Winter 2001

Serving a Burgeoning Local Community: CUNY's Dominican Studies Institute


he Dominican Studies Institute came into being less than ten years ago, a difficult time for the City University. Budget-crunching was in the air, and tuition hikes, hiring freezes, downsizing, and restructuring had become the order of the day. Such was the institutional climate when the University's Dominicans made a reasonable request. They urged CUNY to create a research unit devoted to the mission of gathering, producing, and disseminating data on the experience of their people in the United States and elsewhere. Dominicans, after all, represented one of the city's largest ethnic communities.
Education Forum

Chairman of the Board of Trustees Herman Badillo interviewing Silvio Torres-Saillant on CUNY-TV.

The first crucial meeting took place at 80th Street in the fall of 1990, Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds having succeeded Joseph Murphy. Donald Smith of Baruch College, head of CUNY's African-American Network, and Lehman College's Edgar Rodriguez, chair of the Puerto Rican Council on Higher Education, came with faculty members Ramona Hernandez of LaGuardia Community College and this writer, from Hostos Community College, both as officers of the Council of Dominican Educators. On the table was a jointly authored position paper addressing the educational needs of our respective communities.

The concept paper's call for a Dominican research initiative particularly attracted the Chancellor because it described the most alarming situation. Only two Dominicans then held permanent positions on the University faculty, in contrast to the already sizable presence of Dominicans in CUNY classrooms. Experience of their culture was served only by the occasional "Dominican heritage" course taught by an adjunct. Dominicans did not even appear in the ethnic reference sources in CUNY libraries. Dominican Republic When we met with the Chancellor, the election of the first Dominican to the City Council (Guillermo Linares) and of another to the State Assembly (Adriano Espaillat) had not yet taken place. But the figures we presented commanded attention. The increase of the city's-and the University's-Dominican population was already a clear trend. According to fall 1998 data, Hispanics made up 22% of the total enrollment in the senior colleges and 32% in the community colleges, with Dominicans constituting the largest share of that growth. Dominicans outnumbered all segments of the Latino, Latin American, and Caribbean student population at BCC, BMCC, City, LaGuardia, Lehman, and Hostos Colleges, while occupying second or third place on six other campuses.

This has to do with the larger demographic picture. The 1990 census registered 511, 297 Dominicans living as permanent residents in the U. S., with more than 65% of them living in the state of New York. By 1997, the Dominican population nationwide had reached 832,000, of whom 495,000 resided in New York City, making them the city's second largest Hispanic subgroup, after Puerto Ricans, and the fastest-growing ethnic minority.
Favorable reaction to our concept was followed up by vigorous advocacy by CUNY's small Dominican cohort and the invaluable support of high-ranking CUNY Latinos, notably Frank Bonilla, who then headed the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at Hunter College, and CUNY trustee Gladys Carrion. Ana Garcia Reyes (then at City College and now at Hostos Community College) and Ramona Hernández (then at LaGuardia Community College) approached Hostos President Isaura Santiago Santiago and convinced her to release me with pay to relocate to City College for two years to develop this research initiative.

Documents of Dissidence That investment, plus two small, windowless rooms at City College, and an allocation from the Chancellor, allowed us to begin. Two years after our 80th Street meeting, in 1992, the Dominican Studies Institute (DSI) was a reality. In February 1994, the Board of Trustees formally approved it as a research unit. In the years since Board approval, DSI has averaged eight well-attended conferences, symposia, and panels per year on social science and humanities topics.

Among distinguished participants in its functions have been Haiti's president Jean Bertrand Aristide, former Dominican president Juan Bosch, the prominent Caribbean poet and historian Kamau Bruthwaite, the best selling Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, award-winning Dominican-American writers Julia Alvarez, Junot Diaz and Rhina Espaillat, as well as many prominent intellectuals from the Dominican Republic and top U.S. experts on Dominican topics. The Institute has earned induction into the Inter-University Program for Latino Research (IUPLR), a nation-wide consortium of 13 major university-based Latino research enterprises, headquartered at the University of Notre Dame. Serving as a residency site for the Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellowships program, DSI hosted ten resident scholars between 1996 and 1999.

Most notable among publications sponsored by DSI is The Dominican Republic: A National History by the leading Dominican historian, Frank Moya Pons (1995). It is the first major Dominican history in English to appear since Sumner Welles's Naboth's Vineyard of 1928. Sarah Aponte's Dominican Migration to the United States, 1970- 1997: An Annotated Bibliography appeared last year; she is DSI's librarian and administrative coordinator. This year, as part of its Foundational Documents Series, the Institute published Daisy Cocco De Filippis' Documents of Dissidence: Selected Writings by Dominican Women, an English-language compilation of non-fiction prose by Dominican women from 1849 through the 1990s. De Filippis, the holder of three CUNY degrees, has taught at York College since 1978.

The Institute also supports trade and university presses interested in issuing Dominican titles, among them Countersong to Walt Whitman and Other Poems (Azul Editions, 1993), a bilingual anthology of Pedro Mir, the late Dominican poet laureate, and The Dominican Americans (Greenwood, 1998), a volume co-authored by long-time Institute associate Ramona Hernández and this writer. DSI boasts the only university-based Dominican Studies library in the U. S. Its resources have aided the research of such scholars as Yale's Patricia Pessar (Visa for a Dream), Vanderbilt University's William Luis (Dance Between Two Cultures), NYU's Barbara Fischkin (Muddy Cup), and Washington Post reporter Roberto Suro (Strangers Among Us).

With its modest yearly allocation not rising significantly, bringing the Dominican Studies Institute to its present level of activity has required ingenuity. High hopes are present, however, as a search commenced this fall for the position of a director the Institute can call its own. Last November the Institute received word from the Rockefeller Foundation of a $76,000 grant to support a two-part transnational conference to be held in New York and Santo Domingo this June. Titled "Up from the Margins: Diversity as Challenge to the Democratic Nation," the conference will convene Chicano, Puerto Rican, African-American, Cuban, and Dominican scholars, artists, and activists to explore the interplay of diversity and democracy. The conference will complement the Dominican Institute's primary goal, which I expressed to Chairman of the Board of Trustees Herman Badillo when I appeared as a guest on his CUNY TV program, Education Forum, in November. This is to help New York learn about itself. For there is no stopping the continued growth of Dominicans as an ever larger component of the city's population.