In this essay I collapse and redefine our common notions of migrant and migration. I do this by exploring the different ways I epistemologically, existentially, relationally, spiritually, and pedagogically embody migration, and why I choose to identify as a migrant rather than an immigrant. Migration speaks to the fact that life evolves and flourishes through migration, that is, through the constant creation of new meanings, new narratives, and new experiences. Migration is what life demands of us. Destinations are nothing but illusions and delusions. Migration puts us in harmony with a world that is always moving and gyrating. It reminds us that the book of life has no final chapter.
Our first instinct is to define migration in terms of movement, as in physically moving from one place to the next. However, this limits migration to a physical experience. What about the migration we do when we imagine the world in bold new ways? What also of the migration we do when friends invite us into their dreams? And what of the migration we do when we read new books that introduce us to new places, peoples, and experiences? All these migrations are no less profound than those we do when we physically move from one place to the next.
Every day I hope and pray to migrate. That is, every day I hope and pray to be in a new epistemological, existential, relational, spiritual, and pedagogical place that leaves me in complete awe. I cannot imagine life without migration. I also know that migration comes with disruptions and tribulations. We would all prefer to travel without moving. So migration is also about readying ourselves for migration. For me, this means practicing detachment and cultivating what Buddhism refers to as the “empty mind.” For only when we are attached to nothing can we become open and vulnerable to everything.
I know physical migration well. I am an immigrant. I can write a lot about this kind of migration. But many have already done this, and with prose I can never match. Also, this kind of migration is less and less on my mind. As much as I plan to physically move in the future, I have no plans of moving to another country. Instead, what is always on my mind is epistemological migration, existential migration, relational migration, spiritual migration, and pedagogical migration.
In all these ways, I migrate to thrive. For if we immigrate to live, we migrate to thrive. Indeed, if we wish to become something new, we must migrate. That is the rule. It is an ecological axiom. Ecologies evolve and thrive by moving and migrating. This is why history demonstrates again and again that migration—in all its many forms—is foundational to the making of great civilizations. Those who have the highest levels of migration also tend to have the highest levels of creativity, prosperity, and stability.
To migrate is to move across space. In other words, to migrate is to consume time. I am now at an age where I am constantly feeling that I am running out of time. I must use my remaining time wisely, which means choosing carefully what projects I take on, what books I read, what music I listen to, what films I watch, what classes I teach, and so forth. I no longer take time for granted. More and more I am recognizing how precious and finite it is. Maybe death is simply another migration that I should embrace, but for now I like this side of the equation. However, as I am increasingly feeling the intensity of time, or perceiving such to be the case, I am also increasingly feeling the urgency to migrate. There are so many places I want to visit epistemologically, existentially, relationally spiritually, and pedagogically before my time expires. Every day I want to arrive at a new place that humbles me and leaves me in awe. Yet, migration demands time. It takes time for ideas to take shape. It takes time for relationships to deepen. It takes time for perspectives to evolve. It takes time for narratives to cohere. It takes time for classes to become intelligible. Time needs patience. So this is the tension. As much as I am now running out of time, I am also now recognizing that time needs time. Migration needs patience. We should neither rush it nor fight with it. Yet I will be the first to admit that I am yet to fully embody this important lesson.
I recently heard someone say, “Let love be the journey.” I was intrigued. But what does it mean? Still, I heard this when I needed to hear it. Lately I have been thinking a lot about what physicists call dark matter and dark energy. What becomes of migration in a universe that is so infinitely vast and unknown? What can we really know and ultimately understand? What becomes the point of everything in such a universe? Where can we get to? On the other hand, maybe the moral of the story is that all that matters in the end is the moving and migrating rather than the arriving and disembarking. So let love be the journey; meaning, I believe, let us focus on traveling well.
Through teaching I am learning a lot about patience and migration. I now know that it will take a few years of great effort before I have a command of a course. There will be endless revisions and bouts of tribulation. There is simply no way to rush the maturation process. Yet I continue to struggle as I remain determined to get my courses to a certain place. I speak again and again with colleagues of my frustration with failing to get a course right. On the other hand, I am also recognizing that getting my courses to a certain place has nothing to do with what my students are ready and willing to learn. Any of my courses could be right from my perspective and be in every way wrong for my students. In the end, my students will determine the value of my courses. So now I am learning to focus on what is happening in the classroom rather than where I believe a course needs to be. In other words, I am learning to focus on the journey of the course rather than the destination. Let love be the journey.
Learning is also about migration—being ready and willing to explore new epistemological places. But what happens when our students are unwilling to migrate and explore new epistemological terrain? In fact, what happens when our lovers, friends, and colleagues have had enough migration, even our migration? What should happen next, especially when we remain determined to migrate? How should this conflict be resolved? Does the necessity of migration make all separation permissible?
