October 18, 2021.
United States. –
On September 17th, Chairman of the Diaspora & Development Foundation , an Institution that envisions an integrated world, where diaspora communities are committed to being progress entities in their country of origin, Rodolfo R. Pou held his 2nd conference and release of his 2nd book of the Diaspora y Desarrollo collection. Latina Republic had the opportunity to meet with Rodolfo R. Pou , a Dominican-American architect whose life experiences have led him to expand into numerous career paths, such as a businessman, philanthropist, and author. He is also the current CEO of Quadra Group International, an urban development and investment company, with agreements in South Korea, Washington and the Caribbean. In the governmental sphere, he has been part of the Dominican government, as Vice Minister of Youth. Pou has also worked for large organizations, he was a member of the UNESCO / UN Advisory Council on youth matters.
Pou’s background and experience prepared him to represent Dominicans in Congress and in Conferences and Summits in Washington, Sweden, Germany, Mexico, Uruguay and Guatemala. On International Urban Planning Day, he received a Recognition, by the Mayor of the City of Miami, for his contributions to the development of South Florida’s urban society and culture. Pou, is the author of the book “Diaspora and Development”, and frequently publishes opinion articles and editorials, in more than a dozen medias between the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Orlando and Miami.
Pou writes “through the eyes of an immigrant” and has created an online platform to highlight the varied voices of the Dominican diaspora. Through this forum, where he publishes original interviews with Dominicans across life experiences and articles on the Dominican life in the U.S., Pou’s vision is to positively impact immigrants in the United States.
His childhood and adolescence were shared between the cities of Santo Domingo and Miami, and his exposure to both cultures turned him into a Dominican architect with pronounced socio-political and cultural value in the United States. Pou has always had a passion for helping others. Studying architecture in the Dominican Republic while working in the country’s most marginalized neighborhoods allowed Pou to envision his career path in a whole new lens,
“I understood at that time that architecture was not a craft or a tool for designing homes, buildings and commercial structures. [Architecture] is really a social tool that brings equality of living to everyone that I can touch with that craft. Right then, I also understood that I wouldn’t be able to do it from a drafting table alone, that I would need to do it from a political position,” explained Pou to Latina Republic.
The realization influenced Pou to go beyond architecture into Dominican social and political activism. To be a voice for his people, Pou realized that he would need to speak with the diaspora personally and to get to know his audience, one conversation at a time.
This was the inspiration behind “Conversations with the Diaspora,” where Pou publishes weekly conversations with immigrants and more than half a million Dominicans across social platforms. The exchanges give immigrants exposure and the opportunity to influence other immigrants who want to build a new life in the U.S. As the collection of testimonials grew, Pou realized the forum served to impact and touch on subjects that had not been written before. That’s when the Diáspora y Desarrollo book was born and has now grown into a second volume.
The work comprises a collection of up-to-date opinions, under an independent vision and unrelated to political commitment. The writings highlight social, economic, political, and cultural topics that impact the Dominican diaspora in the United States. The result is something very different from what has been written about and from the diaspora until now. In short, his collection is simply a pioneering document of its kind.
From the social to the economic, from foreign relations to domestic politics; from institutions to their headlines, from foreign to shared cultures, the chapters call on a greater commitment on the part of the diasporas in the United States, towards their local community and their nations of origin.
Volume II goes beyond a collection of opinions of Rodolfo R. Pou. It provides Latin American immigrants in the United States with a discourse in accordance. Pou is indeed a vast expert of the “Diaspora” in all its complexities. In each Chapter, Pou presents innovative ideas, as seen through the experiences of Dominicans abroad, but with a regional awareness.
Rodolfo R. Pou in Conversation with Latina Republic:
LR: What are some common misconceptions of Dominicans in the US?
