Viaje al corazón de la investigación académica

Por María Paula Escobar-Tello.

Versión en ingles aquí.

Hay quienes piensan que mantener los sentimientos, las emociones, las individualidades y las identidades por fuera del trabajo de campo, el laboratorio y los experimentos es una regla de oro que garantiza la validez del trabajo científico.  Desde este punto de vista, la buena ciencia debe ser neutral y objetiva.

Yo no estoy tan segura y hoy quiero hablar sobre los sentimientos y emociones que he vivido con BioSmart, un proyecto donde ciudadanos británicos, colombianos, chilenos, irlandeses y españoles trabajamos juntos, y sobre cómo esas vivencias me han hecho pensar en lo que queremos decir cuando hablamos de buena ciencia.

Empiezo por contar que soy colombiana y británica. Llevo 20 años en el Reino Unido y cuando voy con el equipo británico a Colombia me lleno de orgullo y alegría al darles a probar ajiaco, arepas, empanadas y aguardiente, y al verlos maravillarse con la fiesta de colores, sabores y texturas que son nuestros mercados de frutas. También me enorgullezco porque los colombianos siempre nos reciben con la calidez y el buen humor que nos caracteriza y que tanto extraño cuando estoy en Inglaterra. Sentir esa calidez, acordarme de la facilidad con que sonreímos los colombianos y de cómo nos volvemos mejores amigos apenas nos conocemos me ha despertado la nostalgia que siento como emigrante. Pero la nostalgia viene acompañada de gratitud, porque es gracias al sistema académico británico que puedo volver a Colombia a trabajar por la gente que quiero. Mi identidad está en el centro de mi trabajo y la pasión y el compromiso con que me esfuerzo por desempeñarlo.

La hospitalidad de los productores incluyó chocolate caliente hecho con pepas de cacao cultivadas en la finca.

El café, la limonada natural, los jugos, el yogur casero y hasta chocolate recién hervido, hecho con pepas de cacao cultivado en la finca con que nos reciben en todas partes alimentan esos sentimientos de cariño y compromiso. Nosotros correspondemos a esta generosidad y siempre llevamos pan recién salido del horno; y de manjar en manjar aprendemos sobre la vida de los campesinos del Caquetá y ellos de la nuestra en el Reino Unido. Este aprendizaje surge por fuera del laboratorio, antes del trabajo formal de contar especies de plantas e insectos, antes de la entrevista propiamente dicha. Este aprendizaje, así como los sentimientos y emociones que lo acompañan, no hará parte de los resultados que irán en las publicaciones y presentaciones, pero sin él, nuestro quehacer de investigación no representaría lo mismo para todos los involucrados. Es este aprendizaje, repleto de emociones, lo que le da sentido a nuestro trabajo y hoy me siento igual de orgullosa del equipo británico, porque sé que han aprendido a querer al país y a los productores y colegas colombianos tanto como yo. Prueba de ello son las amistades que han construido y el carácter con que trabajan: han pasado tiempo con los niños de los productores, se han mantenido en contacto con productores, conductores y colegas. Nuestro compromiso se ve también en cada madrugón para no llegarle tarde a los productores y colegas que nos esperan. Nos inspira su duro trabajar y no queremos afectarles su día de trabajo.  La buena ciencia es considerada y la consideración es fruto de los sentimientos, de modo que siempre estamos listos para salir a campo a las seis de la mañana sin falta. Me conmovió el sentir que el cariño es de doble vía. Los años y la vida citadina me dificultan el caminar por el terreno que es a veces empinado y pantanoso. Los conductores se han convertido en parte del equipo y uno de ellos me sorprendió un día con un regalo. Había escogido una rama de guayabo, la había pelado y pulido y me había hecho un bastón que todavía tengo. 

María Paula con el bastón de palo de guayaba que le regalaron.

Pero también ha habido otro tipo de emociones. Con demasiada frecuencia los productores se disculpan y nos dicen que se sienten menos y se sienten ignorantes porque no han tenido una educación formal. Esto me despierta rabia, porque sé que esta falta de educación formal y este sentirse inferiores es resultado de un sistema político, económico, social y cultural, de dimensiones globales, que trata a los campesinos con desprecio y negligencia. Les he dicho a cada oportunidad que su nivel de educación formal no es reflejo de lo mucho que valen y que los reconocemos como poseedores de un conocimiento frente al cual nos sentimos humildes. En cada conversación he tratado de devolverles la dignidad que todos les debemos. Esto me ha hecho pensar en la objetividad y la neutralidad. Si por objetividad entendemos la capacidad de entender cuál es el verdadero problema y si las emociones tienen cabida en la buena ciencia entonces yo no quiero ser neutral. He querido pasar más tiempo con ellos y contribuir más allá del conocimiento que producimos juntos.

A veces, este contribuir ha sido real e inmediato. Al terminar la entrevista y habiendo construido una amistad instantánea, como hacemos los colombianos, una persona me contó que esa tarde había venido al pueblo no sólo para hablar conmigo, sino también para vender unos pollos. Hubiera preferido venderlos ya más grandes para sacarles un mejor precio, pero había que pagar el recibo de la luz y no había plata suficiente. Pero no los había podido vender bien y ahora no tenía ni los pollos ni la plata para pagar el recibo. Los pollos son comida e ingreso a futuro y la electricidad es una necesidad básica. Le di de mi propia plata. Algunos podrán pensar que mi gesto estuvo mal porque genera una cultura de “asistencialismo” y que sería mejor si los ayudo a ser más productivos para que en el futuro no tengan problemas de plata. Habrá otros más cínicos que me dirán que de pronto el cuento era puro invento. Yo no dudé de la palabra de esta persona y aunque mi trabajo aspira a ayudar a aliviar la pobreza en el largo plazo, el corazón se sintió mejor ayudando en ese instante con lo urgente. ¿Habré hecho bien? Siento que sí.

Construyendo amistades después de un día de trabajo en campo.

Este preguntarme por la neutralidad me ha pasado con otras historias y otras emociones. Por ejemplo, una mañana lloré mares de lágrimas cuando una mujer improvisó un discurso de quince minutos. De pie frente al portón de su casa y con la frente muy en alto, quiso saber si veníamos de parte de las compañías mineras y petroleras, cuya presencia la llena de miedo por el futuro de sus hijos y de angustia por lo efectos de los proyectos extractivos sobre la tierra en que creció. También nos contó cómo algunos implementadores de proyectos, no todos, no la han dejado participar en programas agroambientales y la han discriminado por ser mujer. Todos quedamos conmovidos, incluidos su marido y sus hijos. ¡Qué mamá y qué esposa tan valiente tienen!, les dije. Al despedirnos nos dimos un abrazo fuerte y largo y sentí de nuevo la necesidad y el deseo de hacer más.

A veces, ese deseo se siente urgente. Mientras escribo, tengo el corazón apretado porque el dueño de la finca con más y mejor bosque, piensa que vender su tierra es la única opción porque tiene muchas deudas. La única actividad productiva es la ganadería, pero él no quiere tener vacas; prefiere cuidar el bosque, pero eso no le da plata. ‘Ayúdeme a vender,’ me dice, ‘pero a alguien que cuide como yo he cuidado.’

Siento rabia por las injusticias que padecen estas personas. No puedo y no quiero ser neutral. Me siento confundida y no sé si debo preocuparme porque estoy tratando de encontrar el modo de ser al mismo tiempo investigadora y activista, empleada de una Universidad y agitadora de una campaña de solidaridad. Quiero ayudar, y mientras le echo cabeza al cómo, se me ocurre que es posible que la ciencia sea mejor cuando se hace dejando juntar al corazón con la labor académica.  Quiero pensar que mis sentimientos y mis emociones le imprimen al quehacer de la investigación académica un sentido diferente de lo bueno en que el impacto no es sólo lo que sale al final del proyecto, en las publicaciones o en los eventos de cierre sino en la manera como va tocando y enriqueciendo, desde el principio, las vidas de todos los involucrados.

Quiero pensar que hacer buena ciencia parte del reconocimiento de las emociones hasta el punto de escribir públicamente sobre ellas. Reconocer la vulnerabilidad es exponerse, pero abrazarla lo enriquece a uno como persona y como investigador. Al fin y al cabo, lo uno es inseparable de lo otro.

María Paula Escobar-Tello es Geógrafa Humana y trabaja como Docente de planta en la Escuela de Veterinaria de la Universidad de Bristol investigando puntos de tensión entre la producción pecuaria y el medio ambiente; en particular desde la mirada de los estudios en gobernanza y regulación, geografías ‘más-que-humanas’, ecología política y política de la materialidad. 

Este blog está originalmente publicado en el blog de BioSmartAmazonia, donde se incluye además una versión en audio.

Journey to the heart of academic research

By María Paula Escobar-Tello.

Spanish version here.

Many believe that keeping feelings, emotions, individualities and identities out of the field, the lab and the experiment is the golden rule that guarantees the validity of scientific work. From this perspective, good science requires neutrality and objectivity.

I’m not so sure, and today I want to share stories about the feelings and emotions I have lived with BioSmart, a project where British, Colombian, Chilean, Irish and Spanish citizens work together, and tell you about how my emotions have made me reflect on what we may mean by good science.

I’ll start by saying that I am both Colombian and British. I have lived in the UK for 20 years now and when I have brought the UK team to do fieldwork in Colombia, I have felt pride and joy in having them taste our ajiaco, arepas, empanadas and aguardiente, and feast on the bounty of colours, textures and tastes of our fruit markets. I have felt pride too because my fellow Colombians always greet us with our traditional warmth and cheeky humour and this has put a finger on my nostalgia as an immigrant; for this warmth, the easiness with which we smile and become best friends in a matter of minutes, are what I most dearly miss when I am in England. But this nostalgia is mixed with gratitude, for the academic system in the UK has allowed me to return to Colombia and work for people I love. My identity matters and is at the heart of the passion and commitment with which I work.

The hospitality of the farmers included hot chocolate made with home-grown cocoa beans.

These feelings are replenished at every farm visit we make. Coffee, freshly squeezed lemonade, home-made juices and yogurts, even hot chocolate made with home-grown cocoa beans are always waiting for us. We reciprocate this generosity and always arrive with fresh bread from the bakeries and meal by meal we learn about farmers’ lives in Caquetá and they learn about our own lives in the UK. This learning happens outside the lab, before we start counting plants and insects and before we begin the formal interview. This learning, and the feelings of respect, solidarity and gratitude that come with it, is inconspicuous in the data that will go into papers and presentations; but without it, our research practice would be less meaningful for all involved. This learning, imbued with emotions, is what gives real meaning to our work and I feel pride in the British team too, for I have seen them care about the farmers and our Colombian partners as much as I do. This shows in the friendships they have built and the character with which they work. They have spent time with farmers’ children, they have kept in touch with farmers, drivers and colleagues. It shows too when we get up at the crack of dawn because we want to be as hard-working as the farmers and the Colombian team of scientists who are already waiting for us: we don’t want to be late and mess up their day. Good science cares, so we are out in the cars by six in the morning. I was moved by how this caring goes both ways. My aging body and my city lifestyle makes it tricky for me to walk in this hilly and boggy terrain. The drivers have become part of the team too and, one of them surprised me one day with a gift. He had chosen a branch from a guava tree, peeled it and polished it and crafted a beautiful walking stick that I have with me.

María Paula with the guava branch walking stick.

But there have been other kinds of emotions too. Too often, farmers apologise for their lack of formal education and tell us how this makes them feel ignorant and inferior. This has made me feel angry, for I know this lack of formal education and this sense of inferiority are the result of a political, economic, social and cultural system, of global dimensions, that neglects and despises peasants. On every occasion I tell farmers that their level of formal education does not reflect their worth and I tell them how they are knowledgeable in ways that humble us. I strive for our conversations to return to them the dignity they are owed. This has made me think about objectivity and neutrality. If being objective is the commitment to understand what the real problem is and good science is about caring, then I don’t want to be neutral. I have wanted to spend more time with them and contribute beyond the knowledge we are all creating.

