Written by Ynanna Djehuty
One late April night, I was with my mother’s cousin (my aunt) awaiting the arrival of my mother. She was on her way from Port Authority after arriving on the Greyhound from out of town. Mami called me when she got off the train. She gave her cousin a hug first. Under the glow of the streetlight, I felt like I was suddenly watching a scene from a movie play out. My aunt sobbed in Mami’s embrace, like she was waiting the whole day just to release these tears with my mother. I had no idea this woman was holding in all this sorrow and pain. She continued to cry on our way up to the apartment and I discovered she lost a few family members in about a six-month span of time. The saddest part was that she had been here in the United States.
I spent about the next 24 hours with my Mami and aunt, talking about a lot of things connected to the trauma of being an immigrant. The primary loss of home and separation from family is the hardest to overcome. My experience has been that most of my generation’s parents were barely adults when they came to the United States, usually in their early twenties. As I have gotten to know more of the diaspora, I have met people who have recently arrived in the last three decades varying in ages. It is hard to uproot and leave all one knows for the unknown and new way of life. It is particularly hard to immigrate to a new country with a foreign language and culture while dealing with the loss of home. Often I have heard Dominicans speak about how much they miss their neighborhoods and the extended family they left behind. Nostalgia fills their voices when they tell stories of their childhoods and the mischief they’d get into, running around in the freedom of the countryside. Both what Dominicans have recounted to me and what I’ve seen when visiting the country throughout my life have also made me realize the conditions that have made immigrating to the U.S appealing.
Another part of the trauma experienced by Dominicans is the shattering of the American dream. An illusion of what life is in this country is painted due to having been able to reach the entire world via technology. The reality of living here is distorted by the programming and media available to other countries which is full of stereotypes. Additionally, at times Dominicans who have immigrated and go back to visit may paint a delusion of grandeur and flaunt material possessions to prove how well things are going for them abroad. This has been a topic of conversation among some Dominicans I’ve known, and was mentioned in the conversation with my mother that I previously mentioned. Once arriving here, the harsh reality sets in. The hard work begins, with working blue collar jobs; the common jobs I’ve seen family and other immigrants take on span from working as housekeepers, mechanics, nannies, home attendants, salon owners/hair stylists, bodegueros, taxistas, and meseras to more. When my family first got her, some of the women did factory work in the early 80s. There is also the experience of those who are undocumented living in fear of deportation and unable to get less backbreaking work because of their immigration status.
I brought up in the conversation with my mom and aunt the leaving behind of family. The majority of the Dominicans I know try to keep in touch with their extended family on the island. It is common for me to hear of Dominicans traveling back and forth for both business and maintaining family connections. Unfortunately, the distance and cost of travel makes it so that people who had close knit friends and relatives miss out on the depth of those relationships. Even more depressing is that sometimes the next time an immigrant gets to see a loved one is in sickness or in death.
The culture shock is also traumatic, as it is unexpected and full of foreign experiences. One instance is race. Coming to the United States is often the first time that a Dominican may be considered Black after identifying within a spectrum of phenotype-based labels. Other examples include changes in what is expected from a child as their parents get older, modern gender roles, and discrimination based on language and ethnicity. I do not think that this type of trauma is unique to Dominicans, as I have interacted with other immigrants from other countries and see how there are many similarities. It is a trauma that each person has to decide how to process and cope with. Some travel and communicate as often as possible to preserve family ties. Some turn to therapy or self-medicate in some form. It is an experience that is not often spoken about and yet affects immigrants on deep levels.