“Sancocho and Mofongo”- The Dilemma of a Puerto Rican Dominican by Peter Fontanes

Peter Fontanes, Member of the Board of Directors of the National Dominican American Council (NDAC)

Puerto Rican Dominicans born in the United States are becoming more common as these two cultures begin to cross pollinate in various theaters from politics to entertainment. Certainly, we can see how Salsa and Merengue have dominated the Latino musical arena on both the islands and here in New York social interaction and political cooperation now finds both communities on an equal playing field.

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I can recall that when I left Washington Heights in 1971 to go to the University of Chicago, I actually only knew three Dominican-born people in the Heights and these were only my Grandmother and her sons who were my Uncle Tony and my father, Pedro. My paternal grandfather, Antonio, was a Puerto Rican who served with the United States Marines during the American occupation of the Dominican Republic. While there, he met my grandmother in Puerto Plata, married her and had two children. Tragically, Antonio met an untimely demise in a gambling dispute forcing my father and his family to relocate to New York. There my grandmother met and married a Puerto Rican gentlemen. My father went off to fight during the Second World war in the Philippines theater. When he was discharged he met and married my mother a Puerto Rican from the island of Culebra. My father would say to us that we were fifty percent Puerto Rican, fifty percent Dominican and 150% American.

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So as you can see the mixture thickens but it becomes more interesting as I left for college. When I returned, the population in the heights became more diverse and the Dominican population grew as the Puerto Rican population decreased. Many Puerto Ricans were starting to leave their neighborhoods to upstate suburbs.

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Eventually, the Latino population were able to muster up the political muscle to elect two Puerto Ricans District Leaders Frank Nieves and Julia Paz, to low level party political office. The dramatic increase in Dominican population led to the development of political activism that can be only described as phenomenally successful. Thanks to the efforts of groups such as the Alianza Dominicana and the Dominican American National Roundtable there was an unprecedented increase of Dominicans elected and appointed to office not only in New York but New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and other U.S. states and territories, including Puerto Rico. Soon afterwards, I was elected to District Leader and went on to become the New York County Democratic Party Committee Vice Chair. Eventually, in the Heights, we had Maria Luna elected to the New York State Democratic Committee and then Guillermo Linares elected to the New York City Council. Previously, Arthur O. Eve was elected assemblyman in 1966 in Buffalo, NY, becoming the first Dominican elected in the history of the United States; he served as assemblyman for 36 years. Together with Charles Rangel and other leaders he was one of the founders of what’s known today as the NYS Black, Puerto Rican & Hispanic Legislative Caucus; Mr. eve became deputy speaker and the most powerful elected official of color in the New York State Legislature. Fast forwarding our story to the present, we are proud to have Adriano Espaillat who was recently elected as the first Dominican American to Congress.

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Admittedly, my ties to both communities could be complicated but it has proven to be beneficial in supporting a Latino based political agenda. I operated under the premise that each Latino based Diaspora, regardless from where they come from, was essential to developing an agenda with goals and objectives that were more in common than different. Having a solid coalition would assist in the growth of these newly arrived migrants who were determined to make their mark on our society.

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For example, my support for statehood for Puerto Rico is well-known and partially comes for the need of Latinos to have more representation in the federal government. If Puerto Rico were to become a state it would allow 7 representatives and two Senators to speak for Latinos all over the country. Indeed, it was my efforts along with many of the Mexican American and Puerto Rican delegations from the League of United Latino American Citizens better known as LULAC that came out for the first time in unequivocally supporting statehood for the island.

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I have also requested that the New York State Puerto Rican Hispanic Legislative Task Force or SOMOS change their name to the Latino Task Force so that we can expand on the concept of Latino unity. Inclusion should be the word of the day for us as we move into realities of the shifting demographics. Certainly we can see the election of an Ecuadorian to the New York State Assembly, Francisco Moya and the election of a Mexican American to the New York City Council, Carlos Menchaca, as an indication of how drastic the need for a real coalition to evolve. Of course, we cannot forget that it was the Puerto Ricans who paved the road for these newly emerging populations. However, it would be shortsighted to allow Puerto Ricans to take an unrealistic elitist overview of their role in the effort for far reaching change in national and local issues.

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So in a way, you can say that my Dominican roots allowed me to see the advantage of facilitating constructive discussions toward creating a cohesive and comprehensive plan for unity among Latinos. Until we do this we are vulnerable to allowing others less inspired toward our well-being to try to divide and conquer. Best to be united behind our common goals and objectives then to delve in counterproductive attempts in a policy of “Quitate tu para ponerme a mi”.

About Peter Fontanes

Peter Fontanes