived at the population numbers with great difficulty. “If anything this examination of the three data sets indicates the difficulty of arriving at precise population estimates for subgroups of the population, such as Latino nationalities, in smaller geographical areas such as New York City,” he said.

Some of the difficulty Bergard encountered in his population analysis could be attributed to how Latinos choose to identify on census reports—a growing problem as the number of children from Dominican immigrants become more politically active.

Rodriguez emigrated in 1987 and has no problem identifying as a Latino or Hispanic on demographic reports. “I feel Dominican,” she said simply. “I’m fine like that.” Yet, her daughter, Mariel Santos, 21, doesn’t feel the same sense of certainty about how to identify.

Santos explains that her identity confusion comes from how the census asks her to identify. “I personally hate the word Hispanic,” she explained. “Hispanic doesn’t necessarily constitute a race, or a group of people. And a lot of different kinds of people are chunked into that category.”

Ozoria agrees but understands the need for categorization. “It makes sense in a way. You have to categorize it for efficiency,” said Ozoria. “But it’s not an accurate representation.”

Santos says she doesn’t feel comfortable identifying as “Hispanic” because it is too broad of a category. “It’s difficult to be a Latino in the U.S. when in the U.S. you’re all generalized,” Santos said. “Yeah we all speak Spanish and yeah we all tend to eat similar things, but we carry them differently. We all have different traditions.” She feels as if she has to renounce a part of herself in order to conform to a standard. ”I have constant reminders that I’m an American, but culturally I don’t know.”

Santos was born in the United States, but feels strongly tied to her Latin American culture. “I feel like being American is very ambiguous. I’ve never identified as American, I’ve always identified as Latin American,” said Santos. However, when she visits the Dominican Republic to spend time with her father, a Dominican native, her friends and family consider her a tourist.

“They call me gringa,” Santos explained. “When I go there I’m not seen as Dominican, I’m seen as an American. If I say I’m Dominican they laugh.” Ozoria has lived a similar experience as what she calls an “Americana.”

“[American] is kind of broad and that’s why we have all these hyphenated groups,” Ozoria said. “If you say you’re American here, I ask ‘ok but where are you from?’”

Ozoria said that first-generation Americans from Dominican parents feel more strongly and are more politically active then other generations because they “see both worlds.”

This is a claim that is substantiated by researchers at Northwestern. Ana Aparicio, an Anthropology professor, wrote a paper called “Contesting Race and Power: Second-Generation Dominican Youth in the New Gotham.” The article examines social and racial justice projects that involve New York based Dominican youths. “Youth in cities like New York have been working arduously to establish projects and coalitions that challenge globalization and its consequences,” Aparicio wrote. “In their attempts to confront and challenge globalization and racism, [Dominican youths] have begun to construct a new political identity.”

Ozoria believes her generation of Dominicans feels the need to be politically active because they understand both sides of the issue. “I’ve been to the DR. I’ve seen how hard my parents work. I’ve seen how my mom slaved to make things work,” Ozoria explained. “You’re not blinded by anything because you see the good and the bad. There’s a desire to make a change.”

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