Dominicans in New York: Getting a Slice of the Apple

September 25, 2007

After years of
struggle, the
community is
becoming a
pivotal player in
New York City
I'd like to help, but we already have too many immigrants," a
liberal Queens Assemblyman
told me back in 1987 when, as director
of the New York State Assembly Task
Force on Immigration, I was lobbying
for legislation that would ease the
plight of noncitizen New Yorkers.
"And why are you dealing with these
Dominicans anyway? You're Puerto
Rican, and Dominicans don't vote."
This was but one of the negative
responses I received in meetings with
over 30 members of the state assembly urging them to
endorse a bill which sought to address the needs of New
York's Dominicans, the largest immigrant group in the
state and its fastest-growing ethnic minority. Political
doors were slammed-or closed ever so gently--on our
lobbying efforts on behalf of a community without
But ten years after our unsuccessful lobbying efforts, Dominican politicians in New York are winning posi-
tions from which they can effectively make themselves
heard. In 1991, Guillermo Linares became the first
Howard Jordan is an attorney and a Charles Revson Fellow at Columbia University He also teaches public administration at Hostos Community College.
in New York:
Getting a Slice
of the Apple
A Dominican girl dances at the Dominican Day Parade in New York City
Dominican to be
elected to the New
York City Council.
Another Dominican,
Adriano Espaillat,
became the first
Dominican to serve
in the state Assembly
after upsetting a 16-
year incumbent in an
race last November.
By any yardstick,
the Dominican community now has the numbers that
can make it a pivotal player in New York City politics.
According to the 1990 census, the city's Dominican
population numbered 332,713, having grown 165%
between 1980 and 1990. If one counts the large number
of undocumented Dominicans, the population is well
above a half million. The Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS) reports that 226,853
Dominicans arrived in the United States as permanent
residents from 1982 through 1989, and in New York
City, Dominicans outnumbered all other immigrants
who pursued citizenship during that same period. Sixty-
nine percent of the U.S. Dominican population now
lives in New York State, followed by 10% in New
Jersey and 7% in Florida. 1 Studies project that
Dominicans will be the largest Latino group in the
Northeast by the year 2010.2
Economic clout does not lag far behind. Twenty-thou-
sand New York businesses are owned by Dominicans,
including 70% of all small Latino grocery stores-New
York's bodegas, which generate sales of $1.8 billion per
year-and 90% of nonmedallion cabs, another multi-
million dollar industry.
Among the many small
businesses of Wash-
ington Heights-the
upper Manhattan neigh-
borhood that has
become New York's
principal Dominican
enclave-are the many
remesadoras (money-
transfer offices) that
have helped transform
New York into a finan-
cial center for Domi-
nicans. It is through the
remesadoras that New
York Dominicans wire Guillermo Linares, New York City C
millions of dollars in the Dominican community in Wash
remittances to relatives in the Republic every year.
Building on the community's sizable remittance flows,
Dominicans Alejandro Grull6n and Geovanny
Septilveda brought together a group of Dominican mil-
lionaires in 1985 to form a commercial bank called the
Dominican Bank. While the bank went under in 1990,
the very idea that New York Dominicans could launch
such an enterprise is testimony to the increasing eco-
nomic significance of the community. Add to this the
individual fortunes of clothing designer Oscar de la
Renta and the growing number of millionaire baseball
stars, and U.S. Dominicans become a community of
considerable economic power.
Dominican participation in the U.S. political
process is a product of the historical experience
of Dominicans both in the United States and the
Dominican Republic. In the 1960s, a number of
autonomous, voluntary ethnic associations were estab-
lished in the Dominican neighborhoods of New York
City. While these ethnic associations did not run candi-
dates, they frequently helped local Democratic candi-
dates through leafletting and voter mobilization. 3
The New York-Dominican political leadership in this
period fell into two categories: a small group linked
through personal ties to Dominican dictator Rafael
Leonidas Trujillo, and a larger group militantly opposed
to his regime. Paradoxically, after the 1965 U.S. inva-
io in
sion of the island blocked the establishment of a center-
left regime, many Dominican leftists came to New York
as political exiles. As a result, the ethnic associations
began to take on a new character, as the political exiles
played an important role in organizing the community at
the grassroots.
By the early 1970s, the associations had a more var-
ied membership than those created by old elites. There
were businessmen who
knew how to get fund-
ing from city agencies,
as well as younger U.S.-
educated Dominicans
who became active in
New York City politics.
