Ulla Berg on her new book, Mobile Selves

Mobile Selves: Race, Migration, and Belonging in Peru and the U.S. (Social Transformations in American Anthropology) by [Berg, Ulla D.]



Interview by Ilana Gershon

 If you were in a long customs line, like the one in the complex and evocative vignette with which you open your book, and you struck up a conversation with an immigration lawyer who happened to be just ahead of you in line, how would you describe your book?

Any migrant almost always exceeds the legal category they inhabit for US immigration purposes and this “excess” is a central concern in my book. I would probably focus on describing the communicative practices that people in my study use to navigate and fit into the legal categories available to them, including various visa categories. Lawyers are of course extremely aware of the complexities of people’s experiences when they try to construct a client’s case as compelling for any type of relief, but they also for obvious reasons need to shy away from engaging how people’s communicative practices are performative and context-dependent.

Migration is both a social and signifying practice that link the individual to the social collectivity. In contexts of migration, the migrant body is the center of these processes of signification; it is that which is read by others—for example, immigration officers, Anglo-Americans and non-migrant relatives—and that which in the most fundamental sense mediates all action upon the world. In the book at large, I discuss how the larger constraints of the migration process—and of social and racial orders more generally—constantly prompts migrants to communicate to others— U.S. immigration officials, Peruvian government officials, elite Peruvians, people in their home towns, US employers, and wider publics—an image of who they are or are expected to be and how they wish to be seen. Such images are necessarily always partial; indeed, they deny any facile claims to legibility embedded in normative and ideal-typical representations of who is a “Peruvian,” an “immigrant,” a “non-citizen,” a “refugee,” and so on. This is where the anthropological perspective is different from the legal one and could produce interesting debates!

How have biometric technologies changed people’s experiences of traveling between Peru and the United States?

Before the implementation of biometric passports and screening systems at USCIS checkpoints, it was still relatively easy for someone from Latin America to travel on someone else’s passport. In Mobile Selves, I give the example of two brothers who used the same passport to enter the US sometime in the 1990s. One of them told me: “We look like each other…and they [that is, the immigration authorities] can’t tell the difference anyway. To the gringos all cholos look the same.” But in the biometric era, not all cholos “read” the same!

Biometric technologies transform the body’s surfaces and characteristics into digital codes to be ‘read’ by a machine. But the meaning of the biometric body is always contingent upon the social and racial contexts in which it will be read and how it is tied to identity from the perspective of the social and political institutions that control the international movement of people. But of course, as many critics of biometrics have also argued, the burden of surveillance will continue to fall disproportionately on poor, marginal, and racialized communities. That is one of the problems with biometrics.

The heavier reliance on biometric identification also puts more weight on the visa interview and less on a portfolio of supporting documents. An average visa interview at the US consulate in Lima now lasts 3-5 minutes, and this opens up for all sorts of questions about the arbitrariness and the social and racial logics by which visa decisions are made, including about the issuing officer’s assumption about some people’s worthiness of a US visa over others. I think biometric technologies have intensified many people’s experience of being subjected to a controlling racial regime.

You describe how the experience of transnational migration has changed for people because of all the possible media people can now use to connect with family members back home.  Yet just because these technologies exist doesn’t mean that it is socially possible for Peruvian migrants to use them.   I was wondering if you could say a little bit about some of the social complications surrounding these technologies that make using these technologies a challenge both for those in Peru and those in the United States.

It is often assumed that just because communication technology exists, it will automatically make us feel more connected to our loved ones across time and space. But the expectation that you have to be reachable and connected at any point in time can be both exhausting, impractical, and also undesirable – we all know this from our daily lives! Such expectations were often difficult to meet both for labor migrants abroad as well as for family members in Peru, because of complicated work schedules, long workdays, little free time at their disposal, controlling employers or workplace surveillance, or limited options to connect in rural areas in Peru.

This is the main issue with celebratory accounts of the affordances that new media environments are supposed to offer for the enactment and experience of social relations across time and space. Yes, disenfranchised migrant mothers can use Skype or Facetime to check in on their children from afar, but this technologically mediated form of communication cannot substitute the intense multi-sensorial experience of being able to tug your own kid (not someone else’s) into bed at night or to be there for them if they wake up in the middle of the night after a nightmare or if something bad happens at school.

Considering these complex social dynamics undergirded by global inequality, I disagree with scholars who diminish or even disregard the social and emotional cost of separation by proposing that polymedia environments contribute to making the absent other tangible and therefore come to constitute the other person and hence the relationship itself. For most people in my study, new technologies could alter feelings by momentarily collapsing distance and institute forms of co-presence, but at the end of the day most migrant mothers lived on in the United States mourning the prolonged separation from their children and other relatives. Along with this, the feelings of abandonment in some children towards their migrant parents extend into their adolescence and adulthood as resentments that cannot easily be undone even as a person grows up and acquires more tools to understand your parent’s actions.  Feelings such as pain, loss, suffering over separation and distance, longing, sadness, and nostalgia or the more positive ones such as love, compassion, intimacy, and belonging continued to animate the lives of migrants in affective and material ways despite the changing technologies used to produce these social and intersubjective relationships through long-distance communication.