Sometimes, these contributions have been real and immediate. After we finished the interview and we had become instant friends in the way Colombians do, a farmer told me they had come to the village that day not only to see me, but also to sell some chickens. They would have preferred to keep them for longer because then they would have sold for a better price. But they were short of money to pay the electricity bill and the only option was to sell the chickens. However, what they got was not enough and now, they did not have the chickens or the money to pay the bill. Chickens are income and food and electricity is essential. I gave them some of my own money. Some might think my gesture creates a culture of assistencialism, that what I ought to do is help them be more productive so they can improve their income and not have money problems. Perhaps, more cynical views would even question their story. I didn’t and even though my work is meant to help alleviate poverty in the long term, I felt I wanted to help there and then. Was I right to do so? I feel I was.

Research is also about building friendships after a day in the field.

This questioning of neutrality has been fuelled by other emotions too. For example, one morning, I felt deep sorrow and broke into a deluge of tears as I listened to a woman deliver an improvised fifteen-minute speech. Standing tall by the porch of her house, she wanted to know if we were visiting the farm on behalf of the oil and mining companies. She told us how their presence makes her fear for the future of her children and despair for the effects that extractive projects are having on the land she grew up in. She also told us how some project implementers, not all, have discriminated her and refused to sign her up to agri-environmental initiatives because she is a woman. We were all moved by her courage and her eloquence, including her husband and her children. What a brave mother and wife you have, I told them. As we said goodbye, we had a long and tight hug and again, I felt that I need and I want to do more. 

Sometimes this feeling comes with urgency. At the time of writing, my heart is worried about a man who is thinking that selling his land, the most pristine of all the farms I visited, is his only option because he is in debt.  The only way to earn a living is to have cows but he does not want to have cows: he would much rather look after the forest, but this does not provide him with a living. ‘Help me find a buyer,’ he says, ‘but someone who cares for the forest just as I have.’

I feel rage for the injustices these people live in. I cannot and I don’t want to be neutral. I feel conflicted and wonder if I need to worry, for I am pondering how to be at once the researcher and the activist, the University employee and the solidarity campaigner. I want to help and, as I ponder how, I feel that what we mean by good science might be better practised from this place where my emotions and my research meet. I want to think my feelings and emotions articulate a goodness where impact is not only what comes at the end of the project, often in the shape of outputs or closure activities, but what touches and nurtures the lives of all involved from the beginning.

I want to think good science involves acknowledging emotions to the point of writing publicly about them. Vulnerability may be challenging, but embracing it enriches you as a person and as researcher: after all, one cannot be extricated from the other.

María Paula Escobar-Tello is a Human Geographer based at the Bristol Veterinary School. Her research explores tensions and intersections between livestock farming and the environment drawing from scholarship on regulation as governance, more-than-human geographies, political ecology and the politics of materiality.

This post was first published on the BioSmartAmazonia blog, where there is also an audio version.

Migraciones poéticas en la obra de Jesús Arrellano

Por Rebecca Kosick y Nohelia Meza.

Versión en ingles aquí.

El título del libro de poesía experimental de Jesús Arellano (1923-1979), El canto del gallo: Poelectrones (Metáfora, 1972), podría sugerir que esta colección es un precursor de la literatura electrónica, sin embargo estos poemas en sí mismos tienen una prehistoria ligada a movimientos de poesía visual y concreta que prosperaron en América Latina durante el siglo XX. Por tanto, con el objeto de subrayar el tema del blog MMB, podríamos considerar cómo la poesía de Arellano, escrita en máquina de escribir IBM MT72 composer, beneficia y contribuye a la migración de dichas prácticas poéticas de vanguardia dentro y más allá de finales del siglo XX. Pues más que ser un precursor – en el desarrollo – de la literatura electrónica que surgiría tiempo después (al menos en México), o una llegada tardía al auge de la poesía visual o concreta de mitad de siglo, los Poelectrones pueden ser entendidos como una parada distintiva dentro de una migración hemisférica de la poética experimental. 

(Imagen: Derechos reservados Malpaís Ediciones, El canto del gallo. Poelectrones. México, 2018. Diseño de portada Gonzalo Fontano.)

Dos posibles puntos de comparación que anteceden a la colección de Arellano (1972), serían, por un lado, los primeros poemas visuales del poeta chileno Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948), y, por otro lado, la poesía concreta del grupo ‘Noigandres’ (1956) en Brasil. Como bien sabemos, Huidobro experimentó con una variedad de formas poético-visuales; sin embargo, la similitud más sorprendente entre su obra y la de Arellano se puede encontrar en los caligramas que aparecen en su colección de 1913, Canciones en la noche. De hecho, cabe señalar que en ambas colecciones los poetas utilizan formatos visuales casi idénticos en los poemas, ‘La capilla aldeana’ (Huidobro, p, 59) y ‘Espantapájaros’ (Arellano, p. 72). 

Sin embargo, mientras el poema de Huidobro se trata más o menos de la capilla que muestra visualmente –describiendo, por ejemplo, su campana, su sacerdote, su luz –el poema de Arellano introduce las imágenes y los temas poéticos de tal manera que dificultan la interpretación más obvia de la forma del poema. Arellano juega con el potencial verbicovisual disyuntivo entre lo que claramente es el conocido símbolo de la santa cruz y lo que realmente resulta ser tras la lectura: ‘un Romano espantapájaros letal’. Al igual que muchos de los poemas en la colección de Arellano, por ejemplo, aquellos con la forma de las cabezas de Vladimir Lenin o Che Guevara, ‘Espantapájaros’ es un poema político. Puesto que compara al espantapájaros con la ‘opresión del dólar’ acentuando ‘la tierra sea su tierra, el agua su agua’ y cierra sugiriendo que simplemente dejen a los pájaros ser. 

La versión de Arellano en el poema ‘con forma de cruz’ comparte una relación formal con aquella de Huidobro en el ejemplo anterior; sin embargo, Arellano pone la marca visual en el poema a un nivel de uso completamente diferente; es decir, la tensión creativa e imaginativa entre cómo es probable que nosotros lo percibamos, y las imágenes que realmente descubrimos al leerlo. Así, mientras las estrategias formales quizás hayan migrado de un poeta a otro, en las manos de Arellano, dichas estrategias se unen de forma global al tono de política radical de la colección, ‘Viva la libertad, cuál? Cuál? Cuál?’ (Arellano, 120), al mismo tiempo que explotan aquellas posibilidades que surgen cuando la iconografía visual es interrumpida o problematizada, por su lenguaje poético constitutivo. 

La poesía concreta del grupo Noigandres con base en São Paulo (Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos y Décio Pignatari) se inclinó por evitar el tipo de poesía (con) forma que caracteriza a la capilla de Huidobro y a la santa cruz de Arellano. No obstante, compartían un interés en la huella visual y material de la poesía sobre la página y El canto del gallo de Arellano contiene numerosas superposiciones con la poesía concreta del grupo Noigandres. 

Por ejemplo, en el poema ‘nasce morre’ de Haroldo de Campos de finales de los años cincuenta, las palabras crecen y se (des)mueren gradualmente de la página. Aunque no es tan discursiva como ‘La capilla aldeana’ de Huidobro, este poema es parte del isomorfismo verbicovisual característico de la poesía concreta de esta era, pues lo que está pasando de forma verbal está pasando también de forma visual. Algo similar podría decirse acerca del poema sin título de Arellano que construye una forma triangulada añadiendo y sustrayendo palabras de una serie de líneas que repiten (en su forma completa) ‘el último pararrayos de la justicia soy’ (Arellano, p. 32). La primera y la última línea son cada una ‘el último’. Aquí, Arellano comparte las estrategias formales con ambos, la poesía visual de estilo caligramático, y ciertamente la concreta, jugando con la adición visual y la sustracción de palabras, al mismo tiempo que construye una forma visual sugerente del pararrayos que describe verbalmente. Pero regresa una vez más a la política extrapoética que enmarca esta colección, tomando estrategias formales de sus precursores, pero desplegándolas con fines únicos. 

Ahora bien, la migración lingüística y física inmersa en la poesía de estos autores puede también leerse como una poesía visual, caligramática, y a su vez transatlántica y transpacífica. Una poesía con patrones migrantes en su poética misma. Es decir, por un lado, hay rasgos de otras tradiciones poéticas; y por otro, se refleja la migración física-geográfica de los autores. En el caso de Arellano, el desarrollo y los ‘viajes’ subsecuentes de la tecnología en que escribió su Canto del gallo, son en parte lo que facilitó su intervención estética. Y tanto Huidobro como el poeta concreto Augusto de Campos hacen uso de esta poesía ‘viajera’.

Tomemos, por ejemplo, el poema de Huidobro ‘Paysage’ (1920), escrito originalmente en francés, cuyo lenguaje caligramático nos permite viajar y vernos reflejados en esa luna, ‘La lune ou tu te regardes’ y oír el pasar de un río, ‘la fleuve qui coule ne porte pas de poissons’, evocando una imagen de la naturaleza que además de borrar los límites del lenguaje, se presenta como una contemplación perene dispuesta a la visita atemporal de sus lectores.  

De igual manera, podemos hablar de las alusiones japonesas en Huidobro, claramente reflejadas en su poema visual, ‘Fresco Nipon’ (Huidobro, p. 55). Aquí la imagen del sol que derrite la nieve del Fujiyama subraya la idea de lo efímero, e incluso podríamos agregar que el poema mismo tiene la forma de un reloj de arena insinuando el feroz paso del tiempo sobre la escritura misma. En ‘Triángulo armónico’ (Huidobro, p. 53) las alusiones a la flor de loto y a los estanques de agua de los jardines japoneses crean un dinamismo único en su materialidad, convirtiendo al poema-romboide en el reflejo de sí mismo (un espejo de agua), una versión alterna que permite múltiples cruces estéticos y posibilidades de lectura. 

Finalmente, nos interesa subrayar brevemente la migración inmersa en los soportes. Un claro ejemplo, es el caso del poeta brasileño Augusto de Campos (1931-) y su ‘Poema bomba’ en su versión impresa en 1987, su versión computarizada en 1992 y su versión en instalación 3D en 2003. Como la máquina de escribir de Arellano, las bombas ‘viajeras’ creadas por de Campos, nos invitan a formular las siguientes preguntas: ¿cómo se da la migración poética en los distintos soportes? ¿Qué papel juega la remediación en el acto poético? El ‘Poema bomba’ es un texto cuya explosión poética y semiótica se conjugan ante los ojos del lector. De Campos juega con la idea de un poema explosivo que produce una bomba poética, en ambos casos subrayando lo experimental de su gramática espacial. Quizás, en los años por venir las poesías de Arellano y Huidobro encuentren territorios de experimentación semejantes al ‘Poema bomba’ escrito por de Campos, nuevos espacios y tiempos en un lenguaje ‘programado’ que transmita a sus lectores la complejidad estética de la migración poética. 

Rebecca Kosick es profesora titular en traducción en la Universidad de Bristol y codirectora del Instituto de Poesía de Bristol. Su investigación aborda la poesía y la poética en el hemisferio americano.

Nohelia Meza es investigadora en literatura y cultura digitales latinoamericanas. Fue investigadora posdoctoral visitante en la Universidad de Leeds (2018-2020). Actualmente vive en Bristol y le fascinan los volcanes.


Poetic migrations in the work of Jesús Arellano

By Rebecca Kosick and Nohelia Meza.

Spanish version here.

The title of Mexican poet Jesús Arellano’s (1923-1979) experimental typewriter poetry collection, El canto del gallo. Poelectrones (Metáfora, 1972), might suggest it is a precursor to electronic literature, but these poems themselves have a prehistory tied to movements in visual and concrete poetry that thrived throughout 20th century Latin America. To take up the theme of the MMB blog, we might consider how Arellano’s poetry, written on an IBM MT72 Selectric typewriter, benefits from and contributes to the migration of vanguard poetic practices within and beyond the late 20th century. Rather than being an undeveloped precursor to the electronic literature that would follow (at least in Mexico), or a late arrival to visual or concrete poetry’s mid-century heyday, Arellano’s Poelectrones can be understood as a distinctive stop within the hemispheric migration of experimental poetics.

(Image: Copyright Malpaís Ediciones, El canto del gallo. Poelectrones. México, 2018. Cover design Gonzalo Fontano.)

