When the owner of radio station WCUM Bridgeport, Pablo DeJesus Colon, Jr., first came to Connecticut in 1969 and began to work at WLVH radio in Hartford, he was one of the only Dominicans in town. “There were a couple, but there were a lot more Puerto Ricans here,” he recalled. In fact, Colon met a Puerto Rican woman in Connecticut, who he married and they had two sons, Pablo DeJesus Colon III and Javier Colon, a musician who recently rose to national prominence after winning “The Voice”, a talent contest on NBC television.
Since then, waves of immigration have brought a Dominican population explosion to New York City, where the Dominican-born and Dominican-American population has reached 9.3% in the Bronx and 8.1% in Manhattan, according to City-Data.com. Dominicans in Providence, RI make up 7.9% of that city’s population; however, in Connecticut, the population has grown more slowly and inconspicuously.
“In 1988 and 1989, more Dominicans started coming into Connecticut from New York and Massachusetts,” said Colon. “Many arrived in Danbury about ten years ago; there’s a large population in Bridgeport, and a lot of small businesses opening now in Waterbury are owned by people from the Dominican Republic. New Britain and Hartford also have growing populations.”
When Colon moved from Hartford to Bridgeport to found Radio Cumbre 1450 AM, he became the first Dominican radio station owner in the United States, according to his son, Pablo III. The younger Colon said that growing up half Dominican and half Puerto Rican in the nearby suburb of Stratford was unusual in the sense that there were almost no other Hispanic families of any kind in the beginning. “It wasn’t like there was huge prejudice; it was just ‘oh, you’re the kids that speak Spanish’,” he recalled.
Today, Connecticut’s Dominican population seems ready for a ‘coming out’, in a manner of speaking. In 2013, Hartford held a Dominican Parade and Festival. “A few years ago there was a festival in Pope Park; this year they held one in Bushnell Park,” said the elder Pablo Colon, who could not recall whether there have been any other Dominican events in the years he has been here. However, in 2014, Naugatuck Valley Community College, which has its main campus in Waterbury and a satellite in Danbury, will be hosting the fifth bi-annual conference of the Dominican Studies Association.
The Association, based out of the City University of New York (CUNY), comes to Connecticut courtesy of Dr. Daisy Cocco DeFilippis, the president of Naugatuck Valley Community College. Dr. DeFilippis took the position in 2008 and is the only Dominican-American college president in the United States. When asked if she has experienced any culture shock coming from a big city with a large Dominican population to Connecticut, she shrugged off the question, saying, “No, New York is right over there.”
With New York City so close, and with Connecticut’s Dominican population mixing easily with the larger Puerto Rican population (to hear the Colons tell it) there has not developed a very conspicuous Dominican community in this state. When you go looking in the phone book or online for Dominican businesses, you’re as likely to find the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church. New York-based C-Town Supermarkets is Dominican-owned and has a presence in Connecticut, and there are a number of Dominican restaurants and stores with more visibility from city sidewalks than online. However, the highest profile category of Dominican businesses here in Connecticut is hair salons.
Natividad Castillo, owner of Naty’s Dominican Salon on Rubber Avenue in Naugatuck, moved first to Puerto Rico at age 12 before coming to Connecticut seven years ago. She has been in business at her current location for five years, according to her husband, Alex Olavarria. Olavarria describes how Dominican beauty salons serve as community gathering places. “Women come weekly, they become comfortable, and everybody comes to be like friends,” he said. “You make a lot of connections like that; they help each other out: ‘You can get this here; you can get that there’ kind of stuff, not political or anything like that.”
To Caucasian North Americans, and to much of the world, the Dominican Republic is known for baseball players and cigars. There’s also a perception of Dominicans being the dark-skinned Latinos, which is less consistently true.
“In my country, Dominican Republic, we have 73 percent mixed, people mixed with other countries like China, like India, Mexico…Puerto Ricans. 10 percent Dominicans are black, 16 percent is white and the rest indigenous,” rattles off Maribel Martinez, a student from Meriden studying at Capital Community College in Hartford. Martinez is part of a class that has three Dominican students. With a roster totaling 23 overall, Professor Carl Guerriere’s developmental English class at Capital has a higher percentage of Dominicans than does the Bronx.
