Alexa Rodriguez smiles at the camera.

The History of Building Citizenship Through Education in the Dominican Republic

With a new postdoctoral fellowship award in hand, Alexa Rodriguez is digging deep into the history of education in the Dominican Republic.

Audrey Breen

This spring Alexa Rodriguez was awarded a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship. The prestigious accolade recognizes early-career scholars exploring critical issues in education both nationally and internationally. 

Rodriguez, assistant professor of education at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, is examining the history of education in the Dominican Republic. With her new fellowship award funding, Rodriguez is in the process of expanding her dissertation work into a book, which focuses on the relationship between education and citizenship in the Dominican Republic during the U.S. occupation of the country in the 1920’s. 

We sat down with Rodriguez to hear more about her work.

Q. How did you become interested in studying the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic and its impact on the education system there?

A. I was a senior in college when I first heard that the U.S. had ever occupied the Dominican Republic. I’m of Dominican descent and my family had never really talked about it. I decided I wanted to focus my undergraduate thesis on that period, especially when I learned that schools were one of the big projects the U.S. invested in during that time.

I come from a family of teachers and at the time I knew I wanted to be a teacher. So, I was curious about what the role of schools was as it relates to foreign diplomacy and especially wondered what the Dominican people thought about what was happening. After teaching in Baltimore, I decided to pursue my Ph.D. and quickly realized the story about the education reforms that happened during this time hadn’t yet really been told anywhere.

Q. Set the scene for us. What is happening in the Dominican Republic in the early 1900s, especially as it relates to education?

A: In the early 1900’s the U.S. had occupied a series of countries for differing periods of time, including Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. From 1916-1924, the U.S. occupied the Dominican Republic. Typically, during these periods, the U.S. would invest in a series of projects and in the Dominican Republic, one area it focused on was making primary schools universal and increasing the literacy rates. At the time, most schools were limited to the cities. 

But it, of course, was complicated. For example, in order to fund more primary schools, education officials chose to de-fund secondary schools. In practice, there were not many U.S. officials implementing the expansion of schools. So, they depended on Dominican elites who were also interested in widespread schooling to help move the project forward.

Q. You are specifically looking at the role of education in teaching citizenship during occupation. What is the relationship between education and citizenship during this period?

I found this very interesting. Most teachers were women, who did not have the right to vote at the time. Even so, they saw their role as women teachers to be instrumental in helping shape their nation by helping develop future citizens. Many also opposed the U.S. occupation and would organize protests and fundraisers in the schools where they taught.

It became an interesting space where, even without the right to vote, women teachers were able to push back against the US occupation. They were able to use their role as educators to exercise their own citizenship and champion their ideas on women’s rights and Dominican nationalism.

Q. You also uncovered interesting insights into the role parents played in building the education system during this time. What did you learn?

Parents played a huge role in the story and have often been overlooked. There wasn’t much money to build schools. So, a lot of the schools were built by parents, who donated their time and materials. While the U.S. claimed to have built 700 schools, many, if not most, were funded and built by parents or residents of rural towns. 

And similarly to teachers, parents—especially rural parents—were overcoming barriers to citizenship and finding ways to practice it anyway. The assumption was that the expansion of schools would increase literacy and therefore increase the number of well-educated citizens. But I found the parents were often advocating for their children and their local schools directly to government officials, even with high levels of illiteracy.

Evidence reveals pockets of parents across the country would have access to a literate person who would serve as a letter writer. The letters, though all written by a single person, would come from different parents, sometimes citing laws to advocate for more resources or better teachers.

Instead of waiting for government schools to teach them how to be citizens, these letters demonstrate that people were seeing themselves as citizens and with rights and responsibilities and would hold the government accountable.


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Audrey Breen