Two possible points of comparison preceding Arellano’s 1972 collection would be the early visual poems of Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948) and the concrete poetry of Brazil’s ‘Noigandres’ (1956) group. Huidobro experimented with a variety of visual-poetic forms, but the most striking resemblance between his work and Arellano’s can be found in the typeset calligrams appearing in his 1913 collection, Canciones en la noche. In fact, the two poets’ collections use an almost identical visual format for their poems ‘La capilla aldeana’ (Huidobro, p. 59) and ‘Espantapájaros’ (Arellano, p. 72).

But while Huidobro’s poem is more or less about the chapel it depicts visually – describing, for instance, its bell, its priest, its light – Arellano’s poem introduces images and poetic themes that complicate the most obvious interpretation of the poem’s shape. Arellano plays with the potential visual-verbal disjunction between the immediately recognisable symbol of the holy cross and what turns out to be, upon reading the poem, a ‘Romano espantapájaros letal’. Like many of the poems in Arellano’s collection, notably those shaped like Vladimir Lenin or Che Guevara’s heads, this is a political one. It equates the scarecrow with the ‘opresión del dólar’, stressing that ‘la tierra sea su tierra, el agua su agua’ and asks that it leave the birds be.

Arellano’s take on the cross-shaped poem shares a formal relationship with the Chilean poet’s earlier example, but Arellano puts the visual imprint of the poem – and the tension between how we’re likely to see it and the images we discover upon reading it – to an entirely different use. So, while the formal strategies may have migrated from one poet to another, in Arellano’s hands, these strategies join with the radical politics of the collection in general (‘Viva la libertad, cuál? cuál? cuál?’ [Arellano, p. 120]) and exploit the possibilities that arise when visual iconography is disrupted, or complicated, by its constitutive poetic language.

The concrete poetry of the São Paulo-based Noigandres group (Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari) tended to avoid the kind of shaped poetry characterised by Huidobro’s chapel poem or Arellano’s scare-cross. But they shared an interest in the visual and material imprint of poetry on the page and Arellano’s El canto del gallo contains numerous overlaps with the Noigandres group’s concrete poetry.

For instance, in Haroldo de Campos’s late 1950s poem ‘nasce morre’ words grow and gradually (un)die off the page. Though not discursive like Huidobro’s ‘La capilla aldeana’, this poem partakes of the visual-verbal ‘isomorphism’ characteristic of concrete poetry during this era, in that what is happening verbally is happening visually as well. Something similar could be said about Arellano’s untitled poem that builds a triangular shape by adding then subtracting words from a series of lines that repeat (when in their complete form) ‘el último pararrayos de la justicia soy’ (Arellano, p. 32). The first and final lines are each ‘el último’. Here, Arellano shares formal strategies with both concrete and calligram-style visual poetry, playing with the visual addition and subtraction of words as well as forming a shape visually suggestive of the lightning rod it portrays verbally. But he again returns to the extrapoetic politics that motivate this collection, borrowing formal strategies from his precursors but deploying them to unique ends.

The physical and linguistic migrations of these authors’ poetry can be read as visual and calligrammatic, but also as transatlantic and transpacific – a poetry with migrant patterns embedded in the poetics itself. On the one hand, there are traces of other poetic traditions, and on the other, reflections of the physical and geographic migrations of the poets writing. In Arellano’s case, the development and subsequent ‘travels’ of the technology on which he typed his Canto del gallo are in part what facilitated its aesthetic intervention. And both Huidobro and concrete poet Augusto de Campos make use of poetry that ‘travels’.

For instance, Huidobro’s visual poem, ‘Paysage’ (1920), was originally written in French. Reading the poem, we can travel and see ourselves reflected in its calligramatic depiction of the moon – ‘La lune ou tu te regardes’. We can hear its river passing – ‘la fleuve qui coule ne porte pas de poissons’. It evokes an image of nature that, in addition to erasing the borders between languages, acts like a perennial contemplation capable of meeting the atemporal gaze of its readers where (or when) they are.

Similarly, we might address the Japanese references present elsewhere in Huidobro’s work, for example, in his visual poem ‘Fresco Nipon’ (Huidobro, p. 55). Here, an image of the sun melting the snow on Mount Fuji emphasises ephemerality, something that is echoed in the form of the poem, whose hourglass shape suggests time’s relentless passing. In ‘Triángulo armónico’ (Huidobro, p. 53) references to the lotus flower and Japanese garden ponds create a unique dynamism in the poem’s materiality, converting the poem-rhomboid into a reflection of itself – an alternative version of the poem that facilitates multiple aesthetic and interpretive possibilities.

Finally, we can highlight the ways in which poetic migration embeds itself in the poetic support. For example, Augusto de Campo’s (1931-) ‘Poema bomba’ migrated from print form (1987) to digital form (1992), and finally became a 3-D installation (2003). Like Arellano’s typewriter, de Campo’s traveling ‘bombs’ provoke questions related to how poetic migration takes place across distinct supports or modes of delivery. It also raises the question of remediation and its relationship to poetic practice. ‘Poema bomba’ is a text whose poetic and semiotic explosions come together before the reader’s eyes, and de Campos plays with the idea of the explosive poem and its potential to explode poetics, underscoring both its experimental nature and its spatial grammar. Perhaps, in the years to come the poetry of Arellano and Huidobro will find similar opportunities for further experimentation – new spaces and times within a programmed language that transmits both its aesthetic complexity and the migratory influences of its poetics.

Rebecca Kosick is Senior Lecturer in Translation at the University of Bristol and co-director of the Bristol Poetry Institute. Her research addresses poetry and poetics in the American hemisphere.

Nohelia Meza is a researcher in Latin American Digital Literature and Culture. She was a visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds (2018-2020). She currently lives in Bristol and loves volcanoes. 


(Im)Mobility in the Americas and COVID-19: a transnational collective project

By Soledad Álvarez Velasco.

In mid-March 2020, the countries of the Americas declared a health emergency, closed their borders and entered into quarantine as the first containment measures against the COVID-19 pandemic. It was in this context that 45 researchers from 19 countries in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean, all interested in migration and mobilities, came together online to ask ourselves about the situation of thousands of migrants and refugees on the continent.

While the pandemic paused our capacity to conduct ethnographic research, it did not cease our direct relation and communication with migrants and refugees. We knew that the arrival of COVID-19 had caught regional and extra-continental asylum seekers in the middle of their applications; migrant families and unaccompanied children and adolescents at border crossings; detainees in overcrowded detention centres or on deportation flights; and thousands of undocumented migrants in their precarious jobs with no possibility of stopping their workload to quarantine. We were also aware that border closures violated the right to free mobility and refuge, and that the pandemic would exacerbate nationalism by reinforcing the image of the foreigner as a ‘public charge’ or as the one who embodies the virus; elements that intensify xenophobia and racism. We got together with the intention of critically addressing these and other repercussions that COVID-19 is bringing about on the migrant lives that make up the Americas.

The project

(Im)Mobility in the Americas and COVID-19 is a new collective transnational project with an analytical focus on the tension between mobility and control and its unequal spatial repercussions. In dialogue with the geographies of mobility (Cresswell, 2006; Sheller, 2018) and critical migration and border studies (De Genova, 2017; Mezzadra and Neilson, 2013), we conceive mobility as a social and political practice embodied in migrants and refugees, adults and minors, which takes place in an unequal and differentiated manner at the national and transnational scales. Control, on the other hand, we conceive as the ways in which state institutions deploy measures to stop, divert, slow down and also speed up the movement of certain populations. Since this tension is inherent to the border regimes in the Americas, we note that it produces both forced immobilisation and new forms of mobility and that it has multi-scale spatial reverberations ranging from the individual space – directly on migrant bodies and lives – to the national and regional space.

Looking at the pandemic through the lenses of mobility and control activated this collective transnational research. Between March and May 2020, 11 national teams in the four regions of the continent collected press information on three issues: 1) risk situations faced by the migrant and refugee population; 2) state measures that have been adopted; and, 3) social responses about or against the migratory dynamic. Systematising this information allowed us to create an analysis on two scales. At the national scale, we produced a record card that, in addition to providing data on the percentage of poverty and on the national migratory pattern, gives an account of the particularities of these three themes of each of the countries that are part of this project (see the tab, ‘Situaciones por país’).

In comparing national findings, we identified 11 common situations that are taking place across the Americas. These range from border closures and hypervigilance to the suspension of the right to refuge, selective hyper-nationalism and the spiral of violence to the south as an effect of the externalisation of the U.S. border in the region (see the tab, ‘Situaciones en común’). The exacerbation of the tension between mobility and control during the pandemic largely explains these 11 situations, about which we have generated first reflective texts.

The production of this material on a national and regional scale has resulted in a digital archive that serves as a resource for research and teaching. To enable a transnational dialogue, we have translated the contents into English and Portuguese; and to give an account of how the migrant population is resisting the pandemic, we have created a polyphonic mapping section. This is a map of migrant voices of diverse ages, genders, nationalities, ethnic origins and sexual orientations, from various locations in the continent, which describe their daily experience of (im)mobility, how they face the risk of contagion, state bureaucracy, xenophobia and unemployment. It also shows how their struggle draws on solidarity, strength and hope.

Central American migrants take the train north in Veracruz, Mexico (image: Rising Powers Project)

What comes next

Our project is growing and today it involves 24 countries and a network of 70 investigators. But the current scenario is far more complex that when we began in March. Today, the Americas is the continent hardest hit by the pandemic, with the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Peru being the countries with the most cases of infection and death globally. In addition, our countries are experiencing a convergence of crises: health crisis, economic recession, social crisis of systemic racism, collapse and overt failure of state policies of protection and the crisis of control of mobility. COVID-19 has justified a perverse intersection between health and control policies, configuring a de facto state of exception in migration matters that today is giving way to a new legal architecture in migration. In recent months, several countries (such as the United States, Ecuador, Chile and Peru) are discussing or have already adopted modifications to their migration laws to openly redouble control and close national spaces.

Thus, the tension between mobility and control has heightened. In early October 2020, a battle was fought in Central America between the impetus of the new Migrant Caravan and the violent tightening of control in Guatemala and Mexico. From March to the present, U.S. deportations of migrants to their countries of origin in the Americas have not stopped. Entire populations have been confined to permanent wandering in search of a safe place to rebuild their lives. This is the case, for example, of Venezuelan migrants who have returned to Venezuela and have now had to restart regional transits. At the same time, thousands of undocumented migrant workers across the continent continue to work in hyper precarious conditions. But while dispossession and control are intensifying, so is the migrant struggle: diverse forms of care and collective solidarity have mobilised to face the pandemic, the recession and the deliberate lack of state protection.

Our project has developed a transitional analytic approach to understand the effects of current border control regimes and the migrant struggle across the Americas. This approach should politicise our discussions and the production of critical dialogues. We can no longer allow the non-defence of all those diverse bodies on the move; bodies that have been criminalised, illegalised,  racialised and today are represented as deserving exposure to the risk of contagion and death because they do not belong to the national spaces in which they live or transit. The just defence of migrant life is the responsibility of all societies in the Americas – a continent formed and transformed by the incessant movement of people. 

Soledad Álvarez Velasco is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Houston. Her work focuses on undocumented transit migration, violence and the neoliberal state and the production of migratory corridors across the Americas. She is a founding member of the (Im)Mobility in the Americas and COVID-10 project.

Other MMB Latin America blogs about the impact of COVID-19 on migrants in the region include: ‘Migrants abandoned – lockdown at the Mexican-Guatemalan border’ by Ailsa Winton, ‘The desperate journey back to Venezuela’ by Alexandra Castro, and ‘Desde las trochas colombo venezolanas’ by Hugo Ramírez Arcos.

This post was commissioned by Ignacio Odriozola, MMB Alumni Ambassador. Ignacio is based in Buenos Aires and can be contacted here to discuss contributions for the MMB Latin America blog.

The dangers of staying home: lockdown deepens inequalities in Brazil

By Fernanda Mallak, Isabela Vianna Pinho and Thalles Vichiato Breda.

