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~Today's Immigrant's Straddle Life in Two Countries: New Book by Wellesley Professor Explores 'Transnational Villagers'~

For immediate release:
July 8, 2001


Arlie Corday
Public Information
Phone: 781-283-3321

WELLESLEY, Mass. -Throughout history, immigrants have shared a common fate: Hearts may lie in the old country but fortunes depend on the new.

Traditionally, transplants said good-bye to home and family and started a new life. But today, it's a smaller world where cheap airfares and telecommunications shrink distances and expand possibilities.

"Today you can call each night from Jamaica Plain to the Dominican Republic and say, 'José, do your homework!' You can really be involved on a day-to-day basis," says Peggy Levitt, assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College and associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

While it may be easier to keep a foot in both worlds, that advantage creates concerns for what Levitt calls "The Transnational Villagers" in her new book by the same name (University of California Press, July 2001).

Levitt, who lives in Concord, Mass., studied immigrants from a town in the Dominican Republic who moved to the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. As she investigated their lives, she saw a phenomenon: One village extended across an international divide.

"When somebody cheats on his wife or gets a visa or dies, the news travels as fast here as it does down there," Levitt said. "This is why I call them the transnational villagers. It is living your life across borders so that you are engaged in regular social, economic and political activities that span national boundaries."

No longer do immigrants leave behind a homeland to adopt a new country. "We have this idea in the United States that immigrants may become U.S. citizens and sever their connections to their home communities and countries," Levitt says."But a lot of that is based on immigrants at the turn of the last century, when the great migration came from Europe. Now we have a whole new wave of migration that started after 1965, primarily from Latin America and Asia. These people are not severing their ties. This book offers an in-depth examination of how people live transnationally--and the social and political consequences of that. It explores how these dynamics ask us to rethink what we mean by membership and citizenship."

Living between two worlds creates opportunities and problems.

"When migrants travel regularly between sending and receiving communities, their health care and education is uncoordinated and can lead to poor outcomes," Levitt said. "One solution would be greater cooperation between home and host country health and educational systems."

Transnational migration has positive economic effects for the home and host country. "Migrants do many of the jobs that native-born workers in the U.S. no longer want to do," Levitt said. "At the same time, they are also supporting many of those who remain behind who cannot find work because of economic underdevelopment."

In fact, migrants often organize benefit associations that make major contributions--an aqueduct or a baseball stadium, for example--to their hometowns. "They want to go back home to retire," she said.
"They want a comfortable place to go home to visit."

The downside to support is the loss of a cultural and economic base back home. "Farming, which was the main occupation of choice, has become non-viable in many parts of the Dominican Republic,"Levitt says. "There is a whole generation of kids who do not want to do farming because it is more prestigious to go make a lot of money in the United States. They are waiting around to emigrate and not involved in any profitable, income-generating activities."

Dependency and unrealistic expectations follow. "People grow accustomed to a level of consumption that they can't support with their own resources," she says. "Everybody has a VCR, a TV and a CD player but they couldn't have bought these things themselves. As a result, some values of solidarity or hard work are no longer respected."

Loss of a way of life can be especially devastating if the immigrant experience doesn't work out as well as expected." Some people are totally displaced by this, and they are not making it anywhere, in this country or the other one," Levitt says.

What's the solution? Dual citizenship is one way to ensure that people contributing to two economies are taken care of no matter which country they reside in. "A lot of people are up in arms about this, saying it's like polygamy: How can you be married to two countries?" Levitt says. "You could try to stop it but I believe this is the way of the world now. So let's give people the tools to live and progress wherever they want to be."

Levitt points out many contributions made by immigrants, who form a much-needed work force in this country.

"They also bring a lot of resourcefulness and culturally enriching elements to society," she says. "This is what our country was founded on--and this is how we should continue to think of ourselves." For more information, go to Levitt's Web site at or contact Wellesley College at 781-283-2373.



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  • Office of Public Information
  • Date Modified: July 31, 2001
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