Transnational Families Caring and Learning through ICTs

Alice in car-2Here is Alice, a care worker in her car in England surrounded by family from all over the world, even though you can’t see them. Her car, looking like a mobile office, sounded like a disco with different rings and vibrations as family called from abroad on the phone in the car door to ask favours and chat in tune with colleagues and supervisors who called and texted her on the phone in her hand to switch routes. When I drove around with her for a year to understand her paid care for the elderly, I discovered her unpaid care for family overseas. As a self-sufficient bring-your-own-device migrant Alice was part of  (excuse the jargon here) SoLoMo  (social, local, and mobile) cultures bundling her ICTs.

A participant in an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-based study that I conducted from 2007-2010, Alice is representative of the other 59 migrant care workers I talked to about their lives, networks, social support systems, and uses of digital technologies.

What I mean by ICTs are audiovisual with telephone and computer networks. It is interactive, including internet-based services like Facebooking (or the like, such as in Poland), Yahoo messaging (popular in the Philippines), skyping (world over) as well as mobile telephonies that can include the above and texting, flashing, apping, and voice messaging.

As a footnote,  I’m not focusing on ICT platforms, functions or features or devices, like hand-helds  or wearable computers — as cool as the iwatch sounds with its 1 and a half inch display, I’m a device and platform-agnostic and as Virginia Eubanks said: “I have bad news and good news, The “Bad news: Twitter didn’t start the Egyptian Revolution. Good news: The people did.” (

I’m also not focusing on technology diffusion/adoption or the benefits of hi-tech for families or even access and distribution— Eubanks spotlights a digital dead end  (2012), discussing the distribution trick. Migrant workers and their away-families are often in the forefront of adoption out of necessity.

Last but not least I am not talking about instructional design for educational technology or even  MOOCS or edupunk to resist this–there is lots of research on this from Yrjo Engstrom (2011) who wants mobile learning to be like flash mobs or Anya Kamenetz focusing on DIY Universities (2011).

I am talking about usage, connecting it to mobilities, affect and social presence in socio-historical and political contexts. Back to the participants. Their stories of using these social technologies are profiled in a book I wrote this year called, Deskilling Migrant Women in the Global Care Industry (Palgrave Macmillan) .

The Gamble Migrant Workers Take

Let me say a word about the cover. This wooden pinball machine, entitled ‘Wheel of Fortune’ by Cuban artist Abel Barroso in a series called ‘Pinball Emigrante’  is a type of unequal map of the world showing few economic migrants and their families have ‘the purchasing power,’ his words, to reach their dreams. If you look closer at this intricate map you see there is a north and a south and countries are divided up with numbers attached to them—you get 3 balls per game that spin in a circle but don’t be fooled, there is one route—look at the arrows that go up. In short your vocation depends on where you were born–nationality and chance trump strategy. Norte is the ultimate destination and the balls can’t go anywhere else. It’s an obstacle course where fate is sealed—the game is rigged. These migrant workers were players gaming this wheel of fortune of care work but could they circumvent this fete accomplice with their low purchasing power?

Did the balls, these ICTs, bouncing and spinning, from country to country, make a difference?

The participants in my study were using ICTs within their transnational families for exchanging information, learning and caring—everyday things. And these ICTs were layered and bundled for different purposes. One participant in my study Tina spoke with her depressed mother in Zambia on the phone for the immediate emotional effects of voice to gauge her moods and help her and emailed her brother in Canada for information about business issues.

Looking closely at these migrant workers and their away-families enabled me to get a dynamic view of ICT usage across households and borders through embedding mobilities within care and learning. These are all intertwined when it comes to transnational families

Although Alice was downwardly mobile in England, functioning as a frontline care worker not an occupational therapist educator as she was in the Philippines, she was a go-to cosmopolitan with her high digital literacy skills and access to technologies–using multiple media sources. Although few participants had smart phones— by the way that’s just branding— they used old and new technologies smartly, what I mean by this is that they were sharing, repairing and optimizing all aspects of their technologies—and they were used on the move to communicate with family abroad.

These families include fictive kin, partners, and othermothers, not just biological-based members. I relied on their views of family. Transnational families can be considered ‘familyhood’ across the miles (Bryceson & Vuolera, 2002). They are also considered part of, ‘transnational motherhood’  (Hondagnu-Sotelo & Avila, 2001), or the newer, ‘transnational fatherhood’ (Carling, Menjivar, and Schmalzbauer, 2012)  and ‘transnational parenthood’ (Carling, Menjivar & Schmalzbauer, 2012). ‘Global householding’ (Hoang & Yeoh, 2012) is the latest term, emphasizing survival strategies of families with at least one member working in an advanced economy remitting. These families have ‘distributed homes’ (Williams, Anderson, & Dourish, 2008).

Transnational families have geographical locations but are not fixed in one place, as here or there because they often move and experience a blurring of boundaries in establishing a social and intimate presence with their loved ones. Parents often say, ‘I’m here but I’m there’ (Hondagnu-Sotelo & Avila, 2001). They experience this as a ‘tug-o-where’ as Judith Enriquez (2011) highlights due to the conflicts in establishing intimacy and in emotionally managing relations from far away. Location is problematic with ICTs.

It has been referred to as, ‘absent presence’ (Gergen, 2002) or what Palackal et al (2011) call ‘virtual co-presence’ or even, ‘co-presence by proxy’ (Baldassar, 2008). ICTs enable mediated interactions. Considered to be inferior to the gold standard of in-person presence or what is called, ‘pure relationships’ (Mirca & Madiniaou, 2012) with its moralistic narrative, there are many facets and these two domains often blur.

These interactions across borders enabled more movement—see this sponsorship letter of Sarah for her kids, precipitated by ICTs.

sponsorship letter for kids

sponsorship letter for kids

The children were not just left behind baggage or a burden (White et al, 2011; Goulbourne, 2010) but active agents, mobile and engaged. Sarah’s kids in the Philippines would request tours of her rented house on her laptop and she’d say ‘this is England!’ and they’d shout ‘let’s see our rooms!’ and ‘when can we come!’ Yet even with the transparency of webcams and skype these kids didn’t know their mother was a care worker in England not a nurse as she was in the Philippines.

So ICTs were used for impression management, or what’s called ‘netglow’ to project an ‘ideal migrant’ image (McLaren & Dyck, 2004). That’s why ICTs according to Ling and Campbell (2012) can bring us together but also tear us apart.

ICTs were often used in unequal ways and the research has shown that there are gender divisions with for example men using computers and the internet more than women for communicating. Elderly mothers, for example (as Kang 2012 and Schmalzbauer, 2004 show) were often less technologically inclined and in effect, silenced as were sometimes children as other studies show (Parrenas, 2005) because they weren’t in control of the contact, having little access, or were not able to afford calls, like Sarah’s kids who went to an internet café due to no home connections. Yet even these places are run by entrepreneurs who understand the long-distance relationships. So contact was somehow afforded across time and space, often in impromptu sites (Sharples, Taylor, and Vavuolea, 2007). These participants and their families were, as I’ll show, quite resilient.

Maria's care web

Maria’s care web

I call this Maria’s care ‘web’ as it spins in family members over and beyond a typical family system type of triangle.  This triangle implies one household with a, father a mother and a child. When the father or mother migrate, the child becomes destabilized. An othermother may step in  and mediate that child’s sense of well-being (Gordon, Jordon and Yeoh, 2010). Yet this caregiver, in much of the literature, is considered a poor substitute with children paying the price. This care web represents a different configuration.

Maria was divorcing her Filipino sea-merchant husband based in the Gulf who she hadn’t seen in 13 years since the birth of her daughter with her legal savvy brother handling it. Maria wanted to marry her English boyfriend and start a second family with her daughter, currently in the Philippines. She delayed her sponsorship to time it in line with these events and because of her fears of promiscuity and drugs in English schools—by 16 she’d be mature enough to cope and in the meantime get a good Catholic education which Maria could afford by working in England. In the meantime she sponsored her brother to come to England where he also worked as a care worker. That was part of the deal.

Maria’s life was not just one transnational move as a care triangle suggests, but many— she was a non-migrant then a migrant and back again — her identity continually shifting as she moved.

Although trained as a teacher, as a single mother, she moved to Israel where other family resided to be a care worker. Returning to the Philippines when things got rough, she put herself through nursing school. At that point her mother was principally caregiving for her daughter, because Maria was working so much in the hospital. When Maria’s threshold for the dirt pay and conditions fell to new lows, she migrated to England where she could earn more as a caregiver. Here the grandmother was always active not just during a migration event and although in her mid-50s, she needed care too, as she had some health issues.

This web is a care economy involving multiple actors and exchanges. And it includes unpaid elder care not just stay-behind children.

Now what about learning? These transnational families were involved in situated, tacit, and mobile learning. Their learning through ICTs:

  • Was embedded in the caring-ICTs became a ‘holding environment’ (Kegan, 1982) anchoring meaning for family and becoming a type of virtual home for those spread out around the globe. The ICTs were reliable and flexible, enabling difficult emotions to be dealt with, and allowed members to let go when they needed.
  • Involved ritualized and emotive communicative practices-timed conversations could raise expectations especially mothers who often waited a whole day to speak to their children after school and pressured them for details.
  • Was multi-directional and involved multiple members -it involved parents and children and fictive kin, communicating together. Ideas and help traveled in many directions from different parts of the world. Migrant workers also needed support from their families living in their natal countries as well as in other countries and were often involved in reverse remittances due to the high cost of living.
  • Served to translate tacit knowledge- unofficial knowledge about health care navigation, schooling and academic literacy, and immigration are but a few examples. The ICTs enabled a hidden curriculum of transnational livelihoods when family shared details and stories and modelled what it’s like to be an immigrant and transnational. How does one become an immigrant? Or become a transnational? This is not easily explained. Using special tones of voices, pauses, laughter and other means for communicating enabled the message to come across.
  • Depended on the situation or event and was historicized to the social moment and to particular family’s ways of interacting-ICTs were incorporated into familiar ways of relating and often concerned everyday topics. It was often the communication itself that mattered more than the content and was part of learning virtual intimacies. One participant said her calls to her mother consisted of trading sentiments of closeness:  ‘I just talk. I cry. And sometimes I don’t want to talk because she or me is crying: ‘I miss you. “I miss you,” she says.
  • Happened through conversation on the move- Recall Alice in her car. Short messages and sharings were the norm especially for migrant workers who were often given more workloads than their British counterparts and had to multi-task. Family learned about their loved ones’ lives simply by trying to schedule calls inbetween their rotas and listening to how  busy they were as well as how much they were doing to survive.

ICTs within transnational families, then, were not about ‘care drain’ (i.e., the ‘Euro-orphan’ phenomenon dubbed in the media of Polish migrant workers in the UK ‘abandoning’ their children in Poland, communicating every so often) or, even, ‘care gain’ (i.e., mobile phone company ads showing fathers and sons expressing sentiments they normally wouldn’t) so much as ‘blessings and burdens’ (Horst, 2006) and created ‘contradictory mobilities’ (Madinaou & Miller, 2012).

