The United States is idealized by Dominicans who anticipate migration, but after arrival many migrants counter-idealize the home country that they have left behind. The motivational mirage of affluence and well-being dissipates quickly in depressing neighborhoods where hard labor is remunerated badly and poverty is accompanied by demoralization, homesickness, and a sense of rejection. When a migrant’s sacrifices are not counterbalanced by rewards, the elusive utopia often projects backward to the home that one had denigrated and abandoned just recently, because home, after all, is hospitable despite its privations. A common emotive and cognitive sequence entails idealization of the United States prior to migration, shock upon arrival, experience of potent and sometimes competing emotions (loss, guilt, fear, confusion, marvel, elation, worry, sadness, loneliness, transient joy, a sense of failure), counter-idealization of the Dominican Republic, and repair to nostalgia as a refuge that protects the immigrant from real or perceived hostility.

If immigrants’ experiences improve in terms of work and social integration, then they gradually detach from a nostalgic ideal and advance toward building a new life in the host country. With this adaptation, “the past is felt to be the past, not a ‘lost paradise’” that impedes living in the present and toward the future.[1]

If hardships and economic insecurity continue, conversely, then anxiety and nostalgic longing increase and may result in plans to return to one’s home and family. In some cases the will to persevere is renewed by the knowledge—or even the fantasy—that return is scheduled or imminent. The emotions are complex, however, because the immigrant’s love for his or her country and the longing to return are embattled by resentment and wrath for having felt forced to leave in the first place. These negative emotions are preceded by others—“this country is a piece of shit,” as some of my informants put it—that by hyperbolic negative contrast strengthen a migrant’s predeparture idealization of the United States. The same dynamics apply as disenchanted migrants prepare psychologically to return home, but now the deprecation is assigned to the United States and the idealization to the Dominican Republic.[2]

Documented migrants who have the luxury of coming and going are sometimes disappointed at both ends of their journey. The nostalgic longing for the Dominican Republic from afar becomes reverse culture shock upon reentry, because one’s degree of assimilation to U.S. culture fosters new perspectives, standards, expectations, and judgments. “Here there is only uncertainty, unhealthiness, bad education, lack of public services. My children suffer here,” said a forty-year-old male migrant upon return to the Dominican Republic. Ultimately Dominicans with sustained mobility and extensive experience abroad must trade in their illusions for “a dual frame of reference, constantly comparing their situation in their ‘home’ society to their situation in the ‘host’ society abroad.”[3]

The words “home” and “host” are in quotes because it eventually becomes unclear which is which. Rather than bicultural enhancement, some migrants feel they do not belong and are not at home in either place. As one Dominican girl put it: “The problem is confusion.” You get used to one place and then you’re in another, “where you have to act differently…with another culture, with other differences, with other responsibilities, talking differently, acting differently, being different.” Behind these adjustments is the spookier sensation that “the reality of the fulfilled dream” is a mockery of the dream itself. Those who never migrate have at least the vague consolation of hope. In the Dominican Republic, as one immigrant put it, “at least I had the promise and hope of the unknown.”[4]


[1] The quoted passage is from León Grinberg and Rebeca Grinberg, Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Migration and Exile (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 98. Letting go of the past can result in abandonment of families left behind.

[2] In these paragraphs I am following Valentín González Calvo, “El duelo migratorio,” (October 10, 2006), 3; Grinberg and Grinberg, 146; Joseba Achotegui, “Migración y salud mental. El síndrome del inmigrante con estrés crónico y múltiple (síndrome de Ulises),” Zerbitzuan 46 (2009): 166; and Gerald Haberkorn, “The Migration Decision-Making Process: Some Social-Psychological Considerations,” in Migration Decision Making: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Microlevel Studies in Developed and Developing Countries, ed. Gordon F. De Jong and Robert W. Gardner (New York: Pergamon Press, 1981), 266.

[3] The quoted passages are from Luis Eduardo Guarnizo, “The Emergence of a Transnational Social Formation and the Mirage of Return Migration Among Dominican Transmigrants,” Identities 4/2 (1997): 295 and 310.

[4] The Dominican girl is quoted in Linda F. Cushman, et al. Trillando su camino: un estudio cualitativo de la migración de adolescentes entre la Republica Dominicana y los Estados Unidos (Santo Domingo: Profamilia, 2006), 30 (in Spanish) and 72 (in English). The other quoted passages are from Jocelyn Santana, Americanization: A Dominican Immigrant’s Autobiographical Study of Cultural and Linguistic Learning (New York University, 1999), 82. For an example of not feeling at home in either country, see Grinberg and Grinberg, 184.