Many students come to my courses unwilling to learn anything profound. My courses are merely a means to an end, another requirement for graduation. It is nothing personal. It is just what higher education has become, a degree-granting institution, where the focus is on graduating rather than learning. Regardless of how hard I work on my courses, I can do nothing to alter this situation that corrupts both teaching and learning. Yet I must still find some measure of peace with what I am about in the classroom. I am learning to change my pedagogical posture in the classroom. That is, I am learning to do less so that my students can do more, thereby encouraging them to take responsibility for their learning and ultimately the quality of their lives. It all comes back to detachment. If my students are ever going to epistemologically migrate, I must give them the space to do so. This means releasing them of my expectations and allowing them to create their own. There can be no migration without separation, and the only way to ready ourselves for separation is through detachment. Thus, I now come to teaching as an invitation, merely inviting my students to meditate honestly and transparently on various issues pertinent to the course. Let love be the journey.
I always thought I would become a priest. My plan was to attend a monastery in Latin America, study liberation theology, and attend to the spiritual needs of the poor and oppressed. But after Pope John Paul became pope and immediately cracked down on the liberation theology movement in Latin America, I was done with religion. But I also had no idea of what I wanted to do next. Acquiring a PhD and becoming a professor in another country was nowhere in my imagination. In fact, when I arrived in the United States, I had nothing. No visa, no money. All I had was a desire to get an undergraduate degree. That by itself would have been an extraordinary accomplishment, as no member of my family had ever once stepped on a college campus. Such is the nature of migration. After you step into the universe, you never know what you will become. Dark matter is truly dark matter. Even during graduate school, I never once thought of becoming a professor. I was just happy to be still in school and barely one step ahead of the immigration service.
Many would like me to believe that I made my own destiny. But this would be a lie. As much as I did work hard and made more good choices than bad ones, I am where I am now because of a lot of good fortune and with the help and support of many people. In many ways, our own migration is merely an extension of others’ migration. We are here only because others had dreams and made sacrifices for us to be here. We are all going to need help and support on our journeys. Migration makes a mockery of individualism and us being autonomous beings.
Emptying my mind is my spiritual practice. Every day I strive to keep my mind empty by attending to my attachments. Attachment comes in many different forms. We can be attached to thoughts, emotions, things, experiences, ambitions, expectations, values, perspectives, truths, interests, and persons. I maintain this spiritual practice for the purpose of migration. After settling down in the United States, I began to live by a “two boxes” philosophy: Everything I had had to fit into two boxes or go. I knew back then that attachment to things could make migration difficult. Indeed, when I first came to the United States, I only had a small bag of clothes. But even now I am always mindful of the stuff I am acquiring and its impact on my moving and migrating. This, in fact, is the first dimension of my spiritual practice—refusing to become attached to material and physical things. However, emptying the mind is a difficult spiritual practice. We are susceptible to becoming attached to so many kinds of things. We also tend to like the things we have become attached to. But every attachment makes us vulnerable to misery by blocking our ability to move and migrate.
To migrate is to become different. It is about expanding and enlarging our universe. This is why so many are willing to risk so much to arrive at somewhere new. It is all about aspiring to become something different, something better. The problem with attachment is that it robs us of the fecundity of the present by keeping us beholden to the past. Attachment is a master–servant relationship. In becoming attached to things and persons, we surrender our freedom to move and migrate. We are therefore surrendering our ability to become something new. However, as with every master–servant relationship, eventually the relationship becomes abusive as the master demands our complete and absolute submission. We become incapable of imagining anything in bold new ways. We can see things only one way, our way. Migration becomes impossible. Such are the wages of attachment. In being unable to migrate, we are unable to change our fate.
I left the country of my birth to change my fate. There were no opportunities for me there, or at least for those of my economic status. If there were ever going to be any prospects of a better life, I had to migrate, even though I was leaving with nothing. Such again is the nature of migration. It demands courage, a willingness to risk it all. This is why analysts tell us that immigrants tend to start businesses at a much higher rate than natives. Migration demands hustle and courage. I know this well. In having no papers to work in the United States, I was never unwilling to do any job, however demeaning. Bills had to be paid and I had to eat. One way or another, migration pushes you into the world. It forces you to change and evolve. Therefore, I always knew that after I left the country of my birth, there would be no going back, at least of my own accord. In always striving to become something different, I would always need much more space to live and thrive. Having friends and colleagues from only one place in the world would no longer suffice. Such is the trajectory of migration. It is always toward something larger, where more things are possible.
Once again we are in an age when there is hostility to immigrants and immigration. Every day we now hear calls for more walls, more restrictions, more requirements. We are convinced there is a flood of immigrants that will drown us all. The integrity of Western civilization is supposedly under siege from persons with foreign beliefs and values. We hear again and again that something urgent and drastic needs to be done. But again, immigration is merely one dimension of migration. The mistake we are making when confronting this new hostility to immigration is continuing to reduce migration to immigration. We need to move the discussion to the level of migration rather than immigration. This means challenging us to view migration in ways that exceed immigration and immigrants.
