Post by Susan Bibler Coutin, Professor in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society and the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Susan also serves as Associate Dean of Academic Affairs in the Graduate Division. Her research has examined social, political, and legal activism surrounding immigration issues, particularly immigration from El Salvador to the United States. Her newest book, Exiled Home:  Salvadoran Transnational Youth In The Aftermath Of Violence examines the experiences of 1.5 generation migrants, that is, individuals who were born in El Salvador but raised in the United States. Based on interviews with 1.5 generation Salvadorans in Southern California and in El Salvador, this book explores the power and limitations of nation-based categories of membership. 

In the early 2000s, when I was conducting interviews in Southern California with Salvadoran immigrants to the United States who had pending applications for residency, Katarina, a young woman who had immigrated to the United States as a young child made a comment that struck me as extraordinary. To describe the effect of lacking legal status in the United States and yet having no memory of El Salvador, her country of citizenship, she said, ‘It’s like--there is nothing. There is nothing here, there is nothing there…. You’re just walking around, and you’re just, you’re like invisible to everything else. Everybody else is solid but you’re not.’

Katarina’s image of living in a world where other people were solid but she was invisible, as though she were located somehow on another plane of existence, where there was nothing, a non-space or a space outside of and yet within (‘walking around’) the domain of solid people, who presumably had both memories and citizenship, was an eloquent and compelling description of the experience of immigrating as a child without legal authorization. In Katarina’s case, the anguish of being within and outside at the same time, of having both an uncertain future (residency) and an uncertain past (no memories) was exacerbated by the fact that her family fled El Salvador during the 1980-1992 Salvadoran civil war, only to be denied legal refuge in the United States, the very country whose economic and military assistance was fueling the conflict that had forced her family out of their country of origin.

To further explore the how immigrating to the United States from El Salvador as a child situated individuals within and outside of national categories of membership, I embarked on a four-year study, from 2006 to 2010. During this project I interviewed approximately 81 young adults who were born in El Salvador but raised in the United States, or, in a few cases, were born in the United States to parents who were originally from El Salvador. These young people were part of the broader Latino community in the United States. Forty interviewees lived in Southern California and were interviewed multiple times, while 41 interviewees had been deported to El Salvador and were interviewed there. In addition, I interviewed 25 members of U.S. or Salvadoran nongovernmental organizations or immigrant rights organizations that worked with youth, and I also attended events organized by or for these young people. Interviews explored these young people’s legal histories; that is, their lives in El Salvador, their journeys to the United States, their future plans, and their returns to El Salvador – whether to visit family members or as deportees. 

Exiled Home presents the results of this research. Based on the interview material, the book describes emigration as a form of violent dismemberment, a process that separates individuals from family members, their country of origin, their own earlier lives, and even from memory.  The concept dismemberment is therefore intended to convey the physical hardship (which in extreme cases leads individuals to lose lives and limbs), denial of membership (lack of respect for one’s human rights, being positioned as an undocumented immigrant), and erasure of memory (governments’ failure to acknowledge the histories and circumstances that lead people to immigrate) experienced by Salvadoran transnational youth. The book also introduces the concept of re/membering to describe the ways that young people sought to overcome dismemberment by reuniting with family members, becoming part of communities, advocating for social inclusion, reconstructing their lives, and recuperating historical memory.  Re/membering is thus both a way of putting back together that which was torn apart and a way of accessing and creating memories – not just on the individual level but also societally. The book also argues that ethnography is itself a form of re/membering in that it interweaves accounts of interviewees in order to reconnect histories of migration with visions of societies in which rights would be respected and membership would be recognized. Exiled Home also strives to bridge boundaries that divide social science research from other forms of writing. To do so, each chapter begins and ends with a narrative, anecdote, excerpt from literature, or account of art or drama. In addition, the book includes two poems, written by Maya Chinchilla and Gustavo Guerra Vásquez. 

Because one of the interviewees’ key goals was to overcome what they described as a silence about the Salvadoran civil war, the migration process, and their own generation, I have created a teaching guide to promote use of Exiled Home in classroom settings. The guide has a chapter-by-chapter summary, and lists discussion questions, additional resources (films, YouTube clips, websites, articles), and possible student assignments for each chapter. Here is an example of the assignments suggested for Chapter One, ‘Violence and Silence’:

  1. Recently, children have been migrating to the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Go online to find a news story about the experiences of these children. Write a short essay reflecting on how the experiences of these recent children compares to the accounts featured in this book. 
  2. Choose a country. Go to the US state department website  and look up the requirements for a citizen of that country to obtain a visa travel to the United States.  In class, compare your findings to those of other students. How do the requirements vary from country to country? How hard is it for people to travel here? Also, how hard is it for citizens of the U.S. to get a visa to travel to the country that you studied?
  3. If you needed to leave the country urgently, because your life was in danger, how would you do it and where would you go? What resources would you need in order to be successful? Try to make a plan, taking travel restrictions and costs into account.
  4. Interview another student about their life experiences, and write up your interview in vignette form, incorporating direct quotes and also summarizing portions of the individual’s life in your own words.

In addition, I am offering to give a guest lecture or lead a discussion (in person or over skype, schedule permitting) in courses where Exiled Home has been adopted. Any royalties or honoraria that I receive will be donated to undocumented student groups on my campus.

I hope that as it is taught, Exiled Home can become a living document, one that not only records the words and experiences of the individuals featured in the book, but also something that promotes re/membering more broadly. In particular, I hope that the book will provide readers with a historical backdrop to the current migration of children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Like the protagonists of the book, these new arrivals face an unwelcoming society, one that disregards, minimizes, and denies involvement in the violence that they are escaping.  Achieving justice requires welcoming them, promoting healing, and adopting policies that reduce rather than aggravate the violence that displaces these children. In a word, it requires re/membering.

Note: Exiled Home is part of the Duke University Press series, Global Insecurities edited by Catherine Besteman and Daniel Goldstein. Global Insecurities publishes books that creatively explore security and insecurity, broadly understood, and that offer new alternatives for conceptualizing safety, danger, risk, and threat. The series focuses on how ideas, discourses, and practices of security intersect with issues of global political economy; the global discourse of terrorism and its effects; the emerging perceptions, constructions, and responses to risk as a feature of contemporary life; and the imagining of new alternatives to the security paradigm. In addition to addressing questions of ontological security in contexts of war, violence, and terrorism, the series also promotes work on security's economic, material, discursive, legal, phenomenological, and symbolic dimensions. 

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