When the house kills the home: a story of failed returns

by Gabriel Echeverría

In loving memory of my aunt Rosita. At her place, I felt at home.

What I had in mind was to travel, stay out few years, build a house and go back…”
My dream was to build a house, a nice one. That is why I decided to migrate…”.
I saw the new, fancy houses of people who migrated popping-up like mushrooms in the neighbourhood, I thought to myself, migration is a great opportunity, I want to go…”.
I don’t want to stay away forever, I am building the house and once is ready I will go back home…”.
[Alberto Nuñez (pseudonym), Ecuadorian migrant in Europe]

In my recent fieldwork in Ecuador, last April, I had the opportunity to visit three different areas of the country that have been characterized by massive emigration in the last decades. In each place I was able to walk around, observe, meet returned migrants or key informants and have all sorts of occasional encounters. After talking to migrants living in Europe for many years, I was eventually able to move “up the river” to the spring of the human flows I had been studying at the opposite side. Lots of questions were buzzing in my mind: what was the impact of all these people leaving for so long? What would happen with the migrants that did return at last? Had they been able to fulfil what seems to be the most enduring and resilient imaginary – spending some years abroad, building a house and going back home?

Can you see all these new houses? They are all empty! The owner of that one is in the US… that one on the corner is my cousin’s, he lives in Murcia.. The family that built that one, on the opposite side, lives in Italy… Here in Pasaje there are hundreds of empty houses…”.
The problem is that a big house does not feed you! Many people who return, after few months, need to travel again… They don’t have anything to do here”.
It is a matter of choices – who invests all the money in a house then does not have a penny to start a business or buy a piece of land. If you don’t have a job, a house is useless”.
[Lucia Jimenez (pseudonym), Ecuadorian returnee]

The issue of homes and houses has been omnipresent in my talks with migrants. Being or not the focus of the conversation, it would invariably emerge at some point, marginally at least. Fascinatingly, whereas in conversations with most people the concepts of home and house tend to overlap as if they were only different ways to name the same thing, in talking with migrants the relation between the two, explicitly or implicitly, emerges at a wholly different level of complexity.

The relation between the idea of home and the idea of house is indeed complex and seldom appreciated, before a “shocking” event arrives to make it evident. The link is not perceived as problematic until it becomes a problem. The migration experience, I discovered, is one of those critical events that fully reveals this difference – sometimes, dramatically so.

A house is a house: a floor, some walls, a roof and all the possible combinations of these elements. Houses may be big or small, comfortable or uncomfortable, single or shared, stylish or squalid. A home is a much more elusive concept. It includes a considerable wider and diversified typology of constitutive elements that range from the super concrete – personal objects, people, animals, routines, furniture, etc. – to the utterly ethereal – familiarity, security, intimacy, affection, control, memory, etc.

A house is an objective entity, a home is a subjective one. No matter how bizarre a house can be, everyone recognizes it as such. However, although there can be very different types of homes, for every person there is only one idea of home, her or his home.

A house is a concrete, immediate, handy thing. A home is an immaterial, elusive, fragile one. Although a house may be necessary to have a home, to have a house is certainly not enough in order to have a home. For the purpose of living (as opposed to just surviving – a shelter may be enough for that), you need a house, a place to dwell. A home implies a more ambitious aspiration and, from this point of view, is undoubtedly less essential. This does not mean less important.

Empty house in Pasaje, Ecuador

A house can be identified with a very precise, circumscribed, limited physical space. A home, instead, can be simultaneously linked to a range of material and non-material spaces. One can feel at home in a tiny room, in a big house, in a van, in a city, in a forest, in a community, in a country, in the world, or in a variable combination of all these. There is something both relational and relativistic in the idea of home. This makes the concept variable even for the same individual. Home is like a jigsaw that we rebuild every time, according to the need or the situation, every time composing a slightly different picture.

Home is the sum of ethereal and the concrete elements. While both are necessary, the relation between them is tricky and certainly not linear. In order to feel a sense of familiarity, familiar objects are important but they are not enough. In order to perceive a sense of security, doors and windows can help but cannot do the whole job. In fact, the ethereal elements are equally critical. More than a set of conditions and objects, a home is the feeling that such conditions and materials elements, altogether and under certain conditions, concur to create. It is curious, however, how such a feeling, that may be ultimately the core element of the idea of home, tends to be often neglected. The ethereal elements seem to be given for granted, to be somehow ignored until the moment in which they are put in danger. From this perspective, home is like a habit. Habits tend to stay unnoticed until the moment in which they are lost. It is no surprise, then, that when people think about home, they typically think about its material components and mostly to the house. Maybe it is easier, more immediate, less challenging.

