“We’re the Gay Farmworkers:” Advancing Intersectional Im/migration Activism in Central Florida

By Nolan Kline

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen walked into the Pulse club in Orlando Florida and fatally shot 49 people. The shooting happened at Pulse’s Latin Night, and it disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ Latinx patrons and other LGBTQ+ people of color.  After the shooting, Florida Governor Rick Scott and Florida Attorney Pam Bondi initially failed to acknowledge the attack happened at a gay bar or that the shooting particularly affected LGBTQ+ people of color in Orlando. In response to these erasures, several local LGBTQ+ Latinx organizations demanded increased political rights and worked to dismantle social divisions based on im/migration status, sexual orientation, race, and other markers of social difference.  One organization in particular emerged as a youth-led initiative of the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF): The LGBTQ+ farmworker group.

A meeting facilitated by leaders of the LGBTQ+ farmworker group. Photo by Yesica Ramirez.

A meeting facilitated by leaders of the LGBTQ+ farmworker group. Photo by Yesica Ramirez.

The LGBTQ+ Farmworker Group meets monthly and serves as a support and action group for LGBTQ+ youth who live in families with farmworkers, engage in farmwork, or live in farmworker communities. I got to know the group through my current research exploring LGBTQ+ Latinx activism following the Pulse shooting, but I have known the FWAF for several years, collaborating with organization leaders while I was an undergraduate student at the institution where I’m now a faculty member. The group is entirely led by teenagers and is largely organized by Gabi [1], a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient and recent high school graduate. At monthly meetings, the group discusses issues unique to LGBTQ+ Latinx people living in farmworking families, such as the challenges in finding LGBTQ+ social and health services, routine racism, and homophobia in their local communities. The group meets in Apopka—an Orlando exurb with an agricultural history that is rapidly changing as sprawl continues to reshape Orlando’s metropolitan landscape. Although Apopka is approximately a 30-minute drive from downtown Orlando, where numerous LGBTQ+ organizations exist, many of the LGBTQ+ farmworker youth group participants lack a personal vehicle, and a seventy-minute bus ride in one direction limits the feasibility of easily getting to Orlando and back home on a school night. Moreover, LGBTQ+ organizations in Orlando have limited understanding of the concerns that weigh on many of these youths, including the ongoing precarity related to their im/migration statuses and the threats of family separation and deportation.

The LGBTQ+ farmworker group was not formed in a vacuum, however. It is largely supported by local LGBTQ+ Latinx organizations that emerged following the Pulse shooting, and two existing farmworker organizations that have been in Apopka for decades, including FWAF and the Hope Community Center. After the Pulse shooting, leaders of both organizations recognized a need to provide services to young people. A leader from the Hope Community Center explained, “one of the guys who was killed, Arturo—we’ve known his family forever. I saw his name on the news and I immediately went to his parents’ house. When I got there, his father came right out of the house, and he came up to me, and he said, ‘You know, Arturo wasn’t gay.’ And I just thought, ‘Wow. Wow. Your son just died and that’s the first thing you want to tell me? Wow.’ And I knew then we were in trouble and needed to do something more for our LGBT youth, but it couldn’t be from us—it had to be from them.’”

Members of the LGBTQ+ farmworker group at a local restaurant. Photo by Yesica Ramirez.

Members of the LGBTQ+ farmworker group at a local restaurant. Photo by Yesica Ramirez.

Leaders from FWAF, Hope Community Center, and newly-created LGBTQ+ Latinx organizations wanted to keep the LGBTQ+ Latinx farmworker group youth-led as a way to advance intersectional social justice ideals and promote new leadership. For example, the LGBTQ+ Farmworker group received financial support from the Contigo Fund: an organization created after the Pulse tragedy to, among other things, support LGBTQ+ Latinx social justice organizing and to foster new leaders. The LGBTQ+ Farmworker group is one of such organizations. The group’s name arrives out of the group wanting to be explicit about its membership. At a meeting where the group tried to decide what to call themselves, they considered multiple options. After brainstorming names, one member said, “I think we should just be the LGBTQ+ Farmworker group—that’s what we are—we’re the gay farmworkers. Farmworker needs to be in the name.”

Though in its infancy, the LGBTQ+ farmworker group provides support to people at the intersection of unique and overlapping forms of marginalization. At meetings, members discuss xenophobia in school following the election of Donald Trump; how to navigate challenging family dynamics during the holidays as a gay, bisexual, or transgender teenager; and how to best represent LGBTQ+ farmworkers at local pride events. The group has discussed immigration enforcement matters and increasingly aggressive local police tactics, and how such efforts are especially concerning for LGBTQ+ Latinx youth who experience multiple overlapping vulnerabilities. Further, Gabi has also appeared in public forums and was a speaker on a panel at my institution focused on LGBTQ+ intersectional activism following the Pulse shooting.

The emergence and ongoing activism of the youth-led LGBTQ+ Farmworker alliance reveals how im/migrant youth continuously move through numerous social spaces and challenge artificial social boundaries that attempt to organize people based on sexual orientation, documentation and migration status, race, ethnicity, and language ability.  Rather than remaining in such silos, however, leaders of the LGBTQ+ Latinx farmworker group find ways to dismantle them. For example, at Orlando’s pride event, the LGBTQ+ farmworker group used the farmworker association logo to create a rainbow banner, effectively queering the organization’s logo and complicating limited understandings of farmworker and LGBTQ+ identity. Moreover, the group continues to contemplate ways to make LGBTQ+ services more accessible to Central Florida’s farmworker community.

Breaking down artificial silos between LGBTQ+ and im/migration-related groups are especially needed on a global scale, as LGBTQ+ interests and white nationalist interests can align to promote xenophobia and Islamophobia. As I argue in my forthcoming book Pathogenic Policing, one necessary way to combat xenophobia is for groups like LGBTQ+ activists and others to unite and to refuse to be divided based on arbitrary notions of difference, like im/migration status, race, and sexual orientation.


Nolan Kline is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and the Co-Coordinator of the Global Health Program at Rollins College. His book, Pathogenic Policing: Immigration Enforcement and Health in the U.S. South, examines the multiple, hidden, health-related consequences of immigration enforcement policies in the United States. His newest project examines LGBTQ+ Latinx activism following the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida.

[1] All names, except for organization names, are pseudonyms.

Io Sono Qui, a film that upends narratives of “crisis” through the voices of migrant youth

By Megan Carney

(Traduzione italiana qui sotto)

Since early 2013, I have been studying local responses to migration in the Mediterranean with a regional focus on Sicily. As an anthropologist, I have conducted several phases of ethnographic fieldwork with various NGOs, government agencies, humanitarian workers, and grassroots activists as they organize around an ethos of social solidarity, even as they risk being criminalized in the process. One aspect of this research has entailed examining the ways that migrant youth engage with or resist state-sponsored and institutionalized forms of reception, as well as how they enact solidarities with each other and siciliani.

“I enrolled into school, something that I would have never been able to do in Africa. I finished high school thanks to them. Who knows? Tomorrow I might become a great doctor in Europe!”  — 18 year-old Omar, addressing a Palermo audience following the screening of Io Sono  Qui, a documentary in which he is one of the main subjects.

A poster for  Io Sono Qui  at its second screening in Palermo, May 2017. Photo credits: Author.

A poster for Io Sono Qui at its second screening in Palermo, May 2017. Photo credits: Author.

With the impending closure of migrant reception centers across Italy  – such as the one at Castelnuovo di Porto that is displacing more than 500 residents and 100 center workers –anxieties abound over where evicted residents will go next, what employment alternatives will exist for center workers, and what the future will look like for Italy’s entire reception system. It is precisely in this context of heightened uncertainty, and hostility toward migrant populations more broadly, that forms of media seeking to highlight other aspects of migration have gained newfound significance. The film Io Sono Qui by Sicilian director Gabriele Gravagna represents one such form.

The film tells the story of three migrant youth – Omar, Dine, and Magassouba – who arrived to Sicily as migranti minori non accompagnati (unaccompanied migrant minors) after long and difficult journeys through the Saharan desert and across the Mediterranean. The three youths narrate their own experiences of migration; of Palermo youth reception centers; and of adjusting to life in Italy.

You cannot begin to imagine the significance… of me beginning to recount this experience.”

A trailer for the film begins with one of the three youth narrating in Italian, “You cannot begin to imagine the significance… of me beginning to recount this experience.” Translated as I am here, the title Io Sono Qui suggests that the voices of the three migrant youth shape the narrative of the film. Rather than being relegated as secondary characters within the narratives of “crisis” that have defined much of the mainstream coverage on recent migration into Italy and the EU, these three youths are the central focus of the film.

Palermo in particular and Sicily in general have been extremely vocal in opposing anti-immigrant legislation proposed and enforced by Italy’s populist government. In early January 2019, the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando announced that he would not be enforcing the new “security decree” that had been approved by the national government in December 2018, citing concerns that it will exclude migrants from health care, jobs, and schooling. Several mayors across Italy have since followed in his footsteps.

In May 2017, I attended the second public screening of Io Sono Qui at one of Palermo’s theaters. I had met the film’s protagonists some hours prior to the screening, as they were all residents at one center for youth reception where I had been conducting research. They came looking for the director of the center, who had promised them a ride to the screening that day as they were invited to participate in a question-and-answer session after the film. They appeared before us freshly showered, dressed in white linen shirts and slacks, and grinning from ear to ear in anticipation of the screening. While visibly excited, they showed no signs of nervousness. This would be their second public appearance; the film had already screened to a sold-out audience at Palermo’s majestic Teatro Politeama the month prior.

The film's three protagonists speak during a Q&A session. Photo credits: Author.

The film's three protagonists speak during a Q&A session. Photo credits: Author.

Omar’s playful proclamation that he “might become a doctor in Europe!” elicited widespread applause, as did much of what the three migrant youth shared on the stage that day.

Gravagna, the film’s director, also participated in the question-and-answer session, during which he restated his motives for making the film. “Thinking of the coverage on television, in the news, and most else, I realized that it was doing injustice to this population. I thought we should make something else, to help show what happens after migrant youth arrive. Migration is natural. I migrated to Rome, others have migrated to Sicily, others to elsewhere in Europe or the world. So, it is something very natural, but mistakenly perceived as an invasion or emergency. The story I wanted to show here is very different – that many organizations are intervening in a way that is intelligent and consistent with the values of solidarity.”

Since its debut in Palermo, Io Sono Qui has screened at several national and international film festivals, and garnered an award for Best Documentary Short in 2018 at the Los Angeles Film Awards. In addition, schools across Italy have shown the film to students as a means to examine stereotypes around immigration and to humanize the experiences of young people seeking better futures in Italy.

Io Sono Qui, un film che capovolge le narrative di “crisi” con le voci di giovani migranti

Di Megan Carney

(English above)

Dall’inizio del 2013, sto studiando le risposte locali alla migrazione nel mediterraneo, specificamente in Sicilia. Come antropologa, ho svolto molte ricerche sul campo con varie ONG, agenzie di governo, operatori umanitari e attivisti di base; mentre loro si organizzano attorno ad una etica di solidarietà sociale, rischiano anche di essere criminalizzati. Un aspetto di questa ricerca ha incluso l'analisi dei modi in cui i giovani migranti collaborano con lo Stato o resistono a esso ed alle sue forme di accoglienza, e anche come si realizzano pratiche di solidarietà, sia tra di loro sia con gli stessi siciliani.


            “Ho iscritto nella scuola, una cosa che non ho mai potuto fare in africa. Ho finito il liceo grazie a loro. Chi sa? Domani forse diventerò un medico in Europa!” --Omar, 18 anni, ha detto agli spettatori palermitani dopo la proiezione del film Io Sono Qui, un documentario in cui lui è uno dei soggetti centrali.

Una pubblicità per  Io Sono Qui  alla seconda proiezione del film a Palermo, maggio 2017. Crediti fotografici: Autore.

Una pubblicità per Io Sono Qui alla seconda proiezione del film a Palermo, maggio 2017. Crediti fotografici: Autore.

Con la chiusura imminente dei centri di accoglienza in tutta Italia – come il centro a Castelnuovo di Porto che sta spostando circa 500 residenti e 100 operatori –, legata a delle modifiche della legge sull’immigrazione, è cresciuta l’ansia rispetto a dove andranno i residenti dei centri, quali opportunità esisteranno per gli operatori e che futuro esiste per il sistema di accoglienza in Italia. È precisamente in questo contesto di precarietà, unito alla ostilità verso la popolazione migratoria, che alcuni media stanno cercando di sottolineare altri aspetti di migrazione e questi stanno avendo nuovi significati. Il film Io Sono Qui del regista siciliano Gabriele Gravagna rappresenta questo tipo di media.

Il film tratta la storia di tre giovani migranti – Omar, Dine, e Magassouba – che sono arrivati in Sicilia come migranti minori non accompagnati dopo viaggi lunghissimi e difficilissimi fra il deserto del Sahara attraverso il mediterraneo. Questi giovani migranti narrano le loro esperienze della migrazione, dei centri di accoglienza a Palermo e dell’adattamento alla nuova vita a Palermo.

Non puoi capire che significa…per raccontarlo…

Il trailer per il film comincia con il racconto di uno di loro: “Non puoi capire che significa…per raccontarlo…”. Il titolo del film suggerisce già che le voci di questi tre giovani migranti formeranno la narrativa del film. Invece di presentarli come protagonisti secondari delle storie che hanno definito la maggioranza delle notizie sull’immigrazione, questi giovani migranti occupano un posto centrale nel film.

Palermo in particolare e la Sicilia in generale sono estremamente attivi nel rifiuto della legislazione del governo populista di Salvini. Nel gennaio 2019, il sindaco di Palermo, Leoluca Orlanda, ha annunciato che non applicherà il nuovo “decreto sicurezza” che il governo ha approvato nel dicembre 2018, mostrando le sue preoccupazioni rispetto ai diritti dei migranti in materia di assistenza sanitaria, lavoro e istruzione. Alcuni altri sindaci in tutta Italia hanno fatto lo stesso.

Nel maggio 2017, ho assistito alla seconda proiezione di Io Sono Qui in un teatro di Palermo. Ho incontrato i protagonisti alcune ore prima, perché loro risiedevano nel centro di accoglienza dove stavo facendo la mia ricerca. Sono venuti a trovare il direttore del centro, che ha promesso di portarci all’avvenimento. Sono stati invitati a partecipare a una sessione di Q&A dopo il film. Vestiti con camicie bianche e pantaloni neri, e molto sorridenti, sono apparti molto preparati all’evento. Nonostante fossero emozionati, non mostravano nessun segno di timidezza. Questa è stata la loro seconda apparizione in pubblico. Il film aveva già avuto una proiezione sold-out al Teatro Politeama il mese precedente.

I tre protagonisti del film parlano durante una sessione di Q&A. Crediti fotografici: Autore.

I tre protagonisti del film parlano durante una sessione di Q&A. Crediti fotografici: Autore.

La dichiarazione di Omar che un giorno forse sarebbe diventato un medico ha ricevuto un gran applauso, come anche le dichiarazioni di altri giovani migranti.

Anche il regista Gravagna ha partecipato alla sessione Q&A, durante la quale ha ribadito i suoi motivi per fare questo film. “Occupandomi di documentari per la televisione, notiziari e quant’altro, mi rendo conto che si parla sempre male di questo argomento, o comunque passano sempre le solite immagini senza spessore. Penso che dobbiamo andare oltre, capire cosa accade dopo lo sbarco. Andando oltre, vai verso un futuro, verso una prospettiva che questi ragazzi devono avere necessariamente, perché penso che questo problema non si risolva, non credo che troveremo mai delle modifiche adeguate per evitare che avvenga una evento, tra l’altro naturale, come la migrazione. Io sono migrato a Roma, altri migrano in Sicilia, altri in Europa e in altre parti del mondo. Quindi è una cosa molto naturale, percepita ovviamente come un’invasione o un’emergenza: è un’emergenza, ma va gestita in maniera intelligente, solidale, come fanno altri centri.”

