Hilary Dick on Words of Passage

Cover of Words of Passage

Interview by Alejandro I. Paz


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.

Inmaculada García-Sánchez on her Annual Review article

Kids in the middle

Recognizing the important role of children as cultural translators

Originally published: https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/society/2019/kids-middle

Linguistic anthropologist Inmaculada García-Sánchez of Temple University studies child language brokers. It’s a term that might evoke an image of kids in sharply pressed business suits, but these kids are brokers in the sense that they arrange and negotiate transactions or conversations on behalf of immigrant family members and other community adults because, often, they speak the dominant language better than their elders.

Their work as language interpreters in their communities is key in business transactions, civic engagement, health care and even their own parent-teacher conferences, García-Sánchez has found. Writing in the Annual Review of Anthropology, she flips the idea that most of us have about children and caregiving. (García-Sánchez defines the term broadly as acting on the behalf of others.) In a discussion with Knowable, she says society should recognize that children are far from helpless and do more to care for others in their families and communities than we give them credit for. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview by Kendall Powell

Kendall Powell: Why should we pay attention to the caregiving that children do?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Giving care is a very complex process that involves many community members and resources — it is a community care network. As language interpreters, children are contributing to the smooth functioning of the institutions that serve their communities: banks, clinics, government agencies. The more we understand the role of children as caregivers and care facilitators, the better we’ll understand how caregiving truly works.

Kendall Powell: How did you get interested in studying children as translators?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I’ve always been interested in multilingual communities, particularly immigrant communities that are undergoing rapid change linguistically and culturally. Children are at the forefront of those changes in their communities.

Child language brokering is not new — there are written accounts of children doing this in Canada and the US for their immigrant families in the late 1800s. But it has only received attention from anthropologists and sociologists since the 1990s.

There was this idea that children come by translation naturally, largely by mimicking adults.  But language translation is very complex — it contains linguistic and emotional complexity, and it involves managing everyone’s point of view. Sometimes the child is acting as an agent of an institution such as a health clinic, which adds the need to navigate the organization and a layer of social complexity. It’s not simply a natural-born thing!

Translation is really just the tip of the iceberg because it is the visible part. Children are also helping their parents compose emails or double-checking invoices for the family business.

Kendall Powell: How does child language brokering work?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In immigrant communities, there are never enough official translators. So immigrants rely on an informal network of community members who are willing to do the interpreting. And children are playing a central role in that work.

“The idea that children are ‘helpless’ is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution.”

Generally starting around age 8 or 9, children negotiate, mediate and translate for their families and other adults and for the institutions or services those adults interact with. This is something that hearing children of deaf parents also do.

Kendall Powell: How do children do this if they are also new arrivals?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: It’s a combination of factors. The rate of language acquisition in young children is going to outpace the parent — especially if they are immersed in the new language through school. It’s also important to note the availability of children. Adults in the community might be working two or three jobs, or they work three shifts of a job, so they are less available for translating help.

Kendall Powell: Isn’t that too much responsibility to put on a kid’s shoulders?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Everybody everywhere in the world recognizes that children are young, dependent and require a lot of help. But in post-industrial Western nations, we’ve sort of overdone this a bit. The idea that children are “helpless” is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle-class, nuclear family. In reality, the abilities of children, and what they should be allowed to do, varies across cultures and over time. For example, even in my mother’s generation in Spain, it was much more common for older siblings and child neighbors to do sibling or peer babysitting than it is today.

In modern times, families have become increasingly child-centric, with the idea that children shouldn’t be allowed to give care. It’s important, too, to note that the childhood that has become normalized is that of white, middle-class people. People tend to think of this “normal” childhood as what is natural and healthy. This is why they immediately characterize any work done by children as “unhealthy” and become outraged by it. But our “normal” childhood right now in the early twenty-first century isn’t necessarily better or healthier or leading to better outcomes than other types of childhood experiences.

Kendall Powell: Where is the line between what children should and should not do as caregivers, then?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: There is tension between children’s vulnerability and children’s competency as social actors. Both are very real. But for me, it’s a huge problem when child language brokering and other childhood experiences are pathologized. Yes, sometimes these situations are very extreme — such as a child translating between a parent and a doctor during an emergency. In my own studies, I have observed that in most high-stakes, stressful situations, adults recognized that child language brokering was not appropriate and they waited for an adult neighbor to help if they could.

But the vast majority of child language brokering is much more mundane and low-stakes. The child might help an adult order a pizza or fill out a permission slip for a field trip. Also, it is never just the child in these interactions, but rather a “performance team” that involves at least two adults along with the child. In my work studying child language brokering in Moroccan immigrants in Spain, I attended medical visits in which the doctor and the immigrant parent or family member followed along in the conversation and helped the child. Each person brings expertise to the team — the child knows the mainstream language, the doctor has medical knowledge, the immigrant adult has real-world knowledge.

