Strength and Adversity: Testimonies of the Migration.

Author:Lusk, Mark

Over the past eight years, the authors have met and had extended discussions with hundreds of migrants from Mexico and Central America who have found themselves in El Paso, Texas, or Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. As social workers and researchers, our interest has been to understand the experience of migration from the personal and cultural perspectives of individual migrants (Chavez, Lusk, & Sanchez, 2015; Lusk & McCallister, 2015; Lusk, McCallister, & Villalobos, 2013; Lusk & Terrazas, 2015; Lusk & Villalobos, 2012).

Against the backdrop of these many discussions with migrants, for this article, the authors spoke at great length and in depth with eighteen individuals who, under duress, had migrated to the U.S.-Mexico border. Each of them was planning to cross the border, had recently arrived in El Paso, or had just been deported by U.S. authorities. In each case, we identified migrants who had fled from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, or the interior of Mexico not for economic opportunities, but to escape violence and criminal victimization.

Perhaps as a byproduct of our clinical training, our initial impulse when speaking with migrants was to look for and respond to trauma. There was no absence of that to be sure. Although economic migration to the United States has steadily declined over the past decade (Saenz, 2015), there has been a surge in the number of refugees who have come to the United States to flee violence, persecution, torture, abduction, and extortion (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2015). Mirroring the flow of Central Americans during the U.S.-supported dirty wars and state-sponsored terrorism in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras during the early 1980s, the current outflow of migrants consists of those who are fleeing countries wracked by criminality, impunity, and pervasive structural poverty. The results have been evident in the stories of people who have fled, not to find jobs per se, but to find some degree of safety. They are forced migrants. It follows that the stories they told us were replete with hardship, suffering, death, and injury. Yet, the migrants told another story as well. Despite the hardships, their stories were filled with hope, resilience, strength, and courage. We should not have been surprised, but we were.

In time, as we met with more migrants, the interactions evolved from interviews to listening sessions. Instead of asking a set of preconceived questions, we simply listened, probing here and there for clarity, but essentially just asking migrants to tell their stories.

Background and Significance

There is an important literary and oral tradition in Latin America of telling one's story or cuento through a testimonio. The indigenous peoples of pre-Columbian Central and South America kept their histories in the preliterate testimonio passed down through generations as an oral history. Some of these oral histories have been put to text, but most have been lost.

The Latin American testimony has common attributes regardless of genre. The testimonio gives voice to the powerless, is an authentic narrative told by a witness, is driven by the urgency of a situation such as war, is a form of popular discourse, and seeks to denounce the present situation (Gugelberger & Kearney, 1991, p. 4; Yudice, 1992). It includes a call for action to rectify a perceived injustice. The testimonio has roots in the narratives of slaves and other subordinated peoples such as the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It can be described as a subversive form of literature in that it seeks to rewrite and correct Latin American history (Gugelberger & Kearney, 1991, p. 11).

The classical tradition of the testimonio can be traced back to the sixteenth century Dominican priest Bartolome de las Casas (Chomsky, 2005). In his career as a friar during the Spanish Conquista of the Americas, he fought tirelessly for the rights of the indigenous peoples and for their fair treatment. To bolster his case, he published testimonios and a definitive history of the conquest and its mistreatment of the indigenous peoples with whom de las Casas thought Spaniards should live in equality. He served as a "witness to the times," and in many ways was among the first human rights activists (Sanderlin, 1992). The testimonio can also be found as an individual's biographical narrative of coming of age and to a state of political awareness. The diaries of Cuban Jose Julian Marti, American Martin Luther King Jr., and Argentinean Ernesto "Che" Guevara are within this tradition. This style recounts a coming to terms with the lived experience of knowing the poor and the oppressed and reformulating a position on how to counter that injustice through political action (Yudice, 1992).