Dal suo debutto a Palermo, Io Sono Qui è stato mostrato in molti festival nazionali ed internazionali, e ha vinto un premio per Best Documentary Short in 2018 a Los Angeles Film Awards. Inoltre, molte scuole in Italia fanno vedere il film agli studenti per esaminare gli stereotipi che esistono verso l’immigrazione e per umanizzare le esperienze della gente giovane che spera in un futuro migliore in Italia.


Megan A. Carney is assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. She is the author of The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders (University of California Press, 2015) and director of the UA Center for Regional Food Studies. Her second monograph, Island of Hope: Migration and Solidarity in the Mediterranean is forthcoming. She conducts research on transnational migration in the US and Italy. Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney and the Collective Digital Archive of Migrant Solidarity @IOHmedandbeyond.

“Help Them Back Home”: From neoliberal integration to neo-fascist responses to the reception of unaccompanied forced migrant children in Italy

By Valentina Migliarini

(Traduzione italiana qui sotto)

Two months after the implementation of the new Italian Immigration and Security Law, the piece reflects on the shift from neo-liberal to neo-fascist forms of inclusion of unaccompanied migrant children.

As I write, evictions at one of Italy’s largest refugee center (Centro di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo, CARA) in Castel Nuovo di Porto, the northern suburban area of Rome, are underway. In the south of the country in eastern Sicily, 50 people, including 8 unaccompanied minors, are aboard the Sea Watch 3, waiting for the authorities to permit them to disembark. This follows the death of a total of 170 migrants last week, of which 117 died when the Libyan coast guard refused to provide assistance to their sinking dinghy.

This sequence of events has sparked outrage, especially among members of the Italian Democratic Party (PD), the Pope, and civil society. Despite increasing criticism of Decree-Law on Immigration and Security (Decree Law no. 113/2018), colloquially known as Salvini Law, and the performance of a superficial and color-evasive solidarity towards migrants and refugees a significant number of Italians, especially using social media, reiterate the neoliberal mantra of “helping them [the migrants] back home. Over the course of this last week (21st to 27th January), members and supporters of the Democratic Party rushed to affirm a seemingly anti-hegemonic perspective on the importance of not shutting down CARA, as it represents a “good example of successful integration” of migrants, adults and children alike.

Based on a three-year study in Rome, which included interviews with professionals and asylum seeking and refugee youth across 9 reception centers, I conclude that the model of “integration-style inclusion,” promoted largely by the Left before the change of government and the publication of Salvini’s law, is based on a neoliberal vision of integration.  This vision considers migrants as risky and disposable bodies; as irredeemably illiterate; and as only to be employed in low-paid, blue collar jobs, in spite of their expectations and life goals.

The executive director of a renewed service for refugee integration in Rome, who I call Participant D, told me: “Integration for us is to promote social inclusion, which means finding a job, learning the language, getting into a profession, finding a house and getting out of the government’s shelter”. Participant D details the five main elements that are necessary to become ‘autonomous’, functioning and normalized subject within the Italian society. None of these elements are bad, per se; they simply are incomplete as conceptualization of inclusion that fail to focus on the emotional trauma affecting youth migration and how it shapes their adjustment in a new country. Most crucially, inclusion-only approaches lack an understanding of systemic racial and class inequities perpetuated by the model itself.

As risky bodies subject to a de facto differential inclusion, young forced migrants in Italy are labeled as  “disabled” in order to facilitate access to quality ‘inclusive’ classrooms in public schools. Put differently, they are identified as having Special Educational Needs for their “linguistic, economic and cultural disadvantage” (MIUR, Ministerial Directive, 2012; MIUR, Circular n. 8, 2013, emphasis added). They are reified as different .

Participant N, a neuropsychiatrist in charge of disability certifications of most migrant children in Rome, described this process of manufacturing disability and the deviant subject:

“Last Thursday we saw, with a cultural mediator, a boy. He is 16 years old and he came here because of a suspected dyslexia, but we don’t have a specific diagnostic material standardized, so we had to do an evaluation with some classic tests, the Cornoldi’s tests, with the help of the cultural mediator and with tests in Arabic, and, more or less, we have confirmed the hypothesis of the previous diagnosis of dyslexia within a situation in which the boy never went to school nor his parents, so it is hard to establish if the disorder is caused by environmental or structural factors […]. This evaluation is anyway useful because it gives the boy, his family and his teachers at school a strategy and an indication to develop an individualized education program, to prepare him for a certain autonomy […].”

These efforts at ‘inclusion’ were often accompanied by color-evasive approaches to race.  Most of the Italian professionals I interviewed would say profoundly racist things. Yet, driven by implicit biases towards migrants, they lacked self-awareness, describing themselves as “treating everyone the same, because we do not see the differences here” (extract from Participant D interview).

Women with Children being evacuated from Castel Nuovo di Porto .   Source

Women with Children being evacuated from Castel Nuovo di Porto . Source

Perhaps it’s the lack of self-criticism from the Left on the limits of inclusion-only models, or an indifference towards discussing our own whiteness, problematic constructions of race and implicit biases, fueled by a continuous economic crisis that has led to the election of a populist, far right government. The league that rules in coalition with the M5 has begun dismantling inclusion initiatives developed by the political Left. By effectively abolishing humanitarian protections, refusing or withdrawing international protections, the Decree Law no. 113/2018 will negatively impact unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors turning 18 in 2019 who seek humanitarian protection (Save the Children, 2018). Currently there are almost 8,000 pending asylum petitions of migrant minors in Italy. In most cases, they are children and adolescents alone, without relatives or a legal guardian, who in 2017 accounted for 65% of all asylum seekers under the age of 18 in Italy. Of the over 11,300 unaccompanied foreign minors currently in Italy, almost 6 out of 10 (59.9%) will turn 18 in 2019. This will have a devastating effect on their lives and futures as they will be unable to access needed support services (housing, education, training) for two years after officially becoming adults.

It seems very difficult to find an optimistic conclusion when the battle is between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic perspectives and leaves very little space for a more grounded, research-informed and critical reflection of inclusion. Without doubt our Democratic Party has lost several important occasions to address the problematic aspects of models of inclusion, and to pass the IUS SOLI, the law that would have given citizenship and voting rights to migrants born and raised in Italy from migrant parent. In such times of political crisis, Gramsci’s words seem appropriate: “Fascism presented itself as the anti-party, opened its doors to all candidates, gave way to an inordinate multitude to cover with a varnish of vague and nebulous political ideals the wild overflowing of passions, odes, desires. Fascism has thus become a matter of custom, identified with the antisocial psychology of some strata of the Italian people” (Gramsci, The New Order, April 26, 1921).


About the author

Valentina Migliarini research focuses on increasing access to equitable education for historically marginalized students and communities, particularly children identified with disabilities and migrant and refugee children in primary and secondary education. Valentina was a Fulbright Schuman Visiting Scholar in the Special Education Department at the University of Kansas. She is the author of 'Colour-evasiveness' and racism without race: the disablement of asylum-seeking children at the edge of fortress Europe.

“Aiutiamoli a Casa Loro”: dall’integrazione neoliberista alle risposte neofasciste sull’accoglienza dei minori non accompagnati richiedenti asilo in Italia

Di Valentina Migliarini

(English above)

Due mesi dopo l’attuazione del Decreto Sicurezza, il pezzo riflette sulla transizione da un modello neoliberista a risposte neofasciste per l’inclusione e l’accoglienza dei minori non accompagnati richiedenti asilo.

Mentre scrivo, è ancora in corso lo sgombero di uno dei maggiori centri di accoglienza per richiedenti asilo e rifugiati (CARA) a Castel Nuovo di Porto, nella periferia a Nord di Roma. Nel frattempo, nel Sud Italia, vicino alle coste della Sicilia orientale, cinquanta persone, tra cui otto minori non accompagnati, sono ancora a bordo della Sea Watch 3, in attesa che le autorità permettano loro di sbarcare. Tutto ciò avviene conseguentemente alla morte, nella scorsa settimana, di centosettanta migranti, di cui centodiciassette deceduti in seguito alla decisione, da parte della guardia costiera libica, di fornire assistenza all’imbarcazione che stava affondando.

Questa serie di eventi ha suscitato l’indignazione soprattutto fra i membri del Partito Democratico (PD), il Papa e la società civile. Nonostante le crescenti critiche al Decreto Legge sull’immigrazione e la sicurezza (Decreto Legge 118/2018) - noto come legge Salvini - e l’esternazione di una solidarietà superficiale che non tiene effettivamente conto delle conseguenze materiali del razzismo contro i migranti, un numero significativo di Italiani continua a ripetere il mantra di origine Renziana “aiutiamoli a casa loro”, soprattutto sui social media. Nella scorsa settimana (dal 21 al 27 Gennaio) diversi membri e sostenitori del PD si sono affrettati a delineare una prospettiva apparentemente anti-egemonica in risposta allo sgombero forzato del CARA e al trattamento dei migranti.  Gli stessi sostenitori si sono schierati a favore del CARA come esempio di “buona integrazione” dei migranti, adulti e bambini, nel territorio italiano.

I risultati ottenuti dal mio recente progetto dottorale concentrato nella città di Roma, durante il quale ho intervistato operatori e minori non accompagnati richiedenti asilo ospitati in nove centri della città, evidenziano come il modello d’integrazione promosso e sostenuto dai partiti di sinistra negli ultimi anni si basa su una visione fortemente neoliberista d’inclusione. Secondo questa prospettiva i migranti vengono percepiti come corpi generatori di rischio, da sfruttare, impossibili da educare e buoni solo per essere impiegati nei lavori manuali e a basso reddito. Tutto questo, nonostante le alte aspettative e gli obiettivi di vita dei minori stessi.  

Il dirigente di una organizzazione presente sul territorio romano e rinomata per il suo lavoro d’integrazione dei richiedenti asilo e rifugiati, che io chiamo “Participante D”, afferma durante l’intervista: “L’integrazione per noi vuol dire promuovere l’inclusione sociale, il che significa trovare lavoro, imparare la lingua, trovare lavoro e una casa, per poter uscire dal sistema di supporto e accoglienza dello stato”. Il Partecipante D descrive i cinque elementi principali necessari per diventare soggetti “autonomi” nello stato italiano, dunque funzionanti e normalizzati all’interno della società ospitante. Nessuno di questi elementi è negativo di per sé: essi semplicemente rispecchiano una visione incompleta che ignora il trauma emotivo che colpisce i minori che arrivano nel nostro paese e che influisce sulla loro modalità di adattamento. Soprattutto, questo modello condiviso dal Partecipante D non considera le disuguaglianze e il razzismo sistemico radicati nella società italiana e che sono di fatto riprodotte dal modello stesso.  

Come corpi portatori di rischio e soggetti ad una inclusione differenziale o subalterna, i giovani richiedenti asilo e rifugiati vengono spesso etichettati come disabili per via della loro situazione sociale, economica e linguistica. Per le nostre istituzioni e per molti dei professionisti intervistati nel mio studio, questa etichetta serve ai giovani migranti per ottenere un’educazione di qualità in contesti scolastici e in classi inclusivi (MIUR, Direttiva Ministeriale, 2012; Circolare n.8, 2013). Questo processo porta alla reificazione della loro differenza e dunque conduce ad un’ulteriore marginalizzazione.

Il partecipante N, un neuropsichiatra responsabile delle certificazioni delle disabilità dei minori migranti risiedenti nel comune di Roma, descrive particolarmente bene il processo di costruzione della disabilità e, di conseguenza, del soggetto deviante:

“Lo scorso giovedì abbiamo visto, con un mediatore culturale, un ragazzo egiziano. Lui ha 16 anni ed è venuto qui a causa di una sospetta dislessia, ma non abbiamo materiale diagnostico specifico e standardizzato, quindi abbiamo dovuto fare una valutazione con alcuni test classici, i test di Cornoldi; con l’aiuto del mediatore culturale che traduceva il test in Arabo, più o meno, abbiamo confermato l’ipotesi della precedente diagnosi di dislessia, in una situazione in cui né il ragazzo, né i suoi genitori, sono mai andati a scuola per cui è difficile stabilire se il disturbo sia causato da fattori ambientali o strutturali. Questa valutazione è comunque utile perché fornisce al ragazzo, alla sua famiglia e ai suoi insegnanti una strategia ed un’indicazione per sviluppare un programma educativo individualizzato al fine di prepararlo a una certa autonomia.”  

Donne con bambini evacuate da Castel Nuovo di Porto .    Crediti fotografici.

Donne con bambini evacuate da Castel Nuovo di Porto. Crediti fotografici.

Questi sforzi ‘inclusivi’ sono spesso accompagnati da approcci che ignorano le conseguenze materiali del razzismo: nonostante prestino servizio nei centri di accoglienza per i minori migranti, molti di questi professionisti hanno mostrato molti pregiudizi impliciti, spesso con affermazioni intrinsecamente razziste. Sovente, sembravano non avere nessuna consapevolezza riguardo al razzismo e questo è particolarmente evidente in affermazioni come: “noi qui trattiamo tutti egualmente, siamo tutti uguali, non vediamo le differenze” (Participante D, estratto dall’intervista).

La totale mancanza di autocritica da parte della sinistra e dei suoi elettori ritengo siano i limiti del modello d’inclusione da essa stessa proposto; così come credo che l’indifferenza verso uno studio critico sulla storia della “bianchezza degli italiani” e delle nostre relazioni col “concetto di razza” come costrutto sociale e la dirompente crisi economica abbiano portato all’elezione di un partito populista e, di fatto, neofascista: qualcosa di impensabile fino a un decennio fa.

Invece di risolvere le problematiche suddette, la Lega in coalizione con il Movimento Cinque Stelle ha iniziato a smantellare qualsiasi iniziativa di inclusione: la protezione umanitaria è stata abolita, il riconoscimento dello status di rifugiato ridimensionato. Ma il decreto n. 113/2018 avrà un impatto decisamente negativo sui minori non accompagnati richiedenti asilo che compiranno diciotto anni nel 2019 e che hanno avanzato la richiesta di protezione umanitaria (Save the Children, 2018). Attualmente ci sono quasi ottomila domande di asilo presentate dai minori migranti in Italia; nella maggior parte dei casi sono bambini e adolescenti soli, senza parenti o tutori legali, che nel 2017 rappresentavano il 65% di tutti i richiedenti asilo di età inferiore ai diciotto anni in Italia.  Degli oltre 11.300 minori stranieri accompagnati, attualmente presenti in Italia, quasi sei su dieci (59,9%) compiranno diciotto anni nel 2019. Ciò avrà un effetto devastante sulla loro vita e sul loro futuro in quanto non saranno in grado di accedere ai servizi di supporto necessari (alloggi, educazione, formazione) per due anni dopo essere diventati ufficialmente adulti.  

Sembra molto difficile trovare una prospettiva ottimista in mezzo a questa battaglia di forze politiche egemoni e anti-egemoni che lascia molto poco spazio ad una riflessione più approfondita e orientata a prospettive epistemologiche di inclusione più radicali, ancor più quando si ha la consapevolezza che il Partito Democratico ha perso una sfida importante nel dibattito e nell’attuazione della legge dello Ius Soli, legge che avrebbe concesso la cittadinanza ai migranti nati e cresciuti in Italia da genitori migranti che avessero completato con successo il ciclo di studi.

In questo momento di profonda crisi politica e sociale, le parole di Gramsci mi sembrano davvero appropriate: “Il fascismo si presentò come l’antipartito, aprì le porte a tutti i candidati, lasciò il posto a una moltitudine smisurata per coprire con una vernice di vaghi e nebulosi ideali politici il selvaggio traboccare di passioni, odi, desideri. Il fascismo è diventato così una questione di costume, identificata con la psicologia antisociale di alcuni strati del popolo italiano” (Gramsci, L’Ordine Nuovo, 26 Aprile, 1921).  