Kendall Powell: Is child language brokering treated like any other household chore by immigrant families?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Yes! There is a lot of negotiation about this within families, just like telling your kid to mow the lawn. Some kids do it willingly and for others, it’s a huge battle. I find in my research that parents get upset when kids don’t want to do child language brokering. It is considered a contribution and seen as a larger responsibility toward the household that is good for the child’s development.

Kendall Powell: Do other positive things come from children doing child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Shu-Sha Angie Guan, a developmental psychologist at California State University, Northridge, studied first- and second-generation immigrant college students who had done child language brokering as children. She found that the more brokering for parents that students had done, the better they developed transcultural perspectives, and students who performed more brokering for people other than parents had higher levels of empathy.

In my Moroccan immigrant study in Spain, one of the things that surprised me was how the children would do very tiny modifications in their translations in relation to racial stereotypes or misrepresentations of the Moroccan community’s culture. In one example in a pediatrician’s office, a Moroccan mother referred to spanking one of her children. The nine-year-old neighbor translated that the mother had merely reprimanded the child verbally. The children were aware of the widely circulated negative stereotypes and were inserting themselves to act as advocates and protecting their community from unwanted scrutiny. To me, children’s competency at reading the politics of the situation is mind-blowing.

Kendall Powell: What other surprises do you find with child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: With Marjorie Orellana of UCLA, I studied Latino immigrant children in the US who were translating at their own parent-teacher conferences. There was an assumption that the kids would lie to make themselves look good in front of their parents.

But what we found was jarring. Every time I look at that data, I feel like crying. Not only were children not lying or making themselves look good, but all the praise that teachers were throwing their way was going untranslated. So parents were actually getting a worse report.

Kendall Powell: Why was that?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: One hypothesis is that children know that tooting your own horn is kind of narcissistic. So perhaps they were embarrassed to toot their own horn even via translation. Also, it could be that children pick up on the structure of teachers’ language — that teachers often use praise to soften the bad news part of the conference. Maybe they were just skipping to the meat, thinking, “The important part is that I’m doing poorly in social studies, not that I get along with my friends.”

Kendall Powell: You call children “active and competent caregivers.” What other types of care work are they doing?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In my own research, I’ve seen that children care for each other all the time. They are usually very inclusive — we adults could learn from them. In immigrant peer networks, I’ve seen children organize games in such a way that it doesn’t matter if you just arrived in the new country or what your level of linguistic ability is. I observed children alternating songs for jumping rope between Spanish and Moroccan Arabic so that all could join in.

Kendall Powell: Does doing work like child language brokering make children more successful adults?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I have not studied long-term outcomes, but I can tell you that when I’ve interviewed children about doing child language brokering, they feel good about working, accomplished and relaxed. They are also developing a sense of autonomy, initiative and empowerment — which ironically, are the things we all want our children to develop.

Lynnette Arnold’s Communicative Care Across Borders

My dissertation, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” explores the role of everyday communication in the lives of multigenerational transnational families living stretched between El Salvador and the United States, revealing how technologically mediated language both produces and contests the political-economic marginalization of geographically mobile populations. These families rely on regular cell-phone calls as a primary form of kin work in the face of long-term physical separation caused by restrictive immigration policies (Di Leonardo 1987), and the dissertation provides a close analysis of these cross-border conversations, informed by insights developed through multi-sited ethnographic engagement.

Page 99 is located in the middle of my methods chapter, and discusses the relationships that made this intimate investigation possible, describing how 15 years of connection had resulted in my adoption into several transnational families, signaling close affective ties despite the insurmountable gulf between our political-economic positions. As such, although page 99 is methodological, it draws attention to the primary theoretical contribution of the dissertation, the concept of communicative care.

Building on feminist approaches to care, I develop this term to highlight how mundane conversations attend to both material and affective concerns, nurturing the relational ties upon which cross-border families depend. The dissertation analyzes long-distance greetings, collaborative reminiscences, and negotiations of economic decisions, elucidating how each practice works to reproduce material connections between migrants and their relatives back home, while also providing forms of affective engagement that maintain kin ties.

In sustaining transnational family life, communicative care practices constitute a creative response to the failures of state care, but one that also reinforces the domestication and privatization of caring responsibilities. Thus, while communicative care is a means of pursuing well-being at the margins of neoliberalism, these strategies simultaneously produce forms of personhood and relationship that conform to neoliberal models. The analysis presented in the dissertation demonstrates the crucial importance of paying close attention to technologically mediated talk for understanding how the tensions of neoliberal mobility are both produced and managed.

Lynnette Arnold, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” Phd diss, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2016.


Di Leonardo, Micaela. “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12, no. 3 (1987): 440–453.

Lynnette Arnold is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research examines the intersection of communication and care in the context of the exclusions produced by neoliberalism and contemporary regimes of (im)mobility in the Americas. You can reach her at larnold@anthro.umass.edu.