A glimpse into New York City’s top immigrant group: the 33rd Dominican Day Parade and Festival

Written by Arielle Kandel


This month in New York, there were more festivals, parades, and cultural events showcasing the diversity of the city’s population and immigrant communities than ever: the famous Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in Flushing, the traditional Giglio Feast of San Antonio in East Harlem, the joyful India Day Parade in Murray Hill, and many more.

But let’s talk about the annual Dominican Day Parade and Festival, which filled Sixth Avenue with festive colors and sounds on a warm Sunday a few weeks ago, in celebration of New York City’s top immigrant group.

The Dominican Day Parade took place for the first time in New York City in 1982, as a small celebration with concerts and other cultural events in the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan. Since then it has greatly grown in size and moved to Sixth Avenue, still in Manhattan, while other similar parades and celebrations, but of lesser scale, are also held annually along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, and in several other cities and towns in New York State and neighboring New Jersey.

I had read that the parade was to start at 11am, but as I stepped out of the subway station at Bryant Park a bit after noon, cars were still driving up Sixth Avenue, some of them blasting Dominican music through their open windows. Crowds had begun to gather along police barricades, and sidewalks quickly turned into a sea of blue, white, and red, with spectators wearing shirts, dresses, and head wraps in the colors of the Dominican Republic. Street vendors wandered around selling Dominican flags, sun umbrellas, and paper fans. The sun was hitting hard. I crawled myself into a free spot behind a barricade. The atmosphere was still fairly calm at that point, but excitation and impatience rose as spectators continued to arrive, and the first applauses and a few vuvuzela horns echoed across the avenue.

Dominicans are the top immigrant group in New York City, accounting for about 12 percent of the foreign-born with a bit more than 380,000 residents. Around 4 in 10 Dominican immigrants in the US live in New York City, the majority of them in the Bronx and in Upper Manhattan. In the Western section of the Bronx and in the Washington Heights, but also in several neighborhoods in Brooklyn, notably in Bushwick, Dominican immigrants constitute the largest foreign-born group. Like other immigrant groups, they tend to be disproportionately between the ages of 18 and 64: in 2011, 80 percent were in this age range, compared with just 58 percent of the native-born. A simple explanation is that many Dominican immigrants are recent arrivals, and come to New York looking for jobs and other economic opportunities. Many of them are women. In fact, Dominicans have among the lowest sex ratios of all immigrant groups in New York: in average, there are in New York only 68 Dominican males for 100 Dominican females. Women often come first, and are later followed by men. As a result, almost half of Dominican households are female-headed families, with no spouse present.

In what seemed a confirmation of these numbers (or just a mere coincidence?), most of the spectators standing next to me and waiting for the parade to begin happened to be young women, some of whom had come with their children. I started chatting with the young woman on my right, Joanna, who was holding a gigantic Dominican flag. She was born in the United States but both her parents were from the Dominican Republic, she said, and she had still a lot of family there. We continued chatting for a bit, mixing English and Spanish. She lived in the Washington Heights and worked as a hairdresser in a small beauty salon in the neighborhood. On my left were also several young women, all from the Dominican Republic, who had brought their children. “My children have never been to the Dominican Republic,” one of them explained, “here they can feel proud to be Dominicans.”

“Que viva la Republica Dominica!” shouted a little boy next to me, waving his flag frantically: he had just spotted the first floats making their way up Sixth Avenue from 37th Street – finally. Soon other spectators joined in, cheering and waving their blue-white-red Dominican flags with excitement.

Like every year, the parade first featured uniformed and orderly floats from city agencies and various unions, community and other groups, to display the contribution and achievements of Dominicans in these organizations.

Followed a few delegations of city officials and politicians of Dominican background or representing districts with a large Dominican population. I heard some of my neighbors commenting: “Ella es Dominicana pero el es Americano”, and cheering and clapping their hands accordingly.

Enthusiasm went up a notch as several floats carrying singers and other local celebrities and blasting popular Dominican hits started to make their way up Sixth Avenue. Dancers in colorful costumes and young men on bicycles decorated in the colors of the Dominican Republic slalomed between the musical floats, to the joy of the crowds. Adults and children alike were thrilled as two famous carnival characters in flamboyant costumes approached the barricades – the “diablo cojuelo”, a satirical representation of the devil with horns and huge pointed teeth; and “Roba la gallina” or “the chicken thief”, a man dressed as a woman in a colorful dress, carrying an open parasol and a large purse to hide stolen chicken.

As the parade drew to an end, energy still filled the thick, warm air of this beautiful summer afternoon. I overheard several of my neighbors discussing with animation their next destination, to a party to continue the celebration. As for myself, I decided to head back home, my ears still vibrating from the pounding rhythm of Dominican music – no doubt, I would be back next year!






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