I think that the misconceptions of Dominicans in the U.S, (where potentially I can see where there can be some truth to it), is that they don’t come to the U.S to stay. Unlike most immigrants, they usually don’t have a place to go back to. Look at the Cubans, the Nicaraguans, and even the Venezuelans now, and even other countries like Honduras and even Haiti. These communities come to set roots in the United States and become co-active participants of society and communities. And Dominicans don’t. Dominicans have been here even before the Cubans arrived in the State of Florida. Although our numbers may not show it nationally, because we are still the fourth Hispanic population yet there are still these underlying conceptions that you can’t count on Dominicans to vote, that you can’t count on them to fight for social causes because they are not here to stay. They are just here to better their lives for a certain period and then they leave back to their country of origin.
What does it mean to be a member of the Dominican diaspora?
You know what? Diaspora comes from the Greek word to disperse, to be dispersed. Diaspora was originally given to the Jewish communities that had to leave the land, the sacred land that is now called Israel. So, they were the first community around the world that lived outside of their land of origin. Which is what diaspora being, the congregation of people from one same place living outside of that place. The reason I started to use the term diaspora, I would say that before the last 10 years, being an immigrant used to be a word of pride.
A person that is willing to leave their country and everything to start from zero, just because of the offer and the idea called America. To me and to everyone else, it was the most beautiful title one could receive. A nation of immigrants, to be an immigrant. I am a first- and second-generation immigrant. You know there’s a sense of pride.
But in the last 10 years, that term acquired a negative connotation and is most referred to as an immigrant: a person who doesn’t speak your language, who doesn’t have your skin, who doesn’t have your way of life or maybe even your values. You don’t really know their name or their purpose to come to this country. And when I started seeing that, I started saying “you know what? I think it’s time to start switching the term from immigrants to diasporas.” Because communities speak of riches, cultural riches, intellectual riches, and other kinds of riches. And I decided to stick with the term diaspora and walked right into the theme and into the topic.
LR: Do you consider yourself part of a diaspora?
Yes! And you know, although everybody is a member, not everyone is an active member. Because diaspora, the term and the quality of the person that belongs to it, we make all of the symbolic designation. If you’re living in South Florida and you’re from Peru, for example, regardless of whether you interact with your community or not, you are part of the Peruvian diaspora.
For example, you probably notice that I do not have an accent. So you probably ask yourself, ‘since when have you been living here’? Well, at the age of three, my mom and my sister who is just a year younger than me, migrated to New York. After being there two years we then migrated down to Miami and we migrated from the Dominican Republic. Being a single mom and looking for opportunities and looking for the possibility of a safer place for her kids, we moved to Miami. At the age of nine, here comes the lesson, as Dominicans do, we went back to the Dominican Republic. And we lived there until a hurricane came and redefined the conditions of living in the country. My mom then said, “It’s time to go back to Miami!”
In that process, I finished middle school and high school, and when highschool finished, I wasn’t a great student. I’ve always been humble, called intelligent, but I’ve never been a good student. I had to go to the D.R to study architecture because it was cheaper. I didn’t get any grants, or scholarships, it wasn’t like that twenty-five years ago.
Like today you can get a pell grant cause and financial aid. It wasn’t like that back then, so I had to go to the D.R and at the age of 18 studied architecture. At the age of 21 my mom visits me in the D.R and sees that her son has turned into a Bohemian and thinks that he is going to save the world like most architects do.
Around the world, (I know architecture in the United States is not taught like that), but in the rest of the world architecture is considered a godlike profession. If they tell you ‘el arquitecto fulano de tal,’ that is a big deal. It’s up there with the doctors and the lawyers and even higher than the lawyers. It’s considered a title of high respect. A person who is considered an architect is considered a person of high respect. So my mom went and had an intervention with my friends from highschool and they took me out of the D.R. and brought me back.
When I got here, sadly no college would take any of my credits and I had to start from zero again. And halfway through studying in college, it was five years and I was only halfway, so I decided to apply to the University of Florida (UF) and I was able to get in. When I got to Gainesville, I sneaked away and went to the Dominican Republic, and my mom did not know that till months later. I picked up right where I left off two plus years before.
