Tracing the Dominican diaspora: hints of Santo Domingo in New York City

With two thirds of its population made up of Dominican ex-pats, the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights serves as a cultural nexus between Santo Domingo and New York City. Walking through the neighborhood, one is confronted by a melange of pre-war architecture and colorful bodegas; the sounds of dominos being flicked onto aluminum tables, and the blaring of ambulance sirens outside of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. This confluence between old world and new plays out in the neighborhood storefronts, community churches, and cultural spaces where Dominican ex-pats work to recreate the traditions of their native country in their newfound home. Here, some of these spaces are examined, including Zon Bakery, Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center, Botanica San Miguel, and Fort George Presbyterian Church.

Mount Washington Presbyterian Church on Vermilyea Ave and 204th. // The famous Vecina “Chimi Truck,” specializing in the budget-friendly chimi sandwich.
After-school English as a second language classes at the Washington Heights Public Library. // A fire hydrant left running on 168th and Amsterdam on a hot friday afternoon.

Part One: Zon Bakery

Zon Bakery is small storefront nestled in amongst bodegas and grocery stores on St. Nicholas Avenue. The bakery’s owner, Milka Rojas, is a petite, 51 year old woman with an incredible work-ethic and a dozens of loyal customers.

The interior of Zon Bakery, while a customer picks up a bag of freshly baked rolls.

Rojas makes everything from scratch, and she specializes in traditional Dominican baked goods that give her ex-pat clientele a taste of home even when they are 1,500 miles away. When the interview below was recorded, Rojas and her all-female staff had just finished carrying more than a dozen 50-lb bags of flour from a delivery truck into the bakery’s kitchen.

HOST INTRO: Walking along St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights feels like stepping into another world. Sidewalk markets display colorful assortments of yucca and plantains, and reggaeton music blasts from open windows and parked cars. Near the corner of 174th street, Zon bakery fits into the scene with ease, giving Dominicans ex-pats a taste of home. Lindsay Holcomb visited Zon’s owner Milka Rojas after her busy morning shift.

Part Two: Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center

Located in a modern, glass building on 168th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center serves as a hub for Dominican cultural production in New York City. The center offers arts, theater, poetry, and film classes, with a special focus on Afro-Dominican culture. Orchestrating the center’s programming is Osaliki Sepulveda, a professional actor and dancer, who plays a large part in organizing the cultural center’s contributions to the Dominican Day Parade. Read below for a profile of Sepulveda and his path to becoming a cultural paragon in New York’s Dominican community.

Sepulveda after teaching an Afro-Quisqueya dance class.

Coming to America: Osaliki Sepulveda

On the second floor of the Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center in Washington Heights is a dance studio where Osaliki Sepulveda teaches a class on Afro-Quisqueya dancing. Sepulveda is the Cultural Director at Alianza, and his class is made up of roughly two dozen teenage boys who step to the beats of merengue as Sepulveda, dressed in a traditional white linen dance outfit, claps along. His gentle instructions — “Daniel, más rapido,” “Yoenis, a la derecha” — cater to the fact that most of his students have been in the United States for less than four years and are more comfortable learning in their native tongue.

Two decades ago, Sepulveda was one of these students. A newly arrived 16-year-old from Santo Domingo, searching for an opportunity to pursue the arts, Sepulveda had come to New York City alone and unable to speak English. “I came with this dream of becoming a telenovela actor,” Sepulveda explained. “I had spent all of my money on the flight, but the same day I arrived, I heard someone say in Spanish that there were free theater classes at Alianza Dominicana, and I went a week later.”

Credit: Columbia Journalism Review

Over time, Sepulveda attended so many theater classes that he drew skepticism from some of Alianza’s staff, including its director, Moises Perez. “Moises asked me how I had time to come to all of these acting classes during the day,” Sepulveda said. “He wanted to know if I was skipping school.”

Sepulveda was embarrassed about his circumstances, but he decided to be honest. He explained that he wanted to go to high school, but navigating the matriculation process on his own was too confusing. Instead of school, he was working the night shift at the McDonalds on 181st Street, only 15 blocks from Alianza, and making $150 a week, $60 of which he spent to stay in a stranger’s apartment.