The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent social isolation policies have placed the home at the heart of the social debate about immobility and survival. Having to stay home affects the most vulnerable in society far more than others – both socially and materially. In our research we focus on the bodies and residences of those living in Brazil’s urban outskirts, particularly low-income black women.

The effects of the pandemic and the way social isolation is carried out in Brazil has been explored by numerous researchers such as Rachel Randall who analyses the conditions of domestic workers in the country. Aline Pires, Felipe Rangel and Jacob Lima discuss the conditions of underprivileged working-class citizens amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the dismantling of social security. Meanwhile, Angelo Martins Junior has addressed the disregard for life in a society marked by its colonial past and how this reverberates throughout the pandemic period as millions of lives, especially those of black and poor citizens, are left to luck. Considering this, we ask: what makes the experience of staying home so much harder for these populations?

In our work we conceive of the home in three ways: (1) as a human right to dignified housing; (2) as a complex materiality, involving its physical construction and surroundings; and (3) as a space for life, experiences and exchanges within a group of people and things.

The social isolation policy required during COVID implies that people have a place – usually a house – in which to isolate. Although housing is a human right guaranteed by the Brazilian constitution, this does not translate into reality. According to a survey by Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) in 2015, an estimated 101,854 people across the country are homeless. Security of land tenure is also a very problematic issue. A survey carried out by the Observatory of Evictions (University of São Paulo/Federal University of ABC) shows that more than 1,900 homes have been subject to forced displacements in the state of São Paulo – the country’s main industrial and financial centre – since the beginning of the pandemic.

Restricting the flow of people has proven critical to keeping the pandemic under control. But the way the authorities have continued to deal with informal housing on the outskirts of  São Paulo state – ranging from legal to highly illegal actions – has led to ongoing forced displacements during the past year, thereby intensifying the movement of people and their exposure to COVID-19.

Land occupation in Mogi das Cruzes, São Paulo: informal settlements like these have continued to be subject to forced evictions by the state during the pandemic (image: Fernanda Mallak)

Looking at the house as a complex materiality means taking account of its construction, the urban infrastructure around it and residents’ access to amenities, among other factors. Many homes in the Brazilian urban periphery are precarious structures suffering from poor air circulation, low construction quality, high density of inhabitants, below-basic sanitation facilities and isolated locations. According to data from the National Sanitation Information System (2018), about 16% (40 million) of Brazilians are still deprived of treated water and 47% (100 million) do not have access to sewage collection. A significant part of the Brazilian population therefore lacks the recommended basic resources for disease prevention, such as the means to wash hands and sanitise foodstuffs.

The home is not an isolated entity in these peripheral urban communities but rather comprises social relationships established with other homes – that is, the exchanges and ties within and between them. The circulation of objects, food and money, for example, is constant, as well as daily practices such as maintenance, loans or donations of groceries, carpooling and collaborations in house building. Thus, homes in these areas are built through dynamic relationships that involve interdependencies, solidarities, affections, moralities, obligations and asymmetries – all of which have been significantly reduced during lockdown, leaving many households much less resilient.

During the pandemic the dramatic reduction in mobility has caused the usual daily connections between households, and between private homes and public institutions, to recede. But concurrently the relationships within the home have intensified and, at times, frayed – as evidenced by data on domestic violence during the pandemic. According to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, cases of femicide increased by 22.2% between March and April in 12 states of the country compared with the same period last year. At the same time, police records show a reduction in face-to-face reports of intentional personal injury (-25.5%) and rape (-28.2%). Regarding the latter, studies point to an underreporting of cases, which is explained by an increased difficulty to access police stations as victims are prohibited from travelling to police stations and are forced to stay home with their aggressors. The study also reveals a 431% increase in fights between couples as reported by neighbours on social media between February and April this year. While these data refer to regions in general, the rise in domestic violence is likely to be impacting on households in the urban periphery as much as elsewhere.

During the pandemic all Brazilians have been facing the same restrictions, but it is clear they are not all in the same boat. Coronavirus has laid the country’s structural racism bare: the death risk faced by black Brazilians due to COVID-19 is 62% higher than that faced by whites in the state capital, São Paulo. A person’s greater or lesser exposure to risk is strictly related to the type of ‘boat’ in which she or he sails, in terms of class, gender and race.

In reality, then, a significant proportion of Brazilians are unable to socially isolate safely in a home that is in good condition and from where they can work. For this large sector of the population supporting the household means working both inside and outside the home, taking public transport, getting around and being exposed. In particular, black women from the urban periphery, who are often heads of their households – responsible for supporting the family financially and domestically – find themselves forced to continue moving around, even during lockdown.

COVID-19 has exacerbated historical vulnerabilities in Brazil and, once again, exposed its structural inequalities. Since the pandemic began, there has been a dramatic worsening of living conditions for the poorer sectors of society, both for those who have stayed home in precarious, often violent conditions, and for those who have had to go out to work – exposing themselves to greater risk of infection – in order to survive.

Fernanda Mallak, Isabela Vianna Pinho and Thalles Vichiato Breda are Sociology PhD candidates at the Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil, developing research on urban outskirts, social housing and urban occupations in Brazil.

Other MMB blogs related to this subject: ‘Domestic workers and COVID-19: Brazil’s legacy of slavery lives on’, ‘To stay home or go out to work? Brazil’s unequal modes of COVID-19 survival’, and ‘A violent disregard for life: COVID-19 in Brazil’.

Desafíos para seguir adelante: experiencias de una ONG en la frontera México-Guatemala

Por Ailsa Winton y Rosember López Samayoa.*

Versión en ingles aquí.

Si bien muchas ONGs prácticamente han cesado sus actividades desde el inicio de la pandemia en Tapachula, una ciudad a poca distancia de la frontera de México con Guatemala, algunas decidieron continuar. Aquí el equipo de la organización Una Mano Amiga en la Lucha contra el SIDA (UMALCS) comparte algunas de sus reflexiones y experiencias sobre cómo la pandemia ha afectado su trabajo con la población local y migrante.

¿Cómo han sido las respuestas de otras organizaciones e instituciones gubernamentales ante la pandemia?

De parte de las instancias gubernamentales, nos parece que ha sido una respuesta bastante inefectiva; pareciera ser que el único problema que existe aquí en la frontera sur es el tema del COVID. El cierre parcial o total de centros de salud ha causado dificultades para solventar necesidades de las enfermedades no graves de la población tanto migrante como local. En el caso de nuestro trabajo en salud sexual, podemos atender a las personas, pero no tenemos adónde canalizarlas. Nos parece que en una pandemia, debieron haber aumentado su capacidad para atención y no la parte contraria.

Respecto a las autoridades migratorias y para refugiados, hubo por ahí un desajuste, ya que por instrucciones del gobierno federal, dejaron de prestar servicios, sin embargo no se detuvieron las detenciones, la violación de DHH contra personas migrantes.

Para personas migrantes, es algo que se relaciona con la salud y el bienestar emocional, el tema del estrés y la desesperación de qué va a pasar con sus trámites, el abandono de ellos y el regreso a su país de origen, o el continuar caminando hacia la frontera norte, completamente solos, exponiéndose ante la situación de inseguridad y la pandemia, además de la inestabilidad económica.

Una sesión de consejería en UMALCS (imagen: UMALCS)

En el tema de los ONG, tenemos que hacer como una reflexión más profunda, porque se supone que los ONGs deberíamos ser de los primeros de estar pendiente de las necesidades, sobre todo organizaciones que trabajamos el tema de migracion y derechos humanos. Aquí no lo vimos así; muchas dejaron de prestar sus servicios. En acciones realizadas durante la pandemia, se hizo evidente las sinergias entre organizaciones que habían colaborado antes, pero fueron también muy evidentes las ausencias de muchas organizaciones.

De nuestra parte, hemos seguido prestando servicios. Sí tuvimos que hacer adecuaciones a horarios, y poner en pausa los abordajes en calle, pero de una u otra forma hemos seguido atendiendo a personas migrantes, solicitantes de refugio LGBTI, sobre todo en salud sexual y reproductiva y VIH, de la mejor forma posible.

Pero la respuesta en general debe ser más amplia; en una cuestión de emergencia o epidemia, a las instituciones y las ONGs e organismos internacionales, nos faltan bases o fundamentos para tener un comportamiento más activo y más pronto.

Pero en este sentido, un plus es que en Tapachula a partir de los éxodos migratorios, ya se había conformado un grupo de monitoreo desde la sociedad civil, que puede reactivarse. También hay organizaciones que quizás no están realizando actividades en campo tal cual, pero sí denuncian atropellos hacia personas migrantes, y de esta forma, juegan un papel importante en este momento.

¿Qué ha demostrado la pandemia? Y ¿cómo ha afectado su trabajo?

Algo que muestra esta pandemia es la forma de organizarse de las personas, sobre todo de quienes viven en hacinamiento, se modificó y a partir de la forma en que estaba construida el tejido social de estos, ¡o se compuso o se descompuso! Definitivamente, para quienes no tuvieron como una mejor manera de articulación, fue evidente que las vulnerabilidades aumentaron.

Entrega de dispensas en la oficina de UMALCS (imagen: UMALCS)

También ha demostrado el efecto emocional que puede tener el encierro. En el caso de albergues para migrantes, hubo confinamiento y ahí está envuelto el tema de la salud mental, cómo el encierro significó mucho, aún con todo lo que pudiera implicar estar en un albergue; tan así que muchas decidieron salir a pesar de no tener adonde irse.

Quizás lo que ha afectado más es que UMALCS,  su trabajo es más presencial, de campo, en la cual las plataformas difícilmente nos puedan servir. Por ejemplo en el tema de los abordajes, lo hemos suspendido y el tema es como visitar lugares donde están ellos, bares, calles, parques, a través de una plataforma, cuando la población no tiene recursos, o costumbres de usar estas tecnologías.

¿Qué lecciones o reflexiones se llevan de toda la experiencia de trabajar y vivir en medio de la pandemia?

El tema de la COVID, ha venido a destapar nuevamente el tema de la discriminación. Muchas organizaciones religiosas han señalado a la población LGBTI como responsables de esta epidemia, por el castigo divino. Todo esto nos lleva a que el tema de la estigmatización y discriminación en cuestiones de salud, sigue siendo presente, como la población LGBTI fue estigmatizada en la epidemia del VIH, ahora también.

Da mucho miedo; el preocuparte por el equipo, por la falta de seguro social adecuado, qué pasa si se contagian. Debemos estar trabajando la contención emocional, acompañamiento de otras personas. El contacto físico de una persona con otra, sorprende los resultados que puede dar, pero en COVID no se puede esto. En las organizaciones, tenemos que rescatar el tema humano; cuidarnos, como un solo organismo.

Tenemos que cambiar, realizar el trabajo de forma diferente, sin perder la calidez humana. Hay mucha incertidumbre todavía, pero hay que ver como adecuar nuestro trabajo diario, y sí hay posibilidades de hacer cosas nuevas. Incluso los cambios podrían ayudar en desnormalizar algunas violencias sexuales, como un punto favorable.

Sin duda, el reto mayor es el acceso a las tecnologías entre la población. Pero como sociedad civil, tenemos que seguir desarrollando en sinergia con otras para beneficio de las poblaciones más vulnerables.

* Con la participación de Erika Guadalupe Sumuano Moreno, Yadira Esmeralda Guerrero Castro, Esau (Essa Lilith) Pérez Hernández, Gonzalo Ernesto Cue Rasgado, Giseth Gordillo Verdugo, Francisco Javier Meza Rodríguez, Margarita Concepción Morales Villanueva, Alfredo Alejandro Marroquín Saucedo, Juan Carlos Veliz Sempoll.

Ailsa Winton es Investigadora Titular ‘A’ en el Departamento de Sociedad y Cultura en El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Tapachula. Rosember López Samayoa es Director de Una Mano Amiga en la Lucha contra el SIDA, la cual el fundó en 2000.

The challenges of carrying on: pandemic experiences of an NGO on the Mexico-Guatemala border

By Ailsa Winton and Rosember López Samayoa.*

Spanish version here.