  • ICTs were not just the glue of transnationalism (Vertovec, 2004) but spurred greater movement of families as they astronauted about to help one another and were often sponsored. They were constantly on the move and lived ‘betwixt and between’ two or more worlds at once (Grillo, 2007). The ICTs, segueing from ‘holding environments’ acted as virtual homes that buffered the transitions and enabled connections, not ruling out power issues that are pervasive in proximate families.
  • Time’s place in care was important as Joan Tronto (2003) found—the ICTs, through time, text, and talk were key to sustaining relations at a distance.  But to do this background awareness of each other’s material worlds were necessary—this contributed to caring about family and caring for family But this caring for was infused with power and could be seen as both micromanagement and emotional labour. Sarah, was a ‘study mother’ (Chiang, 2008), pushing her kids to achieve academically, monitoring their homework and speaking to their  teachers in the Philippines. She was inculcating them with the academic, human, and cognitive capital she believed they would need to succeed, deferring her own for theirs. She even shadowed them on weekends from 6,000 miles away while they shopped, commenting on their choices. She could be considered a, ‘mom in the pocket’ (Ling and Campbell, 2012).
  •  The ICTs involved new ‘emotional grammars’ (Nussbaum, 2001) or ‘feeling rules’ (Hochschild, 1983) that recognized nuanced emotions and managed virtual intimacies to recreate a sense of ‘home’ — some emotions were performed while others were suppressed. This meant family from afar building on shared words, new vocabularies and interaction styles. These new registers and words for affection and gratitude as well as anger and pressure—helped to manage transnational relations and changing sense of selves and establish empathy. But alienation could result if the interactions led to social divisions or were delayed, misunderstood or premature as with drunk calling/texting and emailing (Hollenbaugh & Ferris, 2012). Phones could be constraining and act as wireless leashes because of the ways they reproduced social/gendered relations (Hjorth, 2012; Parrenas, 2005). And with disabilities like the loss of sight or hearing or hand problems, members could go from ‘connected presence’ of sunny day ICTs to a state of disillusionment and distance, increasing guilt and anxiety (Wilding, 2006), when care was hard to transmit.
  • Their learnings were not about expanding networks to achieve more social or human capital so much as for closure among partners to achieve deeper and denser ties. But they weren’t just ‘telecocooning’ (Habuchi, 2005) . Operating as types of  ‘mobile learning communities’ (Danaher, et al 2009), they amplified socio-cognitive exchanges such as learning new languages, or how to code-switch for example, from American English to a regional British dialect, back to Taglish to Tagalog or as with digital literacies, using acronyms as words, LOL and OMG (or my favourite, TTFN–ta ta for now), learning how to change c’s to k’s or numbers for prepositions like F2F for face to face (this term carries less weight now considering the audiovisual communication). This linguistic gifting (Ling and Campbell, 2012) occurred in what could be called, a transnational third space (Bhabha, 2009). These diasporic family systems were learning about each other’s everyday worlds in a ways that were familiar and in doing so, were expressing their language rights and sense of inclusion since they were often marginalized, albeit other co-ethnics, in their local communities.

Here I highlight the resilient and creative ways transnational families adapt to being in different time zones and places, sustaining their relationships across borders in spite of their long and difficult work schedules. If you are in a transnational family, does any of this ring a bell?

Las Maletas, Las Mochilas y Movilidades (Suitcases, Backpacks, and Mobilities)

This blog will be about what we take in our suitcases, backpacks and on our persons when we migrate to another country. This blog continues my Fulbright Commission study on women immigrants in Chile and their mobilities–see my last blogs at: . As an example, I’ll talk first about my own journey to Chile and what my daughter and I took w/us. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f06

We left on August 21st, 2017, at 11:20 a.m., the day of the total solar eclipse crossing Washington State. Of course we brought our special eclipse glasses which we got for free at our local library. These were precious and because we had so many due to the numerous library events we went to, we gave them out to passerbys in the airport.

However the most precious item we had with us was Pi-shu, my daughter’s stuffed panda (below), and who went everywhere with us, and was squished gently into one of our two suitcases.

ciela pishuPi-shu has been with us since my daughter was two. I got her in  England, where we lived at the time, and she has gone back and forth with us, throughout the world.  As it turns out we accidentally left Pishu  in the hotel we stayed in Santiago and she was transferred to the Fulbright office where she stayed and entertained all of the students and office staff until we could come and get her a month later, from Temuco. In the photo here, my daughter and I took Pishu everywhere on our weekend trips—in this case to Huilo-Huilo, a remote rainforest reserve, by local buses.

Pi-shu  was named after a library book called, Pi-shu: The Little Panda (by John Butler). The mother and Pi-shu had many struggles as they traversed mountains, searching for food, because of habitat loss. Their journey was like many of the women I interviewed who migrated so that they and their families could survive.


In my study I profile these women immigrants who moved to Chile by bus, boat, and plane and their routes and what they took with them as precious objects on their trips. While I don’t want to compare their trips , or those of refugees, to animals migrating due to forceable removal, as others have indicated in their work (see, Ai Weiwei, for example in his most recent film, Human Flow), economic threats to their survival dominated their stories for why they migrated. Currently I am tracing their journeys as we speak on a mapping program to understand what it means to pick up from one place and move to another, with or without family, pets, and things either temporarily or permanently.

I will introduce one of the women immigrants I interviewed and profile her journey from Argentina although hers is different from those from the following countries which were represented in the research (most were from Latin American countries): Colombia,  Ecuador, Uruguay, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, as well as Germany, Spain and the U.S.These profiles connect the items they took with them with the women’s histories, aspirations, luggage allowance, as well as their future survival.  Out of the 60 women immigrants I interviewed for my Fulbright Commission grant, the following items represented their cultures and journeys to Chile and I classified these into several categories: ephemeral items (such as food); religious icons (saint tokens and cards), family heirloom jewelry (worn on the person); touchstones (like, stuffed animals); cultural icons (dress, vases, art);  utilitarian  (blankets for cold temperatures, hair extensions, hair cutting instruments), as well as photographs and videos that represented precious people in their lives that didn’t come with them on their trips (print and electronic especially phones) and which could be looked at any time.

Pi-shu was most definitely a “touchstone” because “she” (yes it is,  according to my daughter) can be held, looked at, propped up, and represents an old friend—yet her most significant value is that she can be cuddled–it is the physical touch plus history with us that makes her ultimately precious.

We weren’t the only migrants to take stuffed animals with us on our journey. One of the participants, Mati, from Argentina came by bus with her four children to improve their prospects in education. She said she couldn’t bring much except bedding and clothing but made sure she brought her Tom and Jerry figurines from when she was a girl. She brought them with her in her suitcase along with some stuffed animals and she kept these figurines within reach above the bed  her and her Chilean husband shared,  reminding her of her childhood, “both good and bad memories.” She often carried one of them around with her:

“I hold this very close to me because it’s a memory that my mom had gifted me but whenever there were problems at home, I would sleep with it.”

tom and jerry

Her mother gave them to her at age eight. But after her sister died when she was young, Mati was sent to work for a family and became their live-in maid at age 13. To do so, she had to drop out of school, and leave behind her family. Her lost childhood was symbolized by a fantasy filled bedroom stuffed with teddy bears that surrounded these figurines and which helped lift her spirits in her current job of cleaning rooms as a janitor in a local  building.  stuffed animals-maria

Mati’s suitcase and my suitcase–las maletas–have been used repeatedly as a symbol for the public in accessing the migration journey—the photographs and artifact exhibits making the experience more tangible to the public.  See for example, Suitcases and Sanctuary in the UK: and even w/a focus on suitcases themselves like at the Smithsonian, the “Humble Suitcase”  Also, at the Ellis Island museum I found my grandfather’s name and a suitcase exhibit to boot.  See also here. In Canada, there is an educational interactive museum in Victoria called, “Pack your Bags”

More recent attention and moving exhibits surrounding undocumented Central Americans and Mexicans crossing the desert and things found on their persons such as by photographer, Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE  see: here and Emanuele Satolli have tried to overcome textual and visual challenges. Often they bring basic survival items—not a phone—if they’re caught their contacts could be found out and put in jeopardy. These exhibits are reminiscent of the Holocaust, with items found for example at Auschwitz, like shoes, hair, and clothes but also the suitcases (which did not decay), serving as evidence and reminders of the trauma and horror of genocide–a difficult exhibit I viewed while I was in Krakow.

Similarly, when I first arrived to Chile, I immediately went to the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos  (Museum of Memory and Human Rights) in Santiago and was transfixed by the haunting exhibits of genocide and survival with jewelry that was made of the seahorse drains in prisons, and the children’s artifacts, as well as the photographs, all symbolizing the agency of survivors and their witessing of violence and persecution within a ruthless and relentlessly long dictatorship.

Many of the artistic exhibits on immigration that I mentioned above, are moving and aim to materialize the border and the struggles that occur when people cross. At the same time it can commodify the experience, with a focus on items that strangely become novelties. What’s more a gender perspective is lacking. Few photographers or educators have penetrated into the suitcase itself and identified those precious items in there, connecting it with the modality of travel, gender, nationality, language and meaning in terms of people’s stories and then connected it social histories. Mati, for example, took a bus—and was limited with what she could take. In the same way, those who came by plane were also limited by virtue of the type of plane they took and their allowance for luggage. As a start, at the end of my project we created a rally and march with organizers, featuring a pop-up memory museum of immigration, called, “Marcha Por la Inclusión Cultural y Social de las Personas Migrantes” (video and thanks to Romina Romero-Hermoso Osorio for creating it). More work on this topic of migration journeys needs to be done from a gender perspective and the mapping of those experiences hold promise. Keep tuned!



Part III: Barriers and Supports for Women Immigrants in Temuco, Chile


Mural that my daughter and I helped to design and paint at Arborigen (community organization) in Temuco

While my Part II blog focused on cultural discrimination that was a hidden but persistent force in society affecting immigrant women’s trajectories and experiences in Temuco, this blog highlights those structural factors within Chilean institutions that were barriers in their lives but which were offset by other supports. Although the cultural discrimination, highlighted in my Part II blog was also “structural” in that it appeared within institutions and policies, this discrimination was ‘lived’ within the civic sphere, through informal interactions in communities.

Barriers that I discovered were: 1) the saturation of paperwork and required  protocols that both delayed and blocked immigrants’ abilities to enter, implement, and sustain their health, work, and, especially, educational practices and pursuits;  2) lack of pathways to citizenship that prevented immigrants from staying in Chile permanently and which contributed to deportation worries;  3) pituto arrangements (informal manipulations from one Chilean in power to another with less that gives that person a foot in the door) and which excluded immigrants who were disconnected from these networks, and; 4) law & order  regulations and enforcements in institutions that specifically disadvantaged mothers. These barriers limited women immigrants’ access to work and education and wider networks of support.

The supports were: 1) easy entry into Chile through tourist visas that were 3 months long and allowed immigrants to check out the country to see whether or not they would or could stay and lent time to locate jobs;  2) good exchange rates from one South American country to another that enabled immigrants to send back money to their families; 3) a well-known reputation across South America of Chile as being safe  4) affordable transportation, especially bus networks, that allowed women immigrants to move around the country and from one city to the next, especially when things didn’t work out.


Paperwork and protocols

A participant proudly displays her university diploma that was very large and which she planned to validate in the future

Transferring qualifications from participants’ home countries to Chile was one area where highly skilled immigrant women were particularly  disadvantaged. Hardly any of the former nurses, engineers, or teachers were able to practice their professions and were required to go back to school, which could take years.  In one case, a former lawyer could not practice unless she became a Chilean citizen, which she thought was against her rights. She said:

” they want me to get my citizenship so I have rights but I came here with my rights and i don’t think that’s the way to go.”

