In the second of this two-part series, the Linea 84 Collective employs ethnographic journalism along the Mexico-Guatemala border to reveal the intricate stories of young Central Americans running away from their home countries, becoming part of the flow of undocumented immigrants and therefore a target of increasingly militarized security policies in the North and Central American region.


Close to the train tracks, a migrant running in Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

Close to the train tracks, a migrant running in Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

One day, I see him in one of these shelters for migrants crossing the Mexican territory. He is drawing stick-figure trees, grass, and people. The people have strange expressions, like the look on his face.

He’s 13 years old, shy, not very tall. He doesn’t speak much. He’s got a thick frame, and looks like a miniature adult. Between the giggles of a child, he greets me.

Wilson is a friend of Black’s, a 16-year-old Honduran gang member who hangs around in these streets where death happens frequently. Wilson lives in one of the Catholic migrant shelters, but the Church doesn’t know what to do with so many young people. Shelter staff advised Wilson to seek asylum in Mexico, but he never understood clearly what this even meant. Neither the Mexican National Refugee Assistance Commission (COMAR by its acronym in Spanish), the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), shelter staff, nor immigration agents knew how to explain it to him. They just couldn’t find a simple way to explain it.

The only thing Wilson can tell me is that he had to wait to see if they would give him “papers.” He waited for five months and at the end, his claim was denied. The wait had been torture; the decision was disillusioning. He tells me that during the asylum interview his nerves betrayed him; he would laugh for no reason and he couldn’t answer their questions. He didn’t fit the international and national categories of “refugee,” nor did he qualify for “complementary protection.” He could always try again to seek refugee status, but he’s emotionally destroyed. He doesn’t want to get his hopes up again. No one will help him.

The thing is, he’s 13 years old and he can’t stand the desperation of again waiting in the tedium of the shelter—a place where there is little to entertain an adolescent. On top of that, it’s a place where he has to be confined because, even though immigration agents know that he and others there are seeking asylum, if seen on the streets and suspected of being Central American, agents will detain them until their custodians claims them. Wilson is haunted by this contempt for poor youth; he’s fleeing a country that would rather see him dead than help him and he’s arrived in another country that’s just the same—where people would rather ignore him than ruin their day. This is why his life is at risk.

When Wilson observes something, his right lid covers half his eye. The other remains wide open. It’s as though he were half asleep, so when he looks straight on, it gives you the impression that this eye is focused inward, looking at his own thoughts. Then, it’s like he wakes up, and he gets a dumbfounded look on his face, innocent, like a child.

But Wilson knows the evil of adults and their darkest desires. Wilson knows what is hiding in the dark heart of men. Rumor has it that Wilson made his way to the train tracks in exchange for sex with the man who gave him food and guided him from Honduras to Tenosique. In Mexico, Wilson has survived this way as well. Just like Black says, here in Tabasco there are many men who require these kinds of favors (see La Vida Corta). Married men, single men, separated, divorced men with children, old men… all kinds of men.But the most cynical aspect of machismo keeps these kinds of relations in the shadows: they condemn homosexuality while engaging in sex with young boys, which is a crime.

Like Wilson, Nelson also hangs out on the train tracks. He is fourteen years old and also from Honduras. He entertains himself begging for money at intersections in Tenosique. He gets together with a group of migrants to walkthrough this town where the wind brings the ashes from the sugar refinery that pollutes the air and covers their faces with ashes. He tells me that one day he was with Wilson, begging near the train lines, when a man in his 40s approached them. He looked at both of them and asked Wilson to go with him to a room. “I kept looking at Wilson and the old man. I accompanied them to a building, and they went into a bathroom and they locked themselves in, you see? I didn’t stick around to listen. The old man gave me a couple of pesos to go buy cigarettes. I left and came back a while later… and well…they came out and the old man bought us beer, cigarettes, snacks… Well you know what they did, you see?” He laughs. “Wilson nailed the old guy!”

The indifference toward young people like Wilson forms a part of us, but it stays in the depths of the ocean where no one cares to look. Young  people like Wilson, are faced with an impossible choice right from the beginning. Most young Central American migrants come from poor neighborhoods where gangs and other criminal groups have a strong presence. Authorities in their home countries often criminalize youngsters with this background, so many decide to go north in order to get ahead, but are faced with a society that either prefers to turn a blind eye towards their need, criminalizes them as well or that sees them as merchandise to be exploited either as mules, kidnap ransoms or bodies to satisfy human desire.



On the streets of Tenosique. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

On the streets of Tenosique. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

Don Simón has a wife. He’s a Christian, he says. He lives alone, as far as we know. His house consists of two rooms and the living room. He has photos of his family in a small sitting room where he receives visitors. Black had already told me about Don Simón. He’s an old man who lives by the tracks, on Camarón street, where it’s common to see migrants panhandling. Black tells me that when young men pass by Don Simón’s house, he offers them food. He treats them well. He gives them clothes, and he invites them in. He asks them to do small odd jobs and he pays them. He lets them use the computer so they can check Facebook, and then he starts to touch them. “But this old jerk, he knows the Sureños, the [MS-] 13 here in Tenosique. They go to his house when the boys are there and the 13 offers to let them pass drugs, do you understand? For a bag of chips, Wilson gives it to any old asshole.” That’s how Black talks.

One day I arranged to see Wilson but he didn’t show up. I tell Black that we should look for him. He’s in the house of the old man, Black tells me.

“Here I give them food, no marijuana, no beer, they just do little odd jobs for me and that’s it. I have daughters, I’m a teacher, I’m a Christian…” Don Simon strains to justify having Wilson in his house. I look at him with scorn. 

“Wilson, let’s get out of here!” I tell the boy.

“We came all the way here looking for you,” says Black while smiling with evil delight at Don Simón.

“You have no reason to be here. Let’s go!” I say shortly, raising my voice. Wilson leaves the house of the old man, his eyes shining with anger and shame. Black and I follow him. He walks on; he doesn’t wait for us. He goes away.

“Fucking old man, son of a bitch,” I say to Black.

“Don’t get involved,” Black responds. “Don’t get involved in problems on our account. We’re no one.” Angry, I turn to look at him, but his eyes stop my words dry. Black has the hardest look I have ever seen in my life; it’s the reflection of a multitude of experiences and emotions that come together in his eyes. The look in his eyes simply doesn’t have a name.

That night I call Pedro Ramírez, an activist in the region who works on issues of prostitution and trafficking. It’s dangerous work. I tell him what happened. Ramírez knows Don Simón. Upon mentioning him, Pedro just says, “Yes. Yes, he gives them food and he pays them for any errand, then he asks for sexual favors. Don’t doubt it.”

Black was right.

I see Wilson a few more times. He tells me with an embarrassed laugh, at first, and then totally naturally, the quantity of men who approach him and his friends to offer them money or other things in exchange for sleeping with them. He tells me that on the Tenosique’s river lookout men also offer them money for sex. “You only have to speak out loud a little bit and super quickly they say something to you.” It’s the accent, I think to myself. They prefer the Central Americans because if anything happens to them, no one is going to demand justice on their behalf. And it’s true. According to the general attorney (fiscalía) of Tabasco, crimes against migrants are on the rise. Reported crimes have risen from 102 in 2012 to 385 in 2015, and this is only counting reported crimes. Out of all crimes, reported 90% go unpunished.

One day, I meet up with  Black. He is lost in thought. He asks me if I really care about Wilson. I tell him that I do. “Well he’s in Don Simón’s house. Let’s go get him.” In the hardened stare of this gang member a little bit of the humanity that he’s rarely received rises to the surface.

“Let’s go,” I tell him.

The heat reaches 40 C /104 F  in this place. Black and I are sweating like pigs while we walk to the old man’s house. When we arrive, the door is open, only the mosquito nettings blocks our entrance into the house. I just say “Hello, good afternoon” in a loud voice, twice. I look at Black, and we enter. The old man and Wilson aren’t in the living room. They’re in the room to the side without a door, where there’s a computer, a chair, and a bed. Wilson is seated at the computer while the old man is seated on the bed, looking at him.

“I already told you that Wilson is not allowed to come here. What is he doing here?”

“Geez! This is his life!” He says while gesturing towards the computer.

Wilson looks at us with disbelief. “Let’s get the fuck out of here, Wilson” Black tells him, dry and hard. His bee-like eyes are red. Wilson obeys without making a sound. The two boys leave. 

“He is not allowed to come here. Do you understand me? It doesn’t matter if he shows up, you do not receive him. Am I understood?

The old man babbles a few things like “He comes here to eat… I don’t give them pot or cigarettes… I’m a Christian… No, he won’t come back here.”  He mutters these last words and finally he shuts up.

I leave the house. Wilson and Black are already gone.

There’s a part of our modern mentality that feeds the most twisted desires. Nowadays, youth learns that everything is a commodity that can be bought and sold, including our own bodies and this idea stays in their marrow. This message rings even stronger for people like Wilson, who has experienced, poverty, scarcity, abuse and indifference first hand. If he thinks like this, then, who is responsible for submitting his body to the slavery of this criminal market? We know that youngsters like Wilson cross the Mexican territory everyday, it is all over the news, but still we remain indifferent. Our frivolity is the most terrifying thing I have seen lurking in the darkness of our hearts.

A few weeks later, the boy with the half-closed eye learns that his refugee claim has been denied. Black tells me that Wilson got on the train. He would try to meet up with him further on, but nothing was for sure.



Cerca de las vías del tren, migrante corriendo, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón

Cerca de las vías del tren, migrante corriendo, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón

Un día lo veo en uno de esos albergues para migrantes en tránsito por México dibujando árboles, pasto y personas con círculos y palos. Las personas que él dibujaba tienen expresiones extrañas, así como su mirada.

Tiene 13 años. Habla poco. Le da pena. No es muy alto. Es de cuerpo bien formado y de huesos anchos. Ya parece un pequeño adulto. Entre risas de niño me saluda.

Wilson es amigo del Black, un pandillero hondureño de 16 años que anda en estos caminos donde la muerte pasa seguido. Wilson vive en uno de estos albergues para migrantes que son parte de la iglesia católica. Y aunque reciben dinero de organizaciones internacionales, no saben qué hacer con tantos menores que llegan ahí de manera permanente. En el albergue le dijeron que se quedara a pedir refugio, pero él nunca entendió bien qué era eso. Ni la COMAR (Comisión Nacional de Ayuda a Refugiados) ni el ACNUR (Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Refugiados) ni los del albergue ni los de migración supieron explicarle qué pedía.

Lo único que Wilson me dice es que tenía que esperar a ver si le daban “papeles”. Pues ahí se quedó cinco meses y al final le negaron el refugio. Para él la espera ha sido una tortura y su decepción fue completa al saber que no tendría papeles. Me cuenta que en la entrevista lo traicionaron los nervios y después de reírse sin razón, ya no pudo contestar preguntas. Él no encaja en la categoría internacional y nacional de “refugiado” tampoco en la de “protección complementaria”. Tiene la posibilidad de volver a solicitar “el estatus o condición de refugiado”. Pero emocionalmente ha quedado un poco destruido y no quiere volver a ilusionarse. Así que nadie va a ayudarlo.

Es que él tiene 13 años y no aguanta la desesperación de volver a esperar y esperar sin hacer nada en un albergue en donde hay poco que hacer para un adolescente. Y además, él tiene que permanecer ahí encerrado porque, aunque los de migración sepan que, tanto él como otros menores están pidiendo refugio, si los ven en la calle y sospechan que son centroamericanos, se los llevan y los encierran como presos hasta que los que tienen su custodia vayan por ellos.  A Wilson lo persigue el desprecio hacia la juventud más pobre, huye de un país que prefiere verlo muerto antes que ayudarlo y llegó a otro igual: donde la gente prefiere no saber nada de él porque les arruina el día. Por estas razones su vida peligra.

Cuando Wilson observa algo, su párpado derecho cubre la mitad de su ojo. El otro está bien abierto. Es como si estuviera medio dormido, entonces cuando se queda mirando fijo, parece como si ese ojo se metiera dentro de sus pensamientos para mirarlos. Después como que despierta y se le queda una mirada boba, medio inocente, como de niño.

Pero Wilson conoce la malicia de los adultos y sus deseos más obscuros. Wilson sabe qué hay en el obscuro corazón del hombre. Dicen en las vías que Wilson llegó hasta acá a cambio de cogerse al hombre que le daba comida y lo guió desde Honduras hasta aquí. Y aquí en México también, Wilson ha sobrevivido de esa forma. Porque verán, aquí en Tabasco, así como dice el Black (vea el otro relato), hay muchos hombres que requieren de ese tipo de favores. Hablo de hombres casados, con hijos o solteros, viejos, separados, divorciados, adultos, de todo. Decido averiguar si lo que se dice en las vías es verdad. El aspecto más cínico del machismo mantiene estas relaciones bajo la sombra de la doble moral: desprecian la homosexualidad, pero la ejercen hasta la criminalidad.

Nelson es otro morro de 14 años - también de Honduras- que anda por las vías del tren. Le divierte charolear por las calles de Tenosique. Se junta con varios para caminar por este pueblo en donde el viento arrastra las cenizas del ingenio cañero que contamina el aire y les llena de ceniza las caras. Él me cuenta que un día andaba con Wilson ejerciendo el charoleo cerca de las vías del tren y un hombre como de 40 años se les acerca. Los mira a los dos y le pide a Wilson que lo acompañe a un cuartucho “yo me quedé viendo a Wilson y al viejo. Los acompañé hasta una cuartería, y se metieron a un baño y se encerraron ¿vea? Yo no me quedé a escuchar. El viejo me dio unos pesos para que yo fuera a comprar unos cigarros, me fui y al rato llegué… y pue’… ellos salieron y el viejo nos compró cerveza, cigarros y churros… pue’ ya sabe usted qué hicieron ¿vea? ¡hay no! ¡jajaja! ¡Wilson se pisó al viejo!”.

La creciente indiferencia ante estos jóvenes está presente. Forma parte de nosotros. Todo queda en lo profundo del océano donde nadie quiere mirar. Desde el principio, los chichos como Wilson deben enfrentar la imposibilidad de la opción. La mayoría de los jóvenes centroamericanos provienen de barrios pobres en los que hay una fuerte presencia de grupos criminales o pandillas. Y las autoridades de esos países, normalmente, criminalizan a los jóvenes que viven en estos contextos. Así que muchos deciden irse al norte para salir adelante, pero se topan con una sociedad que prefiere ignorarlos o también criminalizarlos o utilizarlos como mulas, o pedir rescate por ellos o utilizar sus cuerpos para la explotación sexual.



  Por las calles de Tenosique.  Créditos Fotográficos : Irving Mondragón

Por las calles de Tenosique. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón

Don Simón tiene una esposa. Es cristiano, dice él. Vive solo, hasta donde sabemos. Su casa son dos cuartos y la sala, de un piso. Tiene fotos de su familia en la pequeña salita donde recibe visitas. El Black ya me había platicado de Don Simón. Es un viejo que vive por las vías, en la calle de Camarón, donde es común ver a los migrantes charoleando. El Black me cuenta que cuando los jóvenes pasan por la casa del viejo Don Simón, él les ofrece comida, los trata bien, les da ropa, los invita a pasar a su casa, les va pidiendo que hagan algún trabajito estúpido y les paga, los deja usar la computadora par que se conecten a Facebook y así empieza a tocarlos. “Pero ese viejo culero, conoce a los sureños, a los 13 de aquí de Tenosique. Ahí llegan con él cuando hay güiros y ahí los 13 les ofrecen pasar droga ¿me entiende? ¡e-eh! Wilson por una bolsa de churros le anda dando por todos lados a cualquier viejo culero.” Así habla el Black.

Un día quedo de ver a Wilson y no lo encuentro. Le digo al Black que vayamos a buscarlo. Anda en la casa del viejo, me dice.

“Yo aquí les doy de comer, nada de marihuana, nada de cervezas, solo me hacen algunos trabajos y ya. Yo tengo hijas, soy maestro, soy cristiano…” Don Simonsito se desvive cual villana de telenovela por justificar el hecho de tener a Wilson ahí metido en su casa. Yo solamente lo miro con ganas de arrancarle la cabeza.

¡Hey Wilson vámonos de aquí! Le digo al morro ¡Hasta acá te venimos a buscar! dice el Black mientras le sonríe con malicia a Don Luis.

¡Aquí no tienes por qué estar! Vámonos de aquí. Le digo en corto con la voz encendida. Wilson sale maleado de la casa del viejo, sus ojos brillan de coraje y vergüenza. El Black y yo salimos tras de él. Se adelanta, no nos espera. Se va.

¡Maldito viejo hijo de puta! le digo al Black. No se meta, no se meta en problemas por nosotros, nosotros no somos nadie. Lo volteo a ver con enojo, pero sus ojos paran mis palabras en seco. El Black tiene la mirada más dura que he visto en mi vida; es como el reflejo de una multitud de experiencias y emociones que se agrupan en sus ojos, simplemente la expresión es sus ojos no tiene nombre alguno.

Esa noche llamo a Pedro Ramírez. Él es un luchador social en esta región y trabaja los temas de prostitución, trata, etc. Un trabajo peligroso para cualquiera. Le cuento lo que había pasado. Ramírez conoce a Don Simón. Al mencionárselo sólo me dice “Sí. Si él les da comida y les paga por cualquier mandado, después les pedirá favores sexuales. No lo dudes.”.

El Black tenía razón.

Vuelvo a ver a Wilson un par de veces más. Me dice con risa penosa, al principio, y luego con  mucha naturalidad, la cantidad de hombres que se le acercan a él y a otros de sus amigos a ofrecerles dinero o cualquier otra cosa por acostarse con ellos. Me dice que en el malecón de Tenosique también les ofrecen dinero por sexo. “Sólo hay que hablar un poco y ligerito le dicen a uno”. Es el acento, me quedo pensando. Prefieren a los centroamericanos porque pase lo que les pase, aquí nadie va a pedir justicia por ellos. Y esto es verdad. De acuerdo con la fiscalía de Tabasco, los crímenes cometidos en contra de migrantes han ido en franco crecimiento. Los delitos reportados han aumentado de 102 en el 2012 a 385 en el 2015, y esots son solamente los delitos que han sido denunciados. Además, de todos estos crímenes, el 90% no han sido resueltos.

Un buen día quedo de ver al Black y llega pensativo. Me pregunta que si de verdad me importa Wilson y yo le respondo que sí. “Pues está en casa de Don Luis. Vamos por él.” En la dura mirada de ese pandillero se asoma un poco de la humanidad que a él pocos le han dado. Vamos, le respondo.

El calor alcanza los 40 grados en este lugar. El Black y yo sudamos como puercos mientras caminamos hacia la casa del viejo. Llegamos. La puerta está abierta, solo el mosquitero nos impide entrar a la casa. Digo “hola buenas tardes” en voz fuerte y dos veces. Luego miro al Black y entramos. El viejo y Wilson no están en la sala, están en el cuarto de a lado que no tiene puerta y en donde está la computadora, una silla y una cama. Wilson está en la computadora mientras el viejo lo contempla sentado en la cama.

Ya le dije que Wilson no puede venir aquí ¿qué  hace él aquí?

¡Ay! Es que ¡esto es su vida! Me dice mientras me señala la computadora.

Wilson nos mira sin creer que estuviéramos ahí. Ya habla, vámonos a la mierda de aquí Wilson. Le dice el Black, seco y duro. Sus ojos de avispa estaban rojos. Wilson obedece sin chistar. Ellos salen.

Él no puede venir aquí ¿me entiende? No importa que el venga, usted no lo va a recibir ¿me entendió?

El viejo balbuceaba cosas como “él viene aquí a comer… no los dejo fumar marihuana ni cigarros… yo soy cristiano… no, ya no va a volver.” Finalmente se calla.

Salgo de la casa, Wilson y el Black ya se han ido.

Algunas semanas después, el chico del ojo apagado se entera que le han negado el refugio. El Black me dice que Wilson se ha subido al tren. Él iba a tratar de verlo más arriba, pero nada es seguro.


(Español abajo)

In the first of this two-part series, the Linea 84 Collective employs ethnographic journalism along the Mexico-Guatemala border to reveal the intricate stories of young Central Americans running away from their home countries, becoming part of the flow of undocumented immigrants and therefore a target of increasingly militarized security policies in the North and Central American region.

Specifically, in the regions of Tabasco (Mexico) and El Petén (Guatemala), state protection is scarce and repressive actions are abundant. Both shape the everyday life of CentralAmerican youth fleeing to the north. Drawing from research in migrant shelters, along train tracks, and in various local towns, we enlist ethnographic journalism to move beyond reporting events to focusing on the ways young people make meanings of these everyday events and their impacts on social life.

In what follows, the authors complicate common representations of migration by deftly weaving together the overwhelming presence of death, the experience of deceit, suspicion, mistrust and loneliness with visceral moments of conversation and music, thus showing the ultimate uncertainty of the migrant trail. “La vida corta” tells the story of “Black”, a young Honduran migrant who travelled periodically from his home country to Monterrey (in Northern Mexico) crossing territories controlled by organized crime, unreliable authorities and mistrustful locals until one day he disappeared without a trace. In “Everything is for Sale Here” we see howWilson, a 13 year old asylum seeker, is abused in the country he is asking for protection by older men, some of whom present themselves as merciful individuals ready to help young migrants in need.


Close to the water treatment pipes, where migrants bathe in Rio Usumascinta, Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mongradón

Close to the water treatment pipes, where migrants bathe in Rio Usumascinta, Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mongradón

I was supposed to meet up with Black, but he didn’t show up at our meeting spot. I went to look for him again the following week. Nothing. I looked for him everywhere. I had met him a month earlier, and we met regularly. He always showed. I went back to “Golden Dreams” – a little town on the side of the road from El Ceibo, very close to the Guatemala border. I waited for five hours. Boys on motorbikes turned their heads to look at me. They knew I was looking for Black. I think they pitied me. The heat was intense, and I couldn’t stop sweating. Each time I turned to look at them, the look on my face made it clear that I wasn’t going to move. They started speaking amongst themselves and, finally, one of them put on his helmet, got on his motorbike, started the engine loudly, and stopped right in front of me. He just stared at me.

“I’m looking for Black.”

 “No,” he told me with a shake of his head.

“When is he coming?” I asked. He shook his head no again. He took off his helmet, and then I saw it in his eyes. “He never made it to Monterrey,” he told me. He started the engine and left.

This trail that migrants take northward is very long. The trail devours them. It extends beyond the borders with seemingly no end. People who walk this trail are already taken for dead.

I left “Golden Dreams.” I never saw Black again. I’m certain he’s dead.

* The title is a word play of “la vida loca” (the crazy life) which is a common saying among gang members used to describe their hectic lifestyle.



Near the railroad tracks in Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

Near the railroad tracks in Tenosique, Tabasco. Photo by: Irving Mondragón

“What’s your name?”

I ask a boy with bee-like eyes who was listening to la Santa Grifa— a hip-hop band— on his phone.

“Well, fuck” I thought. Here we are in the southern border of Mexico, this guy is Central American, and this hip-hop group is from Tamaulipas. It piqued my curiosity. Tamaulipas is very far away, it’s a border state in the north of Mexico with more than 4000 firearm deaths in the last 7 years. This state also has a role in everything that has to do with immigration; it is one of the most dangerous border crossing points for those headed to the United States. La Santa Grifa know how to talk about all this violence, even though they don’t rap directly about coyotes, shelters, or migrants.

The boy utters some name while looking side to side to observe the people’s comings and goings. He wears a backwards baseball cap, dark pants, and a light shirt. I sit next to him on the low wall around the dining hall of aCatholic shelter that receives people who are in transit through Mexico. The majority of these places work to defend migrants’ human rights. They provide a combination of humanitarian assistance and human rights attorneys who help migrants seek asylum. And for better or worse, these actions  have earned the Catholic church power and prestige among organizations and institutions that deal with migrant defense issues. The Church combines faith and law to get in the game.

“Where are you headed?” I ask.

“Monterrey,” he answers shortly.

His answer surprises me. Monterrey is in the border state of Nuevo León, not that far away from the border with the United States. A lot of people passthrough this city, waiting for a few days, sometimes weeks, before heading to the border towns like Piedras Negras, Reynosa, or Nuevo Laredo where they wait until the border “opens” and “make the jump” to the other side. To be clear, they wait in line with drugs and weapons until it is their turn to pass.

But the boy doesn’t tell me he’s going to the United States.

“And why are you going there?” I inquire.

“I work there and then I come back down to see my jaina (chick) and my family in Honduras.”

In recent years, Mexico has become a destination for many Central Americans. They establish themselves here not because Mexico is the land of plenty but because people seek to escape the chaos governing their countries. Some get stuck in Mexico. Others disappear. The authorities persecute them. They beat them. At the end of the day, whether by choice or force, Mexican authorities are part of the criminal business, holding migrants indefinitely in detention centers as they wait for justice to arrive. But justice never arrives, only bureaucratic, institutional, formal, sterilized state violence. The Mexican and Central American governments inflict violence without pity nor remorse—all at the behest of U.S. securitization policies. Funded by the U.S. State Department and trained by U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit, elite military units in Central America seek to curb outmigration. Rather than attend to the needs of families and communities, in practice, these special military-police and anti-gang units inflict violence upon migrants.  

Many Central Americans have been able to establish themselves inMonterrey, a prosperous city in northern Mexico.  To make it to this city means that one has to know how to move across Mexico.

“So, you work there, you come and go. But it’s very dangerous going through these paths, going up and down. This is no-man’s-land,” I tell him.

“Yep. A lot of Zetas in Veracruz,” he shrugged.

In addition to Tamaulipas, Veracruz is one of the riskiest states for those headed north. It is a bastion of the Zetas who control parts of the south and northeast Mexico. The Zetas emerged from the former armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, when Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was their leader. They are an armed group who initially was at the service of a cartel which was composed of deserters from the elite Mexican army unit known as the GAFE (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales), many of which were trained by the U.S. military. Now they serve only themselves. After the capture of Cárdenas, the Zetas became mercenaries. With neither the leadership nor the contacts to become a drug cartel, the Zetas had something much more valuable; the knowledge and ability to exact violence efficiently in order to control all other lucrative illicit industries. With their capacity for destruction, they controlled criminal networks in the Gulf Cartel’s territory. They co-opted human smuggling.

To gain control of human smuggling in Mexico, the Zetas started threatening  coyotes, guides, recruiters, and entire communities that lived off of the passage of people. They forced them to become their allies and pay them taxes… to become their employees. Any resistors were killed. Migrants became the spoils of war. Mass kidnappings, like that of the San Fernando massacre, began in earnest at the end of 2008.

“But look,” he tells me, “I already know my way around here like the palm of my hand. I go through ‘Golden Dreams’ and I arrive here. I run, I move quickly, nimbly, and like I tell those who come with me…” Black glances at a trio of young men whose eyes are heavy from marijuana and continues, “If they can keep up, they follow me. If not…”

People walk by and he stops talking. He’s prudent. He knows that here, everyone hears everything. “I’ve got a pound of weed with me, do you understand? I’m just passing through here and I’ll be on my way.”

“I understand you. I’m sure you smoke all that by yourself, right?” The ice breaks and we start talking about la Santa Garifa. Black became a member of the Mara Salvatrucha when he was 13 years old, but not a member who is sympathetic to them or who dreams of being part of a gang, no. He was trained. You can see it when he speaks, and how he acts. He’s got street, insider wisdom (clecha). But he’s not a boss.

