THE PARADOXES OF MIGRATION: SILENCES, ABSENCES AND UNHEEDED (LITERARY) WARNINGS

I have attended this week the international conference “New Typologies of (E/Im)Migration: Mobility and Transcultural Spaces” beautifully organized by my good friend José Manuel Estévez Sáa (https://www.josemanuelestevezsaa.com/). This was also the 17th Culture and Power International Conference, marking the twentieth anniversary of our seminar’s activities (https://www.cultureandpower.org/). I am not myself at all a specialist in the field but having attended all but one Culture and Power seminar, I felt compelled to submit a paper. And this, I did.

I described my research for this paper in the posts of 1 and 21 June. I visited then the Museu d’Història de Catalunya and the Museu d’Història de la Immigració in order to check why the public visibility of the migration to Catalonia of many Spaniards from other regions is so low. My starting hypothesis was that there is a clear political intention to make this internal migration subordinated to the foreign migration started in the early 1990s. This, however, is open to two readings: one positive, with the low profile of Spanish migration connoting total integration; one negative, with the nationalist/independentist agenda seeking actively the silencing of the former migrants and their descendants. MHIC somehow complicates matters as its displays are based on choices not conditioned by the Generalitat (as happens in MHC) and, yet, the narrative offered is quite limited and strangely optimistic, glossing over all the problems that Spanish migrants faced and how their experience connects with that of the later 1990s foreign migrants.

What is most surprising to me is the fact that the Spanish internal migrants themselves have not narrated this experience nor the following generations in their families. In English there is an abundant list of fiction and non-fiction on the migrant experience of practically any ethnic group, from Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), about a Jewish migrant to the USA, to the recent novels on the Polish migration to the UK (post 2004), which Noemí Pereira discussed in the conference. Yet, in Spanish we do not really have a sub-genre dealing with migration, much less with internal migration. From what I heard, Galician writers tend to focus on international migration (mainly to Argentina and Cuba), and from what I know here locally in Catalonia the early example of Paco Candel and the novels by Juan Marsé still remain quite exceptional cases.

A colleague forwarded me a while ago a list of documentaries on the topic I am discussing here:
La aldea maldita (1930 silent and 1942, sound), by Froilán Rey.
Surcos (1951) by Juan Antonio Nieves Conde.
La piel quemada (1967) by José María Forn.
Specifically towards Catalonia, the works by Llorenç Soler (see some here https://www.culturaenaccion.com/llorenc-soler-videos/):
52 domingos (1966)
Será tu tierra (1966)
Largo viaje hacia la ira (1969)
Enrique Martínez- Salanova Sánchez’s webpage (https://www.uhu.es/cine.educacion/cineyeducacion/emigracion.htm) shows how the subject of internal migration seems to vanish in 1970s cinema, perhaps because the Transición becomes a priority, to resurface in the 1990s with the new foreign migration. The main exception seems to be the TV movie co-produced by several regional public TV channels La Mari (2003).

I don’t have a similar information for the novel as I am not a specialist in Spanish Literature yet my assumption is that the same pattern is repeated. My very amateurish conclusion as to why this pattern exists (in the specific case of Catalonia) is that there was too little time between the end of the Spanish migrant influx around 1980 and the beginning of the foreign migration around 1990 for the internal migrants to process their own story. The Generalitat insisted, and rightly so, on imposing the general assumption that integration had been achieved and very successfully–rightly so because a fractured society has no future. Yet, I wonder why in the end the balance between integration and the migrants’ right to celebrate their culture is best represented by the big Feria de Abril in Barcelona (established in 1971) rather than by a stream of novels and films.

My working hypothesis is that by the time the second or third generation got college degrees and a sophisticated awareness of their own family’s experiences it was too late for the market to offer a niche, as this had been taken up by the foreign experience of migration (in Catalan the main example would be Najat El Hachmi’s Jo també sóc catalana of 2004). I wonder whether, and I said so at the conference, the current Spanish young persons, forced to migrate abroad due to the dramatic lack of jobs here, will be the ones to finally make sense of this past experience and of their own. Paradoxically, Anglophone post-colonialism has provided us with conceptual and academic tools we lacked in the past; sadly, these are still unknown among most Spanish writers and intellectuals and little appreciated in Spanish Departments, the ones that should be researching why there are no works narrating the Spanish internal migration.

Apart from this paradox–the absence of a rich literature of migration in Spain despite the copious national and international experiences of many Spaniards–I noticed another paradox. The novels and films depicting modern migration are at least 100 years old, if not more. And it is obvious that the story they narrate is quite similar: an individual feels the need to leave his or her home country pushed by the realization that there is no future for him/her there; the choice of destination is conditioned by the fantasy that the opportunities are many and the reception will be positive; harsh reality intrudes to shatter that fantasy and show the migrant that s/he can only occupy a low place in its new receiving society; the migrant is sorely disappointed, and the story ends either in failure or in a deferred hope that later generations will fare better. I made many people laugh among the conference delegates when I commented that ignoring the literature on migration seems to be an intrinsic part of the migrant experience: migrants could be better informed but they are not, and thus the same story is repeated. I am not sure why they laughed. You can attribute this pattern to the fact, I’ll add, that many migrants have no access to education. Yet a colleague answered that migrating is like having a child–you plunge into the experience and take risks, unheeding all the warnings against it (otherwise nobody would have children). Fair enough.

This begs, however, the thorny question of whether narrating the migrant’s experience in film or fiction makes sense at all. Another delegate (from India) complained that, in addition, the market selects which aspects to consume and which to ignore, so that even the best informed reader/viewer only gets a partial impression of what migration entails. The migrant, hence, by definition, faces his/her journey as a journey into the unknown even when much can be learned beforehand from the experience of past migrants. Perhaps migration is in part sustained by the migrant’s confidence that s/he will do well unlike the many who failed (remember Angela’s Ashes?). You have to migrate, you hope for the best because in the end the worst is what pushes you to migrate.

What totally mystifies me is the assumption by educated migrants from poor countries that they will be treated according to their qualifications… Also, here’s another paradox, how many migrant experiences are not called that: executives, artists, academics and in general liberal professionals from rich countries do not migrate, they ‘relocate’.

So much to consider…

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2 comentarios en “THE PARADOXES OF MIGRATION: SILENCES, ABSENCES AND UNHEEDED (LITERARY) WARNINGS

  1. Your post reminded me of this book we had to read in high school, called Carrer Bolívia and written by Maria Barbal. It revolves around the joys and sorrows of a woman called Lina, originally from Linares, who marries Néstor and follows him to Barcelona, where they establish in the Besós neighbourhood. Migration as a topic is not dealt with in depth, but I think the novel is another perspective on this phenomenon, which as you say, was somehow silenced. Actually at the end of the novel *spoiler alert* the protagonist identifies so well with the new community which adopted her that perhaps integration was indeed achieved. It is an interesting topic anyway, as I myself am an immigrant

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