Skip to navigation
Skip to main content
"Los países": Transnational Migration from the Dominican Republic to the United States -- Jorge Duany
from the Dominican Republic to the United States
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
In the 1990s, the Dominican Republic became one of the top five migrant-sending countries to the United States, after much larger countries like Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China. Only Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and El Salvador were larger sources of the Hispanic population. The 2000 census found 764,945 persons of Dominican origin in the United States (Guzmán 2001). This figure represents nearly 9 percent of the population of the Dominican Republic (8.6 million). More than half of all Dominicans in the United States have settled in New York City, where they constitute distinctive and growing communities, especially in Washington Heights, on the northwestern tip of Manhattan. The Dominican diaspora has reshaped practically every aspect of daily life in the homeland—from family structure and business enterprises to political ideology and religious affiliation. Since the 1960s, migration has thoroughly transnationalized the Dominican Republic, metaphorically blurring its frontier with the United States. It has also transformed the physical and cultural landscape of several American neighborhoods, cities, and states.
This chapter traces the main contours of contemporary migration from the Dominican Republic to the United States. First I outline the field of transnationalism as the term has been applied to recent population movements. This theoretical framework helps to conceptualize the massive flow of people between the Dominican Republic and the United States as a process embedded in the globalization of the world economy. Second, I describe the basic characteristics of the Dominican diaspora in the United States, particularly its volume, history, and settlement patterns. I give special attention to the development of spatial practices and cultural identities across geopolitical borders. In particular, I show that transnational migrants have become key actors in the Dominican economy and politics, at the same time that they have incorporated into the U.S. economy and politics. Finally, I suggest that migration has reconfigured the national, ethnic, and racial identities of Dominicans in the United States and the Dominican Republic. The large number of U.S. Dominicans who classify themselves as neither black nor white, but rather as "other," has profound repercussions for racial and ethnic relations in the United States and in their country of origin. In states like New York and Florida, Dominicans and other Latinos already constitute a "third force" in racial discourses, business enterprises, community organizations, interethnic contacts, and cultural politics.
One of the most promising theoretical frameworks in current research on migration emerged during the 1990s under the code word "transnationalism." The earliest and most influential statement of this paradigm was the volume edited by Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton (1992). This book was followed shortly by the coauthored work, Nations Unbound (Basch et al. 1994), which spelled out more systematically the conceptual and methodological implications of the new model. Many scholars are currently working with a transnational approach to migration (see Cordero-Guzmán et al. 2001; Goldring 1996; Levitt 2001; Olwig 1997; Portes 1998; Rouse 1995; Smith and Guarnizo 1998; SÃ¸rensen 1997). Although several writers have developed their own version of transnationalism, they all agree that the contemporary phase of the world economy, which has accelerated the volume and speed of international population flows, requires a new approach to migration. Many are actively engaged in rethinking traditional categories for social analysis—such as nation, state, citizenship, race, ethnicity, class, gender, and identity—in light of current trends. A key intellectual puzzle for contemporary migration scholars is how people reconstruct their cultural identities and imagine their communities across geopolitical borders. Instead of assimilation, some authors favor the terms transnationalization, hybridization, or creolization to refer to the cultural dimensions of diasporic movements (Appadurai 1996; Hannerz 1996).
In the 1980s, social scientists began to widen the use of the concept transnational to include individuals and groups who move across national boundaries yet remain tied to their home communities. Originally, the term referred to multinational corporations and other organizations simultaneously operating in several countries. Political economists have long preferred to write about "transnational" instead of "multinational" or "international" companies, because these conglomerates are often controlled by capital from various cores, usually located in the more industrialized world—in North America, Western Europe, and Japan (Schiller et al. 1995). When applied to migrants rather than corporations, transnationalism suggests that people may transgress national borders and inhabit the interstitial social spaces between them; hence such migrants have been called borderless or stateless people (Kearney 1991; Smith 1994).
