Dominican immigrants seek better life in New York City

As the economic situation in the Dominican Republic continues to deteriorate, immigrants from this Spanish-speaking country are making New York City their home in growing numbers. Since the mid-1960s, Dominicans have been the largest immigrant group coming to New York, forming the largest Dominican community in the world outside of Santo Domingo. About 15,000 legal immigrants are coming here from the Caribbean island nation each year. Estimates of New York's Dominican population range from 400,000 to 1 million, with perhaps half of those living here illegally.

Many Dominicans live in northern Manhattan. ``The Dominicans built a community in Washington Heights,'' says Eugenia Georges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Rice University. ``That area was crumbling when they moved in. They took old buildings that were basically abandoned, and they built a neighborhood.''

There, under the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, vendors sell flowers, bananas, and oranges from abandoned shopping carts. Merengue, a Dominican style of salsa music, plays from stereos on the sidewalks and in passing cars. Store signs written in Spanish announce a Dominican medical center, a Dominican sports club, and a Dominican bank.

Like other immigrants, Dominicans come to New York to work and build a better life for their children.

Alilio Perez arrived here nearly three years ago with his family. Today, he works as a hairdresser and studies English in the evenings. In Santo Domingo, Mr. Perez studied architecture and engineering at the state university. But his standard of living was low.

``I lived in a very poor barrio in Santo Domingo,'' he says. ``I had only one pair of shoes. With that pair of shoes, I went to the university, to parties, everywhere. I had two pair of pants - one for the university, one for the weekend.''

Perez and other Dominican immigrants have left their country because of an economic crisis that is steadily worsening. Inflation is 60 percent, more than one-fourth of the work force is unemployed, and basic services such as electricity, water, and public transportation have become unreliable.

The majority of Dominican immigrants come from their country's lower middle class, with an average of nine years of education. Nearly 80 percent work in New York's manufacturing and service industries. The average Dominican family earns $11,800 a year.

But while most remain in poverty, some Dominicans who have lived in New York for many years have achieved modest success here.

Dominicans own about 9,000 small businesses in New York City, according to estimates by the Dominican Business Association.

A sign inside Pedro Escrogima's travel agency lists the prices for airplane tickets to Miami, San Juan, and Santo Domingo. Mr. Escrogima has owned this travel agency for five years.

Twenty years ago, he arrived alone in New York City, and with a relative's help, got a job as a presser in the garment industry. After this came a succession of jobs as a dishwasher, a busboy, and a doorman. Escrogima took English classes at night, eventually graduated from Lehman College with a degree in accounting, and landed an accounting job with the city.

Like many other Dominicans here, Escrogima's wish is to make enough money to return to the Dominican Republic. ``I love New York,'' he says, ``but this is my second home.''

But experts say the Dominican Republic's economic crisis makes such a return increasingly unlikely.

``Many Dominicans who decided to go back to the Dominican Republic are coming back to the US, fleeing from the crisis,'' says Frank Moya Pons, a professor of history at Columbia University.

New York can be a cold and forbidding place for Dominican immigrants, who are used to the warm, close-knit society of their homeland.

``In Santo Domingo, you see everybody in the morning and say hello,'' Escrogima says. ``But over here people aren't as friendly. In Santo Domingo, you know what the other neighbors are doing because they have their windows open all the time. If something happens over here, you have to wait for the police car. Over there, everyone gets involved.''

Most Dominicans remain closely tied to their homeland, frequently sending money to relatives still there, and visiting as often as their pocketbook allows. They also contribute heavily to political campaigns in the Dominican Republic.

But their emphasis on politics in the Dominican Republic, and not in New York, has diminished their political strength here.

``The majority of the Dominican people are more involved in Santo Domingo politics than New York,'' says Julio Hernandez, a Dominican immigrant and district leader in Washington Heights. ``The Dominicans are a very politicized people. But I believe they're making a mistake, because if you have a family and kids in New York, you're here. You should fight for what you have here. They do it in reverse.''

Perhaps the issue that concerns Dominicans most here is the growing infestation of drugs into their community. In Washington Heights, drug abuse is particularly acute. And crime has increased dramatically as gangs of young Dominicans have become involved in drug dealing.

``You walk around here, and sometimes it feels like every corner is a drug post,'' says Moises Perez, director of the social service agency Alianza Dominicana. ``There's very little for young people to do in this neighborhood, except drugs. It's very seductive, and they fall right in.''

For young people, the transition to life in New York can be an unsettling one.

It took Carmen Fortunato, a student at Bronx Community College, three years to adjust to living in New York.

Ms. Fortunato came here in 1977 and she recalls, ``It was like being in jail. From school to home, that's all I did. I didn't know English and I was afraid because I thought people would laugh when I said something.'' Now Fortunato is fluent in English and is studying to become a graphic artist.

Unlike in their homeland, nearly half of Dominican women are in the labor force here, with 42 percent working in New York's garment industry. Their increased economic and social independence has caused friction in some marriages, and led to a high separation rate in the Dominican community.

``Women in my country are supposed to be housewives,'' says Maria Reyes, who is divorced. ``They don't have as much opportunity as women here.''

Even with all the hardships of living in New York, Dominicans, like so many immigrants groups before them, are happy to be writing their chapter into New York's ethnic history.

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