The Other Latin@s: The Dominican and Puerto Rican Experience--Collections and Resources (2014)

Moderator: Jennifer Osorio, University of California, Los Angeles
Rapporteur: Christine Hernández, Tulane University

Sarah Aponte, CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Archive & The City College of New York Libraries
The Building of an Academic Dominican Library: Impact at the Local Level and Beyond

Nelson Santana, CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Archives & The City College of New York Libraries
Introduction to the Intellectual History of Dominican Migration in the United States

María del Mar González-González, University of Utah (*ALZAR invited speaker)
Identity Politics and Puerto Rican Visual Resources: Notes from the Field

The moderator, Dr. Jennifer Osorio, begins the session by thanking the audience and the presenters for their attendance.  She introduces the first presenter, Dr. Sarah Aponte from CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Archives & the City College of New York Libraries.

Dr. Aponte makes a brief introduction about the Dominican community in the United States to put into context the establishment and growth of the Dominican Institute Archives at CUNY.  The aim of the presentation is to showcase the variety of public outreach programs conducted by the Dominican Library with the goal of using library and archive resources to teach people about the Dominican immigrant experience.  It was a single donated collection that became the seed collection for the library and the growth of its holding is fueled primarily through donations.

The first program discussed is the “Bridge to College Program” which aims to engage eighth graders with primary sources.  She provides images of an art exhibit as an example.

Another series of workshops are held for education students at the undergraduate and graduate level.  The purpose of these workshops is to introduce up and coming educators to the resources available at the Institute for teaching Dominican history and heritage.  Dr. Aponte uses the example of the Cuco figure (a kind of “boogie man”) in Dominican mythology and how it used by Dominican parents to discipline children.

The library also has space to host workshops.  An example given is the participation by the library in a cultural program put on by the Isabella Geriatric Center.  Seniors from the center visit the library.  On one occasion, the librarians ask the visitors about a Dominican political figure, J. Trujillo, which provoked a lot of feedback from seniors that turned out to be a learning opportunity for the librarians.  Dr. Aponte explains how this experience showcases how the library and its resources provided a fertile opportunity to connect with surrounding community.

The next presentation was given by Nelson Santana, also representing the Dominican Studies Institute Archives.

Nelson begins by explaining that people who can trace their ancestry back to the Dominican Republic comprise the largest Latino immigrant group in New York City.  He goes on to list a number of people of Dominican descent to achieve notoriety in the politics, athletics, entertainment, and literary circles of mainstream society in the United States.  Most of the people named by Nelson were recent immigrants, post 1950s, and he poses two questions that the remainder of his presentation will answer:  from where did these people come and why did they immigrate to the United States?

He moves on to a brief summary of the history of the Caribbean island once called Quisqueya/Ayití that now contains the modern nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Tainos were the original inhabitants of the island when Columbus first landed in 1492, according to Bartolome de las Casas.  As a result of Spanish subjugation and forced labor, the resident Taino population declined and peoples from western and central Africa were imported.  Dominicans today are the product of three peoples and cultures:  Tainos, Europeans (mostly Spaniards), and Africans.  The construction of present day Dominican identity began in the early to middle nineteenth century after Dominicans won their independence first from Haiti in 1844, and secondly from Spain in 1865.

The main theme of Nelson’s presentation is his discussion of the history of Dominican immigration and how until recently, the Dominican immigrant experience has been either largely overlooked by mainstream United States history texts and popular media outlets or it has been misconstrued as being a recent social phenomenon.  He also notes that part of the challenge for recognition of Dominican contributions is that they are often viewed as distinct from the Hispano and other Latino minority groups in United States society.  He cites the work of three eminent Dominican scholars (Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant, Dr. Daisy Cocco De Filippis, and Dr. Ramona Hernández) who challenge the popular notion that Dominicans are “new” Americans or “recent” immigrants because the first recognized major wave of Dominican immigration dates only to the 1960s.  A fair amount of work by these scholars has been to elucidate the history of intellectual thought and academic contributions by Dominicans throughout the twentieth century.

Nelson explains that the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo has been and continues to be the epicenter of Dominican migration and New York City to be the favored place of destination.  Dominicans have deep ties to New York City going back to the early 1600s.  One of the earliest documented settlers to the New York City area (c. 1613) was of Dominican ancestry.  But, Dominican immigrants still maintain ties to their homeland and one way in which this is accomplished is through Dominican-owned newspapers, magazines, and web-based news portals, blogs, and other Internet media outlets.  The history of Dominican publication efforts can be traced back to the late nineteenth century.