Despite some romanticization, the territorial extension of migrant households, social networks, economic resources, political activities, and cultural practices across borders often sustains transnational communities and identities such as those from the Hispanic Caribbean in the United States. In particular, women are responsible for much of the emotional and ritual work required to maintain kinship ties between home and diaspora communities. Through constant visiting, writing, and talking on the phone, migrant women often keep transnational households in touch with each other across wide distances and over long periods of time. More so than men, women frequently travel back and forth to take care of relatives, raise children, and participate in their family's rites of passage, such as baptisms, birthdays, weddings, and funerals (Alicea 1997).
Schiller and her colleagues (1992) have provided a basic definition of transnationalism as the process whereby people establish and maintain sociocultural connections across geopolitical borders. For instance, Dominican migrants may simultaneously participate in several political systems, retain dual citizenship, send large amounts of money back home, and define their identities in culturally hybrid terms, such as Dominican-American. Ulf Hannerz (1996) prefers a minimal definition of transnationalism as any phenomenon that does not take place within the confines of a state. The utility of this approach is that it allows one to compare transnational actors and practices with variable scales and distributions, but it runs the risk of diluting the precise character of the "transnational."
In contrast, Alejandro Portes (1998) has proposed that transnationalism involves only occupations and activities that require regular and intense contact between two or more nations. Thus, for Portes, certain kinds of economic activities—such as the growing trade in ethnic goods and services between the Dominican Republic and the United States—are genuinely transnational, while others—such as occasional shopping trips to Miami or New York—are not. This definition is too limited for my purposes here, because it leaves out many symbolic and material practices that tie together Dominicans in the United States and the Dominican Republic, such as consuming American clothes, music, and food. In this chapter, I use the term transnational as a middle-ground concept between Hannerz's minimal definition and Portes's restricted approach. By transnationalism, I mean the construction of dense social fields across national borders as a result of the circulation of people, ideas, practices, money, goods, and information (see Goldring 1996).
More recently, José Itzigsohn and his colleagues (1999), following up on Luis Guarnizo's and Sarah Mahler's suggestions (see Guarnizo and Smith 1998), have elaborated a useful distinction between "narrow" and "broad" transnational practices. Narrowly defined, transnationalism refers to highly institutionalized activities and constant population flows between two countries, such as membership in Dominican political parties in the United States. Broadly defined, transnationalism involves a low level of institutionalization and sporadic physical displacement between two countries, such as carrying bags full of merchandise on infrequent trips to the United States back to the Dominican Republic. Although this typology helps to classify various kinds of transnational practices, it does not provide an adequate explanation for their origins and development.
Regardless of how one defines it, transnationalism is often accompanied by an incessant back and forth movement of people, facilitated by rapid transportation and communication systems. The jet airplane, the telephone, video, fax, e-mail, and the Internet have greatly reduced the time and cost of moving people, images, and ideas between the Caribbean, the United States, and other parts of the world. Most scholars agree that the increasing globalization of capitalism, which has stimulated such technological advances, is the primary cause of transnationalism. In this context, the transnational movement of people is only one aspect—albeit a crucial one—in the worldwide exchange of capital, commodities, technology, information, ideology, and culture (see Appadurai 1996; Basch et al. 1994; Guarnizo and Smith 1998; Hannerz 1996; R. Ortiz 1996, 1997).
Transnationalism is as much a political as an economic phenomenon. For instance, many states (including Colombia, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic) have recently extended citizen rights, such as voting privileges, to their growing diasporic populations. Furthermore, social institutions linking several nations (such as confederations of political parties, churches, grassroots movements, and other non-governmental organizations) have proliferated in the past few decades. Nation-states have surrendered much of their sovereignty to global and regional forces, by establishing common markets, free trade, and other international agreements. In many countries, public policies have moved toward "de facto transnationalism," accepting the limitations of strictly national approaches to such issues as the movement of capital, labor, and even controlled substances (Sassen 1998). Such globalizing tendencies do not contradict but complement local trends—for example, Dominican immigrants expanded their political participation in New York City as well as in the Dominican Republic during the 1990s (Graham 1998, 2001). In other words, the forces of deterritorialization vie with those of reterritorialization. I will develop this point in my discussion of the migrants' spatial practices.
