THE RETURN EFFECT
Lately, the concept of returning has been a lot on my mind. Of returning to a physical location or place, or perhaps something more intangible, like revisiting a memory, an experience, or an inspiration. The wandering of this notion is quite suitable for the times as I ready myself to visit family and friends in Chicago, after being away for nine months. It’s also holiday season, the time of year when nostalgia sometimes seeps through if we are apart from our loved ones. To nod to and embrace this inevitable sentiment, I explore what ‘returning’ means to me on a personal level, from immigrants returning to their country of origin after an eternity of being away, to those that never return, to my thoughts of going back to one’s home home.
RETURNING HOME, IN SPIRIT
Most immigrants leave behind their country and everything they ever knew to seek better job and education opportunities. Some are lucky enough to migrate with their families, but a vast majority says goodbye to family members, friends and loved ones. Sometimes their return date is unknowable. Their sojourn abroad can last months, years, or decades. Once in the host country, typically the US, immigrants send money back home to their families, formally known as remittances. The money sent usually covers day-to-day expenses but often, remittances are also used to build elaborate dream houses.
In the book The Remittance Landscape, Sarah Lynn Lopez, a professor of architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, explores the effects of remittances on Mexico’s rural areas, specifically the building boom of homes with elements of American architectural style. Interestingly, the Mexican migrants send money to build homes reflecting their experience in the US. The author alludes to a sense of incompleteness permeating the unique houses due to the absence of the people that had them built, as some of the migrants still live and work abroad.
Growing up in Mexico, I never thought much of specific people that were always talked about but permanently absent. From uncles, to cousins, to other relatives that were mere abstractions as they lived in the US and I only ever saw photos of them. Sometimes, they’d send items to their families, such as clothing or home appliances, and to me, that was the only way they could be present in my immediate reality. I felt that I knew these relatives and family acquaintances not in physical form, but in spirit, based on what I’d been told about them and the things they sent.
I was fortunate enough to have a father with documents that I was able to see every three months. My father was in my life from December through February and June through August. There were still abstract elements associated with him as we spent time together only half of the year throughout my childhood, but I was still very lucky to see him on a consistent basis. I had friends and relatives who had been apart from a father or a mother since they were babies. I always wandered what it was like to have a parent be a complete abstraction, someone you simply saw photos of, talked to on the phone, or wrote letters to (keep in mind these thoughts took place before the era of cell phones and social media).
GOING BACK TO THE HOMELAND
For over 50 years, people from Mexico and other Latin American countries migrated en masse to the US in hopes of a better life. Recently, there’s been a reversing in the flow of migration. A recent study shows that about one million Mexicans and their families, including US-born children, left the US for Mexico between 2009 and 2014. A weak economy, stricter border enforcement and mass deportations are some of the factors behind the shift in this migration pattern.
But, the main reason cited for returning to the homeland, according to the same report, was because migrants wanted to reunite with their families.
Being part of an immigrant community means that I witness firsthand situations in which people that live and work in the US, whether they are immediate relatives or family acquaintances, cannot visit Mexico due to their undocumented status. I have relatives that left over 20 years ago and dream of the day they can go back to the land where they were born. They are forced to miss out on important family milestones, such as weddings or graduations, but worse yet, are the tragic moments, like the passing of family members, including parents.
Sadly, never returning is a common situation plaguing the US immigrant experience.
On the other end of the spectrum, are the folk that are forced to return home because of deportations. Two of my uncles were deported and had to go back and make a living in a place they hadn’t been to in decades. One of them, tio Chuy, told me through his letters that the experience proved disorienting. He was used to life in suburban America and all of a sudden he had to readjust to the lifestyle of a remote village in rural Mexico, where we are from. He had a difficult time the first six months since a sense of not belonging in his own country plagued him.
What was once home didn’t seem to be home anymore.
HOME SWEET HOME – BUT, WHERE IS ‘HOME’?
‘Where are you from?’ is a common question requesting a simple answer, usually one place, a country. But, what about for the people that feel they are from more than one location? Like myself. I usually answer that I was raised in Mexico but have lived in the US since age 11. To put it in simpler terms: I am both from Mexico and the US. I thought more in-depth about this seemingly innocent question while listening to the excellent TED talk by Taiye Selasi, appropriately named ‘Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m a local.’
Selasi’s eloquent words profoundly resonated with me as she explored answering where we come from in terms of locality rather than geographical location.
In her talk, she argues that countries aren’t absolutes, constants, or fixed places in time and space. She goes on to say that all experience is local and all identity is experience. She concludes by stating that we aren’t from countries, but from the specific places that shaped our experiences. Selasi urges us to consider asking ‘Where are you a local?’ instead of ‘Where are you from?’ So, I’m a local in Chicago (USA), Durango (Mexico) and Daegu (S. Korea).
I love Selasi’s refreshing view of our place(s) of origin, but if we are multi-local beings, where is home? Is it one of the many places we are locals in? All of them or none?
When Uncle Chuy was deported to Mexico and he described feelings of inadequacy and unfamiliarity as he tried to make a life in rural Mexico again, I knew exactly what he spoke of. I experienced a less severe dose of that sensation years earlier when I’d visit Mexico after my family’s permanent move to the US - an acute sense of disconnection, either because I felt that the place I left behind was intact, unchanged, frozen in time but I wasn’t. Or, on other occasions, I returned a changed person based on personal experience and expected to find an unchanged haven, a treasure stuck in time, but found that change had caught up to my remote village and the effects of technology and social media were perverse.
During one of these return trips to my village in Durango it dawned on me that home no longer was a physical location, that it had transformed into a feeling, a memory. This realization made me sad, a bit nostalgic and melancholic for something forever lost. Over time, Chicago became home and now, Daegu in S. Korea is home. My personal definition of home is a paradox: Durango, Chicago and Daegu are all home, yet it’s also the relationships, experiences, feelings and memories I carry within myself. I realize that as we grow into adulthood our definitions of home shift. For some, it become a very permanent place, while for others, it becomes a more intangible thing.
Nonetheless, I am thrilled to return to one of my many homes, Chicago, where I am a local.
What does the word “returning” brings to mind? Where are you a local? Where is home for you? | If you enjoy this piece, feel free to share | Make sure to subscribe below for bi-monthly updates!