To repair the injury and stifled agency caused by master narratives of migration stories, I call for narratives that specifically counter storying that reflects the master narrative. This narrative repair acknowledges narrative fatigue, embraces paradoxical tensions of migration, and assumes the paraliminality of migration (a constant overarching state of transition, which in histories of migration, often exists without the aid of supportive community). Abandoning the idea that evocative laments and critiques are enough for empowerment, I call for the embrace of difficult and contradictory narratives told simply, as the foundation for strengthening identities and providing dynamic stability.
There's a bin that's been sitting in my closet for over three years, and I cannot get the strength to throw it out. It's not heavy, not in the sense of the weight that requires physical strength to lift and carry it. It's heavy in another way. It is full of memories, tangled in the sticky threads of narratives that allow me to attach, connect, and give life to them. It is the narration that is heavy. It's a counternarration calling for strength that I have not been able to muster. I struggle, realizing I will not be free of this heaviness impeding my agency, until I can find the counternarrative strong enough to not only alter, but also dominate, my sense of reality. I don't need just new stories, ideas, or philosophies, but a fully-functioning life narrative that doesn't revive the weeds I was too careless to pull before rushing to plant my new garden. I want to clean out that bin, but despite my desire and intention to do so, I haven't.
We've made the ideas of “moving on,” of “letting go,” trite and simplistic, using them as feel-good aphorisms, functioning as feigned wisdom in our advice and consolation to others. At other times, these aphorisms in our own self-talk (often public) seem to suggest our desire to be wiser than our attachments would otherwise indicate. By keeping alive the narrative thread that we are aware of our inability to move on from the attachments and their related losses, by stating we are moving on, or letting go, we allow the verbal claims uttered through these aphorisms to create the impression that we're taking action. If I have stated that I must move on, that I must let go, therefore, I have somehow done so, or at the very least, closed the discourse to a contestation of my inability to do so. (Unless, of course, I am in therapy or writing an autoethnography, where the discourse can still privilege my sense of knowing I must move on, must let go, without deeply acknowledging that I am stuck, attached, or perhaps too heavily identified and not in transition.)
The migrant challenges our inability to move, to abandon the dysfunction in our lives, our inability to leap into the unknown, clinging to the known aspects of our lives and identities (even while bemoaning and critiquing them). The migrant does so precisely because the very defining nature of migrants is that they have made a dramatic departure that speaks to the perpetual risk of disruption. Be it forced or intentional, out of desperation or hope, or perhaps a combination of all of these, the migrant's actions speak to a radical and visceral release at every level of their existence and identity. Our attraction or aversion to the migrant is necessarily wrapped up in our own relationship to the ability to allow our stories to change. The more conscious of our own relationship to this, the less intense our response might be; but if we are invested in hiding any aspect of how we do (or don't) know how to release attachments in our lives, the migrant will trigger us. Similarly, we can be triggered if our incapacity to adapt and change through willful transition can find itself anchored to all manner of honorable identifications, loyalties, and claims of personal or collective ownership. Triggered by the migrant, we jump to melodramatic defense of our attachments and honorable loyalties—or inversely, to attacks on the problem of migration and the evidence that others not so privileged are simply more desperate or courageous.
My maternal grandmother, Josefina García, at the age of two, crossed the Rio Grande in the Big Bend area of southwest Texas, bordering the Mexican state of Coahuila, with her seven brothers and sisters, with my great-grandmother, her mother, Petra Rodríguez de García. The year was 1904, and the reason was poverty and the death of the father figure, whose family roots were farther away, in Piedras Negras. They were living in Boquillas del Carmen, on the Mexican side of the river, and the decision to migrate offered survival to her family. Mama Petra was a curandera, an indigenous healer, and she found a new home in the Mexican community of the town of Fort Stockton, Texas, where she served many, including newly arriving migrants. My paternal grandmother, Carmen Gutiérrez, migrated with my great-grandmother María Cristina Martínez de Gutiérrez, in 1928, having survived the Mexican revolution together for six years while my great-grandfather, Luis Gutiérrez González, was away with the Obrador forces. Shortly after he returned, he died of hepatitis he'd contracted during the war. Struggling to maintain the businesses he'd left with them, it became socioeconomically and politically unfeasible to continue doing so safely, and in 1928, during the Cristero war in Mexico, my great-grandmother decided to migrate. They headed to California, where others they knew had migrated, but railroad problems delayed their stay in Fort Stockton, where they'd heard that a woman named Petra helped migrants. They were accompanied by my grandmother's cousin, José Martínez, who left them there, and they never made it on to California. Both of my grandmothers married, and started families, decades later becoming naturalized citizens of the United States of America in the 1960s.
