Guest post by Amelia Frank-Vitale. Amelia is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the University of Michigan. After working in Mexico from 2010-2015, where she focused on the multiple kinds of violence that Central Americans face while in transit, she now works in Honduras. Here she studies how deportees reconfigure their lives and reimagine their futures after being sent back to some of the world’s most violent neighborhoods. She is on twitter at @ameliaenmexico.

Review of Exiled Home: Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence, by Susan Bibler Coutin (Duke University Press, 2016)

A young woman interviewed for Exiled Home mentions how, in her school cafeteria, there was unofficial segregation by race. The woman, Salvadoran, didn’t want to sit in the Latino section but, when she would go sit with the white kids, she heard comments like What are you doing over here in Disneyland? (p. 75)

While this memory is just one of many presented in Exiled Home, the context and the question itself capture what is at the heart of this book. The world, like the cafeteria, is divided into sections. You might be able to try and change sections, but full belonging is elusive, contingent, and questioned. Additionally, there is something to be said about the fact that the white kids’ section of the cafeteria had the moniker ‘Disneyland’: a place of fantasy that resonates with the importance of memory, creativity and the idea of belonging rather than legal membership. For immigrant communities, this same question is poised in different ways by a variety of individuals, structures, systems, and laws.

Exiled Home comes as the latest in a series of important works by Susan Bibler Coutin on Salvadoran migration. For a new scholar focused on Central American migration like myself, Coutin’s body of work was hugely influential. While much of her previous work was pioneering, Exiled Home comes at a time when renewed interest is being paid to El Salvador and there is a wealth of scholarship on the experience of Salvadoran immigrants in transit (see for example Coutin; Vogt; Brigden), in the United States (Pedersen; Menjívar), and after deportation (Zilberg). Despite this crowded landscape, Exiled Home makes a valuable contribution to migration and deportation studies, while simultaneously adding to the field of legal anthropology more broadly, as well as the literature on memory and belonging.

Exiled Home builds on this rich body of literature while taking us beyond both migration studies and deportation studies. At first blush, Exiled Home is an account of the lives of Salvadoran youths who were brought to the United States as children, grew up in the US, and then confronted law and society as young, precariously documented adults – whether that be as students, activists, artists, or deportees. While the experience of undocumented immigrants who are “American” in all but the legal sense has now been well documented, Coutin broadens the disciplinary focus on Salvadorans, and in doing so, makes a couple of important interventions into deportation studies. First, she treats Salvadorans who grew up in the United States and were then deported, together with those who have not been deported, as a single – though clearly diverse – community. This allows her to look at the individuals, their lives, and their memories, as part of a collectivity that has been fragmented.

Additionally, in her analytical stance, Coutin links the violence of war, of migrating without authorization, and of being denied asylum each as mutually-reinforcing parts of a compounded total violence enacted on Salvadoran transnational youth. Coutin makes this argument through the development of a pair of analytics: dismemberment and re/membering. She gives dismemberment a double meaning: both not remembering or erasure and, at once, ‘the breaking apart of bodies, polities, and nations’ (p. 4). She sees dismemberment as the process through which histories are repressed and distorted, and communities are fragmented. Further, dismemberment estranges people from their own sense of self and their social worlds and denies them membership. Re/membering encompasses the process of revealing these repressed and distorted histories and, at once, drawing connections between them. She defines re/membering as claiming and negotiating membership while also deepening and constructing memory.

Initially I found the notion of dismemberment jarring. While her explanation is compelling and the multiple meanings, she intends to evoke by using it are successfully revealed, the grisly connotation of the word imbues its usage in the text. While jarring, it is also apt, as physical dismemberment has been part of both the experience of war in El Salvador as well as in the clandestine migration of Central Americans through Mexico, where many have lost limbs to the infamous freight train carrying them on their journey. While I was initially uncomfortable with how coming across the term broke the flow of the text each time it was used, I think ultimately it works for Coutin’s purposes, linking multiple forms of violence both physical and structural. Without falling into what Daniel has termed the ‘pornography of violence’ in her account, talking about dismemberment as she does keeps the very real physical violence present for the reader while also allowing us to understand multiple, connected forms of violence. 

