Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What’s in a Song? On representations of cultural diversity

In early December my daughter came home from school singing a song, “Soy un Chino Capuchino Mandarín.” She said it was a Christmas song her class was preparing for the end of school Christmas party, and they would all dress up as Chinese people. In the song, the Chinese are on the road to Bethlehem and are approached by the Magi asking them for directions, but they can’t help because they don’t understand Spanish. Just hearing her sing the line, “Como Chino Capuchino no entender,” aroused such anger in me. Here they go, portraying Asians as inescapably foreign and alien, even stupid.  I immediately pointed out to my daughter that her friend Han Han, who is Chinese, speaks Spanish perfectly. “Mami, es una canción!” (“It’s just a song!”) she replied. But the worst was to come. For their Chinese costumes, the teacher sent home garbage bags to be decorated at home with black adhesive tape in order to look like Chinese robes.  Garbage bags? Really? As if the song and the idea of dressing up like Chinese people weren’t offensive enough. But once again my effort to challenge distortion with reality (“Chinese people don’t wear garbage bags,” I pointed out) was rejected by my 5-year-old. “Mami, the teacher said.” And hence the insidious crime of this activity, invested with all the authority of the school, taught to 5-year-olds who are still learning how to see the world and shaping their perceptions of cultural difference.

So began two weeks of painful deliberation by my husband and I about how to respond to this and whether to let her participate. Our response to this incident is shaped by our training as anthropologists of education who focus on issues of cultural diversity in schools, as well as our personal identities and experiences of cultural diversity in the United States. This training and experience has attuned us to the role of ethnic and racial stereotyping in relations of inequality. We are new to Spain, but in the few months we have been here, we have learned that the Chinese are one of the most marginalized, if not the most marginalized immigrant minority group. They have the highest school dropout rate, and in some recent studies of the second generation (children of immigrants born in Spain), the Chinese are the least likely of any ethnic group to identify as Spanish or to have friendships outside their ethnic group.

In Madrid, the face of the Chinese are the small merchants who operate the numerous ‘bazaars’ selling cheap imported goods. Madrid is home to the largest Chinese distribution center in Europe. Chinese merchants have been the target of protests by Spanish shoe merchants (one in 2004 ending in the burning of a Chinese shoe warehouse) and in the central city neighborhood of Lavapies in 2005, they were the target of a ‘cleansing’ campaign by municipal authorities and Spanish merchants who associated the Chinese with ‘suciedad’ (dirtiness), contamination, and illegality. That’s right, the Chinese were associated with garbage. Fast forward to 2013, and a central city public school assigns its kindergarten class to dress up as Chinese by wearing garbage bags. This, very briefly, is the social and historical context within which we interpret the meaning of this activity, as outsiders to the school but specialists in cultural diversity.

Insiders to the school interpret the activity from different lenses, of course. In the past two weeks we have spoken to parents, the teacher, the principal and the academic director, about our concerns. No one we have spoken to can see anything wrong with the activity. In each case, their first response has been to assure us of the absence of any racial intent. No problem, as Americans we’re used to the “I didn’t mean to be racist therefore I’m not” argument. We assure them that we are not accusing anyone of racist intent, or any harmful intent whatsover, but that we are concerned about the implications and consequences of this activity for children in the school, especially children of Asian descent. They explain that the song comes from a traditional and popular villancico sung by the famous “Payasos de la Tele” (clowns of the television) in the 1970s.  One mother told me, “most of us parents in the school grew up with that song, and that’s why you won’t find anyone who sees anything wrong with it.” The Chinese immigrant parents, of course, did not grow up with that song, but it hadn’t occurred to anyone we talked to to ask what Chinese parents would think.  When we raised this question, we got some thoughtful “Hmm”s. The school staff admitted that they had some thinking to do, and agreed to make some modifications to the activity, for example, removing some of the hand gestures that had children pulling their eyes to make slanty-eyes (yes, that had initially been part of the song). But the overall sense I got from these conversations was that they (Spanish parents and educators) believe that we (Americans) have a ‘race problem’ which causes us to be overly sensitive and therefore unable to see the harmonious and agreeable nature of social relations in this school and Spain in general (people said as much in many different ways). So which view is right?