La ricerca della Dott.ssa Valentina Migliarini si concentra sull’accesso ad un’educazione equa per bambini e comunità di studenti storicamente marginalizzate, in particolare minori migranti e rifugiati e minori identificati con disabilità nella scuola primaria e secondaria. E’ stata Fulbright Schuman Visiting Scholar presso il Dipartimento di Educazione Speciale dell’Università del Kansas. E’ autrice di molteplici articoli, pubblicate in riviste peer-reviewed internazionali, fra cui ‘Colour-evasiveness’ and racism without race: the disablement of asylum-seeking children at the edge of fortress Europe.

Discovering truth in art: The Nasher Installation by Dima Karout

By Cora Siré

Before experiencing the Nasher Installation, what did I know about Syria?

Words and images derived from headlines on a country imploding before our distant eyes. Aleppo attacked, Homs destroyed, Damascus under siege. Journalists write of food shortages, power outages, checkpoints, armed militia, and chemical warfare. Photographs depict children on stretchers, rubbled streets and refugee camps. The news feed is nonstop, the facts abstract and hard to process. Millions affected by death, injury and displacement caused by the violence of Syria today.

An installation by Dima Karout changes my perceptions. During her solo exhibition at Montréal Arts Interculturels (MAI) in 2014, I encounter a stunning visual and textual interpretation of the Syrian experience that transcends statistics and facts. An artist and writer from Damascus, Karout studied in Paris and was living in Montréal at the time, before relocating to London.


Who are you after you lose your home?

The gallery in MAI is cavernous, but Karout’s clever use of space gives viewers the sense of a personal encounter and the privacy of a journey to confront the direct experience of war and exile.

It begins with a montage of texts and photographs of Old Damascus walls. The artist introduces two unnamed characters – ‘She,’ a Syrian traveller, and ‘He,’ a Syrian refugee. Presented separately, each of the characters comes to life as Karout delves deeply in exploring their internal conflicts and the walls, or isolation, of their shattered identities. ‘She’ left before the conflict and her memories of Syria are vibrant and colourful. ‘He’ left during the conflict and his are bloody and grey. Both are haunted by survivor guilt as they process the ongoing death and destruction in their former country. Where they meet, metaphorically, is in exile, trying to find answers to the artist’s searing question, “Who are you after you lose your home?”

Dreams summarized in a few drops of water.

In addition to the fraught circumstance of exile, the roles of memory and imagination in overcoming loss are expressed in the Nasher Installation, a collaborative feature of Karout’s exhibition and her most impressive achievement.

Two rows of massive canvas-like fabrics hang in pairs, like laundry, from wires suspended in the gallery’s high ceiling. Each canvas tells a story hand-written in beautiful script – black and occasionally red lettering – presented in Arabic and English. Here I pause to read verbatim excerpts of the many stories the artist collected from a diverse group of Syrians, some in exile, others not, including women and men, many young.

The visual effect is that of textile art. The fabric comes alive as it wafts to the air circulating in the gallery. The amplified size of the canvases conveys the magnitude of individual suffering and resilience in stories told by witnesses from their varying points of view.

On the canvasses, I read firsthand accounts by Syrians such as Jean who remained in Aleppo. He tells of the impact of the conflict on the city’s children. Before the war, they played carefree in the parks and streets. Now they are obliged to collect water in containers for their families which the children do with pride and touching dedication, struggling to carry the jugs and bottles home. “All their dreams summarized in a few drops of water!”

Another canvas tells of Ibrahim’s struggle to adjust to his new life in Paris. He sees the Eiffel Tower as his wall of suffering but yearns to find something positive in this symbol. “It is a metal wall with plenty of voids ... maybe there is a glimpse of hope.”

The best way to reach peace is art.

The personal accounts bear witness to the consequences of the war, transcending political or religious affiliations. Sawsan describes having to leave Damascus after a massive explosion. Now in Beirut, she misses her workshop, her tools and the inspiration her former city always brought her. As to the way forward, Sawsan affirms, “The best way to reach peace is art.”

Karout’s installation juxtaposes two meanings of the Arabic word, Nasher. It refers to both the act of hanging clothes outside to dry and the publication of words, texts, or statements.

The account by Soulaf integrates both meanings as she recalls a scene from Damascus. While driving through the city by car during heavy bombing and sniper attacks, she sees laundry hanging outside a third floor balcony. “Terrified as I was, that scene filled me with the strangest sense of peace.” Another bomb explodes and “the laundry disappeared along with the ones who washed it.” After she returns to her home in Indiana, the scene haunts her – not the erasure caused by the bombing so much as the questions of who had washed the laundry and whether they’d planned a second load.

Speaking over the facts of the conflict in Syria, Nasher gives voice to its impact on the human family. Karout’s installation does not sag in sadness but soars with authenticity and visual ingenuity. After many hours, I leave the gallery feeling I’ve discovered truth in all its complexity, not abstract but heart-achingly real.


Cora Siré is the author of two novels, Behold Things Beautiful and The Other Oscar, and a collection of poetry, Signs of Subversive Innocents. Her essays, short stories and poetry have appeared in anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and Mexico.


by Dima Karout


Nasher is an art installation of suspended canvas first presented in Montreal in 2014 at MAI-Montréal Arts Interculturels as a part of a solo exhibition entitled “Damascus Walls.” It combines a collection of images and true stories. I created the installation’s idea and title around the double sense of the Arabic word Nasher. It makes reference to the act of hanging something outside to dry, often laying clothing on cords and suspending them from balconies. It also means to publish texts, books, or statements. I collected the stories and images via calls and emails, then I hand-wrote the stories on canvas human size (200×100 cm each) and sewed the photos alongside the texts. By sharing these images and stories in their own words, and by using hanging laundry as a familiar concept, I wish to bring Syrians’ experiences closer to the public’s heart. 


We are scattered across the planet, by circumstances. We don’t know what our future will be. All we have left are our hearts willing to maintain hope.

War is concrete, but Hope is abstract.

These are our stories as humans struggling with the walls of life. These true stories made their way here from Syrians who stayed in Syria and Syrians who had to leave and are spread out across different countries. What we have in common is our redefined humanity, and what these stories have in common is the loss of home.

With Nasher, we share our stories in an attempt to recreate a piece of home and to overcome the wall introduced to our lives in 2011. These are the stories that can be told; other stories we cannot hear as they are buried under the rubble.


Soulaf Abas. She is 30. She moved from Damascus to Terre Haute, USA.

On July 23, 2012, I said goodbye to my family after a 10-week visit to Syria. My flight back to the U.S. was cancelled from Damascus because the airport was bombed. I had to drive to Lebanon with a friend, fly to Jordan, and then catch the rest of my flights.

On our way out of Damascus, there was heavy bombing and snipers, so I had to watch the right side of the highway and my friend had to keep his eyes on the left side as he drove. We were both sinking in our seats trying to protect ourselves from random bullets.

I saw buildings go down and I saw cars swaying and crashing after the drivers were sniped. Then my eyes were fixed on a three-story building that had laundry hanging outside the balcony on the 3rd floor. Terrified as I was, that scene filled me with the strangest sense of peace. I thought about the laundry being a small but significant indication of life going on amidst the chaos.

It was only a few seconds before a bomb exploded in the building to interrupt this very thought and shatter my peace. Black smoke filled the air. The laundry disappeared along with the ones who washed it.

45 hours later, I arrived to my house in Indiana with that moment haunting me. And now two years later, I still wonder: what was the last thought on his/her mind, the one who did the laundry? I still wonder if they’d planned on a second load…


Shaza Koussa. She is 35. She moved from Homs to Damascus, Syria.

Leaving my home in Homs three years ago was a huge relief. It was the only way to escape confusing details. After the death of my younger sister, it was the best opportunity to get away from everything that reminded me of her.

A few months later, when I got used to the idea of her absence, I started to seek the end of the combat in my city. I wanted to go back and gather some of our shared memories, maybe some photos or a painting on the wall. I knew that our house was burnt because of the missiles, but I had some hope that I could fix something.

After the neighborhood was liberated, everything was destroyed. I didn’t have the courage to go back and face the new reality. I asked my brothers to get me anything that was dear to us. After a long wait, they got me a photo of our ruined room. When I asked them about family photos they told me that they were all burnt. Nothing remained. Only damaged walls and metal bed strings… Our room looked like a prison cell.

How much we had laughed and cried in this room, how much we had rejoiced and grieved, and how many stories we had whispered as kids at night… The extent of destruction was enormous, destruction of memories, dreams and hope.

In that room, stayed our conversations… Only the rubble can listen to them now.


Jean Hanna. He is 33. He stayed in Aleppo, Syria.

During the holidays this year, the streets of Aleppo were different. I saw children standing in rows for hours not to play on swings or to buy ice cream, no, but carrying big containers to be able to fill some water.

Our Syrian kids were denied their hobbies. They grow up before their time. Today, their dreams are transformed. The only wish they have is to be able to live like other kids around the world, to see water getting out of the tap… All their dreams summarize in few drops of water!

Despite their struggle, I see innocent smiles drawn on their faces when they succeed to get some water for their families.

We can understand everything except that we deny each other water to see who will die of thirst first.

Why should children pay for adult’s war?


 Rana Nezam. She is 32. She moved from Damascus to Ankara, Turkey.

I woke up that morning talking to myself imagining my way to work. Life in itself is hard, so how about life in war? Have you ever imagined yourself living in the middle of a war? I never did, but I am there now.

The road to work used to take me about ten minutes. I used to rush to get there on time. Minutes were a big deal. I used to feel that those minutes were a part of my bright future.

The situation is no longer the same. War influenced our awakening like it influenced everything else. The good thing is that I still wake up every morning, but I am no longer in a hurry to get to work early. What’s important today is that I get there safely. I’m now used to waking up to the real sounds of explosions, before they get broadcasted on TV. Then, the search begins for the safest road that I can take.

Sitting in my car, late, I comfort myself and say, a few more checkpoints and you’ll get there. Two hours later and I’m still imprisoned in the traffic. I try not to get angry. I think to myself: at least you are alive.

At the same exact moment, I hear an extremely loud explosion. I hold my breath.

I look around and thank God that the bomb falls three meters away. Then I continue on my road and in my day as if nothing happened.


Yara Dababneh. She is 32. She moved from Damascus to Amman, Jordan.

I readjusted my seat in front of my computer, and I stared at the ceiling for a long while… I tried to look away from the horror photos of school bags shreds that blended with the blood of their carriers…

I suffocated; I opened my window. I saw my neighbor, a kid, pulling the hand of his bag to drag it behind him, ready for his school day. We shared a morning smile. His eyes were big and courageous. I wished safety for him and his parents. But his innocent look was enough to make my feeling of oppression reach its maximum.

I took my scarf; I rolled it well over my chest full of pain… Each atom of air seeping inside of me increased my suffocation. I felt helpless.

I still can’t imagine that there are people sharing with us our country, planned, facilitated and collaborated to produce death that will take away innocent school kids.


Rita Karout. She is 26. She moved from Damascus to Dusseldorf, Germany.

She used to send me a message each morning at eight, another one at noon and a last one in the evening. I’m far away from her, but I don’t have a choice. My sister lives alone in Damascus. She goes to the university every day on her feet due to lack of transportation. The fear fills my heart because of the big number of attacks and falling bombs on the road she takes daily.

One morning, I heard on the news that the sky is pouring rockets on Damascus. I rushed and called asking her not to go; but her academic ambitions surpassed any fear for her life.

She sent me a message confirming her arrival to the university, so I calmed down a little bit. But then hours passed, and I didn’t hear from her. The news on my screen didn’t help: attacks on Dweilaa and Bab Sharqi resulting deaths and injuries. It is the same road she used to take. I was anxious, scared and desperate. I felt for a second that my “Rawaa” faded away.

I called and called only to get the answering machine. Even my family and her friends; all “Out of coverage”.

I sat at the corner of my bed and I prayed. I cried tears of despair and exile. I waited and waited. The only way I found to keep hope was to pick up my pencil and inflame my “Rawaa” on a white page. My drawing was her in our home in Old Damascus.

The evening came, the phone rang. I ran to it. I heard her voice. I felt that despite my suffering in exile, despite murder and death in my country, despite all the ugliness … I was the happiest person on earth.


Firas Saleh. He is 32. He moved from Damascus to Doha, Qatar.

There always have been two sides: the side of Al-Hamidiyah Old Souq and the side of the Modern Shaalan Souq; the Qassaa area and the Abu Rumaneh area; the Naher Aiesha part and the Malki districts; along the side of the Citadel of Damascus and the other side across the Barada river.

I used to walk with my friends along the Citadel Wall. Every time life got too noisy, we went there to enjoy the peaceful river view at night with all the lights reflecting on its surface.

Today, I remember the smart humble man, who used to sell crafts there. His shop was on the other side of the Barada river. The people would pass near the citadel, see him, and admire his handmade leather bags and golden metal objects but have no access to him. He created a way to communicate with the other side of the river, with us. An ingenuous solution. He suspended a small basket that slide on strings to link the two opposite river banks where he could send the merchandise and people could send him the money in return. He was the one who simply created a bridge.

Hopefully, one day we will be able to break the Wall of our dark emotions and start to build bridges.



I created this installation in 2014 with a total of 13 stories. Some of the Syrians who shared their experiences moved again, trying to create / find a place to call home. This work was later presented in Paris in 2016, and in London in 2018. These canvases are travelling as their authors, in the hope of building more bridges. All narratives shared here are republished with participants’ consent.


About the author

Dima Karout is a visual artist and art educator. She works with mixed media and creates images, texts and installations. In her research, artwork and classes, she advocates for socially engaged art. Her latest projects focus on the evolution of identity beyond borders, the metaphor of home, the human experience of migration and exile, internal and external conflicts and the relation between people and places. It also shed light on the greatness of the human soul and its invincible force to survive.

Dima grew up in Damascus, Syria. After finishing a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in visual communication at the Fine Arts University of Damascus, she started an international journey. She has a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in contemporary art from Paris VIII University, France and a certificate in creative writing from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. In the past 15 years, she exhibited her work in Damascus, Leipzig, Paris, Montreal and London.

Today, she lives and works in London. She is artist and curator in residence at the Migration Museum during “Room to Breathe” exhibition and working with the British Museum to create a participatory art installation “Our Library of Humanity.”

A Space to Belong: Newcomer migrant youth in Hartford

by Sophia Rodriguez

In this piece, migrant newcomers reflect a conflicting narrative of home and (un)home, and of belonging and (un)belonging in Hartford, Connecticut. This project involves an asset-based program at Hartford Public Library that is specifically tailored to increase newcomer migrant youth belonging utilizing the library as a safe space amid hostile political times and unwelcoming city and school environments. The library space has social significance. It is both an alternative to newcomers’ experiences of being othered in school and directly deepens their educational knowledge and belonging.

Caption: Welcome quilt the newcomers made in October of 2017, Hartford Public Library. Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

Caption: Welcome quilt the newcomers made in October of 2017, Hartford Public Library. Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

Hartford has long been a destination for immigrants. Recently, patterns of immigration have changed, bringing newcomers from increasingly varied home countries and an increased number of undocumented, unaccompanied, and refugee youths into the high schools. Newcomers may arrive in Hartford’s schools with limited education in their own countries or interrupted schooling because of their refugee or displaced statuses. Many have experienced trauma, such as adjusting to reunification with their families after long separations or leaving family members behind. Some have come from war-torn countries or from communities where they experienced severe deprivation, violence, or a constant threat of violence.

01HPL Demographics overview.jpg

Currently, Hartford newcomers represent 31 native languages, with the largest groups speaking Spanish, Karen, and Arabic languages, and have been in the country for less than 30 months. Additionally, the minoritized population in Hartford Public Schools has increased; in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017, a significant number of high school-age students (over 130) arrived to Hartford from Puerto Rico. Connecticut also has the largest gap in achievement in the country between its English learners and their English-speaking peers. More specifically, Hartford receives the majority of language learners in the state. In Hartford, schools struggle to support newcomers due, in large part, to decades of assimilationist and “English only” approaches to immigrant incorporation (Peguero, Bondy, & Hong, 2017). To address the newcomers’ needs, the Hartford public library has partnered with the school district to provide a unique program to increase newcomer belonging, data from which this post draws.


