The following oral history is divided into four chapters of Rita’s life: her childhood in the Dominican Republic, her migration experiences to the US, running the NGO Dominican Republic Projects, and reflections on her transnational identity. This is her story.
Margarita Ruiz Severinghaus (Rita) was born January 16, 1950 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and raised in La Romana, a relatively wealthy town situated near the beaches, which since the 1970s, has been built around a tourism infrastructure. Rita grew up in a single-parent household with her mother, who separated from her father at a young age, remarried, and gave birth to two younger brothers. Her mother earned a living as a seamstress (which at that time offered a well-to-do salary) and received child support from Rita’s father, which afforded her the resources to send Rita to a religious school.
Rita grew up in a government dictatorship, where people lived in fear of persecution. In 1961, when she was 12 years old, Dictator Rafael Trujillo was assassinated, creating an insurgency of chaos. Her mother decided to leave the country and seek refuge in New York City, leaving Rita with her uncle in Cotui, an impoverished town in the DR, and her brothers in La Romana. Cotui was a sustainable farming town in extremely poor conditions; it was here that Rita learned the challenges of low-resource communities, and spent the rest of her schooling years up until the first year of high school.
After spending three years in Cotui, Rita joined her mother in the United States. With limited knowledge of English, she struggled to assimilate to the American culture. Although she was considered a strong student in the DR, she was placed in “remedial classes” because she did not speak English—the education system in the United States “was not made for students like her.” However, by developing a strong network of mentors, Rita was not only eventually able to learn English, but pursue a B.S. in Nursing from Long Island University, an R.N licensure, and a M.A. in Staff Development/ Nursing Education from Columbia University.
Since a teenager, Rita knew that she had wanted to pursue the sciences and enter the health care industry. Although moving to the United States discouraged her from pursuing this dream, her mentors connected her to opportunities at St. Luke’s Hospital, where she quickly moved upwards in her career in health care management. After obtaining her nursing degree, she was recruited by a Canadian company to work as Director of Nursing at the Centro Médico Bonao in the DR. Upon returning, however, Rita faced a culture shock—members of her community found it hard to accept the independence she had gained as a woman in the United States. After spending a year in the DR, she returned to the United States to fulfill her career dreams.
Shortly after returning from the Dominican Republic, Rita married John M. Severinghaus, an American attending who she met while working at St. Luke’s Hospital. Rita intended to pursue an additional degree, but abandoned this idea and moved to New England when John was accepted for a position at Dartmouth College. Since then, they have lived in Norwich, Vermont for 30 years, and have two children: Jonathan Clark Severinghaus, age 27, and Elena Ysabel (“Elysa”) Severinghaus, age 26.
Rita started Dominican Republic Projects (DRP) after a hurricane struck her hometown, Cotui, 15 years ago, and continues to manage it to this date. Operating under the auspices of Norwich Congregational Church-UCC, DRP is a non-governmental organization “committed to cross-cultural understanding and self-sustaining initiatives in health, education and the environment in the town of Cotui, Dominican Republic.”1 DRP has been a significant part of Rita’s migrant experience, acting as a way for her give back to her home in Cotui through health services, construction, and sustainability initiatives.