The real difference here is not between a Spanish and an American version of race relations. Many Americans would agree with the Spaniards that my husband and I were overreacting and that “political correctness” (the term actually used by one Spanish father to describe our reaction) was stifling harmless and spontaneous creative expression. The real difference, instead, lies between a critical view and an uncritical view of cultural representations; between a view that considers the role of historical context and power inequalities in cultural representation and asks who has the power to represent whom, and a view that does not. While the uncritical view uses historical referents to justify dominant representations of minority cultures (the TV Clowns sang the song in the ‘70s, so it’s okay), the critical view uses historical context to question dominant representations (Chinese merchants have been the target of ‘cleansing’ campaigns in the recent past, so is it really a good idea to have children dress up as Chinese people by wearing garbage bags?). And as to the absence of racial intent, can any cultural image ever be innocent in the context of racial inequality?

On the question of what is the best way to parent a child in these circumstances, I remain uncertain. While I see mostly negative outcomes of allowing my daughter to participate in racially offensive stereotyping, I also see negative outcomes of forbidding her to participate and separating her from her classmates. It is a difficult situation, and I don’t claim to know what is best. On one thing I am clear, however. Between the critical and uncritical view, I will always choose the critical. To be uncritical is to be allow yourself to be swept by currents that have resulted in mass inequality and to disown your own capacity for independent thought, not to mention your responsibility to make change. I agree with Freire: to develop critical consciousness is our vocation as human beings. And yes, it is painful.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

It takes a village

The hard thing about doing fieldwork in a foreign country with a child is that you always have a childcare problem. The great thing about doing fieldwork in a foreign country with a child is that the childcare problem becomes, inadvertently, a way into community; a passage into relationships of trust and reciprocity that would otherwise be closed to you. Away from home without your networks of friends and babysitters, any after school-hours activity can present a major headache. We have had a particularly challenging time because we work with two after-school programs, so all of our research activities with youth are, well, after school. To survive we have taken advantage of our own transnational networks—for a few weeks the niece of our good friends back home, who was studying abroad in Madrid for the semester, babysat our daughter during one of our weekly sessions, until her travel schedule and her far-too-soon return home prevented it; and when friends from Connecticut visited us, we recruited them into babysitting, as well. But we have also relied on the kindness of new friends and neighbors, and it is here where the childcare problem becomes a blessing, forcing us into a new community. Last week, just when our babysitter was no longer available to us, we added a second youth group to our schedule, giving us two evening focus groups a week. Trying to figure out childcare arrangements became nearly as complicated as the research itself. Our daughter’s regular ballet class in the neighborhood provided half a solution: she was covered for the first hour of our two-hour session. Midway through the first session, I ran out to pick her up from ballet and brought her back to the youth center, fortunately just a couple of blocks away.