Home and belonging

Participating newcomers originate from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Syria, Rwanda, Guinea, Togo, Tanzania, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cote d’ Ivoire. Many express conflicted feelings about where “home” is and what it means, especially because some escaped violence, civil strife, and extreme poverty. Newcomers’ responses to the question, “What does home mean to you?” include the following themes: united with family, a safe place, and places [they/I] can’t go back.

Art project: What is community? Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

Art project: What is community? Photo credits: Sophia Rodriguez

From these responses, many youths commented on how learning English and being a new arrival presents many challenges for them even in the Hartford community and in their schools. Interviews and focus groups reveal feelings of belonging and (un)belonging, and specifically how schools are contested spaces—and how the library with its asset-based programming has become a safe space. Youth commented on their shared struggles as newcomers in school, how the library space was “different,” and how they felt a sense of belonging because of their shared solidarity of being different. Many youths connected with each other out of necessity because they reported feeling ostracized at school by teachers and peers.

When asked how the library-based program was different than school, a Togolese youth explained: “It’s like school, but not really. We can express ourselves. In school, it’s testing, memorizing, English only, rules. We don’t speak English well. It’s embarrassing. Here, all students are new immigrants, and no one will laugh at you.”

Reasons for this comfort varied. A Dominican youth shared how she feels the library allows her to express herself and be more “social,” noting, “We are all English learners.” A Togolese youth explained, “We come here to escape the poverty and violence but are still struggling here. We get made fun of for our English.” A Burundian youth commented, “Teachers ignore us or think we can’t talk about anything. Sometimes, I don’t say anything in school.” In response to feeling as though school focuses on testing rather than the student, a youth reported, “It’s better here [library] because we can know each other. We are all new.”

In the library program, youth learn about civic engagement and leadership in their schools and communities. Newcomers explained how the curriculum increased their belonging. A youth articulated, “We designed a project for other newcomers like us to help them when they arrived so we can make the school better for kids. It was the best thing I ever did in my life. And, we translate it, too, into different languages since we have so many here. That’s how we become local leaders here.” This aim to become leaders is significant.

‘We become leaders’ is the phrase most often heard from migrant youth who participate in the library program.

To this point, youth recognized their uniqueness as newcomers and wanted to develop tools for other newcomers to facilitate belonging in school since the schools offered minimal support. Youth designed a digital library for newcomers that included tours of the school, how to navigate class schedules, descriptions of “what it’s like” to be at the high school. They also researched local community organizations that offer services for refugees and newcomer immigrants. They presented their projects in a “gallery walk” final presentation to library staff, teachers, parents of newcomers, and peers at the end of the program. Evidence suggests that newcomers benefitted from engaging in program curricular activities in ways that increased their belonging and relationships with others.

Newcomer from Togo explained, “People don't, like, get it. They don't get the pain. But, they also do, especially at school. I try to explain that I know English, and school says, ‘we gonna test today.’ and you have no choice. It’s like isolation.” (Photo from a story in the   Connecticut Mirror   about the program.)

Newcomer from Togo explained, “People don't, like, get it. They don't get the pain. But, they also do, especially at school. I try to explain that I know English, and school says, ‘we gonna test today.’ and you have no choice. It’s like isolation.” (Photo from a story in the Connecticut Mirror about the program.)

Newcomers develop a sense of solidarity and belonging from participating in the library program. One youth shared, “Even if you come here [to the library], but you don't know that country where everyone is from, it’s ok. We are all in the same boat, not knowing English. You can be from anywhere and still belong here [at the library].” While newcomers expressed feelings of isolation at school, the library-based program created a space to cultivate a positive sense of self, relationships, a sense of civic awareness, and a desire for action. Developing a curriculum rooted in the strengths and knowledge of newcomers, the library program meaningfully cultivated belonging and integration for youth.

The data from this ongoing project suggests that a generative, rather than assimilationist, framework of belonging maintains the potential to meaningfully integrate newcomers. This library-program is indeed a promising practice.

Sophia Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Foundations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her scholarship has appeared in the peer-reviewed journals Educational Policy, Education Policy Analysis Archives, Educational Studies, The Urban Review, and The Journal of Latinos and Education.


An Undocumented College Student’s Journey of Hyperdocumentation in Drawings

by Aurora Chang and Espiritu*

Espiritu, an undocumented college student, narrates her journey of hyperdocumentation – the excessive production of documents, texts, and papers in an effort to compensate for undocumented status or feelings unworthiness – through her own drawings. Her story is one among so many that need to be told.

Doing research, or storytelling, in this age of post-truth feels entirely demoralizing and … necessary. In a time when any utterance of text is suspect, it can be downright frightening at most and risky, at least, to document anything. When we see powerful leaders spewing personal beliefs and emotions in lieu of facts and evidence, and people embracing this approach to the world, what are we left with?  But the irony of all of this is that right when we find ourselves discouraged to speak is the same time when we must bring our stories to the forefront because they are most threatened. We must also find and provide outlets for young people to share their stories – telling our truths is still the best defense against despair.


Espiritu’s Journey

Espiritu’s big, round, enveloping eyes are dark brown, almost black. Her shiny hair, done up in the most precise tresses, hangs easily below her waist. Soaking wet, she is maybe one hundred pounds. There is a shyness to her toothy smile and an eagerness for knowledge that is palpable. An unaccompanied minor, she hyperdocumented her way through high school, community college and then to a prestigious four-year university on full scholarship. “Hyperdocumentation” is a term I use to define the excessive production of documents, texts, and papers in an effort to compensate for undocumented status or feelings of unworthiness - something I experienced and continue to experience as a once undocumented immigrant myself.

 I met Espiritu four years ago. Amidst a heavy, anti-immigrant backdrop coupled with the everyday struggles of living undocumented, Espiritu was full of critical hope - as was I. Even though the world wasn’t looking good, there was still possibility in the air. Trump had been elected. She didn’t get DACA. She was struggling financially. Yet, time seemed to be on her side. She was a freshman with four big years of potential in front of her.

 Espiritu remembers every detail of her immigration. She was fifteen when she made the trek. Living in Guatemala, she and her family were in imminent danger, living in constant fear of the violent gangs that regularly terrorized them and any youth in their pueblos that refused to join them. Death threats against her and her sisters began, so the family strategically began to move from rural location to rural location, running from the inevitable death threats that would follow them. If you are unfamiliar with the politics of Guatemala, this may seem dramatic and unusual. But, for someone like me, who was born in Guatemala and whose family members predominantly still live there, kidnappings, killings, ransoms and death threats are the stuff of everyday life. I have had cousins and uncles who have been kidnapped for ransom. My own family received death threats. While Espiritu and I grew up at different ends of the socioeconomic spectrum and in distinctively different rural and urban context, the violence across Guatemala still impacted us both.      

Espiritu and her sisters spent months trying to figure out how to cross the U.S./Mexico border. Finally, she found someone to facilitate her little sisters’ crossing. The coyote said that he was willing to cross them because of their young ages. Because of their small sizes and their ability to pass as children of another family, they were convenient candidates for crossing. The problem was Espiritu. Few wanted to cross with her because she was older, fifteen years old. Those who  were willing charged US$10,000. Espiritu and her sisters wanted to cross together, so they stayed in Tijuana.

They slept in different houses, wherever they could find shelter or people who were kind enough to take them in. They garnered the courage to cross with a group of people. Upon reaching the border, Mexican border patrol agents stopped the group. They deported those with them but left Espiritu and her sisters alone. Border Patrol agents didn’t ask for documentation. Espiritu figured that they avoided being checked because they did not “look Mexican.” Another Border Patrol agent said, “I’m going to let you cross. It’s fine. You are going to cross with someone.” She was relieved. But at the last minute, he reneged, “No, you are going to cross alone.”

Espiritu tensed up. As she froze, she noticed the girl in front of her who had just crossed – she looked like her, was about the same age. At that moment, Espiritu summoned the courage, saying, “Okay, I’ll go across.” Espiritu was nervous but when she crossed over, a remarkable calm overcame her. Little did she know how this familiar rollercoaster of emotions would become a constant in her life.

The ups and downs of being undocumented in this country have taken a toll on her emotional well-being. As hard as she tries to keep it together, her time, once seemingly on her side at the beginning of her college career, now, as graduation creeps closer, feels as if it is quickly slipping away - sand through an hourglass. Trump is still in office. Espiritu does not have DACA and she continues to struggle to make ends meet. She is one semester away from graduating college.


In her own words and images

Here, Espiritu shares drawings and explanations that represent her experiences of being undocumented.

“Being an undocumented student made me feel different even though I was doing great at school, I always had a feeling of not doing enough. The first years were the hardest because I was trying to protect my identity by not telling anyone my status.”


“I became an advocate of myself, by joining organizations like Dreamers and Allies Student Organization or Student Organization for the Access Bill in Illinois. This was another phase in my life because I realized that there were a lot people like me that were afraid of speaking up, and that someone had to do it. After the first time I shared my story and saw the impact it caused on people, I started to share it more and even shared it in Springfield to the Illinois Senators.”


“The two last pictures are my current situation. As I approach graduation the feeling of not able to work because I don't have a social security number keeps making me feel bad. And it's a constant reminder of what my status is stopping from doing, and all the opportunities I have no option but to walk away from. I see my classmates already applying for their future jobs and I just keep thinking about that number that is stopping me. This ties to the first picture because [it] does not matter how hard I work I am still feeling different.”


“The last picture shows that my future is not in my hands but in an immigration judge’s hands. I have a court day coming soon and the feeling of not being able to choose what my future is going to look like is just inexplicable.”



 What will Espiritu do now?  She asks. I ask. We must ask.

 For the time being, none of us have a satisfactory answer, but my hope is that by creating spaces, opportunities, and outlets for undocumented students to share their stories, we will feel further compelled to find one that is dignified and worthy of their humanity – through our activism, advocacy, and political will.


Aurora Chang is a scholar, a counter-storyteller, and an academic coach. Once an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala and raised in Richmond, California in a family of eight, Aurora Chang is now a hyperdocumented academic activist serving as the graduate program coordinator and assistant professor of Higher Education at Loyola University Chicago.

* Espiritu is a nom de plume.

Pan American Dreams: Youth in the Americas Pursue Globalized Pathways for Change

By Elena Jackson Albarrán

Latin American youth leaders come to the U.S. every summer to gain skills to take back to their home countries. Over the twentieth century, American nation-states cultivated children and youth as cultural diplomats to promote capitalist-oriented development under the guise of hemispheric brotherhood. But upending the historical flow of knowledge production, this generation is prepared to engage and to defend their local realities and traditions.


A Virtual Reunion

From Panama, Nathanael—Natha, for short—leaned into his headset microphone, his face projected on the wall of a Miami University classroom bursting beyond capacity: “You all have a beautiful campus, wonderful working infrastructure, and incredible access to resources,” he affirmed. The Ohio students nodded—they’ve been told this since first setting foot on Miami’s campus. Indeed, institutional lore attributes an oft-repeated quote to Robert Frost, who hailed it as “the most beautiful campus that there ever was.”  “We don’t have that here in Panama,” Natha emphasized, “but we do have ideas for social and political change.” 

SUSI 2018 alumni Militza, in Emberá Querá, Panamá, December 2018. Photo credit Lois Iglesias.

SUSI 2018 alumni Militza, in Emberá Querá, Panamá, December 2018. Photo credit Lois Iglesias.

Roger chimed in to the virtual session from Ecuador, affable but pressing: “We have great projects going on, but our resources are constantly imperiled. Find ways to partner with us so that we can work together to effect change at the local level.” A political science major at the Universidad Central de Ecuador, Roger is also a member of the Colectivo Nueva Democracia, which encourages political engagement premised on fomenting cultures of dialogue and consent among emerging young leaders from differing political ideologies. On the side, he’s developing an app to promote eco-tourism in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Roger and Natha are alumni of the Summer 2018 social entrepreneurship branch of the Studies of United States Institutes for Student Leaders (SUSI) program, an initiative of the U.S. State Department. SUSI brings together cohorts of the best and the brightest young leaders from around the world in an immersive experiential summer program designed to expose them to local business and government practices, and to inspire and equip them in their initiatives in their home countries. The 20-person cohort spent three weeks at Miami University’s campus, where faculty affiliated with the Latin American, Latino/a and Caribbean Studies Program provided academic workshops. They finished their trip with whirlwind experiences in Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C. Their fellow program participants boasted equally impressive profiles and projects; for example, Dominican participant Ismael founded the organization Política Cool to promote citizen action—one of their pilot initiatives is the online platform Involucrao, designed to solicit and promote concrete ideas for change among young people.  

Back in the virtual reunion, Kat, a political science major, joined the Google Hangout from Managua, Nicaragua. Her internet connection was choppy, and she is soft-spoken, but she conveyed her urgency nonetheless. She’s developing an app for employers to remotely interview job candidates to boost employment opportunities for young people fearful of leaving their homes. This is a timely innovation; since April 2018, Kat’s generation has been besieged by the ruling Sandinista government forces, headed by the once-revolutionary, now jarringly neoliberal Daniel Ortega, apparently lashing out against university students in his political death throes. She reported that more than 500 students have been killed since the spring, though official estimates of death tolls range. Classes have been interrupted, of course, and classmates with connections and means are seeking academic asylum abroad to be able to finish their studies. She’s chosen to remain—she feels a moral imperative to improve conditions in her community, and there’s much work to do.    

From Colombia, Adrian had to sign in from several different locations before he was able to secure a stable connection. A telecommunications engineer major at the Universidad Tecnológica del Chocó, Adrian is also the co-founder and CEO of the Quibdó Leadership Academy, which cultivates skills and provides scholarships and mentorship, especially among the Afro-Colombian population. But universities have been on strike across Colombia for the past two months to protest the massive cuts to education being undertaken by the Duque administration. These types of strikes have historically been common among public universities, but now the private college students have begun to take up arms in solidarity, signaling the gravity of the crisis that their generation faces.

These Latin American students, momentarily reunited through tenuous fiberoptic connections zig-zagging the hemisphere, shared the effects of privatization and budget cuts that threaten their educational prospects in very tangible ways, and that has driven them to political action.

Historical Legacies of Youth Diplomacy

SUSI participants Kat (Nicaragua) and Doménica (Ecuador) at the Oxford Farmer’s Market, July 2018. Photo credit Ricardo Sosa.

SUSI participants Kat (Nicaragua) and Doménica (Ecuador) at the Oxford Farmer’s Market, July 2018. Photo credit Ricardo Sosa.

It is easy—perhaps necessary—to see these Latin American students’ sojourn north on Uncle Sam’s dime as part of a longer trajectory of officially-sponsored Pan American exchanges between exceptional youth. In particular, it is worth examining the tension between political symbolism and meaningful exchange that these young people’s mobility can signal. The history of academic exchange between young people in the Americas began auspiciously, recorded as none other than the nephew of Simón Bolívar, El Libertador himself. In 1822, twelve-year-old Fernando Bolívar appeared at the doorstep of a Philadelphia Quaker academy with his indigenous manservant, and earnestly set about the business of being an average student of high pedigree. The manual labor skills and bucolic setting of his hosts charmed him, but before long he preferred to return to the more bustling metropole of his native Venezuela (1). The younger Bolívar’s junket north offered him respite from the wars for independence, but he astutely saw that his fortunes were best sought in the nation-making processes that were unfolding at home. Yet over the course of the nineteenth century, the hemispheric balance of power shifted as the sleepy United States awakened to the potential of its southern neighbors and began to plumb their riches through might or through diplomacy.     

