Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Approximately 100,000 Dominicans now live in Puerto Rico, of whom about 30,000 are thought to be undocumented illegal immigrants. Some Dominicans are en route to the USA, using Puerto Rico as a take off point, but most remain, forming a distinct enclave minority on the island.
No other sector of Puerto Rico’s population has grown as quickly over the last four decades. Dominicans have displaced Cubans as the leading foreign-born population group, and are now the largest and most visible ethnic minority on the Island. 75 per cent of the migrants live in San Juan where a bustling Dominican community has emerged. San Juan now has the second largest number of migrant Dominicans after New York City.
Housing for the increased numbers of undocumented immigrants is becoming a problem. For the first time in Puerto Rican history, many Dominican migrants now live in ghetto-like conditions: i.e. inner city areas where large concentrations of poor ethnic and racial minorities crowd together in deteriorated housing quarters, segregated by class, colour, and national origin.
Besides geographical proximity one major attraction of Puerto Rico is cultural similarity. While being a US territory with a high standard of living it also shares many linguistic, religious and climactic features with the Dominican homeland. Supported by a system of community links and reciprocal help many Dominicans prefer to stay in this familiar tropical environment rather than travel further north to join the estimated 300,000 Dominicans in New York.
The bulk of Dominican migrants are drawn from the lower middle class portion of Dominican society. Many were skilled or semiskilled workers back home, who saw emigration as the best survival strategy to avoid a domestic economy where poverty and unemployment levels continue to expand and similar jobs pay less.
However as the number of illegal immigrants has grown this profile is now changing While a largely middle class wave of Dominicans legally migrated during the 1960s currently there is an increasing flow of undocumented mostly working class migrants into Puerto Rico.
Many of the immigrants are now young men with an elementary education and an unskilled job in the Dominican Republic. Others are poor women who worked as domestics, factory workers, or informal traders back home.
Dominican immigrants in Puerto Rico are involved in lower-status, low wage urban jobs that fill a void in the islands labour force. In the inner rural highlands of Puerto Rico, Dominicans work primarily as seasonal agricultural workers mainly during n the coffee harvest. Nearly one-third of the migrants work as domestics, cleaners, and waiters; another third are operators, craft workers, labourers and street vendors. Sales and clerical employees represent a sizeable proportion of those that have white-collar jobs.
Surveys have indicated that three fifths of the new immigrants are women. The predominantly female profile of the Dominican immigrant population is primarily a reflection of the demand for cheap labour particularly in the service industries. Most female Dominican migrants are between the ages of twenty and forty, single or divorced, with pre-migration experience in domestic service and an average of eight years of basic education.
Many female migrants leave their families behind due to the risk of illegal travel and the high cost of living in Puerto Rico. They are often the first to move abroad thereby paving the way for later migration by other relatives. A large portion of the money they earn is repatriated to take care of their families using the more than 40 Dominican owned remittance agencies throughout Puerto Rico.
As a consequence of the volume of immigration, Dominican influence in Puerto Rico is growing and is manifested in everyday language music, religion, and cuisine. There is a vibrant commercial sector specializing in wide variety of services to meet the needs of the immigrant community including construction companies, car dealers, medical and professional services and remittance and travel agencies.
However as the number of Dominicans in Puerto Rico has grown, they have increasingly become the victims of racism and xenophobia. Numerous studies have documented the increasing hostility towards Dominican immigrants on the Island and its effect on their public image. Like other disadvantaged minorities, Dominicans in Puerto Rico are the main targets of a range of ethnic jokes, racial slurs, quips and anecdotes.
At the root is what some regional sociologists have described as the ‘white bias’. This causes Dominicans to be perceived in Puerto Rico in a very similar manner to the way Haitians are viewed in the Dominican Republic and ultimately how Puerto Ricans themselves are viewed in the United States.
In the Western Hemisphere the colour/caste system introduced during slavery and the colonial era has created a distinct preference for lighter coloured skin and European physical features. The degree of discrimination experienced by an individual ends up being dependent on those features as well as a combination of additional factors including family background, income / educational levels, cultural orientation, and the accent used when speaking Spanish or alternative language.
Puerto Ricans tend to typecast Dominicans as being darker-skinned than themselves and emphasize their African influenced facial features and hair texture. Hence Dominicans in Puerto Rico like the darker skinned Haitians in their own country end up experiencing the intense stigmatization, stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, low social ranking and exclusion to which people of African origin have long been subjected to in that country and elsewhere.
The views held by the Puerto Rican public are among the key factors blocking full integration of Dominicans into Puerto Rican society however this is further complicated by the contradiction between the social reality and the perception Dominican immigrants have of themselves. Dominicans historically have developed the habit of thinking and describing themselves as ‘indios’ (Indians). This is a loosely descriptive title meaning ‘ brown-skinned’ primarily employed to avoid having to use the words ‘black or mulatto.’
The racialization of Dominican immigrants permeates all aspects of their lives and efforts to become incorporated into Puerto Rican society. This ranges from job discrimination and difficulty in finding housing to getting an education, and marriage partner choices. Moreover it is extended into the second generation.
Migration between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico has a long history. There has always been a small but constant flow of people in both directions dating back to the 16th and 19th centuries.
Hundreds of Spanish refugees moved from Hispaniola to Puerto Rico after Spain ceded the western part the island to France (1795), Additionally hundreds more migrated from Spain’ s colony on the Eastern side following the triumph of the Haitian revolution in 1804 and Haiti’s subsequent attempts to annex Santo Domingo (1822-1844).