If you have to take your kid to work, a youth center in Madrid is not a bad place to do it. I could write a whole separate blog post on the warm welcome my kiddo has received from the staff and teenagers at both youth centers where we have worked, and how I believe I owe whatever ethnographic access I have obtained to her. If she is not with me, the staff and teenagers always ask about her, and watching them interact with her so lovingly allows me to glimpse a side of them I would not otherwise see. But here I want to simply comment on the grace of finding others to take care of your child, because let’s face it, however child-friendly the work environment, sometimes you just need your kid to not be there so you can work, and sometimes the desperation to find childcare is so great that you would practically fall on your knees to beg someone to take her. And in a new country with new relationships, that humbling act of ‘I need help, can you help me’ can bring a surprising grace. I am lucky enough to live in the same community as the teenagers with whom I work, and the younger sister of one of my 17-year-old students, who I’ll call Carol, is in the same ballet class as my daughter. We often see Carol, and other students of ours on the street in the neighborhood, and they always greet our daughter with a big bear hug or a high five. Carol’s little sister and my kiddo have become good friends, walking together on the way to or from school and at ballet twice a week. So once I decided that running out to pick up the kiddo halfway through a focus group was not going to happen again, I thought of Carol. I called her up and asked if she could take both kids home after ballet for an hour while we finished our focus group. She said sure. Tonight after our session finished, I walked the few blocks to Carol’s apartment, where I was invited inside to a scene of childhood bliss. The girls wanted to keep playing. I chatted for a while with her mother and cooed over her baby brother. I knew that the family had moved here a few years ago from Brazil. And I thanked Carol and her mother profusely for helping me out. “It’s nothing,” Carol’s mother said genuinely, almost embarrassed that I should thank her. I had offered to pay Carol, but they wouldn’t accept any money. That brief encounter inside their home changed the way I saw Carol and her mother, as my asking them to take care of my daughter probably changed the way they saw me. Instead of the teacher from America who’s always asking weird questions, I became the recipient of their kindness.

There have been so many other occasions here when new friends have amazed me with their generosity, dispatching nieces or offering themselves to take care of the kiddo so that I could work, give a talk at a conference, or just go shopping. So to all of you who have been part of my village here in Madrid: thank you. Your kindness has made me conscious of community, and of the need to pay it forward, to invest in the ties that make this transnational migrant life possible.

Friday, November 22, 2013

On language and other heartaches

There are days when I wonder what I was thinking when I figured that I could do fieldwork in Spain simply because I speak Spanish. Yesterday was one of those days. Of course, I had been here enough times to know that Castilian Spanish is very different from the varieties of Latin American and Latino-American hybrid Spanish spoken in the Americas: so different that it sounded, at first, to me, like rocks on a window. But I’ve lived and worked in several different Spanish-speaking communities—in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, with Mexicans and Central Americans in California and with Puerto Ricans in Hartford—and never had problems communicating or being understood, so I figured I was pretty adaptable. Also, I was coming to do research with Latino immigrants in Spain, so we would share a linguistic repertoire, right? Wrong. That has been one of my hardest lessons, and it’s amazing to me that after all my training in anthropology, it should have to be a lesson to me at all. But since coming to Spain I have lived the relationship between language and context and language and identity on a whole new level.

In my experience, Latin American immigrants who came to Spain as adults (in their 20s or older) still speak a variety of Latin American Spanish that is familiar and feels like home to me. Some are able to switch into Castilian Spanish if context requires; others consciously refuse to use the “vosotros” form and conjugations, claiming their own Spanish as part of their identity. But young immigrants, teenagers who came to this country as children or who were born here to immigrant parents, are a different story. Sometimes I feel I can’t understand them at all. When I speak to them, they look back at me with sympathy, confusion, blankness. The distance is frustrating, agonizing at times, and of course, totally to be expected. But I wasn’t aware of how hard I was working at these exchanges, or how much I was missing the ease of home, until yesterday afternoon when I facilitated a conversation via Skype video with a CT DREAMer activist and a group of Spanish teens who were primarily of Latin American immigrant backgrounds. As the young Mexican immigrant DREAMer in Connecticut addressed the group in Spanish, I found myself translating occasionally, not only words she said in English, but words she said in Spanish that I knew to be Americanized. Her Spanish was music to my ears. I wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotions I would feel at hearing her words in that space. As she spoke of the struggles of young undocumented immigrants in the United States, her language and her way of expressing herself—things so familiar to me now seen out of context—reminded me how far I was from home.