Before I became an architect in the D.R, I was always interested in working with governments. In the D.R when you’re studying architecture, they send you to the ‘barrios,’ to the low income places. Sometimes it’s dangerous, sometimes it’s not. So you can understand the necessary space required for a person to live with dignity.
Whether it’s a bedroom or living room, and how communal living, how a sidewalk is really a part of a poor man’s house, and how the patio is a communal space of enjoyment, of communication, of gossiping, of information, and even of safety. And of course, of combined chores, whether it’s washing clothes or washing dishes, or restrooms.
And in that process, I acquired a great sensitivity for low-income communities. I understood that time and at that moment, I was not done yet studying architecture, I understood that architecture was not a craft or a tool for designing homes, buildings and commercial structures. That it is really a social tool that brings equality of living to everyone that I can touch with that craft. Right there I also understood that I won’t be able to do it from a drafting table, that I need to do it from a political position. A year after that I became an assistant secretary of government. And I just went to study architecture.
LR: Do you think your experiences in the D.R also inspired you to expand and be a voice?
Yes, I think if you’re going to speak for others, first you have to make sure that your values are in line with what people need and what that bullhorn is for. It’s never about you, you have to continuously remind yourself of that. You can never break down in a speech and you have to understand that every time you have a mic, a person is listening. It’s a platform for you to push forward that topic or policy about those people you say you represent.
LR: How have you retained your Dominican identity in the U.S.?
So at the age of 26, I was studying at the D.R, I was not yet an American citizen and I had been in this country since the age of 3. Because I had this internal willingness or unwillingness to become an American unless I was able to maintain my Dominican nationality. So at the age of 26, the D.R threw a constitutional amendment that permitted Dominicans abroad to also hold Dominican nationality. At that moment I became an American living in the D.R and serving in the D.R. government. After that whole government experience, I stayed an extra four or five years, and then I asked myself, ‘I came to the D.R, I did my thing, I became an architect, I served for the government, I served for the United Nations. Now what?’
And everything added up to come back to Miami. I came back to Miami at the age of 32 and I met the mother of my children. Funny enough, she wasn’t going to have that diaspora, community, politician life. It was more of a 9 to 5, barbeques on Saturdays, soccer games on Sundays you know. And I submitted myself to that. For ten years I did not interact with the Dominican people. I did not and one day I woke up and saw that I had become a person very different from the one I wanted to be or the one that I was.
The way I got back to the community was through the simplest of ways, by listening. So I had a conversation with a person and asked “why did you come here? How did you get here? and tell me your story!’ In the end I would always ask them, ‘are you considering going back?’ and the question was always answered in the same fashion, it was, “yes.” I posted a conversation on Facebook and then a person asked for a second conversation, and then two weeks after I did that second conversation it went huge. Then came, ‘The Conversations With the Diaspora,’ and then that conversation led someone to ask me to write for a paper. So one thing led to another.
LR: What unique issues of adaptations have you faced? Have you had to overcome discrimination?
I have an article that I wrote recently, because one of our music legends, his name is Johnny Ventura, passed away five or six weeks ago. And, I wrote an article called, “When They Did Not Know Where I Was From,” and it was an episode I had when I was in 3rd grade, and how I would insist to these Cuban and Puerto Rican children that I come from this place called the Dominican Republic, but they didn’t know where it was.
And I would explain to them with the palm of my hand, here’s Puerto Rico, here’s Cuba, here’s Haiti, and we’re here. And they would go, “We don’t see it on the map,” and back then, all those globe maps we would have in class only said Haiti, it never said Dominican Republic. It was just something because of design, it wasn’t on purpose to exclude us. But, the name is so long that the globe would just put Haiti on the little island, rather than put the Dominican Republic.
