Hilary Dick on Words of Passage

Cover of Words of Passage

Interview by Alejandro I. Paz

https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/dick-words-of-passage

Alejandro I. Paz: Your book follows the ways that, given the entanglements between the US and Mexican economies, Mexicans who don’t migrate still imagine what their lives might be like on the other side of the border. Why is looking at the Mexicans who don’t migrate important and how does such a study illuminate the relation between the US and Mexico?

Hilary Parsons Dick: I use the term “nonmigrant” to refer specifically to people who haven’t migrated, but who live in places with active migration pathways, like the neighborhood where I centered my ethnographic research in Mexico, in which nearly every household has a member with migration experience. In this neighborhood—and in the migrant enclave in Southern Pennsylvania where I also conducted field work—images of life “beyond here” profoundly shape people’s understandings of relationships with their family and the countries of Mexico and the United States. This reality resonates with a way Arjun Appadurai described globalization, as a process that that leads people to live their lives refracted through other possible lives they imagine they could live elsewhere. I wanted to understand how such refraction, such imagining, unfolds in practice and with ethnographic particularity. The connections nonmigrants forge with the imagined lives of migrants offer a productive vantage point from which to explore this problem.

I found that considering how Mexican nonmigrants live in the company of imagined fellows illuminates the role ideas about migration play in nation-building and, especially, the variegation of national belonging: the idea that not all people who are legally authorized to be in a territory are positioned as fully belonging to it. As the anthropology of nationalism and citizenship has shown, such variegation is a key feature of nation-building across settings. And, as studies of immigration and citizenship law in migrant-receiving countries show, including your fabulous book Latinos in Israel, imaginaries about who migrants are or can be contribute profoundly to the constitution of variegation. One of Words of Passage’s contributions is to show that migrant imaginaries also play a central role in shaping national belonging in migrant-sending countries. Certainly, this has been the case in Mexico. Since the late 19th century, migrant imaginaries have helped organize what it means to “be Mexican” in ways that are consequential to the people with whom I did my research, as I discuss later in this interview (the third question). As for how this process tells us about the relationship between Mexico and the US, scroll down to the fourth question.

Alejandro I. Paz: More than anyone else in linguistic anthropology, you have theorized migration discourse, and in your book you have expanded that term’s scope, using history, ethnography, and close readings of transcripts. How does this combination of methodologies enable you to tackle the question of how migration discourse impacts, and is adapted by, working class Uriangatenses?

Hilary Parsons Dick: One of the key things I aimed to do in Words of Passage was to theorize the “imaginary” in a way that gives it concreteness. This concept is used frequently, but often without being fully operationalized. Yet, it is a productive concept for thinking through how the variegation of national belonging is produced and enacted. As Words of Passage shows, the (re)creation of imaginaries is fundamentally a discursive one. And critical to understanding the production of imaginaries of Mexicanidad/Mexicanness is studying talk and writing about the causes and consequences of migration—or migration discourse.

The combination of methodologies highlighted in your question grows from the understanding of discourse that undergirds the book. I analyze discourse in the Foucauldian-genealogical sense and in the linguistic anthropological sense of actual language-use. This approach allows me to show how particular moments of interaction contribute to broader processes, like the variegation of national belonging. To track whether and how imaginaries produced or authorized by the state, what I call state-endorsed imaginaries, inform the lives of actual people, I needed to establish that there are enduring state-endorsed imaginaries, which people variously contribute to, adapt, reformulate, and/or resist. I also demonstrate how people achieve these ends in interaction, through producing their own imaginaries of Mexicanidad that are informed by state-endorsed imaginaries, but which also critique and revise them in ways that envision their full belonging in the country.

Equally important to examining migration discourse in Mexico historically, ethnographically, and textually is the transnational aspect of my ethnographic research. Although Words of Passage focuses on the lives of nonmigrants, the insights it offers are deeply informed by the dual-sited fieldwork I did. This research helped bring into relief how the experience of migration is different for migrants and nonmigrants—and, also, how imaginaries of national belonging are informed by and resist the framings of Mexican migrants in the US.

 Alejandro I. Paz: Class is an important aspect of this study. You encourage us to think about the interpellation of the Mexican working class. You show how interpellative processes work their way through gendered, religious, and racial dynamics. What does such a study reveal about class in general and the Mexican working class specifically?

Hilary Parsons Dick: The concept of interpellation, understood as a process of call-and-response in which one is hailed to see oneself as a member of the nation-state and variably responds, is essential to the way I theorize the production and enactment of variegated national belonging. The assertion is that imaginaries of national belonging are a form of interpellation that call to people to see themselves as being part of the nation in ways that are not uniform or egalitarian.

