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Migranthood: Youth in a New Era of Deportation

reviewed by Virginia Diez & Jayanthi Mistry - October 12, 2020

coverTitle: Migranthood: Youth in a New Era of Deportation
Author(s): Lauren Heidbrink
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 150361154X, Pages: 240, Year: 2020
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Migranthood: Youth in a New Era of Deportation by Lauren Heidbrink offers the term “migranthood” to encapsulate complex, deeply-rooted mobility patterns within and across national borders that Mayan communities have developed over time as a form of survival. Heidbrink provides a strong empirical grounding for this interpretive portrayal based on a multi-method and multi-site study that integrates ethnographic, participatory, and critical policy analysis (including interviews with 253 stakeholders) spanning three to five years of field work. Although this kind of methodology is often questioned as non-generalizable, the richness of Heidbrink’s work offers a unique glimpse into the stories of a sample of 50 youth whose migration and deportation traverse a wide range of settings, from communities of origin in Guatemala, transit zones in Mexico, detention centers in the United States, courtrooms, and the Guatemalan government facilities that receive deported children and youth. The result is a poignant juxtaposition of the contrasting perspectives of migrant youth and the multiple governmental and non-governmental authorities, both in Guatemala and the United States, responsible for “migration management.” By weaving the detailed chronicles of migration and deportation provided by youth with the discourses circulating in legal, medical, and humanitarian interventions, Heidbrink effectively debunks reductionist images of “children left behind,” “unaccompanied minors”, "abandoned children,” and other “monolithic depictions of migranthood.”

From our position as applied and cultural developmental psychologists, it is exciting to see the phenomenon of “migranthood” situated in the socio-historical context that gave rise to the underlying shared cultural beliefs and practices. We learn about structural patterns of displacement and exploitation dating back to three centuries of Spanish colonialism (1524–1821) that set the stage for the repetitive dispossession of indigenous communities. Heidbrink speaks of “mega-devastations” inflicted by the plantation economy of the 19th century, U.S.-supported armed conflict in the 1960s, and what Maya Ixil communities have come to call the “fourth invasion”: the concentration of national industries such as palm oil and their profits in the hands of a few families. It is not much of a stretch to see parallels between the emergence of a racist discourse to justify the economic exploitation of indigenous groups by the Guatemalan ladino elite and MS-15 gangs, and the emergence of a racist discourse to dehumanize slaves in the United States in the service of a capitalist economy. Culturally rooted practices rather than individual-centric attributions of blame to youth and families provide a more grounded explanation of the staggering statistic that “nearly 1.7 million Guatemalans—roughly 10 percent of the country’s population—were deported from the United States and Mexico between 2012 and 2018” (p. 57). And culturally rooted practices of family separation for the sake of survival unveil the social and financial devastation that follows deportation, in sharp contrast with the “family reunification” euphemism. Furthermore, Heidbrink portrays the “erasure of indigeneity from discussions of migration [as] yet another form of racialized violence inflicted upon indigenous communities as it negates discrimination they face at all points in their migrations and deportation paths” (p. 16).  

Heidbrink’s target audience for this book may well be international development agencies, legal, state, and federal policymakers and administrators, as well as non-governmental agencies and youth serving organizations and advocates. Yet, we also want to highlight its relevance to the disciplines of developmental and educational psychology. Since the late 20th century, anthropological studies have become increasingly valued as a way of shedding light and generating new understandings on the cultural nature of human development. Sociocultural scholars have questioned the universality of stage theories that divide the lifespan into discrete episodes defined by age, such as infanthood, toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence, and so forth. As Heidbrink shows, Mayan conceptions of childhood defy Western theories based on expectations that humans evolve towards increasing levels of independence. Instead, they suggest a model of interdependent development where increasing levels of responsibility to family and community are markers of adulthood. In fact, youth migration across national borders is part of a “cultural elaboration of care” which gives children agency to contribute to family wellbeing early in life. The transition to migrating independently constitutes a rite of passage that reflects love and trust on the part of both adults and the migrant youth. Adults invest financial resources that put their families at risk of bankruptcy to send off youth who they trust have developed the necessary internal resources to survive the brutal migratory journey. In turn, youth see this journey as a responsibility they take up out of love for their families, a love that transcends physical distance, and, if everything goes well, materializes in the form of remittances that contribute to family wellbeing. Families yearn for the “right to not migrate,” but are resigned to moving for survival, a pattern they have engaged in “forever” (“hemos hecho desde siempre”).

The narratives and testimonies provided by youth in this study depict a view of childhood that defies its depiction as a universal life stage characterized by play, innocence, and “absence of adult responsibility.” The dichotomy between so-called adult responsibilities and an age of innocence becomes irrelevant in communities where every member has family obligations and the social agency to perform them from a very early age. Even the so-called “Guatemalan dream” has little relevance to Mayan youth who see the hidden agenda of racist and neoliberal portrayals of modernity as aimed at erasing their native identity and traditions. The same is true of the “American Dream” that promotes individual over collective success. We need schools to move beyond an individualistic lens in order to value caregiving, courage, and work for collective improvement as strengths that all students could develop, especially in our current turbulent times. In fact, we were sorry that Heidbrink did not expand our understanding of a “Mayan cosmovision” and “el buen vivir.” Although mentioned and briefly defined, a deeper look at these belief systems might help educators forge stronger connections with first-generation immigrant youth whose life experiences resemble those of the youth in this study. In the future, we look forward to building on studies such as Heidbrink’s to inform and inspire educators and developmental scholars to learn about sources of strength and resilience that have helped minority communities survive oppression and mobility with hope and better expectations for the future.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 12, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23467, Date Accessed: 10/21/2020 4:16:53 AM

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About the Author
  • Virginia Diez

    E-mail Author
    VIRGINIA DIEZ, Ph.D., is an independent consultant who works in academic and professional settings bridging theory and practice. Her work focuses on the developmental and educational trajectories of immigrant children and families. She approaches the study of human development from a sociocultural perspective (e.g., Lev Vygotsky, Barbara Rogoff, Michael Cole, Jayanthi Mistry). Her research expertise is largely in qualitative and interpretive traditions (ethnography, grounded theory, phenomenology, case studies). She has evaluated community-based programs, written white papers, and co-authored professional guidelines for teachers of English Learners. She has published in the Gastón Institute Publications series at the University of Massachusetts, the Journal of Adolescent Research, and has co-authored book chapters. Currently, she is working on eliciting and documenting retrospective narratives of immigration from adults living in the U.S. She received her degree from the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study & Human Development at Tufts University.
  • Jayanthi Mistry
    Tufts University
    E-mail Author
    JAYANTHI MISTRY, Ph.D., professor, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study & Human Development at Tufts University, is an applied developmental and cultural psychologist who seeks to understand the multiple and diverse realities of the human experience within and across nations, in an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, and interconnected world. A unifying theme of current research projects is a focus on narratives of developmental processes and transitions, because these foreground individuals as active agents making sense of their encounters with developmental contexts. Publications include chapters on culture and development in the Handbook of Child Psychology and the Handbook of Psychology, as well as both theoretical and empirical papers in Human Development, Child Development, and Teachers College Record, Journal of Adolescent Research among others. Recent research projects include investigations of ethnic and cultural identities among ethnic minority and immigrant youth, analysis of Head Start teachers’ learning and professional growth through a research and curriculum development program, and narrative analysis of young mothers’ educational and early parenting trajectories.
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