Guest post by Carmen Valdivia, PhD Candidate and Associate Instructor in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at University of California, Davis, with a Designated Emphasis in Native American Studies. Her dissertation examines the intersectionality of race and gender in Peru, specifically among displaced Indigenous women in Lima, whose political and alternative media activism seeks the empowerment and recognition of Indigenous women and peoples. Her research considers the role of digital technologies, racializing practices, belonging and solidarity, in a context of migration and displacement, to understand the complexities, possibilities and limitations of constructing a collective Indigenous identity led by women. 

Review of Mobile Selves: Race, Migration and Belonging in Peru and the U.S, by Ulla Berg (NYU Press, 2015)

Recent crises of refugees, massive displacement and right-wing political campaigns have reignited nationalist and anti-foreigner sentiments as evidenced by the newly elected U.S. President’s promise to wall the 1,954-mile border with Mexico. Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant discourse, founded on the characterization of Mexican immigrants as ‘criminals and rapists,’ is, in fact, a desperate attempt to halt immigration.

In this context, the study of mobility and containment of Latino populations is more pressing than ever. However, until recently, Peruvians have rarely received scholarly attention. Ulla Berg’s Mobile Selves is an ambitious ethnographic project that follows the experiences and processes of rural-to-urban migration of Andean Peruvians from the Mantaro Valley to intra- and transnational destinations in their quest to salir adelante (‘get ahead’) from the 1980s to 2010. In a country where rural and indigenous mobility has historically remained undesired and has been deemed transgressive, Berg assesses the double racialization Andean Peruvians undergo when crossing two different racialized geographies, first the cities of Peru, and then the U.S., to ultimately demonstrate how their claims to transnational migration “produce friction and provoke elite policing of the boundaries of what constitutes proper and legitimate ‘transnational mobility’” (p. 9). The author takes on the challenge of a transnational research project and presents the case for what she calls ‘ambulant’ ethnography, a term that exquisitely relates to the on-the-go experience and strategies of many migrants who become vendedores ambulantes (‘street vendors’), the epitome of precarious mobility in cities such as Lima.

The book is divided into three parts of two chapters each. Part I, ‘Cosmopolitan Desires,’ focuses on aspirational migrants’ spending of energy and resources on costly ‘paper fixes’ and services offered by the migration industry, which she carefully distinguishes from the more State-normative perspective of human trafficking. In several instances Berg accompanies her research subjects in the navigation of this entangled network located in the hyper-racialized context of Lima, often reflecting on her own privileged mobility as a white European citizen. She also aptly notes how the go/no-go moment of the visa interview ‘is one of the key instances in the migration process where the legitimacy of a person’s claim to mobility can be destabilized, questioned, and come under siege’ (p. 91), a keen observation that elaborates on the role of hyper-documentation to compensate for mounting biometrical surveillance. Part II, ‘Transnational socialities’ is devoted to how migrants establish ‘remote sensing,’ or communicative and mediated practices to overcome familial and social long-term separation and estrangement, especially in the case of parent-children relationships. Berg draws attention to how each communication technology, whether written, audiovisual or digital, can only offer partial visibility and can even cause miscommunication (166). Part III, ‘Discrepant Publics,’ centers on the yearly Peruvian Parade in Patterson, New Jersey, to offer a compelling argument for how migrants ‘fashion themselves collectively through public performance into subjects worthy of citizenship, recognition, and belonging,’ (p. 178) staging themselves both as decent Peruvians and model immigrants in a context of patriotic sentiment easily readable in the U.S. Berg advances another conceptual contribution and terms these public collective practices ‘folkloric citizenship,’ which do the work of ‘framing ‘Peruvianness’ in a positive and nonthreatening light,’ which “for racially marked Andean Peruvians in particular also works as a way to claim ‘Peruvian nationality’” (p. 200). To close the loop and raise awareness of the fluidity and repercussions of mobility, the author’s work does not end in the U.S.; rather, it further problematizes the participation of those who, upon returning to or visiting Peru, can reinvent their belonging to Lima, for example, and claim higher social and class status. A final case explores the influence of Andean Peruvians abroad as ‘phantom citizens who come back to haunt and challenge the state’ (p. 212). Berg specifically examines the unfolding of a violent event that took place in Urcumarca in 1999, in which living-abroad Urcumarquinos took a political position and through their remittances exercised a decisive role in a legal battle between the community and state authorities.

In addition to Berg’s work being of major interest to academics in the growing area of transnational Andean and Latino studies, it also provides an insightful and nuanced analysis for humanities and social sciences scholars in other disciplines in addressing race, identity, performance and inequality. The critical examination of the global neoliberal system—which is based on the availability of cheap labor despite the ever more aggressive policing of marked bodies across borders—leads to a further understanding of the increasing complexity and adaptation of structural and subjective racializing practices in the new century. While mobility has represented one of the cornerstones of modernity and globalization, immobility at specific times and places has also played an important role, as now seems a real possibility in the U.S. in the near future.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Valdivia, C. (2017) Book Review: Mobile Selves: Race, Migration and Belonging in Peru and the U.S. Available at: (Accessed [date]).