But even for those with high school diplomas, it was difficult. If they did not bring their diplomas, they found it to be a complicated process to get them translated from abroad or get the notarisation and stamps in their countries to make them legitimately transferable to Chile. Moreover, there were often delays in communication from Chilean government officials to participants in acknowledging or validating their qualifications, and which could take much time. Some participants didn’t have the time off work to travel to Santiago or other big cities to get this paperwork done. One homeless Venezuelan former nurse showed me her enormous nursing diploma which she was keeping in her friend’s closet, and planned to get validated. This friend promised her she would get her paperwork validated for her but never did and she was left on her own, without a stable home or income or job. The participant attested to further complications:

“I can’t work here with my degree. I cannot do it because I need validation of paperwork, a test and validation. I’ve gone to the hospital to clean, but they said ‘no’ because I need a rut number [an ID card]

Often the first thing that participants did before migrating was to organize their certifications or diplomas and get them translated (if not in Spanish), notarized and stamped in their countries.  If they missed this step in their countries, it was difficult to start the process from Chile and they often had to return on visits or depend on relatives to do this complicated work from abroad. Often the first thing that was shown to me when I asked what they brought in their suitcases, was this paperwork.

Even high school graduations could be dismissed by Chilean officials if transcripts and diplomas were absent and in one case, completion of high school through adult education was necessary—the participant did this. Furthermore, the need to qualify for insurance and obtain contracts for working were also made more difficult to obtain if paperwork was not done accurately or in a timely way and which served to block and delay immigrants from obtaining health care, bank accounts, and drivers licenses, as well as quality work. Without these mandated papers, or IDs, immigrants could easily become exploited in the grey economy or be made ‘illegal’

Haitians standing in line for visa paperwork in Santiago—a number of participants came to Temuco instead because the lines there were too long:

Lack of Realistic Pathways to Citizenship

Unlike many other OECD countries such as the U.S. where it is very difficult to obtain a citizenship status especially now under the Trump regime, there were a number of visa entry points and ways to reside in Chile legally. However, most if not all of these were tied to employment. While the official ‘line’ was that there were easy ways to obtain a citizenship status, (and policies were changing while I was there) in reality it was much harder as the participants’ stories attested. Furthermore, most visas were directly tied to some type of work contracts, creating bonded labor situations. Immigration policies privileged young Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders to work on “holiday visas” or students to study in one of the many universities across Chile.

Without a contract or work permit it was difficult for immigrants who entered Chile on tourist visas to extend their visas to work with a legal status. While they used the 90-day period to locate work, many participants received short-term contracts or none at all and their residency was therefore at risk. Several Haitians in the study had received government notice that their appeals or paperwork to stay in Chile were rejected and they desperately were looking for work to receive a contract in order to stay on in Chile. The ability to obtain a work contract pre-occupied the minds of every participant who entered on tourist visas. Therefore, citizenship was far, far, away from being obtained. A number of these women were walking the streets asking Chileans for work which put them in vulnerable positions. One Haitian participant explained:

“I came to Chile to find a better life. I thought Chile was better to help my family. I heard in Chile there were more jobs available and I thought I’d come here to improve my daughter’s life. So when I got to Chile I got a fake contract and that made my visa expire and now I don’t have legal papers and can’t work. I wrote a letter to reconsider my situation and I got a rejection letter…Right now I go out of the house and walk anywhere and try to find any job to get a contract.”

Another Haitian woman’s visa was just expiring and she worried about having to return to Haiti where she felt unsafe:

“I have no visa to stay and I might get deported and I’m scared to get deported and I don’t want to go back there because of security.”

Many Haitians had previously applied or considered migrating to the U.S. but were rejected or warned by fellow compatriots not to apply and come to Chile instead. There were hardly any participants in the study, except those married to Chileans some of whom had green cards, that were anywhere close to receiving a citizenship status. Most participants in the study were either on tourist visas or had temporary resident (for one year) or permanent residency. Still, this could be complicated for couples migrating together and moving from one visa to another was highly dependent on the type of work contracts that immigrants obtained from employers. One Cuban participant who was married to another Cuban explained:

“After getting the temporary residency after one year you can apply to the definite residency which you can do if you present finances and invoices for the year, and a background check and June this year, they gave me permanent residency. My husband doesn’t have it—he needed the validation to work as a doctor, which he got in August but he applied, but has to wait because he has a temporary residence visa.”

It was commonplace for immigrants to openly discuss their legal status within Chile which was very different from the participants who I interviewed in the U.S. A number of those with permanent residence visas who were married to Chileans declined to get Chilean citizenship due to the amount of paperwork that was needed and worries about giving up their own citzenship.

Pituto Networks That Excluded Immigrants

Pituto was not a term I heard until about a month into my stay in Chile. It was explained to me as a way to get around some of the typical  barriers especially in employment—one example of pituto is when a friend or colleague recruits somebody in his or her network to apply for and attend a job interview.  It’s basically pulling on social connections or contacts for favours, leverage, and a foot in the door to services and events.  This practice occurs in the U.S. and all over the world but in Chile, it is an explicit form of gatekeeping whereby people who have “it” leverage both their own and other’s situations. It’s defined as:

“a form of social regulation that entails a constant and systematic exchange of assistance, help and support between relatives, friends and acquaintances. It is capitalized as a symbolic debt, which generates a significant and mandatory reciprocity.” (Bazoret, Emmanuelle, 2006)

However this type of exchange hinges on reciprocity if one uses pituto — and paybacks are often expected, in some way or form later or as a trade for something else. It is often based on reputation and activating that pituto is a form of social capital.  I found that it can also happen in other spheres such as in health, housing, and schooling. While it benefited Chileans, immigrants were often excluded unless they were settled. An Ecuadorian social worker had to have her degree validated in order to practice in Chile and she was unemployed for a number of years. However her Ecuadorian husband whose brother had lived in Chile for many years found work in construction through pituto fairly quickly. She said:

“The biggest difficulty is here you need to have a permanent residency to work and I didn’t have that. My husband didn’t struggle–through his brother’s pitutos he could find a job, and pay for the house, start work, and open up to society and start to move on. But I didn’t know anyone or have papers and I struggled to work and find a job. I was unemployed for 3 years.”

After many years of validating papers, education, and volunteering otherwise, “starting from scratch” to become a social worker in Chile, she was proud that, “none of it was given by pituto” and she added, ” life isn’t easy and that’s the main thing.” Another German woman found additional work through pituto because she said she had worked  for the embassy previously and had many contacts. However overall, few of the participants explicitly said they “had” pituto, or even knew about it, and which was often due to their isolation in their homes or neighbourhoods, with networks that were mainly composed of compatriots. Instead they often discussed their frustrations of not finding work through formal channels.

Even those participants who were married to Chileans, and even worked with them, and leveraged their relationships with their husbands to buy and sell goods, seek information, or get interviews, did not mention their access to pituto systems, and if they partook in them at all, it was very limited. Still, they seemed to have more access to these pituto arrangements than did single immigrant women or couples from other countries.

Deadlocks For Immigrant Mothers

The world of a participant whose children were abused by their father and her journey through finding justice

There were three participants who were actively being abused by their husbands and ex-husbands, all of who were Chilean. A number of other participants had left abusive partners or families before they migrated or after they settled in Chile. Of the three active cases, they were all either seeking legal justice or were entrenched in the legal system, but with few to any results. In one case,  a woman  was being stalked and punished repeatedly in court by an ex-husband who successfully took custody of her children, after she left for safety in Brazil. She explained her decision:

“What happened was I suffered so much violence, that my older girl told stories at school. It was so much that the teacher called me and the teacher said “you have 24 hours to report your husband to the police” and the guy had other police reports so he said “don’t do it, go back to Brazil.” I went back to Brazil and took my daughters with me but when I went there, the guy reported me for kidnapping my daughters.”

I attended a court supervising session with her to observe the various ways that she was being disadvantaged by a legal system that was heavily patriarchal and organised around protecting the husband’s rights and the Chilean children over the immigrant mother. This participant reflected:

“After I got notice of kidnapping them and went to trial over my husband, over the girls’ custody, and lost it [custody]– it was an unconstitutional trial because he knows the justice [system] and it holds power and handles people. I was unfairly treated and told them I didn’t have a stable job or income and so I couldn’t keep the girls and they gave them to him.”

In another case of documented sexual abuse of the children by both the social welfare department and the school system , an immigrant mother had little hope of achieving justice for the trauma and abuse that her and the children experienced at the hands of someone who was free to roam Chile and was never indicted.

These women, as well as others married to Chileans or who had Chilean children, felt trapped in Chile and wanted to return to their countries, where they had more social and family support. Without the children’s father’s permission, however, it was impossible. One woman whose husband changed as soon as he moved back from Colombia to Chile with her said, “but I can’t leave. I can’t just leave, I have a small child, I cant take him unless his father agrees and I know its not easy, I want to get experience first, And after working I can leave.” She would threaten divorce every time her controlling husband hid her school diploma, listened to her messages on her phone, gave her only a little money each day for food for shopping, and actively prevented her from working. He knew that divorces in Chile were hard to obtain and the processes were made very complicated.

Moreover, the legal system seem to side with the man, especially if the woman was an immigrant and financially dependent spouse. In fact, legally divorce was only granted in 2004 and Chile has the lowest divorce rate in the world. Both partners have to agree, after a year of separation to the divorce and it rarely protects for domestic violence or against abusers. Since abortion law only came into existence last year and, aside from recent attention to domestic violence against women, for the most part there is a great amount of gender repression in Chile, emphasiszed in the Gender Gap Report, 2016. The report shows that Chile is ranked at 70 in the world on all indicators from political empowerment to health care. In South America, Chile’s gender gap is ranked between Mexico (above) and Venezuela (below)  and although Chile is considered to be one of the ‘top’ high-income countries like the U.S.,Canada and European nations, with better overall GDPs, socially and culturally, it is appears to be more regressive on gender policies–a challenge the Bachelet administration was tackling.


One participant brought with her a number of Saints on cards that she carried around with her in her purse


Affordable Transportation Networks

One airline, Latin American Wings (LAW)  was mentioned repeatedly by participants as offering discount tickets. One woman complained about her treatment, where her tickets were switched around–and it has a reputation among Haitians in Chile for discriminating against them with regard to seats and facilities. However, generally, the bus networks and airlines were used as supports to migrate to Chile and around the country as well as travel to and from their countries for vacations. Furthermore, these affordable networks allowed family to visit and move to Chile. The bus networks were especially important for participants when they wanted to leave a city and move onwards when things were not working out. Some of these trips were long and harrowing and which lasted 7-10 days, especially from Colombia and Venezuela. A number of people ran out of food.  One woman who travelled with her entire family, recalled:

It was really uncomfortable, sitting there 8 days straight, and besides that, I can’t take shower or go to the bathroom. It’s disgusting. I had only enough money to pay for tickets, and no food and no money, and we were starving. We only had one box of food, and, I thought, OK, we will starve. About 5-6 days into the trip, we ran out of food. We bought juice boxes, tuna cans and we bought cookies and crackers. We ran out. They [kids] didn’t want tuna anymore… water juice all gone. We didn’t have juice or water. We got out of the bus at a bathroom stop and we asked the cleaning lady in the bathroom  if we could get water, and do it fast, and she let them [kids] in, to give them water, just enough to get their throats wet.