Many NGOs have all but ceased activities since the COVID-19 pandemic made itself felt in Tapachula – a town a short distance from Mexico´s border with Guatemala – but a few decided to carry on. Here the team of Una Mano Amiga en la Lucha contra el SIDA (UMALCS) (A Friendly Hand in the Fight Against AIDS) share some of their thoughts and experiences about their work with the local and migrant communities during the pandemic.**

What have the responses of local organizations and government institutions to the pandemic been like?

It seems to us that the government response has been rather ineffective; it’s as if the only problem that exists here on the southern border is COVID. The partial or total closure of health centres has made meeting the needs of both the migrant and local population very difficult. In the case of our work on sexual health, we still see people but have nowhere to refer them to. It seems to us that in a pandemic, health services should have increased their capacity, not done the opposite.

Regarding the immigration and asylum authorities, there was an imbalance there; they stopped providing services on federal government orders, but migrant detentions were not stopped, nor was the violation of migrants’ human rights.

For migrants, it is also to do with health and emotional well-being, in terms of stress and anguish not only about serious economic instability, but also about their stalled application process, and the decision of whether to abandon it altogether and try to return to their country of origin, or carry on towards the northern border, alone and exposed to the dangers both of moving, and of the pandemic itself.

A counselling session in the UMALCS office (image: UMALCS)

On the issue of NGOs, we have a lot to reflect on, because NGOs are usually among the first to see to people’s needs, especially organizations that work on migration and human rights. But we did not see that happen; many stopped providing services. Humanitarian actions that have been carried out during the pandemic have shown important synergies between certain organizations, but the absences of many other organizations were also very evident.

For our part, we have continued to work providing services throughout the pandemic. We did have to make adjustments to how and when we work, and for now we have had to stop going out to make first contacts on the street, but we have tried to carry on giving assistance to LGBTI migrants and asylum seekers in our offices, particularly for issues relating to sexual and reproductive health and HIV.

But we feel, overall, that the response in general ought to be broader; in an emergency or epidemic, institutions, NGOs and international organizations lack the foundations for a more active, timely response.

But one good thing is that in Tapachula, as a result of the recent migrant exoduses (‘caravans’) from Central America, a civil society monitoring group had been set up, which can be reactivated. There are also organizations that may not be carrying out activities in the field at the moment, but that do denounce abuses against migrants, and in this way have played an important role during the pandemic.

What do you think the pandemic has shown us, and how has it affected your work?

Something that this pandemic has shown is how people organize themselves, especially those who live in contexts of overcrowding. There, social organization has either been built up or broken down, depending on the way people’s social fabric is constructed. Undoubtedly, for those who can’t find a better way of organizing, we have seen increased vulnerability.

Members collecting food parcels from UMALCS (image: UMALCS)

It has also shown the emotional effect that confinement can have. In the case of migrant shelters, where people were effectively shut in, the issue of mental health is really evident. Confinement meant so much, even in the context of the many challenges of living in a shelter – so much so that many decided to leave the shelters during the pandemic, despite having nowhere to go.

Perhaps what has most affected us is that our work is mainly face-to-face and in the field, where it would be hard to make use of digital platforms. We have stopped first contacts in public now, and so the issue is how to get to the people we need to reach, not through the places they go as in the past (bar, parks, the street), but rather via online platforms.

What are the lessons or reflections you have taken from the experience of working and living in the midst of this pandemic?

COVID has again revealed the issue of discrimination. For example, many religious organizations have pointed to the LGBTI population as being responsible for this epidemic, saying it’s divine punishment. This shows that the issue of stigmatization and discrimination in health matters is still present, just as it was during the HIV epidemic.

It has been scary; you’re worrying about your team, about the lack of adequate social security, what happens if they get infected. We have to work on emotional containment, on accompanying other people. Simple physical contact of one person with another can have surprising results, but with COVID this cannot be done. We have to get humanity back in organizations, take care of ourselves as one organism.

We have to change, to work differently, without losing the human touch. There is still a lot of uncertainty, but we must find a way of adapting how we work. There may be positive outcomes of this too, like how some of these changes could help denormalize some sexual violence, and others we may not have foreseen.

Without a doubt, we face important challenges now, but as part of civil society, we have to continue developing in synergy with others for the benefit of the most vulnerable populations.

* With contributions from the UMALCS team: Erika Guadalupe Sumuano Moreno, Yadira Esmeralda Guerrero Castro, Esau (Essa Lilith) Pérez Hernández, Gonzalo Ernesto Cue Rasgado, Giseth Gordillo Verdugo, Francisco Javier Meza Rodríguez, Margarita Concepción Morales Villanueva, Alfredo Alejandro Marroquín Saucedo, and Juan Carlos Veliz Sempoll.

** Responses have been translated from Spanish by Ailsa Winton.

Ailsa Winton is a Senior Researcher in the Department of Society and Culture at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Tapachula, Mexico. Her research currently focuses on processes of mobility, inequality and violence in the context of border regions. In May, Ailsa wrote for the MMB blog series Letter from Afar about life on the Mexico-Guatemala border at the beginning of lockdown. Rosember López Samayoa is Director of Una Mano Amiga en la Lucha contra el SIDA, which he founded in 2000.

Northwards across social geographies of race

By Luis Escobedo

‘I’m in distress. Los Zetas kidnapped some of my friends,’ said the first message I ever received from El Sirio on 2nd October, 2015.* Fear and uncertainty had haunted him across Mexico from his natal town of La Paz in Honduras, where death threats in connection to gang violence had finally triggered his journey northwards. Almost five years later, when I asked him whether these feelings persisted after he settled in the United States, he said, ‘It’s for that very reason I am armed.’ However, he also stated that where he lives ‘there are many police officers of Latin origin… They are Latinos [sic]. They respect that area a lot… There is a lot of compassion.’

The people who tormented El Sirio (Spanish for ‘The Syrian’ – a pseudonym allegedly given him after growing a long black beard on arrival in the US) in Mexico and Honduras, including members of cartels, gangs and the police, were also, of course, of Latin American origin. This range of contact he has had with different people of Latin American descent reminds us that how he identifies himself and how others identify him have been delimited by interactions and transactions across time and space (as analysed in Fredrik Barth’s seminal text). That is, they depend on context and are subject to change. Having grown up and migrated in vulnerable conditions, he has navigated physical spaces shaped by social inequalities, nationalist discourses and racism. In the context of these ‘social geographies of race’ and his related vulnerability, El Sirio’s journey has become that of a racialised young man claiming his individuality.

When he reached out to me, El Sirio was spending his last days at a migrant shelter in the north of Mexico before crossing the border into the United States. His message found me in my office, at the Queretaro-based campus of a private Mexican university, getting ready to close a series of academic and cultural activities commemorating individual victims of ascriptive violence. This series of events had been organised to begin on 26th September to honour the victims of the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping and murders and to end on 2nd October, in memory of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. It was an incredible coincidence that this was the day El Sirio had chosen to write to me about the kidnapping of his travelling companions. That evening, after mentioning the disappearance of his companions, I reminded the audience that the main idea of this series of events had been that identificatory practices of the everyday, especially those that stigmatise individuals, can in themselves be violent and escalate into brutality. El Sirio’s journey through Mexico embodied this idea well.

Looking out from the migrant shelter in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where the author first met El Sirio (image: author’s own)

Many of the racialised social geographies I navigated during the years I spent in Mexico reminded me of those of my natal Peru. Legally, there were no physical spaces that were segregated. Even where an unacknowledged segregation did take place, on an informal level, the boundaries between who was and who was not accepted were often blurred. However, these spaces had been historically, socially and politically constructed as hierarchically differentiated ones, where people of lighter complexion and/or other physical and behavioural characteristics associated with whiteness were generally more present towards the top, and those who were physically, or symbolically, darker had more presence towards the bottom. This differentiation involved informal forms of surveillance, control, punishment and violence, and was extended to foreigners like El Sirio, his travelling companions and myself.

El Sirio’s story across and beyond Mexico is loaded with terminology referring to groups and categories. However, this terminology is also contextualised according to how racism, inequality and other longstanding and structural issues have shaped the particular geographies that he navigated. He recalls that he ‘decided to go by bus with a group of friends. A lot of Hondurans, as they were blacker than me (más negritos que yo), decided to follow the route of the train.’ Although he identifies himself as ‘black’, the fact that El Sirio had lighter skin than some of his companions allowed him, to some extent, to avoid migration officers and enjoy parts of his trip more comfortably.

However, he was generally still a racialised and criminalised migrant. He did not spend his days at a beach resort, in a gated community, or as part of a private university department. His story, as that of many others, is one of moving across rivers, forests and deserts, migrant shelters, established routes, train rooftops, street corners and the like. While his racial identification in these spaces has occasionally led some people to randomly offer him money, food, shelter, clothing, transport and religious objects, being identifiable as a particular type of Central American migrant has also contributed to his vulnerability, in a similar way as being ‘black’ and ‘poor’ had done in Honduras, and ‘black’, ‘Latino’ and ‘immigrant’ currently does in the United States.

The first and only time El Sirio and I crossed paths was some time in August or September 2015 during my visit to a migrant shelter next to a railway on the outskirts of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. I was first struck by the kind-hearted and innocent look on his face; it was almost childlike. His words, and the way he spoke, however, later contrasted with my first impression. ‘Why did you come here today?’ was his first question.

Five years later, our conversations have started feeding the chapters of a work based on El Sirio’s story that combines elements of narrative and participatory research, discourse and visual analysis, and storytelling. He was the one who proposed I write something based on his life that could ‘help others’ with similar histories – this in itself speaks directly to the importance that claiming his and other people’s individuality and humanity in the face of racial categories has for him. Even when we currently stand in distant continents and times zones due to strict measures in connection to COVID-19, our endeavour reminds us that borders can and should be disputed.

* El Sirio’s words are translated from Spanish by the author.

Luis Escobedo is a postdoctoral researcher at the Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice, University of the Free State, South Africa. He is the co-editor of Migrants, Thinkers, Storytellers (HSRC Press, 2021).

Desde las trochas colombo venezolanas

Por Hugo Ramírez Arcos.

Abel esconde una carretilla y un par de zapatos al otro lado de la frontera para que la Guardia Nacional Bolivariana no vea sus pies embarrados por el rio. Tiene un tapabocas sucio en el cuello e insiste en trabajar como ‘maletero’ en la trocha, acaba de ser padre de una niña en medio de la pandemia. Escribe un mensaje desesperado pidiendo ayuda: ‘hago lo que puedo por que los pañales y la leche de tarro no dan espera’. Tras las medidas decretadas para la contención del COVID-19, su trabajo continúa, pero no sólo se amplían los riesgos de su oficio, sino a su vez disminuyó el flujo de clientes que usan sus servicios.

Las ‘trochas’ son senderos que se abren camino en medio de los paisajes que ofrece la geografía colombo venezolana. Algunos las llaman ‘los caminos verdes’, aunque no siempre sea la naturaleza la que acompaña la ruta, pero esta condición ‘natural’ los diferencia de los escasos caminos formales, y asfaltados, corredores de la legalidad entre ambos países. El trabajo de Abel hace parte de un conjunto de oficios específicos que han servido de sustento a la migración pendular transfronteriza entre ambas naciones. Estos oficios, tan viejos como la frontera misma, han pasado de mano en mano entre los más necesitados. Si hasta hace relativamente poco eran los colombianos quienes más participaban de estas actividades, hoy son los venezolanos quienes ocupan los eslabones de mayor riesgo en este modelo de supervivencia.

Este punto que cuenta con la presencia de todos los actores ilegales organizados en Colombia ha sufrido las disputas por el control de estas espacialidades de quienes fungen como Estados, exigiendo tributación por el uso de las trochas y ofreciendo sus servicios de ‘seguridad’ (así como sus repercusiones para quienes no acatan sus directrices).

El 25 de marzo del 2020 inicia en Colombia el ‘confinamiento preventivo obligatorio’ decretado por el presidente Iván Duque, como medida para minimizar la velocidad de contagio del COVID-19. Entre el paquete de medidas contempladas, se cierra la frontera con Venezuela y se aumentan los controles en los demás puntos fronterizos. Acorde a la política regional, Venezuela como en casi todos los escenarios debía ser considerada como una amenaza, sin embargo, al igual que en 1991 cuando se esperaba que el Cólera entrara por la frontera y no por los puertos marítimo donde entró, esta vez el virus del COVID-19 entró de nuevo por la retaguardia, irónicamente el primer caso registrado en frontera fue de una ciudadana colombiana que regresaba de España.