Although the scholarly understanding of transnationalism has advanced swiftly since the early 1990s, several issues merit further research and reflection. Much of the available literature takes for granted that transnational migration occurs between nation-states, that is, sovereign or postcolonial countries. However, contemporary movements of people include the massive flow of Puerto Ricans to the United States and other Caribbean migrants to their European metropolises, such as Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands. Clara Rodríguez (1989) and Ramón Grosfoguel (1994-1995) have argued that the Puerto Rican diaspora has more in common with other colonial migrants than with citizens of independent countries such as the Dominican Republic. For instance, colonial migrants do not have to apply for a visa or change their legal status to vote in the metropolitan countries. Thus, the differences and similarities among various transnational migrants should be spelled out, depending on whether and how they actually cross state frontiers.
Unfortunately, scholars (such as Roger Rouse  and Michael Kearney ) sometimes portray transnationalism as an undifferentiated global phenomenon linking sending and receiving societies into "one world." But each group of migrants develops a distinctive brand of transnationalism, based on its own historical legacy, cultural practices, settlement patterns, mode of incorporation into the host society, state policies of sending and receiving countries, and other factors. For example, the Dominican diaspora may be classified as "transnational" along with the Puerto Rican and Cuban diasporas, but the three differ greatly in their citizenship status, relationship to the homeland, possibility of return, timing of the flows, length of stay, and so on. As Silvia Pedraza (letter to the author, October 21, 1998) has argued, Cuban émigrés have not created a truly transnational community in the United States because contact with Cuba is much more limited and irregular than with Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Since 1959, U.S. and Cuban policies toward migration—as well as the politics of exile—have severely curtailed the flow of people, goods, and ideas between Cuba and the United States. To invert the title of a chapter by Basch et al. (1994), similar settings may produce different outcomes for transnationalism.
Another problem with the transnational approach is that it tends to be ahistorical. Many writers imply that contemporary transnational migration represents a radical rupture with previous population movements. A growing body of scholarship shows that past migrants built and maintained transnational connections over long periods of time, including returning and sending remittances to their homelands en masse (see Foner 2001; Pedraza and Rumbaut 1996; Portes and Rumbaut 1996). Thus, a longitudinal perspective that highlights both temporal changes and continuities should temper analyses of current transnational flows. It would be revealing to compare current transnational practices among Dominicans with those of Polish, Italian, or Irish immigrants in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although not entirely new, transnational migration has assumed a greater scale, intensity, diffusion, and speed at the turn of the twenty-first century, partly as a result of new transportation and communications technologies. Again, this trend is strongly correlated with the growth of the global economy.
Finally, the counter-hegemonic potential of transnational migrants should not be overstated. Although the large-scale mobility of the population may herald the breakdown of national identities "from the bottom up," crossing a border does not erase it. On the contrary, state policies in the advanced industrial world (such as the United States, France, Germany, and Japan) are increasingly hostile to migrant workers. While migrant-sending governments may be formulating more transnational policies, most laws and regulations in the major receiving countries remain driven by domestic agendas that seek to reassert, control, and protect the borders of individual nation-states (Sassen 1998). Although migrants often transgress such borders, they continue to structure much of their daily lives. Furthermore, rather than represent a subversive form of popular resistance to existing structures of domination (whether between states, classes, ethnic groups, or genders), transnationalism may in the long run reinforce social inequality on a global scale (Guarnizo and Smith 1998). Power asymmetries are often relocated and reproduced in the diaspora.
With these caveats in mind, I will apply the transnational approach to contemporary migration from the Dominican Republic to the United States. To begin, the residential locations of the Dominican population are increasingly transnational. That is to say, an ever-growing proportion of Dominicans is living outside their homeland, while retaining strong ties to it. Second, the migrants have thoroughly transformed local spaces in cities like New York and San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they have relocated in large numbers. To what extent this is a new phenomenon or simply a reproduction of previous "ethnic neighborhoods" remains an open empirical question. Third, the diaspora is playing a prominent role in the economic, political, and cultural affairs of the Dominican Republic. Never before have overseas Dominicans been so well poised to influence—and thereby transform—their nation of origin. Last, Dominican migrants are contributing to redefine ethnic and racial identities in both sending and receiving societies. The emergence of a "Latino" or "Hispanic" pan-ethnicity in the United States is due in no small measure to the growing presence of Dominicans and other Latin American and Caribbean immigrants who avoid classifying themselves along a bipolar racial model, often choosing the label "other." The ideological impact of this "othering" process should be carefully examined in the Dominican Republic as well as in the United States.
