How I Chose My New Hometown

Transplants tell their stories of leaving home and finding a new community.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a hometown is defined as "the city or town where one was born or grew up," and also "the place of one's principal residence." With this duality, there is a place called home that you are given and can choose for yourself. Many people decide to move to different cities and countries as they get older. Sometimes they are looking for a place for their career to take off. In other occasions, they are looking for a community that is more tolerant and progressive than the one they came from. Whatever the reason, defining your hometown is one of the most important decisions you can make in your adult life.

Since everyone has a unique story, we wanted to take a peek into the experiences of three creative women that chose a new place to live and build a community. Each has a personal connection with both of their hometowns. After all, the place we grow up helps define us. Yet each woman has chosen a new home for herself where she can fully thrive professionally and emotionally. We asked each to share a bit about their two hometowns and how they came to decide what community they wanted to reside in.

Ivanna Martinez

Ivanna Martinez is a Mexico native who spent her childhood bouncing between Atlanta, Georgia and San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Now working on the social team at Coveteur, the creative calls the Lower East Side of New York City her home.

How I Chose My New Hometown
Illustration by Briana Gagnier for Lonny | Courtesy of Ivanna Martinez.

Lonny: Can you tell me a bit about where you grew up? What was the culture like and are there any unique things that are just home to you?

Ivanna Martinez: I grew up in Atlanta, but was raised in a Mexican family. Growing up in the U.S., I could tell you I was more immersed in Mexican culture than American. I went to international school my entire life, so celebrating my culture was part of an everyday thing. Every summer (since I could remember) I would go live in Mexico for three months with my grandmother. It was an amazing way at not only reconnecting with my culture, but also establishing friendships and relationships I have to this day.

My town in Mexico San Luis Potosi is so small that time kind of stops. I love that because with the hustle and bustle of the city, I can sometimes forget what I had for dinner two nights ago. But going back, I feel like everything is in its place and my head isn't spinning! So I will be very honest, coming back to my friends and hearing the latest chisme (gossip) is what makes me feel most at home! 

What made you decide to move to NYC?

IM: I’ve always loved expressing myself through what I wear, so eyeballing the fashion industry wasn't a surprise. I was going to go to Barcelona my sophomore year of college when I (very quickly) decided to take an internship in the city instead. I took classes at NYU and interned in Tommy Hilfiger's marketing department. I knew then and there I was going to come back after graduation, and here I am now! 

When did the city start to feel like home to you?

IM: I would say the city started to feel like home when I found small recollections of it. What a better way to feel at home than the food! My first NYC apartment was in Nolita, a few doors down from this Mexican restaurant called Tacombi. I probably went there at least twice a week. Not only did I feel back home with the handmade tortillas and the agua de horchata, but the people and energy in the restaurant makes it really feel like Mexico. Ordering in Spanish and talking to my waiter about the recent Club America soccer game was like being back at my local taqueria again. 

What are your favorite parts of the city?

IM: I now live in the Lower East Side, so that's where I spend most of my time. I love its genuine sense of culture, and its diverse group of people. There's Mexican, Chinese, Puerto Rican, you name it. And I'm not just talking about restaurants, but areas too. New York has the magic of experiencing a culture with just walking a few blocks.

My favorite spot in NYC (other than Tacombi) is definitely my bodega. In Mexico we call it a tiendita which also means little store! It's run by two Mexican families, and they've helped make the move to NYC much smoother. Not only do they prepare me a to-go green juice every morning (it's on the counter by 9am), they helped carry my new furniture to my third floor apartment! Those small details make it feel like I'm back home with my family. Would I get that same help in the Upper East Side? Probably not. 

Are there things you miss and don't miss about Mexico?

IM: I miss my lifestyle in Mexico so much. New York life is "live to work" whereas Mexico is the complete opposite. Families have lunch together and talk about their day, very different compared to my at-desk lunch here in the city.

I also miss being only an hour away from the countryside! San Miguel de Allende is my favorite place in the world —anyone can tell you that. My Instagram is ALL San Mike latergrams. With that being said, I like how New York is always punctual. It's challenged me to become a more organized person! I can't say I've perfected it, but if anything I've learned how to be more time efficient.  

Are you a citizen of Mexico? If so, how has the recent immigration politics affected your relationship with your new home?

IM: As a proud Latina woman, it really devastates me that there's a wall literally affecting the growth and potential of Latin Americans. But more importantly, it frustrates me that there's Latino and non-Latino citizens who overlook it because it doesn't concern "them.” To me, that's the most dangerous kind of ignorance.

