Building Community, Imagining the Future: A Brief History of the Dominican day Parade

by Silvio Torres-Saillant and Ramona Hernández

The process of building a Dominican community has required the creation of new institutions and events that are visible in the public sphere along with a growing involvement in city politics.

The Dominican population’s sense of collective selfhood as a settled community with an imaginable future has manifested itself in the type of legacies it has seen fit to recognize. Witness the dedication ceremony that took place in the early afternoon of Saturday, August 6, 2011, on the corner of Audubon Avenue and 190th Street in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Under a severe summer sun, without great fanfare, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a Jewish New Yorker, and city council member Robert Jackson, a longtime African American resident of Washington Heights, had come to join their Dominican American colleagues in the public naming of Miguel Amaro Way, thus honoring a community activist who was instrumental in the creation of the annual Dominican Day Parade. The Dominican American lawmakers hosting their colleagues in public office were State Senator Adriano Espaillat, Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, and city council member Ydanis Rodriguez, together with old-time district leaders Maria Luna and Maria Morillo.

The elected officials, community activists, neighbors, friends, and members of the Amaro family came to memorialize the legacy of a man who had imagined a future for Dominicans in the city. Judith Amaro, head of the Miguel Amaro Foundation, with the support of her brother Mao, worked closely with the office of council member Ydanis Rodriguez, with the support of the other Dominican American legislators, to secure a place for her father in the community’s public memory via the street-naming. People congregated on the sidewalk immediately outside the building where Miguel Amaro lived with his family in 1982. In that year he convened a group of his peers in his fifth-floor apartment to discuss the idea of creating an organization that would put together an annual Dominican parade to match the existing ethnic parades in the city at the time. He thought that such a parade would provide New York Dominicans, immigrant as well as U.S.-born, with an empowering resource by enhancing their visibility as a social force in the city while also stimulating a sense of their own collective identity. Having come to New York from Santiago, Dominican Republic, in the 1960s, Amaro harbored a deep faith in community advancement and ethnic advocacy, trusting that symbolic politics could have material consequences. A graduate of Lehman College, Amaro dedicated his life almost entirely to community activism. When he died in 1987, the Dominican Day Parade had become a force to contend with, a symbol to New York’s political establishment about the resolve of Dominicans to enter the conversation about the distribution of power among the various ethnic segments of the city’s population.

On the second Sunday of August 1982, the first Dominican Day Parade marched up Audubon Avenue for some twenty blocks with appropriate pomp and circumstance, culminating in a cultural festival that featured music, dance, poetry readings, speeches, and other performances on a stage located against the back wall of the George Washington High School building on Amsterdam Avenue between 190th and 191st Streets (Aparicio 2006:73-74). Silvio Torres-Saillant, one of the original committee members, recalls the insistence of the organizers on leaving a positive impression, understanding that the image of the community was at stake. This concern came in part from the difficulty the committee members had encountered while seeking the permit that would legally allow the parade and festival to take place. They had had to appear many times before Community Planning Board No. 12 to address several board members’ fears about the possibility of vandalism, rioting, or a buildup of garbage on the streets. The collective desire to safeguard the community’s image became apparent at the end of the festivities, when many participants spontaneously joined the organizers as they proceeded to clean the area and dispose of the trash, leaving the streets, sidewalks, and park discernibly cleaner than the marchers had found them when the parade began.

Much has happened since Dominicans in New York decided to appear in public view by themselves rather that as one of the multiple Latin American segments of the annual all-Hispanic Desfile de la Hispanidad in October (Hispanic Celebration Parade). Wishing to display their ethnic identity more widely, they soon secured a permit to march in Midtown Manhattan. For nearly three decades now, tens of thousands of Dominican New Yorkers have congregated there every August to flaunt their ethnicity, their culture, and their resolve to affirm their belonging in the city. Since the members of the original committee withdrew from the project a few years after its founding, the Dominican Day Parade has seen ups and downs, with periodic crises over control of the organization’s leadership, vision, and resources. But despite internal conflicts, the Dominican Day Parade continues to stand as an institution that Dominicans in the city and beyond regard as symbolic of their presence in the United States and as a venue to showcase their accomplishments and potential for further gains. Today, New York politicians of all stripes, ethnically and ideologically speaking, judge it wise to show up at the parade and enjoy a photo opportunity fraternizing with Dominicans. That other Dominican parades have subsequently sprouted in several parts of New York State and elsewhere in the country where Dominicans live in meaningful numbers attests to the success of Amaro’s initiative. Looked at in retrospect, this initiative epitomizes the story of Dominicans in New York, with its trials and tribulations, hopes and disappointments, failures and triumphs. One could argue that when Amaro appealed to his co-ethnics in 1982, he was tapping into a yearning that many Dominicans harbored for making their presence felt in the city going back several decades.

Dominicans have also asserted their presence and exerted their influence in New York City politics. By 2011, the New York City Council had four Dominican members (Julissa Ferreras, Diana Reyna, Ydanis Rodriguez, and Fernando Cabrera) as well as a state assemblyman (Guillermo Linares) and a state senator (Adriano Espaillat) from New York City.

Dominicans have a long history of community organizing in New York, going back to the 1960s when education and cultural activists in Washington Heights advocated for an instructional agenda sensitive to the needs of Dominican students (Hoffnung-Garskof 2008). By the early 1970s activists Socorro Rivera and Victor Espinosa formed part of the leadership that, through Community School Board No. Six, promoted a vision of inclusion and empowerment for their co-ethnics in Washington Heights (Hoffnung-Garskof 2008: 109). To a large extent, the longevity of Dominican organizing in New York may account for the success of community efforts, enabling Gregorio Luperón High School in Washington Heights to survive “various policy reforms” that ran counter to the school’s mission to educate mostly newcomer Dominican youths in New York (Barlett and Garcia 2011).

Whether organizing to improve the schools their children attend, to elect political candidates to represent them, or to create a parade that celebrates their presence in New York, Dominicans have long struggled to build a community and to secure a place of belonging in the city as an ethnically distinct group.

Excerpts taken from: Torres-Saillant, Silvio, and Ramona Hernández. (2013). Dominicans: Community, culture, and collective identity. In Nancy Foner (Ed.) One out of Three: Immigrant New York in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Columbia University Press.

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