Making #DominicanFoodStudies a thing!


Latinx Cilantro

The seeds of this Cilantro were brought over by Dominican immigrants from the Dominican Republic, now it is growing and sold it locally in Providence, RI.

By Vanessa García Polanco, Michigan State University

Blog editors’ note: This is the fall edition of the Latinx Foodways in North America series, which looks at different approaches scholars use to analyze foods and food production with Latinx communities. If you would like to contribute or know of someone who does work in this area, please contact Sarah Fouts  More details about the series can be found here. 

When I moved to Rhode Island, at age fifteen, from Moca, Dominican Republic, I was lucky. I could find culturally appropriate foods in most major supermarkets (Stop Shop, Shaws, Price Rite) close to the majority Italian-American town north of Providence where my family was one of the few from the Dominican Republic. Dominicans are the largest substantial Hispanic minority in Rhode Island and one of the top five Hispanic minorities nationwide; Dominicanidad is celebrated on Broad Street in South Providence—the neighborhood full of Dominican culture, bodegas, restaurants, fruit stands and Chimis Trucks.

Our family’s distance created a massive void within me about my culture, even with frequent trips to “la broa,” or Broad Street, and to this new status as a ‘Dominican yol” or “Dominicanyork”, Dominican slang referring to a Dominican who lives in New York or otherwise in the United States. It wasn’t until I went to college at the University of Rhode Island that I was able to find fellow Dominican immigrants to befriend. This was also hard because they were mostly Dominican American, had migrated here at a younger age, and had particular Rhode Island experiences that I did not share with them. Based on these varying experiences, I wanted to study what Dominican food meant to Dominican immigrants in Rhode Island, to understand my journey of transnationalism and immigration.

Scholars like Jose Itzigsohn in Encountering American Faultlines, Sherri Grasmuck and Patricia R. Pessar in  Between Two Islands: Dominican International Migration, and Silvio Torres-Saillant and Ramona Hernandez in The Dominican Americans explore some of these dynamics of Dominican transnationalism but barely look into food. Meanwhile, Quisqueya on the Hudson: The Transnational Identity of Dominicans in Washington Heights, a research study by the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, showed little consensus on the core of Dominican identity. The most frequently cited characteristic was the Dominican accent in speaking Spanish, followed by standard references to merengue and comida criolla, or ethnic food. One woman in the study posited, “If you don’t eat rice and beans and plantains, you’re not Dominican.” For gender and Dominican foodways, Lidia Marte’s work adds the perspective of Dominican women in New York City to discussions on Latinx foodways and food studies, illustrating that I am not alone in my appetite to highlight Caribbean cuisines.

Building on the work of these scholars and my own blog reflecting on food, migration, gender, and race as a Dominican immigrant, I seek to develop further research on Dominican immigrants in food studies, cultural anthropology and food systems. I am on an endless search to document everything in my culture, especially food, as a way to elevate this culture while also connecting with my family. I use ethnographic questions and methods when talking to my elders, when mapping my family’s immigration history, and when trying to understand the gender stereotypes about who ought to cook and how proper it is for a young woman to know how too. The collective knowledge and memory of the women in my family is a birthright I seek to claim, so I ask questions. I ask my elders, about their foodways from 50 years ago, about plants for different uses (culinary, medicinal, religious) about transitioning from natural seasonings (things that grew up in their yards in the rural countryside of Dominican Republic prior to traveling to the United States) to what they use now: Why did you cook with abodo and sazón goya?? When did you first start using it in your cooking?  I have found this process rewarding, yet sensible and exhausting when examining traditions, habits, and memory. When trying to connect past and present patterns with theories about transnationalism, identity,  foodways, and gender my informants will normalize as it, Ha si e’ la cosa (that is how things are). Yet, as public writer and scholar, I refuse to give it up, normalize and simplify attitudes in my culture that are worth examining further.

Food for so long has been a tool to perpetuate the status quo, particularly gender and age expectations. For a long time, when I was growing up in the Dominican Republic and as an immigrant in the United States, I was not too fond of what food symbolized for me: a mandate to a domestic life that limited my ability to engage economically and politically with society.  Then, the study of food and the advocacy for sustainable food systems has in many ways liberated me from that state of domesticity, subjection, and shame that I so much feared growing up. Now, I am away from any Dominican enclave and Dominican culture as a whole. I have not even found Dominicans in my new city (Lansing, MI) or university (Michigan State University) and my research population do not include Dominican immigrants as of yet. That does not stop me, rather, it encourages me to continue to develop this field of Dominican Food Studies as a way to stay connected to my culture and fellow compatriots.

My process is uniquely autoethnographic. My results, public writings to create a platform, an invitation to explore and document our collective consciousness, and that is mutual knowledge, norms, and expectations as Dominicans, Dominican immigrants, and Dominican Americans. Many times I tweet #foodisneverjustfood because now I see food as part of the political, social, physical and psychological process to explain culture, society, and systems of power and oppression. In the end, when we study food, we examine ourselves, we consider the landscape, we review what makes us unique and that is why I try to make #DominicanFoodStudies a thing. So more Dominicans, Dominican immigrants, Dominican Americans, scholars and anyone that is interested can continue to discover who we are and who we want to be.

Vanessa García Polanco is a food system practitioner and food justice advocate. She is currently pursuing a Master in Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. You can learn more about her here. Follow her a @vgpvisions.





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