When I asked about the precious things participants brought with them on their journeys to Chile, they ranged in size, weight, color, and other characteristics but, mainly they often were easy to carry and could fit inside their suitcases or on their persons.   These items were sometimes handmade family and friend memorabilia such as photos fitted to keychains, or were for practical reasons like, wigs and extensions and sheets and blankets. Or, they were valuable artifacts such as jewelry that was given to them by family, often mothers, as a token of love. One participant said:

When we came here we only brought clothing and bedding. But I brought these figurines that I had when I was little– 8 years old–when I got them. My mom gave them to me. Because these brings back to me memories of my childhood– good and bad memories

 Religious artifacts like saints on cards and crosses were seen as symbolic forms of protection while clothing including traditional items, like belts, dresses, and skirts, and scarves reminded participants of their homelands, ethnicities and/or indigenous customs and regions. Many of the participants had to sell many of their household items and their homes, in order to leave their countries and purchase plane tickets—and they were not preparing to return—and so these items were precious indeed. They kept them in closets or carried them in their purses or wore them. Other ephemeral items were brought specifically to give away, like candy and money.

My daughter and I took rural buses all over during our time in Chile and we got to know about the bus networks first hand. Since Temuco was one of the major central cities in the south of Chile, most if not all buses went through there and there were so many different bus companies and types of buses to take that it was very easy to go from one city to the next despite the length of the country. The main hub for planes however was Santiago and so nearly everyone interviewed for this study took planes to Santiago and buses to Temuco. While not many participants discussed their rural bus trips, it was fairly easy to get from one town to another through the rural bus network and it was made affordable as well for locals. Although over the years there has been substantial privatization of buses throughout Chile (for example, see the book by Collins and Lear, Chile’s Free-Market Miracle: A Second Look), they still were supports for moving women immigrants around. This was especially important because many of the participants in the study did not drive cars.

Ease of Entry Into Chile

Time and again, immigrants, especially from countries like Venezuela and Haiti cited the convenient entry status as being the most important reason to migrate to Chile. They often said that all they had to do was to buy airplane tickets and pack their bags. The 3 month tourist visa could be tricky if immigrants however didn’t look like “tourists” to border agents due to the amount of money they had, which was something one Venezuelan experienced. She recalled:

“We got to the border in Arica and they didn’t let us go through. They said we didn’t have enough to be tourists — only $200. They said, ‘how are you going to survive in Chile for $200?’ You are a wave of immigrants and you steal jobs’ and they sent us back.” She said The 3-month visa was used as a means to establish jobs, housing, and social networks but it was made difficult if these important foundations couldn’t be established and more time was needed.

Generally, however, it was commonplace to hear that the main concern the women had was in in getting a plane ticket to migrate to Chile like one woman who compared this to going to Canada: “Because I do not ask for a visa. I just had to buy a plane ticket and that’s it. In Canada they just reject you.” Other immigrants including students considered the U.S. as a destination but the requirements were too stiff, compared to Chile.

Good Exchange Rates and Jobs for Remitting

The Chilean currency has been stable for some time and is considered to be a good exchange rate compared to other South American countries in addition to job opportunities. In weighing decisions about which country to migrate to, in order to remit back to family, participants cited the exchange rates and jobs in Chile as a major incentive. There were many family members back home depending on the participants to send them money for food, rent, school, health care, etc…and so locating a country to migrate where they could support two households was important. One woman who worked in a nightclub said: “the money is good here, because of the exchange, and I want to make a lot of money for a house to buy for my mom, and I am paying her rent and I want to start a business too” while another nightclub worker bought her teenage kids skateboards and play stations and  exclaimed, “Everything I pay for, is for my mother [and her kids]. I pay for school, clothes, the food, clothing, utilities, food”. A Venezuelan woman connected earning money in Chile with health care in her country:

I want to stay in Chile because the exchange rate is good. My dad struggles with cancer and he can’t get treatment or medicine. For months my mother struggles with diabetes and there is no medicine. I can’t get medicine except in Colombia or Brazil which is still expensive, but what you get paid here, you can still support your family.

A number of the participants explained that they came to Temuco rather than stayed in Santiago, where they had family members, because they heard that jobs were more plentiful and there were fewer immigrants competing for the same opportunities. One Haitian said: “My sister [in Santiago] lives with one friend. To find a job is really hard. There are so many immigrants there, so that’s why I came here.”



There were also mixed factors that were both supports and barriers. One of these mixed factors had to do with the workforce and the economy. For example, there were many jobs in cleaning and caring but which appeared to be open only for certain nationalities and groups and were essentially niched, or segmented, for them alone. Haitians, for example, were specifically sought for cleaning jobs, both men and women. It was a common occurance to to see Haitian men cleaning cars while Haitian women cleaned bathrooms or homes in Temuco.  They also were caring for elders and in this sense they had taken over former Peruvian immigrant women’s roles of caring. Out of 13 Haitians I interviewed, most all of them were in either cleaning or caring or were unemployed and walking streets to locate jobs; those participants being the most vulnerable to being exploited.  So while they got jobs in this sector, it was low pay, short-term, conditional, and with poor working conditions that led to few other opportunities in other sectors. The emphasis in particular in Temuco on commerce and the service sector made this issue into one that was mixed. Many participants worked in businesses where they were mistreated and employers didn’t give them good contracts or no contracts at all at first and merely tested them to see if they could withstand the job. Yet many of these participants were unemployed and could find nothing in their countries or in other cities where they first landed and so they withstood these conditions because they had no other choices. Or, they were employed in their countries but were not paid enough to survive.  One Colombian woman said:

“It’s really expensive and we were working to pay the rent and basic services and food. That’s why I decided to come. Financially we were only surviving…I had a debt at the bank and in Columbia I couldn’t keep paying the debt and that was difficult. Now I get extra money for paying the debt”

When she discovered how difficult it was, she reflected, “It was tough. We told our mom, “you lied to us. if you told us the reality, we wouldn’t have come.” From their perspectives then, migrating to Chile for better opportunities was a mixed factor—both a support and a barrier because although there were more jobs and ones that paid better, the cost of living in Chile was high and life was “tough” as many participants articulated.

reference: Bazoret, Emmanuelle, (2006). El valor histórico del pituto: clase media, integración y diferencia social en Chile. Revista de Sociología del Departamento de Sociología de la Universidad de Chile.N°20. Pp.69-96)

The Cultural Discrimination That Immigrants Experience in Chile Part II



Flyer designed by Romina Romero-Hermoso Osorio for immigrant rights rally in Temuco, Chile, November 10, 2017 (part of project)

Violence towards immigrants in Chile has increased recently, see for example. Two months ago a pregnant Colombian woman, Lina Garcia, was thrown out of a taxi headed for the hospital, leaving her on the street, where her newborn died. Incidences like these have prompted conferences and rallies which are happening around Chile to assert the human rights of immigrants. And Temuco, where I’m conducting my study, is no exception–we had one here last week–which was part of my project.

While official policies have been more open, in terms of immigrants being able to access  visas to enter the country in comparison to other North American and European countries, and demographically, Chile’s immigrant population at 2.7% (according to the data in the OECD Migration Outlook 2017) is much lower, the 50 participants in my study have cited many barriers to staying in Chile and being integrated into society. For those who are settled immigrants they too experience  “closed doors” culturally and socially to their lives. One participant said:

I come from the coast and people there, the doors are very open—this is literal and the door is open. Here, the doors are closed…Chileans have a protocol for everything…And it’s difficult to adjust.

While another described these closed doors as:

People here are cold. And there are lots of barriers, You can’t be part of life. People are wide open in Colombia to receive you and they don’t open one door, they open all doors. Here they open one door, and you stay in the main room.

This kind of discrimination has harmful effects not just in terms of achieving a sense of belonging but also in terms of work, health, and safety, so this research is linked to the Women & Gender Equity Ministry to locate solutions particularly for women immigrants who are often doubly and triply disadvantaged in Chilean society—even moreso in new places of settlement like Temuco. So this blog, Part II (see Part I) will focus on cultural discrimination against immigrants and their agency in Chile, profiling a major (albeit conservative) city. See this policy paper we wrote, for Pilar Collipal, (Temuco) of  the Women & Gender Equity Ministry, and where it is now in Santiago:  REPORT-OCT 18 

bloomberhg stats

Why is this happening now?

Chile has experienced the highest immigrant growth than in any other Latin American country, since 2010  and since 2 years ago, “thousands arrive every week”. While camps of immigrants from South American countries north and east of Chile are growing in northern border regions around Antofagasta,  even greater inflows of Haitians over the last year are scattering everywhere, from Panguipulli, an Araucania outpost to its capitol, Santiago. The presence of Haitians in particular has created an immigration panic among Chileans unused to a population which is predominantly black, not from the continent, and speaks Creole and French. Haitians, among other Afro-descendants, like from Colombia, who I’ve interviewed  have been especially targeted for racist treatment—and this has been a rallying cry–exemplified in a Manifiesto: Movilizacion Con Aportes  written for the Temuco rally (by a Colombian lawyer, Marymar Vargas). For a general intro to discrimination against immigrants in Chile please see this video.

Before I arrived I had been told by Chilean academics that immigration policies were more accommodating but that societal and cultural norms were lagging behind.  Yet in the first immigration conference in Santiago that I went to in October of this year, I learned that the newest immigration policy that has been proposed is indeed stricter with regard to issuing visas, and can be used to criminalize immigrants and distinguish them from “foreigners.”  So these more official “open” doors may be closing after all–and as of last week several Haitian participants told me that their applications were recently denied and they were worried about being deported. In the next blog (PART III) I will discuss other structural determinants of migration, including Chile’s sophisticated network of bus transportation and the ways it moves immigrant women around, the importance of safety especially for immigrants coming from countries where they feel unsafe, and Chile’s monetary system which has excellent exchange rates for South American immigrants.

Back to cultural discrimination (see UNESCO definition):

and the short version: Cultural discrimination refers to exclusion, restriction or hate that is directed at a person or a group on the basis of perceived or real differences in cultural values and beliefs. UNESCO indicates that discrimination can be direct or indirect and often leads to harassment or denial of basic rights….UNESCO notes that cultural discrimination is commonly directed at ethnic minorities within the society, organizations or institutions. According to Wikipedia, racial profiling by law enforcement officers is also a form of cultural discrimination. Cultural discrimination can manifests itself through unfair hiring, unjust firing or sexual harassment.