Many ethnic associa-
tions continued to focus
on Dominican issues,
particularly the repres-
sion of political dissent
in the Republic, but
many entertained an
amicable relationship
with the local Demo- uncil member greets members of cratic political estab- gton Heights. lishment. For example,
Alfredo White founded El Centro Educacional del
Caribe (CEDUCA), one of the first educational centers
in Washington Heights. White pursued close connec-
tions with Democratic elected officials, invited them to
join his board, and created organizations to rally the
Dominican community to vote for Democratic candi-
During the 1980s a group of U.S.-educated
Dominicans organized the Dominican Day Parade
Committee following the model of the Puerto Rican
Day Parade. Though the parade itself had been founded
years earlier, the parade committee served to consolidate
and provide a base for New York's Dominican ethnic
associations. The first parade, on August 9, 1982,
attracted 40,000 people, and the second drew nearly
100,000 to parade routes near Dominican neighbor-
hoods in upper Manhattan. In 1985, the parade moved
downtown and was officially recognized by Mayor Ed
Koch and Governor Mario Cuomo, who, in separate
press conferences, took the opportunity to declare
August 9 Dominican Day in New York.
1983 marked a watershed for New York Dominican
political participation, as the ethnic associations orga-
nized to gain representation in the city's anti-poverty
bureaucracy, including the Community Development
Agency (CDA) and its locally elected advisory groups,
called Area Policy Boards (APBs). Dominicans came to
play a pivotal role in the APBs, which assisted and ad-
vised the CDA in the distribution of $32 million a year
in anti-poverty funds. The Policy Boards, which were
established in those districts with a certain proportion of
poor neighborhoods, received and evaluated proposals
from local non-profit organizations and made recom-
mendations for funding to the CDA. Each APB had 21
members. Twelve were chosen by elections which
allowed for noncitizen voting, seven were appointed by
elected officials, and two were private-sector represen-
Until 1983, no Dominicans were on an APB, and only
one Dominican organization had ever received funds
from the CDA. In September, 1983, ten Dominican eth-
nic-association leaders formed a Dominican Electoral
Front and officially announced their participation in the
elections for representation on Board No. 12, the APB
that represented the Dominican neighborhoods of upper
Manhattan. After a whirlwind of political activity, voter
turnout doubled compared with the previous election,
and six of the ten Front candidates were elected to the
local board. Though the APBs were eliminated later in
the 1980s, they proved to be a key first step in
Dominican electoral empowerment. "Under the Area
Policy Board, you didn't have to be a cit-
izen, and the structure controlled [the
flow of] economic resources to our com-
munity," said Apolinar Trinidad, a for- Som
mer CDA official who was later whe appointed as APB representative by a
Puerto Rican state senator. "We won, and Domi
for the first time fear set in as the local
politicians heard the coming political politiCi
footsteps." 4 As a result of the Front's helping
mobilization, seven of the 21 representa-
tives on Board No. 12 were Dominican the corr
-six elected and one appointed. This
resulted in significant increases in fund- or m
ing for Dominican groups in Washington accom(
The 1980s also witnessed a significant themselv
increase in Dominican participation in poli
local school board politics. The boards, a
legacy of the decentralization reforms of establ is the late 1960s, are democratically
elected and also allow for the voting of
noncitizens. They run public schools
from kindergarten through junior high school for nearly
one million school children. Four Dominican organiza-
tions, the Community Association of Progressive
Dominicans (CAPD), the Northern Manhattan Coalition
for Immigrant Rights (NMCIR), Alianza Dominicana
and Latinos United for Political Action (LUPA), identi-
fied control of education as a key component of empow-
erment and linked themselves to the struggle of Latino
parents to address school overcrowding and substandard
education. This movement led to the election of several
Dominican activists like Guillermo Linares (now city
councilman) and Apolinar Trinidad to School Board No.
6, in the Washington Heights area.
