Written by Nelson Santana
May 19, 2010
Waterbury - The conference “Dominicans in the United States: Memory, Culture and Geography,” took place at the University of Naugatuck Valley Community College from Thursday, May 13 through Friday, May 14. During the conference the audience learned about Dominicans in the Dominican Republic, but still left with greater knowledge about Dominicans in the United States. The conference addressed matters and issues which had never before been discussed, including the historical presentation of Anthony Stevens-Acevedo, where it was revealed that the first resident of the state of New York was the Dominican-born Juan Rodriguez. The panels and the audience included some of the most dynamic Dominican trendsetters including the award-winning author Rhina Espaillat; perhaps the most prolific historian with regard to Dominican history, Dr. Frank Moya Pons; and Mr. Luis Canela, one of the most benevolent Dominican entrepreneurs to contribute to the welfare of the Dominican community in and outside the Dominican Republic.
This collection of Dominican intellectuals was made possible by the perseverance of Dominicans who years ago formed the Dominican Studies Association, the organizers of this conference. This collective group of leaders includes Dr. Daisy Cocco Defilippis, President of Naugatauck Valley Community College; Dr. Ramona Hernandez, Director of the City University of New York Dominican Studies Institute; Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant, Director of the Latino-Latin American Studies Program at Syracuse University; Prof. Anthony Stevens Acevedo, Assistant Director of the Dominican Studies Institute; Prof. Sarah Aponte, Head Librarian of the Dominican Studies Institute; Dr. Franklin Gutierrez, professor of literature at York College at the City University of New York City; and Ms. Ana Garcia Reyes, Director of International Programs at The City University of New York Hostos Community College.
All members of the Dominican Studies Association have fought diligently for the wellbeing of Dominicans in general. All have won single battles such as Dr. De Filippis and Dr. Gutierrez, whom in part have rescued Dominican literature via their publications. Together, the association has had its share of victories. In fact, some members form the core of academics who founded the City University of New York Dominican Studies Institute – the first university-based research institute devoted to the study of people of Dominican descent in the United States. The Institute is divided into three branches – a research unit devoted entirely to the study of the Dominican population in the United States; the Dominican Library preserves the history of the Dominican Republic and its people with more than 700 Master thesis and PhD dissertations, countless books, thousands of articles, newspapers and magazines, overall a gold mine with an abundance of information about the Dominican people; and the last component of the Dominican Studies Institute is the Dominican Archives, the only archives dedicated to the preservation of the history of the Dominican population that resides in the United States.
Upon entering the university the audience was serenaded by what at first sounded like a merengue. Nonetheless upon approaching the Playbox Theater one could see that it was not a merengue, but the Beach Boys classic 'Kokomo,' thus giving the conference a Caribbean feel.
There were several panels during the conference. After the musical introduction, which was directed by Richard Gard, director of the Department of Music at Naugatuck Valley Community College, those present were welcomed by university president, Dr. Daisy Cocco De Filippis. De Filippis spoke about the importance of this conference for Dominicans in the United States.
In addition to Dr. De Filippis, Naugatuck Valley Community College has two other Dominican women in prominent positions. These two gems are Marianela Medrano-Marra, director of the counseling department and lecturer Juleyka Lantigua-Williams.
The first panel consisted of four poets who read their works. The poets were Dió-genes Abreu, José M. De la Rosa, Bessy Reyna, and Rhina Espaillat.
One of the most informative presentations was that of Dr. Ramona Hernandez, who revealed important figures with regard to Dominicans in the United States. As usual, Hernandez informed the audience that 1.4 million Dominicans make the U.S. their home. Interestingly enough in the city of New York Dominicans are the largest immigrant group. According to Hernandez, Dominicans no longer reside in Upper Manhattan only, but due to economic reasons are moving to other states including Pennsylvania, Florida, Rhode Island and Connecticut among other states. Always one to provide trailblazing statistics, Hernandez revealed that the City of Waterbury houses 46 percent of Connecticut’s Dominican residents.
Professor Anthony Stevens-Acevedo presented on a subject matter that left the crowd in awe. Those with details about the conference beforehand knew this was the presentation that would steal the show. It is no secret that the first inhabitants of the United States were not European explorers, as there were people living there already. On the other hand, until the conference, not much had been mentioned about, nor much publicity given to the first resident of New York State. For decades history books have set aside a paragraph or two about New York’s first resident who happened to have been born in Santo Domingo, however this information was never given great importance until the Dominican Studies Institute assembled a team of researchers to investigate. As has been proven by Professor Anthony Stevens Acevedo, in 1613 Juan Rodriguez officially became the first immigrant resident of the State of New York. What makes this even more intriguing is the fact that the majority of Dominicans who leave their birth country end up in New York.
Navigating Through American Land
The second panel was composed of three different panelists: Sarah Aponte, Rhina Espaillat and Pepe Coronado, moderated by historian Dr. Edward Paulino. Prof. Aponte spoke about her experience as Head Librarian of the Dominican Library at the Dominican Studies Institute. Though modest in her presentation, this multifaceted librarian singlehandedly created this library – her mentors Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant and Dr. Frank Moya Pons were present to assure the public of this. Rhina Espaillat spoke about her upbringing as a child in the United States and the importance of managing two languages in the nation. Artist Pepe Coronado recounted his life experience as an artist and gave a few pointers on how to become successful in the field.
There were several activities during the conference to keep the audience entertained. In addition to panels there also was a book sale, organized by Dr. Franklin Gutierrez. Melissa, daughter of Dr. Gutierrez, did an outstanding job selling books written by Dominican authors or written about the Dominican population. Some of the books sold included Rehearsing Absence by Rhina Espaillat, Otra Latitud by Jose Miguel de la Rosa, and 9 Iris y Otros Madlidtos Cuentos by Kianny Antigua.
The Dominican population in the United States is on the rise. Therefore, one cannot doubt the importance of this conference, “Dominicans in the United States: Memory, Culture and Geography.” Even the mayor of the City of Waterbury, Michael J. Jarjura was present for this momentous event. It would seem as though the Dominican population in the United States is on track to become a formidable force to be reckoned with as there are significant numbers of Dominican politicians in the various branches of the government including local, state and federal levels. The Dominican population has also shown entrepreneurial ambition and this group’s purchasing power as a people cannot be ignored. However, this gathering of intellectuals in Waterbury served as therapeutic inspiration for the young future leaders of the Dominican diaspora in the United States.