In the Good Neighbor Era in particular (much of the 1930s and 1940s), young people’s exchanges became built into the programming efforts of the Pan American Union, particularly through its Office of Intellectual Cooperation. Children and youth from grade school to college assumed the mantle of Pan Americanism—carefully tailored for them in D.C. offices—and enthusiastically embraced the exchanges set up for them through curriculum guides, essay competitions, speeches, and pen pals. Some historical studies have examined the origins of sustained student exchange programs that got their start in this good-neighborly climate. But the exchanges were uneven. U.S. youth learned that their Pan American neighbors possessed troves of coffee, silver, wheat, sugar, timber, diamonds (diamonds!). Latin Americans, the northern Americans learned, were happy to dance and create arts and crafts—a friendly, unambitious lot, easily represented by dolls: for New Mexico junior high-schoolers building a Latin American tableau, "[t]he dolls themselves were bought in Mexico, and were, of course, Mexican dolls, but almost any brunette doll is suitable for this purpose" (2). Children in the U.S. looked to Latin American for raw materials, while their Latin American counterparts sought out exchange programs in the U.S. to bolster their technical skills. Developmentalist discourse became ingrained into a generation, as binary constructs divided the hemisphere into “the two Americas.” In 1940, local anti-imperialist Carleton Beals criticized State Department-sponsored cultural exchanges as doing little to mask the prevailing view of “our southern countries merely as our oyster to be devoured” (3).

But if we don’t attend to the ways that these SUSI alumni are navigating the opportunities and resources through their own political lenses and operating networks, we miss the chance to see something greater unfold.

It would be easy, given the intervening track record of U.S. hemispheric policy between the Good Neighbor years and the present, to dismiss current State Department efforts to expose Latin American youth to the (North) American way of life with a heavy measure of skepticism. But if we don’t attend to the ways that these SUSI alumni are navigating the opportunities and resources through their own political lenses and operating networks, we miss the chance to see something greater unfold. Roger, Kat, Natha, and Adrian have made effective and savvy use of social media and technologies of a globalized economy, faltering as they may be, to effect change in their respective communities on their own terms.

De-centering US Visions of Development

SUSI students in the Social Entrepreneurship program come from a range of social backgrounds, though they do not represent the technocratic elite that have historically risen to the top of political hierarchies in the neoliberal era. On one hand, they are all relatively privileged by the simple virtue of being university students. But on the other, they all attend public universities, and as such, share the expectation that their respective governments should guarantee a basic set of public services to their citizens. Prior to the SUSI program, some had traveled abroad, most had not. Some had a degree of proficiency in English, others did not see Spanish-language monolingualism as an inhibiting factor in globalizing entrepreneurial expansion in their respective local contexts. Ideologically, they have no problem with conspicuous consumption; most had set up Amazon Prime accounts within hours of setting foot on US soil. Though the State Department-funded initiative is clearly designed to orient students toward a certain model of development, and while the visiting Latin Americans certainly spent several weeks gaining exposure to U.S. institutions and local governance (and engaging in retail and entertainment with vigor), they consistently interjected perspectives grounded in their own realities. Furthermore, the faculty who designed the local program for them in Ohio introduced them to models of sustainability, small business culture, and social entrepreneurship that reflect innovative strategies for survival in a nearly post-capitalist world.

SUSI 2018 Miami University cohort at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo credit Ricardo Sosa.

SUSI 2018 Miami University cohort at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo credit Ricardo Sosa.

The networks forged and technologies engaged through these young people’s mobilities transcend Pan American political binaries of the developed/undeveloped world. This generation of youth has a heightened sensibility of the distinct and unique value of their local cultures and realities. Militza, a member of the dwindling Emberá ethnic group of coastal Panamá, returned to her village days after a playful photo shoot with SUSI friends in Times Square, to be named by her father as the village’s next chief—the first woman to assume this title. She, and her peers, see the global pathways of development as circuitous and reciprocal, not the linear trajectory imagined by modernization theorists of the past century.

Roger concluded the evening’s session with a poignant invitation: “Hey guys, I have to go to class. But on Monday, at 9:00 a.m., Ecuadorian students from across the country are going to join in a protest march against the draconian budget cuts. Please, find a way to join us in solidarity, to strengthen our numbers and our resolve, even if only in some symbolic way. Monday, 9:00.” 


(1)  “Visitas y una conversación,” Correo v. 28 (marzo de 1944): 25. Columbus Memorial Library, Organization of American States, Washington D.C.

(2)  Irvin, N. E. An Approach to the Teaching of Latin American Culture to the Junior High School Children of Deming, New Mexico. M.A. Thesis (State College, New Mexico: New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, 1951): 13.

(3)  Carleton Beals, Pan America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940): 429.


Elena Jackson Albarrán is associate professor of history and global and intercultural studies at Miami University of Ohio, and a member of the Latin American, Latino/a and Caribbean Studies faculty. She is the author of Seen and Heard in Mexico: Children and Revolutionary Cultural Nationalism (Nebraska 2015). Her current work undertakes post-colonial interpretations of transnational exchanges of youth culture in the Americas in the first half of the twentieth century.

Constitutional Crisis in Guatemala and the U.S. Must Denounce It

By Giovanni Batz

Protestors at the airport in support of CICIG and to denounce the detention of Osorio.   Source

Protestors at the airport in support of CICIG and to denounce the detention of Osorio. Source

Guatemala is currently undergoing a constitutional crisis as fears and concerns of a possible coup, and even a return to dictatorship, by President Jimmy Morales. On Saturday January 5, 2019, Colombian national Yilen Osorio, investigator of the UN-sponsored anti-corruption commission known as International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), was detained and prevented from entering the country. The United States is the largest contributor and provides 40% of CICIGs budget, and with the increasing migration of Guatemalans, the US public should be concerned about the political situation in Guatemala.

A former comedian whose campaign slogan was “neither corrupt, nor a thief”, Morales has attempted to discredit, eliminate and persecute investigators of the CICIG throughout his presidency. The CICIG is currently investigating him for corruption and illicit campaign financing during the 2015 presidential election. On August 31, 2018, while surrounded by 68 uniformed military members, Morales announced that he would not renew the mandate of CICIG (set to expire September 2019). More concerning was that on the same morning, military vehicles (J8 Jeeps) equipped with gunners donated by the US Defense Department for anti-narcotic operations, drove past the offices of CICIG, the homes of human rights defenders, and even the US embassy as a means of intimidation and psychological warfare. The use of these vehicles was condemned by many, including eight members of US Congress who wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to express their concerns. Despite these actions and against US personnel, the Trump administration donated dozens more military vehicles to Guatemala.

Morales with Military announcing the end of CICIG Mandate on Aug. 31.   Source

Morales with Military announcing the end of CICIG Mandate on Aug. 31. Source

The political war against CICIG continued to escalate days after Morales announced that the Commissioner of the CICIG, Ivan Velazquez, was banned from reentering Guatemala. The Constitutional Court ordered the lifting of the ban, but Morales has since defied this order. Instead, on December 18, 2018, he ordered the Foreign Affairs Ministry to revoke the visas and diplomatic clearances of eleven CICIG workers and gave them 72 hours to leave the country. The Constitutional Court again ruled in favor of CICIG and ordered the restoration of their work visas. The Justice Department then presented impeachment proceedings against three of the Constitutional Court judges accusing them of violating the Constitution and abusing their power. Observers and critics have warned that Morales constantly is threatening a coup as a political tactic and has violated the law by disobeying rulings from the highest court.  

Thus, when migration officials held Osorio and tried to deport him, Guatemalans were concerned that this could trigger a coup and plunge the country into further political turmoil and violence. US Congresswoman Norma Torres (D-CA) issued a press release stating she was “shocked and disgusted” by the detention of Osorio and attributed these actions to a “mafioso government...afraid of facing justice” who held a “blatant disregard for judicial rulings.” Civil society groups, indigenous ancestral authorities, human rights observers, and protestors gathered at the airport in support of Osorio and CICIG. The Attorney General exerted considerable pressure. After a 25-hour stand-off, the Constitutional Court ruled that Osorio was allowed to enter Guatemala. This incident was viewed as a victory for the rule of law, but Guatemalans prepared for backlash. The following day, the Minister of Foreign Affairs visited UN headquarters to announce they were unilaterally shutting down CICIG and giving the commission 24 hours to leave the country. In response, the UN stated that the mandate would not end, a decision later backed by the Constitutional Court which ruled that Morales did not have the power to end CICIG. During these tense moments, CICIG workers decided to leave the country out of security concerns. Guatemala is currently at a crucial political juncture, and many are concerned that we are witnessing a self-coup in the making.

Since 2007, CICIG has operated in Guatemala and works in collaboration with the Attorney General’s office. It has been involved in the prosecution of over 1,000 individuals involved in illegal activity, but it has been during Velazquez’s tenure that it has seen the most drastic results. This includes the 2015 La Linea corruption scandal that led to the resignation of former president Otto Perez Molina, who is currently under trial, along with other former high-level government officials. Allies of Morales include members of congress, the oligarchy, politicians, businessmen, and military officials, all who have continued to defame the commission and have worked towards its expulsion. Many congresspeople and other public officials are also under investigation from CICIG. In contrast, the Guatemalan public overwhelmingly supports CICIG. A recent survey found that 75.3% support its work and that only 14.4% approve of Morales job as president. The discontent with Morales and his allies is evident on social media with hashtags in Spanish such as #CICIGSeQueda (#CICIGStays), #NoAlMoralazo (#NoToMorales), #PactodeCorruptos (#PactOfTheCorrupt), #NoMasGolpesALaDemocracia #NoMoreBlowsToDemocracy), among others.

Today, the United States finds itself in a similar situation either to condemn or to condone violence and the violation of the rule of law in Guatemala.

While some Americans know Guatemala to be one of the countries with the highest sending rates of migrants, many are unaware of the United States role in Guatemala’s political history and current situation. The US has historically supported military governments and dictatorships in Central America. In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency overthrew democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz after he passed much needed agrarian reform that sought to rectify land inequality. During the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), the US aided the military in committing genocide against the Maya through massacres, kidnapping, sexual violence among other human rights abuses. In 1999, Bill Clinton apologized for the US’ role in this violence and repression and said “the United States must not repeat that mistake.” Today, the United States finds itself in a similar situation either to condemn or to condone violence and the violation of the rule of law in Guatemala.

Trump remains silent on Morales’ corruption investigation, which in some ways mirrors his own. Instead, Trump has focused his energy on separating children from their parents at the border, criminalizing Central American asylum seekers, caravans and migrants, turning a blind eye to the deaths of two Guatemalan children while in detention by Border Patrol, and shutting down the government to pressure funding for his imprudent border wall. Congresswoman Torres, born in Guatemala, has been one the most vocal US official in denouncing the rising political tensions. In her press release regarding Osorio’s detention, she appropriately asks, “How can the Trump Administration remain silent while these thugs undo years of progress? This is why children leave their homes and risk their lives to come here.” Torres, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Rules Committee, has also condemned the move to end CICIG and has “introduced the Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would require the U.S. President to impose sanctions on individuals who have undermined the rule of law in Guatemala.”

The US should continue and increase its support for CICIG as well as openly and clearly condemning Morales’ actions. Guatemala has historically suffered from impunity, coups, state-sponsored violence, and repression of human rights activists and indigenous peoples. The Guatemalan president’s war on the CICIG should be viewed with strong concern. US failure to denounce Morales’ actions would implicitly condone them, and this must not occur. The US public can do their part and contact their congressperson to urge them to support CICIG and to condemn the actions taken by Morales who is threatening the rule of law in Guatemala.


Giovanni Batz is a social anthropologist who specializes in Guatemalan politics, history and migration. His publications can be found in Latin American Perspectives and several edited volumes.


The Blame Game: Criminalizing migrant parents

by Lauren Heidbrink and Michele Statz

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Jakelin Amei Rosemary Caal Maquin, a Keq’chi girl from Alta Verapaz, Guatemala died in Border Patrol Custody this week. She was 7 years old.  Various rumors swirled about the cause of death. Among these were dehydration and septic shock after migrating through the desert, though her father said they had only been walking for 90 minutes, not a day as CBP [Customs and Border Patrol] suggested. CBP said she was fine upon arrival, even her father signed an English-language document attesting to her health. Her father, who speaks Keq’chi, and not English or Spanish, said he did not understand the form. Other news outlets reported a high fever and cardiac arrest. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called the incident "heartbreaking," adding, "This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey."- claiming that her death was unavoidable if only her father, 29-year-old Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, had not risked her life by undertaking such a treacherous journey. Whitehouse Spokesman Hogan Gidley further abdicated responsibility, stating: “Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No.” But do not be misled. Jakelin’s death was avoidable, and remains a direct result of CBP’s inhumane policy.

Death presents an “inconvenience” for Customs and Border Patrol, even as many deaths occur on their watch. Indeed, Jakelin’s death serves as an inconvenient, public reminder of the absence of medical care providers along the border, the conditions of custody, and the broad violence of the U.S.’ deportation regime.

At the same time, Jakelin’s death offers the Trump administration an entirely convenient opportunity to redirect the narrative, to deflect the dehumanizing and unjust practices on the border and turn Jakelin’s death into a cautionary tale for would-be migrants. As Julio Ricardo Varela writes, “Jakelin died from cardiac arrest caused by severe dehydration and shock a day after she and her father turned themselves in to CBP on the U.S.-Mexico border in New Mexico. But according to the Trump administration, her death was her fault, and it was her dad’s fault…”

On Youth Circulations, we pay careful attention to the ways in which children and youth like Jakelin are variously depicted in media and institutional discourses--as delinquents, ideal victims, economic actors, and so on (See Heidbrink 2014; Statz 2016).  What is often less considered is how the parents of young people are implicated in such narrations. This is an increasingly clear and consequential process, with family members pathologized as neglectful, violent, poor, or otherwise deficient for presumably “sending” or being complicit in youths’ migration journeys. And we heard it again this week from Secretary Nielsen: “This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey. This family chose to cross illegally.” Rather than consider the complex conditions and deep histories spurring migration, Nielsen’s claim is entirely directed toward Jakelin’s father. Sad. Dangerous. A choice.

Nielsen’s words powerfully evidence the deep-seated demonization of young migrants’ parents as overt policy and practice in the U.S. Recall that in February of 2017, then-Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly signed a memo promising to penalize anyone who “directly or indirectly” facilitated smuggling of a child across the border. In it, “parents and family members” are explicitly identified as subject to removal and criminal prosecution if they have paid to have their children brought into the U.S. The memo provides that parents or relatives who have taken in unauthorized children may face criminal smuggling-related charges and prison time; others can be placed in deportation along with children. Later, the Trump administration operationalized this policy further, with CBP now sharing with ICE information obtained from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) about the sponsors of children in their custody, including their names and locations.

While the Trump administration attempts to divert blame to the brutality of the desert, to Jakelin’s parents, and even to Jakelin, do not be mistaken. Trump and CBP killed Jakelin. Full stop.

To read more about the ways US policies criminalize the parents of migrant children and youth, please visit:  Heidbrink, L. and M. Statz. 2017. Parents of Global Youth: Contesting Debt and Belonging. Children’s Geographies 15(5): 545-557.

Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor in the Department of Human Development at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families and the State: Care and Contested Interests (2014). She is co-editor of Youth Circulations.

Michele Statz is an anthropologist of law and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth. She is author of Lawyering an Uncertain Cause: Immigration Advocacy and Chinese Youth in the U.S. (2018). She is co-editor of Youth Circulations.

Dr. Dre and Deportation: U.S. Pop Culture, Place, and Belonging

by Tobin Hansen

How might the music we listen to, films and television we watch, and books we read connect us to the community and nation where we live? And for people displaced to new communities, like the deported men with whom I work in Nogales, on the northern Mexico border, how does popular entertainment culture reveal ties to home in the United States? My ongoing research with deportees illuminates how decades of living in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Tucson, and other communities enables many forms of strong identification with U.S. places, people, and cultures. One way is through mass entertainment. John Wayne movies, John Grisham novels, Sublime songs, and Seinfeld episodes, to name a few artifacts deportees mentioned, and the wider pop culture universe shape ways people make sense of the world. The universe of our popular cultural consumption tells a lot about our identities: where we are from, our age, our community and family history—including race and social class—and personal taste. Moreover, it encourages us to understand belonging as broader than legal residency or citizenship and as encompassing many ways of forming part of a community and a nation.