Migrantes fumigados en el corredor humanitario hacía Venezuela en Villa del Rosario, Norte de Santander, Colombia (imagen: migrante venezolano, derechos cedidos al autor)

Las medidas de confinamiento y cierre formal de la frontera fueron acompañadas de la presencia de militares que tenían el doble rol tanto de asegurar el cumplimiento de la medida, derivando en persecuciones y restricciones de derechos a quienes no tuvieran su documentación al día, pero al mismo tiempo prestando ayuda humanitaria y convirtiéndose en el brazo de la cooperación internacional en medio de las medidas de confinamiento que detuvieron por completo la cooperación humanitaria en la zona.   

Militares coordinando ayuda humanitarian en ‘La Parada’, la zona fronteriza donde Abel trabaja en el departamento Norte de Santander (imagen: FUNHOJUV)

Abel y su familia han sentido los efectos de la pandemia de diferentes formas. En el ‘arriendo’ donde viven, una bodega adaptada con divisiones en telas y camarotes en los que las personas pagan por el día de su hospedaje, los dueños son cada vez más inflexibles frente a los retrasos en el pago. Como formas de presión eliminan los servicios básicos esenciales como el agua y la electricidad para conseguir que las personas desesperadas desalojen las viviendas. Varios conocidos de Abel crearon cambuches en la mitad de un cultivo de arroz vecino; sin embargo, en la más reciente visita del Ministro de Salud a la zona, la fuerza pública como forma de ‘limpieza’ quemó las pertenencias de estas personas con el objetivo de desalojarlas.

La economía de supervivencia de Abel continúa. Pese a las medidas decretadas la movilidad informal en frontera no ha parado un solo día. Sin embargo, los riesgos son mayores. Los grupos al margen de la ley como una estrategia que busca no estimular mayor presencia del Estado, decidieron respaldar la medida del gobierno: en un escabroso video que circularon entre las redes de whatsapp de los ‘trocheros’, muestran con detalle el desmembramiento de cuerpos sin vida de quienes no acataron la medida.

Familias desalojadas en La Parada en medio de la pandemia (imagen: FUNHOJUV)

Pese al terror, el hambre le gana al miedo. Cerrados los comedores humanitarios y los demás espacios de la cooperación las opciones de familias como la de Abel aún son más reducidas. En su desespero incluso Abel y su familia decidieron cruzar por el corredor humanitario dispuesto en el puente internacional para los venezolanos que quisieran retornar a su país. Su experiencia en los campamentos de cuarentena en los que debían instalarse quienes querían regresar no fue muy lejana a las condiciones de las que escapaba, por lo que de nuevo regresó a Colombia con su familia por el rio a donde al menos podía generar un ingreso.

Abel me envía mensajes constantemente por su WhatsApp. Pese a sus restricciones económicas, cada vez que puede coloca crédito a su celular, lo que le permite saber de su familia repartida, entre quienes emprendieron la ruta migratoria hacía el sur del continente, y quienes esperan en Venezuela la llegada de las remesas que envían quienes están fuera. Insiste en no parar de contarme su historia con la esperanza que yo pueda darle información sobre a donde ir, o al menos con quien hablar. La responsabilidad que esta relación representa no es menor.

En medio del boom de los estudios migratorios y el interés por la comprensión sobre las afectaciones de la pandemia, pareciera que gran parte de los investigadores (e incluso de los mismos funcionarios del Estado) ya hubieran estado confinados antes de la pandemia. Duele (y mucho) ver las brechas existentes entre las soluciones planteadas desde el escritorio, basadas en reportes oficiales y algunas cifras públicas producidas por la cooperación internacional, frente a la vulnerabilidad cada vez mayor de personas como Abel completamente invisibles a la mirada del Estado.

Escribo con la esperanza de tejer puentes que nos permitan darles voz a estas personas, de crear espacios de cooperación en los que las experiencias de los migrantes sean la guía de nuestras acciones. En un momento en el que debemos insistir en nuestra humanidad compartida, en medio de una crisis en la que ‘lo que no se nombra no existe’, insistimos en la voz de estos invisibles sobre los que recaen un conjunto de sufrimientos innecesarios que fácilmente podemos cambiar.

Hugo Ramírez Arcos es candidato a Doctor y profesor en Estudios Políticos e Internacionales, Universidad del Rosario, Bogotá, Colombia. Trabaja dentro del Semillero de Migraciones y Fronteras.

Sin salida: los migrantes venezolanos en Ecuador durante el COVID-19

Por Adriana Montenegro.

A finales de marzo del 2020 el saldo migratorio de ciudadanos venezolanos en Ecuador era de aproximadamente 363 mil.  No obstante, cabe indicar que a partir del Decreto No. 826, de julio de 2019, el Gobierno ecuatoriano dio paso a un proceso de registro y regularización migratoria de esta población, estableciendo además como requisitos para su ingreso al Ecuador la presentación de una visa de excepción por razones humanitarias. Para mediados de marzo del presente año, 229 mil ciudadanos venezolanos habrían completado el registro migratorio en línea, mientras que poco más de 25 mil de estos habían conseguido acceder a las visas humanitarias.

En un principio, el Decreto No. 826 tuvo un efecto rebote. Entre la emisión de esta medida y la fecha de inicio de la visa humanitaria se registraron aproximadamente 86 mil ingresos de personas venezolanas en los diferentes puntos migratorios en Ecuador, llegando incluso a existir ingresos diarios de 6 mil personas. No obstante a partir del 26 de Agosto de 2019, una vez que entró en vigencia la medida, comenzaron a observarse ingresos de apenas 30 personas diariamente.

Un gran porcentaje de los migrantes venezolanos en Ecuador se dedican a las ventas ambulantes. Quito, junio 2020 (imagen: Banco Mundial America Latina y el Caribe)

Con todo, el efecto más grave fue que muchos ciudadanos venezolanos optaron por ingresar al Ecuador por pasos irregulares, dejándolos en una situación de mayor de indefensión, en el que podrían ser presas fáciles de trata y tráfico de personas. Un hecho que llamó la atención sobre la situación precaria de los migrantes venezolanos a raíz del Decreto No. 826 se dio con el accidente de tránsito de 25 ciudadanos venezolanos en la parroquia Julio Andrade de Tulcán, al norte del país, quienes presuntamente habrían cruzado de manera ilegal. Al parecer había indicios de que existía un delito tráfico de migrantes pero, de conformidad con el encargado del tema en el Ministerio de Gobierno, el caso se cerró porque los ciudadanos venezolanos no se acercaron a testificar.

Ahora bien, a la situación ya de por sí precaria en la que se encontraban los migrantes venezolanos, se ha sumado los efectos que la pandemia del COVID-19 ha tenido en la sociedad ecuatoriana. Entre los principales problemas que citan los hogares venezolanos a partir de la pandemia se encuentran, en ese orden, la falta de alimentos, el acceso a empleo y medios de vida, alojamiento y acceso a medicinas así como servicios de salud.

La mayor parte de los migrantes venezolanos en Ecuador vive del comercio informal o negocios y no han podido realizar sus trabajos debido a las restricciones de movilidad. A eso se suma un porcentaje menor que declara haber sido despedido de su trabajos a partir de la crisis sanitaria. Por otra parte, algunos venezolanos han tenido también problemas al verse forzados al desalojo de sus viviendas por la imposibilidad de pagar los arriendos.

Otro de los problemas que también ha aumentado a raíz de la crisis sanitaria y de las restricciones de movilidad ha sido la estigmatización y discriminación hacia los migrantes. En temas de salud, si bien se observa que buena parte de los migrantes venezolanos no buscaron atención médica, cuando la necesitaban, por miedo al contagio del COVID-19, también se dan algunos casos en los que pese a ir a los centros de salud no recibieron la atención requerida. De igual manera se menciona que al no ser ecuatorianos no han tenido acceso a las ayudas sociales que brinda el Gobierno central,  tales como las canastas de alimentos o bonos de emergencia. Es cierto sin embargo, que indican haber recibido colaboración de algunos gobiernos locales y las agencias de cooperación.

Esto, en última instancia, ha llevado a un movimiento de retorno de los migrantes venezolanos en Ecuador a su país de origen. Cientos de venezolanos han sido vistos cruzando la carretera Panamericana con rumbo a la frontera con Colombia. Muchos de ellos mencionan que retornan a su país pues no cuentan con medios de vida necesarios para subsistir, pero también hablan de la necesidad de volver a sus hogares frente al miedo de enfermarse en un país que no es el suyo.

Lamentablemente, desde comienzos de junio el Gobierno de Maduro ha restringido el ingreso de sus ciudadanos por vía terrestre y, además, los dos vuelos humanitarios que se han fletado desde Ecuador a Venezuela no dan abasto para los 17 mil migrantes venezolanos que se se han registrado en su consulado en el Ecuador para optar por una repatriación aérea, algunos de los cuales se encuentran conglomerados en las puertas del consulado. Definitivamente, la crisis económica, política y social a partir del COVID-19 ha venido a empeorar la situación de los migrantes venezolanos en Ecuador que era ya bastante precaria antes de la emergencia sanitaria.

Adriana Montenegro es Doctora en Estudios Internacionales de FLACSO-Ecuador. Ha trabajado en calidad de asesora legal y consultora particular de la Organización Internacional para las Migraciones (OIM) del 2011 al 2015.

Domestic workers and COVID-19: Brazil’s legacy of slavery lives on

By Rachel Randall.

On 19 March it was confirmed that Rio de Janeiro’s first coronavirus-related death was that of Cleonice Gonçalves, a 63-year-old domestic worker who suffered from co-morbidities. When Gonçalves fell ill on 16 March, she was working at her boss’ apartment in the affluent neighbourhood of Leblon, in the city of Rio. Her boss had just returned from a trip to Italy where COVID-19 had been rapidly spreading. She had not advised her employee that she was feeling sick. Gonçalves’ family called a taxi to bring her from the state capital to her home-town 100km away. It took her two hours to arrive. She entered hospital the same evening and died the next day. Her story exemplifies the fact that it was Brazil’s ‘jet set elite’ who first brought COVID-19 into the country, as Maite Conde points out, but it is the poorest who are now at greatest risk of dying from the disease as it ravages urban peripheries. Unlike her employee, Gonçalves’ boss, who tested positive for COVID-19, later recovered.   

Gonçalves’ case is not an isolated one, as Luciana Brito explains. Domestic workers are among those most vulnerable to the pandemic. While many employers have remained at home, 39% of monthly-paid domestic workers (mensalistas) and 23% of hourly-paid cleaners (diaristas) continued their labours in spite of the lockdown, frequently out of economic necessity – often residing with their bosses or travelling substantial distances by public transport to reach them. Of the country’s six million domestic employees, over 90% are women and the majority are black (Cornwall et al. 2013). As Angelo Martins Junior has argued, it is the descendants of enslaved Brazilians who occupy the jobs that put them at greatest risk and who are being encouraged to return to their precarious, low-paid work in order to continue feeding themselves and their families.

In Brazil, domestic workers have featured at the centre of debates about the country’s high levels of socio-economic inequality, its legacy of slavery and the relationship between the private and public spheres for some time, including in its cultural production (as I have discussed in an article about contemporary Brazilian documentary). In the wake of COVID-19, these workers have become a powerful symbol in the media for the ways in which the virus is exacerbating existing inequalities in the country in terms of mobility, income security and housing.

The artist Cristiano Suarez has published a pair of illustrations that explore these dynamics on his Facebook page (see one of them below). They serve as parodies of Instagram posts made by young, white influencers in upmarket apartments who remind their followers to prioritise their well-being and relinquish negative energies during quarantine, while their domestic employees can be glimpsed in the background maintaining the influencers’ glamorous lifestyles. Sadly, some social media content shared by real employers to ‘celebrate’ their domestic workers’ return to work has been actively degrading, including a video posted by vlogger Luan Tavares who recorded his employee cleaning his bathroom as he joked about reducing her wages due to the crisis; the video was spotlighted on an episode of Greg News (the Brazilian version of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) dedicated to domestic workers.  

natypatriota Pluto in retrograde has come into full force. This pandemic has not occurred by chance, it is an instrument of human redemption preparing us for a better world! COVID-yourself, love yourself, take care of your own and free yourself from useless suffering! Big love to our Brazill! Resilience, gratitude and peace!’ Image: Cristiano Suarez.