When I ask him why he left Honduras, he tells me dryly:

“Look. Here’s how it is. I lived with my jaina (chick). I went into an 18 (gang) territory to sell drugs and mess around with a girl there. I didn’t ask for permission to sell and she was the girl of a member of the 18. You can’t do that. When I go back to Honduras,I put on makeup, a skirt, a wig and that’s how I can go visit my family and my girl. I can’t be there for very long. So I head back up and I bring with me something to sell and be able to endure the route.”

Who knows if this is the whole story? We never finish talking. All I know for sure is that he knows how to get to Monterrey from Honduras, with all its dangers.

“Have you thought about staying here in Mexico?” I ask him. His beady eyes look around. He hasn’t yet started to speak when someone moves next to us.The conversation stops dead. He turns to look at me and says, in a low voice,“We can’t talk here.”

We agree to meet up in a week in “Golden Dreams” at the edge of the highway, where other young men like him gather with their motorbikes.

“So who do I ask for?”

He looks at me. He fixes his gaze.

“They call me Black.”

He turns and leaves. I watch him as he walks away. He has the letter “B”embroidered on that backwards cap.



Train tracks at Salto de Agua, Mexico. Near the border with Guatemala.Photo Credit: Irvin Mondragón

Train tracks at Salto de Agua, Mexico. Near the border with Guatemala.Photo Credit: Irvin Mondragón

One week later I’m standing in Golden Dreams. It is a small town close to the Guatemalan border. According to official statistics, its population is about 300. It is a forgotten little town at the edge of the border. There is nothing in this place except it is part of the trail migrants take.

After waiting for three hours, I think that Black isn’t going to arrive. Then he appears, seated on the back of a motorbike with one of the kids who gather on the edge of the highway. This is where I get to know Black, and where I begin to understand a part of the world where adolescents fleeing the violence in Honduras live.

Since he was 11 years old, Black has seen dead bodies. His neighborhood, one of the poorest, is considered one of the “hottest” in San Pedro Sula. He describes days of “slaughter” that have not ended yet. People are terrified to leave their home because they are surrounded by death.  In a single day, there could be “one dead body on the corner, another in front, just up from the store, on the other street, and so people live in the midst of dead bodies.” At first, Black asked about so many murders, but he quickly learned that it was better not to ask. Cadavers formed part of his daily life. That’s how he started to ignore death and to live with the end of life every day. Later, he became a member of theMS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha). He describes his history casually. For Black, to be a marero is not that different from seeing dead bodies from the sidelines. Becoming a marero is part of the same situation: poverty, inequality, anti-gang operations, death squads, and unstoppable migration of youth. It is simultaneously overwhelming and banal.

By becoming a gang member, subject to torture and disappearance by the police or the military, he became no one to the Honduran state. But if we are frank, Black, who never told me his real name, was never really anyone to the Honduran government. People like him are no one to us. Dismissing him as a gang member allows us and the government to rationalize that he deserves the worst kind of death. It allows us to sleep calmly at night. Let’s not deceive ourselves. Now he is someone, but someone who deserves to die at the hands of whoever, wherever. It doesn’t matter.

Black “had to distance himself” from the gang and was thereby banished him from his country. He had to flee, so he crossed through Guatemala and went north. He started working in Monterrey at odd jobs to earn a few pennies, party, eat, and occasionally return, dressed as a girl for safety, to Honduras for a few days. His life was this route—back and forth to the north and to the south. The doors closed in every country. He could not stay in Honduras; the government there would not protect him. To Mexico, he was a headache. The United States wasn’t even a consideration. So he risked his life and kept moving. He sold a little bit of weed to travel to Monterrey – and once there, he smoked the rest himself. 

He knew people along the whole route, the majority of whom were young guys like him – some Mexican, others Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans. Many of them panhandled along the train tracks or in the streets of the passing towns. Black didn’t like to beg, so he didn’t panhandle. The boy with the beady eyes knew life along the train tracks, starting in Tenosique. He knew how young men like him survived.

We saw each other a few times in this town and talked in the oppressive heat. “Here, there are rules,” he said. He told me that those who more or less control what happens along the rails are those with food stands, or those who rent rooms to Central Americans. There’s Don Pepe, a Honduran of about 40-50years old who has a Cuban accent because he lived for many years in Miami. He always looks out from his stand at those who arrive. Above all, the women.  He sizes up new arrivals and doesn’t let them start fights near his place. Don Pepe’s catch phrase is “Here, we are going to behave ourselves.” He offers rooms for rent and sells Honduran food. He doesn’t hesitate to take out a stick and break it over the head of anyone who bothers his clientele or who causes disturbances. He also doesn’t hesitate to call immigration.

In front of the station, Don Goyo rents dirty rooms and sells fruits, vegetables, beer and probably drugs to nationals and foreigners alike. Who knows who he’s affiliated with, but things have gone well for Don Goyo. He has a son who is an astute scoundrel. His son is Don Goyo’s eyes and ears on the streets. Together, they ensure new arrivals don’t cause any problems, at least not near their business. Black says Don Goyo and Don Pepe know all of the groups that assault, rape, and kill; that’s business in these parts. They let the youth panhandle and walk around there, but they don’t like homeless people from any country and they don’t want trouble.

The boy with the penetrating stare knew many boys in this place. You start to recognize the young guys who are always walking through. One time I asked him how else they made a living, besides panhandling. “You’ll see,” he told me.

Before he disappeared, Black introduced me to Wilson. The first day I met Wilson, he walked up to us and Black immediately began heckling him, shaking with laughter and calling,  “Hey you, and how’s Don Simón? Ha ha.” It was clear that Black was making fun of him. Wilson laughed, but he looked away with shame. Wilson’s right eyelid almost always covered half of his eye. It seemed like he was high but that was just his facial structure.

“Wilson goes to an old jerk’s house who lives along the train tracks,”said Black. “Don Simón likes the young ones like Wilson.”

This Don Simón operates like this: The boys go by panhandling and then Don Simón offers them soda, a bag of chips, and has them do odd jobs – move rocks from one side to another – the most useless things in the world. He gives them money, then he lends them the computer, so they can connect to Facebook. Then he starts to touch them.

“Here in this place. Like this, look!” Black says while he gathers his fingers together, indicating a whole lot. “There’s a ton of jerks like this Don who look for young boys like Wilson. Because Wilson gives it to them in exchange for some snacks and a beer he’ll do anything.”

Black laughs an evil laugh at Wilson, his beady eyes on fire, his cheeks red from laughter.

I met Black around seven times in a month. The last few times that I saw him, he said it was getting harder for him to move north. He was having difficulty passing. Because of all the Mexican groups that control the route –the Zetas, immigration, the police, and the military – the path was increasingly blocked. His way of surviving was coming to an end. His biggest problem had always been getting through Veracruz, and each time it took more work to avoid conflicts in this territory. I told him that he should just stay in Monterrey, but he laughed and said, “No. This is how la vida loca (the crazy life) is.” Words of a gang member.

“Well,” I say, “What the hell are you doing, dude, going up and down? Are you going after the dream of living on the train tracks?”

Black keeps laughing and answers, “What dreams are you talking about?”His look hardens, but he keeps laughing, and now he’s making fun of me.

“Fine,” I say.

I see Black a few more times. In these last encounters, he tells me that traveling through Palenque, Querétaro and other places has started to worry him, and he also accompanies me to get Wilson out of Don Simon’s house.

Black has vast experience dealing with the criminal underworld, but even so the paths he knew started to close to him. He had to find another way to get to Monterrey. But as I said, Black disappeared. He was a 16 year old with the experience of an old man who no longer dreams.

This is la vida corta.



En esta primera serie de dos relatos, el Colectivo Línea 84 se centra en el área fronteriza de México y Guatemala para investigar y difundir, a través del periodismo etnográfico, las complejas historias de los jóvenes centroamericanos que huyen de sus países y se convierten en parte del flujo de migrantes sin documentos y, por lo tanto, en el blanco de la creciente militarización contenida en las políticas de seguridad de norte y Centroamérica.

Específicamente, en el área fronteriza del estado de Tabasco, México y el departamento de El Petén, Guatemala la escasa protección del Estado y los actos de represión del mismo, se tejen en la vida diaria de los jóvenes centroamericanos que huyen hacia el norte. A partir de la investigación realizada en albergues para migrantes en tránsito, las vías del tren y en varios poblados fronterizos, el periodismo etnográfico se instaura como herramienta de difusión y análisis para ir más allá del reporte de eventos y se centra en los significados y el sentido que ciertos eventos cotidianos tienen en los jóvenes migrantes y en la vida comunitaria.

En los siguientes relatos, los autores complican las representaciones comunes de la migración, entrelazando la abrumadora presencia de la muerte, la experiencia del engaño, la sospecha, la desconfianza y la soledad con conversaciones puntuales y música para mostrar la máxima incertidumbre del camino de los migrantes. La vida Corta cuenta la historia del Black, un joven migrante hondureño que viajaba constantemente de su país de origen a Monterrey (en el Norte de México). Periódicamente, el Black cruzaba territorios controlados por el crimen organizado, autoridades corruptas y personas locales desconfiadas hasta que un día desapareció sin dejar rastro. En el relato Aquí todo se vende, Wilson, un solicitante de refugio de 13 años, experimenta el abuso por parte de hombres mayores en el país en el que busca protección; algunos de ellos se presentan como personas caritativas quienes buscan ayudar a jóvenes migrantes necesitados.



Cerca de las tubería para tratar el agua, y donde los migrantes van a bañarse. Rio Usumascinta, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

Cerca de las tubería para tratar el agua, y donde los migrantes van a bañarse. Rio Usumascinta, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

Quedé de verme con el Black, pero no llegó a nuestro punto de encuentro.  Lo volví a buscar a la siguiente semana. Nada. Lo busqué por todos lados. Tenía un mes de haberlo conocido, nos veíamos regularmente y siempre llegaba. Regresé a Sueños de Oro –un pueblucho a la orilla de la carretera del Ceibo, muy cerca de la frontera con Guatemala. Estuve ahí casi cinco horas, esperé y esperé. Los chicos de las motos me volteaban a ver. Sabían que lo buscaba. Creo que al final les di un poco de lástima. El calor era intenso y yo no paraba de sudar. Cada vez que volteaba a verlos, les decía con la mirada que ahí me iba a quedar. Empezaron a secretearse algo y, finalmente, uno de ellos se puso un casco, subió a su moto, arrancó con fuerza y se paró frente a mi. Solo se me quedó viendo.

Busco al Black. “No” Me dijo con la cabeza. ¿Cuándo viene? le pregunté. Volvió a decirme que no con la cabeza. Se quitó el casco, se me quedó viendo fijo y entonces lo vi en sus ojos. Nunca llegó a Monterrey. Me dijo. Arrancó y se fue.

La vida en este camino que recorren los que migran al norte es una gran calle larga. Larga, larga y los devora. Va más allá de las fronteras y parece que no tiene fin. Por aquí caminan los que ya dimos por muertos.

Me fui. Nunca más volví a ver al Black. Seguro está muerto.



Cerca de las vías del tren, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

Cerca de las vías del tren, Tenosique, Tabasco. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

¿Cómo te llamas?

Le pregunté a un chavito con ojos de avispa que estaba escuchando a la Santa Grifa en su teléfono ¡Aaaaa chinga! Pensé. Estamos en la frontera sur de México, este morro es centroamericano y los de la Santa Grifa son de Tamaulipas. Me dio curiosidad. Tamaulipas está muy lejos y es uno de los estados fronterizos del norte de México con más de 4000 muertos por armas de fuego en los últimos 7 años. Ese estado tiene historia en todo este asunto de la migración porque es uno de los puntos de cruce fronterizo más peligrosos para las personas que van a Estados Unidos. La Santa Grifa sabe hablar de toda esa violencia aunque no hable ni de coyotes ni de albergues ni de migrantes.

El chico me respondió con cualquier nombre mientras miraba de un lado a otro, observando a la gente que iba y venía. Tenía puesta una gorra hacia atrás, unos pantalones obscuros y una playera color claro. Me senté a su lado sobre la barda del comedor. Estábamos en uno de estos albergues católicos que reciben a la gente que migra hacia los Estados Unidos y andan en tránsito por México. La mayoría de estos lugares defienden los derechos de las personas migrantes. Son unos híbridos raros de asistencia humanitaria y defensa de derechos humanos con abogados que, hoy en día, pelean casos de refugio. Con estos albergues, la iglesia católica ha ganado prestigio y poder dentro de los movimientos sociales de defensa de derechos humanos. Combina la fe y la ley para entrar al juego.

¿Para dónde vas? le pregunté. A Monterrey. Me dijo en corto. Me le quedé viendo, me sorprendí. Esa ciudad está en el estado fronterizo de Nuevo León y a pocos kilómetros de la frontera con Estados Unidos. Mucha gente pasa por esa ciudad a esperar unos días, a veces semanas, antes de moverse a los puntos fronterizos como Piedras Negras, Reynosa y hasta Nuevo Laredo para dar “el brinco” al gringo; la gente espera a que se “abra” la frontera. Para ser más claros, esperan a que les toque el turno para pasar. Las drogas y las armas generalmente también están en la lista. Pero el morrito no me dijo que iba para Estados Unidos. ¿Y a qué vas allá? le dije. Allá trabajo y luego bajo otra vez a ver a mi jaina y mi familia en Honduras.

Me quedo pensando que desde hace algunos años México se ha convertido en lugar de destino para muchos centroamericanos, algunos se establecen aquí y no porque México sea la tierra de la abundancia sino porque la gente huye a donde sea del caos que gobierna esos países. Y también la gente queda atrapada en el territorio mexicano porque hacemos el cruce a los Estados Unidos cada vez más atroz. Aquí en México las personas migrantes desaparecen, la autoridad las persigue, las golpea o terminan formando parte de los negocios criminales por decisión propia o por la fuerza; también, a autoridad migratoria mexicana detiene a las personas por tiempo indefinido en centros de detención migratorio lo que la hace parte de toda esta represión. Para acabar pronto, la justicia para todas estas personas nunca ha visto la luz. Lo que tenemos aquí son constantes “violaciones a derechos humanos”; es decir, el nombre burocratizado, institucional, formal, estilizado que ahora le damos a la violencia de Estado. El abuso  del uso de la fuerza es lo que el gobierno mexicano –y también los gobiernos centroamericanos– ejercen sin clemencia. Y lo hacemos porque así dictan las políticas de seguridad regional que se imponen los desde los Estados Unidos.

Estados Unidos ha financiado y entrenado grupos especiales policíaco-militares y anti-pandillas en el Triángulo Norte Centroamericano para frenar la migración. Lo que ocurre es que estos grupos terminan persiguiendo a las personas que huyen de la violencia en Centroamérica. Mientras, México –a través de policías, agentes de migración y militares– es el filtro migratorio más grande para los gringos.

Bueno, pues Monterrey es una ciudad próspera del norte de México, y muchos centroamericanos ya han logrado establecerse ahí. Pero para llegar a esa ciudad hay que saber moverse.

Allá trabajas, vas y vienes. Es bastante peligroso andar por estos rumbos subiendo y bajando. Aquí es tierra de nadie. le dije al morrillo. Sí, mucho Zeta por Veracruz, me respondió.

Veracruz, además de Tamaulipas, es uno de los estados en donde hay más riesgos para las personas que van de camino al norte, todavía es bastión de los Zetas, quienes controlan buena parte del territorio del sur y noreste mexicano. Les hablo del famosísimo ex-brazo armado del Cartel del Golfo, cuando Osiel Cárdenas Guillén era su líder. Los Zetas es el primer grupo armado, al servicio de un cártel, compuesto por desertores de los grupos de élite del ejército mexicano: los GAFE (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales). Varios de sus miembros recibieron entrenamiento en Estados Unidos. Los Zetas también son el primer grupo que, después de la captura de Osiel, se convirtieron en la primera y más poderosa organización de mercenarios: es cierto que ya no tenían líder y tampoco los contactos para convertirse en un cartel de la droga, pero finalmente tenían algo mucho más valioso en estos tiempos; tenían en sus manos todo un gran capital: todo el conocimiento y habilidades de ejercer la  violencia de manera eficiente y organizada para controlar todas las actividades ilegales o criminales lucrativas en sus territorios en un país donde la violencia también es ley. Todo esa capacidad de destrucción la utilizaron para controlar las actividades criminales que operaban dentro de los territorios que ya controlaba el cártel del Golfo. Y así incursionaron en el tráfico de personas.

Les cuento un poco. Los Zetas, para controlar el tráfico de personas, empezaron a amenazar a coyotes, guías, enganchadores y a comunidades completas que se beneficiaban del paso de la gente; los obligaron a  aliarse con ellos y pagarles cuotas, tenían que convertirse en sus empleados. A quienes quisieron seguir por la libre, los mataron. Así fue como las personas que migran se convirtieron en un botín y empezaron los secuestros masivos por ahí a finales del 2008. La masacre de San Fernando es un ejemplo de su poder.

Pero mire –me dice el Black– yo ya conozco aquí como la palma de mi mano: paso por Sueños de Oro y llego hasta acá. Yo voy corriendo, voy ligero, y como les digo a esos que viene ahí conmigo. El morro voltea a ver a un trío de chavos que se les caen los ojos de marihuanos y me dice: si aguantan, me siguen sino…

Pasa gente y el morro se calla. Es prudente. Sabe que aquí todo mundo escucha todo. “Aquí ando una libra de marihuana ¿Me entiende? Aquí vengo de paso y me voy”. Te entiendo. Seguro sólo te la fumas ¿vea? Se rompe el hielo. Hablamos de la Santa Grifa. Este morro tiene 16 años y desde los 13 es pandillero de la MS. Pero no de esos que “simpatizan” o “alucinan” con alguna pandilla, no. Este joven tiene escuela, se le nota al hablar, se le nota al actuar. La clecha la lleva. Pero no es un jefe.

Cuando le pregunté por qué había salido de Honduras, me dijo en seco:

Mire. Así está el cuadro. Vivía con mi jaina. Me fui a meter a territorio de la 18 a vender droga y pisar con una de ahí. No pedí permiso para vender y ella era jaina de uno de la 18. Eso no se puede. Cuando bajo a Honduras, me pinto la boca, los ojos, me pongo una falda, una peluca y así voy a ver a mi familia y a mi jaina. No puedo estar allá mucho tiempo. Entonces me subo y llevo algo para vender y aguantar el camino.

Quién sabe si esa era toda la historia. Nunca terminamos de hablar sobre eso. Lo que era cierto es que conocía bien el camino hasta Monterrey desde Honduras. Así como todos sus peligros.

“¿Has pensado en quedarte aquí en México?” le pregunté. Sus ojos de avispa miraban para los lados. No había empezado a hablar cuando una persona se para justo a lado de nosotros. Mata la palabra al sacar el aire. Voltea a verme y me dice en voz baja: aquí no se puede hablar.

Quedamos de vernos en una semana por la mañana en Sueños de Oro, ahí a la orilla de la carretera, donde se juntan otros morros como él con sus motos.

Y por quién pregunto. Le dije.

Me mira, me clava la mirada.

Me dicen El Black.

Se da la vuelta y se va. Lo veo mientras se aleja, tiene bien bordada una “B” en su gorra.



Las vías del tren de Salto de Agua, Mexico, cerca de la frontera con Guatemala. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

Las vías del tren de Salto de Agua, Mexico, cerca de la frontera con Guatemala. Créditos Fotográficos: Irving Mondragón.

Una semana después estoy en Sueños de Oro. Es un pequeño pueblo muy cerca de la frontera con Guatemala. Muy pocos habitantes, unos 300 según los datos oficiales, y muy cerca de la frontera con Guatemala. Es un pueblucho perdido al filo de la frontera. No hay nada en este lugar excepto que los migrantes pasan por aquí.

Pensé que el Black no iba a llegar después de esperar como tres horas. Pero apareció sentado en una moto detrás de uno de los morros que se reúnen en un pedacito de tierra en donde, efectivamente, estacionan sus motos a la orilla de la carretera. Así fue como empecé a conocer al Black y parte del mundo en el que viven los adolescentes que huyen a donde sea de la violencia que hay en Honduras.

Verán, desde que tenía 11 años, el Black vio muertos. Su barrio, uno de los más pobres, es también uno de los más “calientes” en San Pedro Sula. Cuenta que había días en que se desataba la “matazón” y la gente solo quedaba asustada porque sus casas estaban en medio de puro muerto. En un mismo día podía haber “un muerto en la esquina, otro enfrente, arribita de la tienda, en la otra calle y así las casas en medio de puro muerto”. Al principio se preguntaba por qué, pero aprendió rápido que eso mejor no se pregunta cuando uno muere a balazos a plena luz del día. Así empezó a ignorar la muerte y a vivir con el fin de la vida todos los días. Simplemente los cadáveres empezaron a formar parte de lo cotidiano y comenzó a ignorarlos. Después se hizo pandillero de la MS-13. Lo dice con toda naturalidad. Ser pandillero es como ver muertos todos lo días, así como la pobreza, la desigualdad, los operativos anti-pandillas, los escuadrones de la muerte y la migración desenfrenada de jóvenes que solo tienen esta aplastante realidad.

Al ser pandillero se volvió nadie para el estado hondureño y digno de ser torturado y desaparecido por policías y militares. Pero si somos más honestos, el Black, quien nunca me dijo su nombre, siempre fue nadie para el gobierno de Honduras. Siempre fue nadie para nosotros. Volverse pandillero solo permite decir que merece la peor de las muertes. A nosotros nos permite dormir tranquilos. No hay que engañarnos. Nos consuela pensar que debió ser un mártir de la pobreza; un santo sin justicia en vez de ser un pandillero que escupe en nuestra frivolidad. Ahora el Black es alguien, pero alguien que merece morir a manos de quien sea y donde sea, no importa.

Lo que pasa con el Black es que “se tuvo que alejar” de su pandilla y eso lo desterró de su país. Tuvo que huir. Entonces cruzó Guatemala y llegó a México. Subió al norte. Empezó a trabajar en Monterrey de cualquier cosa para ganarse unos centavos, salir de fiesta, comer y volver un par de días a Honduras vestido de mujer para que nadie se lo reconociera. Su vida era este camino hacia el norte y hacia el sur. Tiene las puertas cerradas en todos los países: en Honduras ya no puede quedarse y el estado no lo va a proteger; en México es un dolor de cabeza y en Estados Unidos mejor ni hablamos. Así que siempre se la ha rifado mientras se mueve. Mientras camina va vendiendo un poco de marihuana para llegar a Monterrey –el resto de la mota se la fuma.

Tiene conocidos en todo este camino, la mayoría son jovencitos como él; algunos mexicanos, otros hondureños, guatemaltecos o salvadoreños. Muchos de ellos charolean, o sea van pidiendo dinero en las vías del tren o por las calles de los lugares por los que pasan. Al Black no le gusta pedir, así que no charolea. El muchacho ojos de avispa conocía muy bien como se mueven las aguas en las vías del tren que empiezan en Tenosique; sobre todo cómo viven los jóvenes como él.

Nos vimos varias veces en ese pueblo y platicábamos mientras aguantábamos el pinche calor. “Aquí hay reglas” me decía. Los que más o menos controlan lo que sucede en las vías son los que tienen puestos de comida y cuartuchos que rentan a los centroamericanos. Ahí está Don Pepe, un hondureño de unos 40-50 años con acento cubano porque vivió mucho tiempo en Miami. Ese mira siempre desde su puesto a los caminantes que llegan. Sobre todo a las mujeres. Ofrece cuartos y la comida hondureña que vende. Les mide el agua a los que llegan, no permite que armen escándalos cerca de su lugar y su frase más conocida es “papito, aquí, nos vamoa compoltal”. No duda ni tantito en sacar un palo y quebrarse al que moleste a sus clientes o le arme algún escándalo. Tampoco duda en llamar a migración.

Enfrentito de la estación tenemos a Don Goyo, un mexicano que también renta pocilgas y vende frutas, verduras, cervezas y muy probablemente drogas a nacionales y extranjeros. Quien sabe con quién estará aliado, pero a Don Goyo le ha ido bien. Tiene un hijo que es un malandrín muy astuto y es sus ojos y oídos en la calle. Ellos aquí también controlan que los que lleguen no armen problemas, por lo menos no cerca de sus lugares. Don Goyo y Don Pepe saben y conocen, dice el Black, a todos los grupos que asaltan, violan y matan. Así es el negocio. A los jóvenes los dejan charolear y andar por ahí, pero no les gustan los vagos de ningún lado.

El muchacho de la mirada aguda conocía a muchos morros por estos lugares. Morros que uno empieza a reconocer y siempre andan por aquí. Una vez le pregunté cómo le hacían además de charolear para conseguir varo. Ya va a ver, me dijo.

Antes de que desapareciera, el Black me presentó a Wilson. Un día ese chico se nos acercó y el Black empezó a chingarlo, se botaba de risa, lo veía como cualquier cosa y le decía “¿E vo’ y como está Don Simón? jeje-jeje” Era claro que el Black se burlaba. Wilson se reía, pero volteaba la mirada a otro lado con un poco de vergüenza. El párpado derecho de Wilson casi siempre está a la mitad de su ojo. Parece que está medio drogado todo el tiempo, pero no, así es su cara. “Wilson va donde un viejo culero que vive por las vías del tren” dijo el Black “le gustan los güirros así como Wilson.” El tal Don Simón opera así: los morros pasan charoleando y entonces Don Simón les ofrece fresco, una bolsa de churros, los pone a hacer trabajitos –pasar piedras de un lado a otro– lo más inútil del mundo, y les da dinero, luego les presta la computadora para que se conecten al facebu’ y así empieza a tocarlos. “Aquí en este lugar ¡Así, mire!” me dice el Black mientras amontona todos sus dedos. “¡Montón de culeros como ese Don que buscan güirros así como Wilson! porque Wilson les da ¡e-e! Ese por unos churros y una cerveza hace cualquier cosa.” El Black se ríe con malicia de Wilson, sus ojos de avispa se encienden, sus mejillas se ponen rojas, rojas de la risa.

El Black y yo nos topamos como 7 veces en un mes. Las últimas veces que lo vi, me decía bien serio que le estaba costando trabajo subir al norte. estaba teniendo problemas para pasar; entre las bandas mexicanas que controlan los caminos por los que pasa la gente, los Zetas, la migra, la policía y los militares, al Black se le estaba cerrando el camino y se le estaba acabando la forma de sobrevivir.  Su mayor problema siempre había sido pasar por Veracruz y cada vez le costaba más trabajo evitar conflictos por esos territorios.  Le dije que se quedara en Monterrey, pero se rió y me dijo “No. Así es la vida loca”. Palabra de pandillero.

Bueno, le digo, y tú cabrón ¿qué putas haces de arriba para abajo? ¿andas persiguiendo el sueño de vivir en las vías?

El Black se sigue riendo y me responde “¿De que sueños me habla?”. La mirada se le hizo dura, continua con su risa, ahora se burla de mi. Bien, le digo. Todavía vi al Black varias veces. Me acompañó por Wilson a casa de Don Simón en otras ocasiones. Sus andanzas en Palenque, Querétaro y otros lados lo dejaban cada vez más preocupado. El Black tiene una experiencia inmensa lidiando con todos los malandrines de los alrededores, pero aún así los caminos que conoce se le empezaban a cerrar. Tenía que buscar otra forma de llegar a Monterrey. Pero como ya les dije, el Black desapareció, era un morro con la experiencia de un viejo sin sueños. Sólo tenía 16 años.