The Rise of Transnational Communities
Since the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Dominicans have moved abroad. In 1997, nearly one out of ten persons of Dominican origin was living in the U.S. mainland. Of these, 24 percent were born in the United States, a figure that speaks of a growing second generation of Dominican immigrants (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). In addition, substantial Dominican communities have emerged in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, CuraÃ§ao, Spain, and the U.S. Virgin Islands over the past few decades (Duany et al. 1995; SÃ¸rensen 1996). Thus, the Dominican population has become increasingly deterritorialized, with regard to nativity and residence. The massive displacement of Dominicans to the United States and elsewhere is popularly known in the Dominican Republic as irse a los países (literally, "moving to the countries"). As I will argue later, the plural and generic way that Dominicans refer to their current migration patterns suggests the development of a translocal, diasporic, or transnational identity.
A second feature of the Dominican diaspora is its extraordinary growth. The number of Dominican migrants was so small until the mid-1960s that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) did not collect separate data for them before 1930. In 1950, the Census Bureau found only 4,200 persons of Dominican birth in the United States (Graham 1998:45). Large-scale population movements from the Dominican Republic began with the end of Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship in 1961 and especially after the civil war and U.S. military occupation in 1965. In turn, changes in the U.S. economy and immigration policy fostered the Dominican exodus, such as increasing demand for cheap labor in northeastern cities as well as the abolition of immigration quotas by national origin in 1965. As a result, Dominican migration to the United States jumped from 9,897 persons in the 1950s to 93,292 in the 1960s. The outflow continued to increase in the 1970s, when 148,135 Dominicans were legally admitted to the United States. During the 1980s, the INS counted 252,035 Dominican immigrants, a figure quickly surpassed by the 300,065 persons admitted between 1991 and 1998 (U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service 1999).
Compared to other Latino groups such as Mexicans or Puerto Ricans, Dominican population movements are relatively new. More than 98 percent of the 810,201 Dominicans legally admitted to the United States between 1931 and 1998 arrived after 1961. The statistics suggest a sudden and steadily increasing tide of immigrants from the Dominican Republic in the past four decades. By the 1980s, Dominicans had become one of the fastest growing segments of the foreign-born population in the United States. In the 1990s, the Dominican exodus continued unabated and diversified its regional destinations to new places in Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean, as well as North America. Sizeable Dominican communities now exist in Italy, Switzerland, Canada, Panama, Aruba, Martinique, and St. Thomas. Again, the folk term los países seems particularly apt to capture the wide dispersal of the Dominican diaspora.
A third significant pattern is the geographic concentration of Dominicans within the United States. In 2000, more than 59 percent of the immigrants (or 455,061persons) lived in the state of New York. Dominicans had secondary concentrations in New Jersey (102,630 persons), which can be considered a byproduct of Dominican migration to New York; and in Puerto Rico (56,146), which has served as a springboard for many Dominicans moving to New York (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2001). Smaller Dominican communities have mushroomed in Florida, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. The extreme clustering of Dominicans in New York means that, for many of them, moving abroad (to los países) is practically synonymous with relocating in that state. Hence, a recent popular movie and its sequel, focusing on Dominican migration to the United States, were simply titled Nueba Yol (New York).
Within their primary places of destination, Dominican migrants have carved out distinctive niches, especially in New York, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico. In 2000, the top metropolitan areas of settlement for Dominicans were New York City (406,806), San Juan (44,444), Miami-Ft. Lauderdale (36,454), Bergen-Passaic (36,360), and Boston (25,057) (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2001). Some of these cities—especially New York and San Juan—have more people of Dominican origin than many places in the Dominican Republic. For some time now, New York City has had more Dominican residents than Santiago de los Caballeros, the second largest city of the Dominican Republic. As one informant told Ninna Nyberg SÃ¸rensen (1996), "New York is just another Dominican capital."