A second student, Suchung Yen, from New Britain, explained that the country’s capital, Santo Domingo, has its own Chinatown. His Chinese father and Dominican mother met there. He tried to think of any other differences between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, besides the ethnic mix, that he has observed since enrolling in a school with a large Puerto Rican student population.
“Bacano,” he said after a minute. Yen explained that it is a word meaning something or someone that is nice or awesome, and that it is not an expression used by Puerto Ricans. A non-Dominican student, Norma Liz Soto, said that the slang expression was a recent arrival to the Dominican Republic from Colombia, a word meaning “cool” that is probably only used by the young.
The third Dominican in the classroom, Nefris Quiterio of Glastonbury, offered a nuance to the definition of bacano. “You say it about a guy who gotta lotta ladies,” she said.
With Dominicans and other Latinos, Puerto Ricans in particular, crossing paths very often both in the Caribbean and the United States, it can be difficult to spot the most distinct points of cultural divide. Pablo Colon, Jr. worked in Puerto Rico before coming to Connecticut, and he thinks that the two cultures are pretty simpatico, at least from a musical perspective: Salsa is from Puerto Rico and Meringue is from the Dominican Republic, but plenty of people in both places like both kinds of music.
What food is distinctly Dominican? Mangu, mashed plantains, is a national dish, according to Alex Olavarria. “I usually eat it for breakfast,” he said, instructing expertly: “You boil the plantains, make them real soft. Mash them, throw in a bit of Olive Oil, maybe butter…fry them with some cheese, maybe salami – Dominican salami, a couple of eggs. It’s a hard-hitting breakfast because you’re going out there to work hard.”
Add a serious work ethic to baseball and cigars as generalizations about Dominicans that are true. Olavarria said that the down-side of Dominicans in Connecticut is that they’re not sufficiently focused on building community. “It’s like they’re sure they’re in the U.S. temporarily and they’ll be going back any day now,” he said.
However, there is a growing counter-trend of acknowledging the long-term nature of the region’s Dominican presence and establishing a cultural footprint. It is being led by Dominican-born writers, poets and intellectuals, most notably Dr. DeFilippis and Dr. Marianela Medrano, author of Diosas de la Yuca (Goddesses of the Yucca), a poet and psychotherapist who practices in Middlebury.
Dr. Medrano talks about the importance of community in personal growth. In the absence of a Dominican community when she first came to Connecticut, she found support in the Elm City’s vibrant international artistic and literary scene. “Early on in my life, in my coming to Connecticut, I identified a wonderful community. I came initially to New Haven and was contacted by a group of young people working on what is called Casa Julia de Burgos, who was one of the most acclaimed Puerto Rican poets living in this country. It was a cultural center named after her. There was a group of people there who opened the doors to me, and that was like my big entrance into Connecticut. That was in 1990.”
Well into the mid 1990s, however, Dr. Medrano had to go to New York to meet other Dominican intellectuals. “In the mid-90s, I joined Daisy Cocco DeFilippis, uniting our efforts to create a group of Dominican writers. We met at her house in Queens, and I used to commute from Connecticut to Queens, looking for that support…La Tertulia of Dominican Writers in USA. It was a group that allowed us to organize, to create conferences around Latinas in literature…we ‘sponsored’ one another. We saw the need to continue our education and continue writing. Thanks to that, those two communities, I never saw the option of giving up my life because I was in a country with a different language.”
“Too many people see the option of being invisible as the way to go, because they are overwhelmed…that never crossed my mind. I was very confident in who I was, and how I went after everything that would give me a sense of security, and that was getting an education and continuing my writing.”
The Dominican Studies Association recently put out a Call for Papers for its 2014 conference at Naugatuck Valley Community College. Dr. DeFilippis said, “This year there will be great research and scholarship on all things Dominican, and things that pertain to the contributions of Dominican-Americans here in the United States.” And thanks to the efforts of all of these pioneers, Dominicans in Connecticut will no longer have to feel invisible.
Dominican American Studies Association Conference page: http://dsa-conference-2014.eventbrite.com/
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