Dustin, deported after 33 years residing in Arizona, shows his body art. A calf tattoo depicts a football helmet with the Phoenix Cardinals’ logo. Photo credits: Tobin Hansen.

Dustin, deported after 33 years residing in Arizona, shows his body art. A calf tattoo depicts a football helmet with the Phoenix Cardinals’ logo. Photo credits: Tobin Hansen.

Over 16 months I conducted fieldwork in Nogales, Mexico with 56 men who had migrated to the United States as children decades earlier and lived an average of 29 years in U.S. communities before being deported back to Mexico. Deportees, such as Alfredo, expressed an intimate relationship with U.S. entertainment culture. Alfredo was born in Mexico in 1988 and grew up in East Los Angeles from six months old, before being deported in 2011. In one casual conversation on a cold, March morning in 2017, Alfredo dredged up elementary school memories that he had not recalled in years: “I was in a play one time. Like a Shakespeare play. I don’t remember which one. I was, like, the bad guy. It was in fourth or fifth grade.” Then with a laugh, he remembered that it wasn’t Shakespeare, but a production of Mary Poppins. As he told me about it, he sang with a grin, “‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious.’ We sang all of those songs!”

For others, U.S. pop culture inspired their own artistic expression. Paco was born in Mexico in 1971 and lived in south-central Phoenix from 1972 to 2013. He free-styled rap lyrics when we spent time together—about life in Phoenix, family, deportation, or to clown, in his words, on people we spent time with. Paco kept a shoebox in his bedroom closet with lyrics of dozens of rap songs that he had written, several of which he recorded and mixed on a desktop computer and played for me on various occasions. Paco had many influences, from 1990s west coast rappers Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre to southern trap-style rappers like Gucci Mane. And echoes of Tupac Shakur were detectable in Paco’s thematic choices, lilting delivery, and backbeats.

Roy, deported after living in California for 47 years, has a copper engraving of American actor John Wayne on his living room wall in Nogales, Mexico. VHS copies of John Wayne films are stacked in front of his television. Photo credits: Tobin Hansen.

Roy, deported after living in California for 47 years, has a copper engraving of American actor John Wayne on his living room wall in Nogales, Mexico. VHS copies of John Wayne films are stacked in front of his television. Photo credits: Tobin Hansen.

Connections between cultures and social identities are nebulous. Ideas, symbols, objects, and expressions circulate unevenly and constantly shapeshift; they may be embraced more by some than others and are even seen differently by the same person over time and in different contexts. Moreover, the lightening dissemination of mass media means that music, movies, shows, websites, video games, magazines, and books can be produced in one or many places; combine a mishmash of elements; and be distributed globally. In fact, culture is often so amorphous and ever-changing that the notion of “culture” itself seems crude. Certainly, when you look closely, so-called national cultures—a “U.S.” or “Mexican” culture—are much too messy, with boundaries much too blurry, to be described concretely. And cultural constellations within individuals and communities are densely layered and complex. The deportees I work with were often purveyors of Latinx inflected forms of U.S.-based culture, such as George Lopez standup routines, lowrider magazines, and Cheech and Chong movies. They were sometimes also familiar with Mexican-produced entertainment culture, such as kitsch 1970s Vicente Fernandez films, the farcical sitcom El Chavo del Ocho, and rural musical genres like banda and norteño. Paradoxically, much mainstream U.S. pop culture that deportees connected with portrays Mexicans or Mexican-Americans in stereotyped caricatures, when they are portrayed at all. But my interlocutors’ fluency with mainstream U.S. pop culture underscored its formative place in their lives.

Viewing deportation through the lens of popular culture can seem to distract from more important immigration issues. Militarization and migrant deaths in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands are urgent, as is rigid interior enforcement and the exclusions or expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people every year, including 17,548 to Nogales, a city of 234,00 inhabitants, in 2017 alone. Moreover, people’s motivations to pick up and migrate—environmental degradation, violence, global inequality, and hope for something better—are often dismissed. These pressing matters make Stephen King fandom seem trivial. But popular culture points to the layered, sophisticated ways that our lives become enmeshed in the world around us. Anthropologists have shown in deep time how human expression—from the origins of storytelling to ancient pictorial representations on rocks—has always revealed our relation to the social worlds we inhabit. Popular culture provides us with meanings and symbols with which to order the world.

Alfredo, Paco, and others referenced popular culture for many reasons: to take comfort in the familiar, as a way of expressing their own identity, to project a mutual identification with others, and to assert a connection to the United States. And when we shift our understandings of belonging to see beyond legal categories—temporary visitor, legal resident, citizen—and to appreciate the many ways that people’s lives are socially and culturally intertwined with people and places, then we gain broader perspective on the actual and enduring impacts of immigration policies and enforcement practices. That is the only way to work toward greater understanding of the relationship between home, identities, and cultures and hope for a future in which we may all make home in a place where we are ourselves.


Tobin Hansen is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon. His research has been funded by the University of Oregon’s Department of Anthropology, Center for Latina/o and Latin American Studies, Center for the Study of Women in Society, Center on Diversity and Community, Global Oregon Initiative, and Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics; the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research; the Social Science Research Council, with funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and the University of California, San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

Tear Gas, Children and ‘Distracted Outrage’

by Jennifer Koons

Dissecting the Most Common Response to Young Migrants in Distress

The mother is frantic and frightened, clutching the hands of her twin daughters (young enough to still be in diapers) as they rush from tear gas. Maria Lila Meza Castro traveled from Honduras to Tijuana with her twin daughters in an attempt to reunite with their father, who lives in the United States. The photo of her, taken by Reuters photojournalist Kim Kyung-Hoon, quickly supersedes the story of that journey and within hours, the image has gone viral, sparking both outrage and indignation (at either the those who’d fired the tear gas or those seeking asylum).

In this Q&A, anthropologists Lauren Heidbrink and Michele Statz dissect the outrage of those who oppose the Trump administration policies, as well as the ways in which such responses, along with the images themselves, do little to address or better understand the experience of those like Castro.

Heidbrink, an assistant professor in Human Development at California State University, Long Beach, has been researching deportation and child detention both in the U.S. and in Central America since 2006 and is currently based in Greece researching child migration throughout Europe. Statz, an anthropologist of law and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus, has been studying public interest immigration advocacy on behalf of unaccompanied Chinese youth since 2010. Since 2014, they have operated the website Youth Circulations, “an archive tracing the real and imagined circulations of global youth.”

Q. Images from the U.S.-Mexico border have “gone viral” once again. The photographs of migrant children and parents fleeing tear gas at the San Ysidro border, which were taken by professional photojournalists on the scene, have sparked what seems like now-familiar polarized responses — either outrage or understated justification. Let’s talk about the outrage because you’ve raised concerns about this response, in particular, and challenged these visual narratives.

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Dreamer’s Fate Should Not be Left to the Courts’ Decisions on DACA

by Ernesto Castañeda

What is the future of immigrant youth? Picture of youth folkloric dance group in a Hispanic festival in Washington DC on September of 2017. Credits: Ernesto Castañeda

What is the future of immigrant youth? Picture of youth folkloric dance group in a Hispanic festival in Washington DC on September of 2017. Credits: Ernesto Castañeda

DACA (the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals directive) provides people who arrived in the United States as minors a reprieve from deportation and work permits. Some people ask whether DACA is a legal program or not. This is a reasonable question given the ongoing coverage of lawsuits and court proceedings deciding the program’s legality in one way or the other. But determining the fate of DACA or similar programs through the justice system means that a handful of judges make decisions that affect the security and wellbeing of thousands of individuals.

DACA is constitutional in the sense that the way we interpret the constitution today includes universalist principles that declare everyone as equal. The 14th Amendment of the US Constitution foresees equal protection and rights for people within the US, which has been interpreted to include equal access to services and other basic rights regardless of race, ethnic origin or citizenship. Legal precedents about the right to public education, civil rights, due process, freedom of religion, and labor rights, among others, give the same rights and prerogatives to all people in the U.S. regardless of citizenship or immigration status. For example, the 1966 Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. Arizona ruled that all suspects being detained by the police have the right to remain silent and are informed of their right to an attorney including foreign-born individuals to obtain consular services according to the Vienna Convention.

Let’s also remember that historically, deportation has been the exception rather than the rule in the United States. Large deportations have not been attempted since the massive deportations of Mexicans following the Great Depression when between 458,000 and 1.8 million Mexicans were deported between 1929 and 1937.

DACA recipients and the children of immigrants who are given the change to attend college become part of the American middle class. Day without Immigrants March, Washington, DC, February 16, 2017.

DACA recipients and the children of immigrants who are given the change to attend college become part of the American middle class. Day without Immigrants March, Washington, DC, February 16, 2017.

Generally speaking, except for high-capacity bureaucratic authoritarian regimes such as the USSR, North Korea, or the Germans after World War II regimes can rarely fully control emigration. Except for war times, such as around World War II or feeding a xenophobic ethnic-cleansing campaign, such as the Holocaust and the Japanese internment, most governments have not been able to round and deport whole categories of people. There is always administrative discretion and budgetary constraints to deport everyone with an expired visa or who crossed outside of a customs port of entry. The level of surveillance, violence, and cruelty needed to do so, however, is unlikely to occur in a truly democratic regime during peacetime without producing citizen and bureaucratic protest and civil disobedience.


DACA recipients are net contributors to their states and to the country. Given that DACA helps an educated small sub-sector of the population that is deeply embedded in the community and contributes to it, it is good policy to support the advancement and integration of this group as a matter of social justice. The government should also be interested in continued economic growth while decreasing categorical inequality, and to avoid the growth of a marginalized underclass.

DACA’s media framing, application requirements, and the mostly supportive public opinion around it all demonstrate that it is a fair program that supports deserving individuals who are American all but on paper. If the object of the law and the judicial system is to advance justice or to defend what is fair and ethical, then DACA is clearly legal and should be supported by the courts.


Yet, in the end, DACA’s standing is a political issue and not a legal one. If the President had the political will to protect young immigrants, he could renew or expanded DACA, just as President Obama created the policy by an internal directive within the Department of Homeland Security to defer the deportation of DACA recipients. Similar decisions have been made recently to end Temporary Protected Status and to deport people without violent criminal records.  If Congress had the political will to pass a Comprehensive Immigration Reform, an amnesty, the DREAM Act, or a bill along the lines of DACA, they could. Yet, the issue has now become partisan with Republicans supporting Trump’s anti-immigrant stance and Democrats speaking in favor of pro-immigrant policies.

Several groups staged protests in front of the White House on September of 2017 against rumors that Trump would end DACA. Photos by Ernesto Castañeda © 2017.

Several groups staged protests in front of the White House on September of 2017 against rumors that Trump would end DACA. Photos by Ernesto Castañeda © 2017.

The U.S. Supreme Court of Justice as a human institution not an embodiment of the divine. Photo by Castañeda.

The U.S. Supreme Court of Justice as a human institution not an embodiment of the divine. Photo by Castañeda.

We cannot say that DACA’s legality is a technical legal issue and that the Supreme Court will eventually decide objectively on the legal merits of the case, while we also understand how the selection of new members to the Supreme Court has conservative or progressive effects on the decisions by the Court. Supreme Court justices are political appointments selected by Presidents precisely because of the ideologies they hold, and not necessarily because they will apply the laws as reflected in the Constitution or as written by Congress. There is always room for discretion, and court decisions are made taking in consideration the long-term effects of decisions, and their enduring political implications. For this reason, what conservative justices will decide about DACA is no surprise. Disagreements over continuing DACA are rooted in clashing political ideologies, not in technical judicial or legal decisions that only experts can adjudicate.

Historically and today social movements demand for the integration of excluded groups. Rights are demanded not given. Photos and collage by Ernesto Castañeda © 2018.

Historically and today social movements demand for the integration of excluded groups. Rights are demanded not given. Photos and collage by Ernesto Castañeda © 2018.

Is DACA legal? One could answer in the affirmative because it is within the powers of the President and the jurisdiction of the state—yet its survival is truly a political question. Judges could disagree as when they argued in the 1857’s Dred Scott v. Sandford that abolishing slavery in the south would be unconstitutional and that blacks could not be citizens (Kendi 2016:204). Thus, to see social change, pro-immigrant Americans cannot rely on “the law” which by its current design itself creates illegalized immigrants. Supporters of immigrants have to bring the issues of social justice to the streets and, ultimately, to the electoral process.

Ernesto Castañeda is the author of A Place to Call Home (Stanford 2018), Building Walls (Lexington 2019), and Social Movements 1768-2018 (Routledge 2019) with Charles Tilly and Lesley Wood; Editor of Immigration and Categorical Inequality (Routledge 2018); and Co-editor with Cathy L. Schneider of Collective Violence, Contentious Politics, and Social Change (Routledge 2017).

Radicalizing Tensions: Between Fascism and Solidarity in Italy (Part II)

By Lauren Heidbrink


How do citizens enact solidarity when nations fail to? In this second of a 2-part series, anthropologist Lauren Heidbrink examines forms of solidarity that have emerged in Italy in spite of and in active resistance to the state.

In the run-up to this December’s ratification of the United Nations Global Compact for Migration, nations are being called to provide a “holistic and comprehensive response” to migrants and refugees. The Global Compact is in direct response to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 2016 lamentation that the world was not in a crisis of numbers but a crisis of solidarity.” Citing that 90% of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries, Ki-moon identified an imperative for equitable responsibility-sharing across the globe. In the European Union, solidarity has come to signify the re-distribution of migrants and refugees from Italy and Greece to northern Europe. Yet efforts for supranational consensus within the EU continue to stall, leaving a deep chasm between rhetoric, policy, and practice. The rise of populist governments across Europe has only heightened hostilities towards migrants.

In Italy, where I conduct research with young migrants, resistance to the right-wing coalition of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League party has mounted, and new forms solidarity have emerged among civil society, social movements, and social enterprises. Here, I ask: how do citizens enact solidarity when nations fail to?

For those Italians new to solidarity efforts, volunteers with immigrant rights groups in Rome and Sicily whom I interviewed cited feeling compelled to engage in everyday acts of solidarity, to increase charitable contributions, and to begin volunteering their time at local reception centers as teachers or as guardians for unaccompanied children. Other more seasoned advocates shared a deep personal and professional commitment to refugees, one intimately intertwined with their Italian identity and history. Ester, a doctor who provides health screenings to newly arrived migrants in the Messina hotspot, shared, “We Romans invented the law thousands of years ago; this man [Interior Minister Matteo Salvini] and his hate may do harm, but the law will not be undone. Our obligation is to mitigate the damage and counter with empathy and solidarity every single day and in every interaction.”

Several immigrant rights advocacy organizations described newly launched public campaigns as critical to countering the xenophobia granted license under Salvini, “one tweet at a time,” as an advocate Rocio contended. “Our job as activists and organizers isn’t just to argue with the demigods, not just to debate with the snake oil salesman, but actually through actions as much as words, our job is to start drowning them out.” Indeed, nearly 20,000 people recently took to the streets of Rome to denounce the potential implementation of the Decree-Law on Immigration and Security, a particularly pernicious law that ends humanitarian protections and erodes legal relief available to refugees in Italy.

Senatus Populus que Romanus (SPQR, The Roman Senate and People)

As forms of legal solidarity—that is, the legal protections afforded to migrants and refugees—are eroded by Italy’s ruling populist coalition, Italians have diversified forms of solidarity, including public protests, transnational marches, solidarity tourism, and vows to intervene in deportation flights if Salvini follows through with his threats to deport 500,000 migrants.