The migration experience is often fostered by an aspiration to improve one’s living conditions – to improve one’s home. Very often this idea is interpreted in terms of improving the house. The house, as commonly occurs to all of us, is equated to the home. To own it, and have a more confrontable, bigger or fancy one is seen as a way to have a better home. Not surprisingly, the idea of migrating in order to build or buy a new house and then return home is one of the most repeated mantras in informal conversations with migrants.

Yet, what happens in reality? What can the stories of migrant returns or, quite often, the stories of migrant failed returns tell us about the relation between houses and homes?

Empty house in Saraguro, Ecuador

If the relation between houses and home is complex, certain experiences show this at a paradoxical, interestingly revealing, level. Put it provocatively, in certain situations, houses can become “enemies” of the home. In other words, in some cases migrants’ quest for a better house, certainly unintentionally, puts in jeopardy the very existence of the home, or at least of the original one. Migrants leave in search for a better house and when they are finally able to return, they find that the new house cannot serve as a home, that the old, constantly recalled from the distance home has vanished. By the time the dreamed, big, fancy, confrontable, ostensible house is ready the home is dead. Of course, this is not the case for every migrant. Some of them are able to return and resume the home life they had before. Yet, for a good number this is not the case.

The home of migrants is put under pressure in a number of ways. Family life may be destabilised by parents leaving their children behind. The same may occur with sentimental life, whenever partners separate from the beloved ones. Once back, both types of relations have inevitably changed and in many cases they have lost their homely intimacy. The time and space a migrant leaves behind are not the same he or she finds once back, just as he or she is not the same person. The mismatch between memories and reality, between the old, forgotten habits and the new, acquired ones can be at times unbearable to the point that what used to be home becomes unrecognizable.

From all these perspectives, returning home can be much more difficult than people might imagine as they pack their baggage before leaving. Yet, there is another difficulty that is very often underestimated, if not totally ignored, and yet seems to play a determinant role. In order to feel at home in a certain place, a site to dwell, a house, even better if a comfortable, fancy house is undeniably necessary; at the same time, a combination of those ethereal feelings that were identified is essential. However, even if both the place and the feelings – these at least potentially – are there, a further element is indispensable: the means to make up a sustainable living. In many conversations with returnees, and in many stories with migrants in Europe that had travelled again after a “failed” attempt to go back, this issue emerged clearly. Those who are able to successfully return are those who have been able to build the conditions for economic sustainability. This could be achieved in a number of different ways. Some accumulate some capital to invest in a small business, for instance little shops, restaurants, hairdressers, etc.; others have bought some land or some particular machinery and are able to make profit out of them; still others have invested in education and got a spendable expertise in the local labour market. Interestingly, those of my informants who were able to successfully return were the same who had not invested in a better house. In many cases, the big, fancy and empty houses built from abroad are not only the symbol of failed returns. They are also part of the reason for it. As one migrant said, “houses don’t feed you!”. In order to rebuild a home, its economic viability is as important as the existence of a place to stay. From this perspective and quite paradoxically, there are cases in which the house ends up “killing” the home.

Old and new houses in Otavalo, Ecuador

Remarkably, this sheds light onto another possible, important, yet apparently underestimated dimension of home that requires further investigation. Home is a place to stay, home is a combination of feelings, but home is also a sustainable, meaningful relation with the social environment. In fact, home is a combination between these three elements. In this sense, home plays a function that goes beyond fulfilling individual aspirations. It also enables a link between the private and the public and helps structuring individual lives in a way that connects them, both affectively and materially, to the functioning and reproduction of society more in general. Without this crucial element, the house remains a house and the home becomes a chimera. From this perspective, migrants’ quest for a better house, and hence the equation between the house and the home, might be seen as the result of a sort of distortion of the idea of home – a reification (not to say commodification) of it – that may eventually put at risk the fragile equilibrium of its constitutive elements. Such an outcome, which is certainly not exclusive of migrants’ experience, can be associated with broader societal transformations and maybe with a certain tendency to existential disenchantment.