And, giving light to your question whether I have ever had any discrimination, funny enough, most of the discrimination has come at the fact that an over qualified latino is a threat. And that is even sadder than having an unqualified one, because it shows you that the idea that the land of opportunity and the possibility of everyone being equal, even when we do things right, still can’t match what is expected for themselves, referring to those who have been here longer than Latinos. Yeah my greatest discrimination has always been that.
LR: What are some ways in which you cope with the emotional attachment to the homeland?
The thing about diasporas is that everything that immigrants feel for their country is based on nostalgia, about how things were better when you used to live there. People are living in a sense, in an emotional past within them, tied to nostalgia, that still makes them want to send money to their family members, still makes them want to know that their government in their Island or country of origin is not corrupt, that things are getting better.
This is all tied to emotion. That is why I said, by the 6th generation, if your not able to include those that are born here that call themselves of whatever land, in my case Dominican, if you don’t include them in a final way to have concrete inclusion, whether is economically, culturally, or socially, you will lose that potential “patrimonio.”
It even happens with Italian Americans, you go to New York and you can go to little Italy. You can ask anybody there where you’re from, and they will tell you ‘I’m Italian.” But ask them when was the last time they went, and they will say that they have never gone. And it happens with everybody, it happens with Irish people in Boston, and happens with German folks down in Philadelphia. And you ask them ‘what are you?’, and they say ‘I’m German or I’m Polish.’ In the 6th generation, there’s really no connection to their lands of origin, just the name and some customs. Usually they are tied to food, music and celebration.
LR: How important is it for the Dominican diaspora to attain success?
I think that what you and I experienced this past weekend, of bringing these 5 ladies, from a Lieutenant Governor, to a Supreme Court Justice, to a Delegate who has served fifteen years Maryland’s legislature, and a Lieutenant Colonel who is the Chief of reserved school of the U.S Army, and you ask yourself: ‘Ok that is the first proof of being able to settle down and set roots in a place you’re at.’ Because once you do that, you ensure that the following generations have the possibility of growth and the assertion of the idea of America. This is a fabric, and unless you’re willing to weave yourself into it, you’re just going to be a needle with a piece of thread outside of it.
Back to that conversation we had on Friday (September 17th), in the Second Diaspora Conference, sometimes you need to show communities in flesh and blood what it looks like, so they know how to copy it. So from that, a lot of kids who probably went to the event, maybe younger kids, were able to see a true New York Supreme Justice in front of them, who 40 or 30 years ago was just like them, a kid in an audience. And like they said in their stories, they’ve been public servants all their lives, ever since they were nine years old helping the neighbor translate to English. We need to see it in flesh and blood, it’s just what I think should happen with communities when they decide to move forward and grow.
LR: What unique challenges have Dominicans faced in the US to achieve economic empowerment, political representation, and cultural citizenship?
That’s important, because although some Dominicans were here, initially there was a part of us that was very reluctant to be an American because the United States invaded the Dominican Republic in 1917 and then in 1961 as well. So that in a sense put us on a path of ‘we will live here but we will not be like you.’ And it wasn’t received well, cause, I guess nobody wants to have anyone living in their home and cannot speak to the owner of the house.
But when it comes to being able to access that citizenship, the importance of being an American citizen, it took us at least two or three generations to understand that it didn’t make us, the way I like to say it, it doesn’t make us less Dominicans to be American. But being a great American, makes us a so much better Dominican. There’s values of compassion, values of constitutionality. I think compassion is the best American trait, of all values.That just enhances what we bring to this country, from our own original values, so just to rephrase that again, being a good American makes you a so much better Dominican.
LR: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to carry the values and image of Dominicanness and to represent your country well?
Oh yes, totally. I decided two things, that I was going to empower myself with discourse, with speech and a voice. But I needed to understand that I had to be different, that I had to break the cycle of being an eco chamber for whatever happens on the Island, to transmit it here. The reason why I did that is because as members of any Diaspora’s or any immigrant community, we are exposed to different realities on a daily basis, very different from the people living in our country of origin.
