CUNY Dominican Studies Institute

Administration October 2023 PREMIUM

Ramona Hernandez’ Mission to Bolster Dominican Identity and Success

In the United States, 2.4 million American citizens were born in the Dominican Republic, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, of which nearly half reside in New York City. But there’s only one research organization in the U.S., the Dominican Studies Institute of the City University of New York (CUNY), which produces research and scholarship about Dominicans.

The Dominican Studies Institute is led by its director, Ramona Hernandez, a scholar, a public advocate for Dominicans and a professor of sociology at the City College of New York (CCNY). She’s written books on Dominican migration, labor and other areas of Dominican studies. Hernandez herself, who is 69-years-old, immigrated with her parents to the U.S. at age 19, to the Bronx, not knowing any English. And like many immigrants, she used education as a springboard for advancement, having studied at Lehman College in the Bronx, majoring in history and Latin American studies, and being influenced by her mentor Frank Bonilla at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. She earned her master’s and doctorate in sociology from the CUNY Graduate Center.

Reasons for a Dominican Institute

A 2020 Latino Policy Institute report noted that Mexicans compose 59% of the Latino population in the U.S., followed by 9% Puerto Ricans, 5% Salvadorans, 4% Cubans and 4% Dominicans. Hence, Dominicans are the fifth largest Hispanic population in the U.S.  Hernandez points out that they sometimes get lost in the Hispanic conversation, compared to Mexicans, who have a much larger population and longer history with the U.S., and Puerto Ricans, who live in a territory of the U.S.

“Dominicans have to make their way here. Dominicans don’t get visas through a lottery but have to endure a rigorous process to obtain a visa to come to the U.S.,” Hernandez noted. Moreover, most Dominican immigrants to the U.S. are working-class, “not your doctor, lawyer or high-tech worker that everyone wants,” she added.

The Dominican Studies Institute launched in 1992, spearheaded by the Council of Dominican Educators, consisting of academics and community activists from CUNY, to address the lack of reliable information on Dominicans.   

Since so many Dominicans in New York City settled in Washington Heights and Northern Manhattan, it made the most sense to house the Institute at the City College of New York, its oldest campus and flagship research institute, located in Harlem and closest to those neighborhoods.  

In New York City, she cited, Dominicans are “the health care workers, home attendants, retail and food workers, taxi drivers, maintenance staff and security guards” who keep the city functioning. At the same time, Dominicans have gained a foothold in New York City, where they have “achieved their greatest successes—politically, economically, culturally,” Hernandez pointed out. “When a community organizes and fights to be recognized for its rights, it also obtains greater recognition from others,” she noted. And Dominicans have gained influence on the national stage, such as Tom Perez, who was an advisor to President Obama and Democratic party leader, and Julissa Reynoso Pantaleon, the U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

A research center dedicated to the Dominican heritage and culture enriches its people. “If you were Dominican or of Dominican ancestry, wouldn’t you want that serious academic knowledge to be produced about your origins, your culture, your history?” she asked.

From Dream to Reality

Hernandez pointed out that, from its inception, the Institute’s impact “was significant because of the academic vacuum it filled and the educational needs it met.” The original grant was renewed for $100,000, and by 1994, the CUNY Board of Trustees approved it as a component of the university.

The Dominican Studies Institute consists of a staff of 29 people, including full-time and part-time employees who work at the Research Unit, Library and Archives, and adds internships from over 30 CCNY students. While CUNY covers full-time staff salaries, the Institute seeks external funding for all of its research projects from other sources. 

Hernandez emphasizes that there is no other Dominican research institute operating in the U.S. comparable to it. “It produces world-class research and publications of the Dominican experience, offering resources, through its Library and Archives, that no other institution holds,” she noted.

To accomplish its goals, the Dominican Studies Institute involves scholars and researchers in various research projects, some of which can take years to complete. It also offers fellowships to scholars, including tenured professors, graduate students and independent researchers, to advance knowledge in Dominican studies. “Some are selected through an open call for applications,” Hernandez noted. Then, scholars discuss their projects at public forums.

Helping to achieve its goals are its Library and Archives. The Library holds secondary sources dealing with Dominican studies, and the Archives collect and preserve primary sources and documents. For example, materials are donated by community leaders, former elected officials and researchers. It covers a variety of multidisciplinary topics, including Dominican history, Dominican music and cultural trends.

Certain studies explore topics that have been overlooked. For example, Hernandez cited a recent study on the socioeconomic conditions of Dominican people living in Puerto Rico. “This is a group that has been largely overlooked and understudied, even though Dominicans in Puerto Rico deserve closer attention, particularly women, who are marginalized because of gender or their migratory status,” she said.

These research studies can also affect social policy. For example, she cited a study the Institute conducted on the status of Dominicans in Washington Heights, where gentrification and rising rents are forcing some Dominicans out of the neighborhood. “We documented how many Dominicans lived there 20 years ago, 10 years ago and now, and show their income levels,” she said. The bottom line was Dominicans were moving to the Bronx for cheaper rents and out of state to Florida and Pennsylvania.

It proposed solutions, including that New York City needed to increase the number of affordable apartments to retain hard-working Dominicans and other immigrants and raise the hourly pay rate for many working-class Dominicans so they can afford rising rents. Given their employment in essential areas, losing them to other states damages the city’s economy.

It is also researching the second and third generation of Dominicans born in the U.S. In Hernandez’ words, the study explores the question “Has the new generation adapted to the behavior of mainstream American society?” 

The Institute  is currently working on several significant projects including: 1) Registering Washington Heights as a Historically Dominican Neighborhood as part of the National Register of Historic Places, 2) Developing a world-class Dominican-American Cultural Center, 3) Collaborating on a project with the Cuban Research Institute in Miami and Puerto Rican Research Hub in Orlando, about Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in three cities, 4) Welcoming Dominican scholars who have received threats in the Dominican Republic for challenging the status quo or denouncing racism.

Asked what areas she would love to see the Institute explore, Hernandez referred to an August 21, 2023 news release about its $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve the recruitment, retention and graduation rates of Latino students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs. Latinos are underrepresented in science fields and this grant, which will create a resource hub at CCNY (as well as the University of New Mexico), will help address that issue.

In sum, Hernandez says her underlying goals at the Institute are to step up the pace of Dominican success in the U.S. while helping students retain their past heritage and not let go of their roots. 


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