Así es la vida corta.

Literacy Tests, Love Letters, and Shifting Borders

By Kate Vieira


Literacy is a culturally dependent set of practices and resources that some have more access to than others—yet somehow, it remains a basis on which to redraw the border.  


Shifting Borders

We often think of borders as incontrovertible facts. If you have an atlas (or an app with an atlas), you can trace with your finger the outline of a seemingly contained country. Here is a river. Here is a desert. Here is a bounded territory that can be measured in kilometers or in miles.

But from the perspective of people who have moved, are moving, or are planning to move, the view is different. The lines keep getting redrawn. Depending on your papers, your phenotype, your last name, your religion, and on the whims and decisions of those in charge, the borders shift. The perimeter of what is a livable space within the U.S. constricts.

In 2017 and the early parts of 2018, the Trump administration has proposed or has just gone ahead and: rescinded DACA, closed the doors to refugees from certain countries, rescinded protective status for many, upped immigration enforcement, and restricted family reunification.

The result is that the shape of previously known territories is shifting underneath our feet. Borders are being rewritten.


A Wall and an English Test

There has been much talk of a wall in order to cement the border with Mexico into steel. Less discussed has been another technology of border policing: the English Test. As part of Senate Bill 1720, the RAISE act, currently in committee, the U.S. would institute a “skills-based points system” for entry, part of which would rely on an English test as a tie breaker.

Particular versions of the U.S. border are enforced by guns, the national guard, and Customs & Border Protection—and also by English literacy. Of the many recent threats to humane immigration policy, an English literacy test as a prerequisite for legal entry may seem benign. 

It is not.


Literacy tests have historically perpetuated white supremacy

 The 1917 Immigration Act expanded the Chinese Exclusion Act, discriminated based on ability, and instituted a literacy test to limit migration from countries deemed racially undesirable. The test itself, involving reading a short passage in any language, did a poor job of actually stemming immigration.

But its ideological effect was still pernicious: It cemented the link between literacy and racial desirability as a basis for immigration policy. One’s whiteness was in part determined based on one’s literacy. And one’s literate ability was in part determined by one’s whiteness. As part of this process, literacy was coded as what scholar Prendergast has called a “white property right.” As a method of racially engineering the U.S. populace, literacy tests laid the groundwork for the race-based immigration quotas of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. To differing degrees, the targeted included: Southern and Eastern Europeans, Africans, and Middle Easterners. Asians were excluded entirely.

Literacy tests are not objective

 Now. You may be thinking, how can literacy be a tool of white supremacist immigration policy? People can either read or they can’t. Right?

Actually no.

Literacy is a much squishier skill than it seems. In fact, many scholars call it a practice rather than a skill. It is a thing you do that is tied up in your context—your culture, your language, your gender, your sexuality, your race, your family, your class, your body, your brain, the materials you are using to read and to write . . .

In my research for my book about literacy and immigration, I interviewed a woman, Cristina, who tried three times to pass the English literacy test associated with naturalization. She had come to the U.S. as a child and left school to help her family make ends meet. A bilingual caretaker for the elderly, she described to me how the U.S. had been her home for over 30 years. But to become a citizen, she had to prove her belonging in English literacy.

She paid for the naturalization test three times ($675 a pop). Three times, she failed.

She was already a permanent resident, so the failure or passing of this test did not mean restricted entry. But the case raises a question relevant to the RAISE act: What exactly is being tested under the name of literacy? For Cristina, it seemed what was being tested was how badly her parents needed the five dollars an hour she likely earned in her work on the factory line instead of going to school.

Popularly, we often believe that literacy measures intelligence. Moral fitness. Inner strength. It does not. Rather, literacy is a culturally dependent set of practices and resources that some have more access to than others. As such, literacy is not a sensible basis on which to redraw the border.

Literacy testing, by the way, can also be biased. Cristina passed her test on the fourth try. She recalled having to write the colors of the flags and the color of her car. In the end, she told me, this tester was nice.  “I don’t know why the others didn’t let you pass,” she said he said.  And just like that, she became “American,” or at least, as she put it, “American by paper.”


The proposed literacy test is not about literacy

English literacy tests make about as much practical sense as a border wall. Remember, literacy in any language is tied up in its social context. To really test someone’s potential to use literacy well in the U.S., test makers would have to account for specific living situations, jobs, and geographies. And they would have to do so in multiple languages, since English is not the U.S. official language, and since in many areas English is not the lingua franca.

To really develop a rocking integration of literacy into immigration reform, the U.S. might dispatch teams of literacy instructors to help potential migrants develop multilingual and multimodal portfolios of writing that they could use stateside for political participation and community engagement. Likewise, literacy instructors from migrants’ communities could teach U.S. host communities about migrants’ cultures of literacy, so that host communities would be prepared to learn from migrants’ many linguistic gifts.

If this scenario seems utopian, it’s because the proposal of an English literacy test isn’t about literacy development at all. If it were, the administration would already be investing in culturally relevant, multilingual literacy education for all of us who call the territory that is currently part of the U.S. home, so that we could better communicate with our neighbors.


Literacy is not a wall

At its heart, literacy and language are about communication. There’s a writer. There’s a reader. There’s a text.


In that dialogic process, there is the potential to make meaning, to open up some space in an increasingly suffocating cartography.

The same bill that unquestioningly proposes the English literacy test as ‘tiebreaker’ also proposes restricting family reunification, the process that replaced the 1924 race-based quota system, and through which a mother or son or spouse can officially invite a family member to the U.S. Such invitations involve writing what in Portuguese is called a carta de chamada, literally a letter that calls, a letter that unites. The family reunification policy has never been perfect. But in writing this kind of bureaucratic love letter, there is the possibility that borders can be revised with the words of the people who know them best—those who have crossed them.


Kate Vieira is professor of English at UW Madison and the author of American by Paper: How Documents Matter in Immigrant Literacy (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and Writing for Love and Money: How Migration Promotes Literacy Learning in Transnational Families (under contract, Oxford University Press). You can learn more about her work here: www.katevieira.com. Doctoral candidate Calley Marotta provided research and editorial assistance for this post.

Migration as Clickbait

by Michele Statz and Lauren Heidbrink

(This piece is copyrighted by the American Anthropological Association and was previously published by Anthropology New)

The demonization of young migrants and their families may be shocking, but these policies and practices are neither new nor surprising.

On October 24, 2017, United States Customs and Border Protection apprehended an unauthorized 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy while an ambulance transported her to a Texas hospital for emergency surgery. After a well-publicized outcry from members of Congressphysicianslawyers and celebrities, she was released on November 23.

Also in October, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), denouncing the ORR director E. Scott Lloyd’s anti-abortion activism and ORR’s unconstitutional refusal to release an undocumented and unaccompanied youth in their custody to obtain an abortion. In response, ORR argued that the 17-year-old woman could request deportation and then seek an abortion. Nearly a month after “Jane Doe” received a state court order allowing her to have an abortion without parental consent, and likewise after a dramatic and polarized legal battle, a federal appeals court in Washington ordered that she be allowed to obtain an abortion “promptly and without delay.”

These two cases are shocking for many people; they elicit and implicate deeply-held views around women’s health, the treatment of people with disabilities, and governmental overreach. That they simultaneously involve youth, and unauthorized migrant youth more specifically, confronts the public with an unfolding and likely unsettling reality—namely, the ongoing contradictions of immigrant “management” in the US.

There is ample, and indeed growing, popular press on the contradictions of immigration detention, much of it depicting young migrants as delinquent and their parents as liable. As scholars of global youth, we are familiar with this material both as clickbait and as evidence of the racialized trends our work more deeply documents. What is less intelligible to us, and increasingly surprising, is that anthropological knowledge—expertise developed through sustained ethnographic engagement—remains peripheral to these accounts. Often, it is silent.

We can and must do better.

Pernicious and enduring

Activity with youth about migration in Sibinal, Guatemala.  Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Activity with youth about migration in Sibinal, Guatemala. Photo credits: Lauren Heidbrink

From the immediate treatment of children and families, these contradictions extend to the administration’s callous repeal of Temporary Protected Status for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, many of whom have lived in the US for over a decade. Meanwhile, Congress’s gutless behavior on matters of border security trades away Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for increased border security and enforcement. These negotiations are more destructive than many realize, including the possibility of Democrats settling for pernicious interior enforcement measures and the ongoing neutralizing of sanctuary cities through incentives to local and state law enforcement. Meanwhile, families continue to be torn apart.

These expedited portrayals and partial reports only bolster narratives of surprise, novelty, and immediacy, as if such structures and effects are new rather than familiar and long-standing.

And anthropology was…?

Anthropologists’ absence from media and political discourse on immigrant detention has critical consequences for the public, for policymakers, and most importantly, for the individuals at the center of our research—youth who are often reduced to the all-too-familiar, xenophobic stereotypes of vulnerable victimsdelinquents or gang members, or carriers of disease.

Take, for example, ethnographic research with unaccompanied migrant youth in the US. As our own work documents, organizations and advocates largely rely upon racialized and often infantilizing tropes as they care for and advocate on behalf of young people (Heidbrink 2014Statz 2018). At the same time, unaccompanied children explicitly challenge conceptualizations of child passivity through their unauthorized and independent presence, and implicitly via their movement through multiple geographic and institutional sites in search of care, education, or employment.

The victimization narrative persists—ignoring young migrants as social actors, decontextualizing the conditions spurring their migration, and criminalizing parents—yet our ethnographic data actively thwart it. Research with Chinese and Guatemalan youth powerfully unsettles popular and policy assessments of caregivers as “unenlightened parents” and communities as “backward cultures.” It refutes legal claims in which migratory debt is framed as “parental abuse.” Here, belonging emerges as practiced and sustained over time and across distances; debt is understood in terms of relationality, binding youth to family and wider communities.

By concurrently and critically focusing on the social agency of young migrants, we challenge these portrayals, revealing a contextualized understanding of how and why young people are on the move. This in turn helps illuminate the unanticipated consequences of policies and advocacy efforts on youth and their families, even as they are deemed “successful.” Anthropologists are uniquely poised to challenge and expand the narrow parameters by which young migrants, their parents, and their cultural contexts are covered in the media (Heidbrink and Statz 2017). Our research is not unique, we work within broadinternational networks of scholars doing critical and timely research on migration, youth, policy and bureaucracy. As anthropologists, we are not surprised by the injustices and contradictions. That we are not surprised—but the public is—indicates a massive professional failure on our part.

Anthropology must matter

At the AAA Annual Meeting in November, incoming AAA President Alex Barker argued that “it is not enough for anthropologists to be social critics…the anthropologist’s responsibility to illuminate requires thinking in dark times.” Yet as evidenced by the many media articles and broadcasts that notably do not reference academic publications, we have failed to illuminate—even when our public audience is most unsettled and in need of information.

To elucidate the remarkably unsurprising nature of immigration policy and management in the US, we must reach broader and more diverse publics. Many of us are doing this in collaboration with our students and in support of undocumented students, and we recognize that these efforts, all of which are motivated by time-intensive, community-engaged fieldwork, are often derailed by expectations of free academic labor for peer review or by delayed publication in professional journals. With full appreciation for the important work of moving key theoretical debates forward in our specialized fields, we must also translate our teaching and research into accessible and timely formats. In other words, what we know and what we do must be presented as compelling, rigorous, and competitive across diverse digital platforms.

It is not just “who” but “how”

While democratizing access to academic knowledge via open access journals is an important step, researchers of im/migration must be even more expansive in how we communicate. Through multimedia formats—blogs, podcasts, photo journals, digital stories—we can reach broader and more diverse publics. Our collaborative work with Youth Circulations, a site dedicated to bringing youth-centered research to global public and academic audiences, reveals this. With over 8,000 unique visitors and growing, it is a powerful reminder of the demand for nuanced, informed, and accessible analysis.

In an era when the relevance of higher education generally and social sciences specifically are under assault, and when im/migrants are perpetually spotlighted—or surveilled—in media, policy, and law enforcement, anthropologists of migration are urgently tasked with demonstrating the relevance and power of our applied knowledge. In other words, what we already know about immigration injustice in the US matters. Through community events, public art exhibits, public lecturespodcasts, and op-eds, anthropology must bring our research to a broader public. We must likewise train students on the importance of and skills to ethically conduct engaged scholarship. In the meantime, as Christopher Mooney recently argued, institutions of higher education must also accord value to public, engaged scholarship by recognizing it in tenure processes and incentivizing it through institutional grants and service credit.

Anthropology has failed to effectively engage in public policy

Applying our knowledge to public policy brings with it complications, contradictions, and ethical dilemmas. For example, migration scholars are routinely asked to draft affidavits as country conditions experts in support of asylum petitions. So doing, we wrestle with how to effectively support individual claims to limited forms of legal relief while not essentializing cultures and countries, which immigration law is wont to do. This is profoundly challenging, but also a powerful opportunity. Just as we do in fieldwork, engaging with these dilemmas in practice often yields productive insights and clarity in our innovation. It likewise introduces, and occasionally demands, the value of collaboratively processing and evaluating our public efforts with colleagues facing similar choices.

There are, of course, more deliberate and sustained opportunities for engaged public work. It is not enough to critique the intended and unintended consequences of public policy; our response must be to harness our experiences and the expertise of the communities with which we work to address or even bypass these consequences. This includes participating in broad national networks and trainingin engaged public policy and even bringing our work and anthropological understandings into direct public service.

Dismantling shock

While the increased public attention to the intricacies of young people’s experiences of migration and detention is important, the shock value accorded to the discrimination of society’s “most vulnerable”—abused, pregnant, disabled, children—is overdue and sadly misplaced.

Public anthropology is increasingly tasked with demonstrating the mundaneness of realities such as this. The glaring conspicuousness by which state actors demonize young migrants and their families may be shocking, but these policies and practices are notably not new and not surprising. Rather than supply data as BuzzFeed fodder, anthropologists must make efforts to dismantle the surprise and novelty of these realities by offering the socio-political context and lived histories that evidence the discrimination that im/migrants in the US have experienced all along.

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.

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.

Cite as: Statz, Michele,  and Lauren Heidbrink. 2018. “Migration as Clickbait.” Anthropology News website, February 6, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.760

Conversations Among First-Generation Latinas on Migration and Social Work

Curated by Celeste Sánchez, MSW

In 2016, 15 social work students from Loyola University Chicago attended a summer immersion course about migration in Mexico City. Many of us—as immigrants or children of immigrants—found ourselves in new territory as we gained insight into our own families’ histories and our communities in the U.S. and Latin America. Yet, this trip—and indeed our graduate education—was largely geared for white students, not for us. In this series, we reflect and grapple with our experiences, perspectives, privileges, fears, challenges, and hopes as first-generation Latinas. We share here some of our conversations, poetry, and reflections as we lean on our mutual discoveries and ongoing conversations during this impactful experience.


Migration and Social Work Education

By María Vidal de Haymes

I am a professor of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago, and I am also an immigrant.  My decision to enter into social work as a profession was deeply influenced by my experience as an immigrant.  

I am from Cuba, and my family migrated to the United States and Venezuela in pieces following the Cuban revolution in 1959.  My two older brothers left the island first. In 1963 my parents, my sister, and I were reunited with them. A small Cuban community formed in Lincoln, Nebraska as some of the children of the orphanage were reunited with their families and some formed families of their own.

My earliest memories are of playing on the floor in a classroom where my parents attended ESL classes. By the time I was in my middle school years I accompanied older members of the Lincoln Cuban community to doctors’ visits, appointments at the welfare and social security offices, banks and so on, to translate and to help them navigate these complex systems. It wasn’t because I was so knowledgeable of these systems at young age; I just spoke English and there were not any bilingual professionals or translation services available in Lincoln at that time. Here, I began my path towards social work. As a child my eyes were opened to the vulnerability of the immigrant adults and families around me, including mine; the barriers they confronted to employment, integration, and needed services. I also quickly began to understand the difference access to the services could make in the life of individuals and families. My role expanded to teaching newcomers that were living with us how to take the bus, apply for jobs, search for an apartment, enroll in ESL classes and basically make their way in a new context.  

By the time I enrolled in college, I knew that I wanted to study social work. After all, it seemed as though my life experiences were already taking me down that path. I feel that my undergraduate and graduate studies in social work prepared me well in many ways but never addressed the concern that first drew me to social work – the situation of migrants. Yet, I found my field placements and employment invariably focused on work with immigrants and refugees. It was my language abilities that once again positioned me to work with immigrants, but again, with no other specific preparation. I do not even recall a single article assigned for any of my classes or a lecture that focused on social work practice with immigrants and refugees.  

In 1992, having completed my doctoral studies, I accepted a faculty position at Loyola University Chicago, teaching social welfare policy, community practice, and diversity courses. It wasn’t until seven years later that I rediscovered my inspiration for entering into social work when I met founder and Director of Jesuit Migrant Services of Mexico, Fr. Vladimiro Valdes, and later attended his migration studies certificate program for parish leaders in communities heavily impacted by out-migration and Central American transit migration. While five of our six team members in attendance were immigrants and all were social workers working with immigrants, we realized how limited our vision was. Our work and understanding of the immigrant experience was largely that of immigrants in destination communities, of social workers engaged in immigrant and refugee resettlement. We were quite blind to the situation of communities of origin impacted by emigration and the associated family separation, or situation of migrants in transit. This experience profoundly marked us and inspired our development of a program of study that would provide the similar experiences and insights to our students that Jesuit Migrant Services had provided us.

Given the limited advances in the integration of migration studies content in social work curriculum, in 2010 Loyola University set out to address this curricular focus on migration in social work by establishing a sub-specialization in Social Work Practice with Immigrants and Refugees. We have partnered with a number of researchers, academics, and activists from U.S., Mexican, and Central American institutions of higher education, and transnational governmental and non-governmental organizations[1] to offer students opportunities for migration-focused study abroad for short and extended periods, including:


Prayer of migrants. Photo credits: Carly Miller.

Prayer of migrants. Photo credits: Carly Miller.

●      A 2-week long migration-focused summer immersion course in Mexico City;  

●      A two-way undergraduate and first and second year MSW summer–block field placements Mexico for Loyola students and in Chicago for our Mexico partner institutions;

●      A border immersion course during Spring break in Nogales, Arizona/Sonora, Mexico; and

●      Credit bearing Spanish language classes for social workers in partnership with the Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM) Chicago’s satellite campus.


Our migration studies program is a work in progress. It is far from perfect, but it offers a sincere and earnest attempt to provide a rich migration focused course of study for our students. We were recently awarded a three-year grant to incorporate inter-professional and transnational practice dimensions to the program. Over the next three years we will be working towards 1) integrating a U.S. and Mexican students from our partner organizations in the course and fieldwork offerings; 2) adding a U.S. based immersion course and field research options; and 3) integrating students from the fields of medicine, anthropology, psychology, and law. The goal is to prepare a transnational cadre of health, law, social work, and human service professionals for practice with immigrants and their families in communities of origin, transit, destination, and return. 

We are confident that we are offering our students a unique opportunity to develop a more complex understanding of migration from multiple vantage points and perspectives, but we recognize the need to continue to adapt and refine the program. Adaptation is need to reflect the ever-changing dynamics of migration, governmental policies, changing country contexts, professional practice trends, as well as varying class composition. A recent challenge, and one that is quite welcome, has been the increase in the number of 1st and 2nd generation Latino students participating in the program. For them the experience of migration is palpable. After all, for many, it is a variant of their family experiences that they witness in our visits to shelters and with nongovernmental organizations. Their family narratives are echoed in the testimonies of the migrant/teachers that we encounter, and that, in turn, becomes abstracted and theorized in the academic lectures. The inclusion of these narratives and experiences as a focus of study in the curriculum is a step forward from my era as a social work student, but we still have a long way to go to create spaces that are both relevant and targeted for 1st and 2nd generation students.


Dr. Vidal de Haymes is a Professor in the School of Social Work and directs the Migration Studies Sub-specialization and coordinates a migration-focused international social service exchange between Loyola University, Universidad Iberoamericana-Mexico City, Jesuit Migrant Services of Mexico, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

 [1] Our primary partners have included: Universidad Iberoamericana-Mexico City,  Catholic Charities of Chicago, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente (Jesuit University of Guadalajara- ITESO), Jesuit Migrant Services of Mexico, the Network of Jesuit Migrant Services of Central and North America (Red de Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes Centroamerica y Norteamerica -SMJ & CA/NA), Kino Border Initiative, and  Escuela Nacional de Trabajo Social de la Universidad Autónoma de México, ENTS-UNAM (The National School of Social Work).


The Unseen

By Cynthia Velasquez

Photo credits: Author.

Photo credits: Author.

A desire

A plan

A lifeline

A must

A journey of hundreds of miles

A journey

A journey full of danger




La Migra


La Bestia







The Unknown






Sore Feet

A journey for a better life

A better life-

For Money

For Jobs

For Safety

For Dignity

A life without documentation

A life in fear

A life away from loved ones,

from the land you love

A life surrounded by foreign language

A life working long hours for low pay

A life being discriminated

A life...




A life deserving dignity

A life seeking better opportunities

A life fleeing violence,




A life deserving to be seen


To be seen more than by status

By birth country

By language

By skin color

A life deserving to be known more than as ILLEGAL



A phrase

A title

A word

A word that does not define a life









Words to describe-



Cynthia Velasquez is a child of two Guatemalan immigrants. She graduated with a Master of Social Work degree in May 2017 and now works with young adults to achieve their passions through care management and therapeutic services.



Lo Que Vi

By Gisel Romero

Solidaridad. Creditos: Autora.

Solidaridad. Creditos: Autora.

Fue muy fuerte ver a tantos centro americanos
Rumbo a los Estados Unidos, en tan peligroso camino
Incluyendo a una madre con su bebé y jóvenes de la edad de mi hermano

Ver a mi gente lejos de su tierra, en busca de otra vida
Una vida que no se da en su propia tierra
Me sentí tan conectada a ellos
Pero también mundos aparte
Por mi privilegio de ser ciudadana del país de las barras y las estrellas
Sin necesidad de ir a buscar una "vida mejor"

Y peor fue ver que entre nosotros mismos, latino americanos
Nos tratamos como extraños, cuando somos hermanos
Con una historia compartida y más de migración

Que impotencia y rabia
Los sistemas de opresión y dominación
Como nos tratan, como trapo viejo
Y como nos ciegan a dividirnos entre nos

Lo que me queda es la esperanza
Que es nutrida de la lucha de mi gente
Y la certeza que como están las cosas, vamos mal
Toca pelear


Gisel Romero is the proud daughter of Honduran immigrants, which has greatly shaped her perspective of the world and instilled in her an inclination for social justice from a very young age. She imagines a much more beautiful, just, and inclusive world where there will be liberation for all peoples; she is committed to making such a beautiful world a reality. Gisel received a Master of Social Work degree and currently works as a counselor with high school girls, many of whom are the daughters of immigrants in a predominantly Latino and immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois.


La Distancia

By Gisel Romero



Es la distancia…

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable como pasan las horas

Sin alcance a la familia

La pérdida de sonrisas

Abuelos, Hermanos, Tíos


Aún Más Doloroso

Madres y Padres


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable lo que hace falta

Y quien hace falta

Las caricias que no se sienten

Los abrazos, los besos, las lágrimas


Aún Más Doloroso

La briza calurosa de la madre patria

Que se convierte en remembranza


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable el sueño lejano

La incertidumbre de lo extraño

El anhelo de los recuerdos

Los cuentos de la infancia


Aún Más Doloroso

Haber perdido un momento especial

Y el miedo de nunca regresar


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable el corazón roto

El confín de una foto

La separación

Solo sosegada por una línea de teléfono


Aún Más Doloroso

Solo oír la voz

De los que me vieron crecer

Sin un encuentro cercano


Es la distancia

Que duele tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable la convicción de la oración

Sin poder dar una bendición

Pero permanecer fuerte

Porque de mi depende mi gente


Aún Más Doloroso

El reto de la producción

Por la meta de un millón

Que nunca veré yo


Es la distancia

Que duela tanto

Por invisible

Y también palpable


Palpable el dolor

De la impotencia de no poder cambiar

La condición de la pobreza

En la tierra donde nací

Aunque trabajo sin fin


Aún Más Doloroso

Querer regresar

Pero no poder


Es la distancia…

Que duele tanto

Por necesaria y detestada

La puta distancia


Gisel Romero is the proud daughter of Honduran immigrants, which has greatly shaped her perspective of the world and instilled in her an inclination for social justice from a very young age. She imagines a much more beautiful, just, and inclusive world where there will be liberation for all peoples; she is committed to making such a beautiful world a reality. Gisel received a Master of Social Work degree and currently works as a counselor with high school girls, many of whom are the daughters of immigrants in a predominantly Latino and immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois.



‘Guilt’ in Spanish

By Jessica Tapia

Collage credits: Author.

Collage credits: Author.

It has been several months since my trip to Mexico City (CDMX) and what I now remember as the two most emotional and overwhelming weeks of my life.

I felt a mix of emotions, including frustration, sadness, and disappointment over the current state of immigration, and I also experienced happiness because I truly enjoyed the time I got to spend exploring such a vibrant city. However, I also felt sick to my stomach because no matter how many nightly group reflections I sat through or how many pages of my journal I filled, I still struggled inside. It was not until I got back home that I finally understood that what I had been carrying around with me was a feeling of guilt. I realized I felt guilty over my level of privilege.

I had tried talking to my parents and colleagues about my CDMX experience, but they did not seem to understand. I felt like maybe I was not explaining myself well enough. Sometimes I would even wonder if my experiences were as impactful as I had made them out to be in my mind.

I picked up a Spanish-English dictionary because I thought that by using the word ‘guilt’ in Spanish that my parents would better understand me. In Spanish, ‘guilt’ translates to remordimiento. The definition of the word says that it is a feeling you experience after having done something bad. I thought, “Something bad?” But I didn’t do anything wrong.” I went on this trip to bridge my own experiences with immigration with learning ways I could help immigrant communities back home in Chicago. After all, this was the community that raised me.

I did not anticipate such significant feelings of guilt. I had not done anything wrong, yet it felt so unjust. I was born in the U.S. I received a quality education. I can work legally. I can get health benefits and I can travel freely. Others cannot.

Sometimes it feels like my struggles do not matter – that I am first generation or that I have served as a cultural broker for my family my entire life. It does not matter that growing up most of my clothes were from the Salvation Army. It does not matter that I put my mother to bed instead of the other way around because most of the time she was so tired from work that she always—and still does—falls asleep before the 8 o’clock telenovela. When comparing my experiences to those of the teenage boys we met at the comedor alongside the infamous train tracks of La Bestia, the struggle does not compare.

The comedor is a soup kitchen we visited in a town not far from the Mexican capital. We arrived in our half-empty, air-conditioned bus equipped with a bathroom, as migrants stood outside the comedor in the shade. I immediately felt embarrassed for our ridiculous display of American privilege. I offered to help in the kitchen thinking that by hiding in the kitchen, I would feel less ashamed.

The migrants at the comedor were mostly teenage boys, the same age as my little brother back home. As I thought about the reasons why these boys had to leave their home countries, the traumas they endured, and their uncertain futures, I began to cry because I thought about how unjust the whole situation was. I tried not to let them see my face and thought to myself: “What are you doing, Jessica? Why are you the one crying? You are not the one living day-to-day and putting your life at risk like these young men are!”

It was a privilege to serve them even one meal. It was uncertain when they would eat again. How many would actually make it to the border? How many would get picked up and sent back? And, how many of these boys would die before they arrived in the U.S.? I wish I could relive that experience with more respect and dignity.