In my study, as we shall see, cultural discrimination had the effect of excluding and putting down the immigrant participants but they did not internalise it. From the research, it appeared that a number of Chileans unused to demographic change in their country but perhaps expecting it when visiting or migrating abroad, exhibited highly xenophobic behaviour towards newcomer immigrants. This cultural discrimination is represented as a type of difference, that is exaggerated and negative–for example  media reports with immigration statistics that are much higher or stories that Haitians, in particular,  are”invading” Chile.  I was shocked for example to see, in the most liberal city, of Chile, Valparaíso stereotypically damaging images in murals such as these which my daughter reacted to with disgust:


She asked me why the eyes  of the children were so big and comical. See also this mural in Valpairiso near a major cultural center:


And I found similar sculptures in people’s gardens there–look closely. slaves in garden.jpg

Contrast these with detailed and complex images of white or mestizo people…white people.jpg

In this blog I will discuss patterns of cultural discrimination, especially with regard to speech, dress, food, etiquette and the ways the participants’ cultures were diminished, rejected, or, refuted, making them feel invisibilized, Then I will introduce the photos/objects that the participants offered as a response to the cultural discrimination they faced and how these served as buffers. While there is no hard evidence, and few people have written about this, it has become clearer to me, that the long-term cultural discriminatory attitudes towards Mapuche had set the stage for discrimination against new immigrants in Chilean society. And this has especially been the case for Temuco, which has been at the centre of conflict for Mapuche in regaining their human rights.


Nearly every native Spanish-speaking participant discussed the ways that their speech  was viewed as negative in Chilean society—often met with mocking imitations, laughter, pretending not to understand, and comments about their pronunciation and/or uses of different words or not following discourse rules for conversation. One participant who worked as a cashier addressed her customers as she did in her home country of Venezuela with terms of endearments, like,”sweetie.” Yet she saw her Chilean customers frown as soon as the words were out of her mouth along with gestures of dismay and rejection. Her tattoos however were clear statements that she was bi-lingual, cosmopolitan and could effectively speak back to those who shamed her use of Venezuelan-Spanish language and idioms. One of these was a saying by the strong Disney character, Mulan, whom she loved: “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all”

flower that blooms

High Femininity: Enforced Gender Roles For Women

One participant expressed it this way,  culturally

Women are at the bottom and men are at the top,..The typical thing is they tell you to keep quiet.

Numerous participants did not complain, as I had expected about the men in their lives, but instead about being ostracised by Chilean women for the way they look, move, dress, or behaved. One Colombian prostitute went to church on Easter and was shocked when one of the women in her church rejected her hand during a ceremony, where everyone was supposed to touch. Her mother sent her prayer beads which she took to her workplace at the bar. This was important because as an only child, she was her ill mother’s main financial support. She also said that sometimes when she asked what time it was on the street, people ignored her, not saying anything back. The younger women, particularly students, did comment on the machismo evident in the culture, for example men helping them off of buses and opening doors.

Sofia crossBut what they were really perplexed about were the reactions of Chilean women. There appeared to exist an expectation that as immigrants they exhibit the same “high femininity” of middle-class Chilean women and which fits with socially conservative and old-fashioned notions of womanhood. While women have won access to jobs, as well as political office as well as other structural “wins” in Chile, these have been very recent for example, the right to have an abortion (albeit w/many stipulations). Given all of this it wasn’t surprising to me then that in 2013, Chile was ranked at the bottom in terms of gender equality, with sexist beliefs persisting in society. And culturally, behaviour is strictly monitored, mainly by other women. Yet this was an impossible feat for Chilean women, as an Ecuadorean social worker observed—that is, the pressure Chilean women have of being in (and contributing to Chile) as an “economic jaguar” in South America and also working within  a machismo labor market. This expectation translates to immigrant women  who work “double” hard in the workplace as well as on the home front to prove themselves worthy–which takes a toll. She analysed the situation:

This kind of system demands that you have to change your life style and get a new one that doesn’t fit you and as countries develop they grow into these dynamics, and Chileans are tired of this —can you imagine how this is for an immigrant? It’s double hard…it’s a load on my shoulders physical and mental and emotional, and I have to give 100% at work and at the house 100%. I prepare my food, make sure I’m a good wife, mother. I have to hold the load and I have to keep going and it’s a lot on my shoulders

The enforced gender roles in Chilean society made it hard to adapt for immigrant women. Even hairstyles were subject to scrutiny. One participant who let her hair go grey in a society where every woman was supposed to dye hers, felt that Chile was her society, “40 years ago, the way women behaved and conversations they were allowed to participate in.” Another woman couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong but said, “I am sick of dealing with their bipolar behaviour they look at you and they’re nice and then not and I’m exhausted from that behaviour.”

Omnipresent Images of the “Other” and Food, Drink, Dress, Art, Symbols

One Mexican woman was angry that wherever  she went,  Chileans in finding out her nationality, yelled, “Tacos, tacos”  which was a stereotype  fed to Chileans through an Americanised media filter. She said, “I am sick and tired when they hear you’re Mexican, oh, tacos, and beer, lets go party, sort of thing…they put you in this box as Mexicans you can never be sad and only to have a good time and nothing serious and that goes with your citizenship.” Colombian women in particular discussed the persistent problem of being thought of as prostitutes with one participant asked by a collectivo driver “how much she charged per hour”  while Peruvian women were expected and constantly asked to care for children. Haitian women noted that they were expected to be cleaners in Chilean society and often couldn’t locate any other jobs. Only two of the seven Haitian women that I have interviewed were not cleaners but in food preparation/processing. One Peruvian woman wanted to finish her education but found it difficult to enter Chilean universities that charge so much money and make it difficult to secure scholarships. She, like many women, entered the food industry, becoming a caterer. This happened with a number of highly skilled women , where they were able to express their artistic ingenuity. It was here with “food” that many of the women were rewarded.

appetizersIn fact, many of the women embraced their country’s art and culture and brought with them things that were light and easy to carry, on their first journeys  such as earrings, key chains, hats,  bibles and they might go back on trips for paintings, sculptures or other items. One Argentinian woman brought with her the a package of mate complete with a cup, straw, and a valuable leather holder as soon as she heard that she was migrating—MatteBut music was also something important that they could bring. While a number of women took cheap commercial airplanes, that limited their baggage allowance many others took long-distance buses from one country to the next. A well-known route was through Colombia and which lasted for seven days. One Venezuelan woman took a less-used route that was also more dangerous, for the roads, and which was through Brazil and Bolivia, by bus and motorboat. She said that route was so scary that even the bus drivers got drunk just to be able to drive. She took with her a keychain of Santa Barbara that she held close to her and helped make her feel safe, even in ChileDesiree-Saint Barbara.jpg

While cultural discrimination was rife in Chilean society, these women immigrants found ways to secure their sense of selves and culture which offered them a touchstone for their resilience and ability to persist.

And the participants also responded to this cultural discrimination by limiting the amount that they spent outside and moving around in limited circuits, by going to the same places ritually, mainly by walking or by bus, or just staying home as much as possible. Many participants spent lots of time inside their homes, and often they drew the outside or the inside of their homes. Hanging out and staying close to home with “safe” people in their lives was a way to reduce the amount of discrimination in public life. house 1

house2inside of houseinside house 2 The limited circuits they took every day were highlighted, from work to home and back—casa trabajoAnother participant, wrote, “the salon is my life” and broke down crying after drawing it, realising her world had shrunk since migrating to Chile. salon is my life.jpgWhile another woman who was on the verge of homelessness ate the cheapest hot food she could find, sopapillas, on the same street she walked up and down, to look for jobs, making her hungrier than she was before.

limited circuit 3.jpg

Her bags of stuff and a suitcase were stacked in the closet in case her roommate kicked her out again. closet of things.jpgAnd  numerous Haitians avoided drawing a map altogether and instead drew flowers—many of these representing the Haitian national flower, the Hibiscus Flower 2flower 2 which to me indicated a way to represent their resilience in Chile. Last but not least for the Ecuadorean street vendors I interviewed, they often showed the streets where they worked in front of the stores they most preferred selling goods before they had to run off from the police. These places were often most populated with potential buyers moving to and fro downtown Temuco, and importantly, there was an overhang which protected their goods and their heads from the constant rain. By limiting their mobility, and focusing on their homes, they were better able to establish a sense of stability and security, which served as a foundation to stave off the cultural discrimination they experienced.Paris overhang.jpg

Immigrant Women’s Lives In Temuco, Chile: Part I

mejores workshop

A workshop given by Romina Romero-Hermoso and Sondra Cuban on Sept 30th for the Ministerio de la Mujer y la Equidad de Género
 Región de la Araucanía,

Flyer Sept 30[1]

I’m in Temuco, Chile on a Core Scholar Fulbright grant through the Universidad de la Frontera (UFRO) studying the experiences of new immigrants who are women in Araucanía--that is the central southern region of the country. Historically known as an immigrant sending country, Chile has become a new destination country  especially for South American and Caribbean immigrants  (Cabieses, Tunstall & Pickett, 2013; Casen, 2013; Dona-Reveco & Levinson, 2012; Pizarro, 2011; Quiroga, 2014). Most of these new immigrants are females (Dona-Reveco & Levinson, 2012; Pizaro, 2011; Vazquez, 2016) who represent the global mass movement of women; otherwise known as the “feminization of migration” (Castles & Miller, 2009, p. 9). Although a majority of them enter Chile’s gateway capital, Santiago, they also arrive to smaller entryways like, Temuco Most of these women immigrants live and/or work in Temuco, which is a vibrant working-class and rainy capital of the Cautín province and one of Chile’s major cities.

I am living here now with my daughter  on the outskirts of the city, called Fundo El Carmen.

2017-09-30 11.14.27.jpg
rainy morning in Fundo El Carmen, Temuco 

It’s a quieter and greener area than the hustle and bustle of central Temuco, which we go in to nearly every day by collectivo (shared taxi) or bus. A number of immigrants live here—several of whom I’ve already interviewed and will introduce in my blog. And while I’ve met two U.S. citizens in Temuco, one I work with at the university, and another participant, most live as “ex-pats”  in Santiago, a city of millions, or, come as tourists to Chile’s major parks. Chile, branded in the tourist industry as an eco-capital of South America, similar to Costa Rica, means that few of these tourists stop in Temuco.

The next three blog posts will be observations and/or summary findings of the study. An introduction to the study and my Fulbright grant is here.

Temuco has long been known for its Mapuche influence and everyone I told about coming here talked about them, including their dress, food, language, art, dance, and traditions. Everywhere in Temuco, their presence is felt, from brochures in the tourist information office to the food, produce and hand-knit items Mapuche women sell on the streets as vendors or in the feria, a well-oganized, large, and colorful market. Yet a shadow side of their lives in Chile is just as real.


two paintings at the Jac bus station in Temuco

Read about the recent hunger strike by some Mapuches. After I arrived it was evident that the conflict around their self-determination has continued which the media exploits to the point where I was asked about these “terrorists” in my presentation in Santiago. And graffiti all around the city, hand-made cloth signs and peaceful protests at various times of day throughout this month and last month demonstrate both their will and the government to suppress them. My daughter recently observed the rough arrest of a Mapuche student for which I had to explain all that I knew. And our first day at UFRO was met with a fire on the streets at the university to protest the political imprisonment of a Mapuche leader. Today, there was a protest by Mapuche who marched down the main avenue in Temuco.