The momentum from the APB and school board vic-
tories provided the impetus for Dominican activists to
launch a campaign for a Democratic district leader posi-
tion in 1985. Democratic Party "district leaders," who
are elected--one male and one female-in every state-
assembly district of New York City, have become
important fixtures in city politics. They are charged with
overseeing all party financial and political business in a
given assembly district, including the selection of poll
watchers in local voting sites. Their most important
function is to vote for the Democratic county chairman
of each of the city's five boroughs. In Manhattan, home
of the largest Dominican enclave, the election of
Dominican district leaders would give the community a
voice in the selection of the Manhattan Democratic
chairman, who, in turn, would play a key role in deter-
mining the Party's support for assembly, senatorial and
judicial candidates.
e ask
ans are
es to the
For more than a decade, the female dis-
trict leadership of upper Manhattan's 71st
Assembly District was held by a
Dominican woman, Maria Luna, who,
while a committed community advocate, was continually re-elected due to the sup-
port of the local political machine. In
1985, a grassroots movement backed by
the Dominican Electoral Front supported
the candidacy of Julio Hernandez to
become male party leader for that district.
The idea was to back a candidate who
would be accountable to the community
itself, and not to the Democratic political
machine. Hernandez won, and became
the first non-machine Dominican district
leader in New York.
As the 1980s came to a close,
Dominicans had come to play an impor-
tant role in the politics of upper
Manhattan. Two Democratic district lead-
ers of Dominican descent had been
elected. Six Dominicans had been elected
to the Area Policy Board, two to the Community School
Board, and four Dominicans had been appointed to the
Community Planning Board. As the 1990s approached,
optimism ran high in what came to be known as
"Quisqueya Heights."
The key moment of recognition for New York's
Dominican community came in 1991 with the imple-
mentation of a new City Charter, the redrawing of New
York City's electoral maps and the
creation of a Dominican-majority
City Council district. The Northern
Manhattan Committee for Fair
Representation (NMCFR), a
Dominican-led coalition, exerted
enormous political pressure on the
New York City Redistricting
Commission to create a district that
could be won by a Dominican.
Twenty Puerto Rican elected offi-
cials who were looking to increase
the number of Latino districts in the
city added their considerable politi-
cal muscle to these efforts.
"Creating a Dominican district
was the only way we could secure a
Dominican presence on the city
council," says Fernando Lescaille, a for the San Franciscc
founder of NMCFR and President of painting of himself i
the Dominican Public Policy
Project. "With the help of our allies in the Puerto Rican
community, we put the heat on the Redistricting
Committee, and our efforts led to the election of the first
Dominican councilman." 5 Throughout this period, the
links and cross-fertilization with Puerto Rican leader-
ship were crucial. The prior struggles of Puerto Rican
activists in the areas of bilingual education, decentral-
ization and anti-poverty programs created the infra-
structure and political space that would enable
Dominican empowerment efforts to succeed. Many
Puerto Rican elected and appointed officials participated
in these Dominican electoral movements, lending
expertise and using their political power to work for the
inclusion of Dominicans in the political process.
These efforts led to the creation of a Washington
Heights district, and that set the backdrop for the elec-
tion of the first Dominican to the New York City
Council. Four Dominicans ran for the office in 1991:
Guillermo Linares, Maria Luna, Adriano Espaillat and
Apolinar Trinidad. Linares garnered 30% of the vote,
squeaking past the Democratic party regular, Maria
Luna. With representation on the City Council,
Dominicans were now able to make themselves felt as a
force in citywide politics. Three of the city council can-
didates of 1991, for example, played major roles in the
1993 mayoral election in which the majority of
Dominicans supported Democratic Mayor David
Dinkins over his Republican rival, Rudy Giuliani.
Councilmember Linares and Adriano Espaillat were key
members of Dominicans for Dinkins, while Apolinar
Trinidad, who ran on the Conservative line in 1991, can-
vassed Dominican neighborhoods for the eventual win-
ner, Giuliani.
A more recent expression of
Dominican involvement in mayoral
politics was the brouhaha over the
plan of Mayor Giuliani and Police
Commissioner Howard Safir to
send New York City police to the
Dominican Republic to interdict the
Santo Domingo-New York drug
traffic. The plan touched a raw
nerve among Dominican elected
officials, evoking memories of the
U.S. military presence in 1965, and
their opposition forced the Mayor
and Commissioner to backpedal.
The "plan amounts to two cops in
the [U.S.] Embassy exchanging
information with the Dominican
police," Safir told the New York at Dominican pitcher Daily News after the controversy
action. broke. 6 Eventually, the plan was
simply tabled.
W hile New York Dominicans make their mark
at every level of the political process, several
obstacles are still in the way of full political
empowerment. For one, many Dominicans continue to
view themselves as transient-living and working in the
United States only until they can gather sufficient
resources to return to the homeland. This limits the cre-
ation of the necessary political infrastructure within
New York that could impel Dominicans to the next step
in their political ascendancy.