Sitting on a bench in Rome’s Piazzale Maslax, the coordinator of a citizen solidarity program Giana impatiently explained to me, “Given the fascism of the League, everyday acts of kindness are not enough. We must retake the streets, the piazzas, the parks. You see SPQR on the sidewalks and buildings?” Gesturing to the piazza surrounding us, “They…this…belongs to the people of Italy, not to those in power who do not represent us.” Here, Giana referenced the phrase of the ancient roman republic Senatus Populus que Romanus (SPQR, The Roman Senate and People), which emerged from the ancient belief that authority originates from the people, not a single ruler, and which brandishes city streets, public buildings, and government correspondence throughout Italy.

Piazzale Maslax has become a vivid and enduring marker of a cosmopolitan solidarity with migrants in Italy, a solidarity rooted in fundamental notions of rights that exists in spite of historically and geographically constructed classed and racialized identities. Home to the Baobab Experience, volunteers provide tents, serve meals, provide haircuts, and create spaces for attorneys, Italian classes, and medical visits, enlisting social media to organize meals, volunteer hours and donation drives. Citing cultural values of hospitality and empathy, Italians have expressed solidarity in attending to the material realities of refugees and migrants in the absence of state support. Such efforts exist within a context of austerity measures following the global financial crisis in 2008 that has led to the decline in resources available to Italians and migrants alike. Similar models have emerged in Belgium, France, and northern Italy in response to the 2015-2016 influx of refugees to Europe and the closing of borders in the Balkans, Switzerland and France.

Serving food in Piazzale Maslax. Credits: Baobab Experience

Serving food in Piazzale Maslax. Credits: Baobab Experience

The Piazzale Maslax and nearby abandoned buildings overtaken by migrants serve as critical for solidarity among migrants themselves. Here, migrants share information about how to navigate Italy’s cumbersome bureaucratic processes, secure essential translation and interpretation of documents, provide comfort amid a bleak future, and, on occasion, laugh, sing, tell stories, or share a meal. Mariam, an 18-year-old Eritrean who lives in a disused building near the Piazzale Maslax, described, “I’ve lived here for maybe 9 or 10 months; its where I can find a piece of home with my countrymen. Rome is a very lonely place. I am happy to be here, or I suppose, the promise of here.”

Initiatives like the Baobab Experience exist as a form of radical solidarity that has emerged in spite of and in active resistance to the state. A Baobab volunteer Eleonora asserted “If we are only talking to the shooter, we are doomed to fail. Here, we are organizing citizens to undermine the predatory forces of capitalism and the extreme fascism in Italy by creating a functioning society rooted in solidarity with migrants. We are building coalitions where the Italian state won’t.” Grounded within notions of reciprocity and deservingness, Italian citizens seek to demonstrate a viable alternative to the status quo in which hope might trump hate. Or, as 17-year-old Abeiku, an unaccompanied minor from Ghana, aptly described, “Desperate situations can make you desperate, or they can help you to hope.”  

Hope at the port of Catania. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Hope at the port of Catania. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Along with Salvini’s campaign to criminalize anyone daring to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and eroding social support and legal protections for refugees, he has turned his gaze to citizen solidarity efforts. In mid-November, Italian authorities violently and very spectacularly cleared Piazzale Maslax, leaving homeless 150 people including several unaccompanied minors.

Other Italians have merged material support with relational solidarity by inviting migrants and refugees into their homes and providing lodging when government facilities were unwilling or unable to provide shelter. In response to my request to meet with Refugee Home (a pseudonym) regarding their efforts to provide housing to failed asylum-seekers in Rome, the coordinator responded via email: “I am going to propose a contra deal or tit-for-tat: You provide one placement in a city (preferably Rome but any city will do), get them through the first few weeks of the homestay so we know you are serious; then, I or one of the team will answer any or all of your questions.” 

While sympathetic, Giuseppe, a caseworker at a drop-in center for unaccompanied children in Rome, critiqued this approach,  “I spend my taxes on the national healthcare system, but I don’t conduct open heart surgery on my kitchen table. It is a fairly straightforward relationship.” For Giuseppe, such private forms of solidarity undermine the state’s legal, financial and moral responsibility to refugees. “Solidarity must be a national value,” he explained.

For Giulia, a collaborating artist at a day center for unaccompanied youths in Palermo, Sicily, the politics of representation are a lynchpin of solidarity. “We must make more space for all refugees to speak their truths, not just those who are perfect victims.” By hearing more complex and diverse voices, she argues, the public can begin to recognize the agency of migrants while empowering migrants themselves to narrate their own stories.

Geographer David Featherstone argues that solidarity can serve as a transformative relation between places, activists, and diverse social groups. If indeed transformative, cosmopolitan solidarity must extend beyond material and affective solidarity to simultaneously equalize the fundamental inequity in power relations between undocumented migrants and asylum seekers and Italian citizens standing in solidarity with them. In other words, how might we enact a shared commitment to justice that transcends an increasingly fascist state?


Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and contested interests (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). As the recipient of the Fulbright Schuman 70th Anniversary Scholar Award, she is conducting a comparative study on the migration of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Italy, Greece, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Note: In an effort to ensure confidentiality, names of individuals and organizations are pseudonyms. All views expressed in this publication are of the author.

Radicalizing Tensions: Between Fascism and Solidarity in Italy (Part I)

by Lauren Heidbrink

How do citizens enact solidarity when nations fail to? In this first of a 2-part series, anthropologist Lauren Heidbrink examines forms of solidarity that have emerged in Italy in spite of and in active resistance to the state.

The Diciotti at the port of Catania, Sicily. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

The Diciotti at the port of Catania, Sicily. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

“I thought it would only take three or four hours to reach Europe, but the journey was much longer and colder,” described Mohammed of his journey from Libya to Italy. A 16-year-old unaccompanied minor from Nigeria, Mohammed was one of 177 migrants rescued by the Italian coastguard’s Diciotti in August of 2018. Many onboard were fleeing violence in Eritrea, Syria, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Somalia; Mohammed was fleeing eight months of hard labor and violence in Libya, where he sought employment following the death of his parents in a car accident in Lagos. “Libya was no good for us blacks…I didn’t know if I would survive. I don’t know if I will survive here either; it’s not so easy, but I’d rather die than return there,” Mohammed explained several week later from a Sicilian reception facility where I was conducting research on child migration in Europe.  

Rescued near Lamapdeusa, Mohammed thought his journey had ended when he boarded the Diciotti. Instead, he would remain at sea for another four days and in the Sicilian port of Catania for another two before being permitted to disembark. Like so many others, Mohammed fell victim to ongoing debates on solidarity in Europe. Flexing his newly-acquired political might, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused the Diciotti to dock, announcing, “The ship may land in Italy, as long as the 177 migrants are distributed, in a spirit of solidarity by the EU (European Union).” Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which governs in coalition with Salvini’s far-right League party, assumed power in June of 2018, with aspirations of sealing Italy’s 7,600-kilometer coastline from incoming migrants.

"This is the situation aboard the #Diciotti for 8 days now.” Credit: Deputy of Europe, Riccardo Magi following his visit onboard in August of 2018.

"This is the situation aboard the #Diciotti for 8 days now.” Credit: Deputy of Europe, Riccardo Magi following his visit onboard in August of 2018.

As Mohammed explained, “I came to Italy to be safe and to live free, but there we were, captive on a boat just centimeters from land. I could throw a ball that would reach Europe, but I wasn’t allowed to catch it.” Simultaneously denouncing Maltese authorities for failing to rescue the migrant boat in its waters, Salvini drew a line in the sand—either Europe demonstrates “solidarity” by redistributing migrants from Italy to northern Europe or Salvini would return the migrants onboard the Diciotti to Libya.

With mounting international pressure, Italy’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli allowed the Diciotti to dock in Catania, but Salvini quickly refused migrants onboard to disembark. Akin to a hostage situation, Sicilian authorities and Italian civil society began to negotiate their release enlisting a hierarchy of vulnerability: the Italian Ministry of Health in Sicily secured the immediate release of 13 migrants with pressing health issues, such as pregnancy, tuberculosis, pneumonia, scabies, and urinary infections, who were whisked to local hospitals in Red Cross ambulances. The Italian Ombudsperson for Children and Adolescents (Autorità garante per l'infanzia e l'adolescenza) called for the immediate release of children onboard, citing Italian law and international protections for children enshrined in the UN Convention of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Two days later, 27 unaccompanied children, including Mohammed, were permitted to disembark. Behind the scenes, the Italian Conference of Catholic Bishops began negotiating the release of migrants, who were threatening a hunger strike as negotiations drug on. Within a few days, prosecutors in neighboring Agrigento opened an investigation into Salvini for kidnapping, abuse of office, and illegal detention of migrants onboard—charges that were later dropped.

'Catania welcomes.' Credits: Silvio Laviano

'Catania welcomes.' Credits: Silvio Laviano

Sicilians took to the street in protest, flooding the port of Catania chanting, “We cannot quietly watch fascism come back. We have to act and resist.” Wielding the Sicilian specialty arancini (rice balls), they yelled, "Welcome to Catania! Here, have an arancino." Standing next to me in the crowd of 300, a protestor explained, "In our homes, you welcome travelers with food; arancino are warm and immediately satisfying after a long journey.”

These negotiations inflamed entrenched political debates in Italy, calling many to critique its slow-moving bureaucracy, high unemployment levels, chronic housing issues, and the increasing license of nativists’ “Italian first” response. International debates centered on issues of solidarity, as Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said, “Italy must take note that the spirit of solidarity is struggling to translate into concrete acts.” Here, Conte specifically referred to the June 2018 EU summit, which failed to establish a scheme for redistributing 160,000 refugees held in overcrowded camps in Italy and Greece. Only after the 10-day standoff were the remaining 140 migrants onboard the Diciotti processed in a nearby Messina hotspot and transferred to placements with the Italian Church (100 migrants), Ireland (20 migrants), and non-EU member Albania (20 migrants) at their own expense. 

Port of Catania.

Port of Catania.

In recent years, Italy rescued nearly 600,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea; at its height in 2016, the Italian coast guard and humanitarian organizations rescued 4500 migrants in the Mediterranean in a single day. Since 2017, however, the number of migrants arriving in Italy has dwindled. Unrelenting in his anti-immigrant campaign, however, Salvini has exploited social ills and tragedies across Italy, blaming migrants for outbreaks in illness, rape and murder, the impunity of the mafia, and even the deadly Genoese bridge collapse. Salvini and the League systematically have criminalized any entity attempting to respond to shipwrecked migrants, including humanitarian organizations, commercial vessels, Frontex, fisherman, and in the case of the Diciotti, even the Italian Coast Guard—claiming they all are aiding and abetting smugglers.

With fewer boats arriving since the Diciotti in August, Salvini has turned to eroding social support and legal protections for refugees already residing in Italy. The recent arrest and exile of immigrant-friendly mayor Domenico Lucano, largely heralded for singularly resuscitating the town of Riace by welcoming refugees, served as a high-profile effort to deter local governments from welcoming refugees. Some posit that Lucano’s arrest is in direct response to mayors in southern Italy vowing to disobey Salvini’s orders to block humanitarian rescue boats from all Italian seaports.

Youth playing in Riace. Credits:     Francesco Pistilli     .

Youth playing in Riace. Credits: Francesco Pistilli.

 “It has only deteriorated,” explained an immigration attorney in Rome. “He is a right-wing sheriff who rules by tweet. He does not represent us; we must fight him at every turn and hope he doesn’t destroy the nation in the process.” On September 24, 2018,  Italian Council of Ministers unanimously signed the Decree-Law on Immigration and Security (decree law no. 113/2018), effectively abolishing humanitarian protections in Italy; allowing for the refusal or withdraw of international protections; and establishing a framework to strip Italian citizenship from some refugees. Colloquially termed the Salvini Law, the decree likewise erodes the System of Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), a decentralized network of small-scale reception centers housing refugees and unaccompanied minors. The decree has cleared the Italian Senate. The Chamber of Deputies must review the proposal within 60 days, without whose intervention, it automatically becomes law.

“The clock is ticking,” Leonardo, the director of a Sicilian-based SPRAR, told me. “We have lost so much [government] funding in recent years, that we are already functioning with so little support. Now, staff are preparing for unemployment. We are scrambling to find places for these children to live.” Livid at what he sees an attack on Sicilian values of hospitality, generosity and inclusion, Leonardo fumed, “Mass mourning on social media is not enough; time for talking has long past. We must conspire. We must act!”

Part II: Radicalizing Tensions


Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and contested interests (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). As the recipient of the Fulbright Schuman 70th Anniversary Scholar Award, she is conducting a comparative study on the migration of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Italy, Greece, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Disclaimer: In an effort to ensure confidentiality, all names of individuals and organizations are pseudonyms. All views expressed in this publication are of the author.

The #Multicultural State: Counter-narratives from migrant youth living in Buenos Aires

by María V. Barbero

Buenos Aires is multicultural. Buenos Aires is cosmopolitan. Buenos Aires is welcoming and inclusive. Buenos Aires is a city of migrants. These were the messages I heard from state officials while conducting research in Buenos Aires during 2016 and 2017.  Such narratives circulated through the city government’s monthly cultural programing—programing that attracts thousands to iconic parks and streets to eat ethnic food and to celebrate immigrant communities: Buenos Aires Celebra Colombia, Buenos Aires Celebra Italia, Buenos Aires Celebra Paraguay, and so on and so forth. This programing is complemented by commemorative events organized by the national immigration office at the city’s historic museum of immigration.

Promotional material produced by City Government for “Buenos Aires Celebra India.”  Source

Promotional material produced by City Government for “Buenos Aires Celebra India.” Source

This robust programming resembles what Lugones (2014)  calls “ornamental multiculturalism,” or a multiculturalism that “reduces non-Western cultures to ornaments to be enjoyed touristically,” while ignoring and obscuring structures of power. These events each generate colorful flyers, professional photographs, short videoclips and hashtags through which the message of an inclusive, multicultural state are circulated via Facebook, Twitter, and government websites.  

Yet amid these messages is another, also incredibly robust scene of cultural production, one assembled by migrant youth living in Buenos Aires. This scene involves theater performances, books published with carton and fabric scraps, and radio programing. It is multicultural, multilingual and transnational, and it creates an alternative to the state’s ornamental multiculturalism. It does not shy away from analyzing power relations and deliberately enlists culture as a vehicle for resistance. 

Promotional material produced by City Government for Buenos Aires for “Buenos Aires Celebra Bolivia.”  Source

Promotional material produced by City Government for Buenos Aires for “Buenos Aires Celebra Bolivia.” Source

This programing generates another set of images circulating in Buenos Aires. These images and narratives invite observers and participants to remember that their clothing did not emerge out of thin air and that the remains of their garments simultaneously represent hopes and dreams as well as sacrifices, labor exploitation, and even deaths of bordering country immigrants. This counternarrative lays bare the deep contradictions of immigrant reception in Argentina, and it defiantly highlights that the presence hundreds of migrants on the streets of Buenos Aires is not merely an opportunity for multicultural entertainment, but also an act of political power. 


Disrupting the Silence: A Typical Thursday

Cover of No Olvidamos, written and published by Simbiosis Cultural, a Bolivian youth organization in Buenos Aires.

Cover of No Olvidamos, written and published by Simbiosis Cultural, a Bolivian youth organization in Buenos Aires.

The book tilted No Olvidamos [We Won’t Forget] begins with the phrase, “It was a typical Thursday…” and it chronicles a tragic fire in a Buenos Aires textile sweatshop in the barrio of Caballito on March 30th, 2006. The fire led to the death of five Bolivian children and one 25-year-old pregnant woman, who were resting upstairs in the crumbling facility where they lived and worked in conditions of “servitude.” Written and published by Simbiosis Cultural, a Bolivian youth collective based in Buenos Aires, No Olvidamos is but one in a series of books published through their Editorial Retazos," characterized by binding made out of cartons and fabric scraps thrown out by local sweatshops. Simbiosis Cultural also holds events every March 30th to “remember”, “denounce” and “make visible” the precarious conditions of so many Bolivian migrants in Buenos Aires. Their actions, which also included calling attention to the trial subsequent to the fire, are meant to counter what No Olvidamos describes as a push for silence and inaction from all those—including the Argentine and Bolivian states—that depend on avoiding “overexposing” a system structured around exploitation.