What do these demographic, historical, and geographic patterns mean for Dominican transnationalism? Above all, they document the magnitude of physical and cultural displacement among Dominicans. The vast number of Dominicans living overseas points to the need to rethink the island's traditional geopolitical boundaries. For many Dominicans, New York City (and to a lesser extent San Juan) is a symbolic extension of their homeland. Furthermore, an increasing number of Dominicans in the United States are second-generation immigrants. The cultural implications of this shift from the first to the second generation need to be better documented. Lastly, most Dominicans and their descendants have relocated in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and Florida, and in certain urban centers, such as Manhattan; Santurce, Puerto Rico; Dade County, Florida; and Providence, Rhode Island. Their impact has been felt most profoundly in inner-city neighborhoods such as Washington Heights and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, or Barrio Gandul and Barrio Capetillo in San Juan, where immigrants have thoroughly reshaped the physical and cultural landscape. Such places display the local effects of increasing globalization.
Transnational Spatial and Cultural Practices
Dominican communities in the diaspora remain connected to the homeland through specific spatial practices, such as renaming streets and schools, establishing businesses with the same names as in the home country, redecorating inner and outer spaces, establishing hometown associations, and organizing parades and festivals based on Dominican folk traditions. In Washington Heights, the immigrants have rechristened several schools with Dominican names like Salomé Henríquez UreÃ±a and Juan Pablo Duarte. In Santurce, Puerto Rico, they have established a chain of popular cafeterias with names like El Mangú (a typical Dominican staple made with boiled plantain and pork) and El Padrino (the godfather). In Madrid, the Plaza of Aravaca is commonly associated with the name of Lucrecia Pérez, the Dominican domestic who was murdered there in 1992. Initially deterritorialized identities have taken hold across national boundaries through such settlement patterns. Transnational connections are especially evident in the Dominican neighborhoods and homes of Washington Heights, the main focus of this section.
In New York City, Dominican residents tend be segregated from non-Hispanic whites, blacks, and other Latinos such as Puerto Ricans and Colombians. Even where they share the same neighborhoods with other ethnic and racial groups—such as African Americans or Ecuadorians—, Dominicans tend to remain socially encapsulated in their own communities. In Washington Heights, 79 percent of the residents of one block I studied intensively were Dominican (Duany 1994a). Although residential segregation has many pernicious effects, it allows for the consolidation of compact barrios and the transformation of the urban landscape along transnational lines. It also makes possible some degree of political representation through concentration in certain electoral districts (Graham 1998).
In 2000, 53.2 percent of all Dominicans in the United States lived in New York City. Washington Heights houses the largest concentration of Dominicans outside of the Dominican Republic—about a third of the city's Dominicans. Grocery stores (bodegas), restaurants, bakeries, travel agencies, gypsy cabs, remittance agencies, and retail stores, along with dozens of voluntary associations, create the unmistakable Dominican atmosphere of "Quisqueya Heights," as many Dominican residents now call their neighborhood (SÃ¸rensen 1994; Weyland 1998). A recent community festival has been dubbed "Quisqueya on the Hudson," the title of my own monograph on Dominican migration to the United States (Duany 1994a). New York City, especially Washington Heights, is so closely associated with the Dominican diaspora that scholars tend to focus on this urban area as a microcosm of the immigrants' experience (see Pessar 1995; Ricourt 1998; Torres-Saillant and Hernández 1998). It is here that the transnational identity of Dominicans abroad has taken shape most completely.
I spent part of the summer of 1993 studying the Dominican community of Washington Heights (Duany 1994a). In a typical block, itinerant traders sold oranges, corn, flowers, music cassettes, and ice cones (frío-fríos). On a hot summer day, dozens of small carts selling frío-fríos were stationed in main traffic intersections. Children opened fire hydrants and played with water in the streets. Men usually spoke Spanish, listened to merengue music, complimented young women walking by, played dominoes, drank Presidente beer, and read Dominican newspapers like El Nacional, El Siglo, and Listín Diario. Women pushed their baby strollers, shopped in neighborhood bodegas, and chatted with friends in front of their buildings. Teenagers walked to the nearby George Washington public school, swam in neighborhood pools, or listened to rap and house music in enormous cassette players. Some passers-by seemed to be Mexican or Central American because of their accent, indigenous features, and small stature. But the vast majority of the area's residents were Dominican immigrants.