As a matter of fact, we are exposed to ten/twelve cultures on a daily basis, from just going to a cafeteria you can expose yourself to three different cultures and not even know it, and go home and make decisions based on that influence. For that tiny moment, it impacts you in a way that you don’t know why you behave the way that you do, until you go back to your country of origin. You see certain friction between the way you act and react upon, and it’s because you have been exposed to other cultures that refine your behavior, and at the same time your decision making and interaction.
LR: What does your work and success mean to your family?
In the beginning they didn’t get it. They would see me publish articles and they would say,”pero te estan pagando por eso?” Like why do we have to put money value on everything, like this is way more important than whatever 50 or 500 bucks I’m going to get for publishing. “Si pero diles que te publiquen, que te den dinero,” you know. That was always funny, or when I would go to T.V shows in the beginning I was like ‘wow I just got booked, I’m going to be on a T.V show’, “per te estan pagando?”
You can probably hear your mom’s voice or your aunt’s voice in me right? So it took them a while to understand because I write through the lens of an immigrant, so I look at things differently. And to end those conversations on Haitians, and I’ll tell you how. A person being exposed to different cultures, and different opinions, and different experiences here in the United States cannot have the same opinion about a subject that a person may have in our country of origin.
So to be able to give a voice to those that are like me in the diaspora, I needed for them to accept first that we were going to be equal in a sense but different from the folks on the island, and stop being eco chambers because we had different opinions than those on the island.
Secondly, writing and empowering people with a new voice, came from the fact of seeing things not through the reality of the island, but through the possibility of the island. And only people who are outside of a forest can tell the richness of it’s woods, the richness of its leaves, and the ferns that cover it. Sometimes when you’re stuck in the middle of a forest, you can’t see how big it is, you really can’t see it. So we from the outside are able to see that.
LR: What inspired you to write two books and put all of these stories together?
Originally I started writing for ego, I guess everybody does. At first I was dared into it and it took me 6 weeks to come up with something cause I didn’t know what I was going to write about. And after I was dared, I would stay up till 12 at night, usually they go to bed around 10 at night but I would stay up till 12 cause the next day I knew I was going to be published. And I wanted to wait till 12 because right at 12, they would load up all the information and you could see all the new articles and all the op-eds.
So I would go and know ‘oh I got published here or I got published there.’ And one day, maybe a year into writing, a friend of mine tells me, “you’re writing a lot, and I know you have a lot of material, and you’re not being reductant and you are really writing a lot.” And then he tells me, “you have to write so you can be read and heard, because you have something to say, not because you want to be published.” And I understood there in that moment that I had acquired a responsibility with the way I write, that transcended from the simple act of getting published. Because now what you’re saying, became part of a collection of ideas and exposures of topics so dense and at the same time that nobody had ever touched before.
Publishers said that my first book was a pioneering book, because nobody has ever written about 50 different topics in one book seen through the lens of a diaspora. But it also has some personal notes. For example, the last chapter of the first book deals with very personal things. And the last part of that chapter deals with the immigrant who brought me here, and it’s the story of my grandma. And the second book has something in that sense also, it closes with the experience of a Cuban stepfather, ‘El Cubano Que Me Crió.’ I merged those examples of his upbringing and how his loss of a country is an inspiration for keeping mine.
And I do have a third book in mind, which will probably finish that collection, the Diaspora y Desarrollo collection, because architects plan stuff like that. And I hope everybody gets to, if not read me, just to go out there and tickle with the possibility of seeing your life and your worth, and who you really are by reading about your community, not necessarily in numbers or digits but in true cultural aspects.
And there is a question I ask everybody who goes back to their country of origin, “When you got on the plane, and the plane took off, did you cry?’” and you’d be surprised, everybody does. And I promise you, the day you go back to your parents’ country, you will not feel like a foreigner, you will feel that you belong, that these are your people, or ‘this is why I behave like this, this is why I eat this.’