I was wondering if you could discuss the different attitudes Peruvian migrants have towards audio-cassettes and videocassettes, and how these different media ideologies shaped the genres people use to circulate images and stories circulated between Peru and the U.S.

Absolutely. Most recent migrants are constantly preoccupied with maintaining the social bonds of kinship with family and relatives left behind via long-distance communication, remitting small amounts of money from their meager entry-level U.S. salaries, and by circulating a variety of material and media objects. In this way, they seek to remain emotionally connected and relevant in the everyday lives of their families in Peru and socially visible in the communities they left behind. For example, in Chapter 3, I evoke the concept of “remote sensing” specifically to discuss the attempts of migrant parents to “feel” and “know” their children’s lives and whereabouts from afar. This communicative, sensory, and mediated practice, which employ both aural and visual technologies, regularly plays out against dominant social norms that cast “communicative” migrants abroad in a favorable light back home as caring mothers, responsible fathers, dutiful daughters, and reliable and dependable “hijos ausentes” (that is, absent sons and daughters of their rural communities of origin). But in the context of the prolonged separation caused by migration, “remote sensing”, I suggest, amplifies rather than ameliorates the social and emotional struggles of transnational families, because participants are often not able to perform according to the roles set for them by gendered and intergenerational normative frameworks. In this way, long-distance communication, as a form of social, cultural, and affective practice, is often fraught with tension, uncertainty, and power inequalities.

Some migrants in my study preferred visual means of communication and they claimed it gave them the added effect of seeing their loved ones. There was often an assumption that you can “fake it” over the phone but you cannot conceal your true feelings when video chatting (even if all forms of communication are of course performative – also face-to-face communication whether mediated by video or not). Many migrants also “produced” videos to send to their family members – either of everyday life or special occasions such as community events or fiestas. I show in the book how video production, consumption, and circulation figure centrally in migrants’ staging of their own social visibility as “worldly” and “cosmopolitan” ex-campesinos. Participants in my study were highly invested in monitoring, selecting, and negotiating the criteria for which images of migrant life abroad could be shared with those back in Peru and what, in turn, had to be made invisible and left out of circulation to avoid rumors, tensions, and accusations within transnational families or among paisanos back home. Of course sometimes particular image objects escaped intended networks of circulation and moved beyond specific audiences. In these cases, imagery served as “visual evidence” that could complicate people’s efforts of self-fashioning. I show how such revelations have implications for the production of social cohesion within transnational migrant collectivities, and how circulating images may serve as new forms of social control and surveillance. In sum, visual and oral forms of communication have significant differences but both extend and also complicate social relations and in their own way expose the inherent tensions and ambiguities of the migrant/transnational condition of Andean Peruvians.You published this book before Trump was elected, turning anti-immigration sentiment into an official government position. If you had a chance to talk to a room full of Trump supporters who were willing to listening respectfully to academics, what would you like them to know about your research?

Ha ha—fact-seeking Trump supporters? That seems like a hypothetical scenario at this point in time, but ok… I would probably feel compelled to first talk about the many contributions of immigrants—Latin Americans, in particular—to the US economy and society and to expel some of the many “alternative facts” about these populations circulated by the Trump administration’s propaganda machinery.

What currently counts as “immigration policy” in the US is a series of contradictory piecemeal actions, most of them based on long-lived racial anxieties and nativist ideologies, which do not add up to any coherent policy. Unfortunately, by not having a coherent immigration policy, the US has become a world leader in the undermining of human potential. Trump’s recent decision to end DACA is a text-book example of such complete lack of perspective.

I would give examples of the profound existential resourcefulness of most of the mobile Peruvians I came to know during my research to show Trump supporters how the drive to better oneself and the larger community is not a US invention but one that is widely shared by migrants around the world; one that cannot but make America much greater in the future than what it currently is today. Immigrants don’t take jobs, they create them. We are not parasitical on the US economy; we make this economy happen on a daily basis.

Hopefully, the Trump era will soon be reduced to a crazy minor parenthesis in modern US history, but what not only a room full of attentive Trump supporters specifically, but US whites more generally must acknowledge and work to change is how in the United States mobility is intimately tied to race and privilege (or the lack thereof). This is one of the basic points of the book that I would attempt to convey in such a situation.




Shane Greene on his new book, Punk and Revolution


Interview by Orin Starn

Can you tell us about Punk and Revolution: 7 More Interpretations of Peruvian Reality and what you set out to accomplish with the book?

 I hope the book goes down as a few things:  a novel take not just on Peru’s war with the Shining Path but, somewhat by extrapolation, the narratives that dominate understandings about “Cold War Latin America.” I’m invested in inserting some wacky anarchists into that otherwise standard tale of the “hard left” (that is, Marxist) and “hard right” alternatives that dominated the region from the 60s to the 90. I also want some sort of disruption into punk’s too comfortable location in the Anglo North Atlantic rock nexus, and all the debates about provocation, selling out, and being reborn that that typical story about punk has generated. And I guess it is something like a modest assault on academia to make it slightly less boring.  There’s also the distinct possibility I was just trying to live “rock subterráneo” vicariously and reopen old wounds about the politics of feeling out of place, something that started when I was about 13.