The best known wave of Dominican immigration was that related to the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo who held power in the Dominican Republic from 1930 until 1961.  During the 1950s and 1960s, working class Dominicans migrated to the United States because of economic and social hardships.  After the fall of Trujillo, more Dominican professionals began leaving their homeland for the United States.  Some of these more recent professional migrants were among those who helped to found Dominican civic, social, and political organizations and networks in the United States that are still in existence today.  Nelson finishes his presentation by enumerating a number of important Dominican intellectuals and literary figures who have made important contributions to modern North American society.

Dr. María del Mar González-González of the University of Utah gave the final presentation.

She begins by thanking the moderator, fellow participants, and those in attendance.  She gives a brief biography of herself and her research which focuses on the San Juan Art Bienal organized by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture.  Her presentation is drawn from her experiences and impressions of the state of archives and art related collections in Puerto Rico as she found them on a recent research trip to the island.  During her trip, she visited several public and private archives in Puerto Rico and in the United States and the focus of her talk is to discuss how the current state of political ambiguity in Puerto Rico influences the production of art, art collecting, and art historical research both internally and externally to the island of Puerto Rico, and this in turn impacts how government funded archives are managed and maintained.  Political strife and restrictions in the form of government shutdowns, police occupation of campuses, and budget shortages strongly impact a researcher’s ability to access collections.

She notes that visual art collections tend to be fragile and ephemeral and scattered or fragmented across archives.  As a whole, the materials can tell us about local artists and art communities, exhibition and curatorial practices, and their relationships among each other and with artists abroad.  Current conditions of archival disorganization and poor management of repositories puts the historical record of Puerto Rican artists and art communities in danger of being “lost” altogether.

Her first example concerns a visit to the División de Artes Plásticos at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture to search for records regarding art Bienal events.  She shows several images to demonstrate several areas of concern within this particular archive.  They include poor environmental control, poor administration and records control, and poor security.

Her next visit was to the Archivo General y Biblioteca Nacional de Puerto Rico.  This is the largest repository of historical documents on the island.  Doctor G. González describes a number of administrative challenges that made her attempts to schedule research visits to the archive difficult.  She notes that although some basic archival standards are met by the National Archive, other basics, like inventory control, were not so.  She lists several government processes that negatively impact archives in Puerto Rico and she notes that it is her impression that art archives in particular are not a priority.

She goes on to describe her visits to the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe, the Library of M. Lázaro, and the Museo de Historia, Antropología, y Arte de la Universidad de Puerto Rico.  In the cases of these repositories, Dr. G. González mentions that she found the conditions in private institutions to be better and access to rare materials and periodicals more attainable than she was ever able to achieve in the government run archives.  One disadvantage to these smaller institutions for visiting researchers is that they have smaller budgets and minimal staff.

In her conclusions, Dr. G. González describes the situation of historical archives in Puerto Rico, especially for art, to be most worrisome.  Political and economic difficulties in Puerto Rico often result in the sale or transfer of important collections as was the case of a loss of material to the Smithsonian Institution in the United States.  There is a lack of value, responsibility, and knowledge about the curation and preservation of the island’s history.  She cites a need for more cooperation among the island’s archival institutions.  She finishes with several suggestions that would help to improve the situation.  One would be to conduct a survey of the island’s archival collections and research and exhibition projects involving archival materials.  A second would entail the creation of a network among Puerto Rican scholars.  A third suggestion would be to create a bibliography of visual resources in Puerto Rico to help facilitate access and to invigorate collaborative projects among researchers and archivists.

The Question and Answer period began with a question from Antonio Sotomayor of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana to Dr. G. González:  As you explain in your presentation, there is a lot of politics involved in archives.  Have you experienced certain hassles in order to access things? So, if you study politics in art and since administrations and ideologies change every four years, have you ever had problems due to political or administration changes?

Dr. G. González answered that she has not experienced such problems related to her research topic, but has come up against walls that are more related to her lack of personal relationships with island archivists and senior researchers.  She has had more problems getting access to materials due to building maintenance breakdowns and to social shut-downs.  Because her research is involved with the arts and island archivists tend to be more liberal, so she has had few problems related to political ideology.  There are biases involved with materials regarding statehood.  The pro-statehood topic is rarely seen in the arts and the bias seen in collections is the more the result of poor archiving policies.

