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Michael Ugarte on Immigration and Global Cultures

Interviewed by Anastacia Schulhoff, edited and narrated by Clarence Lo

Ugarte: There is conventional wisdom that immigration has an economic dimension, and that is the point of departure. Immigrants aren’t usually thought of as having lives; they are just thought of as numbers. The immigrant is seen as just trying to get a decent job, so they’re faceless. In fact, immigrants have many reasons for leaving, not only economic. Some are exiled from their home nation, and through the media we learn something of their lives—the terrible things that happened to their families. Some faced persecution and torture. Exile is usually political. In my book Africans in Europe: The Culture of Exile and Emigration from Equatorial Guinea to Spain (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2010), I saw that for many newcomers, exile and immigration usually go hand in hand. So, I ask “Who are these people?” and it is what I think people in the receiving country should ask—who are they, not just how are they messing everything up here?

Lo: The literature that Ugate translates and analyzes dramatizes the hardships of the diverse groups of migrants from Africa to Spain, their longings and their senses of self though the hardships. Do the migrants from different regions and different cultures within Africa imagine themselves as being from a common continent? How do they imagine the continent of their origins?

Ugarte: My impression when I go to conferences and hear Africans talking, when they use the word “Africa” they use it in a particular sense. They have in mind the mother. They have in mind the center of what we all are. You know, here I am, and there is South Africa or Zimbabwe; all have different sensibilities and languages, however, the entire African continent was screwed over by Europe in major ways, and we have that in common. I see this thinking a little bit in Latin America, but when Africans use the word Africa they use it as the mother, the whole, the center, “going back to the mother.” There is a novel, Ekomo, written by an Equitorial Guinean woman where the mother is really the center. All the mothers are weeping and crying for what is going on in our land, so maybe that is more of a feminine voice. When I hear of Africa, I really do hear the “African Mother” being the center, and this is the origin and this is the womb from which we were coming. There is this consciousness of the woman behind them, the mother behind them. Immigrants from the old continent in their new land settle together, drawing on their common cultures. Scholars have studied these ethnic communities in the context of a globalizing, yet crisis-prone, economy.

Lo: In the U.S. there is the social phenomenon of the ethnic enclave, and some scholars ask whether ethnic enclaves are a good thing? For example, because of social networks in these areas, supposedly immigrants assimilate into the U.S. Do you see this in Spain?

Ugarte: There is a difference between the U.S. and Spain with their immigrant populations. The U.S. has been, and is, a country of immigrants. So the pattern is, even though there is xenophobia here, there is that pattern you just described—through hard work you can then become an American. Europe does not have that sensibility. They are more deeply rooted in their identities that go back to the Middle Ages, and France is a perfect example of this. Algerians and Northern Africans living there for generations—they are still not French. There are these deep narratives, like the immigrant will not look you in the eye. And they are not treated as French, because in order to do that these French people have to respect who they are and what their traditions are. A perfect example is prohibition of the hijab in the French schools—the French are very adamant about that. You are part of a secular republic now, we don’t do religious practices in school, so leave that stuff or anything that smacks of religion. This would never happen in the U.S. You know the high school that has a huge Arab population they will say, “She is a Muslim... he is a Jew... and this is who they are.” In Europe it is a lot harder to keep that old identity and then consider yourself a real citizen of the new country.