In a sense, Exiled Home is more an ethnography of memory than an ethnography of a people. It is a history accomplished through an examination of how people remember, misremember, think of, and recount their history and the history that’s been told to them. The acts and processes of memory, remembering, and re/membering are the objects of study, rather than the present-day experience being the focus. It is a unique ethnography in that it mixes the imagined past with the produced present instead of primarily documenting and inhabiting daily life. It is a text that simultaneously reads like oral history, legal history, testimony, and conventional ethnography. As Coutin notes, this book is not solely about re/membering, it is also an instance of re/membering (p. 50)

Exiled Home itself reflects the way that memory works. The book is not organized chronologically; it is a collection of snippets of memory and stories, organized thematically. Sometimes we hear about the present day, sometimes we go back to the ‘80s, sometimes anywhere in between. At times, it feels like we are reading a book written years earlier, as people discuss a more distant past with an urgency and sharpness often associated with one’s present experience. As the order and the official history is not the point of this book, rather the way that it feels to be/come and re/member, this non-linear organization works well. It is remarkable, in fact, that given the vagaries of memory and Coutin’s emphasis on texture and evocation, that there is a tight historicity to the book and the inclusion of precise legal explanations as well.

One of the core arguments of this book is that the present-day violence faced by transnational Salvadoran youth – whether that be the violence of their precarious status in the United States or that of deportation to a country that they do not feel to be theirs – is part of the aftermath of the denial of their parents’ asylum claims in the ‘80s (p. 137). This is a crucial claim, as it suggests that the shadow of structural and political exclusion looms large over subsequent generations. Exiled Home offers us the opportunity to look into the future and to see the present – and the choices before us -- through the past. As we are grappling with a similar moment right now, we can anticipate, through this careful study, how the aftereffects of denial of asylum today will ripple through those denied and their children for generations.

Taking up this book now feels particularly, uncannily timely, as caravans of Central Americans head toward the United States, trying to make the claim –in their own words-- that they are refugiados, or refugees, not migrants. Coutin’s introduction even recalls caravans on behalf of Central Americans in the ‘80s, as an important tactic for gaining protection and status for some. Now, there is a new generation of Salvadorans – and other Central Americans -- migrating to the United States, many who are seeking asylum once again, though now on different grounds. They face similar arguments from the US government as their counterparts did four decades earlier (that they are economic migrants, that they face generalized violence (p. 41). There is a new dismembering happening - the product of the layered dismembering of generations that Coutin details. This new dismembering, however, has a kind of constant motion to it. It is not delayed but accelerated. Central American youth today migrate, are detained, deported, and migrate again, cycling through these stages repeatedly. They embody dismemberment in a more heightened way, perhaps, than the generation whose re/membering is the subject of this book.

The first chapter of Exiled Home focuses on the silences in the official, legal, and even interpersonal histories that exist about the Salvadoran civil war and its aftermath. Indeed, this is a thread that holds throughout the text, as these silences are the impetus for the book itself and for the re/membering in which the interviewees are engaged in different forms. Given this emphasis on silences, I do think it is appropriate to think about which silences this text also (re)produces. The one that stands out is precisely the one involving those who are deported - Salvadoran and otherwise – without having become “American” first:  people who are caught while crossing the border, those who entered the United States as adults and never went to school, do not speak English, who didn’t grow up there. They never even got to 'Disneyland.' How does their experience of dismemberment articulate with their long-term US resident counterparts? How might they go about re/membering their stories – intertwined and separate from – the transnational youth of Exiled Home?

For anyone wishing to understand what is at stake with the cancelation of TPS and DACA, the proposed changes to make asylum even harder to get, or the waves of caravans coming out of Central America, this book is essential. It will be useful and timely for courses from any discipline on immigration as well as political and legal anthropology. Exiled Home is written with an eye toward law and policy-making that is unusual and refreshing among anthropology texts, and which does not take away from its theoretical rigor. Coutin even offers explicit suggestions for policy in the conclusion (p. 220-224). Rather than itemize these here, I’ll quote Coutin as she deftly brings together the policy and theory in her final synthesis of how to change things: ‘if migrant populations could be granted status, thus recognizing their biographies and histories, then this cycle of violence could be broken’ (p. 207).

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Frank-Vitale, A. (2019) Book Review: Exiled Home: Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/01/book-review (Accessed [date]).