Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof

Written by: Lewis Twiby.

New York City remains one of the most culturally diverse cities in the United States having seen immigration from across the world for centuries. One of the many communities to call New York home is the Dominican community which Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof looks at in his 2008 book A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950. Hoffnung-Garskof offers an interesting insight into how diasporas and culture are formed. He is also keen to stress that diasporas do not exist in a vacuum – they interact with both the ‘homeland’ and other diasporas.

As expected, Hoffnung-Garskof begins his book in the capital of the Dominican Republic – Santo Domingo. Here he explores the twin ideas which would shape Dominican history: progreso and cultura. Progreso, the idea that Dominicans were moving to an improved life, and cultura, the concept that Dominicans had to exhibit certain cultural tropes to achieve progreso, would shape both Santo Domingo and New York. A recurrent theme throughout the book is how progreso and cultura evolved in the context of migration. Rural Dominicans saw Santo Domingo as being one of the most important places contributing to cultura, but New York was seen as the pinnacle of cultura. These ideas were also in flux thanks to the turbulent politics of the republic – the genocidal rule of Rafael Trujillo lasted until his assassination in 1961, followed by the dictatorship of Joaquin Balaguer, US occupation, and a turbulent revolution. In Santo Domingo, Hoffnung-Garskof, relies heavily on oral testimony: emerging barrios (which became shantytowns) saw an explosion of grassroots culture and political activism giving ample opportunity to hear subaltern voices. For example, Hoffnung-Garskof shows how cultura was seen as being Catholic, speaking Spanish, and, unfortunately, racialised against Haitians where those in the barrios turned cultura on its head. Political radicals would have their meetings at church services, and young men would play loud music in Spanish as a way to rebel without being attacked by the police.

Moving away from Santo Domingo, Hoffnung-Garskof then takes us to Washington Heights, Manhattan where the Dominican diaspora emerged. Originally, the diaspora was made up of radicals exiled by either Trujillo or Balaguer, but as air costs became cheaper, more and more Dominicans moved to the land of ‘progeso y cultura.’ In what is perhaps the most interesting section of the book Hoffnung-Garskof looks at how the newly arrived Dominicans became racialised in Manhattan. These Dominicans were from a middle-class background back in the Dominican Republic but found themselves in a working-class situation; this caused a paradoxical situation when returning home to visit family members. Dominicans would engage in American consumerism which their family would take as signs of wealth, but domínicanes de Nueva York had to try to explain that they were not wealthy. Meanwhile, they were forced into the racialised world of American society. For generations, Dominicans had considered themselves ‘white’ against ‘black’ Haitians, which caused Trujillo to massacre thousands of Haitians to ‘whiten’ the country, but they were not seen this way in Washington Heights. The area had large Irish, Jewish, African-American, and Puerto Rican communities, so Dominicans were forced to reinvent their identity based on the ever-changing categories of class, race, and culture in Manhattan. Hoffnung-Garskof effectively shows this with his wide range of oral testimony from various community members in Manhattan – easily the strongest aspect of the book is his ample usage of first-hand testimony. However, he could have expanded Manhattan’s history of immigration here a lot more. Jewish and Irish communities are mentioned, but are somewhat overlooked, and the city’s vibrant East Asian, Cuban, Arabic, South Asian, and African diasporas are entirely ignored. It would have been interesting to see how they factored into the Dominican experience in shaping their identity.

Hoffnung-Garskof in the early 1990s worked as a social worker for Dominican families in the Washington Heights schools, and his lengthy discussion of diasporas in schools is his most detailed section. Again, using interviews he manages to recreate, in detail, the various lives of Dominican students, and how they forged their own lives. We see some using their wealth to become doctors, others joining African-American rights groups like Umoja to fight for rights, or clash with African-Americans and Puerto Ricans over racial animosities. Reading it you can tell this has been a passion of his for a long time, and how deeply he cares about the community. This is especially visible when he discusses the crack epidemic of the 1990s – Washington Heights became synonymous with drug crime in the US media. He rebukes many of the common motives associated with Dominicans during the time, showing it was a crisis of capital rather than a moral failing. My favourite point was his criticism of leading attorney, and later New York mayor and Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani for targeting Dominican youths in his exposé on crack, but entirely ignoring the crack epidemic of the Wall Street elite. However, as Hoffnung-Garskof is so invested in the lives of the people of Washington Heights, it does break the flow of the entire narrative. He was so eager to show us the entirety of Washington Heights that we read biography after biography in just two chapters making it, at times, hard to read. If anything, and hopefully he might do this in the future, these narratives could become their very own piece of historical writing.

Finally, I just want to quickly discuss how Hoffnung-Garskof links diasporas to the ‘homeland.’ As mentioned earlier, the diaspora was not cut-off from the Dominican Republic – ranging from family visits ‘home’ at Christmas to exiled leftists waiting for the fall of the US-backed regime. Here the twin ideas of cultura and progreso come into play. On the one hand, the New York based community were seen with a sense of pride back in Santo Domingo. The regular Dominican Day parades, growing affluence of the community, and even Dominicans partaking in beauty pageants were viewed as Dominicans achieving progreso – they had become the immigrant community to be emulated. However, they were simultaneously degraded as going against cultura. Women going out of the home, children engaging in American consumerism, and the adoption of American fashions were viewed as Dominicans becoming too Americanised. Domínicannewyork was invented to lambast a diaspora deemed too American. Nevertheless, American-based Dominicans still viewed themselves as ‘Dominican’ and not ‘Dominican-American.’ Newspapers like Ahora! reported on events in both New York and Santo Domingo, and the right to vote in Dominican elections was eventually granted to the diaspora. Hoffnung-Garskof ensures that the themes of cultura and progreso are never forgotten in the narrative.

For anyone interested in the histories of immigration, the formation of identity, and diasporas then A Tale of Two Cities is a must read. Almost, at times, needing a smoother narrative, Hoffnung-Garskof’s investment in the diaspora makes it an engaging read, and the abundancy of oral testimony turns the names on the pages into living, breathing people. He has recently released a book about Cubans and Puerto Ricans in New York, so hopefully we can see more of his writing soon.

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