Approach and Method

The method of this ongoing project is within the tradition of the testimonio de concientizacion --a testmonio of raising consciousness (Yudice, 1992). The term concientizacion, developed by the Brazilian sociologist Paulo Friere, refers to a method of raising political awareness through writing and through social action. The authors' goal is to raise political conscience about the situation of migrants in the United States by providing a means for their stories to be told and witnessed. Migrants and refugees are politically invisible; this gives them a voice.

Giving voice to the narrators of testimonies is qualitative and interpretative, which approach allows the storytellers to reveal multiple realities. These are not spectators who are watching their lives unfold; they are actors and interpreters who construct a narrative of meaning about the events, thoughts, intentions, and behaviors in their lives (Guest, Namey, & Mitchell, 2013).

Using the Latin American testimonio tradition, we asked people to tell part of their life story as a narrative that centers on their migration (Logan, 1997). These testimonios were recorded and transcribed. They shed light on the experiences, hardships, motivations, losses, transitions, and highlights associated with migration. In these sessions and many others like them, the first author was struck by the significance of witnessing the migrant journey. In each case, the narrator was validated by having the chance to speak freely about his or her journey. Although many tearfully recounted certain events and circumstances they had endured or witnessed, they also spoke of the hope (esperanza) that kept them going. Time and again, the migrants spoke in terms of the future and how their families, culture, and fidelity had sustained them.

Many scholars have framed the migrant struggle in the context of adversity, isolation, rejection, and loss. Yet when they are encouraged to speak, unencumbered by the listener's preconceptions, the migrants and refugees sound more like pilgrims than victims. There can be no question about their reports of rape, torture, extortion, hunger, and adversity. The truth of such events was palpable in their storytelling. What has too often been missing is the account of their perseverance, strength, tenacity, love, faith, and hope.

It was also powerful to see how important it was to the migrants to simply "be heard." They were validated by that experience. The internal experiences that had been shared only with intimates became reified or externalized in a way that seemed liberating to the narrators. The sheer act of telling their story made it more real and perhaps more manageable and understandable. This sharing of self with others can be a catharsis in the reexperiencing of deep emotions that may have been repressed. It can also be purifying in the sense that hidden things lose their ability to harm when confessed. Similarly, the retelling of a journey or a profoundly difficult struggle can be an expurgation that liberates the storyteller from confusion, pity, fear, and shame. Finally, the testimonio is a dialectical narrative of action (storytelling) and reaction (listening) by which an internal dialogue becomes external, thereby making it real and actionable, a praxis that enhances human freedom by turning contemplation into action.

The purpose of this project is, as human rights worker Ruben Garcia says, "[to] give a voice to the voiceless." (Director of the Annunciation House, Garcia annually holds a Voices of the Voiceless Conference in El Paso, TX, to provide a forum and a venue to hear the message of the migrant.)

In some small way, the authors aim to shine a light of truth into the dominant and misguided narrative about the border and the migrant. Many things spoken and written about the migrants from Mexico and Latin America say more about the speaker than the migrant. The projections and fantasies of xenophobes and racists have too often framed the migration narrative. This project serves as an antidote, one that demonstrates through the migrants' own words, the extraordinary suffering, courage, and resilience of people who risk everything for freedom.

We will first present a precis of two individual stories that highlight the nature of forced migration under duress. We will then summarize some of the hardships endured. But most importantly, we will address the ways in which migrants understood and interpreted their journeys to give meaning to their hardship and struggles. We will conclude by summarizing the emergent themes from the stories (testimonios) that tell us how migrants overcome hardship through personal and cultural interpretations of their journeys.

In stark contrast to those who focus solely on the trauma of refugee migration, we found that each of the participants exhibited hope, resilience, faith, and a belief that their journeys were carried out with a greater purpose that gave meaning to their hardships.

The Journeys

Yohaina is a twenty-three-year-old single woman from Villanueva Cortes who worked twelve-hour days five days a week in a maquila textile plant making about US$70 a week. This modest salary did not cover the cost...

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