The Washington Post
May 14, 1999
Dominicans Face Assimilation in Black and White

                  By Gabriel Escobar
                  Washington Post Staff Writer
                  Friday, May 14, 1999; Page A03

                  NEW YORK—He passes for an African American teenager, easily. The
                  talk, the poise, the posture, even the cornrows. He is dressed in the
                  trademark style of the urban teen: Baggy jeans, Timberland boots, Versace
                  sunglasses, baseball cap. At 17, Jose Mendoza is visibly and inescapably
                  black. He brings up Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, race and its
                  tribulations. "Why do white people gotta hate black people?" he asked.
                  "Know what I'm sayin?' "

                  He once played a joke at George Washington High School, home to upper
                  Manhattan's immigrants since the early 1920s. Fluent in English and fluent
                  in "street," Mendoza fooled everyone by pretending he was a bona fide
                  American black. But this American-born, Spanish-speaking Dominican
                  was simply too good. Some Dominicans, not keen on African Americans,
                  thought he was too African, too American, too black.

                  One day he surprised two Dominican girls derisively talking about him in
                  Spanish. "Que fue lo que tu dijiste?" he asked. "What did you say?" His
                  Spanish made him suddenly Dominican. From then on, he said recently,
                  "they treated me with respect."

                  This is Mendoza's world, the complex and conflicted world of black
                  Latinos. He is at once very black but not quite black enough for many
                  African Americans, very Latino but not light enough to matter to most
                  Hispanics, American in every way but at the same time inexorably foreign.
                  "From the inside we're Dominicans. From the outside, we're black," is how
                  he described it.

                  Dominicans account for eight in every 10 students at George Washington,
                  reflecting the enormous migration of islanders to New York City.
                  Dominicans have been the largest immigrant group in the city every decade
                  since 1970, and this historic influx has altered the face of the immigrant
                  population here and introduced an entirely new culture. To assimilate, or
                  even to fit in, the black Latinos must adapt not only to white America and
                  black America but to Latino America.

                  Their strong ties to the island make them citizens of both countries and, it
                  seems, citizens of neither. "They are here and there and in between. Yet
                  they are perceived as foreigners in both locations," noted Luis E. Guarnizo,
                  a sociologist at the University of California at Davis and an authority on the
                  Dominican migration.

                  Nowhere is the assimilation of black Latinos more evident than in New
                  York, where Dominicans have flocked in such great numbers. Throughout
                  the early 1990s, the Dominican Republic accounted for one in five
                  immigrants to the city, an average of 22,000 annually, according to the
                  most current figures. By next year, the Dominican population in New York
                  City may reach 700,000, the equivalent of many middle-sized cities.

                  Between 1990 and 1994, an astonishing 35,657 Dominicans settled in
                  Washington Heights, Inwood and Hamilton Heights, contiguous
                  neighborhoods in upper Manhattan that have been dramatically altered by
                  the legal migration from the Caribbean. Dominicans, skillful at grass-roots
                  organization, already are a force on the New York school board and have
                  elected two judges, a city councilman and a state assemblyman. Politically
                  they have fit in better and faster than most immigrant groups. New York
                  City Council member Guillermo Linares, the country's first elected official
                  born in the Dominican Republic, said Dominicans like to refer to
                  themselves as "300 percenters--100 percent Dominican Republic, 100
                  percent Dominican American and 100 percent American."

                  But on the street and in school, what is skin deep is often what matters.
                  While those with Mendoza's skin color will be automatically identified as
                  black, many lighter-skinned Dominicans are not so easily pegged. In his
                  writings, the Dominican writer Junot Diaz uses the term "halfie" to describe
                  this significant group. One consequence is that many in the community
                  define themselves less by color than by cultural identity. "Where you
                  gravitate to speaks so loudly," Linares said, reflecting the unusual position
                  many Dominicans are in because so many can literally choose their race.

                  Of course, black Dominicans like Mendoza don't have that choice. And
                  while his comfortable identification with African Americans shows he has
                  answered a central question faced by Dominicans--black like
                  who?--hundreds of thousands must still reconcile their very nuanced views
                  on race with the stark black-white reality of their adopted country.