In Mexico, state-endorsed imaginaries of Mexicanidad have designated certain groups as simultaneously representing the true “essence” of the nation, as embodying what is means to “be Mexican,” and also the country’s central obstacles to achieving full sovereignty and economic power. These paradoxical positionings create a double bind of belonging for people identified as part of these groups. As in many other contexts, this process of designation is raced, classed, and gendered: it is indigenous people, women, and rural peasants and the urban working-class who state-endorsed imaginaries place in the double-bind. I focus on class and gender in my study because the people with whom I did my research are monolingual, Spanish-speaking mestizos who identify as working-class, but have a certain race privilege as part of the unmarked racial category in Mexico. Words of Passage shows how people who occupy the position of “working-class” respond to the state’s interpellative call, taking up some of its terms while revising others. This type of analysis is relevant to the understanding the lived experience of class—and race and gender—in Mexico. And I think one could address a very similar set of problems in any modern nation-state through the theoretical framework I lay out.

Alejandro I. Paz: You write about the importance of the foil of the US, and the ethical and moral judgments made of the US, for how Mexicans have come to conceive of national belonging. Are there moments where the imagining of life in the US is more intense for Uriagantenses, and what regulates that intensity?

Hilary Parsons Dick: The lives of nonmigrants, and their experiences of variegation, add another layer of understanding to the enduring entanglements between the US and Mexico. Migration, not only the act itself but discourse about it, has been pivotal in producing this enmeshment politically, economically, and socioculturally since the late 19th century. People in Mexican migrant communities on both sides of the border are acutely aware of this fact—a common saying I would hear was that the US economy was built by la mano de obra Mexicana, by Mexican labor. Indeed, migration politics in the US would probably look very different if the profound, positive contributions migrants make were held in the center of the discussion.

More specifically, both state-endorsed and working-class Uriangatense imaginaries of Mexicanidad are ordered around a concept of moral mobility: the idea that Mexico and its people should “progress”(be mobile) economically, but in a way that is moral, where “being moral” is understood as the opposite of “being US.” So, being Mexican has historically and contemporaneously been about not being like the United States, posited as a land of economic opportunity, but moral depravity. For working-class Uriangatenses, it is Catholic understandings of personhood and collectivity that inform what “being moral” means. Imaginaries of moral mobility, therefore, are both visions of what the “good life” is and also a form of political commentary that rejects the imperialism that marks the US’s relationships with Mexico. For working-class Uriangatenses, and also for their relations living in the United States, there are times when this ethico-moral encounter with the US is more intense. These typically correspond with moments of impending cross-border movement, whether it’s going back to Mexico or facing US-bound migration.

Alejandro I. Paz: Have you been surprised by the way the new right in the US, apotheosized in the presidency of Donald Trump, has successfully turned up the temperature on migration discourse to gain political advantage? What do you see will be some of the results of this intensification of anti-immigrant messaging and policy for working class Mexicans, and especially do you think it will reinforce or change the kinds of imaginaries that you describe?

Hilary Parsons Dick: I am not surprised that the contemporary right-wing populism in the US, and elsewhere, has been bolstered by an intensification of (anti-)migration discourse. Since the 1970s, the US Republican party has used fear mongering about migrants to boost their political fortunes—and not all migrants, but racialized groups, such as migrants from Mexico and Central America. Throughout US history, there have been periodic moral panics about the migration of racialized groups, ginned up for political advantage. Generally, these happen at times of economic contraction and restructuring, like the neoliberalization of the global economy, in which political elites make racialized migrants into scapegoats for economic woes. So, Trump and his ilk are building on long-term racial projects and political economic strategies. One way they are contributing to these processes is by using migration discourse to endeavor to re-mainstream overt racism, which became taboo in public discourse after the Civil Rights movement: a problem I am working through in my second book.

The consequences of the intensification of right-wing migration discourse has been the authorization of policy measures and practices that have created a shameful humanitarian disaster on the US-Mexico border, and within other sectors of the US deportation regime. These policies disproportionately affect migrants from Mexico and Central America. The use of anti-migrant discourse to legitimate ever-more draconian policies is a practice that has been going on since the late 20th century. Though now this ratcheting up of the ‘law-and-order’ approach to migration is happening with even more vigor and extremity, as the Trump administration disregards some of the factors that used to partially temper such crackdowns, such as compassion for children and families and a commitment to family reunification.

Given the devastating impacts of crackdown policies, I doubt that core elements of Mexican imaginaries of moral mobility—which critique the US’s imperialist stance towards its southern neighbors—will change substantially. In many ways, recent events provide fodder for their reinforcement. In addition, return migrants have consistently been positioned as important figures in Mexican state-endorsed imaginaries—as both harbingers of “progress” and as threats to state power. The mass deportations of the Obama and Trump administrations have led to a large number of return migrants who present complications for Mexican state institutions. It will be interesting to see whether/how older framings of returnees are taken up as the Mexican state manages this period of return.

At the same time, since my ethnographic research for Words of Passage ended in the mid-2000s, Mexico has undergone a dramatic transition to becoming a country of significant migrant passage and reception, as migration from Central America has increased. This transition is forcing Mexico to reckon with being a nation of immigration and not just emigration. In this, the Mexican federal government is increasingly adopting policies that mirror the US crackdown approach. This suggests that it is producing a new state-endorsed migration discourse that situates Central American migrants in ways that unfortunately mirror how Mexican migrants have been positioned in US state-endorsed migration discourse.

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