Everything that you find, ‘Oh estabamos comiendo empanadas and whatever,’ something normal for them, and remember what I said in the beginning, nostalgia, nostalgia is the drive of everything here. And when you do go I do not recommend going to a resort or going out sightseeing, that will come later. It’s the interactions in the corner having juice or soda, or a beer with friends, una velada en la noche and having a guy pull up a guitar and start declamando. And you say, ‘oh my god, what have I been missing!’ That’s what happened to me when I first started studying architecture, I became a Dominican. And every time I go and come back on the plane I cry.
LR: What influenced you to make this Diaspora Y Desarrollos second conference about Dominican women in power?
I’m the product of the efforts of three women. I had a great grandmother who left the countryside and came to the capital in search of betterment for her family, for her offspring. And she started off as a very poor woman, never going to school, not one day. And she had a little wooden table made up of remains of other wood and other desechos. She would go and buy bananas and some platanos, and some yuca and would stand in front of her little wooden house in the capital, and that became a little bigger and a little bigger. Never big enough to consider it a business but it was something.
She was a single mom with two girls, in which one of them was my grandmother. Who then became a small businesswoman, and maybe when I say small businesswoman I am giving an exaggerated title, maybe it’s a micro micro businesswoman. She didn’t go through but 4th grade and she would go to a store and to buy fabric. She was known in banks and restaurants, ‘‘oh there’s that lady that sells fabric, I want her to do a shirt for me’’ and she would show up. Accessibility to clothing back then in the 50s and 60s, you had to really tailor most of your clothes. One day one person offered her, “have you ever considered going to America?”
She was about 40 plus or 50, and in the 60s being 50 meant the game was done. What are you going to do at 50 in America and start from zero? So she came and paid her dues by working at a factory and then taking care of kids. After that, my mom who also was a single mom, when we got to New York she didn’t have a craft. She was a cashier and then a waitress, and then a cashier at some other place, and then she decided to study cosmetology and became una peluquera, a hairdresser, which is a very Dominican thing.
I didn’t know I was poor until the age of 13. My grandma and mom hid that from me because they wanted me to create mis propios alcances, to think I was a middle-class boy and have expensive taste. They were basing my taste around a circle that did not correspond to my reality, and they were doing it on purpose. At the age of 4, I remember always sitting at the top of the table. “Tu eres el hombre de la casa,” the food was never served on one plate, it was served from different plates from which I would serve myself from the age of 4 and 5.
At the age of 13, I’m already set as a person of high expectations who doesn’t think of himself any less than, who doesn’t have to fight that struggle of coming out of poverty, or being immoralite because I come from a lower-wage earning family. Once I found out at 13 that all my life I had been poor and that I was kept from that, I decided from that moment on to pay them back. That I will pay them back with my actions and the person that I become. So when the opportunity came to provide a conference that I could exalt the greatness of Dominican women, of Dominicans period, I said ‘you know what? I’m going to make it in honor of those women. Let me tell you this little joke,
I remember at the age of maybe 7 or 8, being in 3rd grade and we didn’t really take Thanksgiving or maybe we did I don’t remember, and I remember that the teacher said “ok with the brown bags, this group is going to be the Indians, and who are the ones who are going to do the black hats”, and we had arts and crafts class where we got to do our little costumes. And I never really paid attention to the hats or the pilgrim hats, or the native American brown paper bags.
And so I went to my mom and said ‘you know mom they are going to have that activity on Thursday and I have to go dressed up for school’, and she told me, “how are you going dressed?”, ‘Well some are going as pilgrims, some are going as Indians, but I want to wear a black suit.” And she told me, “a black suit? Why do you need a black suit?” And I remember going to school and she put on a black suit and a little tie, and I went to school. All my friends were either pilgrims or Indians, and they would ask me “Are you going someplace after this?” My teacher was asking me “Why are you not dressed as a pilgrim?” and I said, ‘No, I came dressed like John F. Kennedy. I want to be president. I came dressed as a president.’ I always find it funny to say that.