My parents were born in Mexico and grew up in large, poor, and uneducated families. They left their country because they needed better financial opportunities. They wanted to better themselves and provide for their families back home. Now, most of my aunts and uncles are living in the U.S., both lawfully and undocumented. At family gatherings, I listen to their conversations and they all say the same thing: it is better to be here than in Mexico. I grew up in an incredibly diverse neighborhood with neighbors who were also immigrants from countries all over the world. I went to school with their children and I was lucky to learn about their lives.

I still have family in Mexico. I have cousins who cannot find jobs. I have cousins who want to go to college but their parents cannot afford it. I think about them and how they want to better their lives but systems and institutions prevent them from doing so. I compare all that I have to what little they do have and it just is not fair.

My privilege exists and the guilt continues.

Now when I sit with my students in counseling sessions, I remember this. I remember that I need to be stronger and more present to my clients. I cannot let these feelings of guilty and privilege weigh me down. And, I should respond with respect and dignity. I remind myself daily that I must use my privilege to help those who have less.  


Jessica Tapia is a bilingual mental health clinician providing therapy and case management services to clients of all ages and stages in life. She is daughter to Mexican immigrants and honored their sacrifices and dreams by graduating with a Master of Social Work from Loyola University Chicago.


Comedor El Samaritano

Por Celeste Sánchez

(English translation below)

Créditos fotográficos: Autora

Créditos fotográficos: Autora

El comedor “El Samaritano [1]” ubicado en Bojay, Hidalgo, México apoya a migrantes, principalmente centroamericanos, con atención médica, alimentos, un lugar para descansar, y ropa. Durante una tarde nosotras tuvimos la oportunidad de ir a visitar el comedor, las personas que a diario laboran allí, y a los migrantes que buscan apoyo y descanso en esta casa del migrante. La siguiente pequeña reflexión intenta capturar un poco esa experiencia.

Mi gringitud quedaba completamente expuesta. No había manera de explicar ni disfrazar mi privilegio al bajar de ese bus. Nosotras estábamos viajando cómodamente para “apoyar” a migrantes centroamericanos que dejaban sus países a pie, en bus, en tren y encontraban un pequeño refugio en el comedor de Bojay. Creo que nunca había sentido tanta pena como en ese momento. Aunque yo no quisiera, mi realidad era la siguiente: yo era parte de ese grupo de gringas que bajaba del autobús de “rock stars.”  

Justo al bajar del lujoso bus, pasaba el tren en las vías que nos separaba de los jóvenes migrantes que hacían fila y se recostaban contra la pared del comedor. El temblor que dejó el tren tardó en irse. Fue como un gran sacudón que llegó a plantearme en una realidad de la cual yo me debo, pero una realidad que jamás tuve que experimentar personalmente.

Es la experiencia que yo más esperaba; lo que más anhelaba en este viaje. Ya no quería escuchar a más “expertos” de diversos temas que tienen que ver con migración, ni quería creerme “experta” porque había escuchado y anotado algunos datos sobre personas que migran y sus circunstancias. Quería compartir y aprender de los expertos verdaderos.

Después de saludar a los jóvenes migrantes que esperaban hacer una llamada a sus seres queridos y buscaban descansar y alimentarse, las monjas y voluntarias nos dieron un pequeño tour del comedor. Sentía pena y no podía concentrarme completamente en lo que nos contaban y nos compartían sobre los acontecimientos y trámites diarios del comedor. No podía dejar de pensar que le quitábamos tiempo preciado a las voluntarias y le quitábamos el tiempo a los que en verdad merecían esa atención que nos brindaban a nosotras.

Pensaba y sigo pensando en las personas que inician un viaje, sin saber exactamente qué les espera, pero que de igual manera encuentran el coraje para intentarlo. Estas mismas personas, con sus penas, su cansancio, sus esperanzas compartieron con un grupo de extrañas sus nombres, sus viajes, sus vidas en sus países, sus sueños al llegar a EEUU…Nos permitieron compartir alimentos, nos permitieron cargar y arrullar a su bebé, y nos contestaron nuestras curiosidades a pesar de que éramos unas desconocidas.  

Nunca quites la sonrisa más bonita. Créditos fotográficos: Autora.

Nunca quites la sonrisa más bonita. Créditos fotográficos: Autora.

Sentí y sigo sintiendo un gran privilegio al saber que, aunque fue breve, pude servir a estos hombres, mujeres, jóvenes. Me regalaron el honor de poder apoyar en dar acceso a las necesidades básicas que ofrecen las voluntarias de Bojay todos los días para que las personas migrantes descansen y sigan su camino con un poco más de fuerza.

La experiencia de asear inodoros y regaderas para el uso de aquellos que buscan cruzar fronteras para llegar al país en el cual yo nací, y que me hace dar por hecho tantas cosas, es algo que jamás quiero, ni debo olvidar. Que gran honor sentí al asear para ellos. Que orgullo el poder ayudar a preparar para los que inevitablemente utilizarían ese espacio al día siguiente. Un pequeñísimo gesto de solidaridad al hermano luchador que pasa por el mismo camino que les tocó a mis padres.

Mil gracias a todos aquellos que nos permitieron compartir y aprender con ellos.


Celeste N. Sánchez, MSW, es una mujer centroamericana nacida y criada en el sur de California. Tiene varios años de experiencia en el trabajo directo con niños y adolescentes en Guatemala y Honduras. Actualmente es trabajadora social para el Programa de Defensa de Familias Refugiadas en Public Counsel en Los Ángeles, California y asistente de investigación en una investigación sobre la deportación y reintegración de jóvenes en Guatemala.


[1] El comedor está en proceso de expansión para convertirse en albergue.




Food Kitchen: El Samaritano

 By Celeste Sánchez

The following is an English translation with the acknowledgement that it does not fully encompass what was felt, and expressed in the original Spanish language piece.

The soup kitchen “El Samaritano[1]” located in Bojay, Hidalgo, Mexico provides support for migrants, mainly Central Americans, with medical attention, nourishment, a place to rest, and clothing. During an afternoon we had the opportunity to go and visit the soup kitchen, the people that on a daily basis work there, and the migrants that look for rest and support in this home for migrants. The following small reflection tries to capture a part of this experience.

My gringa-ness was completely exposed. There was no way to explain or disguise my privilege as I got off of the bus. We were traveling comfortably to “support” Central American migrants that left their countries on foot, by bus, on a train and found a small refuge in the soup kitchen of Bojay. I think I had never been as embarrassed as in that moment. Even if I did not want to, my reality was the following: I was part of that group of gringas that got off of the “rock star” bus.

Just as we got off of the luxurious bus, the train passed by on the track that separated us from the young migrants that were in line and leaning against the wall of the soup kitchen. The tremor that the train left lasted a while. It was like a violent shake that planted me in a reality to which I owe myself to, but a reality that I never had to endure personally. That was the experience I was waiting for the most; what I was yearning for on this trip. I no longer wanted to listen to more “experts” on various themes that have to do with migration, nor did I want to think I was an “expert” because I had listened and taken some notes on people that migrate and their circumstances. I wanted to share with and learn from the real experts.

After saying hello to the young migrants that were waiting to make a phone call to their loved ones and were seeking some rest and nourishment, the nuns and volunteers gave us a small tour of the soup kitchen. I was embarrassed and I could not fully concentrate on what they were telling us and shared with us about the daily procedures and happenings of the soup kitchen. I could not stop thinking that we were taking away precious time from the volunteers and taking time from those that truly deserved the attention they were giving to us.

I thought and continue to think about the people that begin their trip, without exactly knowing what awaits them but that still find the courage to try. Those same people, with their hardships, their fatigue, their hope shared with a group of strangers their names, their journeys, their lives in their home countries, their dreams when arriving to the USA…They allowed us to share their nourishment, they allowed us to carry and lull their baby, and they answered our curious questions even though we were strangers.

I felt and continue feeling great privilege knowing that, even though it was brief, I was able to serve these men, women, and youth. They gifted me the honor of being able to help in giving Access to the basic needs that the volunteers of Bojay give every day so that migrant people can rest and continue their journey with a little more strength.

Never stop your most beautiful smile. Credits: Author.

Never stop your most beautiful smile. Credits: Author.

The experience of cleaning toilets and showers for the use of those that look to cross borders to arrive in the country where I was born, and makes me take things for granted, is something that I never want to or should forget. I felt a great honor cleaning for them. What great pride to be able to help prepare for those that inevitably will use the space the following day. An extremely small gesture of solidarity to the fighters that go through the same path my parents had to go through.

Many thanks to those that allowed us to share and learn with them.


Celeste N. Sánchez, MSW, is a Central American woman born and raised in southern California. She has several years of experience in direct work with children and adolescents in Guatemala and Honduras. She is currently working as the social worker for the Refugee Family Defense Program at Public Counsel in Los Angeles, California and as a research assistant on an investigation regarding the deportation and reintegration of youth in Guatemala.



[1] The soup kitchen is in the process of becoming a shelter.


A Conversation

by Celeste Sánchez

The following audio recording emerged in response to the written pieces presented in this series and a general desire to share more about our experience as children of immigrants during the trip to Mexico. We invited other Latinos/children of immigrants to analyze our contributions in an effort to further unpack the meaning(s) of our lived experiences. We felt our reflections and poetry might resonate with others who shared our experiences as children of immigrants. Here, we share their questions and our responses. Many thanks to Alejandra Montes, José Ortiz-Rosales, and 2 other friends for taking the time to read our work and providing genuine and thoughtful comments that simultaneously challenged us and provided solace.



Responsibility and Adventure: Tongan Youth and Circular Migration

Mary K. Good, Wake Forest University

Following the politically-driven riots in 2006, where looting and destruction of property was largely blamed on wayward youth, the nation of Tonga began to critically examine the emergent issue of youth unemployment and under-employment. The Tonga National Youth Congress and Tonga’s Ministry of Internal Affairs Division of Training, Employment, Youth, and Sports, along with several transnational non-governmental organizations and foreign government aid organizations, rolled out a variety of programs aimed at developing youth skills and offering pathways to employment. However, with about 60% of the population under the age of 25 (Tonga Census 2011), the numbers of youth seeking employment still outnumber available jobs, particularly on outer islands where fewer wage-earning opportunities exist. Thus, many youth and their families consider immigration to find work. Income from a temporary job overseas can sometimes exceed an entire year’s salary in Tonga. This economic incentive, coupled with a deeply engrained sense of moral responsibility to help one’s family and the prospect of an exciting adventure in the company of friends, leads many youth into circular migration—a pattern of movement that has become emblematic of life in parts of Tonga.


The nation of Tonga is a chain of small yet widely dispersed islands in the Pacific Ocean. Some estimates of Tongan immigrants and people of Tongan heritage living outside of the country exceed the country’s population of roughly 110,000. On the island of ‘Eua, where I conduct fieldwork, people of all ages appear to be in near-constant movement within and beyond the nation’s boundaries. School-age children go to live with relatives on another of the country’s islands to attend school. Students in primary and secondary grades move further afield, traveling for school holidays or, for those with the means, completing a few years of school abroad to improve their English skills or take coursework unavailable at home. Older youth go back and forth between various islands in Tonga to fulfill family obligations or for temporary work. Some young people eventually attend university in Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, China, or Japan. Out-of-school youth leave Tonga occasionally for marriages or medical procedures, but the majority of youth travel overseas from ‘Eua for temporary work.

A small shop in the Tongan capital city of Nuku‘alofa with a “help wanted” sign sitting out front. Jobs like the one advertised here for a “shop boy” are often low-paying, further motivating youth to consider circular migration for employment. Photo credits: Author.

A small shop in the Tongan capital city of Nuku‘alofa with a “help wanted” sign sitting out front. Jobs like the one advertised here for a “shop boy” are often low-paying, further motivating youth to consider circular migration for employment. Photo credits: Author.

Talking to Tongan youth from ‘Eua about their experiences of moving between islands and nation introduces a more nuanced picture of youth circulation in the Pacific. Young people’s stories highlight the unique place youth occupy within Tongan social organization as they balance the relatively carefree dependency of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood.

 The choice to work overseas signals an acknowledgement of the traditional moral obligation to help support one’s extended family. After dropping out of high school and helping around the house for a few years, Maile first went to Australia in her early twenties as part of a group that went through the process of acquiring seasonal work visas, traveling overseas, and then working together in the same region to harvest fruit. As several research participants described to me, a relative overseas working for a farm or factory sponsors a group of family and close friends from their “home” village in Tonga for contract work ranging from six weeks to six months. These arrangements through social networks offer assurances of secure employment both in the present and for the future.

Two youth pose for a selfie while working on a strawberry farm overseas. Photo credits: M. Takai.

Two youth pose for a selfie while working on a strawberry farm overseas. Photo credits: M. Takai.

In conversation with her parents, Maile decided to work overseas. Reflecting her growing responsibility and sense of agency within her family, she recalled, “I was happy to work…I’m not married yet, my parents are still alive, and I can help out our household…there wasn’t anyone in our family who could work, everyone was just staying at home...I’m happy to just go and work, to help my parents.” Maile’s father and siblings sustained their family through subsistence work on their farm and fishing, supplemented by occasional remittances from relatives abroad. Without the commitments and responsibilities of marriage and children, Maile wanted to help her family by providing the monetary resources that have become increasingly necessary to life on ‘Eua.  Her account also reveals how youth participate in the “distributed agency” of the family in Tonga when it comes to migration and other major life events (Small 2011). Youth are able to make intentional, goal-directed decisions to migrate for work, but they do so with the advice of, and for the ultimate benefit of, their entire family network.  

Youth on ‘Eua now represent an ideal category for waged work because of their relative flexibility and freedom from ties of childcare, religious duties, producing traditional exchange materials, or other locally-based obligations. However, working in formal waged employment, particularly that which demands circular migration, removes them from contexts for socialization into more traditional cultural roles and responsibilities. This creates a globally-inflected paradox: youth take on market-sector jobs in order to uphold cultural obligations to help extended family, yet in so doing, their ability to maintain and reproduce traditional cultural values may be compromised.

Tongan youth on a Sunday outing pose in front of the Maori memorial obelisk at One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie) in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo credits: Author.

Tongan youth on a Sunday outing pose in front of the Maori memorial obelisk at One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie) in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo credits: Author.

Beyond satisfying moral responsibilities to family, transnational movement offers Tongan youth new adventures and fun experiences. “We lived with my aunty and her family, all my cousins, in a neighborhood that was all Pacific Islanders…there was a Tongan family next door, a Samoan family on the other side, and a Maori family in back of our house,” Timote tells me, smiling as he recounts his trip to New Zealand. “I worked in a warehouse with a crew of all Tongan guys. We worked all day, and then we would go out at night.” A mischievous gleam comes into his eyes. “We’d go to the bars, meet girls. I met a lot of nice palangi (i.e. white, non-Pacific Islander) girls. It was fun. I also had a Samoan girlfriend. You could meet lots of people, go to bars, not like here [in Tonga].”

Alongside the monotony and physical demands of employment, many young men and women recalled the out-of-the-ordinary enjoyment of meeting new people from all over the world and exchanging ideas with friends from very different cultural backgrounds. Seeing the size and scale of cities overseas, the range of architectural styles of buildings, and new plants made even shuttling to work sites seem exciting. As enthusiastic Facebook users, many ‘Euan youth post photos of their trips to local landmarks on days off or casual scenes of daily life, such as the lines to weigh their containers of harvested fruit, or meals and prayer groups among workmates. Like their friends still at home, Tongan youth working overseas balance between a strong desire to help their families and make their parents proud on the one hand, and curiosity-driven wishes to experience all the intriguing novelty that a new place provides on the other.

According to Lee (2003), Tongan youth who grow up overseas or live there for longer periods of time can confront issues such as racism and poverty. A lack of visibility and resulting lack of access to social services has also emerged as a significant challenge to Tongan and Pacific Islander immigrants in some areas. While the youth with whom I spoke recounted experiences overseas that were not always easy or pleasant, few experienced exploitation in ways that plague other migrant labor.  Traveling in groups with other Tongans and, in some cases, having relatives living abroad with whom to stay, acted as a safety net to mitigate hardships and allowed youth to fulfill their responsibilities to contribute to family resources while experiencing other ways of life.

All names used here are pseudonyms. Reported speech was translated into English from the original Tongan by the author.  


Dr. Mary K. Good is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Wake Forest University. Her research focuses on youth, global modernity, and morality in Tonga, with a special interest in how young people navigate moral frameworks in their use of digital media. Research presented here draws from her current ethnographic project on experiences of school-to-work transitions, unemployment, and entrepreneurship among Tongan youth.  


(B) C(o)nscious

Art and reflections by Bo Thai

from the third world to the first world

my third eye open up to this new world
new order of migrants and cheap labor
freedom or oppression, it’s all a blur


This series of art works derive from my (B) C(o)nscious series. The artworks contain the themes of immigration, capitalism, and self-introspection.  It collectively tells a story of a young boy who immigrated to the U.S. It displays a visual of the boy’s journey growing up, learning, and reflecting.  The series start with a version of the Statue of Liberty and ends with another version of the Statue of liberty.



I created “Statue of What” out of confusion and introspection. I was trying to understand how the U.S. could function as the land of opportunity that draws people toward their ‘American Dream’, but also act as an agent of oppression at the same time. The writing within the drawing says ‘What do you stand for’ which is a question I am asking this country but also asking myself at the same time. Being an immigrant in the U.S., sometimes I feel like I have left my family, culture, and friends behind to aspire higher. And it feels selfish and individualistic to rise above with these sacrifices. Statue of What grounds upon the question of what does this country stand for, what do I stand for, and what do you stand for.



This piece is about being above the norm and the conformed. As a Thai immigrant, I did not fit in the culture when I moved here. I felt the need to change myself and to be like others. This piece is about taking pride in who you are and the influences that made you. In this picture, the head is floating above the city--literally and metaphorically being above the norm and the conformity.


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Following the light is a piece about urbanization. The picture is supposed to be a lantern that attracts insects to fly toward it not knowing that it is a trap, but in this context, it is the city lights that lure people toward it. I’ll leave it as that.


Public Gods is a piece about the 2016 election but also about how we [as in society] view celebrities and politicians and how we give people credibility because of their fame rather than their character.

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This piece is a collaboration between me and Cesar Corral and our journey as undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Cesar Corral was the one who did the red and blue graphic and I was the one who did the drawing in this collaboration. This piece contains different ideologies and quotes that will make you think, but it most fundamentally shows how people from different backgrounds and stories share similar journeys, sorrows, thoughts.

Bo Thai

“Just a traveling man converting his negatives to positives and putting them on paper”

Bo Thai is an artist, activist, and a student. He migrated to the US at the age of 13 in 2009 and has lived in his newfound home since then. In addition to advocating for immigrant rights, Bo writes poetry and creates artwork through the power of the pen. Bo uses his art as a healing process by expressing his emotions, ideology, identity, and stories. He is inspired by surrealism, graffiti, Thai art, and cultural folk art.


On the Honduran Election and its Aftermath/Sobre las elecciones en Honduras y sus Secuelas

(Traducción en español abajo)

By Amelia Frank-Vitale

 After more than two weeks since elections were held, Honduras still does not have an officially recognized president-elect. In this piece, I discuss the election and its aftermath, focusing on the energy of resilience and resistance among Honduran youth and the protest and repression that has erupted since the election. I highlight how the highways and toll booths are important sites of tension and destruction. I am conducting doctoral fieldwork in Honduras, focusing on the experiences of deportees in and around the Sula Valley yet the unexpected election and its aftermath has taken center stage.

“The only thing Juan Orlando offers us is the pozo,” Irvin Daniel [i] tells me. Pozo – literally meaning “well” [ii]  refers to newly constructed supermax-style prisons in Honduras.

A week after Honduras’ currently contested elections, Irvin Daniel explains why people are fervently opposed to the re-election of the current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez (colloquially known as JOH). At 24 years-old, Irvin Daniel describes life as a daily struggle. He lives in Villanueva, on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, where his family built a make-shift home along land that was once a railway. Irvin has been deported from Mexico twice. He is trying to finish high school and is constantly looking for work. His uncle and two cousins were murdered last year, one of them after having an asylum claimed denied and being deported from the United States. As Irvin and others see it, Orlando’s past four years in power have only made life harder for young people living on the margins.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Monday, November 27th. The graffiti reads “Worker, Peasant, and Popular Government.” Photo credits: Author.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Monday, November 27th. The graffiti reads “Worker, Peasant, and Popular Government.” Photo credits: Author.

The Election

At 4pm on November 26th, the Honduran election polls closed. Yet late that night, there were still no results. This was unusual: typically, by 11:00pm the votes are tallied and the winner declared.

With about 50% of the vote reported, Salvador Nasralla, of the primary opposition party known as the Alianza, was ahead by 5 percentage points. Statistically, this seemed to assure an Alianza victory. However, late that same night Orlando declared himself the winner. The body in charge of counting the votes, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), notably is led by Orlando-appointees. The TSE continued to postpone announcing an official count, citing differing and often unusual reasons. At one point, the TSE announced the electoral technology crashed and had to be re-initiated. Then the TSE claimed that many of the votes from areas where the Alianza dominates had irregularities that required additional scrutiny. Improbably, in the following week, the TSE released new preliminary information stating that Orlando was ahead by 1.5% with the final count still pending.

Today, two weeks after Hondurans voted, there is still not an official result.

While the declaration from the TSE is still pending, their judgement appears increasingly irrelevant. The constant stalling and confusion only adds to the popular sentiment that Juan Orlando and his ruling National party are committing fraud to maintain the presidency.

Meanwhile, people have taken to the streets, demanding that the popular vote be respected and that Juan Orlando concede. After two days of massive protests that included torching toll booths, blocking highways, and looting stores, the government has instituted a nation-wide curfew, suspending constitutional protections and forbidding people from leaving their homes between 6:00pm and 6:00am. [iii]

Rio Blanco, San Pedro Sula, Cort  é  s. Friday, December 1.   Photo credits: Author.

Rio Blanco, San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Friday, December 1. Photo credits: Author.

Rio Blanco, San Pedro Sula, Cort  é  s. Friday, December 1.   Photo credits: Author.

Rio Blanco, San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Friday, December 1. Photo credits: Author.

The military and police forces have met protesters with increasing levels of violence. At least 14 people have been killed by security forces since the elections, and 844 people are currently detained. [iv]

La Lima, Cort  é  s. Thursday, November 30th. Military amassing at the San Pedro Sula airport.   Photo credits: Author.

La Lima, Cortés. Thursday, November 30th. Military amassing at the San Pedro Sula airport. Photo credits: Author.

San Pedro Sula, Cort  é  s. Sunday, December 3rd. Military and police stand ready while a peaceful protest is underway. Protestors gave white flowers to the police officers.   Photo credits: Author.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Sunday, December 3rd. Military and police stand ready while a peaceful protest is underway. Protestors gave white flowers to the police officers. Photo credits: Author.

La Lima, Cort  é  s. Friday, December 1st. Military convoy marching toward protestors.   Photo credits: Author.

La Lima, Cortés. Friday, December 1st. Military convoy marching toward protestors. Photo credits: Author.

Irvin Daniel – and other young people like him – are at the forefront of this popular protest. People his age were young when a 2009 coup d’état removed the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya Rosales, from power. Since his ouster, the National Party has ruled the country. Irvin Daniel has experienced eight years of one-party rule for most of his adult life.[v]

San Pedro Sula, Cort  é  s. Sunday, December 3rd. Young people with signs that read (left to right)   “  JOH you are not my president  ”; “JOH you are leaving (with music notes to reference the popular song)”; “wanted for destroying a country”; and “Honduras bleeds because of fraud. Get out JOH.” Photo credits: Author.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Sunday, December 3rd. Young people with signs that read (left to right) JOH you are not my president”; “JOH you are leaving (with music notes to reference the popular song)”; “wanted for destroying a country”; and “Honduras bleeds because of fraud. Get out JOH.” Photo credits: Author.

San Pedro Sula, Cort  é  s. Sunday, December 3rd.    Photo credits: Author.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Sunday, December 3rd.  Photo credits: Author.

San Pedro Sula, Cort  é  s. Sunday December 3rd. Two protestors stand on the pedestal where a monument to the founder of the National Party once stood in San Pedro Sula  ’  s central park.   Photo credits: Author.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Sunday December 3rd. Two protestors stand on the pedestal where a monument to the founder of the National Party once stood in San Pedro Sulas central park. Photo credits: Author.

San Pedro Sula, Cort  é  s. Sunday, December 3rd.   Photo credits: Author.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Sunday, December 3rd. Photo credits: Author.

In the United States, an 8-year presidency is common, yet in Honduras the constitution expressly forbids re-election. The coup against Zelaya Rosales was carried out precisely because he planned to hold a referendum to gauge interest in changing the constitution to allow for re-election. Orlando has not gone that route. Rather, he changed the make-up of the country’s top courts, which decided that prohibiting re-election violates an individual’s rights. This opened the door for Orlando to run for re-election, even though the constitution remains unchanged. Regardless of the legal rulings, the idea that the same person could continue as president does not sit well with much of the Honduran citizenry, which has been under military rule almost as frequently as civilian rule. People regularly liken re-election to dictatorship.


La Lopez

In Sector Lopez Arellano, the most populous neighborhood of Honduras’s third largest city, Choloma, the residents have been organizing in preparation for this moment ever since the 2009 coup. Carlos, one of the organizers in La Lopez, says that they are ready to stand up to whatever repression comes. I asked youth manning the highway blockade from Carlos’s area what they will do if Juan Orlando is declared the winner. They say that it means ‘war.’ A teenager with a t-shirt covering most of his face tells me that they are ready to take up arms if necessary. They will not accept four more years of the same repression, marginalization, and violence. 

Sector Lopez Arellano, Choloma, Cort  é  s. Friday, December 1st. The team under Carlos  ’  s leadership in charge of the highway blockade in their neighborhood.   Photo credits: Author.

Sector Lopez Arellano, Choloma, Cortés. Friday, December 1st. The team under Carloss leadership in charge of the highway blockade in their neighborhood. Photo credits: Author.

The violence in La Lopez is noteworthy. Some sectors of society have lauded Juan Orlando for ushering in significant declines in the country’s homicide rate [vi]—but these gains in security are experienced unevenly. In neighborhoods like La Lopez, murders have remained frequent, while other kinds of violence and insecurity abound. Choloma has actually seen an increase in homicides in the last year. While the military now patrols to enforce the curfew across the country, in neighborhoods like La Lopez the presence of militarized authorities is longstanding. In the poor, urban neighborhoods of Honduras’s cities, the Military Police (a new force inaugurated under Juan Orlando) are a common presence. And the repression they represent – especially for poor, young men – is nothing new.

The night before I visited Carlos and his team, the military dispersed a protest on the highway. To do so, the military fired gas canisters and live rounds at the crowd to clear the street. When protestors retreated to their neighborhood, the authorities followed, shooting at them even as they took cover in their homes. The boys pointed out the marks of bullets; I picked up a spent casing.

Sector Lopez Arellano, Choloma, Cort  é  s. Friday, December 1st. Two members of the team manning the road block. One holds up the spent shell I found on the ground.   Photo credits: Author.

Sector Lopez Arellano, Choloma, Cortés. Friday, December 1st. Two members of the team manning the road block. One holds up the spent shell I found on the ground. Photo credits: Author.

