Harvard Educational Review
  1. Border Thinking

    Latinx Youth Decolonizing Citizenship

    Andrea Dyrness and Enrique Sepúlveda III

    Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 278 pp. $27 (paper).

    Using participatory action research to engage youth as both “the authors and the children in the story” (p. 3), Andrea Dyrness and Enrique Sepúlveda III present the transnational experiences of immigrant youth in three contexts: California, San Salvador, and Madrid. Rejecting binary nationalist discourses which assume that national belonging is singular, this book places at its center the young people who embody hybrid identities emerging at the intersection of multiple nations, cultures, and communities. Their enduring relationships with both home and host countries counter assimilationist assumptions that young people must cut ties to homeland cultures to integrate as democratic citizens in the host society. It demonstrates the unique perspectives of immigrants who are from “neither here nor there,” the cross-cultural and transnational connections that sustain them, and their potential as civic activists leading meaningful social change. Threaded through each chapter is a critique of the legal and social limitations of national citizenship and its failure to recognize and protect those whose lives are lived across and between nation-states.

    Each chapter begins with a historical overview of the political relationship between the home and host countries to provide a framework within which readers can understand contemporary migration flows. This in itself is important, as an intentional disruption of the ahistorical social discourse around the right to migrate. Placing the stories of undocumented Mexican immigrants against a backdrop of America’s “long history of outright possession and dispossession of land and bodies” (p. 37), for example, complicates one-dimensional understandings of migration, pushing readers to think about individual migration trajectories within the structures of conquest, imperialism, and globalization—contexts that are often absent in mainstream media coverage of the Western immigration crisis.

    Similarly, I was fascinated by the authors’ use of a “framework of coloniality” (p. 121) to understand contemporary Spanish discourse around Latinx and Caribbean migration. In chapters 3, 4, and 5, the authors discuss their fieldwork in Madrid, primarily at two neighborhood-based organizations that provided afterschool support services and programming for the children of Latin American immigrants. These organizations were driven by a vision of “promoting convivencia (social coexistence or life together)” (p. 134), but the onus for this integration fell on immigrant rather than nonimmigrant youth, who were encouraged to avoid ethnic identification and to “get out of” segregated ethnic neighborhoods, “ghettoes” (p. 138).

    Dyrness and Sepúlveda argue that the assimilationist views of the staff at these centers derive from colonial mindsets. When Black and Brown people are seen as inherently inferior and in need of reform, immigrants are forced to either assimilate into the host society or face rejection. This binary construction means that those who do not assimilate are seen as oppositional and therefore a threat to the host society. The Spanish staff at these centers considered extended ties to home culture as antithetical to successful integration, especially for youth positioned as symbols of hope for the future of integrated societies. Implicit deficit views may also have motivated their assumptions about the perceived sexuality of young Latinx and Caribbean girls and their tendency to blame poor health or hygiene on Latinx culture and individual habits rather than the poverty and unemployment that these families were dealing with in Madrid.

    In their zeal to uphold a vision of Madrid as a successfully integrated society, educators avoided acknowledging any interethnic conflict or engaging with Latinx and Caribbean immigrant youths’ experiences of discrimination and racism. Contrary to the lived experiences of these young people, Spanish educators spoke of interethnic conflicts as a historical fact rather than an enduring contemporary reality. This was a framing that many of the youth in this study seemed to internalize. Even as they recounted stories of racial profiling and police harassment, youth struggled to classify their experiences as discrimination. The combination of a national discourse of successful integration and the lack of spaces where youth could make sense of their own experiences of exclusion and precarity restricted the ability of these young people to develop a deeper understanding of their transnational identities, a critical consciousness of their own contexts, or the civic activism to challenge existing inequalities.

    Although it precedes these chapters, chapter 1, “Acompañamiento in the Borderlands,” may be read as an interesting counterfactual of the possibilities that educators may open for students when they are willing to engage in a pedagogy of acompañamiento, “a cultural practice of solidarity, of relationship and community building” (p. 58). This chapter highlights Sepúlveda’s work with twenty-four Mexican immigrant students at a high school in Northern California. Over a period of five months, Sepúlveda and two ESL teachers at the school created their own iteration of an ESL classroom, using poetry to engage with students and provide space for them to develop an understanding of their transnational identities. The reflections of these students, as they process their lives lived across borders, stand in stark contrast to the ways they were perceived by most of their teachers—“as a problem in need of fixing” (p. 42). The poetry is stirring in its description of the sacrifices migrants bear to provide for their families. Love, community, and solidarity are at the center of these testimonies.

