Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Culture of Migration


"Each act of migration itself creates the social structure needed to sustain it."

Every person who leaves his home country to cast himself on a distant shore has a mental model in his head of what that act means.  There is a context around it in the country of origin that he cannot ignore and this can inform his feelings about what he's doing and provide justifications and arguments for why.

An American who leaves for Paris, for example, probably knows that Americans have been going to Paris for hundreds of years.  In fact, anyone who knows anything about American history will have read that even one of the founding fathers of the nation, Benjamin Franklin, was a long-term resident of the Hexagon.  Those with a creative bent are surely aware that many great American writers and artists came to Paris at one time or another and stayed for a time or permanently.

Out of this migration, which goes back to the American revolution, a kind of archetype has arisen, the American in Paris, which conjures up visions of Ernest Hemingway, the American boy from Illinois who transformed himself into a hard-drinking, dashing novelist and war correspondent living in gay Paree.   There were many others:  Josephine Baker, Henry Miller, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Baldwin...

This is a migration path that was traced long ago and kept open by generations of Americans right up to the present day.  And given the popularity of books written by and about Americans who live here, it is still something that captures the imagination of people in the homeland.  All this is part of the context around which a decision to leave the US and come to France is made.  It's inescapable.

And yet, the US does not have a culture of outward migration (emigration).  It's a country people come to, not a place people leave (or so we tell ourselves).  In the American discourse around migration it's OK to talk about immigrants (in fact that is one of THE most important elements of the national narrative) but it's not OK to talk about emigrants.

I just finished a very good book by Caroline Brettell about another country that does have a strong culture around emigration.  The book is called Anthropology and Migration:  Essays on Transnationalism, Ethnicity and Identity and it talks about migration from an anthropological viewpoint using a population that the author has studied extensively:  the Portuguese.

Not a very well-known group in the US but one that is very visible in France.  If you live in an apartment building in a community around Paris that has a concierge (called a gardien today) chances are good that she is from Portugal.  When we needed work done on the chimney of our house, our Serbian contractor found us a Portuguese mason because, he said, they are the best.

How can the Portuguese be said to have a culture of migration?   Barttell traces the history of Portugal  and shows how powerful symbols and archetypes have created a positive context around Portuguese emigration.

When the Portuguese think about their emigrants their views are informed by allusions to the great Portuguese explorers and their contributions to the Age of Discovery.
"Portuguese emigrants are symbolic transformations of these navigators, for they have carried on the tradition of the Portuguese explorers - a tradition of reaching out beyond the shores of a small country situated at the margins of Europe."
Discovery led to colonization.  One of the infamous BRIC's is their child, Brazil - a very successful country with one of the world's largest and fastest growing economies.  Ties between Portugal and Brazil remained strong even after independence in 1822.  In the 19th century the Portuguese who left for Brazil were called brasileiros: "a term applied to a native-born Portuguese who emigrates to Brazil, makes it rich and then returns to Portugal to display his wealth."   This archetype had both positive and negative connotations but was widely spread via popular culture at the time.

In the 20th century Portuguese writers and poets took that archetype and a new one,  the franceses (the Portuguese in France), and portrayed them as heroes who suffered hardship for the sake of the homeland:  "Glorificam a Terra na amargura da distancia." (They glorify the homeland in the bitterness of distance.)

This does not mean, however that the government of Portugal always endorsed or approved of the emigrants.  Under Salazar emigration was controlled though not very effectively.  Many Portuguese slipped out of the country and made it to France where they were helped by the French authorities.  Here are the words of one migrant who left in 1965 for France:
"While we were waiting on the French side for trucks to take us to Paris, we were caught by the police. Ten of the men fled, among them the man who was to become my brother-in-law...The rest of us stayed and the police were very nice.  We showed our identity papers, and the police gave us temporary passes for France."
The Salazar regime is long gone and Portugal is now part of the European Union which means freedom of movement between European countries and no more problems with papers.

Today there are Portuguese communities all over the world but one of the largest is here in France. In the period between 1950 and 1969 France was the final destination for a whopping 43.5% of Portuguese migrants.  They came to work, brought their families, and settled in. The numbers of new migrants have risen and fallen over the years but in 1990 they were still one of largest immigrant populations in France:  650,000 strong.

They are both visible and accepted.  When the French talk about the immigrant "problem" they are generally not referring to the Portuguese who are both Christians (Catholics) and fellow Europeans.

And yet they do engage in patterns of behaviour that in other migrant groups would be controversial.  They do not, in general, become French citizens (though their children do).  Many attend Mass in Portuguese (not French) and send their offspring to Catechism in that language.  They often return to Portugal on vacation and send their children there for the summer.  Many retain very strong ties to their towns and villages back home and they send a steady stream of donations and remittances back to support local foundations, parishes and family members.  Some parishes back in Portugal even mail copies of the parish newsletter to former parishioners living in the Hexagon so they can be kept up to date as to what's happening at home.  The idea of return is strong in this community.  Few come to France with the idea of permanently settling here even if that is what actually happens over time.