Sector Lopez Arellano, Choloma, Cort  é  s. Friday, December 1st. Evidence of where a bullet struck a chain at the entrance to the neighborhood.   Photo credits: Author.

Sector Lopez Arellano, Choloma, Cortés. Friday, December 1st. Evidence of where a bullet struck a chain at the entrance to the neighborhood. Photo credits: Author.


Flashpoints of Youth Resistance

The same day that the military shot at unarmed teenagers running home in La Lopez, other protestors burnt down the toll booth on the way to Villanueva on the other side of the Sula Valley. Indeed, all of the toll booths across the Valley have been left inoperable by protestors. So far, none of them have resumed function.

Highway from San Pedro Sula to Villanueva, Cort  é  s. Thursday, November 30th. Protest and toll booth burning.   Photo credits: Author.

Highway from San Pedro Sula to Villanueva, Cortés. Thursday, November 30th. Protest and toll booth burning. Photo credits: Author.

Highway from San Pedro Sula, to Choloma, Cort  é  s. Friday, December 1st.  Burnt and abandoned toll booths.   Photo credits: Author.

Highway from San Pedro Sula, to Choloma, Cortés. Friday, December 1st.  Burnt and abandoned toll booths. Photo credits: Author.

This is largely symbolic: toll booths (or peajes in Honduras) are a flashpoint for unrest. They represent a particular kind of extractive business model that the National Party has championed since assuming power after Zelaya Rosales' ouster. In an effort to attract private investment, much of the country’s resources have been concessioned to private, often foreign, companies. Funds from many of the tolls go directly to private companies, not to the state or the populace. In return, the company is supposed to maintain the highway, but that part of the bargain is not always fulfilled. Meanwhile, the tolls are exorbitant for the majority of the people who live on poverty wages. In addition, intractable traffic jams on the 4-lane highways have become commonplace as cars slow down to pass through the toll booths. Burning down the toll plazas, then, is an act of symbolic resistance which reclaims freedom of movement from the state and its privatization policies.

Leading up to the election, nearly everyone I spoke with was supporting the Alianza with only two exceptions—two individuals who were employed by the government. Yet even as people expressed their preference for the Alianza, they also declared with conviction that they expected the National Party to commit fraud to maintain power. In spite of this cynicism, people still turned out to vote in massive numbers – including young people like Irvin Daniel and the boys from La Lopez.

All around the Sula Valley, I often hear random shouts of “Fuera JOH!” (“JOH get out!”). Under curfew, people blare what has now become the de facto anthem “JOH, es para fuera que vas” [vii] from their windows. People spill out of their houses, banging pots and pans to the rhythm of the song and defying the curfew and the National Party government all at once.

San Pedro Sula, Cort  é  s. In this corner store, the bell is broken. Yell   “  GET OUT JOH  ”   and we will serve you!!!!   Photo credits: unknown.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. In this corner store, the bell is broken. Yell GET OUT JOH and we will serve you!!!! Photo credits: unknown.

The question now, though, is what happens when a president is officially declared. If the TSE names Juan Orlando Hernandez as victorious – an act which seems increasingly likely – the protests that began with young people blocking highways and burning down toll booths will likely grow. What that will become – and how the state will respond – remains to be seen.


[i] This and all names used in this essay are pseudonyms.

[ii] Well: as in a deep, dark hole in the ground.

[iii] After four days, the curfew started to be rolled back, little by little, especially after Amnesty International issues a report condemning the suspension of human rights. It was extended to 8pm, then 10pm, then lifted for parts of the country altogether.

[iv] After 4 nights of the curfew, one segment of the police, the Cobra Battalion, went on a one-day strike, stating that they were apolitical and would not be used as tools of repression. This was a remarkable move, but limited in its impact.

[v] University students are also playing an important role in the current protests. A short while ago, they were at the forefront of a movement looking to preserve fair public education at the university level. They went on strike and succeeded in getting the chancellor of the National Autonomous University to step down. They suffered intense repression during their protests which, many people say, prepared them to survive whatever repression might come in this post-elections moment. 

[vi] There is also skepticism as to whether the statistics reported during Orlando’s tenure are wholly accurate. For example, a change to the way that murder statistics are kept – requiring autopsies and a coroner’s report – may significantly undercount murders in a country where only three cities have a coroner’s office and where tradition requires swift burial of bodies.

[vii] The translation is essentially, JOH you’re on your way out.

Amelia Frank-Vitale is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Michigan.


Sobre las elecciones en Honduras y sus Secuelas


Por Amelia Frank-Vitale

(Traducido del original por Amelia Frank-Vitale con la colaboración de Gustavo Campos.)

Después de más que dos semanas de las elecciones, Honduras aún no tiene un presidente electo oficialmente reconocido. En este texto, se habla de las elecciones y sus secuelas, enfocándose en la energía de resiliencia y resistencia de los jóvenes hondureños y las protestas y represiones que han surgido desde las elecciones. Se subraya cómo las carreteras y casetas de cobro son sitios importantes de tensión y destrucción. La autora actualmente está haciendo trabajo de campo para su doctorado en Honduras, enfocada en las experiencias de las personas deportadas en el valle de Sula, pero los resultados inesperados de las elecciones y sus secuelas han tomado, momentáneamente, el centro del escenario.

«La única cosa que nos ofrece Juan Orlando es El Pozo», me dice Irvin Daniel [i]. Por El Pozo se refiere a las nuevas cárceles —estilo «supermax»— que han construido en Honduras.

Una semana después de las elecciones, Irvin Daniel me explica por qué tanta gente está tan en contra de la reelección del presidente actual Juan Orlando Hernández (conocido como JOH). A sus 24 años, Irvin Daniel habla de su vida como una lucha diaria. Vive en Villanueva, en las afueras de San Pedro Sula, donde su familia ha construido una casa sobre tierra que antes se ubicaba en las vías ferroviarias. Irvin ha sido deportado dos veces de México. Está intentando terminar la secundaria y busca trabajo constantemente. En el último año asesinaron a su tío y a dos primos, uno de ellos después de haber pedido asilo en Estados Unidos y haber sido deportado a Honduras. Como lo ve Irvin y mucha otra gente los últimos cuatro años de Orlando sólo han hecho la vida más dura para la gente joven que viven en las zonas marginadas.


San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Lunes, 27 de noviembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Lunes, 27 de noviembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

La Elección

A las cuatro de la tarde del día 26 de noviembre cerraron las mesas de votaciones en Honduras. Sin embargo, por la noche, no había aún resultados. Esto fue doblemente inusual: por una parte, es la primera vez que cierran los centros de votación tan temprano, y por otra, normalmente, ya para las 11 de la noche los votos han sido contados declarándose al ganador.

Con más o menos 50% del voto reportado, Salvador Nasralla, del partido de oposición, conocido como la Alianza de Oposición (integrado por varios partidos políticos) iba ganando por 5 puntos porcentuales. Estadísticamente, parecía asegurarse el gane de la Alianza. Sin embargo, esta misma noche, Juan Orlando se auto declara como ganador. Cabe mencionar que el instituto encargado del conteo de votos, el Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), está conformado por personas —afines— puestas por Orlando. El TSE continúa posponiendo un anuncio final oficial, citando variadas y muchas veces raras razones. En algún momento, el TSE anuncia que la tecnología electoral (el sistema) se cayó y tuvieron que reiniciarla. Después el TSE dijo que muchos de los votos de las zonas donde domina la Alianza tenía irregularidades y se requería un escrutinio aparte. Improbable y dudosamente, en la semana siguiente, el TSE dio nueva información preliminar indicando que ahora Orlando iba ganando por 1.5%, con el conteo final pendiente.

Hoy, dos semanas después de cuando los hondureños votaron, siguen sin tener un resultado oficial.

Mientras la declaración del TSE sigue pendiente, su divulgación y aprobación parece cada vez menos relevante. El hecho de haber estado posponiendo durante tanto tiempo los resultados se ha generado mucha confusión que no ha servido sino para aumentar el sentimiento de indignación popular a razón de que Orlando y el Partido Nacional —partido gobernante— están cometiendo fraude para mantenerse en la presidencia.

Mientras, la gente está manifestándose en las calles exigiendo que el voto popular sea respetado y lo admita y ceda Orlando. Después de dos días de manifestaciones masivas, que incluía la quema de las casetas de cobro de peaje, bloqueo de carreteras y saqueo de tiendas, el gobierno dictó un «toque de queda» a nivel nacional, suspendiendo las garantías constitucionales prohibiendo que la gente salga de sus casas entre las 6 de la tarde y las 6 de la mañana. [ii]

Rio Blanco, San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

Rio Blanco, San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

Rio Blanco, San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

Rio Blanco, San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

Los militares y los policías han contestado a los manifestantes intensificando con mayor violencia la represión. Al menos 14 personas han sido asesinadas por las fuerzas de seguridad desde las elecciones y 844 personas están actualmente detenidas. [iii]

La Lima, Cortés. Jueves, 30 de noviembre. Militares amasando en el aeropuerto de San Pedro Sula. Foto crédito:  autora.

La Lima, Cortés. Jueves, 30 de noviembre. Militares amasando en el aeropuerto de San Pedro Sula. Foto crédito:  autora.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Domingo, 3 de diciembre. Militares y policías listos mientras una manifestación pacifica se realiza. Los manifestantes repartan flores a los policías. Foto crédito: autora.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Domingo, 3 de diciembre. Militares y policías listos mientras una manifestación pacifica se realiza. Los manifestantes repartan flores a los policías. Foto crédito: autora.

La Lima, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. Militares marchando hacía manifestantes.  Foto crédito:  autora.

La Lima, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. Militares marchando hacía manifestantes.  Foto crédito:  autora.

Irvin Daniel —y otros jóvenes como él— están en las primeras líneas de estas protestas. La gente de su edad era muy joven cuando, en 2009, un golpe de Estado removió al presidente Manuel Zelaya Rosales, elegido democráticamente. Desde su desahucio, el Partido Nacional ha estado en poder del país. Irvin Daniel ha experimentado ocho años, la mayoría de su vida de adulto, debajo del mandato de un solo partido. [iv]

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Domingo, 3 de diciembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Domingo, 3 de diciembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Domingo, 3 de diciembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Domingo, 3 de diciembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Domingo, 3 de diciembre. Dos manifestantes se paran en el pedestal donde antes hubo un monumento al fundador del Partido Nacional. Foto crédito:  autora.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Domingo, 3 de diciembre. Dos manifestantes se paran en el pedestal donde antes hubo un monumento al fundador del Partido Nacional. Foto crédito:  autora.

S  an Pedro Sula, Cortés. Domingo, 3 de diciembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Domingo, 3 de diciembre. Foto crédito:  autora.

En los Estados Unidos una presidencia de ocho años es común, pero en Honduras la Constitución prohíbe claramente la reelección. El golpe en contra de Zelaya fue justificado precisamente porque él estaba planeando hacer un referéndum para medir el interés del pueblo en cambiar la constitución para permitir la reelección. Orlando no ha ido por este camino; en su lugar, cambió los jueces de la Corte Suprema de Justicia del país, haciendo injerencia en otro poder del Estado. Como consecuencia, los nuevos jueces decidieron que al prohibir la reelección se violan los derechos humanos de un individuo: así se abrió camino para que Orlando pudiera volver a ser candidato para la presidencia, aunque la constitución en sí sigue sin cambiarse y prohibiendo la relección. Sin importar lo legal, la idea que una sola persona pueda continuar como presidente más de un periodo no le parece bien a una gran parte de la ciudadanía hondureña, quien, históricamente, ha vivido debajo de regímenes militares casi igual de frecuente como regímenes civiles. Con frecuencia se habla de la reelección como dictadura.


La López

En el Sector de la López Arellano, la región más poblada de la tercera ciudad más grande de Honduras, Choloma, los residentes se han estado organizando para este momento desde el golpe de 2009. Carlos, uno de los organizadores de La López, dice que están listos para resistir cualquiera represión que esté por venir. Pregunté a unos jóvenes que estaban cuidando el bloqueo de la carretera en frente de la zona de Carlos, ¿qué es lo que harían si se declara Orlando como ganador? Me respondieron que eso implicaría guerra. Un adolescente con una camiseta cubriendo la mayor parte de su cara me dice que están listos para levantarse en armas de ser necesario. No aceptarán cuatro años más de la misma represión, marginalización y violencia.

Sector López Arellano, Choloma, Cortés. Viernes, 1de diciembre. EL equipo bajo el liderazgo de Carlos que está encargado del bloqueo en su barrio. Foto crédito:  autora.

Sector López Arellano, Choloma, Cortés. Viernes, 1de diciembre. EL equipo bajo el liderazgo de Carlos que está encargado del bloqueo en su barrio. Foto crédito:  autora.

La violencia en La López es notable. Algunas partes de la sociedad han alabado a Orlando por haber iniciado una disminución significante en la tasa de homicidios del país [v], pero estos avances en la seguridad se han experimentado de una manera desigual. En barrios como La López, los homicidios siguen siendo frecuentes, mientras otras formas de violencia e inseguridad acontecen. Choloma ha visto un incremento de homicidios en el año pasado. Mientras los militares patrullan actualmente para reforzar el toque de queda por todo el país, en barrios como La López la presencia de autoridades militarizadas tiene una larga historia. En las zonas urbanas y pobres de las ciudades del país, la Policía Militar (PMOP, una nueva fuerza iniciada por Orlando) es una presencia común. Y la represión que representa —especialmente para hombres jóvenes y pobres— no es nada nuevo.

La noche antes de cuando visité a Carlos y su equipo los militares dispersaron una protesta en la carretera. Para hacerlo, los militares lanzaron gas lacrimógeno y dispararon balas a la gente para vaciar la calle. Cuando los manifestantes regresaron a su barrio, las autoridades los persiguieron, tirando todavía mientras los manifestantes buscaban refugio dentro de sus casas. Los chavos me muestran los huecos que dejaron las balas. Encuentro y recojo el casquillo de una bala.

Sector López Arellano, Choloma, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. Dos miembros del equipo del bloqueo. Uno presenta el casquillo de la bala que se encontró en el suelo. Foto crédito:  autora.

Sector López Arellano, Choloma, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. Dos miembros del equipo del bloqueo. Uno presenta el casquillo de la bala que se encontró en el suelo. Foto crédito:  autora.

Sector López Arellano, Choloma, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. La evidencia de donde una bala pegó una cadena en la entrada del barrio. Foto crédito:  autora.

Sector López Arellano, Choloma, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. La evidencia de donde una bala pegó una cadena en la entrada del barrio. Foto crédito:  autora.

Focos de Resistencia

El mismo día, en La López, cuando militares dispararon a adolescentes no armados que corrían para sus casas, otros manifestantes quemaron la caseta de cobro de peaje camino a Villanueva, en el lado sur del valle de Sula. Vale resaltar que los manifestantes han dejado inoperables todas las casetas de peaje a través del valle. Hasta la fecha ni una ha vuelto a funcionar.  

Carretera de San Pedro Sula a Villanueva, Cortés. Jueves, 30 de noviembre. Manifestación y la caseta de cobro en llamas.  Foto crédito:  autora.

Carretera de San Pedro Sula a Villanueva, Cortés. Jueves, 30 de noviembre. Manifestación y la caseta de cobro en llamas.  Foto crédito:  autora.

Carretera de San Pedro Sula a Choloma, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. Friday, Caseta de cobro quemada e abandonada. Foto crédito:  autora.

Carretera de San Pedro Sula a Choloma, Cortés. Viernes, 1 de diciembre. Friday, Caseta de cobro quemada e abandonada. Foto crédito:  autora.

Esto tiene su componente simbólico: las casetas de cobro (peajes en Honduras) son un foco para el desasosiego. Representan un modelo particular de negocio extractivo que se ha apoyado por el Partido Nacional desde que llegaron al poder después del desahucio de Zelaya. En un intento para atraer inversión privada, una gran parte de los recursos del país ha sido concesionada a compañías privadas —muchas veces extranjeras—. Los fondos de varias de las casetas de cobro van directamente a compañías privadas, ni al estado ni al pueblo. A cambio, se supone que la compañía debe preservar en buenas condiciones la carretera, pero esta parte del trato no siempre se cumple. Además, el cobro es exagerado para la mayoría de la población que vive en pobreza. También, el tráfico se amontona de una manera insoportable mientras por los cuatro carriles se baja la velocidad para que los vehículos pasen por las casetas. La quema de las casetas, entonces, es un acto de resistencia simbólica cuyo reclamo es al estado y a sus políticas de privatización exigiendo la libertad de circulación. 

En las semanas antes de las elecciones, casi todas las personas con quien hablaba apoyaban a la Alianza, con solo dos excepciones: dos individuos empleados por el gobierno. Pero mientras la gente manifestaba su preferencia para la Alianza, estos declaraban, a su vez, su convicción de que el Partido Nacional iba a cometer fraude para mantenerse en el poder. A pesar de este cinismo manifiesto, la población salió a votar en números muy altos, incluyendo gente joven como Irvin Daniel y los muchachos de La López.

Moviéndome por el valle de Sula, se escuchan con frecuencia gritos de «¡Fuera JOH!». Bajo «toque de queda», por sus ventanas, la gente pone en alto volumen la canción que se ha convertido en un himno: “JOH, es para fuera que vas.” A modo de protesta, las personas salen de sus casas pegando a sartenes y ollas al ritmo de la canción, desafiando el «toque de queda» y a la vez al gobierno del Partido Nacional.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Foto crédito:  desconocido.

San Pedro Sula, Cortés. Foto crédito:  desconocido.

La pregunta ahora es qué es lo que va a pasar cuando se declare de manera oficial al nuevo presidente. Si el TSE nombra a Juan Orlando Hernández como el ganador —lo que parece cada vez más probable— las manifestaciones que empezaron con jóvenes bloqueando carreteras y quemando las casetas de cobro probablemente crecerán. En qué se convertirá y qué sucederá, y cómo responderá el estado, queda aún sin saberse.


[i] Este nombre y todos los nombres usados en este ensayo son pseudónimos.

[ii] Después de cuatro días, el horario del «toque de queda» fue reduciéndose, poco a poco, especialmente después de un reporte de Amnistía Internacional que condenó la suspensión de los derechos humanos. Si antes el horario comprendía 12 horas, de 6 de la tarde a 6 de la mañana, este pasó a las 8 de la noche, luego a las 10 de la noche, siendo, finalmente, suspendido completamente.  

[iii] Después de cuatro noches del «toque de queda», un batallón de los policías, los Cobras (Fuerzas especiales de la Policía Nacional) iniciaron una huelga de un día, adjudicándose su papel apolítico y que no querían ser usados como herramientas de represión por medio del gobierno. Fue una cosa fuerte e inesperada, pero limitada en su impacto.

[iv] También los jóvenes universitarios están jugando un papel importante en las manifestaciones actuales. Hace poco ellos encabezaron un movimiento fuerte que buscaba justicia en la educación universitaria pública, haciendo huelgas y logrando ver la destitución de la rectora de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras. Ellos sufrieron alta represión en su lucha, la cual, dicen varios, los ha preparado bien para aguantar cualquiera represión que viene en estos momentos pos-electorales.

[v] Hay cierta duda si las estadísticas que se reportan durante el tiempo de Orlando son completamente precisas. Por ejemplo, un cambio en la manera por la cual se mantiene las cifras de homicidios —requiriendo una autopsia y un reporte de Dirección General de Medicina Forense— podrían sub-contar (omitir) homicidios en un país donde solo hay tres ciudades que cuentan con una oficina Forense y donde la tradición requiere un entierro de los restos de los cuerpos con la mayor prontitud. 


Amelia Frank-Vitale es un estudiante de posgrado haciendo su doctorado en antropología social en la Universidad de Michigan. Agradece a Gustavo Campos, poeta y escritor hondureño, por su colaboración en redactar la versión de este texto en español.

Preparing for Return: Knowing Your Rights on Both Sides of the Border

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, Melissa Hernández, Ewa Bednarczyk

Loyola University Chicago

In the summer and fall of 2017, we spent time in Zapotlanejo, Jalisco and Mexico City to learn more about how Mexican citizens who are deported from the United States understand and navigate resettlement in Mexico. In 2015, the U.S. deported some 330,00 people, including 242,000 Mexican citizens. While many Mexican deportees stay near the US-Mexico border region to remain close to children and other US-based family members, thousands of others return to their hometowns in Mexico’s interior to rebuild their lives there. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, planes carrying these deportees take off from Mexico’s northern border region and, hours later, land at the Mexico City airport.

Mexican youth express their feelings about migration in this mural at a Zapotlanej skate part. Photo Credit: Melissa Hernández

Mexican youth express their feelings about migration in this mural at a Zapotlanej skate part. Photo Credit: Melissa Hernández

There, two community organizations wait in the terminal to receive them. One, Deportados Unidos en la Lucha (Deportees United in Struggle) is composed of US deportees; the other, Yaotlyaocihuatl Ameyal (a Nahuatl phrase roughly meaning Well of Warriors), is composed of various professionals including lawyers, social workers, and psychologists. Both groups work to provide socioemotional support and help newly arriving deportees orient themselves, locate family members, and find living and working arrangements. They also help new arrivals apply for Mexican identity documents that they will need to apply for jobs, open accounts, and access services in Mexico.

Applying for identity documents in Mexico can be challenging for people who have lived in the United States for many years or even decades, and who no longer possess valid Mexican documents such as passports, driver licenses, or voter ID cards. Many deportees also lack fluency in Spanish and familiarity with Mexican bureaucracies, and many do not have a local address, which is required information on application forms. Thus, much of the initial intake work of Deportees United and Ameyal involves helping deportees get registered with the Mexican government and accrue the documentation they will need to attain resources such as jobs, housing, health care, and government assistance.

US-born children who accompany deported parents to Mexico face even more specific bureaucratic and social barriers to integration into Mexican society. For example, US-citizen children with Mexican citizen parents are eligible for dual citizenship, but they must have long-form U.S. birth certificates that have been “apostilladas,” or have an apostille affixed within the past year. However, apostilles are only affixed by specified authorities in the U.S. state where the birth certificate was issued—usually in the Secretary of State’s office. The requirement of an apostille poses a significant barrier for parents who attempt to apply for Mexican citizenship for their U.S.-born children. These children may be without Mexican identify documents for long periods of time, during which they may be unable to enroll in school and be ineligible for social services such as health insurance (Medina and Menjivar 2015), compounding the already overwhelming stresses of deportation on children. Without Mexican citizenship, US-born citizen children in Mexico are left “without an identity,” in the words of one parent, or “illegal in Mexico,” in the words of another.

Organizers in Mexico not only help deportees navigate Mexican bureaucracies, but they also work to pressure the Mexican government to broaden access to services for deportees and their children, including a campaign to eliminate the requirement for an apostille on US birth certificates. Meanwhile, organizers in the United States help migrants develop strategies to defend against, but also prepare for the possibility of, deportation. And just as deportation is a cross-border phenomenon, so too is advocacy. To help support and bridge organizing efforts on both sides of the border, we traveled from Chicago to Jalisco, Mexico in May of 2017, and to Mexico City in October and November of 2017 to work with community organizers and gather information about challenges to return for Mexican citizens. We also work with advocates in the Chicago area who organize around immigrant rights.

Residents of Zapotlanejo, Jalisco participate in the Derecho a la Identidad campaign. Photo Credit: Ewa Bednarczyk

Residents of Zapotlanejo, Jalisco participate in the Derecho a la Identidad campaign. Photo Credit: Ewa Bednarczyk

We gathered information to expand upon Know-Your-Rights education in the United States to include information about return. Know-Your-Rights workshops for immigrant communities typically help people develop strategies to avoid apprehension by immigration authorities and prepare them for the possibility of detention and deportation. By extending Know-Your-Rights materials to include information about return for Mexican citizens, we hoped to provide information about preparations people could make to facilitate return, such as getting apostilles for US birth certificates, as well as about resources available to returnees upon arrival in Mexico.

The resulting materials can be found here. These are working documents, meant to be adjusted, improved, and edited as needed; they belong to no one, or to everyone. And while we hope that these materials provide information that people will find useful, we also want to point out their shortcomings. First, they are very general and not well suited to address specific situations or questions about return; they do not constitute legal advice and should not be substituted for careful counsel with a qualified attorney or legal representative. They will also need to be updated as deportation and reintegration practices change.

Second, they risk painting an overly optimistic portrait of Mexican government programs, whose services can be notoriously difficult for returnees to access. We provide information about these programs in the hopes that Mexican citizens and organizers can use it to demand services, even as we know that many will ultimately be frustrated.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, this work feels defeatist insofar as it is focused on facilitating return instead of fighting deportation. We hope these materials can be used to complement, support, and extend anti-deportation activism, as well as advocacy with and on behalf of deportees in countries of return.


About the authors:

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Latin American and Latinx Studies Program at Loyola University Chicago. Her most recent book, Becoming Legal: Immigration Law and Mixed Status Families, follows families as they navigate the US immigration system in an attempt to stay together lawfully.

Melissa Hernández is an undergraduate Environmental Sciences major and Social Justice Fellow at Loyola University Chicago.

Ewa Bednarczyk is a graduate student in the School of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago specializing in Mental Health and Migration Studies. She is interested in how experiences of migration, resettlement, and deportation can impact mental wellbeing and works with individuals experiencing trauma, PTSD, and anxiety.

You can help! Support the work of Deportados Unidos here: https://fundly.com/support-deportee-owned-business-1


Love and Fear among Rural Uyghur Youth during the “People’s War”

By Darren Byler and Eleanor Moseman

This is the second of a two-part series by Darren Byler, who with photographers Nicola Zolin and Eleanor Moseman, powerfully document how the bodies of migrants are marked, just as their communities are erased, in the often unconsidered spaces of China's "People's War on Terror." 

Since the beginning of the “People’s War on Terror” in May 2014, the everyday life of Uyghurs has been transformed by the presence of intense security measures, regular home invasions, and the mass detention of thousands of young Uyghurs suspected of so-called religious extremism. Although many young Uyghurs are simply interested in practicing a form of pious religiosity, or what in other contexts might be referred to as a Hanafi form of Sunni Islam, the state has determined that this is a threat to the sovereignty of the Chinese nation. In order to exert its authority, the state has required that Uyghur Muslims practice their faith only as permitted by social workers and police monitors. As education policies and religious regulations demonstrate, the state would prefer that Uyghurs embrace Han cultural values and forget about their centuries-old practice of Islamic piety altogether.

In order to enforce this human re-engineering project, the Uyghur homeland has been turned into a police state. Most Uyghur rural-to-urban migrants have been forced to return to their home villages, and the state has instituted strict security regulations across the Uyghur homeland in Chinese Central Asia (Ch: Xinjiang). In their hometowns, public life has been filled with imagery reminding rural Uyghurs that their way of life is being transformed. The streets are filled with Chinese flags that each home and business owner is asked to raise to demonstrate their loyalty to the Chinese state and their hatred of “bad” forms of Islam and political ideology. Checkpoints stand at the entrance of every county border, the entrance of every town, every market, every housing development. Those without the proper legal documentation are not permitted to cross these checkpoints. This means that Uyghurs who live in one part of town are sometimes not permitted to travel to the other side of town to visit relatives or buy groceries. Han settlers and tourists, on the other hand, are permitted to move through checkpoints without any restrictions.