But while leading Dominican political figures like
President Leonel Fernindez-along with Joaquin
Balaguer, Juan Bosch and Jos6 Francisco Pefia
G6mez-all have New York branches to raise money
and recruit support for their candidacies, many
Dominicans, especially young people, have made the
break. Younger New York-born Dominicans see the
older generation's ties to homeland politics as nostalgic,
and they view the future of the Dominican community
as intimately linked to the empowering of Dominicans
in the United States. This often creates tensions between
those older generation organizers who focus their orga-
nizing efforts around island politics and those who
advocate active involvement in local metropolitan
Dominican aspirations are also limited by high levels
of noncitizenship. According to a recent study,
Dominicans have low levels of voter eligibility, even
though they have high voter turnout rates. 7 Dominicans
made up only 11% of Latino registered voters in New
York City in 1993, though they accounted for over 20%
of the city's Latino population. In the Dominican elec-
tion districts in 1993, only 31% of residents actually
registered to vote. In the 1992 presidential elections,
however, Dominicans had a relatively high turnout rate
of 56% of registered voters.
Another obstacle to full Dominican participation is
the growing rate of poverty in the Dominican commu-
nity. The income of the Dominican population is one of
the lowest in New York City, and about 47% of
Dominican children live in poverty. 8 The portrait of
Dominicans as upwardly mobile, urban workers is
highly deceptive. To the extent that very low levels of
income inhibit political participation, such extensive
poverty results in the alienation of Dominicans from the
political process.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to Dominican empower-
ment is a growing disunity among Dominican political
elites, and their separation from the day-to-day concerns
of the Dominican community. In this sense, Dominican
elected officials may be going the way of their Puerto
Rican and African-American counterparts.
In 1995, for example, a proposal to build a $12 mil-
lion Pathmark megastore on East Harlem's 125th Street
by the Abyssinian Development Corporation, an
African-American development group, led to charges of
"betrayal" against Dominican Councilman Linares.
Linares, together with nearly all Puerto Rican elected
officials, had signed a letter asking Mayor
Rudy Giuliani to halt the preferential eco-
nomic treatment the city had given to the
proposed Pathmark project through $7
million in tax abatements. The Pathmark Unlik plan made no provisions for the survival
of local Latino grocery stores or smaller elders v
neighborhood supermarkets, mostly on isla n owned by Dominicans. In this instance, the Puerto Rican political establishment you was marching hand in hand with local
Dominican merchants to combat the dis- Dominic
location of East Harlem Latino merchants. to pa rti
In a last minute change of position, how-
ever, Councilman Linares cast the decid- New Y
ing vote in the city council, resulting in a
6-5 vote in favor of the proposed project. pol
The Puerto Rican leadership in East
Harlem-once the Puerto Rican mecca of
New York City-felt the Abyssinian
Development Corporation, as well as
local African-American leaders, had ignored the con-
cerns of the Latino community in pushing through this
project. Many believe that Linares changed his vote in
order to court the black political establishment. Others
argue that the councilman had a genuine change of
heart, but are at a loss to explain the last-minute charac-
ter of his vote. In any case, he was lambasted by
Dominicans and Puerto Ricans alike for harming the
economic interests of the Dominican community and for
derailing an incipient Dominican-Puerto Rican alliance.
Conflicts have also arisen around the recent election of
Adriano Espaillat as the first Dominican to the state
Assembly. While his election was hailed by many
Latinos as a "people's victory," the new assembly mem-
ber now has some of his constituents worried. The
Village Voice, in an article entitled "Hangin' With the
Landlords," reported that campaign disclosure records
show that the newly elected assemblyman received close
to $23,750 in contributions from the Rent Stabilization
Association (RSA), a group that advocates abolishing
rent stabilization and control laws. In 1996, the RSA lav-
ished $700,000 on candidates statewide. Espaillat
acknowledges the contribution but vehemently denies
cutting any deal with the pro-landlord lobby. "When I got
the support from RSA," says Espaillat, "I made sure to
tell them what my positions were. I'm not about to sup-
port legislation against rent stabilization. The only thing
I told RSA was that I would listen to their point of view.