I introduce my study with a sketch of the Mapuche because their treatment as “outsiders” to Chilean society and government has had a large effect on how Temuco’s new immigrants have been received. In fact many immigrants have testified in interviews that they feel that Chile is a “closed door” society, While there is a cultural acceptance and openness to the Mapuche culture it is only in so far as it matches the purposes of the dominant majority and their voices, rights, and actions have been suppressed at the hands of the State. The journalist Pedro Cayuqueo has written brilliantly about this, as have other historians (I admit here my knowledge is scant).  Pilar Collipal Curaqueo, of the Ministry of Women & Gender Equality who teamed up with Romina and I to deliver a workshop on Sept 30th on immigrant women and empowerment is Mapuche and she spoke eloquently about the discrimination she has experienced as a Mapuche woman, tying it well to the treatment of immigrants.

map of migration.jpg

I’m here because Chilean immigration has soared within the last ten years and a larger than ever influx of new immigrants have come to Temuco within the last several years, many straight from their countries, and others from more northern Chilean cities, especially Santiago but also more southern cities like Concepcion which is north of Temuco. This massive inflow of immigrants reflects the growing trend of smaller industrial and agricultural cities throughout the world which are quietly increasing their immigrant population (Massey, 2008). I’ve studied a number of these cities, like, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Hilo, Hawai’i in the U.S. but also in the northern Cumbria region of, England. Many of the newest of these immigrants here are from Haiti and Venezuela, both of which have experienced catastrophic economic disasters (the latter) and “natural” (the former, also referring to climate change), but there are flows too from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia,as well as more traditional ones from Peru, Argentina and Ecuador. Recently, migrant informal and formal organisations have been set up, some by immigrant leaders to support the newest groups. For example, see Red de Mujeres Migrantes de la Araucanía.  The reason we wanted to do this empowerment workshop is that in interviewing women, we discovered a clear disconnect between their individual lives and public policies concerning rights and sectors/institutions (education, family, labor, health, housing, criminal justice, etc…), and Pilar had noted this awhile ago in her long-standing work in gender and women’s affairs.  The purpose of the study is to examine these immigrant women’s“mobile subjectivities”  (Hannam, Sheller, & Urry, 2006, p. 3) in terms of their identities, actions, and feelings as they adapt to new places and spaces in and around Temuco but also negotiate transnational lives, and w/ reference to my previous blogs on ICTs and immigrant women, these women stay in touch with family mostly via WhatsApp…

One of the most exciting parts of the project have been to see the maps these women have made illustrating their daily lives moving (or not) around in their worlds. I am able to see where they go and about places they value as well as ones they don’t go (and want to). Some of these women don’t leave their homes much–they also have immobilities–especially the unemployed while others, like street vendors are outside all the time and are hypermobile. One unemployed woman’s domestic space is omnipresent:

un mapa.jpg

A glimpse of their transnational lives too is when they show us precious objects they’ve brought with them from their countries, many of these cloth items which are lighter, and cheaper to bring in suitcases, often to be used for Chile’s winter:


And in this workshop, they created body maps of milestones in their lives.


While Temuco has a long history of German immigrants settling and leaving their mark culturally and socially colonizing the region, evident in the food, buildings, and the tourists that come to nearby Pucón for adventure travel, the newer immigrants, most of whom are women  tend to come from Latin America. Yet support structures, including government and NGOs have been hard-pressed all over Chile to meet their needs and especially in new areas of settlement like Temuco.  It appears that there is a downward migration trend not only in South America, with immigrants migrating to Chile due to its relative economic and political stability and reputation, but also in Chile itself, from Santiago to Temuco. This may also be due to the Trump regime’s new fortress USA making it harder to enter there. In fact one of the Haitian participants in my study was told by a friend not to migrate to the U.S. and go to Chile instead. Other participants have  testified to considering the U.S. as a destination but changed their minds. One Haitian man was in the police department with me, registering or obtaining a visa, and he had a passport that was from guess where? The U.S.

During my first week in Temuco, I attended a migration conference held at the Universidad de Catolica which focused on immigrants’ needs and interests and was attended and led principally by academics and policy makers but which too few immigrants  attended. The focus was on their human rights, adaptations, and government assistance. Since then, there have been other migration panels and presentations, often led by or organised by academics. In a panel I attended yesterday however, immigrant speakers were informing the discussion. One immigrant who I spoke with after said that the focus of the government has been to patch problems but not transform them, for example having trainings for public works staff.  Nearly every one of the 17 women I interviewed, most of whom were escaping economic ruin in their countries testified to migrating to Chile because they believed it was a kind of dream capital of South America. Yet all of them have discussed their struggles to make their dreams come true.

Although these new immigrants contribute to Chile’s popular reputation as a “high income country” (Quiroga, 2014; Vasquez, Cabieses, & Tunstall, 2016) little research exists about their lives, aspirations, and mobilities. Many immigrant women arrive to Temuco, Chile with the expectation that they will be integrated into its society and the labor market. Yet their motivations as well as barriers to their lives in Chile have been little noted. Furthermore there is a perception that all immigrant women have the same trajectories and opportunities (Godoy, 2007; Pereira, 2014; Stefoni & Fernandez, 2011; Tijoux, 2011).

The next blog will will discuss immigrant cases as well as the main issues of the participants in the study and other discoveries I’m making along the way in my new home. I will cover barriers to integration such as the Chilean bureaucracy and especially the demand for surplus amounts of paperwork to become credible in society and which is often unobtainable or takes especially long periods of time to acquire or transcribe for immigrants. I will also discuss the system of “pituto” which is the social capital that is built when favours are exchanged among network members, especially for jobs but also for schools, housing, and other important matters, and where immigrants are often excluded in these informal arrangements. Stay Tuned!

Transnational Family Communication Chains

The Transnational ICT Communication Chains Of Immigrants and Their Families

Sondra Cuban


I present a model for understanding the ways immigrants in the U.S. communicate with their away-families through information and communication technologies (ICTs) based on a two-year study and which is the topic of my new book coming out in 2017, Transnational Family Communication: Immigrants and ICTs (Palgrave Macmillan). Through my lens of Transnational Communication Chains, four types of communication patterns emerged that highlight digital literacy and languages: 1) Rescue Chains for providing help; 2) Mother Tongues for family advice; 3) Family Dinner Tables for establishing togetherness; and 4) Walls for circulating mis/information. These family chains were adaptive strategies and as problematic as the ICTs that activated their communication

The literature on immigrants adopting information and communication technologies (ICTs) is highly optimistic; immigrants use the new technologies because of their “low cost” and contact their families in their home countries so successfully that not only do political borders seem to disappear, but so does the geographic distance that separates members (Baldassar, 2016; Portes, 1999; Vertovec, 2004, p. 219). The technology platforms and applications seem to make these connections possible rather than immigrants who are viewed as passive users of communication systems that they simply turn on. Furthermore, this scenario makes it appear that not only do all immigrants use these new technologies, and use them alike, but also the digital divide impacting this cross-border contact is non-existent.

I problematize the new technologies and propose a new model for examining this phenomenon through, what I call, Transnational Communication Chains (TICCs) (Cuban, 2015; 2017). These ‘chains’ are efficient and ingenious systems that immigrants develop for communicating with their away-families through ICTs. They develop these chains to exchange support, be together, and develop “familyhood” (Bryceson & Vuorela, 2002) from afar and they do so differently depending on their circumstances. Moreover, the chains, like the technologies are problematic and changeable. The model is based on findings of a two-year study (2014-2015) study that I conducted in Washington State. The study consisted of sixty women immigrants struggling to communicate with their families left behind through ICTs and the issues they encountered. The following research questions guided my study: 1) what adaptive strategies do immigrants develop to communicate with their transnational family members? 2) Which ICTs do they use and why and what is the frequency as well as the types of conversations that ensue? 3) What are the purposes of transnational family communication through ICTs? All of these participants were engaged in ICT-based TICCs but they differed in terms of the types, the ways that they used them, and their frequency. Two sketches of participants highlight their different family backgrounds and their ICT-based chains.

Josefina and Mariana
Josefina migrated from Oaxaca, Mexico to California “through the desert and with no papers” fourteen years ago to join her siblings and work in the fields. After getting married she moved to rural Washington, where she had four children. Using phone cards she bought from the local Mexican store, she called her family in Mexico, once a week “to know how they are doing to help them.” Mainly she spoke to her mother whose health problems required medical attention. First her mother dialed Josefina who then called her due to the cost after which she called one of her seven siblings who relayed the news to the next one. They remitted to their mother with Josefina noting, “It was just not enough.” She wished she could directly help her since: “talking on the phone and sending money isn’t the same.” Although Josefina had a computer, it had no camera and she didn’t know how to use it. Besides neither her parents nor her had broadband. By 39, Josefina felt torn between her mother and her children. Her teenage son, aware of the tensions vowed: “Don’t worry mom, when I am older I am going to fix your papers so you can come and go.” But Josefina felt uneasy about his need to rescue her so she could rescue her mother. Because Josefina couldn’t return, she circulated her mother’s news throughout her U.S. sibling network and secured the necessary funds for her medical needs. Josefina was caught between countries and generations as well as siblings. Her circumstances and communication patterns differed from Mariana.

Mariana, from Bogota, Colombia lived and worked in Seattle as an au pair. Yet she was constantly on social media with her family and friends in Colombia and enjoyed examining their Facebook Walls, “to see what people are doing.” She made it clear however that she didn’t like the chat and call features embedded in Facebook for interacting with those very people. This sentiment was sparked when her father’s communication lessened after which she became curious. In perusing Facebook she discovered that he was having an affair. She reflected:

He was not talking to me for three months. What is going on? He put this stuff on Facebook but never talks. There was a woman who wanted to hit on my dad…during that time it was terrible. My mom called me twice per day, crying. I felt I had to carry the problems.

For Mariana, using text-based social media was important because she could not verbally discuss complicated matters in her host family’s home. She said: “I always feel there is someone listening to what I’m saying.” At 20, she arrived a year ago but felt homesick: “I really want someone here, to kiss, to hug. I miss this most.” Although she regularly communicated with family back home and friends in Seattle, she felt that, “even if I know there are people that care, I feel alone.” Mariana and Josefina’s stories illustrate different TICCs.


I developed the TICC framework and focused heavily on access and use because in the ICT literature, it seemed as if no barriers to transnational communication existed. I conceptualized access as part of the technological tools and the digital literacies and languages required to navigate digital media and messages (Knobel & Lankshear, 2002; Guillen, 2014; Kress, 2005). However these depend on the “affordances” that are available to people, including their capacities, networks, and resources. Affordance theory focuses on opportunities to engage in particular social behaviors such as the availability to speak, as well as resources, and aptitudes (Gibson, 1979; Gaver, 1991; Bradner, 2001; Madiniou & Miller, 2012). This blog draws on affordance theory to frame the creative communicative systems that immigrants and their families develop within an ICT-based context filled with constraints and opportunities. The phone cards that Josefina purchased to make voice calls abroad and the data plans that Mariana paid for to access the Internet, for example were one type of affordance.

The TICC framework also draws from the human communications literature, which focuses on small group communication patterns (Galvin, 2014; Segrin & Flora, 2005; Steinberg, 2007). Four types have been identified. There is the “Line” which represents a grapevine, whereby one group member tells another something, while the “Star” contains a central member who controls information to individuals in a group. The “All-Channel” comprises group members who engage in numerous simultaneous interactions while the “Circle” is for circulating news in a roundabout way through many reference group members. Although these chains may seem oversimplified they assist in conceptualizing ICT-based transnational family communication.