It is the irony of transnational connections that they can be profoundly affirming to the migrant and dislocating at the same time. Affirming because they are a reminder that ‘I do belong somewhere!’, but dislocating because, once you shut off the camera, ‘I’m not there now. I’m here where I don’t belong.’ As I write this I can’t help but think of all the immigrants I have been talking to who communicate with their families back in Latin America through a video camera. Isn’t it a marvelous technology that allows this to happen? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, it’s still just a camera, and you’re still somewhere you don’t belong.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Schooling Pains

If anyone asks our 5-year-old how she likes her new school in Spain, she answers, “It’s alright. They have pescado in the comedor, and I don’t like that.” I tend to agree with her that cafeteria fish is never a good idea, but for her, pescado has become a symbol of everything that is wrong, strange, and different about her new school. Some of these strange things are inevitable cross-cultural learning moments; some are the painful result of political policies and budget cuts that clearly don’t have the best interests of children in mind. If you get her past the fish, she will tell you that her favorite teacher left, and I will explain that she is on her third teacher in two months. At the start of the school year, the permanent teacher was on maternity leave, and the Ministry of Education had not hired any replacements until the first day, so the replacement teacher didn’t start until the third day of school. (This, we learned, was a cost-cutting measure so the Ministry of Education didn’t have to pay summer salaries.) She might tell you that there was a strike because teachers don’t get paid enough, and her teacher went to the protest, but we didn’t see her there because there were too many people. She will tell you that she doesn’t know how to write cursive, and I will tell you that it shocks me how little her teachers understand that children in other countries learn to write differently. “She’s behind,” they say about the cursive, as if it were a developmental milestone. (The indignant mother in me thinking, She is not behind! She knows how to write a different way! Realizing that I am echoing countless immigrant parents around the world who have been wrongly told that their children are deficient.)

She probably won’t tell you that morning drop-off is still traumatic, and that she holds back tears every day. So I will tell you that it is still traumatic for me, because parents aren’t allowed in the school building. We say good-bye to our children in the vestibule, and watch them walk alone up the stairs and down the hallway to find their class. Which wouldn’t be so bad if your child knew where she was going and who was going to greet her there. But when you have a rotating cast of teachers and it’s anybody’s guess who will be at the head of the line, who can blame a child for not wanting to go in alone? On two occasions last week I broke the rule and entered the building holding her by the hand—first to say good-bye to her teacher who was leaving, and the second time to introduce myself and her to the new teacher whom she had never met (the rest of her class had this teacher last year, but new kids had not). On both occasions I was intercepted by the front door staff and vigorously challenged. These guys are like trained linebackers, or prison wardens. On the second time, when I explained that my daughter had a new teacher and I was going to introduce her to her new teacher, the door guard said he would have to take me to the principal’s office. I argued with him until another teacher spotted us and came to tell him it was okay, I could come in. By then the 5-year-old was in tears and I was struggling to hold it together. I must have looked quite a sight when I was introduced to the new teacher. Not a good time to try to explain to her my daughter’s needs and abilities, or to convince her of my fully bilingual professional self!

As anyone who has ever been to a new school knows, patio (recess) is hard too, and for a long time my daughter stood with her teacher, the favorite one who left, because she didn’t know anyone and didn’t understand the children’s games. Language was an issue only in the very beginning, but long after fluent Spanish spouted from her mouth the feeling of cultural outsider persisted. And even in a supposedly “bilingual” school (it’s not, but they do have 45 minutes of daily English instruction), she says some kids make fun of her for speaking English. As I write this, I fear the relief of some readers saying, “Whew! Thank God I never subjected my kids to that!” And I confess, I have felt some guilt on the worst days, worrying that I might be causing my daughter some irreparable harm. But as far as I know, such worries are not restricted to parents who move their children overseas. And there are so many moments when the wonder and amazement at how much she is growing and learning overwhelm me, whether it is her creative, beautiful, and perfect assimilation of new Spanish vocabulary, her astute cultural observations, or her poignant and penetrating questions. The tears? They’re the growing pains, as she evolves into a conscious and reflective border-crosser. Like all border crossers, she may always be on the margins, but she will have the capacity to penetrate multiple worlds. I had this realization strongly the other night when I read her The Upside Down Boy for her bed-time story. The Upside Down Boy by Juan Felipe Herrera is a beautiful rendering of a Mexican migrant boy’s experiences starting school in English. “Will my tongue turn into a rock?” he asks. She was riveted.