“At the time, it didn’t seem like I was hustling,” Sepulveda said. “It was one day at a time just trying to make enough money to not get kicked out of another room. I had a lot of dreams that I wanted to do in acting, but I knew that I needed English to get there, and I needed money to take English classes.”
Credit: Alianza Dominicana

With Perez’s help, Sepulveda enrolled in an intensive English program at Manhattan’s Riverside Church and continued to work at McDonalds at night. A year after his arrival in the United States, he took the GED in English and passed. Buoyed by his newfound fluency, Sepulveda began to audition for more English-language acting jobs, but ultimately found himself longing for the cultural resonance he found at Alianza. With such a strong track-record in the program, Sepulveda was quickly given a job, and for the past 10 years, he has been providing a space for young Dominicans to connect with their heritage and take pride in their musical traditions.

“In New York we are seen as a very poor community, and I don’t believe we are,” Sepulveda said. “With each generation, there’s more and more well-educated Dominicans moving forward, but somehow that doesn’t seem to be the highlight. Now, I’m trying to fix those misconceptions.”

Part Three: Botanica San Miguel

Despite the high concentration of modern medical facilities scattered around Washington Heights, many Dominican ex-pats choose to pursue more traditional means of healing when they are ill or have experienced misfortune. In such circumstances, these individuals turn to botanicas or healing centers, where shaman-like priests communicate with spirits and concoct teas, oils, and prayers for their clients. Botanica San Miguel, on 184th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, is one of the largest and most established of these operations, having served the community for over two decades.

Shelves of candles to ward away negative spirits and bad omens. // A shelf of offerings to the Saint of Death. // Shelves of oils and ointments to alleviate physical pains.

The shop’s proprietor, Rosa Morales, is in her forties and has been in New York City for 27 years, giving her ample time to cultivate a base of dedicated clients. While Morales is not a trained spiritual healer, she is well-connected, and has several experienced shamans at her beck and call. Most of her clients are older Dominicans, who were raised in rural areas of the Dominican Republic where santería served as the sole public health service. Below, Morales is pictured in a small annex of her shop, which serves as a room for prayer to the Santa Muerte, or the Saint of Death. Given the spiritual intimacy of the space, Morales declined to look at the camera, explaining that to do so would be to exhibit herself as being holier than spiritual purpose of the place.

Part Four: Fort George Presbyterian Church

Churches and pageantry are not exactly a classical pairing, but on a Saturday evening, at the Fort George Presbyterian Church in Washington Heights, the two were brought together for a rehearsal for the Miss Verano 2017 pageant. While contestants range in age from 11 to 30 years old, the rehearsals at Fort George are reserved for the youngest competitors, those in the 11 to 14 year old division. Here, they practice singing and dancing to a litany of traditional Dominican bachata and merengue songs in a basement room of the church. As pageant coordinator Carolina Viamón explained,

“We call it a competition, but it really isn’t a competition. Everyone is a winner. It is about learning traditional arts and building confidence. It is about the inner self of the competitor because they all are beautiful and talented. We want to make them strong and able to stand up to challenges.”
Carolina Viamón, one of the coordinators of the Miss Verano 2017 pageant.

One of those most dedicated to cultivating resilience among these girls is Bruno B. Aponte, the choreographer for the talent portion of the pageant. Gliding around the room with his students, he twirls them to and fro, directing them to smile, to face forward, to be more dramatic with their movements. Below, Bruno can be found in his element, on the job.

Whether it be through eating quipes and bizcocho from a Dominican bakery like Zon, taking merengue classes at Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center, receiving a spiritual cleansing from a shaman at Botanica San Miguel, or singing bachata and celebrating Dominican womanhood at Miss Verano 2017, many Dominicans living in New York make an effort to stay in touch with their cultural roots. Even as various socioeconomic factors push more and more Dominicans out of Washington Heights and into the South Bronx and elsewhere, these unique cultural spaces continue to represent a vibrant piece of the borough’s cultural landscape, elevating Dominican culture amongst those who might be longing for home.