Below, a series of recent images taken in late-summer 2017 by the photojournalist Eleanor Moseman demonstrate the effects of the security state on family life in rural areas of the Uyghur homeland. This series represents the way love and fear are woven through the everyday lives of two young people, who we call Gulnar and Memetjan, and the community that surrounds them. Many Uyghur farming families, from Turpan to Khotan, have lost a husband, son, or father to the Chinese prison system. Thus, the responsibilities of providing for families now primarily falls on women (and the men who have managed to not yet be noticed). Young people who have not yet been taken by the state mourn those who have been detained or disappeared, and they fear that they will lose still more of their loved ones.  The effects of the police state reach deep into the most intimate parts of their lives. The ongoing “war” on their way of life makes coping with the stress of trauma an unending struggle.

The great leaders of the People's Republic of China (from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping) look over all those that walk through a local bazaar in Southern Xinjiang.

The great leaders of the People's Republic of China (from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping) look over all those that walk through a local bazaar in Southern Xinjiang.

In every town in Southern Xinjiang, the red flag of China, bright red banners, and posters of Communist Party Leaders have come to dominate the aesthetic of the Uyghur public sphere. To enter a small-town bazaar, a Uyghur must show his or her state-issued ID and have all bags x-rayed by armed police dressed in riot gear. The new police presence is now a part of every facet of public life.

A woman who owns a woman's clothing shop in a rural bazaar sits listens to the messages of a WeChat group.

A woman who owns a woman's clothing shop in a rural bazaar sits listens to the messages of a WeChat group.

At the same time that this hard infrastructure of control and surveillance is being put in place, Uyghur interpersonal communication is also increasingly being filtered through the smartphone application WeChat, which provides authorities with records of what Uyghurs say to each other and post in private chat conversations. Thousands of young Uyghurs have been arrested for things they have said or written on the Internet or because they are not actively using their phones to communicate with other Uyghurs. Many of them are accused of being “two-faced” (Ch: liang mianzi) people who perform their patriotic duty during political struggle sessions, but then privately complain about government policies with their friends. Since March of 2017, thousands of young Uyghurs between the age of 15-55 have been detained and placed in reeducation camps. Many of these young Uyghurs, particularly young men, are subsequently given 5 to 10 year prison sentences for “subverting the public order” or being “two faced.” They are told that because they are suspected of listening to unapproved Islamic teachings on pious practice or advocating that Muslims should pray five times per day, they are “extremists” and must be reformed through hard labor.

A Uyghur child sells sunflower seeds on the back streets of Ürümchi. Behind her propaganda posters from the Ürümchi Ministry of Culture describe the ideals of the political regime: civilization, harmony, prosperity, justice, rule of law, freedom, honesty, friendship, patriotism.

A Uyghur child sells sunflower seeds on the back streets of Ürümchi. Behind her propaganda posters from the Ürümchi Ministry of Culture describe the ideals of the political regime: civilization, harmony, prosperity, justice, rule of law, freedom, honesty, friendship, patriotism.

During our fieldwork and visits between 2014 and 2017, many Uyghurs told us that they worry that the growing number of abandoned or neglected children will have a devastating effect on Uyghur society. After one of the parents of a child are taken by the police, government workers often come to the family and take the children of the family. This removal of children from the home is referred to as a “Rectification of Islam” policy that is justified by the existence of “extremist” ideology in the home. The child is thus separated from his or her family and raised as a ward of the state. In other cases, after a father is taken, children are immediately sent to live with relatives in order to keep them “safe” from the state. Often, conditions of poverty force the children to work in the cash economy in order to earn their keep as an extra mouth. Reports indicate that the state orphanage system is overrun with children who have been taken from their parents. Many Uyghurs talk about how these children are being housed like animals.  The deepest fear of many of the Uyghur men and women we spoke with was that their children will be taken or left behind in the streets without family.

On June 24, 2017, the day Ramadan ended, locals lined up to enter a local theme park in order to celebrate Eid in a small town in Southern Xinjiang.

On June 24, 2017, the day Ramadan ended, locals lined up to enter a local theme park in order to celebrate Eid in a small town in Southern Xinjiang.


Time has slowed during the “People’s War.” In order to move across town or enter a local institution, ranging from gas stations to hospitals, Uyghurs must wait. On busy days, these security checks can add an hour to one’s commute or excursion to the park. Crossing a checkpoint requires that one’s ID be scanned, all bags be inspected, and that the person walk through an X-ray machine. Any sign of abnormality results in additional checks of the person’s phone, interrogations, and possible detention. These checkpoints remind people native to the region that they are always under suspicion of “extremist” beliefs and “terrorist” ideas. Often signs and slogans remind them that all of this is for their protection and well-being.

The mother of small countryside family walks among the fields where the family collects hay for their small farm of cattle and sheep.

The mother of small countryside family walks among the fields where the family collects hay for their small farm of cattle and sheep.

The effects of the “People’s War” has been strongly felt in family life. In many small towns in the Uyghur homeland, one out of every two families is now missing a family member, most of whom are young men. Many of the young men that remain are students or police officers, though increasingly even these affiliations do not provide enough protection.

A seamstress uses the available space under a stairwell at a local bazaar. The client can wait to have the alterations or write down their phone number among those of other clients so she can call when it is complete. 

A seamstress uses the available space under a stairwell at a local bazaar. The client can wait to have the alterations or write down their phone number among those of other clients so she can call when it is complete. 

Some women have been able to escape the poverty of subsistence farming by supplementing their income with skilled labor in the cash economy. Over the duration of “the War,” incomes of Uyghurs have dropped as restrictions of work and travel have intensified and people are detained. At the same time, the need to participate in dance festivals and political celebrations have increased, giving life to some industries while stifling others.

Gulnar (back to viewer) talks with older women working on her family's farm, as they stack hay that is used for their small cattle and sheep farm.

Gulnar (back to viewer) talks with older women working on her family's farm, as they stack hay that is used for their small cattle and sheep farm.

Like many young Uyghurs, Gulnar comes from a family of three siblings. In the past, rural ethnic minorities were permitted to have more than one child, so most Uyghur families had three. This policy has recently been changed to restrict Uyghur family size to two permitted children while Han families are now also permitted to have two children. Most Uyghur families in the countryside can only afford to allow one sibling to finish high school and go to college. Other siblings must remain at home, working to provide for the immediate family. Now with so many men gone, those who have not yet been taken behind “the black gate” (qara derwaza) have been forced to work even harder to simply get by, leaving school aspirations behind.

Gulnar begins to braid her friend’s hair to soothe her crying during a very quiet private conversation in an unfinished room of the family’s house.

Gulnar begins to braid her friend’s hair to soothe her crying during a very quiet private conversation in an unfinished room of the family’s house.

These days, as families live with the anxiety of that accompanies the detention of their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers, there are many tear-filled conversations among women. Often they find solidarity in working together and sharing each other’s pain.

Gulnar sleeps under the blanket that was made for her by a local boy who has been detained for over 6 months because of questionable material on his cellphone.

Gulnar sleeps under the blanket that was made for her by a local boy who has been detained for over 6 months because of questionable material on his cellphone.

Even though the women who remain free try to comfort each other, they know there is nothing they can do for their loved ones who have been taken. Life goes on, even though people feel as though they are living in a state of emergency. In Gulnar’s case, this means she has to cope with the absence of her boyfriend. Gulnar’s mother has attempted to convince her not to love this young man, not because of his supposed “extremism,” but because he comes from a family that is even poorer than theirs. But the young man was Gulnar’s best friend. She feels that she can stay close to him by holding on to the blanket he made just for her. 

A four-year old Uyghur kisses the image of her father from a DVD of family photographs taken during the previous decade.

A four-year old Uyghur kisses the image of her father from a DVD of family photographs taken during the previous decade.

This young child, a relative of Gulnar’s, has not seen her father for nearly 6 months. He was detained for worshipping at a local mosque. The family has no idea when, or if ever, he will be released. In many cases, the families of the detained or disappeared are not able to visit or contact their loved ones. Often, asking too much about the case can result in additional detentions, since questioning the authorities is seen as a sign of a lack of patriotism and a lack of submission.  

A young Uyghur girl plays a game on her parent’s phone to pass the time in the countryside of Xinjiang. 

A young Uyghur girl plays a game on her parent’s phone to pass the time in the countryside of Xinjiang. 

Many Uyghur children are growing up with the absence of one or more parents or close relatives. If they are able to stay with their families, they are considered “lucky.” All students in the Uyghur homeland now attend schools that are taught in Mandarin. They are regularly asked to report on the activities of their parents by their school teachers. Many parents worry that the next generation of Uyghurs will not be able to speak Uyghur or appreciate Uyghur cultural and religious values. At the same time, the violence these children have experienced has made them deeply aware of the power of the state. Many of them, like their parents, are quite fearful.

Memetjan (a pseudonym) writes in his friends’ names on his wedding invitation. There will be two celebrations hosted by his family: His parents choose the guests for the more formal family celebration, and he chooses the guests for the more informal celebration of dinner, dancing, and singing. 

Memetjan (a pseudonym) writes in his friends’ names on his wedding invitation. There will be two celebrations hosted by his family: His parents choose the guests for the more formal family celebration, and he chooses the guests for the more informal celebration of dinner, dancing, and singing. 

Many young Uyghurs prefer to delay marriage and go to the city as students or as migrant workers. But given the restrictions on travel and the need for more young men to work on farms, many potential students and migrants are forced to redirect their life paths. In Memetjan’s case (pictured above), his parents insisted that he work on the family farm and marry a young woman from their local village. He was forced to break up with his long-term girlfriend, who moved away to pursue opportunities beyond the life of a farmer.

A mother and daughter dance together at Memetjan’s wedding celebration. Generally, men and women do not dance a waltz style dance unless they are related to each other, but now there is also simply an absence of men at many of these events.

A mother and daughter dance together at Memetjan’s wedding celebration. Generally, men and women do not dance a waltz style dance unless they are related to each other, but now there is also simply an absence of men at many of these events.

During the “People’s War,” the state began to monitor Uyghur weddings to make sure they were not too Islamic. Memetjan’s wedding was thus a lavish affair rather than a “simple” ceremony endorsed by more pious Islamic believers. Music and dancing is required by officials who attend and monitor weddings for any signs of “extremist” religiosity. Often, musicians are required to attend multiple weddings each weekend during the summer wedding season to make sure that each wedding meets the standard of the “People’s War.” As young people start their families, the stress of caring for loved ones and providing for one’s family is amplified. Young men like Memetjan must be very careful not to present themselves as suspicious in any way during the regular inspections of their new home by local security forces. They must always participate in the mandatory political education meetings and patriotic dance parties that are held by the local officials. Failure to do so means the loss of all that the two families have sacrificed to bring a young couple together.

In a newly finished house the family built for this occasion, Memetjan shares a bowl of noodles and mutton with his new wife the morning after the final wedding celebration in the countryside of Xinjiang.

In a newly finished house the family built for this occasion, Memetjan shares a bowl of noodles and mutton with his new wife the morning after the final wedding celebration in the countryside of Xinjiang.

Marriages between young Uyghurs in their early twenties are arranged by the two families. Once the terms have been reached between the two families, young couples are permitted to spend several weeks getting to know each other. Marriage is seen as gradual process of building alliances between families. If the marriage is successful, the two families will help each other through economic adversity and political trouble.

After days of celebrations, a Memetjan’s bride is presented with gold jewelry in her husband's home.

After days of celebrations, a Memetjan’s bride is presented with gold jewelry in her husband's home.

Because of “the War,” young people are married in particular ways and times in their lives that are at least in part beyond their choosing. These marriages are also part of Uyghur tradition and a way of reproducing Uyghur sociality in spite of the conditions of the police state.

Still wearing the dress she wore for the wedding that had happened earlier in the day, a woman fills the cattle trough of the family farm.

Still wearing the dress she wore for the wedding that had happened earlier in the day, a woman fills the cattle trough of the family farm.

Despite dominant feelings of fear and loss, Uyghurs still find way to live. Like people everywhere, Uyghurs are resilient. Over the past decades of gradually intensifying cultural dispossession and state domination, they have adapted and found ways to live. For now, those who are free still have their language, their songs, and each other. In their shared precariousness, they find love and comfort even as they lose their rights and their autonomy.



Darren Byler is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. He studies emerging forms of art and politics among Uyghurs and Han in Chinese Central Asia.  For more on his work, visit the digital companion to his dissertation project The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia.


Eleanor Moseman is a Shanghai-based photographer and storyteller. Her work has been published internationally in PBS Newshour and The Atlantic, and has been featured on Nikon's Learn & Explore website. For more on her work, visit her portfolio.


Uyghur Migrant Life in the City During the “People’s War”

By Darren Byler, with images by Nicola Zolin

This is the first of a two-part series by Darren Byler, who with photographers Nicola Zolin and Eleanor Moseman, powerfully document how the bodies of migrants are marked, just as their communities are erased, in the often unconsidered spaces of China's "People's War on Terror."

In May 2014 the Chinese state declared a “People’s War on Terror.” This war was directed at what was perceived to be the Islamic “extremism” of young Uyghur men and women. Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim minority group that is indigenous to Chinese Central Asia, or what in colonial terms is referred to as “the New Dominion” (Xinjiang). This vast area of the nation, whose borders stretch from Tibet to Afghanistan to Mongolia, is the source of nearly 20 percent of China’s oil and natural gas. It is also a central node on China’s New Silk Road initiative, which seeks to expand China’s influence throughout Western Asia. Increasingly the eleven million Uyghurs who call the southern part of this region their homeland are seen as an obstacle in China’s vision of the future.

The new “People’s War” was a response to forms of Uyghur resistance to the Chinese state. Some of these acts of resistance were violent attacks on police and Han settlers, but the vast majority were simply protests over land-seizures, discrimination, arrests without due-process and police shootings. Before the “war” began, one of the primary ways that young Uyghurs resisted the increasing control of the state was by moving. Hundreds of thousands left their rural villages where policing is very intense and job opportunities are rare. They came to the capital city of the region, Ürümchi, in search of urban freedom and the promise of a better life.

When the new “war” was introduced the freedom that the city seemed to promise began to disappear. Below are a series of images by the photojournalist Nicola Zolin when he visited me during my long-term fieldwork on migrant life in the city from 2014 to 2015. These images demonstrate that the “war” was manifested in multiple ways. It produced a sharp rise in securitization and, in turn, it began to mark the bodies of Uyghur migrants. It accelerated the erasure of Uyghur communities across the city and increased the precariousness of the Uyghur economic stability. At the same time, it allowed Han economic investment in the city to continue, further solidifying the region as a center of the Chinese political economy.


Short-circuit video cameras in the Uyghur districts of the city

Short-circuit video cameras in the Uyghur districts of the city

Even before the “war” was implemented, hundreds of thousands of short-circuit cameras were installed throughout the Uyghur sections of the city. Dozens of police officers manned control centers where they began to observe the movements of young, rural-origin Uyghurs. They became a major source of information for the state as it began to implement the policies of the “war.”


An armored police vehicle at the main train station of Ürümchi.

An armored police vehicle at the main train station of Ürümchi.

The military police were also deployed in key transportation sites, assuring the Han settler population that business would be allowed to continue as normal and increasing levels of fear among the Uyghur population of the city.


Signs posted throughout Uyghur sections of the city.

Signs posted throughout Uyghur sections of the city.

In September 2015 posters appeared throughout the Uyghur section of the city legislating the type of clothing and personal appearance that was permitted by the state. All signs of reformist religious practices were outlawed. The posters also described the sorts of rewards that were given to Uyghurs who assisted the police in arresting religious “extremists.”


The rubble of Uyghur migrant housing surrounds a neighborhood mosque.

The rubble of Uyghur migrant housing surrounds a neighborhood mosque.

The new “war” also accelerated urban cleansing projects that targeted Uyghur informal settlements throughout the Uyghur sections of the city. As a result of these projects and a new racialized passbook system (bianminka), hundreds of thousands of Uyghur migrants without legal support were forced to leave the city and return to their rural villages. When they returned to the countryside many of them were arrested under the suspicion that they had practiced forms of “extremist” Islam in the city.


An older Uyghur man and young children.

An older Uyghur man and young children.

As a result of these processes, fewer and fewer young Uyghurs from the countryside remained on the streets. In their place, grandparents and children populated the streets. Only Uyghurs who had legal support were able to continue to live without fear of expulsion and arrest in the city.


Uyghur men gather to pray on a Friday in 2014.

Uyghur men gather to pray on a Friday in 2014.

Over time, popular religious practice of pious forms of Islam were outlawed and replaced with calls to patriotism, celebrations of the Chinese flag and adulation of the current Chinese president Xi Jinping. As of the summer of 2017, the central Uyghur mosque pictured above began to feature a prominent Chinese flag.


Uyghur young men cross the street in front of limousine that is used in marriage celebrations and other social events.

Uyghur young men cross the street in front of limousine that is used in marriage celebrations and other social events.

As a result of the “People’s War on Terror,” many young Uyghurs with rural backgrounds came to experience urban life as a kind of life on the run. They were forced to constantly dodge police checkpoints where their IDs and passbooks were examined and their phones searched for all types of religious messages. At the same time, the capitalist development of the province continued unchecked. Although, many Han inhabitants of the city also complained about the presence of the police, many Han citizens continued to find high-paying, stable jobs with the support of the Chinese state. Han citizens were inconvenienced by the rise in policing, but Uyghur migrants bore the brunt of new restrictions and institutionalized discrimination


Uyghur and Han shoppers at the local Carrefour supermarket.

Uyghur and Han shoppers at the local Carrefour supermarket.

Uyghur migrants were increasingly forced to participate in the Chinese commercial economy as opportunities for Uyghurs to buy and sell locally-produced halal products were increasingly restricted by the state. The dramatic inflation of basic staples that has resulted from the arrival of Han settlers that are supported by direct investment from the state and the revenue generated by oil and natural gas production, meant that many underemployed Uyghurs began to struggle to put bread on the table and pay for the cost of housing.


An older Uyghur woman warms her hands over a coal fire.

An older Uyghur woman warms her hands over a coal fire.

Many rural origin Uyghurs attempted to get by within the cash economy by selling products on the streets without vender permits. They learned to be mobile and dodge police patrolling the streets.


A young Uyghur restaurant worker roasts meat over an open fire.

A young Uyghur restaurant worker roasts meat over an open fire.

Young, low-income Uyghur migrants often attempted to find service sector jobs that gave them legal protection against expulsion. But these positions were also precarious as the state began attempting to arrest all Uyghurs who had practiced any unapproved forms of Islam over the past decade. Any Uyghur who was accused of praying five times per day, studying the Quran in an unapproved study group, listening to unapproved Islamic teachings, or studying Arabic was subject to indefinite detention. Often employers and coworkers were asked to expose those who they suspected of practicing unapproved forms of Islam.   


Newly built freeways in the city.

Newly built freeways in the city.

At the same time, the city continued to expand and grow. New high-rise buildings were under construction and high-speed infrastructure projects were built at break-neck speed. Although some of the new commodity housing remained unoccupied, many wealthy Han settlers from the Eastern Regions of the country continued to invest in the region. They often saw it as a site of expansion of Chinese economic power. For many Han, the sense of threat they feel from Uyghur resistance was softened by the assurance they felt from the Chinese police and military presence.


A Uyghur young man walks by a government sponsored sign promoting Xinjiang economic development.

A Uyghur young man walks by a government sponsored sign promoting Xinjiang economic development.

For many Chinese citizens, Chinese Central Asia is thought of as an inalienable part of China. Classical Chinese novels such as Journey to the West and standard education texts describe the region as a historical part of the nation; the landscape is well-within the boundaries of their national “imagined community.” In popular culture, the region is often represented as a site of indescribable natural beauty, and the Uyghur inhabitants of the region are described as uncivilized and dangerous. Because of this perception of Uyghur “savagery,” many Chinese citizens whole-heartedly support the “People’s War on Terror” in which the state is attempting to eliminate much of Uyghur society through a human re-engineering project. In this way, the conquest of the Uyghur homeland is turned into an essential part of China’s New Silk Road – a way of connecting Han settlers with new markets, new resources and a larger presence on the world stage.

To read the second post in the series: Love and Fear among Rural Uyghur Youth during the “People’s War.”

Darren Byler is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. He studies emerging forms of art and politics among Uyghurs and Han in Chinese Central Asia.  For more on his work, visit the digital companion to his dissertation project The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia.

Nicola Zolin is a photojournalist and writer interested in the social and environmental transformations at the borders of Europe, Middle East and Asia. He is currently based between Rome and Athens. Visit his portfolio here.

The RAISE Act Undermines American Values

by Anita Maddali

On August 2, 2017, President Trump endorsed the RAISE Act, which he claimed and the bill's co-sponsors claimed would simultaneously lower the number of immigrant admissions and attract immigrants with more “skills.” The RAISE Act would admit fewer refugees, end the diversity lottery program, and drastically cut the family-based system. While U.S. Immigration Law has been structured to set parameters around who may and may not enter (exclusion/inadmissibility) and who is allowed to remain (deportation/removal), it has recognized family integrity as a key component of a just immigration system.  This Act strikes at the very heart of this central tenant of our nation’s immigration law. 

The Act will certainly face fierce opposition with some objecting that it’s racially motivated and others asserting that a reduction in immigration would have a negative economic impact, but one aspect that will likely not get much attention is its utter devaluation of family.  The often-unchallenged narrative is that family reunification merely benefits immigrants, but is a drain on the economy of the United States, in a way that highly-skilled workers are not. This narrative is both inaccurate and harmful.

Historical Underpinnings

Fifty-two years ago, on October 3, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, abolishing the long-standing, national-origin quota system and laying the foundation of our present immigration laws – family integrity.

The national-origin system, the law of the land since 1924, restricted migration from Southern and Eastern Europe. The large numbers of Italians and Eastern Europeans entering the United States in the early 1900s were considered racially undesirable.i Congress cut migration from this region to “confine immigration as much as possible to western and northern European stock.”ii By 1965, many viewed this law as discriminatory and argued that it arbitrarily separated families. Senator Robert Kennedy stated:

“One of the primary purposes of civilization – and certainly its primary strength – is the guarantee that family life can flourish in unity, peace, and order.  But the current national origins system separates families coldly and arbitrarily.  It keeps parents from children and brothers from sisters for years – and even decades.” iii

Ironically, those who supported national-origin quotas endorsed the family-based system, believing that “chain migration” would ensure that the country would still maintain the same racial (at least European) demographic. That plan backfired because European migration slowed, while migration from other parts of the world (Asia and Africa, in particular) grew.iv

Yet, family unity as the cornerstone of our immigration system has been diminishing since long before the RAISE Act, especially for certain families, namely from Latin America and from oversubscribed countries outside of Latin America. In recent years, long wait times – sometimes twenty or more years – have meant that many families face lengthy separations. Ever-increasing immigration penalties and enforcement have left families torn apart, in ways they could not have been previously. And though the 1965 legislation opened the door for a more inclusive immigration policy, a cap placed on migration from the Western Hemisphere, which had not been subject to the quota system, and the abolishment of the Bracero Program (a program which brought guest workers from Mexico) in 1964 restricted legal avenues to immigrate for those closest to our border.  For so many, there was, and continues to be, no “line” to wait in.

Fallacies of Family-Based Immigration

To accentuate only family unity, however, ignores the benefits that the U.S. labor market derives from family-based immigration. Those coming through the family-based system meet labor needs in a more flexible way than employment-based immigrants. And women in particular are responsible for many of these contributions.  The majority of women immigrating to the United States come through the family-based system and not the employment-based system, filling important needs in our workforce.  Though the RAISE Act completely devalues their economic contributions, immigrant women frequently perform some of the most in-demand jobs – care work. Experts predict increasing shortages of caregivers who can meet the needs of the growing aging population in the United States. Much of this labor is provided by immigrants. The US economy has labor needs that immigrants, including family-based immigrants, meet, which benefits our society, even if the RAISE Act’s sponsors are unaware of it or, more likely, all too keenly aware of it.

The RAISE Act is reminiscent of earlier restrictionist views that saw immigrants as an economic and cultural threat. President Trump noted that dismantling the family-based system would end “chain migration.” Like a century ago, underlying this desire is racial animus, disguised using neutral terms like “merit-based” and “highly-skilled” workers.  It has little to do with attracting more skilled labor because the legislation does not seek to  increase the number of skilled immigrants already admitted each year under the current employment-based system.

President Trump's claim that the RAISE Act will “ensure that newcomers to our wonderful country will be assimilated,” outright ignores that assimilation requires a society that supports and values immigrants. Moreover, a family-based immigration system recognizes that living with family facilitates integration, not living in fear that your family may be torn apart.

In 1965, Anthony J. Celebreeze, the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, said, “[t]here could be no more visible demonstration of our commitment to the ideals of individual worth, or of our recognition of the importance of the human values of the family, than a just and equitable immigration policy.”v The RAISE Act is the antithesis of a just and equitable immigration policy. We should not forget the origins of our family-based system, nor the values it sought to uphold.

To read further about family reunification under Immigration Law, see Left Behind: The Dying Principle of Family Reunification Under Immigration Law.

Anita Ortiz Maddali is the Director of Clinics and Associate Professor of Law at the Northern Illinois University College of Law.  She writes about and teaches immigration law.  Prior to coming to NIU, she represented women and children seeking asylum in the United States. She is a graduate of Northwestern University School of Law.

i Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (1996).

ii Id.

iii Testimony of Robert Kennedy, House of Representatives Subcommittee Hearings, at 411 (June 30, 1964).

iv Tom Gjelten, A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story 91 (2015).

v Statement of Hon. Anthony J. Celebreeze, House of Representatives Subcommittee Hearings at 334 (March 11, 1964).

From Mogadishu to Istanbul: An auto-ethnography on childhood, migration and education

By Eda Elif Tibet

Prior to a radio broadcast, I asked youth residing in a shelter for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Turkey to draw his dream of an ideal life. Showing them the outline of a world map with no country names and no borders, I asked them to draw their dreams of living any place they wanted. Below is an excerpt from my conversation with Caadil.

Elif:          Caadil, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Caadil:     My name is Caadil, I am from Somalia. I came in 2012 into Turkey. I am living in Istanbul and I am a student. Would this be enough?

Elif:          Sure, thank you. Today, I asked Caadil to draw his dream. Could you tell us something about what you drew?

Caadil:     I draw something like this; far away, there is an island. I have a small boat, a small house, and I have a beautiful tree. I have some vegetables and then there is a flag that will bring peace to my island. The world is truly an annoying place; therefore, this is the picture of someone who wants to stay on his own, someone who wants to be left alone.

Elif:          Caadil, most of the times, I too feel the same way as you do—how much I wish to be away from the maddening crowd. But what about friends? Don’t you have friends that are dear to you at your high school, for instance?

Caadil:     Yes, I have some very good friends. Sometimes they ask me questions like, what kind of animal would you be if you were one? And I tell them that I would have liked to be a butterfly. I could have lived only for a day and then die. They only live for 18 hours. Then they ask me, but why? And I tell them that I want to stay away from the world. I want to get lost but I am joking; it’s not real. I actually don’t want to be anyone or anything, and I also don’t want to die too early.


During the activity, Caadil receives a phone call from his mother. By the time he ends his prolonged conversation with her, Caadil walks towards the world map hung on the wall. Spotting his hometown in Somalia, he begins to recount his migration story with great fluidity.

