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Title:Free trade refugees: from Chiapas to the prairie
Author(s):Silva, Maria Isabel
Director of Research:Denzin, Norman
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Denzin, Norman
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Treichler, Paula; Nerone, John; Valdivia, Angharad; Miraftaf, Faranak
Department / Program:Inst of Communications Rsch
Discipline:Communications and Media
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Ethnographic documentation
Abstract:This dissertation, comprising an experimental hybrid of a video documentary and this accompanying text, explores the central phenomenon of the experience of immigrant Mexicans to the Midwest and aims to inspire action rather than only to prompt reflection. Situated as part of the broader historical trends of Mexican immigrant migration to the United States in the post-NAFTA era, the video documentary in particular aims—in a way that text documentation cannot—to show the “autobiographical face” of Mexican immigration in this recent era; an autobiographical face that stands not as a “truth” that refutes prevailing untruths or stereotypes about Mexican immigrants but that stands, rather, in contrast to the “truth of the period.” Leps (1992), building on the work of Foucault, asserts that the truth of a period “corresponds not to the closest perception of a primary reality, but rather to the sets of information which, having been legitimized by institutions, organize the mode of being, the social arrangement, [and] the historic reality of people and product” (3). The truth of a period, then, exists not simply in terms of the prevailing framework(s) constructing what is taken for the truth during any given period, but also in the forces that manage, surveil, police, contend, and defend it. As such, the truth of a period constitutes a discourse, but one that is never simply neutrally or equally accessed and debated by all, but one rather that has markers of control and delimitation that determine not only what is accessed and discussed about a topic—what is permitted, what is not permitted, and what remains under contestation as permissible or not—but also how these topics are and may not be discussed, subject also to various contestations. For Mexican immigration in the post-NAFTA era, the truth of the period manifests in what and how the figure of the Mexican immigrant is and is not represented and discussed, along with sites of relative contestation around the propriety, veracity, accuracy, decency, utility, or desirability of framing those discussions and absences in different ways. At its simplest, or most widespread, this involves stereotypes of the figure of the Mexican immigrant (both positive and negative), variously deployed for different political, humanitarian, bigoted, or sympathetic ends; here, one must say the figure of the Mexican immigrant, since very often an actual Mexican immigrant is missing or not visualized in these representations: whether as the job-stealing parasite singlehandedly destroying the United States or as the hardworking immigrant who simply wants to make a life in a new home. While stereotypes are generally marked by this selectivity, a difference may be seen between negative and positive ones. Succinctly, negative selectivity tends to oversimplify, while positive selectivity tends to overcomplicate. Hence, negative stereotypes select a single trait, a single behavior, or often just a single individual to metonymically stand in for the whole person or a whole class of people. In this sense, the image of the Mexican immigrant as only a hardworking family man comprises a sort of negative stereotype as well, a dangerous or disingenuous idealization that may be just as compelling emotionally for a viewer as the demonized negative stereotypes about Mexican immigrants, but also equally monocular in its framing. Much work in feminism makes absolutely clear how negative and positive stereotypes intertwine problematically; the binary stereotypes of woman as an angel or a whore not only woefully miss in accuracy but also problematize and impact the actual lived lives of women. In the same say, these metonymic stereotypes of Mexican immigrants, whether demonizing or idealizing, similarly affect their lives and distort our understanding of them. Instead, the contrast offered by positive stereotypes is in their overcomplication, most of all in the ways that they try to frame or bracket out or excuse the kind of traits, behaviors, or individuals that negative stereotypes emphasize. A positive stereotype will attempt to argue, “Yes, he sold drugs, but …” or “Yes, that happened, but you have to understand …” Under the truth of our current period, this approach suffers because it accepts the framing of those traits, behaviors, or individuals as negative, albeit misunderstood. Most of all, it accepts a framework of analysis that looks at individual (not collective) traits, behaviors, or people. As such, it generally fails to overcome what Paley (2015) summarizes from moral attribution theory: moral attribution studies indicates that people ‘generally infer an immoral disposition from immoral behaviour regardless of the presence or absence of situational factors’ (Gawronski, 2004, p. 201). They make ‘dispositional inferences from situationally induced immoral behaviour, even when they agree that situational factors actually promote this kind of behaviour’ (p. 201). It is as if they say: ‘It doesn't matter if anyone does it under situational constraints; it is nevertheless immoral’ (p. 201). In view of this rhetorical failure by positive stereotypes—this attempt to acknowledge some trait, behavior, or individual that negative stereotypes strategically align with negative values under the current truth of the period—one could easily say it might have been better never to have raised the issue at all. And yet, this kind of “complexity” insists on its necessity in the name of an abstract “truth,” that one simply must acknowledge the “facts.” And yet, no amount of imagery, no amount of verbiage, will ever capture some whole truth, some complete veracity, the absolute factualness of anything. Every truth, as the Jains have insisted for centuries, is at most and necessarily always partial. As such, this will-to-complexity in the name of truth is not only every bit as selective as negative stereotyping, albeit it in a more multivariate way, but also remains wholly delimited and framed by the warrants of the truth of the period. The “autobiographical face” then stand in contrast to these stereotypical truths of the period, whether demonized, idealized, or complicated. While obviously also framed and selectively determined both literally (as video documentation and editing require) and figuratively (in terms of the themes, content, and analysis), this project as a pursuit of the autobiographical face nonetheless invites an awareness not only of the constructedness of a periodic truth but also of who generates and how such constructedness comes about, as well as maintained, and enforced. At the most basic level, the video documentary part of this study attempts to resist the mechanisms of the truth of the period, even as this is formally impossible; having determined and policed what shall constitute truth at all, to offer anything outside of that will seem either false or remain incomprehensible. Nonetheless, the video documentary aims to avoid both idealizing or demonizing stereotypes, while not falling prey to the conceit of more complicated stereotypes as “true”. It is expressly at this moment of collision—both in the public world of discourse and in the less widely public world of community—that the autobiographical face can, or begins to, emerge. For the documentarian, this manifests at times when both stories—the official and unofficial—are known, as at a moment when a participant’s statement, “I was working really hard to make ends meet” is informed by the knowledge that the “work” in this case is dealing drugs. In that collision of an official story—that emphasizes both the desire and the actuality of hard work (even dealing drugs) in order to make ends meet—with an unofficial and unacknowledged qualification on that story, the irreconcilability of those two stories seems to momentarily suspend them, from behind which the autobiographical face can emerge, as distinct from either of those stories. This same mechanism can play out in the public world of discourse for viewers, when experiencing the ideality of a positive, negative, or complicated stereotype about Mexican immigrants in representations or discussions in light of other knowledge (equally framed, equally selected) concerning the actually lived lives of Mexican immigrants in the post-NAFTA world. In that moment, where both the stereotype and one’s own knowledge become suspended, then the autobiographical face in the public world can emerge. Free Trade Refugees: from Chiapas to the Prairie affords this experience and is an underlying aspiration of this study: to provide that experience. If positive, negative, and complicated stereotypes, framed as they are by the truths of the period, also come with an equally delimited, policed, and enforced set of reactions or possible actions in light of those representations of Mexican immigrants in a post-NAFTA world, then to experience the autobiographical face offers at least the potential of an alternative to those already established actions, reactions, and sentiments. This, at least, is the experiment this dissertation aims to deploy and accomplish. It aims to replicate my own movement from sympathetic observation to activist intervention. It hopes to inspire people to ask, “So what can I do now?”
Issue Date:2016-12-05
Rights Information:Copyright 2016 Maria Silva
Date Available in IDEALS:2017-03-01
Date Deposited:2016-12

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