Barttell paints a very interesting picture of this community.  Portugal is not a country people leave today because they are starving or are suffering oppression.  They are not the misère du monde. It's more a case of relative deprivation.  "Often it is neither the extremely poor (who have no money for the passage and no social networks abroad) nor the richest who pioneer a migration stream, but those with some but not great resources." The Portuguese see friends and family leave for France and then come home with enough money to buy things like houses or land or to acquire status through donations to the church and participation in community events.  Whatever work they do and what they earn and how they are viewed or treated in France, their frame of reference is Portugal.  Bartell sums it up this way:  "Portuguese are travailleur in France, to be petit bourgeois in Portugal."

The Portuguese government is involved in its diaspora and makes it clear that the Portuguese abroad are still part of the nation which is defined as something much broader than mere territory. It's an "imagined community" that knows no borders and the Portuguese are um povo peregrino (a wandering people).  "The emigrant is a pilgrim, a journeyer, and emigration is Portugal's national rite of passage" and "Wherever a Portuguese goes he carries the spirit of Camões and Vasco de Gama."  

One example of government influence is the Instituto Camões which is run by the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and exists to promote their language and culture all around the world.  Another example is the L’accord-cadre franco-portugais de coopération éducative et linguistique which was signed in 2006.  Among other things this agreement promotes French in Portuguese public schools and Portuguese in French public schools.  Demand for the latter is said to be increasing at a rate of about 5% per year.  When there are issues about Portuguese language education in France, the mail goes straight to the top - the Portuguese Ambassador to France and the French Prime Minister.

Does all this represent a country of emigration simply trying to make the best of a bad situation?

Depends on how you view emigration -  good, bad or neutral for a country.  In times past emigration was viewed as dangerous because population and a fixed national territory firmly under the control of a strong state meant power.  If these things continue to be the standard by which a state is judged (and judges itself) to be "successful" then any outbound flow of people, however small, will diminish the nation.

In a globalized world redefining the nation to include its emigrants and passing jus sanguinis citizenship laws are insurance against that.  It's not that people have left the nation, they have simply relocated their sovereign citizen selves, and by extension a part of the nation itself, somewhere else.  They and their children are still Americans, Germans, Chinese, French, British, all contributing to the rayonnement of the homeland abroad.

Personally, I think this is a very smart strategy for nations in a globalized world.  Using symbols and national history to tie the global migrant to a nation is, I think, a very worthwhile enterprise.  The Portuguese are very fortunate in that their history lends itself to a positive narrative about migration.  Other diasporas don't have that history and some even have governments that don't seem to care that they are losing influence and people.  Their view of the nation is too tightly bound with territory - something that makes less and less sense as we march into the 21st century.

These governments could do worse than to look to Portugal for how it might be done differently:

"If the emigrant is a vehicle through which the Portuguese can think about their attachment to their homeland,  if the emigrant is a vehicle though which the Portuguese can find their roots in their past, if the emigrant is a vehicle through which the Portuguese can represent their ecumenical and tolerant spirit, then the emigrant is also a vehicle for the expression of greatness - for the extension of thought beyond the boundaries of a small country wedged between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean at the very edge of Europe.  The emigrant unbinds the Portuguese nation and Portuguese culture."

1 comment:

Sauve said...

I also have been pondering culture and its impact on the world. I come to wonder if countries are a thing of the past and what we see right now, what we are living, is a transformation of world culture in early development?

When the Americas were discovered, after the genocide of the native peoples, immigrants were needed. That was also true in Australia, but Australia doesn't seem to have attracted the same wide diversity that North American Continent did. Perhaps it was the nature of govt put into place or, more likely, it was the natural environment. The USA was eager to be on the stage of the world players so she actively searched for immigrants after slavery was abolished. Granting humanity and freedom to those who had been slaves probably did more for the states than anything else in US history because she needed people who would toil to build an infrastructure of a powerful culture.

I've begun to see the USA as something of the womb of the new world culture. The USA was able to absorb those various cultures and did not assimilate them. Hence the cultures have been actively changing culture in the USA even up into today. Then the globalization of big businesses push the need for the information/communication age to develop and it's that combination that is making such an impact on the world today.

I think it will take the standard 3 generations for it to assume a comfortable form but I predict it is going to happen because it is happening. There will always me people who are uncomfortable with change. I have found in my life experiences, that those people seem to be an certain class type that is being rapidly change by the surrounding culture. Countries are like those people fearful of change and try to hang onto their nationality but will eventually succumb to the melting pot syndrome which will lead to a world culture and maybe a world govt.

I don't think that the US style of democracy can withstand the population numbers of a world but I do think that there will be some variation of it. Anyway, that is my thoughts on the topic of today.