Residents of the Dominican Republic, especially the impoverished ones, have long viewed the United States and especially New York City as a land of limitless wealth. All you have to do is live there for a few years, and you too will be wealthy.
This erroneous vision was fostered in the 1980s with the crack epidemic centered in Washington Heights, an area located north of New York City and predominantly populated by Dominican immigrants. Thousands of dollars in cash were sent back to the families, who still lived in the Dominican Republic.
Though the days of easy money have passed, the Dominican poor still believe that, if only family member can reach the U.S. and remain for a few years, he or she could bring the entire family remaining in the Dominican Republic out of poverty. Thus, the Dominican Republic is the largest exporter of immigrants to the New York City schools. Dominican immigrants now comprise ten percent of the 1.1 million students in the New York City schools.
These young New York City schools immigrants face particularly difficult problems as they attempt to acclimate into American society. They face the pressures to integrate at school, while facing the pressures to remain the same at home. Parents too face challenges with the New York City schools.
The first problem is culture shock. In the Dominican Republic, children always must defer to their elders and hold their tongues, having no way to express their own feelings or opinions. In contrast, children quickly learn in the New York City schools that American children are vital members of society, like any adult. They realize that adults care what they think. They become more outspoken both at school and at home, finding the social freedoms compelling and liberating.
Parents feel themselves losing control of their children, who are shedding their cultural restrictions. They view New York City schools children as arrogant and flamboyant, with no respect for their elders. Such contrasting expectations between children and parents cause stress at home. Of course, many parents blame the New York City schools for their children adopting these attributes, where they did not wish to send their children anyway.
The Dominican immigrant home environment is not always conducive to learning. For impoverished families in the Dominican Republic, education is not a priority, as it is with the wealthy families there. Though early schooling is free for children, it is seen as a costly endeavor for families just trying to make ends meet. Clothing for school, meals, school supplies, books, and transportation are luxuries for such families. According to the World Bank, 13 percent of children ages 7-14 work outside the home, rather than attend school. According to Unicef, 16 percent of children ages 10-17 are illiterate. Usually, one or both parents have little or no education, due to less long-term educational exposure for children of poorer families. Is it any wonder they may resent the mandatory law for their children to attend the New York City schools?
Though cultural differences present a major obstacle, language is the biggest difficulty for these immigrant children in the New York City schools. According to Robert Mercedes, Principal of Middle School 390 in the Bronx and President of the Association of Dominican-American Supervisors and Administrators, Dominican children arrive at the New York City schools lacking the basic native-language skills of the Dominican Republic. This makes transitioning them into the English language even more difficult.
They feel like outsiders in the New York City schools. They are in a language and cultural isolation. They are generally dumped into bilingual classes at low-income schools, and feel more of a burden to the New York City schools than an equal to the other students. The victim mentality takes over for many of these youth, who separate themselves into close-knit ethnic groups. They are especially vulnerable to street gang recruitment, which pervades the areas around the ghetto-like atmosphere of some of the New York City schools they attend.
On one side, the New York City schools are a haven of new opportunities for the Dominican children and their parents. Yet, these same opportunities can be the downfall of the immigrant family values and the children, as well. It is a dual-edged sword, afflicted with stressful difficulties and insurmountable obstacles for many.