A second question to Dr. G. González came from Javier Talibano, consultant, who asked if Dr. G. González had only visited San Juan to do her research.  Dr. G. González responds that she had in fact visited various cities, including Ponce, to which Mr. Talibano notes that he has not experienced the level of difficulties that Dr. G. González has had to get access to materials, but agrees that there still continue to be problems of access and difficulties in locating materials in Puerto Rican archives, especially for foreign researchers, and changes in government administrations exacerbate these on-going issues, but he maintains that the situation is improving.  He encourages Dr. G. González to continue her research and offers his help for future visits.

Wendy Griffin, Universidad Pedagógica Nacional Francisco Morazán, made a comment to Dr. G. González.  She stated that there is poor care in Honduras for black and indigenous communities.  Not only does there continue to exist a denial on the part of the government, but a mandated restriction of the inclusion of historical documentation of these communities.  A master’s thesis on the topic was cited.  She suggested several grant opportunities that could be sought through the National Endowment for the Humanities (namely the Bridging Cultures initiative) and Wikipedia outreach programs about artists.  She noted however that the producers of Wikipedia do not recognize Central America and the Caribbean as separate geographic areas but that they [Wikipedia] do want to recruit Latinos to write for the website.  She described the efforts made by the Garifuna community in New York City as an example of successfully collecting historical and cultural information for writing Wikipedia articles about Honduran Garifunas.  She noted that Wikipedia will fund such efforts.

Dr. G. González responded that she is aware of funding resources but not sure why people in Puerto Rico are not tapping into them, though it may likely be due to their heavy workloads.  She explained that there is a great online archive called Documents of Twentieth Century Latin American Art hosted by the Museum of Fine Art in Houston and the project was spearheaded by Curator M. Ramírez.  Curator Ramírez has successfully gotten funding via soft money grants and support from Latin American contacts to create the archive and keep it going.  Dr. G. González sees this as a model project and encouraged members of the audience to use this resource.

Wendy Griffin , Universidad Pedagógica Nacional Francisco Morazán, rebutted with a comment about how US government grant money cannot be applied for by foreign nationals.  Dr. G. González acknowledged that research in Latin American countries and on Latin American topics often restricts the number of grant competitions that can be sought to do research such as hers.

Suzanne Schadl, University of New Mexico, thanked all of the presenters and noted that the presence of SALALM award and grant recipients and invited guest on a panel concerning library resources for Latinos and Latino communities that are not well documented suggests that there is desire and a need for this type of work.  She put out a general call to the audience to reach out to granting agencies, institutions, units within SALALM itself, especially ALZAR (the committee for Academic Latina/o Zone of Activism & Research), to support efforts to document lesser known communities and their histories, to make suggestions about how to do this work better, and that these kinds of efforts require outreach.

Jennifer Osorio, University of California-LA, questioned Dr. Sarah Aponte:  I was interested in the senior citizen program at the Dominican Institute and would like to ask whether you have done any work to document those stories or thought about connecting those stories with the children you have coming in to the Institute?

Dr. Aponte responded that she agrees there is a need to do more oral history because we are losing these elder Dominicans.  She cited an example, and agreed that it would be a good idea to be able to engage younger generations with the histories recounted by elder Dominicans.

Javier Talibano, consultant, questioned Dr. Aponte about the focus of the Dominican Institute on Dominicans solely in New York City.

Dr. Aponte explained why the focus and the strength of the Dominican Institute’s holdings are on Dominicans in New York City.

Nelson Santana, Dominican Studies Institute, added to Dr. Aponte’s response by explaining how the Institute grows through the receipt and processing of donations by local people and that his personal work load and specialty is going to concern the Dominican immigrant experience throughout the United States.

Javier Talibano, consultant, asked Nelson Santana the following:  What parallels are there between earlier (1950s & 1960s) waves and more recent waves of Dominican immigration?

Nelson Santana, Dominican Studies Institute, responded Mr. Talibano by describing the scholarly research and book published by his mentor on a similar comparative analysis of Puerto Rican immigration to New York.

Wendy Griffin, Universidad Pedagógica Nacional Francisco Morazán, stated that there is a project by the Smithsonian Institution to mount an exhibit on the indigenous elements in Caribbean culture and she asked Dr. Sarah Aponte if the curators of this exhibit had been in contact with her and/or the Institute to participate.

Dr. Aponte answered yes to the question.  She explained that the Dominican Institute is working in collaboration on this very exhibit.  They are going to loan artifacts related to music and will be contributing to a section of the project related to immigration.

This ended the Question and Answer period.  The moderator thanked the presenters, rapporteur, and audience for their attendance.