Al-Shabaab has killed my father during the civil war. My mother took all of us [two sisters and two brothers] and we escaped up north. My mother still lives together with my sisters that are about to finish high school there. It would be very hard for them to continue university, as it is extremely expensive. So, my mother sold her farmlands, and paid to the smugglers to take us out from Somalia. But only for me and my one year elder brother. The girls, she told me, that will stay with her. She told us that we could have built a better future for ourselves if we decide to leave but if we were to stay it was very likely that the murderers of our father would come after us too.

“We followed a group of twenty people that were leaded by a man who knew the roads very well.  We firstly went to the Emirates, we spent some time there close to Dubai and then we crossed to Damascus in Syria in 2012, which we found ourselves once again in the middle of the war. We were locked in a house in a single room with nearly thirty people and we did not see the sun light nearly for six months. I was nearly suffocating at some point, and not wanting to wait for more, a few of us separated from the bigger group and continued. We walked during the night and hid during the days. We luckily managed to find all our way to Istanbul, in which we have spent a month staying in a room in Aksaray. 

“As our money finished and the smuggler did not hold his promise to take us to Norway. We found ourselves stuck in Istanbul and not able to pay for the rent. While we were in great destitution a friendly old black man came, and informed us about UNHCR. He told us about our rights to apply for asylum. We had no other option but to try. He took us to the police, and the police took us to UNHCR, they firstly took us to a hotel, they listened to our story and then sent us to the shelter Istanbul. Can you imagine? We were only 13 and 14 years old when we were crossing these roads. We had to go through a lot; we had to endure all of it.”

Conducting a radio programme with youth enabled young refugees to narrate their own stories by participating as researchers, ethnographers, presenters, scriptwriters, performers, artists, interviewers, producers, sound engineers, and content makers; the roles depended on their choices and at spaces also outside the radio room in the streets of Istanbul.[1] For example, Caadil leveraged his interest in cameras and visual and sociological studies, creativity contributing to the project while also honing professional skills he saw as important to accessing higher education later in life. Other young people were also attracted to expressing their experiences through their own lenses becoming ethnographers of their own lives (Oester & Brunner, 2015). I secured four second hand digital SLR cameras that youth utilized—both alone and collaboratively—discovering their own worlds at any time they wished.

In the vein of Paulo Freire’s ‘hinged themes’, the stories youth produced illustrated the relations between the general programme content of the radio show and their own worldviews (Freire, 1972: 92). According to Freire, such participatory learning processes address oppression, as the oppressed themselves advance and actualize a pedagogy of their own liberation (Freire, 1972).  The researcher becomes the learner who must cast off assumptions and expectations and remain open to new approaches and possibilities that emerge. Through this collaborative approach, notions of authority are flattened, creating space for youth to develop their own narratives on their own terms.

Caadil’s photographs revealed the deep sadness resulting from forced migration. His keen interest in discussing his photographs animated our radio sessions. As Harper (2002: 23) describes: “Photographs appear to capture the impossible: a person gone; an event past. That extraordinary sense of seeming to retrieve something that has disappeared belongs alone to the photograph, and it leads to deep and interesting talk.” For Caadil, he unconsciously produced photographs that were inspired by his past memories. As he explored his surroundings, he produced aesthetically provocative photographs while simultaneously discovering his inner-world marked by existential questions about life, childhood, and belonging. His photographs were phenomenologically experienced, insightful and also self-reflective.

Below are some examples of Caadil’s photographs and the meanings he assigns to them.


Uprooted. Photo credits: Caadil.

Uprooted. Photo credits: Caadil.

“Can a tree ever give up on his roots? If it does, it can’t drink water anymore; it will die. I wonder sometimes: Why did my mother send us away? Why did not all of us live in another village? I could have built a hut from wood for all of us, next to the sea. I could have made a boat and fish for all my family; we could even open a restaurant. Maybe we wouldn't earn that much but we wouldn't go hungry; I am sure about that. But perhaps the rebels would have found us there too, and we would have had to leave everything behind once again, and we would have to live running away all the time, like a fugitive, so I suppose my mother must have known something that we did not understand at that time. Otherwise why would she send us so far away? I ask this question all the time to myself, and sometimes I just cannot sleep, thinking all about the ifs: What if we stayed? What if we never migrated? How would have life been, back there?”


These trains go nowhere. Photo credits: Caadil.

These trains go nowhere. Photo credits: Caadil.

“While we are dying, people are only watching. And we are watching for these trains leaving, but we are never the real passengers, as when it comes to us, these trains go nowhere.”

For Caadil, staying in Turkey is a temporary phase. He mentions that it is impossible for him to see a future where he will not have the same rights and opportunities as the citizens of Turkey. He says he will lose his mind. Without the right to work, it would be virtually impossible to earn a living on his own. He also described that not being able to travel is particularly terrible; when he dreams, he recounts, his dreams are about exploring and discovering different cultures and tastes, particularly visiting Iran of which Ali has a great interest in its people and culture. Without travel, he would suffer.


Catastrophe on the sea. Photo credits: Caadil.

Catastrophe on the sea. Photo credits: Caadil.

“There is no such thing as preferring to stay in Turkey. Everyone wants to go, because we have no rights and opportunities here. We, the ones who stay here, are either still waiting to leave or actually have failed many times going to Europe. Some of my friends were nearly drowned in the Mediterranean. It is a true catastrophe in the sea.”


“When every day is the same”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“When every day is the same”. Photo credits: Caadil.

After becoming more self-aware of who he is, where he is now, and where he is leading to, this time he turns his lens to his friends and tries understanding the other minors that share similar contexts with him. The photograph “When every day is the same” is of his best friend from Afghanistan. “Unfortunately he is depressed most of the times. He sleeps a lot, and I try to cheer him up,” Caadil explains. “You know, we are like brothers, he is much closer to me then a brother in fact.”

“When I was 14, in my earliest days in [the shelter], there was an Iranian boy. He was small and had a pretty face. Afghans in the dorm, bullied him all the time. They were so mean to him. I always tried protecting and saving him from their hands.  Later on, as I started to speak their language, I made a really good friend among the Afghans. He was not treating anyone badly; he told me that he too was bullied during his entire life. But not by the Afghans, by Iranians back in Tehran. He told me that at school he was like an invisible. No one talked to him; no one wanted to be friends with him. Even if he studied till the last grade, he was not able to receive a diploma because of his status (he was an undocumented Afghan born and raised in Iran). But, Afghans and Iranians never had a war. The Hazaras even speak the same language. How is it possible that in schools Iranians and Afghans never talk to each other, they do not build relationships, as if Afghans do not exist? How is this possible and why? Since 95% of the Afghans I met here come from Iran, they all tell me how awful their lives were in Iran how they did not have the opportunity to study and those schooled were simply invisible in their classes. I want to understand why. For instance, in Ethiopia there are many Somalis living by and they are able to live like locals, but why is life simply not possible for the Afghans in Iran?”

Caadil asks important questions about discrimination and the challenges of integration; moreover, he offers insight into ethnic segregation towards Afghans in Iranian schools. He is prompted to find answers and solutions to his friend’s case, a friend who was struggling with the mundane and impermanent state of the everyday life and therefore was depressed. Despite sharing similar anxieties about the uncertainties they experience, Caadil mentions how learning is the most important thing for him: “Although I want to be spared from the world, I still need to know what is going on, not only to survive, but I need to be able to understand why things are the way they are. I need to remain awaken. I need to understand the world.”


“No education, no safety”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“No education, no safety”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“Many of my Afghan brothers are working in the construction sites here in Istanbul. They did the same back in Iran or also in Pakistan I heard. For me it is obvious, if you don’t get education this is the only option for you. And as you can see in this image, this man works without a helmet. He is on the top floor and the wooden structure that he stands on looks very fragile. It is also interesting, you see it looks as if there is a cross on him, it is as if giving us a message: don't work this way, you are not safe.”

Here, Caadil links education to safety. If one can access education, there are more possibilities for a safer future. Caadil is only one of the few who managed to access education, in part, due to his aptitude in photography. For many unaccompanied youth in Turkey, there are considerable barriers to accessing and remaining in college, barriers that many unaccompanied youth asylum seekers cannot overcome.

Postscript: Given his talents, Caadil applied to the photograph and video department at a private prominent university in Istanbul with his photography project “Childhood and Migration” that he developed our workshops together. Caadil’s was awarded a full college scholarship; however, following a failed coup attempt in Turkey in July of 2016, the education system entered a crisis, with cuts to foreign student scholarships, including Caadil’s. With considerable advocacy on his behalf, Caadil was offered a 50% scholarship with ongoing efforts to fundraise the remaining fees and tuition. Given that less then 1% of the world’s refugee population have access to higher education, Caadil’s success is remarkable. If you would like to support his education, please see our crowdfunding campaign. For further enquiries, please contact eliftibetto@gmail.com.

About the Author: Eda Elif Tibet is a doctoral candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Bern and a Research Assistant at Pädagogische Hochschule PHBern. This paper is part of an ongoing doctoral dissertation, a joint collaboration between the University of Bern’s Social Anthropology department and the University of Teacher Education, PHBern, entitled “Transnational Biographies of Education: Young Unaccompanied Asylum Seekers and their Navigation through Shifting Social Realities in Switzerland and Turkey” funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.  The study is supervised by Prof. Dr. Sabine Strasser and Prof. Dr. Kathrin Oester, realized by Dr. Annika Lems in Switzerland, and Eda Elif Tibet in Turkey.

To learn more about this project, visit www.transeduscapes.com and read: E.E.Tibet. (forthcoming, 2017) “Learning as Agency: Strategies of Survival among the Somali Unaccompanied Minor Asylum Seekers in Turkey” in Handbook on Migration and Childhood. Edited by Jacqueline Bhabha, Daniel Senovilla Hernandez, Jyothi Kanics). UK: Elgar Publishing.


Aunger, R. (1995) On Ethnography: Storytelling or Science? Current anthropology. Special Issue: Ethnographic Authority and Cultural Explanation 36(1): 97-130.

Escueta, M. and S. Butterwick (2012). The power of popular education and visual arts for trauma survivors’ critical consciousness and collective action. International Journal of Lifelong Education 31(3): 325-340.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Books.

Harper, D. (2002) Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies 17(1): 13-26.

Oester, K. and Brunner, B. (2015) Jean Rouch Back in School Teaching and Research as a Parallel Process through Media Projects with Adolescents in Switzerland. Visual Ethnography 4(1): 5-23

UNICEF (2011) “How to make your own radio shows: Youth Radio Toolkit” in collaboration with Children Radio Foundation.

[1] How to make your own radio shows: Youth Radio Toolkit (UNICEF 2011)




Border to Border: The south takes me back north

In these times, when migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers face an increasing hostile social and political environment here and around the world, we must have ongoing exchanges on how we contribute to the exclusion of others.


By Nancy Landa

¿K'uxi elan avo'onton? is an expression used to greet someone in Tzotzil, one of the indigenous languages spoken in the Highlands of Chiapas.  My Tzotzil colleagues explained to me that its literal translation means “How is your heart doing?” It struck me as one of the most beautiful expressions I had ever heard. I did not manage to pronounce it correctly in my time there, but I was still filled with joy each time someone would respond, “Lek oy” – “very well”. As I learned, this was more than just a question in a different language. Indeed, the expression represents an alternative way of thinking. It counteracts the superficiality many of us have grown accustomed to when someone asks “How are you?” and to which we generally respond with “fine,” as if on autopilot.  

Photo courtesy of Nancy Landa

Photo courtesy of Nancy Landa

The question ¿K'uxi elan avo'onton? invites us to reflect from the heart, because we are not only able to feel from the heart, we can also think from the heart. To respond honestly, I had to turn to that part of my inner self that I had neglected for so long—it was better to ignore the pain caused by the displacement I had endured throughout most of my life as a migrant. This question became an introspective process, one that made me realize I was unsure about how my heart was doing, or whether it was still intact. Had my heart really returned with me to Mexico or had a part of it stayed in Los Angeles, the place where I lived 20 years of my life before deportation?

The heart wants what it wants: Belonging schizophrenia

Despite my past, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience life in environments that reconnected me to my roots and humble upbringing. I was born into a poor family. My parents came from rural towns with hardly any schooling, but they were hardworking people. When my time came to relocate for work and moved to Chiapas, a state with the highest rates of poverty in Mexico, I could see the similarities between it and my childhood home in Naulcapan, a municipality located in the State of Mexico. It was not foreign to me to live in towns that lacked sewer systems, or in a house with walls made of bricks and a roof laminated with thick carbon paper—the kind that would slowly start to fall apart and collapse during a hailstorm. Of course, the poverty and social exclusion from where I came was different from the kind that indigenous families in Chiapas endure. I never had to walk more than two hours to school. I never had to drop out of school to start working in the fields to support my family.

Returning to what resembled my pre-migration life was the consequence of being uprooted from my adopted country. Of all the places I have lived post-deportation, I have not found one that feels like home. Despite the encouraging words of friends who say, “welcome to your country,” or “welcome home,” my heart knows: I am not home.

In the past seven years, I have lived in seven cities and three countries, places where I have felt a kind of belonging schizophrenia. Part of me wants to belong, but another fails to do so. Even with the support networks and friends I have made, I can’t entertain the idea of living in any of those places for the rest of my life. I manage to physically move into each new space, but my emotional self never fully occupies it. What is the point of decorating my new “home” if the displacement I carry with me continues to persist? Could I ever attach myself to a place the way I did as an L.A. transplant?

These contradictory emotions forced me to admit there is something wrong with my heart. Even with the passage of time, the scars and the pain are still there. I am not the same person after undergoing the dehumanization of deportation, something only those who have experienced it can understand. At this point, I can only ponder what will make my heart whole again. The answer has yet to reveal itself; hopefully at some point I will know. In the meantime, my heart urges me to keep looking—and not only for a sense of home, but also a political family to which to belong. Finding the latter proves just as difficult.

Searching for home in “advocacy”

The moment in which I came out of the shadows of deportation also marked the start of my search for a place to belong in advocacy. The trigger for my post-deportation activist trajectory was the announcement of the DACA program by the former President Barack Obama in 2012. It began as a hopeful journey, but soon enough I experienced the invisibility that arises when social movements also reproduce the oppression they denounce.

The immigrant rights discourse has created a hierarchy among us, selecting which migrants are “worthy” and deserve to be included, and who should be left out. In the U.S., those of us who have been deported belong in the latter category. In Mexico, we have been similarly ignored. It was not until recently that the political elite have begun to discuss return migration, in great part due to Donald Trump’s antagonism towards Mexico. Still, few have meaningfully discussed the deportations occurring during prior administrations, including Obama’s record-setting removals and the criminalization of immigrants as a result of the 1996 legislative changes to INA that took effect under Bill Clinton.

It has become more convenient for the Mexican government to seek the attention of those belonging to the “good immigrant” category. Following the initiation of DACA, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations, Senators, universities, and high-level policy makers invited DACA Dreamer groups to (re)discover their cultural roots via tours of iconic places in Mexico City and the ancient Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan. Political actors attempted to convince us that they supported Mexican immigrants here and abroad. Yet, these educational trips designed to reconnect Dreamers were simply a public relations tool.

Dreamer tourism, as we termed it, has continued to grow over the past couple years. At the same time, there is no real interest in giving the “unwanted” deportee a platform to demand a dignified reinsertion in Mexico. Additionally, and in contrast to our U.S. immigrant counterparts, we don’t have a return ticket to the United States—not even a tourist visa to visit our former homes, the places and people we left behind. Having presented to these Dreamer delegations, I am left with a clear view of the many asymmetries that exist between us. They are platforms that lack the conditions for genuine dialogue about our struggles. And on the occasions when we have raised such concerns, we just become a nuisance: to the government institutions that sponsor the trips, to the nonprofit organizations that welcome such efforts, and to the activist DACA Dreamers who fail to see how they have legitimated our exclusion by accepting a reconnection with their “México lindo y querido”, the beloved Mexico to which they make no indication they would want to return permanently.

In these times, when migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers face an increasing hostile social and political environment here and around the world, we must have ongoing exchanges on how we contribute to the exclusion of others who are below us on the ladder of oppression. This is the introspection I find missing in U.S. immigrant advocacy movements—movements that understand social inclusion as stopping deportations, and that fail to consider the dark abyss one falls into after deportation.

If advocates measured their effectiveness based on reality, they would realize this failure is profoundly consequential. The culprits here are still anti-immigrant policies based in ignorance and xenophobia. And yet, immigrant activists must be accountable for not creating advocacy strategies that respond to the multidimensional and unjust realities created by deportations. This includes (1) family separation, where U.S. children are stripped away of their parents or forced to leave their U.S. homes to reunite with deported family members; (2) harsh treatment and penalties for deported immigrants, including re-entry bans; and (3) lack of reception programs to integrate deportees in the education system or the labor market in the countries receiving them.

These issues are just the tip of the deportation iceberg. Rather than yet another request to include “my story” in someone else’s research or advocacy campaign, I search for collaborations or co-creative efforts to unite our interconnected fights and struggles, not to be “educated” on my own intimate experiences of deportation, long before Trump assumed power.

I’m left asking: Does social justice have a time limit or does it expire under “new” political realities? Will deportations prior to Trump take a back seat to the somehow more “urgent” situation under the current administration? So long as new movements answer these questions affirmatively, then there is a dire need for a new paradigm for immigrant activism. We must learn to speak of struggles in ways that do not re-victimize those who have suffered or to render them invisible by privileging the “good immigrant” narratives.

Heading north to reclaim my own fight

Today, I am back in Tijuana—and this time by choice. After years of chronic emotional burnout aggravated by those internal battles I had not anticipated, I am stronger. In the southern region of Mexico, I learned that there is an alternative perspective to activism—one that is designed from a collaborative and participatory approach. This work creates spaces of dialogue and reflection where migrants are the migration experts, the protagonists in all processes and organizing work. We are not just research subjects to be studied, or whose stories should be collected.

This takes decades to master, and in no way have I reached competency in it. At the same time, I am encouraged to engage on initiatives created by migrants, for migrants, and am filled with a sense of responsibility and the urgency as when I first started this journey. Seven years ago, it would have been impossible to engage in this type of work: I was putting back together the pieces of a shattered life. Yet the south has reenergized me to reclaim my own fight back north. You can’t be in a place like Chiapas, one that embodies the resistance of the country, without it changing you in some way. So, what comes next?

In 2009, the year of my deportation, there were between 300 to 400 of us arriving every day in Tijuana.[i] Today, that figure is slightly over a quarter of such deportation levels, with nearly 100 deportees arriving daily. With the anticipation of the continued expulsion of Mexicans from the U.S., there is still much work ahead.

The needs and demands of deportees: From reinsertion to family reunification

Photo Courtesy of Nancy Landa

Photo Courtesy of Nancy Landa

People often ask how they can support the cause south of the border. Just as I’ve struggled to find a home for my cause, I always struggle to provide concrete actions. I have come across many organizations that are doing important humanitarian work in Tijuana. Here, many nonprofits such as Desayunador Padre Chava, Casa del Migrante, Insituto Madre Asunta, and The Salvation Army focus on providing immediate food and shelter. There are also emerging youth-led organizations like Espacio Migrante and countless other churches and individuals who helped when thousands of Haitians and Africans were in limbo and looking for refuge. And most importantly, migrant-led organizations like Unified U.S. Deported Veterans, Deported Veterans Support House, and Dreamers Moms USA/Tijuana have also gained presence and visibility. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I certainly hope all continue to grow as sustainable organizations along with other up-and-coming efforts.

However, there is a lack of programs aimed at the mid- and long-term integration of returning migrants and families. Although many of us have developed survival strategies to rebuild our lives, there is still a need to support others who face obstacles such as obtaining identity documents, continuing their education or finding work. These challenges also require political advocacy, as local and federal government agencies must address the structural barriers that hinder reintegration.

An important demand from migrant-led efforts is family reunification—an opportunity to return to homes, communities, and family in the U.S. Given the current U.S. president’s fixation on a “big, beautiful wall,” this sounds like a fantasy. Yet, we believe, more than ever, that supporting projects that create bridges between nations rather than walls are imperative. This is what inspired Friends of Friendship Park to launch a petition last year to garner support to ask San Diego Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to create a binational park, a border space where transnational families to meet and hug. Currently, CBP only allows five families to meet for 30 minutes once a year. It is an effort that remains at a standstill as CBP has yet to respond to the request. However, binational families and allies are committed to counteract the politics of separation. Perhaps having a region without borders, for now, it is just a utopian dream. But in my heart, I know that our sense of family, home and belonging will not be dictated by the physical and emotional borders placed upon us.

Families Reunite At U.S.-Mexico Border At Friendship Park

Nancy Landa is a migration scholar, activist, writer and translator. She writes on transborder activism, her experience of being a deportee under the Obama administration, and the social injustices migrants face due to the increasingly restrictive immigration policies in the Americas and beyond. To follow Nancy and projects she is currently working on, visit her bilingual blog at Mundo Citizen and via Facebook or Twitter.

[i] Personal interview, Mexican immigration authorities (INM), Tijuana, 2016.

Threatening Parents?: What DHS Policies Remind Us About Unaccompanied Youth

by Michele Statz and Lauren Heidbrink

Migrant youth in the U.S. encounter competing media and institutional discourses that cast them as delinquents, ideal victims, or economic actors (See Heidbrink 2014; Statz 2016). Youth Circulations is largely devoted to the politics of these impossible representations.

What is often less considered is how the parents of young people are implicated in such narrations. In many ways, this is a more subtle though surely consequential process, with family members pathologized as neglectful, violent, poor, or otherwise deficient for presumably “sending” or being complicit in youths’ migration journeys. As our work reveals, these discourses are prevalent in legal accounts, popular portrayals, and migration studies scholarship. By implicitly dismissing the ongoing transnational connectedness of “unaccompanied” youth, they contort and fracture valued intimate relationships over time.

While notably not new and perhaps not surprising, we now see the demonization of young migrants’ parents as overt policy and practice in the U.S.

This past February, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly signed a memo promising to penalize anyone who paid smugglers to bring a child across the border. In it, “parents and family members” are explicitly identified as subject to prosecution if they have paid to have their children brought into the U.S.

Contrastingly characterized by immigration advocates as the “cruel and morally outrageous” rounding up of parents and by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials as a “humanitarian effort” to target human smugglers, arrests began in earnest this month. As The New York Times reported, parents or relatives who have taken in unauthorized children may face criminal smuggling-related charges and prison time; others will be placed in deportation along with children.

Significantly, these discourses and policies reflect broader and well-worn global trends. In response to an influx of unaccompanied children to the U.S. in 2014, for example, a series of public service announcements (PSAs) were broadcast throughout Central America. The PSA featured here warns parents: ‘The desert is merciless and deadly and doesn’t distinguish between children and adults. Don’t send your children to the United States. Search for the Guatemalan Dream. Letting them go is letting them die.’ Alongside UNICEF’s roll-out of parenting classes to ‘educate’ parents on the dangers of irregular migration, these PSAs depict children as passively acquiescing to parental decision-making. They likewise implicate parents as ‘bad actors’ or, worse, smugglers and traffickers. Central American legislatures seized these narratives, proposing to heavily fine parents whose children arrived unaccompanied in the U.S. These are policies that 45 seeks to replicate.

Amidst powerful and necessary resistance to these practices, our response is at once a reminder and a challenge. In its hasty and insidious attention to the parents and family members of unaccompanied youth, ICE has indirectly reaffirmed that these young migrants are indeed never really “unaccompanied.” Rather, they are members of extensive social and kinship networks, networks that support young migrants even as they are susceptible to unrelenting enforcement efforts that indiscriminately target children and youth. Just as these policies renew the pressure experienced by legal advocates--namely to petition for legal relief before the basis of children’s claims shift underfoot--they too demand that scholars take on a more urgent, critical, and applied understanding of global youth and their families.

For additional reading: Heidbrink, L., & Statz, M. (2017). Parents of global youth: contesting debt and belonging. Children's Geographies, 1-13.


Visualizing Immigrant Youth in Phoenix

Kristin Koptiuch

Arizona State University-West

Though largely unrecognized by official planning instruments and unacknowledged by the public in anti-immigrant Arizona, immigrants are transforming metropolitan Phoenix. Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix, a student-faculty research collaborative I direct at Arizona State University, explores these transformations by engaging its audience through vibrant visualization of immigrants’ imprint upon the Phoenix urban environment. This project occurs at a time when immigrants are increasingly demonized, criminalized, and denied due process. Our work responds by according due importance to migrants’ creative and deliberate impacts on everyday urbanism in transnationalizing cities.

In an era of unprecedented human mobilities, Phoenix diversity is not unexpected for a major American city. Current US Census data shows 20% of city residents are foreign born, 65% coming from Mexico, and 41% of the city population is Latinx. Stymied by reigning anti-immigrant sentiment, city residents and civic leaders are reluctant to acknowledge—let alone cultivate—creative ways that migrants already influence the city as informal, unintentional urban planners-from-below. Our projects track the ways in which immigrants have revived stagnant neighborhood economies, brought magical-realist redesign to the cityscape, added colorful flair to the city’s subdued design palette, infused global youth practices, and transnationalized Phoenix urbanism with local outcroppings of global religions, cuisines, cultures.

Immigrant and diaspora youth in particular play a critical role in bringing this realization into view. Our youthful team of undergraduate researchers brought fresh perspectives from their own migrant and diaspora communities. The inclusion of a Somali refugee, a first-generation Assyrian-Iraqi, and a Mexican DACA recipient this past spring extended the project’s reach and depth of insight. Although our gaze is not exclusively directed at youth, young migrants frequently do become central to our inquiry as team members engage their own networks to pursue their research.

Origins of the Project

Billboard in central Phoenix neighborhood (2012), Kristin Koptiuch

Billboard in central Phoenix neighborhood (2012), Kristin Koptiuch

Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix is an extension of my long-term commitment to teaching, researching, and visualizing the impact of immigrants on metropolitan Phoenix, where I’ve lived for 25 years. Having taught courses on migration and worked with migrant advocacy organizations, I began to create ethnographic photo essays to defuse Arizonans’ hyper-sensitivity toward immigration, integrating emotion and affect with a resistant critical gaze (e.g. Cruzando Fronteras/Crossing Phoenix,” 2012). To integrate students into these initiatives, I successfully applied for modest funding through a unique student-faculty research program offered by ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, which provides student teams with a budget of $500 and modest student stipends or two academic credits.

Thus far we have completed some two dozen photo essays and curated photo sets, accompanied by short descriptive and analytical ethnographic narratives. Researchers submitted drafts of their essays and photos, and revised them in response to my editorial comments and suggestions into finished projects, showcased on our website. At once visually stimulating and thought-provoking, we sought to share them with “live” audiences in a manner that preserved the immersive, visually rich digital format of the website presentations. We’ve experimented by creating an exhibition of our urban visual ethnography project, anchored by enlarged photos that capture the project’s key themes (immigrant portraits, artifacts, events, neighborhoods, businesses, landscapes).

Exhibit at Arizona State University-West (2017), Kristin Koptiuch

Exhibit at Arizona State University-West (2017), Kristin Koptiuch

Presented first at the 2017 Society for Applied Anthropology conference in Santa Fe and then at our own West campus of Arizona State University, the exhibit also includes video shorts, sonic atmospherics, live website projection, a portfolio of printouts of individual projects, banners, promo materials, and QR codes that take viewers’ mobile phones straight to the website. To better engage our audience, we took seriously the truism that, welcome or not, “we are all immigrants.” Our interactive portrait booth (now featured on our website) drew an enthusiastic response from over 100 visitors who declared their solidarity as immigrants and their descendants.

