Academic journal article Social Justice

Grace under Pressure: Immigrant Families and the Nation-State

Academic journal article Social Justice

Grace under Pressure: Immigrant Families and the Nation-State

Article excerpt

The night was pitch black. Here we were the pollero, my two children, and I walking on that desolated road. I couldn't even see the palms of my hands. At one point the pollero took one of the children and walked away, ahead of me. I finally caught up with him. Suddenly, we saw light beaming over our heads and immediately we ducked underneath an abandoned truck. I then tucked my two kids under my body, against the dirt. The reflectors were passing very near to us. And there I was with the little one under me, squeezing him so that no sound would come out. I almost suffocated him. But they found us. They took me with the kids to the women's detention center. There we all slept on the floor.(1)

This fragment of testimony is from Angelica, a woman crossing the United States-Mexico border. Terrified and tired of her husband's abuses, she quit her two full-time jobs and crossed the border. The trip cost her more than one thousand dollars, paid to a network of polleros. She came to the Bay Area, hoping to start a new life with the help of a cousin. Five years later, her oldest son became one of the few Mexican students accepted at the prestigious Bridge High in the Bay Area,(2) and the youngest was also a top student who wanted to be a football star.

Although extraordinary, Angelica's story is not unique. There are countless women who have defied all odds to reinvent themselves and to open up new possibilities for their children. Contrary to the myth of first-generation immigrants' drive for success, Angelica's narrative weaves the multiple threads of a life of struggle for physical and cultural survival. Angelica encounters tremendous limitations and, at the same time, great possibilities for a new life in the process of becoming part of California's social environment. While she becomes acquainted with this society, she also becomes more rooted in her role as a mother and a Mexican woman living in a predominantly Mexican and Central American neighborhood in the Bay Area of Northern California.

I propose that immigrants, in Angelica's circumstances, will continue to form social networks that will eventually sustain the cultural and linguistic foundations that contribute to their ethnicization, while participating in the building of the United States as a nation. In other words, no contradiction exists between the willingness of immigrants to keep their language and cultural attachments and their full participation as new members of U.S. society. I wish to explain my position by answering three questions: In what sense will Angelica, both as individual and as family, develop an ethnic identity? How will they become part of a Mexican-American/Latino community? Can they articulate their lives to the U.S. nation-state project?(3)

Angelica's narrative runs through the entire article, and I go back and forth between the theoretical implications and her voice. Thus, I first begin by talking about integration and assimilation as the two main approaches that have given form and content to the debate on national identity formation in regard to immigrants. This section ends with a discussion about the role of language and the political tensions around it. Second, Angelica's narrative again illustrates the process of ethnicity and the different survival strategies that first-generation immigrants invent. The article ends with a series of conclusions on some of the implications of this ethnographic study.

Integration, Assimilation, and Ethnic Identity Formation

According to Brass' (1991) national formation theory, the hegemonic control of a social group over the other peoples that share a common territory derives from the political and economic power of the leading elites of such a group. In Brass' framework the state becomes a mediating agent and a subordinating instrument. The state is neither simply an arena for group conflict nor an instrument for class domination, but instead a relatively autonomous entity that tends to favor some classes and ethnic groups at particular points and times and also to develop its own interests. …

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