Why do most Colombians in East Boston hail from the same small Colombian town?
Donmatías is a Colombian town with a very unusual migratory behavior. A 2005 census found that around 5,000 Donmatieños had left their town and traveled to Boston, Massachusetts, a city 2,500 miles away. When the census was completed Donmatías had a population of 15,000. One in every three residents had moved to Boston. Ten years later, that number may be higher.
“It became a tradition to leave the town, it’s part of our culture,” says Jairo Macías, a councilor in Donmatías. “Some of the Donmatieños have traveled to the United States with a visa, but others have traveled without documents, willing to pay $10,000 or $15,000 for a trip via Mexico.” This extraordinary migration started in the seventies, became massive in the late eighties and nineties, and has remained steady over the past decade.
The majority of Donmatieños have settled in East Boston (Eastie), the fourth biggest neighborhood in the city, known for being 53 percent Latino. They became one of the biggest Colombian communities in the United States, and are known in Colombia for leaving. Some people exaggerate saying that “there are no Colombians in Boston, only people from Donmatías.”
Many Donmatieños opened small businesses in Eastie, like restaurants, bakeries, convenience stores, butchers, hair salons, bars, etc. William Peña, a Colombian journalist who has been living in Boston for three decades, witnessed the explosive growth of Donmatías community: “The men came first, then they sent money to bring her wives and children. They recreated in East Boston the landscape of their town. They created businesses and named them as if they were back in Colombia –“Tu casa,” “Mi pueblito,” “La terraza”–, names that remember what they left behind, what they miss.”
Donmatieños in Boston maintain close ties with the relatives they left in Colombia . “The economy of Donmatías is based on pig and cow farming, textiles and the remittances that people send from the United States. Those who have migrated invest a lot of money in the town and have a strong influence in the political decisions we make,” explains Liliana López, who was mayor of Donmatías between 2004 and 2007 and who recently visited East Boston to meet with the community.
But Donmatías case is not only interesting because of the townspeople who have migrated to East Boston, but because that displacement was followed by an influx of migrants in Colombia to take their place. The Colombian national census of 2005 found that 50 percent of the people in Donmatías were born outside of the town, and most of them are working in the textile industry. Javier Noreña, a Donmatieño who has been in the U.S. for a little over two years illustrates this point: “I know more people from my town here in East Boston than in Colombia. As East Boston is occupied by people of Donmatías, Donmatías is occupied by people from other Colombian regions.”
“Here in East Boston we meet with our friends and other Donmatieños, we know who they are, who are their relatives, where did they grow up. But if we go today to Donmatías’ central park we don’t feel the same familiarity that we feel in this city that is far away from ours,” says Liliana López, the former mayor.
Perhaps being together in a relative small area–East Boston–has helped to maintain that sense of community and the strong relationship between those who are in Boston and those who remain in Donmatías. However, their days in Eastie may be running out.
Until a couple of years ago, rents in East Boston were among the lowest in the city. That allowed many Latino immigrants –who have a median yearly income of $30,000, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority– to settle there. They depended heavily on cheap rents to live in the neighborhood, and they could find one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartments for less than $1,000. However, since 2012 rents have been skyrocketing, and as with many other working class Latinos many Donmatieños have been pushed out of the neighborhood. They just can’t afford to live in el barrio anymore. Some of them have moved to neighboring cities like Revere, Chelsea, Winthrop, Everett and Lynn. But the housing market there is hot, too. A Greater Boston Housing Report published by Northeastern University has declared a housing crisis for the city, and points out that working class families are at risk of becoming homeless.
The consequences that gentrification and displacement will have in the community of Donmatías haven’t been measured yet. Being together in East Boston has helped to maintain their relationship with the town and to receive those relatives who want to live the “American dream.” But as the housing crisis in Boston gets worse, another question looms: how will this affect the community, not only here in Boston but also back in Colombia? The economical, cultural and social system that was created by this migration may be facing a critical point.