The debate about how employers should treat domestic workers during the pandemic has been heated. 39% of bosses have dismissed their employees, leaving them without a salary, a situation that worst affects hourly-paid cleaners who do not have a formal contract and are not eligible to benefit from the government’s emergency financial package. Meanwhile, in several states domestic employees were classified as essential workers, thereby obliging them to continue working in spite of the risks. This decision draws attention to the ways that paid domestic work has historically been treated as ‘exceptional’. The Constitutional Amendment on Domestic Work (‘A PEC das domésticas’) implemented in 2015 by the Workers’ Party government represented an important attempt to redress this by aligning domestic employees’ rights with those of other workers. It has been called ‘the second abolition of slavery’.

Ultimately, pressure from domestic workers organisations led the Brazilian Ministry of Labour to state in April that domestic employees should not be made to come to work and should be guaranteed pay while their employers are self-isolating. Despite this, Sérgio Hacker – the mayor of Tamandaré municipality in Pernambuco – and his wife Sari Corte Real, continued to treat the services of their domestic employees’ as ‘indispensable’. The couple, who are white, were both infected with COVID-19, as was their Afro-Brazilian employee Mirtes Renata Santana de Souza, who went to work at their apartment in the state capital Recife on 2 June, taking her five-year-old son Miguel with her as no creches were open.

While Real was having a manicure, Souza took her bosses’ dog out to the street, leaving Miguel with Real. Miguel, who wanted his mother, entered a lift in the apartment block. CCTV shows Real speaking to Miguel in the lift and pressing a button for another floor. Miguel got out on the ninth floor and fell to his death. Real is under investigation for manslaughter. The event – which coincided with the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd – horrified many Brazilians who took to the streets demanding justice for Miguel.

Brito has explained how Real’s disregard for Miguel’s life epitomises the white supremacy still so prevalent in Brazilian society. As the country’s economy begins to re-open, despite having the second highest death toll in the world, there seems little hope that the lives of domestic workers and their families will be better safeguarded. After all, President Jair Bolsonaro was the only elected deputy to vote against the Constitutional Amendment on Domestic Work when he sat in the National Congress in 2012.

Rachel Randall is Lecturer in Hispanic Media and Digital Communications (School of Modern Languages, University of Bristol). Her current research explores cultural representations of paid domestic workers in Latin American film, documentary, digital culture and literary testimonies (testimonios).

Related MMB blogs: ‘To stay home or go out to work? Brazil’s unequal modes of COVID-19 survival‘ by Aline Pires, Felipe Rangel and Jacob Lima, and, ‘A violent disregard for life: COVID-19 in Brazil‘ by Angelo Martins Junior.

Inclusive language for exclusive migration policy outcomes

By Victoria Finn and Sebastián Umpierrez de Reguero.

An attempt to change a migration law reigning from a military dictatorship 40 years ago must be a step in the right direction, right? Not necessarily. In 2018, the newly elected Chilean government proposed a migration law, implemented a regularisation process, and introduced visas for Haitians and Venezuelans. In a recently published open access article in Latin American Policy, we evaluate Chile’s migration decisions, aligning with a worrying restrictive migration governance wave in South America. The changes, and the proposed migration law, unevenly discriminate against certain nationalities and socioeconomic standings, as well as neglect to offer long-term solutions to irregular migration (see Diego Acosta’s presentation, mins 4 to 26), thus failing to truly protect migrants’ rights.

The language and phrasing in the decrees are inclusive for migrants. Being the second right-leaning government in Chile since the return to democracy in 1989–1990, such inclusive language meshes well with consensus on migrant human rights, for example at South America’s annual regional conference on migration and in the Global Compact for Migration. However, under scrutiny, the policies aim to reduce Haitian and Venezuelan inflows to Chile, and thus we consider the decrees as restrictive migration measures. Such disguised restrictiveness is what Domenech (2013) has noted: South American countries as early as the 2000s began conforming to the global regime of migration control and targeting irregular migration, developing what he calls policies of control ‘with a human face’. The policies use inclusive language but nonetheless aim for exclusive policy outcomes.

Soon after taking office in his second term, President Sebastián Piñera introduced various migration policy changes in 2018  (image: Gobierno de Chile)

Executive power and restrictive migration governance in South America

A South American shift to more restrictive migration governance began in 2016, with Argentina’s shift in political discourse on migration during Mauricio Macri’s administration. Leaders in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, for example, started to blame immigrants for a variety of social problems, forming a link between migration and security to justify restrictive migration governance.

In Chile in 2018, the administration of Sebastián Piñera proposed a new Migration Law and implemented two migration-related executive decrees, along with a regularisation process. The decrees took immediate effect in April 2018. Regularisation was planned for July 2018 to July 2019, during which 155,000 applied, of which 85,000 individuals received their visa. The extraordinary regularisation then ended on 22nd October 2019. From an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 persons in an irregular situation, a total of 155,483 applicants enrolled, to which the government authorised 131,399 temporary visas, although the final number of visas received was excluded in the announcement.

The legislative project is still ongoing, as of June 2020. In theory, combining decree authority with a legislative initiative, the government created a win-win scenario by maintaining (or increasing) voter support, while opening an avenue for cooperation between executive and legislative branches. But using decree authority for managing migration is worrisome since executive-led migration measures lie on the legal borderline, with little or no parliamentary intervention.

Targeting Haitians and Venezuelans

Foreign-born residents in Chile comprised less than 1% of the total population in the 1990s, less than 3% in 2015 and between about 5.5 and 6.5% in 2018. Chile’s 2017 Census showed Colombia and Venezuela as new top origin countries, alongside the emerging group of Haitians, who represented about 14% of foreigners. Chile has reacted to upticks in diverse migratory flows by targeting only Haitians and Venezuelans. Such a strategy mirrors a past policy mistake: Chile had issued a similar visa in 2012, targeting those from the Dominican Republic, which failed. Instead of reducing immigration, the visa deregulated migration, generating human trafficking, irregular entry and formal labour market exclusion (also see Thayer 2019, reference below).

For the first nationality, Haitians, Chile introduced a tourist visa, complicating visiting family in Chile. It must be obtained pre-departure and requires bank statements, a legalised criminal background check, and a hotel reservation or notarised invitation letter. For those wanting to move to live with their family in Chile, 10,000 Humanitarian Visas for Family Reunification will be available; comparatively, the 2017 Census showed that more than 100,000 Haitians arrived in Chile between 2017 and 2018 alone. Lasting 12 months (renewable once), the visa seems unfit for reuniting those separated from spouses or children, being ‘humanitarian’ only in name. These visa offers, combined with a Humanitarian Plan of Orderly Return aimed at Haitians, seem to encourage Haitian residents to return to Haiti rather than bring their family to Chile.

For the second nationality, Venezuelans, the region has reacted with a variety of policies to the most extensive human displacement in South American history, numbering over 5 million Venezuelans as of June 2020. As we argue, Chile has added barriers to entry to reduce Venezuelan immigration, disguised with tactful language, calling it the Visa of Democratic Responsibility – implying it is democratic to accept migration leaving an undemocratic regime. Along with USD 30, the visa requires a passport and recent criminal background check issued from Venezuela, both difficult to obtain, given the current crisis. Such inclusive language leaves an open question: is it democratically responsible to create a visa process, where one had previously been absent, for individuals within the region who are fleeing a failing state?  

Conclusion

The incumbent government in Chile decided not to sign the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, yet uses the globally accepted phrase of ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’ to circumvent criticism on restrictive policy. While the implemented measures portray inclusive ideas rooted in human rights, they aim to achieve the same results as openly restrictive migration policies.

Chile’s migration measures fit within a regional shift to more restrictiveness since 2016, weakening regional integration and stepping away from advances for mobility, such as the Mercosur Resident Agreement. Choosing only select nationalities damages regional discourse focused on human rights and contrasts the liberal democratic principle of equal treatment for all. The decrees contradict prior recognition that restrictive migration policies produce ineffective results, including increasing undocumented immigration.

Safe, orderly and regular migration does not belong with restrictive policy, a focus of ‘cleaning up the house’, nor with additional entry requirements that can increase irregular migration. Chile can still seize the opportunity to update its migration law and policies with a focus on inclusiveness: establishing permanent routes to more easily gain and maintain a legal status would improve access to other services and reduce precarity in the labour market, allowing immigrants to do more safely what most emigrate to do: improve their own livelihoods for themselves and their families, while contributing to the destination country’s economy.

Reference cited without link:
Thayer, L.E. (2019). ‘Causas y consecuencias de la migración irregular en Chile’. In N. Rojas Pedemonte and J.T. Vicuña Undurraga (eds.), Migración en Chile: Evidencia y Mitos de una Nueva Realidad. (Santiago, Chile: Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes.)

Victoria Finn and Sebastián Umpierrez de Reguero are dual PhD Candidates in Political Science at the Universidad Diego Portales and in Humanities at Leiden University. Victoria analyses migrant voting, citizenship and migration governance, and Sebastián researches electoral studies, legislative politics and transnational migration. This post draws on their recent paper, ‘Inclusive Language for Exclusive Policies: Restrictive Migration Governance in Chile, 2018’, published in Latin American Policy.

The desperate journey back to Venezuela

By Alexandra Castro

In most countries around the world, the vulnerability of migrants has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The reasons for this are several: loss of jobs the difficulty of maintaining quarantine measures due to their participation in the informal labour market, limited access to healthcare and increasing discrimination. These migrants’ family members, who remain in their country of origin, have also been badly affected since they no longer receive remittances. This is the case for thousands of Venezuelans living in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

Venezuelan migrants approach the Colombia-Venezuela border as they try to return home, July 2020 (image: villanoticias.com)

It is estimated that around five million Venezuelans have fled their home country in the past three years, due to the lack of opportunities there, the scarcity of medical supplies, the violence and the dire economic and political situation. They have arrived in neighbouring countries where, in some cases, they have been granted special permits giving them legal status to remain, and in many others they have stayed undocumented. According to the Colombian Population Census Authority (DANE) around 90% of the Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia work in the informal sector, selling goods on the streets or working in delivery.

Given the present pandemic and consequent lockdown ordered by the Colombian government, these Venezuelans have been prevented from earning a living. Consequently, they cannot afford day-to-day expenses such as housing and food and cannot send remittances home to their relatives. According to recent surveys, only 10% of Venezuelan migrants have kept their jobs during the current crisis while 95% are in need of food and 53% in need money to pay the rent. Many migrants have even been evicted from their rented rooms, despite specific rulings forbidding landlords from doing so.

As a result, many migrants, driven by despair, are now trying return home. Local authorities claim that around 2% of those living in Colombia at the beginning of the year have now gone back (more than 60,000 people). The journey home is dangerous not only due to the spread of the virus but several other factors too. These include:

1. The Colombian government has adopted multiple measures to decrease the risk of infection. Migrants wanting to return home have to ask for permission from their municipal authority and arrange their journey according to the dates and conditions it sets. However, some migrants cannot afford to wait for this authorisation so set off without it, risking criminal and administrative sanctions such as deportation and a ban on ever returning to Colombia.

2. The conditions of the journey are very challenging. Some migrants cross the country by foot exposing themselves to multiple risks including theft, sexual assault and even death. Others take buses, sometimes investing their few remaining savings in the tickets. Some local authorities claim to have no funds for financing this transportation while the national authorities have washed their hands of the matter.

3. When arriving at the border, the Venezuelan National Guard only allows a limited number of migrants across the border every three days (recent measures adopted by the Venezuelan government only allow 300 people to cross at one time at the main checkpoint and 100 at the second). This leads to bottlenecks at these entry points and migrants congregating at the border and in neighbouring cities. Some end up sleeping on the streets where they risk becoming infected with or spreading the virus. In the small border town of Villas del Rosario more than 1,000 people are reported to be waiting to cross into Venezuela. The situation has become so drastic that the Colombian authorities believe it could take Venezuelans up to six months to finally re-enter their country: there are currently around 24,000 Venezuelans waiting for the authorisation to cross. 