When I jump up
everyone sits.
When I sit
all the kids swing through the air.
My feet float through the clouds
when all I want is to touch the earth.
I am the upside down boy.

I asked her if she felt that way sometimes at school, and she nodded sadly.  I hugged her and said, “You’re my upside down girl!” Then she smiled broadly and said, “No, mami, I’m sideways,” motioning her hand to show herself sideways, flat, parallel to the earth: “I’m más o menos.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Rituals that Travel Well

Last weekend we celebrated Halloween and Day of the Dead in Madrid, participating in two traditions transported and recreated by globalization and transnational migration. The full enjoyment of these festivities is facilitated in Spain by a three-day weekend, since November 1st is a national holiday in observance of All Saints Day. Halloween, of course, is a newly imported tradition from the United States, but one that has caught on like wildfire. As early as the first week of October I was surprised to see shops decked out with pumpkins and spider webs, and the Chinese bazaars in my neighborhood filling up with costumes. My daughter and her classmates were instructed to come to school wearing costumes on Halloween. And at 6:00 in the evening (or afternoon in Spanish time) in Malasaña, the sidewalks were filled with bands of trick-or-treaters carrying pumpkins, shepherded along by one or two adults. Except for the fact that they were trick-or-treating at storefronts instead of houses, it looked just like Halloween in my neighborhood back home. But whenever I remarked to adults on my amazement or surprise to see such rituals here, my Spanish interlocutors responded with equal amazement that “This is new!”; that such things would have been unheard of even a few years ago. I had these conversations with an educator at the after-school program where I work, a college intern at the same program, and with several parents at a friend’s Halloween party in the Madrid suburb of Pozuelo. While the children rifled through their trick-or-treating loot, the parents wondered about the cultural change that was happening before their eyes, trying to figure out exactly when it all started.

It’s easy to be skeptical of or disgusted by the United States’ exportation of commercial holidays, and I have felt this repulsion strongly in other places I have seen Halloween transposed—for example, El Salvador. But the celebrations I saw in Madrid did not have the feeling of hegemonic cultural mimicry or commercial excess. Nor did anyone I spoke to express any resentment or contempt for this American export. They were more likely to argue that there is something universal about children’s love for candy and costumes that makes this a holiday that travels well. That may be, but from my vantage point, the explosion of Halloween in Spain reflects something more than the love of candy. When I think about what I most love about Halloween back home, it is the way it gets people out of their homes and into the streets, socializing with neighbors and friends. Halloween sanctions the kind of rubbing shoulders with strangers that Americans otherwise don’t get, and in some way are starved for. During the trick-or-treating ritual, every friend is a stranger and every stranger a friend. For Spaniards, for whom consorting with friends and strangers in public space is a favorite pastime, this is not a novelty (See last week’s blog post). The trick-or-treating scene in Malasaña might have looked like the West End of Hartford on Halloween, but it looked like Malasaña any other day of the year, plus costumes. Halloween becomes one of many rituals through which children are socialized into life in the street.

The day after Halloween we celebrated el Día de los Muertos with Guatemalan friends in La Latina, another central city neighborhood in Madrid. It was my first time eating fiambre, the traditional dish that is eaten across Guatemala on the Day of the Dead.  Fiambre is a salad made of a variety of pickled vegetables, including beets, carrots, cauliflower and peas, along with garbanzo beans, pickles, cheese, boiled eggs, shrimp, and sliced cold meats: basically it can include anything, our host said. The vegetables would normally marinate for several days. In Guatemala, families would bring a plate of fiambre to the cemetery to leave at their loved one’s grave, before going home and eating the festive meal with their families. Of course, since this was Spain, the fiambre was accompanied by several bottles of good red wine, and hours of talking and laughing around the table.