Fortunately there are influential voices helping make a change in New York! Karla Martinez de Salas, Vogue Mexico and LATAM's Editor-in-Chief, as well as a few others started an organization here called Project Paz. It a great organization that helps communities in the Texas border region as well as relief for the recent earthquakes in Mexico. They host events and fundraisers here for relief, and all the proceeds are going to a great cause. New York has allowed me to speak my truth and express my concerns — and I know not every area in the U.S. is like that. So I advocate even more! The strong Latino community here allows me to share my country's voice, even if I'm 2,000-plus miles away. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

IM: Home doesn't necessarily have to be where you were born, or where you were raised. It's where you feel most at peace. Growing up with different backgrounds and in a different cities, I realized that Mexico is truly what made me feel grounded. I didn't necessarily grow up there, but that also doesn't mean I haven't lived a life there. You can have several homes, and finding that peace in several places is super easy! It's just finding that commonality. Maybe it's a hobby, or a fun athletic activity you do. Home is a space where you don't need to explain yourself. Everyone and everything around you just gets it.

Nkechi Deanna Njaka

The founder of the NDN Lifestyle Studio and co-founder of Sitting Matters, Nkechi Deanna Njaka was born in Minnetoka, Minnesota and is now a local to San Francisco, California. She uses neuroscience, dance, nutrition, and fashion to create a mindful and creative space for individual consulting, coaching, and content creation.

How I Chose My New Hometown
Illustration by Briana Gagnier for Lonny | Photographed by Ijeoma Njaka | Photographed by Ashley Batz.

Lonny: Can you tell me a bit about where you grew up? What was the culture like and are there any unique things that are just home to you?

Nkechi Deanna Njaka: I grew up in Minnetonka, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. If anyone loves Prince, that’s significant. It’s a pretty quiet, nice, liberal(-ish) place to grow up. Not a ton of racial diversity, but there are great schools and lots of lakes. We lived on one with snow in the winter and humidity in the summer.

Minnesota is generally pretty white — Nordic and blonde. Obviously, this is a stereotype, but it added a particular perspective to my upbringing, being a person with brown skin. I also think it’s pretty unique that my entire neighborhood growing up was Jewish. I feel grateful for that — it’s super random.

What made you decide to move to San Francisco?

NDN: My senior year in college I road tripped to the Bay Area. We stayed in Berkeley and I fell in love.  I had a strong feeling that I wanted to raise a family there in the hills. We spent time in S.F., but there was something that felt like a combination of my values and interests that made the East Bay stand out. I still feel that way almost 12 years later, but I have never actually lived in the East Bay!

San Francisco is my home. Ultimately, it was my first job out of grad school that got me here. I was hired as a clinical neuroscientist doing research in Palo Alto. I knew I didn’t want to live on the Peninsula, so I did that awful commute from the city for two years. S.F. to South Bay was less awful than East Bay to South Bay.

When did the city start to feel like home?

NDN: S.F. felt like home when I moved into my current apartment five years ago. Maybe it’s because I live alone, maybe it’s because I live in the woods near the ocean — it could be all of that. Maybe it was because I left a relationship, was starting my business, and moved into my space to begin a very new chapter. All of that — signing a lease by myself, furnishing a place, and then being totally terrified to do it alone — forced me to really own my life in a way I hadn’t before. Either way, home happened.

What are your favorite parts of the city?

NDN: I love my apartment. That’s my favorite place, my favorite part! I’m a huge nester. And I also just really love the Presidio. It’s become so important for me to nourish in nature — I feel so lucky to have access to both the trees and the water so easily. Another place that I really love is the Yerba Buena GardensYBCA is there and so is Samovar.

Do you feel like you have been able to develop a community and foster your career better in San Francisco than where you grew up?

NDN: After said neuroscience job, I moved back to Minnesota for two years and then came back to S.F.. I don’t really think I had a choice other than to foster my career and community here. I was moving back with an intention to start over. Yes, I had lived here, but I wasn’t choosing a career in neuroscience when I returned. I was starting a creative lifestyle business in wellness. 

I’ve met my best friends the last few years here through yoga and fashion. I really feel like that is why it feels like home. I have such deep friendships that I built through my work and through self-care practices. These relationships mean the world to me. I have grown so much in my practice and purpose, as well as my profession. 

This past year, I also have gotten more involved with YBCA as an artist fellow and that’s been huge. Plugging into the art community has been really rewarding and feels really meaningful. 

Are there things you miss and don't miss about your original hometown?

NDN: I miss my parents, I miss hot summers and lake hangouts, I miss how supported the arts are in MN, and I really miss the Walker Art Center — even though I have YBCA here. I don’t miss the winter. Or the Minnesota accent.

I really don’t know how anyone can stand the cold though! The last time I was there over the holidays, I cried because the temperature was -15. Cried! That being said, I miss cross country skiing and I love Minnehaha Falls, an urban waterfall that freezes in the winter.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

NDN: I don’t think I could ever live in Minnesotta again. I’m too much of a Californian. But if I wasn’t from there, I would consider living there because it is a cool place. There’s stuff to do — people meditate, compost, and do yoga. There is a fashion scene, an underground music scene, art, and clean-eating options— those are the things I care about. As it turns out, I am going to be in Minnesota in a couple days and I can’t wait to see my parents. I’ll be there for work art directing and teaching meditation, and I feel lucky that I can visit often.