I used ethnographic methods including interviews, observations, documentary analysis of emails and informant material such as journals because I wanted to capture the experiences of the participants in their communicative contexts; using their own words imbued with their meanings (Denzin, 2001). The interviews, half of which were conducted in Spanish, were designed to focus on the participants’ stories of family communication (Riesmann, 1993). Observations and video were made of one participant over several months in addition to gathering several participant-generated audio and video recordings of family conversations as well as journals. Through these methods, together with a sensory analysis of the findings, I was able to develop a richly textured picture of the socio-emotional and material worlds of the participants and their “perception, place, knowing, memory, and imagination” (Pink, 2009, p. 23) surrounding their transnational family communication.

Data Source
The participants were all Latinas, primarily from Mexico, representing the dominant immigrant nationality in Washington (Brown & Lopez, 2013). Participants also migrated from Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Honduras, and El Salvador. They were recruited through community gatekeepers and staff in Latino organizations throughout Washington and selected in a snowball sample. About half of the participants like Josefina were in their late 30s, undocumented, married with children, and settled while the other half like Mariana were in their 20s, single, without children, and in the U.S. for less time. Mariana’s group possessed tertiary education and came from small, urban, middle-class families most of whom did not previously migrate while Josefina’s group, had primary levels of education and came from agrarian backgrounds, with members migrating and then sponsoring one another to secure greater income distribution across a larger group. Their demographic characteristics translated to their communicative patterns. Josefina, who was dealing with crises and had few resources of her own, relied on the domestic landline to communicate abroad and used the Line as an efficient means, while Mariana used free computer and phone applications in a Circle pattern of communication to contact her family abroad.

My findings focus on four different TICCs that highlight digital literacy and language issues and paint a complex picture of transnational family communication that fills a gap in the literature on immigrants, transnational families, and ICTs:

• The Rescue Chain (Line) provided emergency support for a family member in need. Like a grapevine, one member tells another and they remit to the person in need at a just-in-time rate. Voice calls were used to determine the felt need. Yet because of the step-by-step oral/aural calls, those members at the end of the chain could receive confusing messages. This was Josefina’s case

• Mother Tongue (Star) is when members of a family who do not converse with one another communicate with a key person in the middle, whom I call the “operator.” S/he negotiates interactions, filters information and gives advice. The conversations, often oral/aural, may include exchanges of visual artifacts and text-based messages and follow vernacular scripts

• The Family Dinner Table (All-Channel) is multi-vocal and textual, relying on oral speech, images, and literacy-based interactions. Several family members interact in real time in order to ‘be’ together from afar. Therefore it is ‘noisy’ because no one mediates interactions. It can also promote performing because it is highly visual. It occurs over video conference calls that allow members to display expressions and eat while talking. They may pause to write chat messages and send pictures

• The Walls (Circle) are short text-based messages exchanged through social media. While this chain accommodates a greater volume of information that can be added and replaced, messages are deferred and have an anonymous quality. Examples are Facebook Walls and Newsfeeds. The communication is indirect, which may threaten members’ perceptions. This chain illustrates Mariana’s case

The TICC model focuses first and foremost on the fact that most immigrants like the participants in the study cannot cross borders to physically be with their families and they rely on new technologies as the primary way to be together, share news, and deliver support. Letters and gifts are often considered to be too unreliable and delayed. TICCs, then, are a response to political constraints and they carry implications for immigration, welfare, and school reform, especially for the intergenerational repercussions of family separation. Consider Josefina’s son. The tension resulting from his mother’s separation from his grandmother affects his wellbeing. Second, the TICC model highlights the ingenuity of immigrants in accessing (or not) the new technologies. This has implications for equitability within national and international communications and development policies. Third, the TICC model demonstrates different ways that immigrants communicate with their families and for different reasons, based on their affordances and social classes. Altogether the findings demonstrate that some groups, with greater social affordances, have clear advantages and that the digital divide is indicative of larger social structures.

Twitter’s Misguided Approach to Poverty and Homelessness

Digital Literacy=SuccessIn a misguided notion that homeless people need tech skills to become self-sufficient,  Twitter is doubling with a non-profit that serves 5,000 families (majority single mothers and children), at risk and homeless–to establish a learning center in San Francisco, “The NeighborNest.” Twitter employees will tutor homeless adults, so as to “learn, connect, and grow together”. It just opened. This is happening despite a new Bridge at Main center that opened just this winter nearby at the San Francisco Public Library which has numerous computer literacy opportunities for homeless adults and other groups. The library, a civic engagement institution has a very different approach, seeing learning in multiple modalities, and including different forms of literacy and integrating populations. According to Project Read Director, Randy Weaver, there are over 100 tutors and numerous digital literacy, financial literacy and health literacy projects in this city and county funded program.  There are also other great long-term tech programs for the homeless that are run by non-profits such as the Tenderloin Technology Lab, with digital inclusion as its aim. Yet Twitter is trying to build its reputation as a more effective online ramp for the city’s poor.

Twitter has been pressured since they opened in San Francisco to “give back” to city residents “by contributing to the neighborhood” (only one article needs to be read since most say the same thing aside from Kurt Wagner’s piece—see as an example of puff pieces— written after I sent the Gate this blog) as a deal to compensate for the years of receiving millions in tax breaks from the city. As the Twitter blog promotes, they have a “commitment to San Francisco.” But so does practically every company in San Francisco (for example, real estate firm, Transwestern,) much of this  “relationship marketing” as part of trying to own public spaces. Twitter in fact relies on this notion of “commitment” to ensure that all customers return to tweet, which in turn, is a marketing strategy for all of those users too. This trust branding makes it seem as if Twitter is a public institution serving, what Twitter hopes to showcase as a “force for good.” In other words, a “public good” that is in Twitter’s private interest.

They have a BFF community benefit agreement that will offer “the nest” a computer lab, classes and resources  “to help them [homeless adults] on their path to a bright hopeful future” and which is considered a type of pilot for wider outreach to youth, school-based groups, and other members of the community. The CEO of Twitter announced: that he is “committed to transforming lives right here in the neighborhood where we work” (SF Gate)—that is, where Twitter was given property rights and passed the burden on to its employees.  These employees, and perhaps other volunteers will be expected to tutor these homeless adults.  Instead of a scenario, like one Business Insider article cited: “San Francisco’s Twitter Employees Must Step Past All These Homeless People To Get To Work” they will have to tutor them. BTW although these employees are said to get catered breakfasts and lunches as well as yoga classes, Twitter has a terrible record on diversity-so bad there is currently a class action law suit and Twitter’s response. These employees may wonder if their community engagement will lead to promotions. Probably not. Perhaps Twitter expects its women employees to do most of the “service” work—this wouldn’t be surprising…

Since I can’t help but wonder how the mostly entitled male workforce (mostly white) at Twitter — will “buy into”  or be able, with their long hours and unfamiliarity with the population, to tutor the majority women (and persons of color) that the non-profit serves on a long-term basis,  even after it’s been dubbed as a “safe place” for Twitter workers (rather than for the clients).  Twitter’s gentrified presence in the neighborhood will probably not only make it safer, but a more costly area.

Without a full range of comprehensive training, these employees will be late-night operators transmitting mostly technical skills (such as an informational navigation session). Although I have attempted to find out more about Twitter’s program, the Twitter press office has been quiet. This is what they told me: “I can point you to what we’ve said publicly, but we aren’t releasing any details about the programming until we open, since we are still working out the details. ” The questions I asked a few weeks ago were:

  1. Who is in charge of the programming (of the NeighborNest) and can I have their contact information to interview that person(s)?
  2. How will you get volunteers from Twitter to tutor at the Learning Center (what is your recruiting going to be like, if at all) and the requirements for tutoring?
  3. What will be the approach to tutoring/learning and what exactly will tutors and the adults do with one another for example, will it be 1-1 or group learning?
  4. Why isn’t there childcare provided, and just a “play area? (you can see a bias here!)
  5. In what ways will it pose a threat or compliment the community technology type programs existing around the city, including the public library? (Yemila Alvarez, Community Engagement head of the SFPL told me Twitter did check out library programs)
  6. Is there going to be an evaluation of the program?

My sense is that Twitter will be getting the nest programming together by its coat tails at the last minute. Most likely they’ll tweet curriculum, like this nieghbornest “community navigation” powerpoint for poor families–with the over-repeated informational and technical advice such as “search for thousands of community resources in your neighborhood–get the help you need:”

neighbornest tweet

neighbornest tweet


Wait a minute, don’t libraries do this?  And if Twitter is not totally successful here (after all, homeless families need more than information from privatized sources), the company may change directions depending on the initial outcomes— their accountability is limited, and although there is now a building, it could easily be turned into another Twitter “nest” for employees in the future.

The corporate approach of using computer technical skills for poverty reduction is not wholly dissimilar to government sponsored welfare-to-work programs since the 1990s focused on individual skill improvement through technology to “level the playing field” and foster self-sufficiency. This belief in digital literacy as a magic button that in being pressed will rocket poor people into the new economy and society is omnipresent.

Yet research has proven this perception wrong. Virgina Eubanks, in a case study of low-income women in a non-profit  in her book, Digital Dead-ends, showed that the women already had digital literacy skills but lacked social capital and opportunities to earn much more than the minimum wage. Their low wages, not their skills, prevented them from reaching their potential as they were cycling in survival mode. Likewise in a study by Lorna Rivera, illustrated in, Laboring to Learn, she found that racism and sexism were prevalent as obstacles to the homeless women in her study transitioning into mainstream society than skills alone.

Recent research has shown that what is most effective for homeless people are not these individual skills, but a stable home-see importantly this article. In fact housing the homeless is a better foundation for developing a sense of security and social and economic mobility (see for example, the Low-income Housing Institute in Seattle which offers the homeless homes and social and educational services). While I don’t want to pose solutions or even one solution over another and it’s clear that a multi-pronged approach is important to homelessness (the Compass Clara House program houses only 13 families for up to 2 years) , it is also clear that asking homeless people what they want and designing opportunities around these needs is essential. Clearly the biggest thing homeless people need is a place to live. In Salt Lake City and in other cities around the country, they are indeed designing housing for the homeless (see Mother Jones).

Therefore Twitter, with city government sponsorship, should consider using its new  3 million dollar project to house the people it has displaced, that is poor families in San Francisco—which to no surprise, would be more expensive than a learning center. Or, they should hire these newly trained poor female clients, at Twitter, at the same salaries as their powerful young white male tutors, so they can actually afford a home in the inflated housing market in SF.

While telecommunication/social media giants are fascinated by how highly mobile and very marginalized populations like homeless adults and teens or migrant workers use technology (for example here here, and here )  as part of finding new markets, the focus should instead be on their stability. Although attempting to develop, what one recent article characterized as a “comfortable” and “homier space” the new learning center is called a “nest” as if people, like birds, are supposed to move in and out, after laying their virtual golden eggs. See for example the branding with the bird house and the twitter bird:

Twitter NeighborNest branding-jpg

But is this really enough?

Care and Emotional Work Across Borders Through ICTs

Here’s my newest research and writing!

This case study of fifty women immigrants in Washington state focuses on the ingenious emotional strategies they engaged in with their left-behind families to care at a distance and the problematic ways the information and communication technology (ICTs) mediated these relationships across space and time. The study draws on a feminist transnational framework and an extended case method approach to understand the emotional dimensions and meanings of care by separated members and the ways the social technologies, and other factors, shaped these transnational spaces and interactions.