Punk is genre-busting music.  And this is a genre-busting ethnography.  Can you tell us about your ethnographic style here, including all that good nasty language?  Do you see your book as having lessons for other anthropologists in thinking about experimenting with our writing?

Not everyone thinks my nasty language is all that good, and some were in a position to question or kill it when they thought it too nasty, or, maybe just too “masculine” (oh, how they have overrated my masculinity). It was never really a project about challenging “political correctness” (a phrase that emerged on the radical left but has long been appropriated by the far right) and more about wondering what we can or can’t say with academic voices or how we are or are not allowed to juxtapose academic voices with other, um, less staid, voices.  The criticisms sometimes made me really rethink the nastiness (Interpretation #4) and, other times, I just snuck it back in elsewhere (because I’m sneaky). That said, even my kid knows I have a dirty mouth so probably a certain percentage of it is just how I talk anyway. But, really, the main thing was just that I wanted each of the 7 Interpretations to sound/read/look totally different. Eventually, that meant not even writing essays, which explains the Situationist-style art project (Interpretation #6) and the short story (Interpretation #7).  For that matter, there’s technically more than 7 Interpretations given all the supplemental side projects that the book is linked to on the companion website (www.punkandrevolution.com), the zine-stuff, a music video my band did, a tee shirt I made, and so on. The idiosyncratic aspect of “just interpreting shit” (like the punk Geertz or something) makes me not really know if there’s a teachable lesson.  But in general I’m all for encouraging people to go beyond or even explicitly against the standard and dry academese we love to subject ourselves to.


Anthropologists have long had Peru as a favorite stomping ground.   But much of that scholarship has been about the rural Andes.  Your focus is on the megalopolis of Lima.  How do you see your contribution to understanding urban experience in Peru and Latin America?   And to how we understand Peru and Latin America more broadly?

There’s definitely a thing with Peru and the Andes fetish. It goes deep and straight to the heart of nationalism.  It’s hard to even think of a handful of interesting books about Lima – on any topic – much less about other Peruvian cities (Arequipa? Piura? Trujillo?) written by anthropologist (oh, but Daniella Gandolfo’s book about Lima is amaaaaaazing).  I think this was honestly more of a side effect than my real intent, that is, I ended up creating a peculiar look into one segment of Lima, basically the middle-class and up (since rock as a genre is mostly middle-class and up).  There’s some good work on hip-hop out there in countries like Cuba, Brazil, and so on.  And there’s some STS types doing interesting stuff that at least crosses into urban spaces but isn’t necessarily about “the city” or necessarily “anthropology” (thinking of Anita Chan’s book Networking Peripheries). Either way, we are overdue for some anthropologists thinking more about the multiplicity and depth of urban subcultures throughout Latin America, as well as their global inspiration in, and creative divergence from, subcultures that emerged elsewhere.  Even when anthropologists finally come out of the countryside and go to the city they seem to end up focusing on the same subaltern populations or themes, like rural-to-urban migration or historically racialized groups, and so on.  But welcome to the history of anthropology, I guess.


What do you see as your contribution to understanding the global history of punk?  And to how we think about sound and the politics of sound?

The book doesn’t talk about sound per se but I got very interested in the geopolitics of music formats, hence all the stuff about production and circulation (and piracy) of demo cassettes in Interpretation #1.  Of course, format studies are now an offshoot of sound studies. There’s something mystically beautiful and marvelously awful about the sound of Peruvian punk from the 80s.  The conditions for production (or instruments available for recording for that matter) were so bad, it is just truly wonderful.  Some contemporary Peruvian punks and hardcore types wax nostalgic about the cassette format for that reason and so they buck the global digitalization trend by recording new albums on cassette now when it seems utterly anachronistic.  The global north has its own history with cassettes but it isn’t quite the same thing.  First off, it more often connotes some sort of social intimacy or friend networks (such as: the friend who recorded album X for me; or the girlfriend who gave me the mix tape Y).  In Lima, because of the dramatically unstable political context there was a curiously ambiguous dialogue taking place between the “underground rock” economy (cassettes, fliers, art pieces, and so on) and the other “underground political” sector of Shining Path organizers and militants who were also producing art, propaganda, newspapers and other genres for the “revolution.”  Both were happening outside, and against, mainstream media circuits (and, for that matter, the state).  So, it became really dangerous for Peruvian punks at the time and many of them found that out the hard way (hence Interpretation #6).  There was a deep political risk (of death, disappearance, imprisonment, exile) built into being a Peruvian punk and producing things that were punk-like in the Peru of the time.  That, as far as I can tell, is quite unique within punk experiences writ large.


What’s your next project?

I’ve been throwing around this term “misanthropology” for the last few years and threatening to write a book about how we, the human species, are all gonna die.  And probably should. Given November 2016, seems like maybe it’s a good time to get started on that.