Rosita M. Romero is Executive Director of the Dominican Women's Development Center (DWDC), a non-profit organization located in Washington Heights. On October 6, 1988, Ms. Romero, together with eight other Dominican women, founded the DWDC. As the DWDC website states, Romero and her co-founders "identified the need for Latinas to organize around critical issues and seek solutions to systemic problems affecting their families and community, such as sexism and discrimination, high housing costs, low-achieving schools, high dropout rates, limited access to health care services, attacks on reproductive rights, high teenage pregnancy, and high poverty rates." The Center's stated mission is "to aid in the growth and development of our self-esteem by affirming our identity and solidarity through multicultural and holistic social services as well as with the provision of educational, economic and cultural development programming."
In our phone conversation, Ms. Romero offers a rich, multidimensional perspective on her Dominican identity. "First of all I am very proud of my Dominican roots and being Dominican takes me back to the home where I grew up in the Dominican Republic. It was a working class family household in a relatively poor neighborhood, Ensanche Espaillat, in the city of Santo Domingo. When you're growing up in a city like that, there's a time in your life when you realize that that small neighborhood is part of a larger world. When I think about my connection to the larger world, I think I can fit into that because I had a happy childhood. I had this feeling 'I am Dominican,' knowing where I came from, and feeling ready to fit into the larger world. And then at one point after being a little bit more educated I realized some things that really influenced my world outlook so much: that I am Dominican, and we have a very rich heritage made up of the influences of the Taíno indigenous people, the Africans that were brought as slaves to the Dominican Republic, and the Spaniards who conquered our country. We are the product of that mix. That means that our culture is very rich. It also means that I feel connected to those three cultures very strongly. It means that sometimes I visualize myself walking on the streets of Africa, sometimes on the streets of Spain, or sometimes bathing in a river with the native people. And there's something about accepting your influences about who you are that helps you become those people. You can visually picture yourself belonging to those three areas. When you do that, you feel you can fit anywhere. In the Dominican Republic you learn the national anthem, the colors of the flag, your history. They instill on you a sense of patriotism and pride in who you are. That gives me the confidence of feeling that I can walk into any country, I can speak to anybody else from the rest of the world because I also have a country that I come from that I can be proud of. For example if Swedish people are proud of their heritage and country, so am I;the Swedes did what they had to do to, and we did what we had to do, too.
"The other way it helps my approach to my work is that being Dominican, we take pride in being independent. We celebrate our war of independence. In my work I take a lot of pride in being independent, running an independent organization created within the community, by the community. We believe in cooperation, not extinction. We want to remain strong, and that comes from the perspective of being Dominican and the belief that it's better to be independent."
Romero cites her grandmother as a strong influence on her. "Her name was Bartola Ortiz. She always said that I was very intelligent, she saw charisma in me, she always made me smile, applauded a lot of my actions, and that gave me an increased level of self-confidence. Early on, I realized that I had a happy childhood, loving parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, and friends that were great playmates. It prepared me to approach the world with courage, confidence, and joy."
Looking back on those carefree times, Romero sees hints of her future activism in the character of her childhood self."I started seeing gender inequality from the time when I was child. I believe that I became aware of being a feminist when I was 10 years old. One day I told my mom, 'Mom, why do you always serve Dad his meals separate, give him the best part of the meat, and give the children less food and the worse parts?' My mother said 'Because, that's how you serve men.' I said, 'It's not fair, I want to be served like my father.' It was a child's perspective. Later, I realized that children need less food, but at that time I questioned the different treatment." This quest for answers, and for justice, has remained crucial to Romero's further trajectory.
Romero's immigration experience was, she says, "very similar to that of millions of other Dominicans." She went to Puerto Rico in 1973, and lived there for six years, before coming to the US. After a couple of months in New York, she then went to the University of New Haven in Connecticut to study.
"In college at the University of Puerto Rico I took a philosophy class. The professor was talking about the philosopher Schopenhauer, who said that women are animals with long hair and short ideas. That bothered me so much and I told the professor that I disagreed, that women have many good ideas. The professor said I argued so passionately that he recommended I join an off-campus women's organization, called Mujer Integrate Ahora (MIA). I called and went to their office space and joined the group. I started collaborating on their newsletter and reading about feminism and women's perspectives, and I thought it was exciting. I wanted to help women improve their role in society. I want to be one of those women who prove that women can be as intelligent as men. Working for this mission makes me so happy, brings me so much joy. It makes me feel really good, feeling that that's my purpose in life.Getting together with other women who had similar missions is what led to the creation of the Dominican Women's Development Center."
Romero co-founded several other Dominican women's organizations prior to the DWDC, but none lasted, due to internal tensions. "The other Dominican women's organizations disappeared because of division and internal arguments and those organizations were never able to get any funding or space or establish themselves in the community. However, intellectually and emotionally, they prepared me to create the DWDC. I learned how to run meetings, develop an agenda, develop by-laws, write proposals, and deal with the technical aspects of running an organization.
"Raising funds for an organization is very challenging. There are budget cuts and other problems to deal with. Society does not have a lot of confidence in a group of Dominican or Latina women of color;sometimes being a woman of color can be challenging because you're not always respected for the work you do. You have to work harder, try harder. It can be a challenge. The most rewarding part is when the families that we serve give us a smile to thank us for what we have done. When they tell us: 'You really changed my life' or 'Thank you so much for having helped me.' People like the idea of our organization. We continue to grow. We started with nothing. Right now we have a fairly decent budget. We keep growing, growing, growing. "
Romero's work continually drives her to acquire new skills. "I have become a very good proposal writer;I have become good at negotiating contracts with the city, better at public relations, and being able to take advantage of opportunities that come our way. You have to have a go-getter kind of attitude so you can move when the opportunity presents itself. You have to be able to grab it. One of the changes is that at the beginning, I didn't have a clear perspective on what we wanted. We started brainstorming, we asked women. One thing I take pride in is that I am able to incorporate the ideas of people around me into my work. In a way that makes us all bigger and better. I might be working with people who have ideas I never thought about and if I include those ideas it makes us all look good. At the beginning I wasn't sure where I was going and now I have a clearer idea of how the organization can grow. It's something you develop with experience. You learn to fine tune what you want in life. You're able to visualize more and be realistic about what you can and cannot do."
I ask Romero what achievements she is proudest of. "There are three accomplishments that stand out—the first and second are two wonderful children I've raised who I'm very proud of and love very much.The third is having been a part of creating an organization with long-lasting, deep roots in the community, with solid infrastructure, that we know is going to stay around for hundred s of years."
In a dynamic cycle of good will, Romero's dedication to her work inspires others, who continue to inspire her to persevere and do more for the community. "Something I really like about myself is that I am passionate about things, I work hard for what I want and I usually get it. Right now the organization is planning to open a daycare center in 2015. We've been talking about it for 20 years. I am persistent. I love to persevere. We are creating a day care center servicing 106 children. Another project is buying a building by January 2016. These are things we are able to accomplish because of the support I have, because of the board of directors, my staff, my family, all the people that believe in me. That's the gas that gets me going. It means not even thinking that I am going to disappoint them. No. I am going to do what I believe I can do and what people believe I can do. I am overly optimistic in that sense. If people think I can do something, I believe those people and go ahead and do it. At the same time I encourage, inspire, and push a lot of people to do things. I try to encourage people to just follow their dreams, passions, to be more active, to be agents of change. We all have a purpose in life, we all have this ability to change the world, so let's do that. Let's improve this world, leave it in a better condition than how we found it."