Immigration

Searching for Providence and Harvest of Empire

A few months ago, I read Patricia Foxen’s ethnography In Search of Providence: Transnational Mayan Identities. An ethnography is a descriptive work resulting from the study of human cultures, and Dr. Foxen has created an insightful analysis of Mayan K’iches’ who have emigrated from a rural Guatemalan farming community to Providence, Rhode Island after the Internal Armed Conflict. I found Dr. Foxen’s book fascinating, and so many parts spoke to my own personal heartfelt experiences. Her description of the Mayan K’iche’ communities in their “host community” of Providence reminded me of my experiences working with recently resettled refugees. Her analysis of K’iche’ in their “home community” in Guatemala gave me deep nostalgia for my experiences at the Mountain School.

Furthermore, I was intrigued by Foxen’s description of how the Maya K’iche’ use trickster behavior. According to Foxen, in El Quiche “the instability caused by poor weather and crops, an insecure economic environment, poor health, and social strife lead most K’iche’s to learn to be flexible and above all, listo (literally to be ready, or on one’s toes) for whatever opportunities present themselves” (194). Foxen elaborates on how as marginalized immigrants, K’iches’ leverage this coping mechanism to act as tricksters. 

Tricksters, present in many cultures’ folktales including those of the Maya K’iche’, usually appear as animals who are metaphors for how an oppressed people can use their position of weakness to outsmart their oppressors. Foxen gives examples of how K’iche’s acted as real life tricksters to survive the Guatemalan military’s brutal surveillance tactics, and later put these techniques to use when contending with “la migra, the police, and bosses” in the United States (195). Foxen noted that K’iche’ migrants take pride in their trickster abilities, which they see as part of their ethnic identity.   

Foxen’s study of May K’iche’s trickster behavior left a deep impression on me because I have studied tricksters in ancient folktales and in contemporary fiction, but had yet to delve deeply into how people in recent history have used trickster behavior. One work of contemporary fiction that I have studied that came to mind when reading In Search of Providence was Junot Diaz’s collection of vignettes Drown, which features Dominican immigrants acting as tricksters in order to adapt to their new lives in New Jersey. Diaz writes in English, and cleverly uses language to express the multiple worlds his characters are straddling. Drown begin with an epigraph by Gustavo Pérez Firmat that expresses this notion:

The fact that I

am writing to you in English 

already falsifies what I

wanted to tell you. 

My subject: 

how to explain to you that I

don’t belong to English 

though I belong nowhere else.

To give further insight into the ideas expressed in this poem Bilingual Blues, I have linked below for a second time to an interview where Junot Diaz and Francisco Goldman discuss how they grapple with living in “two linguistic spheres.”

Another book that I have recently read that address Central American migration to the United States is Juan Gonzalez’s revised edition of Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. I delighted in taking my time reading Harvest of Empire, slowing pulling back the lens to gain a broader perspective on Latin American history from the Spanish Colonization in the 1500s to the present day. Thus far, my knowledge had been focused on Guatemala. Recently, I have begun to learn more about El Salvador from living in a city with large Salvadoran population as a result of a wave of immigrants and refugees who fled their country’s Civil War in the 1980s.

I especially liked Part II Branches (Las Ramas) and Part III Harvest (La Cosecha) for their comprehensive view of the revolutions in Latin America throughout the 20th Century and the discussion of the contemporary immigration debate. One close-up I particularly enjoyed was Gonzalez’s discussion Puerto Rico. Gonzalez himself is Puerto Rican, and included anecdotes about his family and own life, which added a personal note to the sweeping narrative.

Learn more about the books and radio show discussed in this post

1. Foxen, Patricia. In Search of Providence: Transnational Mayan Identities. 2007. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0826515819/ref=rdr_ext_tmb

2. Gonzales, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America Revised Edition. 2011.  http://www.amazon.com/Harvest-Empire-History-Latinos-America/dp/0143119281

3.  Alarcón, Daniel. ”Junot y Francisco : En vivo desde Nueva York.” Radio Ambulante. February, 2013. http://radioambulante.org/es/

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