Gaining Political Power and Losing Bodegas: A Dominican-American Paradox
Written by: Joshua Abreu
Simply put, immigrants (and Black slaves) drove this country into global dominance. The ongoing arrival of migrants (documented or not) is directly connected to the U.S.’s ability to economically and politically sustain itself one generation after the next. The assimilation process plays a crucial role on how a particular group will integrate and participate in their new home country. Historically, immigrants have depended on civic engagement and political reform to ensure their voices are heard and human rights protected. Today, Dominican-Americans are the fastest growing immigrant population, and like past immigrants, are facing similar threats. Gentrification, and the displacement it often includes, is pushing through Harlem and into Washington Heights. Like other gentrified places, it has started with the businesses. In this case, we’re losing the bodegas. According to the New York Times, “Despite their profitability, [bodegas] are being squeezed out of the neighborhoods they call home. Once lonely grocery outposts in a dangerous city, their colorful awnings part of the streetscape, they are now losing customers to chain stores.” However, Dominican-American voters continue to register in high numbers in NYC and throughout the Northeast, creating a paradox of political influence and economic instability.
Bodegas are more than a store where you purchase the bare essentials; they are community spaces where our public lives play out. They allow us to make the connections necessary to network our way up the socio-economic ladder or simply get our dosage of the neighborhood bochinche. More importantly, these businesses provide bodegueros a reliable source of income to raise their families and support the assimilation process which all immigrants go through. Not necessarily a process that strips us from our cultural identity, but adds to the social capital needed to navigate the complex and individualistic US system – a system which too often marginalizes immigrants, especially those of African descent. This heart-wrenching, scary, and at times, exciting assimilation is alleviated with parents’ self-employment, and the dedication to provide enough.
First-generation migrants often depend on self-employment due to multiple factors: being a non-English speaker, inadequate formal education, and the business-oriented culture of their home country (Fray, 2014). Dominicans have responded similarly. There are nearly 13,000 (some estimate more) Hispanic bodegas in the city, almost all of them owned by Dominicans, according to the Washington Heights-based Bodega Association of the United States (Kates, 2006). There is no doubt the bodegas serve as financial anchors that help with the integration and stabilization of Dominican migrants, an exodus which began in the 1960s as a result of the political unrest of Trujillo’s assassination and U.S. occupation. We have transitioned seamlessly considering the global circumstances, but now that we are here, we need to make sure our hard work, our voice and our interests are not disenfranchised.
The threat is gentrification. Gentrification, a well-known socio-political practice in Brooklyn, has crept up from upper-Harlem and into lower ends of Washington Heights. To gentrify is to bring in the middle-class and all their amenities into “new” neighborhoods. Many of these ‘hoods have been plagued with lazy politicians, corrupt police, and incompetent school administrators, but now, it appears they are ready for a makeover. A makeover that involves encroachment and displacement without considering the voice or the impact on the current residents. For Bodegueros, the dismantling has begun. According to The New York Times, the decline of bodegas is partially contributed to new chain stores that have sprung up throughout the city- business deals which were most likely encouraged by city/state politicians. The article also mentioned how landlords have raised rent substantially and are not offering long-term leases. Undoubtedly, this serves as a recipe to destroy any existing neighborhood, rebuild it and then call it progress. And, if we are no longer our neighborhood’s business owners, then prepare to be left out of the story, again. In a capitalist system, money runs amok. We should ask ourselves, as Dominican-Americans, how will this displacement effect our businesses aka OUR money aka OUR financial stability.
So what can be done? We need to use our political influence, and according to multiple sources, Dominican-Americans are about to play a decisive role in upcoming elections throughout the Northeast (Pantoja, 2015). In the past few elections, New York mayoral and governor candidates have made it habit to take long, photographed walks in the Heights. Additionally, Dominican-American politicians have won mayoral races in Providence and Lawrence, MA (two in Lawrence). To expand civic engagement exponentially, we need to mobilize according to our needs. In one of the most significant studies on Dominican-American civic influence, they found that jobs and schooling are priorities; that Dominicans’ strong transnationalism ties encourage political engagement in the US; and that Dominican-Americans are registering to vote at a fast rate. More crucial, the study illustrated the need for “Dominican-focused advocacy” in order to encourage mobilization and proactive participation. (Pantoja, 2015). Over 90% of the 800 surveyed agreed promoting our issues and voice will significantly influence our political involvement (Pantoja, 2015).
“At over 1.5 million, Dominicans are the fifth-largest ancestry group within the Latino population. Yet in the state of New York, Dominicans constitute the largest segment of the Latino population and are numerous in other states in the Northeast. This means that Dominicans are poised to be significant political players within and outside the Latino community. The degree to which this becomes a political reality will largely depend on the degree to which Dominican candidates and Dominican civic organizations take the lead in mobilizing this important segment of the Latino electorate in the Northeast” (Pantoja, 2015).
With gentrification creeping up Washington Heights, this seems to be the ideal time and place to start some important dialogue. With over 400,000 registered Dominican-American voters, we have a powerful voice and we need to use it to determine our own story, support economic comfort and mobility, and ensure our cousins are not too far behind if not right next to us. Some organizations understand the magnitude and implication of this political movement and have capitalized on the momentum. DominicanUSA, an organization designed by the business sector, notably by the sugar tycoons Vicini Family, has funneled millions of dollars in registering voters throughout the Northeast (Vega, 2014; DominicanUSA, 2015). A report published this summer, June 2015, shows the efforts have successfully registered 75,000 additional voters (DominicanUSA, 2015). While DominicanUSA’s efforts are tangible and often lead to practical changes in the political landscape, we, the regular people, need to ensure that their socio-political concerns align with the voters they are registering. If not, then we will be subjected to similar marginalization regardless of politicians’ ethnicity or race. The goal is for the community to be present at the table and at the booths. The goal is to involve ourselves in true democracy, so the destabilization of Dominican businesses and neighborhoods should concern us into action. We have witnessed the displacement of millions throughout US cities (D.C., New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco, etc.). If we do not “flex our political muscles,” then expect our collective culture and inner networks to be destroyed. The same networks that helped my parents (and yours) establish a solid foundation for Dominican-American babies.
Fray, I. (Winter 2013-14). “Creating Venture Success through Entrepreneurship: The case of Latin American immigrant business owners in New York City.” Review of Business, Vol. 34(1). 58-66.
Kates, B. (Nov. 14, 2006). “Latinos on the Rise in the City: Dominican Dominance at Bustlin’ Bodegas.” The NY Daily News. Retrieved from <http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/latinos-rise-city-dominican-dominance-bustlin-bodegas-article-1.577101>
Pontoja, A.D. & Matos, M. (July 7, 2015). “The Growing Political Power of Dominican Americans in the Northeast.” Latino Decisions and The Huffington Post. Retrieved from <http://www.latinodecisions.com/blog/2015/07/06/dominican-americans-in-northeast-growing-political-power/>
Sschlossberg, T. (Aug. 3, 2015). “Bodegas Declining in Manhattan as Rents Rise and Chains Grow.” The New York Times. Retrieved from <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/04/nyregion/bodegas-declining-in-manhattan-as-rents-rise-and-chains-grow.html>
Tamacas, C.M. (July 31, 2015). “The Legacy of the Dominican Bodega.” Voices of NY. Retrieved from <http://www.voicesofny.org/2015/07/the-legacy-of-the-dominican-bodega/>
Vega, T. (May 22, 2014). “Dominicans Begin to Flex Political Muscles.” The New York Times. Retrieved from <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/23/us/a-growing-dominican-population-begins-to-flex-its-political-muscle.html?_r=1>