How Moving to the Dominican Republic Has Shifted My Views on Self-Love

Jennyfer Parra
Photo Illustration: Ava Cruz
Jennyfer Parra
Photo Illustration: Ava Cruz

Over the past few years, a trend has emerged: young professionals have been leaving behind their lives in the US and relocating to countries in Asia, Europe, or Latin America for slower and even more affordable lifestyles. When I made the decision to relocate to the Dominican Republic, I became one of those young professionals. The first few months were filled with days of embracing the newfound warmth and reconnection with my culture. I would find myself submerged in the joy and peace I forgot I was capable of feeling. But it quickly all fell apart once I realized that behind the image of myself that I had meticulously built in the US was an unstable structure, masking deep-seated mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and a lack of self-worth.

In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic and social change, I decided to leave the US. I was about to turn 30 and wanted to welcome my 30 years in the Dominican Republic. I also wanted to spend a few months living there.

These young professionals, many of whom are BIPOC, who have in recent years chosen to live their lives outside of the States have been referred to as "digital nomads." It's a trend made possible by the pandemic. In fact, Forbes states that almost three-quarters of digital nomads (74.5 percent) responding to a survey claimed that their decision to go remote was influenced directly by the pandemic.

And yet, unlike many white Westerners who make this move, I was returning to the place my parents had left behind to grant me a better life. I was returning to the country where I was raised from the age of 3 to 15 and to a country that was once home. This was all in search of precisely that: a place that felt like a home and where my hyphenated identities as a Dominican-American and Afro-Latina would become one with the general population.

And while my identity did shift and I did find a sense of home in being surrounded and held by nature and community, what ensued quickly was a wake-up call to the ways in which I, as a daughter of immigrants, had abandoned myself when I left for the US. This was along with the sense of community my parents abandoned in order to adapt to North American culture. And though the decision was autonomous, when I returned, I also faced other readjustment concerns: studies show returnees struggle with a change in perception from others and a shift in the community.

I quickly learned that no matter where I went, I was going to bring myself with me, and changing my environment would not change my well-being. About a year after moving to the DR, my depression and anxiety caught up to me. I could no longer feign to be OK, as I was living in deep loneliness, which is normal when moving to a new place. I was also beginning to experience a deep sense of loss in a place where I could no longer resort to the unhealthy coping mechanisms I had in the US like consumerism, fast food, and the elevation granted by a career.

On a particularly dark hour, when I found myself once again binge eating and crying, I realized I needed to seek help. I went on a search for a local psychiatrist and found Dr. Carlos Dominguez's office. With his help, I was able to begin a treatment that would allow me to work with him and a therapist. I was diagnosed with dysthymia, a kind of long-term depression. I was also given medication to help with mood swings.

And while I wish this was the end of my story, the reality is getting this help was only the beginning. I began feeling better, and while on antidepressants, I began getting activated to open a bookstore, holding a crowdfund and raising money to make it happen. For me, this was a dream come true, having a space where I could continue connecting with others and also give back by encouraging and planting seeds to nurture a local reading culture in Cabarete.

Yet what I didn't realize was that this was also another way of continuing to run from a feeling of lack of self-worth, and it was also the only way in which I could try to make sense of choosing to move back to the DR and wage my US privilege in a country where so many wished they could leave.

Where did this feeling of lack of self-worth come from, you ask? For me, I can identify many places: like the ways in which Black and Brown women are dismissed in society or growing up in a single-parent household where we were in constant survival mode. While the answer was found in many of these realities, and I did identify these truths throughout the years as a poet, these answers also allowed me to externalize all of these concerns. They enabled me to point the finger elsewhere, without truly deeply examining how in my subconscious I carried these emotions that needed to be released.

I had internalized the belief that only when I was producing art or income, only when I was giving back (at times from an empty cup), and only when I was being something "greater" than my simple self, only then was I worthy of love, compassion, dignity, and respect.

As a result, I sought to fill this void with the kind of validation that can be granted with career pursuits, with romantic partners, and even with this well-intentioned bookstore. These were all things that could easily fall apart, and they did. The project of the bookstore in the overly expensive tourist town of Cabarete quickly became financially unsustainable, as I would need more than one crowdfund to keep it going.

While the project was fun, exciting, and promising, after long consideration, some deep conversations with others in the area, and therapy consultations, I had to close it and bookmark the hope for another time.

The foundation of my own life was built in a sand castle, one that quickly crumbled when the freelance journalism and voice-over opportunities along with other remote work stopped coming — especially as companies continue to shift to AI developments. It all also quickly crumbled as the darkness that I was consumed in with my depression and anxiety never ceased to take over. I needed more than just meds; I needed to learn to be OK with asking for help and not doing things alone, not just with the bookstore Librería Cosmos but also with myself and my own life.

By the end of 2022, the sand castle of my life could no longer hold itself, and I had to accept the help and move in with distant relatives in my hometown of Santiago for a few months — leaving behind the hopes that Cabarete could work. I was also struggling to even continue paying for the expensive meds. This was the beginning of me realizing all that needed to change for a stronger foundation to be built, one that wasn't reliant on constant survival mode or production.

When immigrants from all over move to the US, this is precisely what they leave behind: community. And in this way, abandonment happens on both sides, for those who stay and for those who go. Studies have shown that abandonment of our home traditions and identities actually leads to higher depression in immigrants. This unfortunate reality has become my main learning curve since I moved to the DR in 2020.

When I left the US to move to the DR, everything that masked these sentiments was taken away as I distanced myself from a culture driven by hyper-consumerism, individualism, and even NYC's hustle culture. I moved to a place where none of these things were the driving factors anymore. Instead, amid growing social inequality, community was the driving factor. And I had to learn that I was worthy of this and that I was worthy of receiving help, even when I wasn't perfect, even when I made mistakes, and even when I thought I had it all figured out. While I did have a sense of community in the US, I never allowed myself to truly lean on others with trust that they wouldn't eventually also leave.

Now, after a few months of building myself up and considering moving back to the US to work, I decided I wanted to stay here and stop this cycle of abandonment caused by moving back and forth. I needed to make the effort to try being here, to work, and to build a life with a stronger foundation, one that wouldn't just fall apart when remote jobs, writing gigs, or artistic opportunities stopped coming. One where the friendships were long-lasting and where my sense of worth came from my inner spirit regardless of anything else happening outside of my own body.

I eventually stopped taking the antidepressants and mood-swing medications, started going to the gym, began learning about personal financial management, got a customer-service phone job, and saved enough to move out into my own tiny apartment. I've taken the time to nurture the part of me dealing with the internalized abandonment that existed through generations.

I've also made conscious efforts to connect with other women who also made the decision to return from the US, and there are many of us who are slowly learning to heal this abandonment and to understand that it's perfectly normal for this new generation to seek out reconnection. We are also women who are conscious that our role as bi-nationals who have access to the US is to be defined by us and needs to be paved with intentionality. It cannot be paved by a sense of guilt but rather by being proactive and understanding we can be a bridge — a resource. It will take time to figure out what this looks like, especially in a way that is centered on community.

For so long, I was living a life as a perfect immigrant daughter in the US, ignoring the boiling pot of my mental health issues, debilitating depression, mood swings, and panic attacks. Moving back here, the biggest lesson has been allowing myself to be imperfect and learning that I had to love myself not just through the wins but also through the failures, the imperfections, and when deep despair settles in. I worked on loving myself not just in moments when I could dance freely to jazz filled with joy or dive into new ventures like making music. I also learned the importance of allowing love to pour in from others, especially during those dark moments when I felt least worthy of it.