Guest post by Carolina Alonso Bejarano. Born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, Carolina Alonso Bejarano is a scholar-activist and DJ. She is a lawyer with a Ph.D. in Women’s and Gender Studies teaching at the School of Law at the University of Warwick in the UK.

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Members of Casa Hometown march on Mayday at Union Square, New York. 2013 (Image from artist Peter Quach)

“We have to keep struggling against our oppression. Like in the times of Martin Luther King, when you had to risk something to get something. The history of decolonization continues.”

With these words, my coauthor “Lucy” López Juárez closes the preface of our book Decolonizing Ethnography: Undocumented Immigrants and New Directions in Social Science. Lucy, a mother of two (citizen) children, a domestic worker and an undocumented activist living in the United States, recognizes the importance of continued organizing, even in the most adverse circumstances. She also recognizes a direct relation between the oppression that she experiences and the past and present oppression of Black Americans.

Like Lucy’s quote, my work is situated at the intersection of immigration, activism and history.

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The authors of Decolonizing Ethnography: Lucy, Carolina, Mirian and Daniel, 2014 (Image from artist Peter Quach)

My research started in (pseudonymous) Hometown, New Jersey, a small town in a vast suburban sea of what used to be farmland established in 1693 as an English colony, with a population of 12,000 people in 2017. Hometown was a predominantly white town where racial minorities were almost exclusively African American until the mid-1990s. Today it is about 50 percent Latinx (Mexicans for the most part, but also Peruvians, Guatemalans, and others). Many of these Latinx people are undocumented immigrants who gather to wait for work at what locals call “the muster zone,” a hiring hall located on a big road along the railroad tracks.

The only reason day laborers can stand there today is because in the early 2000s they fought the municipality’s anti-loitering laws for their right to do so: In 2003 the Hometown Council tried to close the muster zone and Black Hometown residents opposed this because their ancestors had stood in the same place to wait for work in the mid-twentieth century, and the municipality had used the same laws on the books to criminalize them as well. Thus, a coalition between undocumented workers and the Second Baptist Church (with a congregation of 90 percent African Americans) was formed to fight for the rights of people to wait for work in the streets of Hometown. Together they filed and won a lawsuit against the anti-loitering ordinance and created a center for immigrants’ rights, Casa Hometown, where I worked as an ethnographer and activist between 2011 and 2015. As a scholar of the production of illegality (the socio-historical processes that produce certain people as “illegal”), this story made me realize that the racialized use of local ordinances to regulate who can settle in a particular town is not a history that concerns only those migrating from outside the continental United States. In this regard, it is important to note that Hometown does not stand alone in attempting to curb immigration through local legislation, as anti-immigration ordinances have proliferated across the country.

Our book addresses this history and discusses the rights that undocumented workers have in the United States in the context of the immigrants’ rights movement in new Jersey –the Garden State. It explores what a decolonial approach to ethnography might look like based on four years of ethnographic research with the undocumented population in Hometown. The book was written by four of us: Lucy, from Mexico, has lived in New Jersey for 20 years after crossing into the US on foot. Mirian Mijangos García came to the US on a tourist visa from Guatemala 15 years ago and has been in New Jersey ever since. Mirian is a singer and songwriter. She is a member of the movement for immigrants’ rights and the Alliance of Domestic Workers. Daniel Goldstein is a US-born Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Rutgers, a state university in New Jersey. He worked extensively in Bolivia, doing activist ethnographic research on informal economies and insecurity. Finally, there is me: A Colombian lawyer turned critical feminist who was, at the time of our research, a doctoral student of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers working under Daniel’s supervision.

The book opens with a poem about the American Dream called “Broken Poem”, written in English by a day laborer we worked with in 2014. The short preface addresses the 2016 presidential election, and the fact that the book was researched and written as a call to direct action during the Obama administration, when immigrants were harassed to a relatively lesser degree than they would be under the Trump regime, when the book was published. Chapter one considers the intersection of feminist decolonial theory and activist anthropology, arguing, along with many before us, that ethnography has been and continues to be a colonial, exploitative and extractive methodology. Chapter two discusses the life stories of the authors and how we came to be in New Jersey together. The rest of the book presents our proposal for a decolonial approach to ethnographic research, inspired by the many anti-colonial ethnographers we engage with in chapter one. In chapters three and four we discuss the research methodology and findings, and finally chapter five features a play, which we all wrote and performed together.

We explain that anthropology emerged as a scientific discipline during the colonial era, when Europeans were consolidating their control over the non-Western territories that they had subjugated to their rule. The people of these territories became anthropology’s objects of analysis, and anthropology became the discipline in the Western scientific academy dedicated to the study of non-Western peoples. The colonial power structure enabled Europeans to safely observe and participate in the lives of non-Europeans, to establish the long-term, intimate relations that became the basis for and the hallmark of ethnographic fieldwork. In this tradition, the objects of research play no role in defining the research questions and experience little to no benefit as a result of it. In the end, the foreign researcher can build a career from this work and enjoy a comfortable middle-class Western lifestyle, while those who provide the raw materials for research remain in the conditions in which the ethnographer first encountered them.

In our book, we seek to undo this distinction between the subject and the object of social science research. In a nutshell, Lucy and Mirian took the tools of ethnographic research (writing fieldnotes, doing participant observation, running focus groups and conducting interviews) and used them for the purposes of their community organizing efforts in the movement for the rights of the undocumented in the United States. Importantly, Lucy and Mirian’s theorizations about their status as undocumented women organizers, what we call their “undocumented activist theory of undocumentation,” recognizes the agency that undocumented immigrants have in the United States as political actors, and invites other undocumented folks to come out the shadows and join them in the fight for the rights of immigrants in the US. That, we argue, is a decolonizing move, when the traditional objects of ethnographic research use ethnography as a tool of empowerment to fight against their oppression.

One product of our research in terms of methodology, aesthetics and decolonization, discussed at length in the book is our play, Undocumented/Unafraid. We met for two years, sometimes just the four of us, sometimes with other members of Casa Hometown, and wrote a one act play inspired by the true story of the work accident that Mirian suffered in a horse farm in New Jersey, and her legal battle against her employer while being away from her children in Guatemala. Each scene ends with a short caption about workers’ rights in the United States and reminds undocumented people that these rights apply to everyone, regardless of their immigration status. We performed the play in Casa Hometown in August 2015 in celebration of the closure of our four-year ethnographic study in Hometown and included it in Spanish and English in the last chapter of our book.

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Mirian performing an original song for the play Undocumented/Unafraid, 2015 (Image from artist Peter Quach)

The play closes the book, and, to us, it was the best way to end, but also a great place to start anew. Mirian and I, along with our comrade Teresa Vivar, are beginning new research on undocumented activist artists. We launched the project, Undocuartivism in the Garden State, in June 2021. It is hosted in Lazos América Unida (LAU) —a Latinx immigrant-led community organization operating out of New Brunswick, New Jersey, directed by Teresa. Following the art-based participatory action research developed in chapter five of Decolonizing Ethnography, the initial stage of the project follows ten undocuartivists from New Jersey with the aim to produce several art exhibits in LAU as well as an art book and website featuring the artists and their works. With this effort, we seek to collectively imagine alternative representations of the role and presence of undocumented people in the United States; to explore the benefits of interdisciplinary work; to build solidarity across difference; and to examine the intersections between art, activism and the academy. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Alonso Bejarano, C. (2021). Art and Resistance in the Garden State. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/09/art-and [date]