The timing of a departure to the US is unknown. You can spend years waiting for a visa and then one day unexpectedly find out that it has been granted. Then from that moment to the next, a hurrying and moving about: packing, planning, and saying goodbye. Actions and words express feelings of elation, anxiety, and anticipation. You visit friends and family in the farthest reaches of the island as word spreads that you have a golden ticket.
A visa can mean the start of a new life but it can be a life you set about to build on your own. My grandfather was one of the first to leave his small, rural village, La Loma de Los Rios. He left in the spring of 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech and President Kennedy was assassinated.
He left in the midst of growing his family, taking very little with him but leaving a lot behind. Without a visa, my grandmother stayed, taking full responsibility for the land in addition to raising eleven children and managing a household. Although the well being of his family must have concerned my grandfather, the opportunity to pursue a dream for their benefit greatly outweighed any risk involved.
Very few turn down the chance to experience the US dream. Most leave the country with the expectation that the family will follow as visas become available. For the mother or brother waiting for that day, it can feel like an eternity. In cases where a small child is left without their mother or father, sent to live with an aunt or grandmother, they feel a great sense of loss and abandonment.
Within my family, there are such stories from the past as well as present-day examples. I’ll spend some time looking at these stories both from the perspective of the parent forced to make a grueling, tough decision and from the perspective of the child affected by the absence.
A thick blanket of clouds covered la Loma Isabel de Torresas the red cable car slowly made its climb. A gray, rainy day, my second cousin Ana Isabel, her daughter Anni, my third cousin Evelyn, and I were on a visit to El Teleférico in Puerto Plata.
Soon we would all disappear into the clouds and make our way through the lush botanical gardens that waited for us at the peak. This photo was taken on a small hike we took to explore the garden paths that wind through the mountain and to discover where various sets of stairs led. To our surprise, some stairs led to nowhere in particular. Just the emptiness of the mist at the top of the stairs.
Pictured in this photo, as Evelyn, Ana Isabel, and little Anni climbed up the moss-covered steps their silhouettes began to fade. Evelyn and Ana Isabel kept their gaze fixed forward while Anni paused to look back.
When I look at this photo it reminds me of all the Dominicans who left their small houses in the countryside, their land and family to venture out to the US on a journey in search of prosperity. They took those initial steps with uncertainty, the future a hazy mist. One by one by one, my family members embarked on that path leaving bits of themselves in the dusty hills. Some would return regularly while others would wait ten maybe twenty years before going back to their place of birth. And then there were those who never managed to get a visa and stayed behind to make a life of what remained.
On my journey to meet with every family member from each aunt to third cousins to the ancient great aunts and uncles, I will explore how life evolved for those individuals who arrived here to make a living as well as those who remained in the Dominican Republic. I’ll consider the impact of immigration and separation on the family and whether life in the United States fulfilled expectations. I’ll also explore what keeps some connected to the island and others distant.