This is some stuff I’ve been pondering and trying to write my way through as I dig into my dissertation material a bit. It’s very long, so I don’t really expect too many people to sit through the whole thing… but it has been helpful to me to write out some of my thoughts… and I need something to post if I’m going to meet my 3-posts-a-week goal!
Quick background for context: I’m working towards a degree in anthropology, but I did my field research in the US, in the city that is my home there. So that’s kind of my point or frame of reference for this pontificating here.
One of the questions I asked my research collaborators (that’s the new word for research “subjects”) in interviews was to tell me about a time when they really felt they belonged in the Valley that is the site of my ethnographic research, and about a time when they felt they did not.
Recently I have felt compelled to turn this question back on myself, since I’m a relative newcomer to the Valley myself. The most powerful and established families in the Valley can trace their ancestry back to the Revolutionary War, after which tracts of land were awarded to soldiers who had fought the British. I moved there in 2000 a few months after getting married, a month after my husband was awarded a PhD and landed a job teaching at the same college he’d graduated from thirteen years before. We’re both “come-heres,” as they say over the mountain in West Virginia.
The time I felt most at home in the Valley (which may not be the same thing as belonging, per se, but to me they are closely intertwined notions) was when I realized that there were Mexican families living in simple, small homes and in trailer parks where I could step in and feel like I was in Latin America. I have never been to Mexico, but there is a deep current of Latino commonality that connected me, at least affectively, to the Peru where I grew up. I loved being part of that hidden world inside the trailer parks, being allowed to come in. I felt special, like I was being awarded privileged permission to cross those thresholds.
There’s a word in Spanish – confianza – that is more or less translatable as “trust,” but it is a special category of trust, denoting a quality of social closeness that is rarely defined in American English. Becoming a godparent is often a way to formalize a relationship of confianza since this establishes a life-long commitment to the well-being of someone else’s children, who may or may not be related to you by blood or marriage.
Through my professional position, bilingual/bicultural credentials and Latinidad, and through my personal approach to people (I’d like to think, at least, although my performance reviews at work allow me to believe that others think so too) I was able to establish relationships of confianza with most of the people I worked with. They trusted me with their children, knowledge of their documentation status, stories of their lives. They fed me taquitos and tortillas and can after can of cold Pepsi. They made me feel like I belonged where I was.
I felt like I belonged when I could interpret for people in schools, in medical situations, when I could guide a new family through the bewildering process of enrolling their children in school. Even though I was new to the Valley myself, and spent my first months on the job driving around with a city/county map in my glove compartment (and consulting it frequently), my English literacy and professional credentials – my slowly emerging habitus as a professional social worker – enabled me to provide support and assistance in a direct, material way for families who had only just arrived (in whole or in part) to the area.
They also taught me things; where to find cheap cuts of meat, the shortest path from the trailer park to the Mall. It wasn’t too long until I would get in the car with my husband, who had grown up in the area, and he would ask me “how do we get there from here?” because of course it wasn’t the same place he had grown up; he’d left after college in ’87 and only returned for short visits until we moved there in 2000 (thirteen years later)
But now neither of us is current in our local knowledge. His job has sequestered him in the Mennonite “ghetto,” and my status as student has removed me from the immediacy of current localization. When I least felt like I belonged was when I came home from graduate school to do my field research. In my mind, I had never really left, but when I came back, I realized that I really had been gone. The place had moved on without me; the social and professional landscapes had shifted as relationships formed and broke and networks evolved. People left jobs, moved into new jobs, moved away, moved in. Some people remembered me, others had no idea who I was, and it was disorienting and unsettling to go back because in my mind I hadn’t ever left. But I had.
I also realized how much of my connections to Latino families in the Valley were contingent on my work, and they weren’t, actually, my friends. One boss I had used to introduce me as “a member of the Latino community” in our city, and even then I had always felt a little embarrassed and disingenuous hearing this description, because even though I identify as Latina, I’m really what Ian Haney-Lopez calls “situationally” Latina. I can “pass” as vaguely ethnic but completely assimilated, and it may be that it is only in this profound longing to hear Spanish spoken and to see a certain style of home décor and to be served a can of cold Pepsi with a napkin wrapped around it that I am in any sense Latina. And can this kind of Latinidad reserve for me a space in “the Latino community” (as if there were only one, monolithic and united), if I don’t actually have any Latino friends (other than a few bilingual professionals with dark skin and Spanish surnames)?
How much of my fixation on this question of belonging comes from my own unsettledness, my own quest for belonging, my peripatetic life, my ability to “bond” with a place very quickly, at least on a superficial level, but in the long run not to be able to put down deep roots anywhere?
And these questions bring me to another topic I’ve been musing about, on friendship; but that, my internet friends, is for another post.