But they know very well that I am not supportive of their
agenda." Supporters say Espaillat is simply taking a
political hit from his enemies. But Rafael Sencion, an
activist with the Congress for Dominican Rights,
expressed his anger and frustration when the assembly-
e their
dho focus
d politics,
:ans want
cipate in
ork City
man cancelled an October meeting he had
scheduled with community groups to
explain his position on rent regulations.
"Nothing comes with no strings
attached," said Sencion. "You've got to be
real naive to believe that."
The specter of mounting disunity hangs
heavily on the Dominican political move-
ment. Some voices in the community ask
whether the movement is pushing an
empowerment process forward or is
merely accomodating itself to the politi-
cal establishment. Some community
activists argue that the appearance of
Dominican faces in high places has done
little to brake the declining quality of life
for the vast majority of New York's
Dominicans. Representation, the critics
remind us, is not power. Optimists, how-
ever, argue that the election of Linares,
Espailliat and others to positions of influ-
ence in city and state government will present
Dominicans with a springboard from which to influence
public policy in New York and the United States. The
stage is set for the 1997 mayoral and city council pri-
mary elections. Already speculation has been fueled that
Moises Perez, executive director of Alianza
Dominicana, will challenge the re-election efforts of
Councilmember Linares due to the latter's perceived
lack of response to Dominican needs. Assemblyman
Adriano Espaillat is also reportedly considering endors-
ing a candidate against Linares, his political nemesis.
The Linares-Espaillat conflict reflects broader politi-
cal tendencies in the Dominican community. Both
Dominican elected officials won elections against so-
called machine politicians, but some are uncomfortable
with Linares because of his recent "accomodationist"
postures. Many activists feel the councilmember has
distanced himself from his Dominican base, and many
argue that his real support base is the white liberal estab-
lishment of Manhattan. He has been criticized as enjoy-
ing broader suport in sectors outside the Dominican
community than from within. Linares, a long-time
activist in New York progressive politics, would doubt-
less argue he has simply expanded his base.
Espaillat has a firmer, more current rooting in the
Dominican community. His pursuit of the backing of
many moderate, right-wing Balaguerists, however, has
raised the eyebrows of many of his supporters. Since he
has never held a clearly identifiable ideological posi-
tion, he will be closely watched as he defines his polit-
ical persuasion in his first term. Until his election last
November, Espaillat enjoyed little support from the
Manhattan political establishment, though he had been
well-received by the Bronx Puerto Rican establishment,
including Borough President Fernando Ferrer and
Democratic County chair Roberto Ramirez. His
Manhattan base, however, may now be expanding. At
his recent swearing in at a neighborhood public school,
a virtual who's who of the Manhattan Democratic
establishment was in attendance, including Congress-
man Charles Rangel and Borough President Ruth
As the Dominican community grows in the coming
years, it will help reshape the political establishment of
New York. The legislators who showed me the door
back in 1987 can no longer reject the elected Dominican
officials who will soon knock at their doors, sit at the
table, and negotiate their rightful piece of the budgetary
and political pie.
Dominicans in New York
1. "Dominican Political Empowerment," monograph, (New York: The
Dominican Public Policy Project, 1992).
2. Unpublished study by the Tri-State Latino Commission, New York, 1988.
3. Prof. Eugenia Georges has characterized four types of political partici-
pation among Dominican associations during this period: 1) activist
associations which attempted to deal with specific social and economic
issues confronting New York's Dominican population, including self-
help groups, political parties and student associations, 2) recreational
clubs, 3) occupational associations and 4) performing cultural groups.
See Eugenia Georges, New Immigrants and the Political Process:
Dominicans in New York (New York: Research Program in Inter-
American Affairs, 1984).
4.Apolinar Trinidad, "Area Policy Boards and Dominican Politics," Latinos
United for Political Action, August, 1983.
5. Fernando Lescaille, Dominican Political Empowerment (Santo
Domingo: Dominican Public Policy Project, 1992).
6. '5afir Plan Irks Dominicans," New York Daily News, December 15, 1996,
p. 13.
7. See Angelo Falcon and Christopher Hanson-Sanchez, Latino Immigrants
and Electoral Participation (New York: Institute for Puerto Rican Policy,
8.Ramona Hernandez, Francisco Rivera-Batiz, & Roberto Agodini,
Dominican New Yorkers: A Socio Economic Profile (New York: City
University of New York, 1990).

Tags: Dominican Republic, New York City, immigration, local politics, community

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