In the mornings, many people took the subway to work in downtown Manhattan and returned home in the afternoons. Others took the bus to work in the factories of New Jersey, across the Hudson River. Near the subway station, several businesses specialized in sending remittances to the Dominican Republic, such as Banco Dominicano. Gypsy cabs from the Dominican-owned Riverside Company, usually large dark American cars, constantly crossed the streets searching for potential customers. A newspaper stand in the corner of 181st Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue offered ten Dominican newspapers, which arrived daily from the island.
Many cafeterias and restaurants sold typical Dominican food. Comida criolla included main entrées such as mangú, carne guisada, sancocho, moros, tostones, mondongo, locrio cocido, and cabeza de cerdo; drinks such as jugo de caÃ±a, morir soÃ±ando, and batida de fruta; and various delicacies such as empanada de yuca, pastelillos de guayaba, yaniqueque, habichuelas con dulce, dulce de coco, and pan dulce relleno. Local grocery stores imported all kinds of tropical fruits and vegetables, ranging from plantains to mamey. A beauty parlor sold a large variety of "Dominican products," such as Lafier and Capilo. Small businesses specializing in telephone calls to the Dominican Republic have proliferated. Many store-owners displayed their national origin by playing loud music in front of their stores, usually merengue and salsa, and occasionally bachata and bolero. Some businesses were local subsidiaries of enterprises established in the Dominican Republic, such as Nitín Bakery. Others sold Dominican drinks such as Cola Quisqueya, Refrescos Nacionales, and Presidente beer.
Commercial signs confirmed the strong presence of immigrants from the Cibao region, such as Acogedor Cibao Supermarket, Cibao Vision Center, Cibao Meat Products, and Hielo Cibao. A Dominican immigrant who longed to have his own "small Cibao" in New York planted corn and black beans in the corner of Broadway and 153rd Street. During my fieldwork, a young man paraded down the sidewalk with two fighting roosters, a common sight in the Dominican countryside. Dozens of hometown associations carried the names of Cibao places such as Baní, Moca, and Tamboril. Some Dominicans even referred to Washington Heights as "El Cibao".
Most immigrants maintained their cultural traditions at home. Some tenants placed Spanish signs on their apartment doors, as if to announce their national origin, especially religious messages such as "Jesus is our only hope," "Christ will change your life," and "Let's build peace with Christ." Within their households, many Dominicans hung religious images on the walls, such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Last Supper.
Some families had Spanish-language calendars with an image of the Virgin Mary, acquired in a local bodega. Others placed a flag or emblem of the Dominican Republic in a visible corner of the living room. Many displayed the faceless ceramic dolls that have become typical of the Dominican Republic, as well as colorful painted plates with their country's folk themes, usually a rural landscape, a peasant scene, the Santo Domingo Cathedral, or a tropical beach. Such objects recreated the visual iconography of the Dominican Republic in Washington Heights.
Many Dominican households and businesses had small niches with images of the Catholic saints and the Virgin Mary in a corner of the main room or private area. These humble shrines were usually surrounded with flowers, candles, food, and glasses of water, wine, and other drinks. Although the most popular figures were the Virgin of Altagracia, the patron of the Dominican Republic, and Saint Lazarus, the altars represented a wide variety of religious images: Saint Claire, Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Barbara, the Holy Child of Atocha, the Sacred Heart, the Sacred Family, the Virgin of Fatima, and the Virgin of Mercedes, among others. Like other devout Catholics, many Dominicans believe that the saints protect them from evil and help them to progress economically. A woman who carried a medallion of the Virgin of Altagracia told me, "when you're away from your country, you need protection. And your country too." In sum, the traditional Dominican devotion to the saints and the Virgin has been transplanted to Washington Heights, in a new