These migrants included not only European land owners, and the Africans they had enslaved but also free people of mixed European / African ancestry. These migrants often settled in the western part of Puerto Rico near the cities of Mayagüez and San Germán.
Similarly Puerto Ricans were prominently included in the development of the Dominican sugar industry; not only as advisers and investors but also among the thousands of workers who moved to the territory from other Caribbean islands. In addition many Dominicans including former Presidents Joaquín Balaguer and Juan Bosch, are of mixed Dominican and Puerto Rican parentage.
There was little traffic between the two countries between 1930 and 1960 however following the overthrow of the Trujillo regime in 1961 people linked with that government such as members of the ruling class, conservative political leaders and government employees began leaving for Puerto Rico. Defusing political tensions in the DR by moving dissidents to Puerto Rico even eventually became part of US foreign policy.
Due to its close association with the United States, Puerto Rico has enjoyed the richest per capita economy in all of Latin America, aided by substantial investment from American businesses. Meanwhile the Dominican Republic has continued to demonstrate poor economic performance with a large portion of the society experiencing extreme poverty.
Since the 1940s Dominican immigration to Puerto Rico by sea routes has increased steadily. Travel between the two countries has always been relatively easy. For decades regular ferry services have been in existence between the two islands providing cheap transportation for passengers, cars, and other heavy items. Travel in an informal manner by small slow boat can cross the 100-kilometres Mona Channel in about a day depending on weather and ocean currents.
The flow of migration that began in the mid-1960s accelerated in the 1980s when the Dominican Republic suffered economic recession and high unemployment. Like their Haitian neighbours many poor Dominicans often board small, overcrowded wooden boats, known as yolas, and head across the treacherous Mona Passage on their way to Puerto Rico. Dangers include drowning or being eaten alive by sharks after capsizing in heavy seas or being forced off overloaded boats that are in danger of sinking; or dying from hunger and dehydration after being lost at sea for several days,
Since the 1980s, the US Coast Guard has intercepted more than 24,400 undocumented Dominicans trying to reach Puerto Rico by yola Moreover, an average of about 3,500 undocumented immigrants were deported every year during the 1990s, 90 per cent of whom were Dominicans.
The considerable hostility towards Dominicans in Puerto Rico, and their numbers and their affect on wage levels continues to be exaggerated in the media.
Dominicans are ridiculed in the popular media as comic, ignorant, vulgar, and unruly characters. Graffiti such as ‘Death to Dominicans’ has occasionally appeared on public walls in the capital and anonymous leaflets denouncing ‘The Dominican Plague’ have been produced and distributed in academic conferences.
Since racialist classification also identifies Dominicans as being overwhelmingly black and ‘mulatto’ and therefore a threat, the Puerto Rican authorities often arrest Afro-Puerto Ricans without identification, assuming them to be illegal Dominican migrants.
The linking of the idea of being ‘dominican or dominicano’ with being ‘black or negro’ makes it more difficult for immigrants to be accepted by the dominant society.
Many of the Dominicans who reach Mayaguez, and other areas in Puerto Rico find it difficult to find employment either because of their undocumented status or competition for jobs and are then forced to look for other ways to make a living Often they turn to illegal activities such as drug trafficking and prostitution. Consequently there has been an increase in the Dominican mafia in Puerto Rico, which has resulted in executions and shootouts between themselves and the Puerto Rican mafia and other underworld groups.
Because of the large number of lives that can be lost during the yola trips, governments of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have launched massive media campaigns to try to reduce the traffic. In the Dominican Republic, videos of dead bodies on the water are shown on television as a deterrent.
Puerto Rican nationals who traffic in illegal immigrants to Puerto Rico face long periods in jail if apprehended however Dominicans who get caught are usually flown back to their country on commercial airlines where they do not face criminal charges.
There is now a high rate of intermarriage between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. This is reflected in a rise the number of people of Dominican ancestry who are born in Puerto Rico. The increase in second generation Dominicans is also reflected in the growing number students of Dominican origin in the school system. This is posing a significant challenge to the Puerto Rican educational structure. Some of the emerging issues are the need for greater appreciation of cultural diversity within the island’s population and the need to update the curriculum, textbook materials, teaching and counseling strategies, and also extracurricular activities to reflect this change.
Furthermore this trend is likely to continue since Dominican women in Puerto Rico like those in the continental United States tend to postpone returning home, partly because of their reluctance to lose the level of autonomy they have achieved living abroad as wives, mothers, and workers.
Efforts to create umbrella organizations for the entire Dominican community, such as the Concilio de Organizaciones Dominicanas and the Unión Internacional de Dominicanos Inmigrantes, have met with limited success.
Dominicans in Puerto Rico continue to form mainly loosely structured immigrant clubs mostly related to personal social and cultural issues. Immigrants form highly informal clubs usually to organize home visits, make donations or celebrate special events (for example carnivals). These are usually centred around strong popular leaders and are not rights advocacy related.
The apparent lack of interest on the part of Dominicans in integrating into Puerto Rican society will continue to affect their social and political marginality. This is partly a factor of the constant individual travel that occurs between the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the United States. This desire for flexibility diminishes the degree of permanence needed to develop community leaders and followers. In addition, discrimination against Dominicans in Puerto Rican society works against the creation of socially integrated representative organizations that can advocate and struggle for civil rights.