The study utilizes ethnographic methods (interviews, informants, journals, focus groups, documentary analysis, and informal observations) and both a thematic and narrative analyses to glean patterns across the women’s experiences as well as unique qualities. The themes and narratives of the participants demonstrated that these ICT-mediated interactions contained “conundrums:” 1) ICTs enabled “communication chains” that were essential for women immigrants caring for their families but which did not resolve problems; 2) Transnational family who interacted more regularly and through multiple modalities experienced an “embodied social presence” that made the care, more real, from afar but didn’t resolve emotional tensions inherent in relationships; 3) The existence of ‘hidden emotions” that resulted from the unacknowledged affective work of caring through ICTs; and, 4) the important roles mothers played as agents in their daughter’s migration.

In its simplest terms “care at a distance constitutes practices that often last for longer periods, sometimes for years and even semi-permanently, and that tend to transform as a result of their protracted duration” (Leifsen & Tymczuk, 2012, p. 220). Although a myriad of care practices are involved (for example sending financial remittances or giving information), I highlight the ICT-based contact and the rituals around giving and receiving emotional support and help (Leifsen & Tymczuk, 2012; Levitt & Lambe, 2011). When I refer to “distance” I include the differences of geographic locations and time zones (so many miles away and across national borders), but I emphasize emotions and link these to family members’ degree of relatedness.

This “relatedness” is based on the emotion work (such as attentiveness) that members put in to maintain the relationships and any outcomes associated with it, such as a sense of belonging, or, like in Ana’s case, a sense of exclusion (Licccoppe, 2004). In this sense, “distance” constitutes members’ shared understanding of the nature of the participant’s migration, and whether or not it was unpredicted and forced or expected and voluntary and the effect of this understanding on the relationship. Furthermore, members also have a shared understanding that the separation between them is either temporary or permanent and which also translates to the world of emotions. Resultantly, members may invest less or more emotionally depending on these circumstances and consciously or unconsciously achieve more or less “affective distance.” For example, the au pairs in this study were expected by their middle-class parents to leave the “nest” in their 20s in order to become more cosmopolitan and accrue cultural cache in the U.S. and they excitedly and warmly engaged with their parents who encouraged them to fly the roost, while some of the house cleaners never expected to leave their families, migration imposed on them as a necessity for the family’s collective survival. Many of their calls tended to be scripted to contain the complex emotions of being so far away and for so long and ended sadly for the loss of the physical relationships.

Perhaps the most evocative sense of distance within transnational families is styled in Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us. Through symbols, she illustrates both a sense of brokenness and connection of family relationships especially during periods of not communicating—the protagonist reflects on something her sister told her: She said that my umbilical cord was like a ribbon that connected me to Mami. She said, “it doesn’t matter that there’s distance between us now. That cord is there forever.” In this book and in others, the ICT-based communication is viewed literally as a type of umbilical cord, what Lippoccope (2004), calls, a “nurturing link” keeping separated families together, and it certainly is romanticized by sending countries who export their citizens (Parrenas, 2005). Yet this link can just as easily be severed and may be more capricious, as Reyna learned soon after her mother left for, “al otra lado (the “other side”), not seeing her for many years.

Members may experience moments rather than permanent states of “virtual intimacies (Wilding, 2006), depending on the quality of relatedness and the circumstances surround their distance and separation, but also logistical factors like full and reliable access to ICTs.

Theme 1: Communication Chains Transnational families had “communication chains” that were essential for caring at a distance, but which did not resolve problems. These communication chains however were different than “chain migration,” which concentrates on migration decisions within people’s personal networks; although in many instances, participants and their family members recruited one another to migrate, the focus here is on passing on family news in the post-migration stage, within and across borders. This act was a form of “social insurance” to tell everyone that everything was OK (or not) on the other side and it provided a sense of “being” in the family. However it was not an insurance policy to the degree that it guaranteed safety, wellbeing and recovery of losses. The communication chains were evident during health crises and also for cultural transmission of traditions and family values, which made each member feel, as one participant explained, “to be united,” but also for transmitting new values. Passing on critical family information was a way for members to stay informed and (virtually) close-at-hand. During health crises family members depended on the news being delivered by a trusted member. I call these trusted members of family news and information, “operators.” An analysis of operators showed that they tended to be women, often, older siblings, on both sides of the border who had some available resources or had worked out ingenious systems of placing themselves in key informational roles so that members contacted them and/or responded to them first. They were also viewed as reliable. Although their social status in the family was solid, their own feelings about their role as operator could be conflicted; an example is Ana who had the resources to stay in touch with everyone in the family, passed on news and did far more, even though she felt her emotion work was unappreciated and, even with all her contact, did not ultimately resolve problems associated with the intimacy she so desired. With one entrusted member, families could consolidate and pass on important information from afar, knowing it would be received and accurate. Not only that, but, the practice of communicating this news, along with family remittances could save lives. For immigrant operators, those siblings left behind taking care of elderly parents were critical in terms of exchanging news about their parents’ health conditions. They also gave information to the operator about the contexts and conditions in which they were living, the effects of remittances and other issues. It would be important to also see these operators, too, as responsibilized individuals bearing the burdens of global inequities, that is, the immigration policies that immobilize and separate families.

Theme 2: An Embodied Social Presence Transnational family who interacted more regularly and through multiple modalities experienced a type of “embodied social presence” (Mennecke et al, 2014) that made the interactions seem more real, from afar but didn’t resolve distance or tensions inherent in the relationships. The in-built audio-visual dimensions enabled the parties to more easily establish cues than through phones, although not always, as Octavia’s case shows—she could detect her mother’s breathing as evidence of her withholding of emotions. The transparency of this cueing enabled each party to “care about” (demonstrate interest, attention and inquire about someone’s problem) each other more easily as well as “care for” (providing direct help) (Tronto, 1993). For example a number of the participants and their families back home used webcams to show areas of their bodies that were hurt, healed or, showed strain, or, even more subtle issues, such as exhaustion in the eyes and face, that enabled the other party to have a clearer understanding of their problems. They could keep their webcams on and develop a type of continuous “transconnectivity” across borders (King, 2015). This enabled a responsiveness that kept each member in the present moment; in other words, it gave each person more of a sense of psychological immersion in the virtual care space. In a sense, they could have a sense of: “being there, being with another body, and having a feeling of self-presence” despite being so far away (Biocca, 1997). What’s important though, is that it did not resolve emotional tensions that were pre-existing or had developed after the person or other family members migrated. In other words, a greater social presence did not necessarily lead to a greater emotional presence. This was because the expressive actions with family through heavy use of online communication appeared to weaken the density of their ties (Lin, 2001). This was most evident through the participants’ and their families’ uses of Facebook. It was easy for family networks to flow into friend networks on Facebook and for much of the communication to be in a similar vein with a similar tone of announcing events and posting news that was informational that actually decreased emotional involvement. Time after time the participants, who were in relationships that seemed to be dissolving, or significantly weakening, ended up on Facebook, with the intention only to share photographs, check in, and make announcements. This effect of achieving an embodied social presence but not an emotional presence is evident in research showing that streaming Skype on webcam all day and all night long, as some transnational couples do, has been found to actually de-intensify emotional connections (King, 2015).  

Theme 3: The Existence Of Hidden Emotions There were hidden emotions involved in caregiving by family members through ICTs that were not always rewarded or reciprocated. These hidden emotions were often ones that participants couldn’t or didn’t always articulate but existed in the background of their narratives. These resulted from the difficulties of having to exert extra emotion work to care through ICTs to care for family. The ICTs required the participants to be engaged in more regular as well as intensive emotion work to make the intimacy and care robust, but which was not considered by the participants, as “work.” Instead it could be considered the “hidden curriculum” of being in a transnational family. Unpaid work that is done in a wage economy, which is not “counted”, has been normalized in society to the extent that it usurps so many daily activities. This hidden labor for the general public now includes everything from checking out groceries to commuting to work—making it more of a no-service economy than one of “self-service” or, public service—the burden of work being passed on to individuals (Lambert, 2011). It is additional work for those like the immigrants in the study, who lack many individual resources and were “outsiders” (that made asking for help even more difficult) and so they had to rely on themselves. A new area of “work” is, “digital labor” (Schotz, 2012) because the public’s engagement with ICTs is an unpaid commodity within a digital capital society, although it is rarely considered to be “work.” In this study, the participants engaged their digital labor to care for their separated families at a distance through ICTs. Maintaining and managing family connections are done as part of women’s felt responsibility, which through ICT based practices, “amplifies local practices of what it means to be intimate” (Horth, 2012, p. 38). Jennifer Hjorth (2012, p. 38) reminds us that “while domestic technologies can physically leave the home, they are still symbolic of sociocultural notions of what constitutes a household economy and the attendant forms of intimacy.” Yet the participants who were engaged the most discounted their labor, and instead of feeling like “net slaves” they tended to see the “internet as magic” (Francisco, 2015) for its connective properties across the miles—not surprising with the discourse of creativity and appreciation that surrounds the political economy of this technology (King, 2010; Fuchs & Sevignani, 2013). What’s important is that although ICTs have been dubbed as, “affective technologies” (see, Silva, 2012), in fact it is the emotional displays performed by the participants—in other words, their electronic emotion work— that make these ICT devices—phones and computers work. In emphasizing the machines, the social agents who maintain them exist in the hidden depths.

Theme 4: The Important Roles of Left Behind Mothers The “left behind mothers” in the study were active agents in the migration experience of their immigrant daughters regardless of the level and depth of their contact. Their mother-adult child relationship differed across the participants dramatically, as we’ve seen, but these mothers were not, what is commonly thought of as, “left-behind baggage” (Goulborne, et al., 2010; White, et al, 2011), on the receiving end of care. Most of the calls made to left behind family members were usually directed to the participants’ mothers. This was because they were often implicated in their initial decisions to migrate, as one participant described: “The situation is bad and tough…she supported me to come here.” The participants felt that calling their mothers was very important to help them maintain their connection overall to their families, even if she was the only one with whom they spoke. The content of their conversations was often secondary: “It’s more of the relationship and talk, just talk and share our week or whatever talk about our plans, what is happening in our lives.” Another said: “I call her two times a day using Facetime. I need it to talk to her.” Talking everyday could become a yardstick of the relationship, like one participant who said: “I talk to my mom every day, Email, are you okay, are you still there? If I do not communicate for a couple of days,”mom are you alive, are you still there?” They needed to keep family relations strong and by talking specifically to their mothers who were the centerpieces of the family (although not necessarily the operators), it made it more meaningful. Reversely, it was important for parents who were left-behind to provide long distance support to their adult children, especially those who were younger and single. One participant said, “When I need support, they are always there. To make myself stronger, if I am having a hard time I know they are there and they will be there for me. I know they are far. However, the communications at times left them feeling sad especially when there were celebrations that they could not attend, like one participant who said, “If it is bad or good I feel sad I miss it, I am not there. Weddings, birthdays, lots of things.” The mothers on the other hand, might tell their daughters everything or they might not divulge details, with sibling “operators” telling the participants more. For those without extensive ICT-based contact, mothers still played important roles, especially in sustaining their children’s settlement in the U.S. They may, as Yolanda and Octavia’s mothers suggested, return or visit, with daughter and mother knowing this would probably never happen—many of these being sentiments of love rather than actual plans.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to graduate research assistants at WWU, Melina Zahalka and Mariam Rashid for their assistance with the data analysis for this research.