The reality is that every ecology needs to migrate to thrive. Without migration in all its forms, human beings will perish. We therefore need to highlight all the different forms that migration takes, and thus all the different benefits that migration brings. We also need to begin to make an important distinction between migrant and immigrant. According to analysts, a migrant is “someone who is in the process of relocating to another country or place, or someone who has already done so,” whereas an immigrant is “a migrant who has moved from one country to the next, or is in the process of doing so.” Note again how in both instances the emphasis is on moving from one physical place to another. We need to enlarge how we define migrant and migration so as to capture the different ways human beings experience movement and growth. I propose that we define a migrant as someone who is moving from either one physical, existential, moral, sexual, relational, spiritual, or epistemological place to another for the sake of making more things possible for themselves and others. In this way, immigration is merely one kind of migration. This helps us to highlight the fact that Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and all the many other persons who sought to end slavery and Jim Crow laws were migrants. All these people were trying to arrive at a new place that made more things possible for themselves and others. Such is also the case for every woman who sought to end gender discrimination and oppression. Indeed, every enslaved person who ran away was a migrant. Finally, let us highlight the fact that we will be migrants long after we are immigrants. Regardless of what becomes of our immigration policy, what will become of us will depend on what becomes of us as migrants. We may have different views on what to do about immigration, but without migration, in all its many forms, our demise is all but certain. We migrate or die. There is simply no such thing as too much migration. Migration undercuts our worst instincts and impulses. It enlarges our view of the world and our understanding of things. It also makes us more aware and sensitive to more things. In many ways, migration is like jumping into a river. There is no going back upstream. We must follow the flow of the river. There will, for sure, be risks and dangers and struggles as the river hurtles forward. But we will always be better off for the experience. Let love be the journey.
I am an immigrant, but I am first and foremost a migrant. My migration is far from over. There are many epistemological, existential, relational, spiritual, and pedagogical places that I yearn to explore before my time expires. In making the case for immigration, we always highlight the fact that the United States is a nation of immigrants. But this is only partially true, even disingenuously partially true. Our ancestors had different boat rides. Whereas some of our ancestors were embraced upon arriving on these shores, others were enslaved and brutalized. Yes, the fact that human beings are narrative beings means that no narrative is ever capturing or revealing the complete and absolute truth. But any immigration narrative that downplays 350 years of slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow, is taking fiction too far. Still, migration moves us beyond immigration in many important ways. Migration is about what we need to become to make more things possible. We need to become a nation of migrants where we embrace, recognize, and grapple with all the different forms of migration that made the United States possible. Only when we begin to do migration better will we do immigration better.
The Bible says that we should let the dead bury the dead, meaning let the past remain in the past. What is done is done. We should therefore refrain from allowing the past to hinder what is now possible. Being able to surrender the past is integral to migration. For instance, when I was leaving the country of my birth, I was leaving behind much more than a country. I was also leaving behind parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, friends, and neighbors. But that is the demand of migration, being ready to give up the past for the future. How well we migrate will depend on how well we can do this. So I have long made my wishes clear as to what must be done upon my demise. I must be cremated immediately, preferably the same day, and there must be no service of any kind. My death should in no way encumber my family and friends from moving on quickly. To allow my death to do so is simply selfish. Indeed, I know well that we in the Western world want nothing to do with death. There shall be no discussion of it. We demand that our doctors do everything to save us from it. Then, after death, we selfishly demand that our remains remain and take up valuable space on a planet with finite space. This fear of death reveals a hostility to migration, an unwillingness to embrace all the possibilities that the future contains. It reminds us of the saying “Everybody wants to get to heaven, but no one is willing to die to get there.” But as much as it is true that we must migrate to thrive, it is also true that we have to die to migrate.
Our problem with death is that we are unable to control it, and therefore save ourselves from it. It is certain, yes, but when, where, and how are out of our control. Death is dark matter and dark energy. We know it is real, but we will never be able to demystify it. Migration is a kind of death, a kind of passing. As we move from one space to the next, what we were before we will never be again. We have no control over what we will become when we migrate. Every time we enter the universe, it will change, then it will change us, and then we will change everything else. With migration, the only constant is change, and we have no ability to control it. Somewhere there is always a butterfly flapping its wings. This, again, is why migration demands courage. We must have the courage to leave, the courage to change, and, ultimately, the courage to die. That migration demands courage means that it demands strength, such as mental strength, emotional strength, existential strength, spiritual strength, and sometimes even physical strength. Those who are weak and fragile will always be hostile to migration.
If you are ever to speak of me, speak of me as a migrant. As much as I am legally and physically an immigrant, in my heart, mind, and body, I am a migrant. If immigrant is how others get to define me, migrant is how I get to define myself. So, if you are to speak of me, maybe upon hearing of my demise, say that because I was a migrant, I opposed all forms of tyranny, especially the insidious kinds. Say that because I was a migrant, I opposed any kind of wall that either physically, epistemologically, ideologically, or institutionally stopped or hindered any person from moving freely from one place to the next. And say that one day I heard a person say that love is the journey, and I believed.