The children of migration: The blurred border between roots and routes
Dolls representing the different identities and peoples of Chile. Picture by the author.
‘Racism is the condition that makes killing acceptable in a society where norms, regularity and homogeneity are the main social functions’, stated Michel Foucault in Society Must Be Defended (1976). Reading that sentence inevitably reminded me of all the times when people in Chile – the country my family came to twenty years ago – had asked me where I was from:
‘I am Bolivian.’
‘How long have you been here?’
‘Since I was five.’
‘Oh! Then you are Chilean.’
I often received these kinds of comments from friends and acquaintances. They were so convinced about my ‘true nationality’ that I would only frown and move on with the conversation. Analysing the subject in depth, I have always wondered why no one ever said to me ‘Oh, but you are also Chilean’. On the contrary, the answer they gave me suddenly erased a fundamental part of my identity.
When my family came to Chile in the early 2000s, the topic of migration was not as important as it is today. Even though it had become more relevant since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, with an increase of immigration from countries like Argentina or Peru, the national numbers were still very low. However, Peruvian immigration generated a strong rejection from Chilean society already back then; it was constantly on the news and there were many reports of attacks due to discrimination. In contrast, Argentinian migration – the largest according to the 2002 Population and Housing Census – never received as much media attention, nor the reported cases of discrimination were as serious or frequent as those suffered by Peruvians. Both migrant groups spoke the same language and had relatively similar habits. The only difference was that Peruvian migrants were mainly of indigenous descent and recognisable by their appearance, which made them the object of strong stigma in their workplaces; whereas the presence of the Argentinian population, mostly of European descent, went completely unnoticed by the public opinion. In other words, racism already played an important role in the country in those days.
I grew up in that Chile, which, as many other Latin-American states, originated as ‘a political expression of economic and social control by the elites’, violently squashing the domestic cultural differences, as researcher Menara Lube Guizardi argues. Chile’s Afro-descendent roots in the north have been forgotten through history and the indigenous populations continue to be oppressed to this day. These conditions have been reinforced by the repressive institutions inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship.
While growing up, my identity was something I was constantly questioning, as many other second-generation migrants surely do – especially those who live in countries where the nation-state model is in a permanent state of tension because the homogenising discourses about national unity fail to fit with the domestic reality. This tension is intensifying in a globalised world, where demonising migrants seems to be the latest strategy to achieve national unity against the ‘other’ – the one who is different – and to keep the national model in place.
Nevertheless, it was clear to me that my parents’ roots and the road they had chosen by being in Chile created an identity that was different from that of both my Bolivian and my Chilean friends. I could see how the difference between roots and routes became blurred. My conflict was that, apparently, there was no room for an identity like mine in the society I was in, particularly when it came to applying for national exams or grants, or analysing in history class who had civic rights and who had not (needless to say, I was among the latter). For me, this meant that I had to choose between two options: either you identify as different, but we will not accept you; or you identify as one of us (only if you comply with a series of requirements that border racism and xenophobia), but you leave behind the side of you that makes you different. I have always chosen the first one, fighting to change the narrative, sometimes successfully getting a full acceptance of my identity.
Unfortunately, up to this day Chile faces serious difficulties to integrate the children of migrants and include them in student grants in schools and universities. Immigration policies still adopt a national security approach, as in the Pinochet era. Not to mention the rise of racist and xenophobic attitudes in society, stirred up by far-right groups and opportunistic politicians. This will result in severe problems for the integration process of the children of the new wave of migration that the country is receiving.
There are not many studies on the subject of ‘second generation migrants’ yet, since attention is still focused on new economic and forced migrants arriving every day from Venezuela or Haiti. However, the term ‘second generation migrants’ already polarises opinion in some academic circles. Some scholars consider that the term only perpetuates the discrimination and stigmatisation that migrants experience, since it keeps differentiating their children within the society where they grew up or where they were born. What is more, as the sociologist Iñaki García Borrego has written, some studies show that migrant families often ‘refrain from passing on to their children the traditions, values, attitudes and norms from their society of origin, in fear that their children might not adapt to their new social context’. But denying this aspect of our identity also implies erasing an important part of ourselves, especially when the problem is not our ‘origin’, but the stigmatisation that a society or a government might make of it.
Recognising our roots together with our routes means problematising the homogenising model that the nation-state tries to impose on us. Giving in to assimilation is calling into question our existence as a full identity. Without a doubt, no matter how many obstacles a government or society may impose on the children of migration, the creation of new subcultures that reveal the differences within a society that fights tirelessly to repress them is inevitable.
Andrea Castellón is a Political Scientist from the Universidad Católica de Chile. She is an activist at the Movimiento de Acción Migrante Chile (MAM) that advocates for the human rights of migrants and which has recently played a key role in changing immigration law in Chile. Andrea also works at an Urban Innovation Centre.