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.
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.
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.