These brief migration stories of my grandmothers provided a stable base of honor, and a heritage of strength and endurance upon which narratives of identity, history, and purpose were woven by members of my family. These women, and others like them, whose migrations we celebrated, made us. Over the decades of the 20th century, the oral traditions of our family and Mexican indigenous cultures that could preserve and share the details of these stories gave way to the mediated modernity of the United States. Our families lived within a community competitively narrated by the US government, literally divided by Division Street, where “Mexicans” lived on the south side of the street and “Americans” lived on the north, a racialized geography set in place with the building of a post–Civil War fort that housed “buffalo soldiers” to fight the Indian Wars. The fort's establishment would permanently rename the town of St. Gall as Fort Stockton. The threads weaving the narratives of migration of the Spanish, Apache, and Comanche mestizo population became whitewashed and bleached by the need to belong in a society that had, even before the Civil War, set a goal of acquiring the Republic of Texas. This, along with US expansionist obsession, instigated the US–Mexican war, and culminated in the dubious Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and ultimate annexation of the state of Texas.1 The language of coexisting Mexicans and Americans was inscribed in the treaty, with no “hyphenated” identities until civil rights efforts in the 20th century led to the US Census Bureau requiring Mexicans to stop identifying themselves racially as Mexican and forcing the identification as “white” in 1940.2 Welcome, the Mexican American.
Although it was in 1940 that we were required to erase our mestizaje and indigenous nature on paper, during my childhood in the late 1950s and the 1960s, my family and most of our community had never stopped calling ourselves simply Mexican. My father worked in federal politics, which resulted in two periods of sojourn for my family to Washington, DC, and Lima, Peru, from 1965 to 1969. After we returned to Fort Stockton, I remember the quandary I faced when, during new student orientation at Fort Stockton Junior High, I was required to identify my race. We had four options: White, Black, Asian, and American Indian. I checked the box indicating American Indian, because, at age 12, the narratives that I had learned about our history and identity clearly had taught me that I was Mexican, and according to what my family had taught me, that meant that we were “Indian and Spanish,” and that “White” meant the “Anglos,” a term that had endured in Texas since the arrival of the English-speaking migrants from the southern United States and Ireland. Contacted by the school, my father told me (in Spanish) that “even though it's not true, you need to check “White” because that's the law.” The law effectively chose to erase the evidence of the migration narrative we'd acknowledged through self-identification. We were being taught to narrate ourselves within a racial narrative that forced otherness for our people within a chiefly black/white racial typology that acknowledged Asians and American Indians as other Others. We couldn't exist as ourselves, or even as a simply distinguished Other; we had to claim ourselves as White Americans, although everything about our lives among the Anglo Texans (and our own Tejano communities) betrayed the colonialist-style trap set for us. Even in 1997, when the standards for collection of census data began to require specific designations regarding “Hispanic” identity,3 the rationale was couched within the problems created by discrimination, and “to ensure that they fairly and equitably serve the needs of the Hispanic population and to monitor compliance with antidiscrimination laws, regulations, and policies.”4 The problematics of a lack of fit with our actual identity narratives are endless.
PARADOXICAL BURDENS OF REMEMBERING AND NARRATIVE INJURY
The stories of migration can eventually become the stories of immigration. Adding the prefix “im,” we illustrate that we've come to live in a place permanently, no longer in the process of movement. Over time, identification with citizenship or residency becomes more salient. I argue that this is especially so if the narratives of (im)migration have not been shared, have been forgotten, minimized, or stigmatized. Sociocultural, coercive minimization or stigmatizing of (im)migration contributes to what I call the paradoxical burdens of remembering. Stories of successful migration, leading to stable, desirable immigration, become indexical reminders of one's connection to a status that has been singled out as not belonging, not welcome. Remembering one's past becomes a paradoxical burden on several levels: (1) Through departure and migration, one aspires to a status where migration is not necessary, replaced by a sense of permanency. Belonging becomes critical. (2) By leaving behind and letting go of one's past through migration, one's history and stories of survival and strength are perpetually narrative markers within a society that has chosen to scapegoat or otherwise harmfully discriminate against (im)migrants. We are here but not of here. (3) One is expected to have a narrative of successful and full citizenship or residency, at the cost of erasure of the narrative features that highlight the significance of attaining a successful immigration status. We must learn to exist through communicative practices of erasure. (4) Awareness of one's (im)migration history can provide a sense of connection, personal strength, and historical stability despite having endured hardships, and yet one learns to feel shame or fear about one's history within a discriminatory, often racist, society. Our memory of strength becomes encoded as a source of social shame.