With the assembled company from Guatemala, Italy, Peru, Spain and the U.S., we talked about the tradition of going to the cemetery to honor the dead, which the Spanish also observe (although they do not bring food). I shared that the Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos in the United States is one of the imported rituals I most appreciate there. In general, Americans (North Americans) do not like talking about death: we find it morbid and grotesque, depressing, or simply an unwanted reminder of our own mortality. I say ‘we’ because I am a member of this culture, even as I observe it from the outside, as someone who participates in the rituals of various transnational Latino communities. Grave-side rituals at my family’s plot in the cemetery in San José, Costa Rica shaped my upbringing, where I learned that remembering and honoring our dead is about learning who we are. It is about affirming our familial, cultural, and spiritual identities. By remembering and honoring my Abuelita, in particular, I could not only better understand my mother, who missed her so much it was palpable, but I could better apprehend and affirm my own aspirations in the world. So I appreciated the Mexican tradition of building altars for the Day of the Dead, which I came to know in California. In graduate school in Berkeley, I participated in the building of a class altar, and I remember the moving exchange of memories and tributes by classmates as one of my most powerful learning experiences. And this year, I loved the colorful photos that dotted my Facebook newsfeed of altars built by Mexican-American friends around the United States. In the end, these are rituals that remind us what it means to be human. To reflect on their meaning together with friends who are also uprooted by migration and cultural change was a gift.

The lessons to me from this weekend’s festivities were simple: Speak to your neighbors. Remember your ancestors. Talk about these customs as often as you can, to recognize the many different ways we have of celebrating the human spirit!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On Barrios and Ghettos

Yesterday we met with a Sociologist of immigration from the Complutense University in Madrid, who I had heard speak at a conference on "the challenge of big cities in the context of crisis: present and future of the children of immigration." We talked with him at length about the differences in the contexts of immigration in Spain and the U.S. Most interesting to me was the issue of ethnic barrios. A major narrative here in Madrid (that was prevalent at the conference) is that there are no ghettos/ethnic barrios here, and therefore there are fewer conflicts and immigrants are better integrated. I am naturally skeptical of this argument from my U.S. context, both because of the insinuation that ethnic barrios are inherently negative and the suggestion (that seems too rosy to me) that immigrants are well integrated here. I am more inclined to believe that the absence of ethnic barrios leads to a weakening of ethnic identity and solidarity, which is ultimately detrimental to positive integration. Without ethnic barrios, where would rights-based activism and social movements come from? So I pressed our friend on this issue, asking him whether the absence of ethnic barrios wasn’t simply a question of time and the newness of immigration here (still in the first generation). He answered, “We’re never going to have ethnic barrios like the kind you have in the U.S. here in Spain.” He went on to give the example of Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona. There is a big concentration of Pakistanis in El Raval, but that does not make El Raval a Pakistani neighborhood. It is a tourist center with popular restaurants of all kinds. Like El Raval, most city centers in Spain have mixed neighborhoods, filled with young people at night, tourists, artists, immigrants and bohemians. “There is no ‘white flight’ here,” he explained. And that’s when it dawned on me. No white flight! The absence of ethnic ghettos is not the absence of ethnic concentration; it is the absence of white flight. Immigrants are concentrated in central city neighborhoods, but Spaniards have not abandoned these neighborhoods; nor will they ever, Spaniards insist. Lavapiés and Malasaña, where we live, are two great examples in Madrid. They are points of reception and concentration of immigrants, but they continue to be populated and visited by Spaniards of all kinds, for their vibrant night life (Malasaña) and ‘exotic’ ethnic restaurants of all kinds (Lavapiés). Having spent countless hours on the plazas and sidewalk terrazas of Malasaña, it does seem hard to believe that Spaniards would give this up any time soon. City street life, or “la vida en la calle” as our friends like to say, is simply too integral to the Madrileño identity to be abandoned at the first wave of ethnic migration. So maybe the historical use, and cultural premium, of urban public space—crowded, mixed, noisy, vibrant—the proud tradition of rubbing shoulders—guards against the abandonment and isolation that have created the American ghetto. Is this too rosy a view?