                  Finding a place for themselves, much less assimilating, has not been easy.
                  Afro-Latinos are largely ignored by leaders of African American national
                  groups. "We have to go there and give them evidence that we are black,
                  which doesn't mean they will believe us," Silvio Torres-Saillant, the director
                  of the Dominican Studies Center at the City College of New York, said of
                  African American civil rights groups.

                  Diaz, whose short fiction has been lauded for capturing the varied
                  landscape of the Dominican diaspora, said America's dialogue between
                  blacks and whites is so narrow that it leaves out this large and new
                  migration. African Americans "are allowed to be black because they don't
                  speak Spanish," he said, "but I'm not allowed to be black because I speak

                  Afro-Latinos are ignored even by some fellow Latinos. And when they're
                  not, they are often depicted in ways no longer tolerated by African
                  Americans. While national Hispanic groups bitterly complain about how
                  they are portrayed in the English-speaking media, a small group of
                  Afro-Latinos has fought, largely in vain, to remove stereotyping in the
                  Spanish-language media. Roland Roebuck, an Afro-Latino from Puerto
                  Rico, last year wrote a bitter letter about the portrayal of black Latinos to
                  Henry Cisneros, a former Clinton administration Cabinet member and now
                  president of the powerful Univision network.

                  "Imagine for a moment, Mr. Cisneros, how an Afro-Latino family viewing
                  your station feels when our people are portrayed in your news, novelas
                  and programs as criminal, savage, lazy, slick, sex-driven, violent,
                  superstitious, uneducated, undependable and untrustworthy," wrote
                  Roebuck, who works for the District government.

                  If Afro-Latinos are sometimes ignored by their own kind, they are
                  practically invisible in America. The black Latino, so visible on the streets
                  of upper Manhattan and especially in major league baseball, still does not
                  register in the collective American definition of who a Hispanic is.

                  As if this were not challenge enough, Dominican migrants must also
                  reconcile their island's complex racial code with America's historically
                  contentious one. In the Dominican Republic, the oppressors have generally
                  been mulattoes and light-skinned blacks. One of the worst insults for a
                  black Dominican is to call him a Haitian. Haiti invaded and occupied the
                  Dominican Republic twice and these seminal events heavily influence the
                  island's view on race. "You are what you appear to be," said
                  Torres-Saillant, "which is very different from the generic racial definition

                  Which is, in essence, what happened to Mendoza when he pulled off his
                  joke. Dominican students, seeing his black skin, "dissed" him because he
                  was black and seemingly foreign to them. The African American he
                  pretended to be became the hated Haitian of the island. In a group of light-
                  and brown-skinned students and teachers, the island's racial sensibilities
                  hold sway. Parents' preference is for sons and daughters to marry "light,"
                  according to some teenagers.

                  For Dominicans, particularly teenagers, sorting out their racial identity can
                  be confusing. Teenagers choose their race, going white or black,
                  depending on their own skin tone. "Some of the kids who are darker more
                  readily accept the African Americans, and they look to that kind of music,"
                  said Thomas Garcia, a Dominican who teaches at the school.

                  "You see that black guy? He's Dominican," Albert Bonilla, 17, said one
                  day between classes, when the hallways were crowded. The student
                  Bonilla singled out, like Bonilla himself, was a light-skinned black who was
                  "thugged out," their term for hip-hop getup that defines the group.

                  "My grandmother be like, put your pants up! Subate el pantalon!" said
                  Bonilla. "You see the way we talk?" he asked. "You don't hear white
                  people talking like that."

                  Mendoza and other black Dominicans identify with African American
                  culture--their game, for example, is basketball and not baseball. They talk
                  in what is best described as "black spanglish," a mix of English and Spanish
                  with a decidedly hip-hop accent.

                  "I used to be a decent boy," Mendoza said, cracking up the kids around
                  him. Now, he said, he filters race through the African American
                  experience. "If white people are going to hate me," he said, "I'm going to
                  hate back."

                  Mendoza fulfills the prediction of one study that said the longer black
                  Dominicans are in this country the likelier they are to identify with
                  American blacks. But after all his talk and posturing, Mendoza steps back
                  just a little and, like Linares, plays the percent game. He announces that he
                  still prefers rice and beans over American food. He calls it "a Dominican
                  plate. The grub."

                  "I'm still part Dominican," he said, suddenly serious. "That's my nationality.
                  If you become African American, you give your nationality away. That's
                  like saying you're betraying your country."

                           © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company