All four of these conditions of paradox create a version of the injuries Hilde Lindemann Nelson describes as calling for repair.5 Nelson discusses personal identity not only as how we see ourselves, but also as how others see us, with the combination of these influences affecting the field of possible actions we can perform. When narratives of an individual or group frame them as “subnormal” and are shared socially, we become marked in a way that does not enable us to use our moral agency freely. In her work, Nelson uses the words narrative and stories interchangeably, but for my purposes here, I use the term narrative for the framing of events in narrative structure, whereas “stories” refers to the sequence of events being narrated. It is the narratives that create the sense of subnormality, and which inflict narrative injury, or “damaged identities.”
In 2007, I explored the idea of narrative injury as reflected by geography and published migration narratives in leading newspapers in the United States.6 I used GIS mapping of narrative analysis with the program Crawdad7 to analyze narratives collected from each trimester of the years 1994–2007 in Chicago, Washington, DC, Phoenix, Dallas, San Francisco, and Miami. Exploratory findings reflected that those cities with more contentious relationships with immigrants indeed published narratives that were more negative, potentially damaging. In the cities where hostile legal opposition to immigrants was rampant, the stories were couched within narratives of crime and socioeconomic threat. Where the legal opposition to migrants was not as rampant, the narration involved less “breaking news” and more lifestyle features. After September 11, 2001, the narration began to shift yet again. Newspaper narration clearly framed who was considered friend or foe, welcomed immigrant/resident or invader. The world around us narrates our sociopolitical reality, and these narratives can injure. Featuring real-life stories in local newspapers provides the basis for a public experience of the paradoxical nature of migration, rather than the cut and dry, black/white narration of the master narrative.
THE POSSIBILITY OF NARRATIVE REPAIR
Nelson identifies the damages resulting from narrative injury as the deprivation of social goods, as well as one's own self-respect.8 Her suggested response to these harmful narratives is to develop what she calls “counterstories,” with special attention addressed in these stories to the power dynamics in the master narratives that have a constricting effect on one's agency. More than simply an oppositional or resistant stance or willingness to state opposition to dominant, harmful narratives, such counternarratives involve willful and intentional narration of the stories about the targeted group.
Revisiting the bin in my closet full of memories that prevent me from discarding them, it is not enough for me to know that I want to be free of the burden of the memories. In fact, even throwing out the bin might not resolve the negative affect that surrounds the stories causing me angst. How I tell the stories, without altering the facts, and with attention to a narration consciously emphasizing specific aspects of the stories that have previously crippled my agency, is vital to creating powerful counterstories. Rather than simply, for example, providing statistics about the contributions of migrants to the local economy, a good counterstory provides narrated, situated stories of specific economic benefits in our lives because of migrant presence. This would counter the “migrants are here, hence our communities are poorer” master narrative. “Migrants in America work hard with us to build strong communities” could concurrently be a narrative to strengthen the counterstory, bolstered by stories of real people with recognizable faces in familiar places. We counter the specific narrative injury and make explicit the unspoken master narrative theme that, through silence, seeks to injure by exclusion.
It's more complex than simply telling stories that haven't been told, the common form of counterstorying promoted by proponents of critical race theory.9 I believe it is the affect resulting from narrative injury that compels those whose identities are damaged to long for an empowering narration of one's silenced stories. More than simply evoking and affirming, however, I propose that the key to the sort of narrative repair Nelson proposes is to specifically and willfully counterstory the ways that subjugating narration has limited agency within dominant structures. Otherwise, we become vulnerable to alternative versions of the master narrative to create pseudo-empowerment. We counterstory by highlighting the aspects of our stories that counter specific aspects of the stifling narration, refusing to erase the paradoxical nature of our stories. The flawed logical premises of a damaging narrative must be counterstoried. It doesn't require elegant or erudite theoretical critique or jargon; powerful stories rarely do. Simple, playful, yet pointed wordplay can be more powerful than elaborate rhetorical attacks. My grandmother used to say, “No soy mojada, cruzamos en lancha.” She understood it. My grandmother, simply and playfully said, “I'm not a wetback; we crossed on a raft.” Her small counterstory worked for her to defy the injurious and offensive use of the term mojada, or wetback, referring to the crossing of the Río Grande. The term is stupid. It was empowering for her to counter it, and all these years later, I have remembered her story. Good counterstories provide the basis for restoring an empowering oral tradition.
In more recent work, Nelson (as Lindemann) has taken on the phenomenon of those trying to “keep those people in their place.”10 She reminds us that master narratives “enter the tissue of stories that constitute the group's identity, damaging that identity and so constricting group members' access to the good on offer in their society”11 We must remember that those with agency to invoke master narratives with privilege have themselves been narrated into those places. I believe the missing piece in the resistance to destructive master narratives about migration is effective counterstories to the master narrative, repairing the fallacies of supremacy and bigotry that often exist within them. Because of the visceral and frequently material consequences of narrative injury from actions empowered by master narratives, there is often what I call narrative fatigue on the part of the injured. And yet, it is when we are the weakest and most fatigued that the public sphere summons our counternarration of the master narrative. We may repair our injured souls with counterstories about ourselves that need to be told, but the master narrative needs to be countered through the telling of stories that privilege has kept silent with faux decorum and passive-aggressive politeness. I believe I am protecting my family by maintaining their comfort with my silenced memories about the items in the bin I wish to discard. In the same way, when we refrain from counternarrating microaggressive statements in order to avoid upsetting social decorum, we maintain the narrative injury that propels forceful political and material damages on the subjugated and discriminated. Faux decorum and politeness are key seeds of social hegemony.
