For some immigrants, The American Dream is alive in D.C.

6 years ago by in 2013


By Idit Knaan

Judith Arias, 45, still remembers the white dress her 2-year-old daughter wore the day she left her with relatives in the Dominican Republic and boarded a plane to the United States. It would be three years before Arias saw her daughter again.

These days Arias, a mother of three and grandmother of two, owns her own beauty salon in Washington, D.C., where she is one of the roughly 10,000 Dominicans living in the greater Washington region, according to 2011 Census Bureau data.

But in the early 1990s, she was a struggling single mother.

When Arias worked at a hair salon in her native Dominican Republic, many of her clients were Dominicans who were visiting from the U.S. You could make a good living doing hair in the U.S., they told her, sparking her dream of immigrating to the U.S. in search of a better life for herself and her daughter.

VIDEO: Judith Arias talks about leaving her young daughter with family in the Dominican Republic when she left in search of a new life for them in the U.S. 


The American Dream

More than one in four adult Dominicans share Arias’ dream to immigrate to the U.S., according to a recent Gallup poll.

This is hardly a surprise for Carol Graham, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, whose research spans poverty, inequality, public health and novel measures of well being in Latin America.

“It’s one of the Latin American countries with the worst governed economy in the region,” Graham wrote in an email interview.

Arias got a visa granting her access to the U.S. in 1994. It was valid for just three months, but with little money and a strong will to find a better life for her young child, she stayed for good. Later, she married a U.S. citizen and became a permanent resident.

Landing in New York City — her first time outside of her island homeland — Arias started out going door-to-door offering an in-home manicure and pedicure service.

Eventually, she found a job at a Dominican hair salon, where she worked for several years before moving to Maryland and opening her own salon.

Land of opportunity

Despite the recession and slow recovery, the U.S. continues to be the most popular destination for potential immigrants worldwide.  According to a recent Gallup poll, the Dominican Republic is third in the world – after Liberia and Sierra Leone – in the percentage of its population that would like to move to the U.S..

More than 40 percent of the estimated 10 million residents of the Dominican Republic live below the poverty line, according to World Bank data. Money sent from Dominicans in the U.S. amounts to nearly 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Many, like Arias, are willing to do whatever it takes for the opportunity of a better life.

“Regardless of the state of the U.S. economy, the wage differentials with countries like the Dominican Republic are still of an order of magnitude that the move is well-worth making,” Graham wrote.

Just a few blocks away from Arias’ salon, Los Hermanos restaurant, a Dominican restaurant in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., bustles with the lunch crowd.

D.C. native Raymond Compres, whose family owns the restaurant, serves plates piled with meat, rice, beans and plantains to a largely Dominican clientele. The radio plays romantic bachata tunes, a style of music native to the Dominican Republic, and the restaurant’s wall-mounted television is showing a Dominican baseball game.

“It’s been our year,” Compres says, referring to the Dominican team’s recent World Classic Baseball championship win.

Thanks to the more lenient immigration laws of the 1980s, Raymond’s parents were able to follow family members already living in the U.S. and immigrate.

“My country is a nice place to live,” says Mercedes Compres, Raymond’s mother, but making a living is very hard. We wanted to come to the U.S. for better economic opportunities and education for our children, Compres says in Spanish.

About three miles away, thousands start to gather near the U.S. Capitol for the “Rally for Citizenship,” where immigration reform supporters demanded a path to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally. Several of the restaurant’s patrons, including Arias, finish their meals and head to the National Mall to join the protest.


In my recent story, “For some immigrants, the American dream is alive in D.C.,” I wrote about the Dominican community in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. When my classmates and I decided that our issue of The American Observer will focus on immigrants in the U.S., I knew I wanted to write about the Dominican Republic, where I lived for two years, from 2004 to 2006.

Since moving to D.C. from the DR in 2006, I often miss the sounds and flavors of Santo Domingo. And since moving to the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in 2009, I’ve often walked by Judith Dominican Style Salon on 18th Street and wondered who Judith was, and what the salon was like. In the DR, women regularly spend hours getting their hair done in beauty salons. Straight hair is often referred to as “good hair.” In the U.S., many use the term “Dominican blowout” to describe the methods Dominican hair stylists use to straighten hair.

As part of my reporting for this story, I spent a few hours shooting stills and video in Judith’s salon on a busy Saturday before Easter. I spoke with Judith’s, her husband, her clients and a few of the employees. I spent a few more hours with Judith in the following week, interviewing her on video about her immigration story. Her touching story, I thought, would be powerful on video. Unfortunately, the only available space to do the interview was at the back of the salon, and the background noise made much of the audio nearly inaudible. Still, I chose to include one of the most powerful moments, when Judith talks about leaving her 2-year-old daughter with relatives in the DR, in the story.

When I asked about other Dominicans I could speak with, Judith recommended I head over to a nearby Dominican restaurant. That’s where I met the Compres family. I interviewed the Compreses and several of their clients.

I recorded most of my interviews, but eventually decided to create a photo slideshow, because the photos were visually strong, while the audio was marred with background noises typical to busy businesses.

Idit Knaan

Washington, D.C.-based multimedia journalist.