Sana Javeri Kadri

Born in Mumbai, India, Sana Javeri Kadri is a photographer and founder of Diaspora Co., a spice trading company intent on creating change through food systems. She is now based in her new hometown of Oakland, California.

How I Chose My New Hometown
Illustration by Briana Gagnier for Lonny | Courtesy of Sana Javeri Kadri.

Lonny: Can you tell me a bit about where you grew up? What was the culture like and are there any unique things that are just home to you?

Sana Javeri Kadri: I grew up in Mumbai, India in the ‘90s. Until 1991, India was a protectionist state, which meant that when we neo-liberalized in the early ‘90s, the rush of capitalism was wild. I spent my childhood watching global capitalism basically invade the world's largest democracy, in a frenzy to capture as much of this new market as possible. Mumbai is also the financial capital of the country, so it's kind of like New York in the way that things move very fast and it's often culturally a completely different reality than the rest of the country. For me, home was as much pav bhaji as it was the Caribbean West Indies "inspired" flavor of Lays potato chips that are only available in India in a bizarre attempt to make globally inspired snacks for a distinctly Indian palate. 

What made you decide to move to Oakland?

SJK: I moved to the U.S. to attend Pomona College in Southern California — it was my first time living in the United States and there was a LOT of culture shock. Growing up watching American TV, I thought I knew exactly what to expect once I got here, but everything from the people, to the landscape, to the humor was totally lost on me. My parents lived in the East Bay in the ‘80s shortly after finishing graduate school and before moving back to India, so I had grown up hearing about their feminist, hippie, very-granola Bay Area ‘80s years with a lot of nostalgia packed into their stories. The Bay Area was where they described being happiest in America, so that's naturally where I gravitated towards.

When I graduated college, I was just coming to terms with my sexuality (I'm queer!), and was really looking for a community of people that looked like me and were experiencing similar things to me. I drove up to Oakland and it all just made sense. Everything I was looking for — and everything my parents had loved it for — existed together and it felt like I was reliving their years here, as well as carving out my own. 

When did the city start to feel like home to you?

SJK: Honestly, right away. I was lucky enough to connect with the People's Kitchen Collective as their photographer within my second week in Oakland. Through them, I was suddenly surrounded by this beautiful community of black and brown, usually queer, folks, uniting around ideas of food justice and culinary storytelling that was just incredibly powerful. I've often said that I spent 23 years never feeling at home anywhere — and I've lived on three continents — but I came to Oakland and it just fit from the very start. I travel frequently for what most American's would consider to be uncomfortably long stints, but coming home to Oakland is still one of my favorite feelings in the world. 

What are your favorite parts of the city?

SJK: I’m lucky to live within walking distance of the Lake Merritt, so walking down with a friend and ideally a puppy in tow around sunset is one of my favorite ways to spend an evening. There's a fierce and wonderful community of women of color chefs here in Oakland churning out some of the country's best food — Cosecha, Navi Kitchen, Brown Sugar Kitchen, Miss Ollie's, and Reem's — so dinner is always exciting and completely delicious. 

Are there things you miss and don't miss about India?

SJK: I miss the Indian aesthetic. Whenever I'm constructing a photo set for work, I find myself drawn to bringing in tropical foliage, bright and lush yellows, greens, and pinks, banana leaves, and marigolds whenever I can find them. The visual vocabulary that is most deeply embedded into me as a photographer and an artist is the Indian one — and I find myself pining for it more than I can describe.

That being said, I often tell friends that when I land back in Oakland, it feels like I can breathe again. This isn't a bitter joke about Indian air quality, but rather a sad realization that my queer identity always feels suppressed and concealed in India. It's a heartbreaking feeling to feel unseen by the place that you feel so deeply rooted in. I love Oakland because it allows me to be my full self — sure, Oakland can be a flaming radical liberal bubble of queerdom — but I will protect that bubble fiercely because it is so goddamn beautiful.  

Are you a citizen of India? If so, how has the recent immigration politics affected your relationship with your new home?

SJK: I am a citizen of India, and am in the U.S on a green card. When Trump was first elected, I was so hurt it sent me into a bit of a spiral. I felt a need to prove my "good immigrant-ness" to these United States, and a deep feeling of betrayal towards the folks that had voted for a man who quite literally stood for everything that endangered my community and loved ones. I know very deeply that the United States were built on white supremacy — that inequity is the foundation of this country — but that doesn't mean it didn't still shake me to my core. I actually bought a one-way ticket back to India last February around the same time that the Muslim ban was announced, and it took nearly six months of being away for me to feel ready to come back and reclaim these United States as my home too, and Oakland as where I live in a deeply rooted, permanent sense of the word.

I am Lonny's Senior Associate Editor. You can find me writing about interior tips, scouting out the coolest new spots, and rallying behind amazing female entrepreneurs. You can reach me at shelby.wax@livingly.com or on Instagram @shelbywax.
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