I walked into a warm, stuffy room on the third floor of Trotter on Wednesday, Nov. 16. The seminar-style table contained noticeable amounts of food on platters but a distinct lack of other people. Eventually, a few professors walked in, as well as a short, turtleneck-clad man I hadn’t seen before.
Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant, professor at Syracuse University and expert on Dominican Americans in the United States, is one of those people who can add to a conversation on anything. After I identified myself as being of Bengali origin, he immediately launched into a flurry of connections: Rabindranath Tagore, famous Bengali philosopher; Chaucer; God. Our following conversation topics on the third floor of Trotter consisted of the Sanctuary Movement, Charles Murray, and literature in history. It ended with Torres-Saillant making a rather salient observation about the election: “When we assert that bad guys are dumb, we do so at our own peril.”
Later in the day, on the first floor of McCabe, Torres-Saillant prefaced his talk on Long Distance Nationalism and the Future of Dominicans in the United States with another weighty statement: “I wish there was time always to say everything one needs to say.”
Then, he began. In front of a scattering of intent students, Torres-Saillant began to outline the history of the Dominican Republic, as well as the history of those people who have come to the United States.
“You cannot study Dominicans in the United States without studying Dominicans in the Dominican Republic, nor can you study the United States alone without studying Latin America,” he said.
With emphatic gesticulations and a knowing smile, he spoke of the few Dominican immigrants who first made their home in New York City. He spoke of American immigration efforts, and Dominican dictators, and institutional religion. (“I don’t know about the Catholic Church in other places. In the Dominican Republic? It’s been mean.” He spoke of Thomas Perez, of Junot Diaz, of A-Rod.
Torres-Saillant’s talk was about history,nationalism, and a lot of grand, universal concepts, but it was also about small things like food.
“Dominicans in the United States, they tend to have a strong attachment to their roots. At times, I find them a bit arrogant, about how ‘people don’t know how to eat’ … There’s a culture of hot meals in Dominican society. They say ‘at home I always had las tres calientes,’ he said.
In his off-hand, almost intimate way, he told us about the success of Dominican American hair salons, but what he really told us about was race.
“You know about the hair salons, right? Hair care is not racialized in Dominican culture …. race pierces through everything, right? … professionals learn to do different hairs without thinking much of it. They have also received crossover status. They can do white hair, if there’s such a thing, or black hair, if there’s such a thing!”
Eventually, Torres-Saillant emphasized the importance of patriotism, or at least his version of it.
“Love of country, love of your ancestors, does not require love even when they are mean…Because I love Dominicans, I am very interested in challenging those Dominicans who do mean things. The people for me, cannot mean the government. The people cannot mean the powerful [and] corrupt. It has to be decent people. Of course, I’m going to go against Dominican authorities, and then, it is their turn to accuse me of being unpatriotic,” he said.
However, for Torres-Saillant, the most important question isn’t one of patriotism or even nationalism.
“What is going to be your level of human solidarity …, I feel I have made it as a Dominican when I see Dominicans rise to the top, but they are people who are in touch with their sense of human society … and are ready to defend the dignity of their fellow human beings,” he said.
Ultimately, he asked us to consider one question, borrowed from Shakespeare:
“Remember that line in the ‘Merchant of Venice’? ‘If you pinch him, does he not bleed?’ Look out, find what distresses you, and then avoiding similar pain on other people.”