Disrupting the Narrative: Generous Country

Forum Theater play titled “Generous Country.” June 13th, 2017. Photo Credit: Maria Barbero.

Forum Theater play titled “Generous Country.” June 13th, 2017. Photo Credit: Maria Barbero.

“Argentina: Generous Country” is the title of a special report produced by Jorge Lanata, one of Argentina’s most well-known and controversial journalists. Aired on October 16th, 2016 on Canal 13, the report blamed Argentina’s immigrant student population for issues of inequality and inefficacy plaguing the country’s public higher education system. Inspired by forum theater, a technique of Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, women active in AMUMRA, a Buenos Aires non-profit focused on the rights of migrant women and refugees, presented a theatrical production with the same name at the Peruvian Consulate in Buenos Aires in June of 2017.  The play tells the story of Maria, a Peruvian migrant woman who contends with lack of information, discriminatory treatment by Gendarmerie agents, labor discrimination, and ongoing xenophobia in Argentina. Turning the narrative of “Generous Country” on its head, performers include Latin American migrant women, most of whom are either students or domestic workers active in the disruption of dominant narratives circulating in mass media. The performance invited the audience of migrants, Argentine citizens and Peruvian, Chilean and Panamanian diplomats to intervene at certain moments throughout the play, calling on them to play an active role in challenging the practices and discourses that paradoxically claim Argentina is a “generous country.”


Disrupting the Streets: "We are the uncontrolled migration"

It is 4:00pm on Saturday November 26, 2016 and Mandioca Radioactiva airs in Buenos Aires through Radio Sur. This is a weekly radio program produced by Movimiento 138, a Paraguayan youth organization founded in 2012 after a land conflict resulted in the death of eleven peasants and six security officers in Curuguaty, Paraguay and President Fernando Lugo was ousted by a right-wing Paraguayan parliament. The group has since been active in the sociopolitical scene of both countries. 

November 22, 2016. Migrants march toward congress in Buenos Aires in protest of anti-immigrant statements and proposals. Photo credit: Maria Barbero

November 22, 2016. Migrants march toward congress in Buenos Aires in protest of anti-immigrant statements and proposals. Photo credit: Maria Barbero

As Carmen, one of the group members, explained to me in an interview, the aim of Movimiento 138 has always been to "organize the anger, from a place that is honest, and creative above all" (1). For more than five years now, the group has held events to demand justice for Curuguaty and to promote the rights of migrants in Argentina. Toward the end of the two hour-long radio programing, the members of Movimiento 138 discuss a march that took place just days prior in Buenos Aires. Hundreds of migrants marched to congress to denounce the government’s expressed desire to change Argentina’s immigration policy and to open the country’s first immigrant detention center. One program invitee and member of Movimiento 138 explains, "We made noise, it was great to bother all the people there, to shut down the streets, it was really beautiful." In light of this, the hosts discuss also "making noise" at a recent event held by the immigration office on the Day of the Immigrant. The event felt staged, they explain. "It was a festival for blonde immigrants." It wasn't for "bordering country immigrants. We are the uncontrolled migration." Indeed, youth movements like Movimiento 138 become disruptive to the state's cultural programing when the idea of cultural celebration is detached from power relations and injustice.



A Buenos Aires government worker in charge of the monthly Buenos Aires Celebra activities explained to me that the aim of the cultural programing was to "establish the possibility for each collectivity that lives in the city of Buenos Aires, to have its own space on the street, in the public space once a year to celebrate their customs, traditions and culture." In May of 2017, I ran into members of Movimiento 138 at Buenos Aires Celebra Paraguay. The group was indeed selling traditional Paraguayan dishes. They were also however, walking the streets handing out flyers which read, "Migrant rights are in danger."  

One member of Simbiosis Cultural explained that some of the events held by the city government serve to essentialize migrants. 

"The migrant is this […] And come everyone and watch, right? This is the migrant: the one who dances, the one who eats something different and nothing else. And the migrant has to do with a lot of things, with rights that are being violated, with respect…"

Culture, for members of Simbiosis Cultural, Movimiento 138, and other youth-led migrant organizations in Buenos Aires cannot be disentangled from questions of power and inequality.  In fact, culture becomes not only a source of belonging and enjoyment but likewise a vehicle for promoting democracy, rights, and justice. It becomes a way to disrupt dominant silences, narratives, and geographies that circulate not only in Argentina, but also in their countries of origin. 

  (1): a pseudonym


María V. Barbero is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University. Her research explores issues of youth migration, citizenship, and racialization and has been published in Citizenship Studies and Metropolitics.


Emergency Contact: Dispatches from the Tornillo Children’s Detention Camp

by Abigail Carl-Klassen

I. A Message from Snopes

Claim: The Trump administration is building “tent cities” to house minor immigrants.

Rating: Mixture

What’s True: Multiple news outlets have confirmed HHS’s plans to build tent cities.

What’s False: They have not yet been constructed; the practice is not new.

II. A Message from the Department of Health and Human Services

1. Unaccompanied Alien Children Frequently Asked Questions

In recent days, there has been a great deal of misinformation about the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program. This misinformation and the intentional perpetuation of it is a disservice to the hundreds of caseworkers and care providers who are deeply committed to the quality care and safe and speedy placement of the children with appropriate sponsors.

2. Policy Guide

Unaccompanied alien children apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration officials are transferred to the care and custody of Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The ORR promptly places an unaccompanied child in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child. The ORR Policy Guide for Alien Children Entering the United States Unaccompanied describes policies for the placement, timely release and care of unaccompanied alien children in ORR custody. It is a living document that may be updated as new policies are incorporated into the program or current policies are modified.

3. Updated Terms

Family Reunification – Family reunification is an older term used in the Flores Settlement Agreement to refer to the process of releasing an unaccompanied alien child to the care of a parent, relative or other sponsor.

Influx – An increase in the number of unaccompanied alien children that exceeds the standard capabilities of responsible Federal departments and agencies to process and transport them timely and/or to shelter them with existing resources.

Influx Care Facility – A type of care provider facility that is opened to provide temporary emergency shelter and services for unaccompanied alien children during an influx or emergency. Influx care facilities may be opened on federally owned or leased properties, in which case, the facility would not be subject to State or local licensing standards; or, at facilities otherwise exempted by the State licensing authority.

4. Updated Timeline

The Tornillo Facility was confirmed as a site on June 14th, 2018 and within 24 hours 100 minors were on location. The facility doubled in size from June 18th to June 19th 2018. The facility was previously contracted to operate until the end of August 2018. The contract initially was extended until the end of September 2018. More than 1300 children were housed at the facility at the end of September. The contract has been renewed until December 31st, 2018, when the contract may be extended upon further review.

III. A Message from the Guardian and the New York Times

The Tornillo Temporary Minor Immigration
Detention Facility operates like a small pop-up city.

Authorities say it was meant to be
small and temporary. Hidden from public

view on the ground, its proliferation clearly visible
from the air. Kept on a remote patch

of federal land surrounded by scrub and pecan farms,
children are being brought by the busload.

Hundreds of children are being shipped from shelters
across the country to Tornillo each week.

The moves are carried out at night to prevent
escape attempts. The children’s emergency

contact information, etched in pen
on their belts. Since June, dozens of people

who applied to have detained children released
into their custody have been arrested by ICE.

IV. A Message from Trump Supporters


It’s not a good situation, but we have to
uphold our laws. There has to be

checks and balances. It seems like
this is being done humanely.


I think people need to stop
constantly bringing up the poor
children. The poor children.

Quit trying to make us feel
teary eyed for the children.


When I was a kid, 16 years old,
I got fined for swimming in a lake

’cause I didn’t follow the rules.
These people that we have coming

across the border illegally are breaking
the rules. I have no feelings for them at all.

V. A Message from the 1,300 Children Detained in Tornillo








Abigail Carl-Klassen is a poet, writer, educator, translator and activist. 

“Emergency Contact: Dispatches from the Tornillo Children’s Detention Camp” was first published on Poets Reading the News on October 12, 2018.

Negotiating Migration: How Youth Decide to Migrate

 by Emily Ruehs-Navarro

Focusing on the stories of not just why but how youth leave their home countries reveals insight into the dynamic process of child migration decisions.

The coverage of unaccompanied immigrant youth is often painted in broad strokes: 45,704 unaccompanied youth have been detained by U.S. border enforcement in the current fiscal year; 12,800 youth are being held in immigration detention facilities; 32,122 have been released to sponsors. Yet, what happens when we zoom our lens onto the single digits of these numbers? What happens when we talk not about broad crises that span months and years but rather single moments in youth’s lives? In my research, I work to uncover the micro-level moments of youth migration. These magnified moments unveil important insight into youth social agency, safety, and family dynamics. The stories I share here are responses to the prompts: “tell me about the day you left,” and “tell me about the decision to leave.”  

Edwin had a vivid recollection of the day his life in a small Honduran town turned global. He was thirteen-years-old at the time and had lived in the same house his whole life. He had a nice life, he explained: “I was working. I didn’t earn a lot, but I could take care of myself and my grandmother. My uncles in the United States had sent money to help her build a house, but I contributed a little too.” He explained that every day he would get up early to work in construction, helping other families build their homes. In the afternoons, he would do chores with his grandmother. “One day, I came home on my bike, tired, sweaty. I arrived and laid down in the hammock. My grandmother came over—she was talking with my dad on the phone. She said, ‘Hey, your dad says to get ready. He says that you are leaving. He has the money to pay the coyotes to bring you to the United States.’ I was super happy. I really wanted to go to the US. I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is my time! I’m going to go there!” His grandmother was not happy about this decision. Edwin remembers that she pleaded with him to stay in Honduras. However, his father’s vote, coupled with Edwin’s desire, far outweighed his grandmother’s pleas. As promised, Edwin left for the United States just days after that conversation.  

For Cynthia, the migration decision was prompted by a rumor—not a rumor of an automatic permiso in the United States, which some US officials claim drive migration, but a rumor that a man had come to her community who might be able to help her. Cynthia was living with her mother and younger siblings in rural Guatemala. The family was deeply impoverished, and her mother’s alcohol use left Cynthia alone to care for her siblings for days or weeks on end. Although her grandparents lived nearby, they provided little support. Plus, because of her mother’s reputation for trading sex for alcohol, Cynthia was often harassed by her neighbors, who called her a whore. “There were days that I just wanted to die,” Cynthia explained. “I cried all of the time. I knew I needed to do something.” And then she heard the rumor: there was a man traveling to the United States who was bringing women and children with him; Cynthia could join if she agreed to pay him through work in the US. With this opportunity in hand, Cynthia did not hesitate. She talked to her mother the following day: “I told my mom I was going to leave, and she agreed since I promised to send money home. When my grandparents found out, they said they wouldn’t let me go because I’m a girl. They thought I just wanted to find a man. So I escaped!” In the middle of the night, Cynthia crept out of her house, leaving her beloved siblings behind and meeting the group to travel North.

Carlos always knew that he would travel to the United States. There was never any question about the future for the men in his family: Like his uncles, like his father, and like his older brothers, Carlos felt destined to leave his small town in Mexico and head North. The question was never if, but when. Carlos explains that he was ready by age ten to migrate, but his parents refused: “They said I was too small, but I always wanted to go. I wanted to work, to make money, to make a life.” As the years passed, Carlos grew stronger and more capable. By age fourteen, he broached the topic again. Migration was a rite of passage, and this time, his father felt that Carlos finally exhibited the mental and physical fortitude necessary for both the act of migration and for the hard work that would ensue. Although Carlos’s mother and younger siblings completely opposed his migration, his father arranged for the coyote within a week of their conversation. His father instructed Carlos to be brave and take responsibility for his family, a charge that Carlos has taken very seriously. “My motivation has always been to save money and build my parents a house,” he explained.

Mariana loved her home in an urban center in Honduras. She lived with her mother who had raised her in the church. They were financially stable, since her father sent regular remittances from the United States. There had always been a gang presence in her community that dictated much of her life, but the gangs had been avoidable, if she kept her head down. Once she became a teenager, however, this changed. A member of a local gang began to follow her regularly. He would ride his motorcycle past her on her walk to church, and he would holler at her as she left her school building. Mariana explained: “I tried to not pay attention to him. I told myself that maybe he didn’t mean anything bad. But then one day he pushed me to a wall and shoved a gun into my stomach.” Mariana was terrified, and in this moment, she knew she must leave. She called her father that night, and he was unsure if he had the money. The rest of the family also hesitated. Her grandparents disagreed with her decision initially because of the dangers of migrating, but they finally agreed that the education and opportunities in the U.S. would make the trip worth it. Her mother never fully supported Mariana’s decision, yet she conceded that at age sixteen, Mariana was old enough to decide for herself. The next month, Mariana called her father again, who had been able to collect enough money to pay the smuggling fees. They contacted a local coyote who had successfully transported a neighbor’s children; within two months of the assault, Mariana left Honduras.

These four initiation stories paint diverse pictures of not just why a child migrates but also how migration occurs and who makes the decision. When we understand that Edwin was told, that Cynthia fled, that Carlos negotiated, and that Mariana decided, the lives of these young people are brought into stark relief. They illustrate the complexities of youth’s lives, as they relate to gender, class, and community structure. We see the intersection of gender and poverty in Cynthia’s narrative, which prompt a trip dependent on unknown future labor. Carlos’s sense of masculinity and adulthood are tied into his family’s wellbeing, such that his migration is a result of family negotiations and his own maturation: his family financially supported his trip with the understanding that he would return the payment with future remittances. Mariana’s position as a young woman in a community that was unable to provide her protection was significant in her decision to migrate, and her family’s resources provided her a safe passage with a trusted coyote. 

Additionally, these stories complicate the idea that parents must be held accountable for their children’s migration. We see that the decision to migrate is a process mediated by multiple actors who are not always in agreement. Extended family members, parents, siblings and, of course, youth themselves, are invested in this decision. The issues of safety are particularly salient, as safety exists only as it is supported by community structure, governmental competency, and family resources; so, youth and their families must carefully weigh these realities as they negotiate the option of migration.

While the statistics are useful in understanding the scale of children’s global movements, they risk obscuring the smaller truths of youth’s lives. Asking young people to talk about the day they left home is an exercise in magnifying youth’s voices so that we might learn of the complexities of their lives and create political responses that are as nuanced as their migration.


Emily Ruehs-Navarro is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Elmhurst College. She studies migration, youth, gender, and race, and she uses feminist pedagogy to engage students in global social issues.

"Just Another Refugee!" Art and Poetry by Salam Noah

Salam Noah took up painting while waiting for his family’s asylum papers to be processed in Greece. He is originally from Iraq.

Oil painting on canvas by knife  80×60 cm  Salam Noah

Oil painting on canvas by knife

80×60 cm

Salam Noah

Just Another Refugee!

I am a refugee here, 

illegal only to those who fear! 

The sea and mountains I crossed,

I will cross again!

with no Destination or Path 

My only map.. the lines 

In my father's hand 

I am just a refugee here,

With no ties, no homeland, 

Or direction, 

I claim no nation, 

Choose no side ...

But this Earth is my land.

-Sahir Noah

Oil painting on canvas  80×60 cm  Salam Noah

Oil painting on canvas

80×60 cm

Salam Noah

When the sea is safer than homeland

When the sea is safer than homeland

When a boat is warmer Than a 

House ..

When The sound of waves in a dark night in the middle of sea be calmer than the sound of bombing ..

When The view of sea while the waves are high be less scary Than The view of war in their country .. 

When a child sit in a boat full of people in The sea is more comfortable Than his 

seat in his school .. 

When someone put his children in a boat feeling cold in a journey 

of death or survive .. There is a reason why ..

You have to understand That these people Have lost their home, their education, Their dreams, simply everything In their life ..

Those are the one who are carrying a hope of Having a life again ..

In Journey of rescuing a soul  ..

-Sahir Noah

Salam Noah’s work can be found here.