DORCHESTER—Laughter rang as women clutched one another’s arms at Merengue Restaurant in Dorchester. In between bites of fried beef, they turned to the front door and warmly greeted people walking in.
In the crowd was Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia, who stood out in her modern iteration of the traditional Dominican dress, worn only on special occasions.
At this event, she was celebrating Dominican Republic Independence Day.
“I want everyone to know that we are here and we deserve respect,” Mejia said at the Merengue event.
Mejia, the city’s first Latina councilwoman, is one of Boston’s most famous Dominican Republic-born residents. (The most famous, of course, is David Ortiz, the former designated hitter for the Boston Red Sox.)
Mejia has stood out on the Council through her advocacy work for disenfranchised residents and Latinos across the city, including those from her homeland.
Born in Baní, Dominican Republic, Mejia came to Boston with her mother at the age of five and lived in Dorchester. Her mother was undocumented and leaned on Mejia to translate legal documents and, on a larger level, help adjust to a foreign country.
Mejia said she learned at an early age how to speak up for her mother and other people who felt ignored by institutions that were supposed to serve them.
“I had to learn how to navigate the system and through that, I learned how to fight.”Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia
Mejia made history in 2019 as the first Afro-Latina elected as a Boston city councilor. Prior to her ascension, the only Latino representation on the council came from one family, starting with Felix F. Arroyo and later, two of his sons, Felix D. Arroyo and Ricardo Arroyo. At the time she ran, no Latinos were serving.
“I decided to run because we didn’t have any representation, none,” Mejia said.
She took office by a single vote over her competitor. That year, Ricardo Arroyo was also elected.
The Merengue party was held on Feb. 27, the official date of the Dominican Republic’s independence from Haiti in 1844 as both countries were formerly merged and known as Hispañola.
In Boston, the festivities began that morning at City Hall and ended at Merengue, famous for its Dominican cuisine, on Blue Hill Avenue.
The morning celebration—organized by the City of Boston and Latino groups such as FUNDOARCU, a nonprofit that promotes Dominican culture—featured speeches and several dance performances. Officials also raised the Dominican flag at City Hall.
“This is the first time we’ve celebrated outside of City Hall, not in the backroom inside an office,” Mejia said. “I was crying like a baby the whole time.”
Roughly 21,500 Dominicans live in Boston, making them the second largest immigrant group behind Haitian residents in the Greater Boston area, according to city data.
Jasmill De Los Santos, a 29-year-old first-generation Dominican, said there is so much to celebrate now about Dominican culture.
“I always thought I wasn’t Dominican enough growing up but now you look around and see everyone wants to be us. You don’t realize it growing up but everyone loves us.”Jasmill De Los Santos
Bostonians like De Los Santos feel a growing pride in the Dominican identity, as Merengue and other restaurants attract scores of people for their authentic Dominican cuisine and the city’s most famous Dominican, David Ortiz, has a local bridge named after him.
At Merengue, Mejia was clearly a star. After mingling with patrons, she gave a speech that, in part, laid out the work ahead, particularly for Latinos.
As chair of the council’s committees on education, government accountability, and labor, workforce, and economic development, Mejia pledged to keep up the fight for her people.
“We’re not leaving so let’s make ourselves a little more comfortable,” she told the crowd.
This story was published as part of a collaboration between MA Latino News and Boston University’s Department of Journalism in the College of Communication. The student journalist is a member of a Reporting in Depth class taught by former Boston Globe reporter Meghan Irons.
Esmeralda Moran is a sophomore studying Journalism at Boston University. She is a first-generation Dominican-American and the first in her family to attend a university. She aspires to spread her love for writing through pursuing magazine writing.