Youth Circulations in Phoenix

Folkdance class, Assyrian Student Association of Arizona, Crystal Cespedes

Folkdance class, Assyrian Student Association of Arizona, Crystal Cespedes

Several of our stories track young migrants as they circulate through the city and beyond. For instance, many Iraqi refugees have resettled in metro Phoenix over the last 20 years, including Assyrian and Chaldean Christian minorities. Crystal Cespedes’ interview with a first-generation US-born Assyrian leader of the Assyrian Student Association of Arizona briefly unpacks the origins of Assyrian ethnics in Phoenix and highlights the importance accorded to education and cultural preservation by the student club at Arizona State University, through peer instruction of folk dances to traditional music.

Teaching modern Aramaic, Ileen Younan

Teaching modern Aramaic, Ileen Younan

The preservation of Assyrian language and history is also foregrounded in Ileen Younan’s piece on instruction in modern Aramaic by a young Iraqi-born teacher to first-generation children through their community church. The church also offers Aramaic education to older Assyrian youth like Younan herself, so they can learn to write and speak their parents’ native language.

Feast at weekly Iraqi family gathering, José Grijalva

Feast at weekly Iraqi family gathering, José Grijalva

José Grijalva’s visit to a weekly family gathering at the home of an Arab Iraqi classmate introduced him to Arab culture, language, and cuisine. Significantly, the lively family interactions and mountains of Middle Eastern food resonated with Grijalva’s experiences at his own Mexican American family’s cookouts in the Arizona border town where he grew up.

Phoenix is also home to post-colonial British diasporic communities whose youth perpetuate their parental legacy in the sport of cricket, an under-represented sport in what is otherwise a highly sports-conscious city. Hussein Mohamed’s short video introduces us to several immigrant and first-generation Pakistani team members of the Arizona Stallions Cricket Club. This is one of 18 Phoenix cricket teams comprised largely of immigrant youth hailing from cricket-playing nations like Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and South Africa. Interviews recount team members’ association of cricket with their families’ immigrant homeland roots.

Cricket match in Phoenix, Hussein Mohamed

Cricket match in Phoenix, Hussein Mohamed

DACAmented youth struggle for belonging and identity, Argenis Hurtado Moreno

DACAmented youth struggle for belonging and identity, Argenis Hurtado Moreno

As is well known, not all migrant youth have the luxury of open visibility. Argenis Hurtado Moreno invites us to hear the stories of two Mexican DACAmented youth, aka DREAMers, who struggle for belonging and identity in the America that enculturated them throughout their youth but stigmatizes them as young adults and legally excludes them from a pathway to citizenship. The two women interviewed express a palpable frustration and sense of injustice toward the nation that refuses to accept them as the exemplary made-Americans that they know they are.

Mexican pointy boot, José Grijalva

Mexican pointy boot, José Grijalva

While doing fieldwork at Mercado de los Cielos, a Mexican makeover of a defunct mall anchor department store, José Grijalva was entranced by an elongated-toe boot on display at a shop selling Mexican cowboy boots. In sleuthing out the meaning this cultural artifact, Grijalva discovered that the Mexican pointy boot links transnational youth circulations on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Dance crews don custom-made boots with points as long as seven feet, offset by color-coordinated skinny jeans and cowboy hats. They perform choreographed steps to a recent style of Mexican music called Tribal, mixing Aztec and African sounds over a cumbia baseline, the DJ tapping into multi-ethnic and autochthonous Mexican roots that may carry special appeal to migrants far from the homeland. These dance competitions are popular in Dallas, Texas, as many Mexican immigrants there come from the state of San Luis, where Tribal is popular. Clearly, the pointy boot is an element of Mexican subcultural style that has easily crossed the border.

The Power of Migrants and the Subversion of the Community[i]

Through the subtle subversion of depicting these everyday migrant crossings and contributions, Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix seeks to intervene in the public perception of migrants in Phoenix. Our stories of migrant youth depict them as resilient as they are vulnerable. Youth are the site of intensive parental investment for perpetuating immigrant cultures, languages, histories (Heidbrink 2014). Yet migrant and diaspora youth connect as fluidly with local practices as they import transnational styles and fads through music, fashion, dance, relationships. Thus, they complicate simplified notions of “preserving” cultural forms. They cross virtual transnational bridges that span the spaces of their daily lives, rendering a subversive ordinariness to crossing borders (Leurs 2015). Their American dreams are defiant, insisting upon the legitimization of all of their global identities (Dissard & Peng 2013).

Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix’ collaborative ethnographic photo essays offer a visually rich counter-narrative to the intensifying discourse of fear promulgated by current instabilities in national and state immigration policies. By centering on migrants’ everyday mobilities, our critical visualization strives to (re)move walls and expand the appreciative embrace of immigrants in our city’s collective gaze.

Works Cited

Arau, S., Arizmendi, Y., & Guerrero, S. (2004). A Day without a Mexican. Televisa Cine.

Dissar, J. and G. Peng. (2013). Documentary: I Learn America. http://ilearnamerica.com/

Heidbrink, L. (2014). Migrant youth, transnational families, and the state: Care and contested interests. University of Pennsylvania Press.

James, S., & Dalla Costa, M. (1972). The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Consultado el5.

Leurs, K. (2015). Digital passages: Migrant youth 2.0. Diaspora, gender and youth cultural intersections.  Amsterdam University Press.

[1] This subtitle evokes the transformative, classic feminist treatise, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (1972). Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James argued that the centrality of women’s domestic work to the social reproduction of capitalist relations generating surplus value makes women key subversive protagonists in the struggle to re-appropriate the social wealth they produced. Migrants now are similarly positioned; its jokiness aside, films like A Day Without a Mexican (Sergio Arau 2004) show us that popular culture has already grasped the potential subversive power of migrants.

Kristin Koptiuch  is a cultural anthropologist and urban ethnographer who tries to practice anthropology as much performance art as social science. She is associate professor of anthropology in the School of Social & Behavioral Sciences at Arizona State University-West.




I Still Have Your Luggage Tag

By William Lopez

On May 24th, 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided a local Ann Arbor restaurant next to the University of Michigan campus. ICE agents went in with a warrant for single man, but arrested three to five others, including a Legal Permanent Resident. The community was angry that the agents had the gall to eat the food prepared by the staff and then arrest them—yet in many ways, this is an apt metaphor for perceptions of immigrants in the contemporary United States: We welcome your labor, but we do not welcome you.

While the thought of eating an omelet and then arresting the cook is abhorrent, I am struck by a process happening over and over in our country: The use of a single warrant to arrest anyone “suspected” of being undocumented. This amounts to legalized racial profiling. My doctoral research similarly focused on a home raid in which many Latinos were arrested although only a single individual was the alleged target.

At times like these, academic writing feels too constrained to cut to the core of the suffering we witness. For me, I turn to other forms of writing--poetry, prose, short stories--to capture what a peer-reviewed article cannot. This poem is a compilation of experiences of the raid I studied for years of my life and of this most recent raid on May 24th.

Photo credits: Celena Lopez

Photo credits: Celena Lopez

I Still Have Your Luggage Tag

I still have your luggage tag in my bag. I carry it with me, can't quite seem to let it go.

It's not a luggage tag really. It's a suitcase tag. It's a number, an identifier, a CURP, a code, with the matching code attached to a maleta that sat in the immigration office as your plane took off to deport you.

I thought I delivered the maleta on time. I remember doing it as soon as I could, blocking off a whole day to go to the immigration office so they could get it on your flight with you. I really care about your sister, and her heart was broken when you were taken, when her son lost the third father figure from his life. All because you happened to look like Ignacio. You and everyone else in the truck looked like Ignacio

I don't think they actually give a fuck who Ignacio is. I think they saw a truck at a gas station that looked like it was on its way to cut a yard, to fix a roof. I think they thought about the promise Congress made to fill 34,000 detention center beds a day. And I think they had a warrant for some Ignacio somewhere. And they saw a truck of three Ignacio look-alikes. So they followed you out of the gas station. They pulled you over. They asked you all for papers.

And they got three Ignacios closer to their congressional mandate.

So I took the maleta to the immigration office for your sister. I thought I was being kind, but really, I was just being privileged. Even though I'm brown, I have a driver's license. And I would never ask your sister to drive to Detroit. I-94 is a war zone. The body count is high.

I remember wondering what was in the maleta. What do you send to someone who has just been deported?

Of course, poverty knows no privacy, and as I stood outside the metal detector the security guard emptied its contents in front of me.

It was then that I started to understand what was happening.

There were small tubes of toothpaste. Bottles of shampoo and conditioner. A toothbrush. Soap. So you could be clean when you got back to Honduras.

Then there were the jeans.

They were nice jeans. With designs on the back pockets. Crosses made of gold and bronze studs. The kind of jeans that you could wear with alligator skin boots and a cowboy hat to a sobrino's first communion. Nice jeans. I wondered if they were brand new.

Then I noticed the sweatpants.

They still had the price tag on them.  They were new. Maybe the jeans were too. I imagined your sister making the decision to spend two day’s wages--two days of bending down to clean hotel rooms--on jeans and sweatpants. And I wondered why.

But I get it now. This is a despedida, a sendoff. This is how your sister says she loves you when she can't drive on I-94 herself, and, even if she could, she would be too distracted by the jingling of shackles to tell you she'll miss you.

So she bought soap, toothpaste, jeans.

She's trying to tell you that you can hold your head up high when you go back home. That you can walk into your campo from the main road clean and fly as hell with no shame cause you had ridden La Bestia. You had crossed the Rio Grande. You worked. You put more shingles on roofs than any citizen would ever think possible. You did what you had to do, got it done, and paid the 5% to Western Union to get it back to your family without complaint. She's telling you: Be proud. You are loved. You are a warrior.

I drop off the maleta at immigration and go home.

A week later I get a call. Can I come pick up the bag?

The maleta never made it on your plane. The ICE agent was very nice when he informed me. Asked how my day was, smiled. But isn't that how it works? You meet a nice cop, a nice agent, a neighbor who works for the force and brings your kid ice cream, and suddenly you care that Laquan McDonald had a teenage mom and suddenly All Lives Matter.

So the maleta sat in the immigration office as your plane took off.

Your sister tells me that you were so dirty when you got to the entry to your barrio that the cab driver didn't want to pick you up. I'm sorry. There was toothpaste in there for you. And brand new jeans. I'm sorry.

So I keep your luggage tag with me. I keep it in my bag. I can't seem to throw it away, even though I took the maleta back to your sister already. Even though I had to interrupt her child's birthday to give her back the maleta from his deported uncle. Even though immigration has long stopped giving a fuck about your suitcase.

It’s irrelevant now. Just like that original Ignacio on the warrant.

But I can't seem to stop giving a fuck about your suitcase or those of all the other Ignacio look-alikes out there.


Photo credits: Celena Lopez

Photo credits: Celena Lopez

Take Action: I worked closely with the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights to gather data for my dissertation research and continue to collaborate with them whenever possible. I support the Washtenaw ID Project, the first government issued ID in the Midwest, in their efforts to bring photo-identification to everyone in the county. Increasingly, immigration status, for which lack of ID is often used as a proxy, is used to restrict resources access to immigrant communities. The Washtenaw ID is one way to disrupt these inequitable systems of resource distribution, as discussed in my recent article in Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health. I invite you to support our efforts.


William Lopez is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the National Center for Institutional Diversity and School of Social work at the University of Michigan. He is the son of a Mexican immigrant mother and Texan father. He grew up in San Antonio, TX, before acclimating to the Midwest in Indiana, where he received his BA in psychology at the University of Notre Dame. William returned to Texas to receive his MPH at the University of Texas Health Science Center Houston while working at a homeless services center and getting his first taste of qualitative work in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. His mixed-methods work focuses on the effects of immigration policy on local Latino communities, specifically considering the health effects of immigration home raids. William’s work has been featured in Pacific Standard, The Conversation, and Nature.


From Undocumented to DACAmented: Can Changes to Legal Status Impact Psychological Wellbeing?

June 15 marks the 5-year anniversary of the DACA program. For the first time, a recent study analyzes DACA’s impacts on recipients’ psychological wellbeing. The results are clear: DACA can make you feel better, though it may not resolve concerns about deportation.

by Caitlin Patler and Whitney Laster Pirtle

Original art by Liliana Alonso and Andres "Rhips" Rivera.

Original art by Liliana Alonso and Andres "Rhips" Rivera.

Undocumented immigrant youth in the United States face a host of challenges that impact their psychological wellbeing. Many experience hopelessness, shame and self-blame, anxiety, fear of deportation, and concern about blocked social mobility. One recent study found that undocumented youth experience a loss of “ontological security,” or the inability to count on the stability of the future. Another study led by immigrant youth at the UCLA Dream Resource Center found that undocumented youth struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, and emotional distress related to their status. There have even been reports of suicide among undocumented young people who felt they could not overcome the barriers imposed by their status.

It is clear that the legal marginalization undocumented immigrants face can detrimentally impact health. Yet there is still very little research that documents how undocumented young peoples’ psychological wellbeing might alter if their legal status were to change, even if temporarily.

Becoming DACAmented

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program provides a unique opportunity to understand the experiences of individuals who transition from undocumented status into other, even slightly less marginalized, statuses. Announced by President Obama in June of 2012, DACA allows eligible undocumented youth to apply for temporary (and revocable) lawful presence that includes work authorization, a social security number, and other related benefits, renewable every two years. As of the first quarter of 2017, 925,921 individuals applied for DACA, with 26% of applications coming from California, and the vast majority of applicants originating from Latin America. DACA allows us to ask: Can changes to legal status impact health, particularly psychological wellbeing?

Put differently, can getting DACA make you feel better?

We recently completed a study aimed to answer these questions. Our research provides the first statistical analysis of differences in psychological wellbeing between immigrant young adults, retrospectively measured before and after a transitioning from undocumented to DACAmented status. Our data come from original telephone survey data of 487 Latino immigrant young adults in California. These data were collected 2.5 years after the program’s initiation (between November 2014 and February 2015), in order to allow sufficient time to observe the impacts of the program. We compared a control group of young people who remained undocumented with those who transitioned into lawful presence via DACA. Specifically, we examined four outcomes related to immigrants’ psychological wellbeing: 1) distress (including reports of stress, nervousness or anxiety); 2) negative emotions (anger, fear, sadness, shame, and embarrassment); and 3) worry about deportation of one’s self or 4) one’s family.

Our study revealed several key findings. We began by asking about psychological wellbeing during the time when everyone in the study was undocumented (either prior to receiving DACA, for recipients, or in the past year, for respondents without DACA). Statistical tests of responses to these questions show that past psychological wellbeing was predicted almost exclusively by socioeconomic status. For example, those who were worse off financially reported higher levels of distress, negative emotions, and deportation worry.

However, current psychological wellbeing is most strongly predicted by whether or not someone has DACA. For example, the predicted probability of experiencing distress and negative emotions started out at 70% for both undocumented and DACAmented individuals(see Figure 1). However, current distress and negative emotions (measured in the 30 days prior to the survey) for DACA recipients dropped to under 20%, whereas they were over 40% for those without DACA. These results suggest that the change from ‘undocumented’ to ‘lawfully present’ is associated with improvements to psychological wellbeing.

Figure 1. Predicted Probability of Psychological Wellbeing Measures, by DACA Status (From Patler and Pirtle 2017)

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

However, as Figure 2. demonstrates, DACA status does not significantly reduce worry about the deportation of family members, suggesting that programs that target individuals do not go far enough in addressing the overall wellbeing and needs of mixed-immigration-status families.

Figure 2. Predicted Probability of Psychological Wellbeing Measures, by DACA Status (From Patler and Pirtle 2017)

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

“I feel like I belong and other people know I exist:” How Legal Status Transitions Impact Health

Our study showed that transitioning to DACA status after being undocumented was associated with significant reductions in distress and negative emotions. What might explain these results? In response to the question “What do you think has most changed for you since receiving DACA?” DACA recipients in our study shared:

“[I have] a changed outlook on my future because it was very uncertain before.”

“I have a better job, I am more stable, and not afraid to drive around. I have an ID now and I am more capable to do what I want. I feel better emotionally, physically, and psychologically.”

“The security of knowing that you can actually be outside without worrying that you’ll get deported. It brings a lot of benefits: better job and more work and you can actually apply for healthcare. In a sense, it brings you into the community.”

“Peace. [I can] breathe better. Hope. And knowing I exist. I feel like I belong and other people know I exist.”

Such sentiments indicate that DACA has had a legitimizing effect on recipients, in which access to lawful presence and new opportunities has improved their sense of security in their future, which is so closely tied to overall psychological wellbeing.

Looking forward

While we are encouraged by the positive nature of these findings, we remain cautious about whether DACA can offer permanent transformative effects on wellbeing. First, DACA provides individual relief from deportation but does not apply to family members. As we show, DACA recipients in our study were no less likely than non-recipients to report ongoing worry that a family member will be deported. This finding is consistent with research documenting pervasive fear of law enforcement and family separation among the children of undocumented immigrants.

Perhaps most importantly, though, because DACA is a temporary program and does not offer permanent legal status, it is likely that the emotional health benefits of the program could decrease over time if access to permanent status and citizenship remains elusive or if DACA is discontinued.

In the absence of any large-scale legalization program since the mid-1980s, an entire generation of children has grown up without legal status. We know that a lack of legal status impacts multiple aspects of immigrants’ lives, including health and wellbeing, and we also know that communities do not benefit when individuals are unhealthy. Our research shows that changes to immigrant legal status can improve psychological wellbeing. Inasmuch as individual wellbeing is linked to overall community health, then our findings are of critical importance as the country continues to debate policy solutions for undocumented communities.

Dr. Caitlin Patler is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis. Her research explores citizenship and legal status as axes of stratification that significantly shape opportunities for mobility. She is currently conducting longitudinal mixed-methods research studies on: 1) immigration detention, deportation, and the intersections of immigration and criminal law, and 2) the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. 

Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her research interests include race, identity, mental health, and quantitative methods. Her research is primarily informed by social psychological frameworks, and explores how social structures, such as racial hierarchies, might impact individuals’ lived experiences, wellbeing, and identities. Using historical, survey, and qualitative data, she is currently exploring the formation and transformation of the “coloured” racial group in post-apartheid South Africa.





Why the "bad hombre" Trump is the least of our worries: How state policies criminalize immigrant and undocumented youth

by Sophia Rodriguez and Timothy Monreal 

While Trump’s amplified attacks on immigrants—as “bad hombres”, rapists, and criminals—is disturbing, we must not let it overshadow restrictive state level policy contexts. In this blog, we share findings from our analysis of 10 years of South Carolina legislation to shed light on how state policies criminalize immigrants broadly and target undocumented immigrant youth specifically. We further connect these state-level policies to the larger hostile political climate in the United States.

Photo Credits:   AP

Photo Credits: AP

When Trump announced his presidential campaign in a speech on June 16, 2015, he framed Mexican immigrants as an unwelcome and harmful group of people. He stated, “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems. When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.” Donald Trump characterized immigrants as takers, criminals, and threats one of the most prominent national stages—a presidential debate. The construction of the immigrant as problem motivated a nativist, conservative base and subsequently has fueled a series of anti-immigrant executive orders. Yet, a singular focus on Trump obscures how state level policy discourses have sought to create and perpetuate perspectives of immigrants as criminals or threats to society. In this piece, we connect the national debate with our current research on local policies in South Carolina.

Of course, Donald Trump is not the first policy-maker to advance racialized classifications of belonging and an immigrant-as-problem discourse. From the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882 and the “one-drop rule” in the case of United States v. Thind, 1923 to segregationist practices against Mexican-American students such as the so-called  Lemon Grove Incident, 1931, the construction of immigrants as problems has a complex history in the U.S. These legal and social understandings of immigrants in the U.S. placed hurdles to integration at best, and criminalized immigrants in everyday social life at worst.

What are the intentions behind creating the immigrant as problem?

A problem calls for ‘rational’ solutions. In social science academic research, this is called policy problematization. This concept highlights how policy forms by framing marginalized groups as problems, and then justifies drastic ‘solutions.’ Take for example Trump’s Border Security (“the Wall”) executive announcement. Part of the announcement offers an expanded definition of who is a criminal: i.e., anyone who “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.” As Jennifer Medina writes in the New York Times, this loose definition of criminal covers people authorities believe to have broken the law. This new definition further links immigrants specifically to criminal behavior. As such, policy solutions work to restrict the actions of targeted groups with determined precision. The everyday lives of immigrants become further constrained, meaning they fear driving to work or even leaving their homes to attend school, resulting in a deep social isolation.


A glimpse at South Carolina's policy context

We analyzed South Carolina’s proposed and enacted immigration legislation from 2005-2016 to understand how policy language shapes public opinion about immigrants and restricts their access and opportunity to social advancement. To do this we used Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), which seeks to uncover the authority of texts and their influence on social practices. This blog  draws from a multi stage ethnographic study enlisting CDA conducted by the first author (2015-present) to illustrate the effects of the restrictive policies in South Carolina. Our analysis, spanning six legislative sessions, reveals how immigrants are criminalized in everyday social life and restricted from accessing public institutions and social services. The focus on enacted and proposed legislation follows Stephen Ball’s (1994: 10) argument that policy research should tend to the “process” of policy production and focus on the “action, words and deeds, what is enacted as well as what is intended.” Our work accordingly demonstrates that local policy makers in restrictive state contexts like South Carolina propose and enact legislation that both constructs immigrants as problems to be dealt with and limits immigrants’ opportunities for thriving and advancing economically, educationally, and socially.

Source:   Migration Policy Institute.   U.S. Immigration Population by State and Country: South Carolina

Source: Migration Policy Institute. U.S. Immigration Population by State and Country: South Carolina

The analysis of South Carolina policies impacting immigrant communities reveals an intentional construction of all immigrants as Othered individuals who are economic and security threats. This purposeful construction contributes to a belief that immigrants are in some way distinct or alien to ‘rightful’ citizens of the state. Proposed legislation such as S.706 and H. 3953 (11-12) characterizes “illegal aliens” as individuals who are criminals that need to be battled against. The policy documents read:

Whereas, the bill would also allow illegal aliens after arrest to be detained in a state or local prison or detention facility pending transfer to federal custody, thereby insuring that potentially dangerous criminals would remain in custody pending trial or adjudication…

It is important to note that this particular piece of legislation names “illegal aliens” as “potentially dangerous criminals,” rendering them as threatening and thus more susceptible to crime (even when this statement is factually inaccurate). Sadly, the above example is not an isolated instance. In our analysis, we located more than 25 proposed and enacted pieces of legislation that used similar language whereby immigrants are Othered, typically as economic and security threats. Senate Resolution S.1015 (13-14) typifies this threat:

"Over fifty percent of illegal aliens currently in the United States arrived here with visas and overstayed them upon expiration. These include radical Islamic Jihad students who come here under the pretext of study only to instigate acts of terror; and

Whereas, the burden placed upon our nation's governmental services, taxpayers, environment, and infrastructure is on a disastrously unsustainable path due to massive population growth directly attributable to immigration; and

Whereas, solutions to immigration policy include ending chain migration, verifying the visa entry and exit system, ending the visa lottery, ending birthright citizenship, and offering federal assistance for states to combat immigration problems."

This example identifies undocumented immigrants as “burdens,” “unsustainable,” and even “radical Islamic Jihad students,” both creating and reifying them as problems. By constructing the “immigrant problem,” policy-makers advance their solutions—solutions that politicize immigration enforcement and conflate the immigrant with the criminal and/or terrorist. These alarming and inaccurate depictions of immigrants coexist with the reality that South Carolina farmers largely recruit and depend upon immigrant labor. Amidst considerable recruitment of immigrant labor, immigrants paradoxically are accused of taking jobs and draining public resources. Taken as a whole, a picture emerges where immigrants are desired for their labor, but controlled as human beings. The construction of immigrants as problems allows for this dual reality. Immigrants continue to serve the South Carolina economy while policy solutions seek to constrain their material lives and force them to live in the shadows.

In practice, state legislative acts restrict the daily lives of migrants by limiting access to public services. For example, South Carolina is one of two states to ban entry into public higher education for undocumented students. Efforts have even been made to exclude non-citizens to all forms of public education in South Carolina H.3110 (07-08), including denying some undocumented youth in the state entry to public schools in clear violation of Plyler v Doe. Similarly, other legislative acts attempt to limit access to health care, worker’s compensation, and employment, thus formally demanding that immigrants first prove their status before receiving basic protections.

It is within this policy framing of immigrants as problems that the United States’ most egregious legislation towards immigrants has been enacted. Emulating Arizona’s infamous “Show Me Your Papers law, South Carolina rushed to pass S.20 in 2011. S.20 granted, “Law enforcement authorization to determine immigration status, reasonable suspicion, procedures, data collection on motor vehicle stops.” Although the courts dismissed the most draconian profiling portions of the South Carolina law, the solution of increased law enforcement still presents a daily threat to immigrant communities. Since this legislation passed, students have expressed to us how anxiety-provoking simple activities like driving, going to school, or answering the door remains.


Policy effects on undocumented youth

The effect of constructing immigrants as problems is felt strongly in schools. Educators have the imperative to create safe and welcoming spaces for all students regardless of immigration status, one where the cultural knowledge(s), strengths, and experiences of immigrant students are valued. Yet, all too often strengths that immigrant students bring to school (bilingualism, resilience, cultural ways of knowing) are also problematized in schools. As we argue, educators can be at the forefront of the resistance to the criminalization regime. For example, they can recognize, mitigate, and resist the impacts of repressive policies that enshrine “immigrants are problems” on their students by framing students skills as assets rather than deficits.

Photo credits:   AP/LM Otero

Photo credits: AP/LM Otero

Take for example how restrictive policy contexts impact the lives of undocumented youth. Even D.A.C.A. recipients now confront uncertain futures in the U.S. Current research efforts has focused on recently arrived undocumented and unaccompanied youth in southern states like South Carolina, where their families reshape the southern landscape. Undocumented youth are highly aware of the contradictory language of the state policies while state continues to benefit from the work of Hispanic workers. Several youth with whom we work identified ways the state restricts their livelihoods and opportunities for social mobility. For example, undocumented youth in two Title I high schools in the first author’s larger study said: 

“This state is racist.”

“The state wants Hispanics to do their work for them, but we can’t go to school without being afraid? That is ignorance.”

“They don’t want to have a solution for us being here, but they want us to do the work they don’t want to do.”

“I am, like, stuck. I have scholarships to four state schools and cannot attend any of them. Here, they are ignorant of Hispanics. I don’t have papers, but I am smart.”

These lived experiences of youth in the South Carolina speak back to the negative language and stereotyping perpetuated in proposed and enacted legislation. While derogatory perceptions of immigrants appear amplified under Trump, it is important to note how historical precedents and state policies enable structural and institutional racism and the criminalization of immigrants to persist. The current political charades under Trump should not distract us from the broader and more pressing structural discrimination being institutionalized in policies and practices in restrictive states such as South Carolina.


Sophia Rodriguez, PhD, is an assistant professor of education and sociology at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. She conducts research on (un)documented immigrant youth activism and discrimination as well as the impact of educational and social policy on minoritized youth experiences broadly. Her published and forthcoming work on immigrant youth activism and education policy can be found here.

Timothy Monreal is a doctoral student in social foundations of education at the University of South Carolina. He is also a middle school teacher in South Carolina. He is interested in Latinx education in the U.S. South broadly as well as the intersections between teacher practice and education theory. To that end you can find him on Twitter where he mixes academic musings along with everyday classroom observations.