Venezuelan migrants wait at the border to cross back into Venezuela, Villa del Rosario, July 2020 (image: villanoticias.com)

4. Once in Venezuela, returnees are confined to quarantine in overcrowded and inadequate facilities called ‘temporary accommodation centres’. These are usually former schools without the capacity or necessary sanitary facilities to host so many people, having no water or electricity, and no medical aid. Such conditions have been denounced by local NGO’s. Returnees have to remain in these conditions for 14 days under the surveillance of the military and without face masks. When the first quarantine expires, they can travel to their home state but once there face another 14-days of quarantine.

5. On top of these challenges, migrants are being treated as traitors in Venezuela and stigmatised as responsible for the spread of the virus. They cannot work during the quarantine, which means many are left destitute having spent all their remaining money on the journey home. President Maduro has publicly called returnees ‘biological weapons’ and called on people to denounce to the police or even the army and the hospitals those who have entered the country informally and avoided quarantine.   

Without the remittances they used to send home these return migrants and their family members will continue facing severe difficulties in Venezuela: the conditions that made them leave in the first place have not gone away. As a result, they are very likely to migrate again: most will go back to Colombia, others may try their luck in other countries. With this in mind, their current return home is, for many, a worthless endeavour driven only by despair, further increasing the vulnerability of an already very fragile migrant population.     

Alexandra Castro has a PhD in law and works as a lawyer specialising in international migration and human rights. She is the founder and researcher at the International Migrations Observatory of the Universidad Externado de Colombia. She is also a researcher at the think-tank Diásporas

To stay home or go out to work? Brazil’s unequal modes of COVID-19 survival

By Aline Pires, Felipe Rangel and Jacob Lima.

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Brazil in a context of severe economic and political crisis. Since the 2016 parliamentary coup, we have seen the dismantling of social policies and rights, which, while never fully implemented in the country, were enshrined in the 1988 Constitution known as the ‘Citizen’s Constitution’. The current government of Jair Bolsonaro has taken this dismantling further with labour reforms that have made work contracts more unstable and living conditions more precarious. The situation is made worse by the fact that 40% of the workforce is from the informal labour market.

In a country with such a vulnerable population, the pandemic does not affect everyone equally. It has a strong class bias. The key recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO) – stay at home to avoid contagion – has proved to be a privilege only possible for some. In the absence of social welfare, staying at home means, for many, not working and therefore not feeding your family. This situation is exacerbated by the necessary closing of schools, which provided the main daily meal for many children and young people from poor families in Brazil. For the middle and upper classes, social isolation and staying put has a radically different face to that experienced in the favelas, where families often share a single room, and basic sanitation and access to clean water is very limited, making hygiene extremely difficult.

Many Brazilians working in the informal economy have no choice but to travel to work to survive during the pandemic (image: Prefeitura de Itapevi on Flickr)

A large contingent of delivery app workers, housekeepers, street vendors, self-employed and other informal workers have had to continue moving around outside their homes, exposing themselves to the risk of infection and death in order, paradoxically, to try and survive. In doing so, they guarantee a certain comfort and security for those who are able to stay behind closed doors. This dynamic exposes the fragility of labour relations in the country, characterised by the normalisation of instability and the individual responsibility of each worker to maintain their own standard of living.

The speeches of the President of the Republic and Brazilian businessmen advocating the end of lockdown – due to its impact on the economy – seek to legitimise the sacrifice of thousands of lives. They stress that, for workers, the threat of unemployment and impoverishment is worse than the threat of the virus. When the population’s survival is linked to the ‘good performance of businessmen’, fatalism is inevitable.

Capitalism has always been willing to sacrifice lives for profit. For this reason, historically, it was necessary to create protective measures to regulate the buying and selling of labour. The mediator par excellence was (and, it seems, must remain) the State, acting to contain arbitrariness in the always hierarchical relationship between employers and workers, in order to guarantee dignified living conditions for the most vulnerable sectors of the population.

In contrast, in the logic of the current (necro)economic policy that informs the speeches of some government officials and businessmen, the only social security available to people in Brazil is the income they receive from selling their labour. This produces the complex scenario in which the voices that defend the opening of lockdown are both the businessmen, who take shelter in their comfortable houses, and the informal workers, who need to go out and work in order to eat.

Water deliveries continue during lockdown to those who can stay at home, Rio de Janeiro (image: Michael Swan on Flickr)

For those who are able to stay home and not travel in public spaces, we are witnessing a different kind of work pressure. Without any forewarning, many have suddenly been forced to find ways to do their jobs remotely. This can work in certain situations, for certain activities, and with certain rules and support. However, research developed by our group on remote work has demonstrated an intensification of the work day with unlimited hours, the suppression of pauses and breaks, the accumulation of functions and tasks, and the tendency of bosses and clients to consider professionals to be permanently available.

Women have been particularly impacted in these cases, as they are held responsible by society for the care of the home and family while also maintaining their jobs. The danger is that, at the end of the pandemic, the widespread acceptance of these intensified work practices – intended initially as a temporary, emergency measure – may result in them becoming permanent.

However, while businessmen and the federal government seem to be taking advantage of the crisis to implement ever more draconian policies, we are also seeing the strengthening of proposals to create new ways of securing a dignified existence for all, through the redistribution of income and the expansion of social security. Proposals for a basic citizenship income, taxation of large fortunes and demands for strengthening public services are examples of this.

We are fighting on many fronts simultaneously in Brazil, as we are faced by religious fanaticism challenging science, irresponsible populism, authoritarianism and lethal economic policy. But, while many people are anxiously awaiting the return to normality, others remind us that this normality was itself unfair and hard for the majority of the population. The pandemic also, therefore, offers an opportunity for social transformation. Instead of dealing with emergency issues to maintain or recover the previous ‘normal’, we might try to identify ways of building an alternative future – one that is more supportive, equal and sustainable than the pre-pandemic world.

Aline Pires, Felipe Rangel and Jacob Lima are researchers at the Laboratório de Estudos sobre Trabalho, Profissões e Mobilidades (LEST-M), Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil.


Migration, racism and the pandemic in Chile’s mass media

By Carolina Ramírez.

During the global COVID-19 public health crisis, mass media in diverse contexts has fuelled stigmatisation and moral judgement towards particular segments of society by holding them accountable for spreading the virus. In Chile, as in other countries, the media has focused particularly on people who apparently refuse to comply with new public norms of civility, such as maintaining a safe physical distance when outdoors, staying at home and paying attention to self-care.

In such media coverage, well-known commentators, reporters and public authorities are shown monitoring and highlighting the conduct of those living in lower-income districts. Notably, the same behavior and conduct committed in more affluent areas have not received the same level of judgement. In this context, migrants, particularly those who are racialised and poor, have been especially subjected to negative stereotyping, social control and moral judgement.

An example of this is the sensationalist reporting on COVID-19 outbreaks in cités in the capital of Santiago. Cités are communal residential properties subdivided into several rooms, which are rented out to individuals and families who usually live in overcrowded conditions. The news media highlighted in particular two cités located in the municipalities of Quilicura and Estación Central, where many Haitian migrants live. Haitians are the largest migrant group racialised as black or as afrodescendientes; they are thus particularly visible in a society where blackness is seen as something new and foreign.

Cité in Avenida La Paz, Santiago de Chile (image: Rodrigo Fernández)

When news of these outbreaks began, cameras from different television channels were quickly sent to the areas to film sensationalist material for news and morning broadcasts. Media headlines emphasised that the viral outbreaks had occurred in the ‘migrant’ and ‘Haitian community’. The ubiquity of the virus became quickly racialised, with associations being made between disease, ethnicity, race and space.

In one such report, the Santiago mayor stated that ‘what has been far more complex is achieving a cultural understanding with [the Haitian migrants]. There is no ill will on anyone’s part, but there is an understanding of what hygiene is… what healthcare is, what it means to be a carrier of a virus like this. It was difficult to make them understand’ (author’s translation). His words alluded to the fact that several cité residents refused to move immediately to a sanitary residence.

A discourse has emerged in this pandemic that, although apparently well-intentioned, is discriminatory and stigmatising. It degrades and infantilises people without giving any credit to their legitimate concerns. For example, few reports highlighted that the cité residents were reluctant to move due to fears that their belongings would be stolen, that they would be evicted by landlords or, worse, deported. Instead, by explaining the virus outbreak in terms of poor hygiene and selfcare practices grounded in apparent ‘cultural differences’, the Santiago mayor suggested that some ways of being, dwelling in and inhabiting the city are inherently linked to ethnicity and migration. This is a culturalist discourse that simultaneously essentialises and racialises a particular migrant group – a form of covert racism through which migrant experiences are made visible when confronted with situations involving informality, offence, poverty, and disease.

By emphasising otherness, this discourse omits longstanding problems such as access to housing and overcrowding, two aspects closely related to the emergence of cités. It is important to note that cités are a form of residence that have existed for more than a century in the country, and a space where Chileans also live. Moreover, such a simplistic discourse conceals the fact that many migrants do not have adequate protection or guarantees to basic services and necessities, not even in this appalling public health crisis.

Housing is a particularly discriminatory and exploitative market for migrants in Chile and an issue that has become particularly visible during the pandemic. Individuals and families are evicted daily from informally rented residences. Many migrants today are stranded in camps outside their embassies, demanding humanitarian aid to return to their countries. Many of them are effectively homeless, having lost their jobs due to the pandemic and unable to pay the rent.

In Chile, 22.2% of migrants live in overcrowded conditions compared with 6.7% of the Chilean-born population. Moreover, as several reports corroborate, immigrants tend to have a higher educational and employability level than the general Chilean population. Yet, they are more likely to work in precarious and informal jobs. These jobs usually require them to circulate into public spaces. Working ‘from home’ is not possible for this type of employment, and such workers rely on daily earnings. For many people, being ‘a “good citizen” in times of a pandemic’, to use Michaela Benson’s notion, conflicts with ‘being a good family member’. This is because supporting and feeding their families necessarily implies breaking the rules of the government-mandated quarantine in Chile.

Dominican and Cuban migrants march in protest of their treatment by the Chilean government (image: comosucedio.com)

These complex circumstances, and not migration and ethnicity per se, need to be explicitly addressed as part of the problem of containing the COVID-19 outbreak in Chile; circumstances that affect both migrants and Chileans. By seeing migration as a social problem, dominant narratives blame the ‘other’ for broader structural issues – including housing and healthcare provision. Moreover, stigmatising generalisations conceal the diversity of positions and the key roles that migrants play in society.

Indeed, the migrant workforce has become particularly visible during the pandemic. Its labour includes food distribution and delivery services, agriculture, cleaning and caring for the sick and elderly. In the health sector, recent figures indicate that 17.3% of doctors in Chile are migrants, a figure that reaches 40% in primary care (in a country with a 6.6% migrant population). Making this heterogeneity visible is crucial to identifying ourselves with (and not simply against) others. Thinking in terms of similarities and differences, relationships and social networks (rather than identities only) can help us to recognise our mutual interdependencies, as well as shared commitments and rights to a dignified life.

Public discourses about migrants grounded in problematic generalisations are naive and unoriginal, but by no means innocuous. As we know, stigma and prejudice can encourage racist acts and motivate violence. They affect our social dispositions, by promoting closed attitudes towards difference. Not only can such attitudes humiliate others, they may even put their lives at risk.

The power of these discourses lies in their omissions. First, using ‘cultural difference’ to explain others’ apparent lack of civility and irresponsibility conceals the weaknesses of a discriminatory and unequal socioeconomic model. Second, by highlighting social difference and segregation, this perspective downplays the fact that migrants’ experiences of displacement and social exclusion are also shared by a significant segment of the Chilean population. Furthermore, such discourses deny the heterogeneity of positions, roles and identities of migrants in the country – a heterogeneity that, despite efforts to conceal it, has become evident in this pandemic.

 

Carolina Ramírez is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES), based in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Chile. This post is adapted from an article published previously in Spanish by CIPER Académico.