    In breaking from mainstream curriculum and traditional structures of schooling, Sepúlveda and his colleagues served as “border brokers” to create alternative spaces for migrant youth where they could come together to make sense of “belonging on the margins, their identities as border crossers, racial discrimination, and cultural displacement” (p. 48). Critically, these educators recognized both the socioemotional needs of their students, who in leaving their families to provide for them economically embodied the bitter paradox of “full stomachs and empty hearts” (p. 64), and also that their experiences are illustrative of a neoliberal world marked by deep inequality, precarity, and displacement. In creating space for young people to process these experiences, these educators also nurtured their developing critiques of the societies we live in and the systems that create and preserve these injustices.

    Drawing on previous work, Dyrness and Sepúlveda describe “democratic yearnings” as “incipient critiques of their realities and imaginings of different futures” (p. 116). They argue that these are “yearnings” because they are not fully actualized and “represent a potential that must be cultivated by critical educators to bear fruit” (p. 117). Ultimately, I read this book as a call to action, as motivating educators to foster and sustain this civic awareness and latent activism that is essential not just for the development of diaspora youth but as a social and collective resource for the creation of inclusive and just futures. As outsiders within host countries and excluded by binary constructions of citizenship and belonging, diaspora youth have a unique understanding of inequality and a “compelling motivations to engage civically for democratic social change” (p. 233).

    Chapter 5, “Feminists in Transition,” focuses on Dyrness’s participation in and work with the Associación de Mujeres de Guatemala, a feminist nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that aims to eradicate gender-based violence and support immigrant women. While it wasn’t immediately clear how this final chapter fit with the others—these women are older than the students in the previous chapters, and this space is not specifically an educative space—I read it as a suggestion of the possibilities that emerge through the nurturing of immigrant “democratic yearnings” (p. 116). The women of the Associación de Mujeres de Guatemala are Central American immigrants, many of whom came to Spain to flee violence in their home countries. Their displacement drove the urgency of their civic activism. Their experiences in different contexts gave them unique “double, triple perspectives” (p. 208) of machismo and gender-based violence, as well as access to resources for resistance and survival embedded in Indigenous cultures. Elena from Bolivia attributed her own feminism to Julieta Paredes, an Indigenous Bolivian feminist. Beatriz, an immigrant from Columbia, drew on Indigenous traditions of collective organizing to explain the critical importance of forming networks of solidarity. Many of these strategies of resistance came out of an Indigenous belief in the power of communal resistance and survival, a worldview that ran counter to that of the European colonists. Therefore, these articulations are practical as well as symbolic: in upholding Indigenous practices and wisdom, they counter colonial narratives of native barbarity and inferiority.

    By highlighting the work of “transnational women who embody the knowledge and experience of multiple landscapes and ways of being and can draw from these varied experiences in their quest to imagine and enact a more humane world” (p. 217), Dyrness and Sepúlveda give us a glimpse into the power and possibilities of those who inhabit the borderlands. Like the butterfly that graces the cover of this book—an illustration from artist Faviana
    Rodriguez’s “Migration is Beautiful” campaign—these lives are bold and compelling celebrations of mobility and resilience. Equally though, the authors recognize and deeply respect the complexity of a belonging that is always fragmented, always “qualified by something missing” (p. 159). Border Thinking does important work in recasting this positionality as a complex space, as difficult to embody as it is ripe with potential.

    Alysha Banerji
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    Abstracts

    “What’s Going to Happen to Us?”
    Cultivating Partnerships with Immigrant Families in an Adverse Political Climate
    ADRIANA VILLAVICENCIO, CHANDLER PATTON MIRANDA, JIA-LIN LIU, AND HUA-YU SEBASTIAN CHERNG

    Book Notes

    Border Thinking
    Andrea Dyrness and Enrique Sepúlveda III

    Educating for Durable Solutions
    Christine Monaghan

    Schooling for Critical Consciousness
    Scott Seider and Daren Graves

    Charter School City
    Douglas N. Harris

    The Young Crusaders
    V. P. Franklin

    The Last Negroes at Harvard
    Kent Garrett and Jeanne Ellsworth