If we listen to the narratives of the Trump supporters since the 2016 presidential campaign, we see politeness is not part of the fiber of what motivates them. The expectation of politeness is a tool of colonialist discipline, and it is demanded from those who are afraid to reveal the hands of hegemonic power. When it comes to migration, those of us who find ourselves expressing alarm or dismay at current events must pay attention to the underlying narrative that is being spun and how it constricts the agency of migrants, while supporting the agency and field of action for those within the realm of privilege of the dominant narrative.
CHALLENGES FOR ACTIVE COUNTERNARRATION AND RESPONSE
My challenge is to determine what the greatest obstacles are to my regular participation in counternarration about (im)migration in the public sphere, not limiting my audience to the often-discordant academic choir. I do this by acknowledging the following.
The paradoxes of (im)migration can be paralyzing, much like the paradoxical injunctions in a double bind. We need to find a base of underlying assumptions about migration that are not part of the citizenship/residency master narrative. Rather than opting for a performative aesthetic of liminality, I believe we need a paraliminal frame that sees migration as the natural, historically established human response to need, and that our places of comfort and stability are never to be mistaken as more real than the transitory nature of our experience. The Buddhists, yogis, and nomadic tribes of indigenous peoples worldwide are more in touch with this reality than those of us who protest colonialism while benefiting from, and fighting for, its privileges. I call for a spiritual response that situates a perpetually becoming paraliminal nature of existence next to our other paradigms of thought. The popular use of Victor Turner's framing of liminality and communitas often emphasizes liminality, forgetting that Turner described specific community-supported rites of passage from one status to another.12 By calling for paraliminality, I am calling for the awareness of a constant overarching frame of transition, more like the Aztec notion of nepantla, which acknowledges a constant state of becoming.13 Migration is not an aberration, it is evidence of the paraliminality of life, and we are often separated from communitas, requiring a deeper existential sense of transition.
Narrative fatigue in our hyper-narrated mediated world is extreme, and we must revive the creative force vital to dynamic participation in the narrative arena, needing not our jargon and theory, but rather our ability to captivate and summon imagination in our audiences. I call for a rupture in the facade of decorum and politeness that keeps us disciplined and weary of behaving. Can we stop laughing at the comedians long enough to realize we laugh partly because we are uncomfortable with our lack of participation in a creative response and counternarrative? When we witness public creative narration and wordplay in response to master narratives, can we join in?
We exist in times of people so distanced from their own stories that there can be great fear in learning one's true histories and stories. We must use our skills as researchers to help people to discover counternarrations, seeking conversations and interactions that provide practice exploring the unfamiliar. While we might encourage the counterstories of those whose identities are damaged, as academics we are uniquely skilled to counterstory the pseudo-counterstories serving the master narrative, which seeks to keep us “in our place.”
It's not just theory anymore. We need an audible solidarity, heard beyond our academic halls. It's a call for survival, and the urgency is real. As much as we relish stability in one place, at some deep level, we know that the desperation in the faces and bodies of the migrants we hear and see around the world today is a reminder of the universality of virulent change and disruption of comfortable lives. The bin in my closet has been an unconscious reminder of my surrender to narrative injury. We have forgotten we are all migrants, attached as we are to our luxurious notions of stability. It's time we actively narrate migration stories. I cannot simply rest in my knowledge of the specifics of these stories, I must become actively engaged, willing to tell the stories. I must re-engage with the reality of my family to remember the specific stories of my migrant grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents, countering the Trump-era narrative injury of family members focusing on me as a “libtard.” I must share these stories not only with my journals, but publicly as well, the details of the migration realities that provided the foundation for who I am, and what family members have rejected. Resistance is not simply critiquing and rejecting; it is the active and repeated insistence that the stories we tell are the ones that empower and maintain narratives that strengthen, repair, and sustain the dignity and honor we as humans merit. This is where stability rests, not in places from which we never leave. The story of my injury is not empowering, albeit an important starting point. It's time we remember how to be storytellers who counter narrative injury with vivid accounts that counter those stories wounding all migrants. We must risk our political comfort by rejecting the silencing delusion that our laments and critiques on their own are empowering.