Economic Migration and Disenfranchised Processes, an Exorcism ExerciseOn April 18, 2022 by sarmientoverano
By: Lucia Sarmiento Verano
I have his mouth. And his nose. I did not inherit my mom’s and grandma’s tiny, perfectly shaped along racist and Eurocentric standards, almost Germanic, highly acclaimed noses. No. I have his nose and his big teethed smile. And when they see me use it, their eyes fill with sadness but their mouths keep smiling. They are always smiling, lest anyone can see that they have been crying.
Death has come to our family many times during the past few years. There were no long illnesses, every one of those deaths has been sudden and quick. No time to say goodbye. The family is torn. But a certain sense of what’s proper and normal, misplaced colonial social conventions and an eager although unconscious aspiration to whiteness have kept us from grieving as a community. We are islands in moments where we shouldn’t be. We hide our feelings and our need for support. I experience this as deeply damaging and isolating.
I recognise where this comes from. White middle-class ideas of propriety, a mistaken sense of dignity confused with strength and self-respect. Since my father’s untimely death, and because I’ve struggled to get any kind of support with my own grieving process, I’ve been reflecting more than ever on all the things that remain unsaid in our family. They’re not all related to death. But most are connected with grief in different ways. Also, shame. Bucket loads of shame.
I’ve been thinking more than ever about how life events paired with silence have shaped my relationships from a young age. I believe this is part of why no deep connection could be established between my father and me. Most of this I also relate to global realities of economic exploitation and migration. In a way, we see the material side of coloniality and the subjective, emotional side of it, mixed into this experience.
Today, more than four years after my father’s death, I write this post because I feel the need to name things. Things that have remained hidden for far too long. Therapy with someone aware of these issues has been incredibly helpful. But it has come too late on this occasion.
I feel the need to write this also because these things affect too many people, and there are far too few places to honestly engage with the losses, grief and shame that come from experiences of migration. They tend to be normalised and shut down. These attitudes and behaviours are intimately linked with a colonial culture of whiteness and aspirations to it. So today we shine a light onto what’s been hidden.
Untangling Western ideas of success
I’m sure we’re all familiar with capitalism and its toxic mindset by now. Work hard, accumulate wealth, hustle, ensure your own and your family’s financial security first and foremost in this dog-eat-dog world.
Ideas of success remain profoundly linked with material success and socioeconomic status. Sure, it is different depending on country, culture, social class and even family. But generally, we can recognise the big lines of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in our everyday lives. Work hard because it is virtuous and you’ll go to heaven. If nothing else you’ll make heaven for yourself on this earth by accumulating money.
Pride and self-worth come from ensuring your family’s access to food and shelter, from buying things and travelling. A certain sense of superiority even, often unexpressed openly but always reinforced by the rest of society.
Many of us find ourselves entangled in this vision of things, and needing to justify our own human needs for rest and respite. Fighting feelings of guilt and inadequacy at not being productive enough. More than that, poverty becomes a personal inadequacy.
Historically, ideas that connected poverty and belonging to a lower socioeconomic class with a lack of values, life hygiene and degeneracy were cemented during the industrial revolution and modernity. They served the rich and middle classes to justify the oppression of the masses by virtue of their moral superiority.
These ideas were further taken to the extreme in the past 50 years, in the movement towards late-stage capitalism, hyper-individualism and the breakdown of community life.
In fact, recent studies on British attitudes toward poverty show an increase in visions of a moralised sense of poverty over the last three decades. There is a rising trend for people to believe that those who live in need do so because of a lack of willpower, or laziness, accompanied by a corresponding decline in the belief that people live in need because of societal injustice (Clery, Lee, & Kunz, 2013; Valentine, 2014)
This allows for justification of decreasing support and the scapegoating of marginalised communities who become responsible for all of society’s problems.
It is important for us to understand the mentality we have internalised. However today I write about something a bit more specific.
We seldom consider the psychological weight of poverty (we, the ones who do not bear it daily I mean). Seen as moral failure, it is impossible not to let this get under our skin. Especially for people who are socially expected to be the ones shouldering the burdens, protecting and giving security to their community, as are the people socialised as men, in this sexist patriarchal culture.
Thus, there is shame in poverty or in what can be seen as a lack of professional success. This, especially for cis men. Since this is about economic migration, consider that in light of so many people’s situation of having no other choice but to leave their lands to live as immigrants, often unwelcome in another country.
Migration stories are often presented as success stories with pride, which they often are. This seems to contradict what I am trying to say but to me, both things are not mutually exclusive. There is something seldom, if ever expressed and explore, and that is the mixed feelings, and the negative part of finding ourselves in the position of economic migrants.
In addition, there is something else that is, in my experience, not acknowledged. That is the grief and the loss, not only of the migrants themselves who are losing place and community, but of the family left behind, notably the children. Let’s get on with my story then.
Normalised losses & disenfranchised grief
My father migrated when I was young to look for work in countries where it was available. He never had the opportunity to move back home even though he wished for it.
Recently, a memory that had been buried for years came back to me. I was a teenager in therapy as I underwent treatment for depression and anxiety. I had just gone back home from a month-long trip to visit my father, whom I only saw once every few years. He lived about 6000 miles away from me, and from the rest of his family. I was telling my therapist how I had cried at the airport. I felt sad for my dad. I was thinking about him staying all by himself, in a foreign country, with no family or friends around. He was also far from me, his only daughter, and he missed me.
After a pause my therapist asked: “Were you crying because he was left without a daughter, or because you were left without a dad?”
I had never considered this. I had to think about it. I then realised he was right. I was sad because I was without a dad. I cried for a few seconds and that was that. I quickly forgot about this moment as we went on to explore other issues.
In my subsequent 12 years of psychotherapy with different professionals I never explored this feeling in depth. I was stuck on the usual father-daughter issues, our conflicts, the things we never really understood about each other, the things we could not share and the sadness and anger that emerged around not feeling seen or heard by a parent.
Fast forward to 2018. My father suffered an accident, fell into a coma and died all in the space of 4 days. I was not contacted by the hospital until after his death and only to give my consent for organ donation. We did not live in the same country. I had a month to figure out and organise everything that needed to be done, including emptying his apartment and getting rid of all his belongings. It was brutal.
Naturally, my reflections on my relationship with my father changed during the grieving process. Today, I realise the significance of my first therapist’s words and of my tears at that time.
In reality, I had needed to grieve my father way before his death. The first time I lost him was when he had to leave the country to seek better luck elsewhere. I was 10 years old. Prior to that, we had a close relationship despite my parents’ divorce. He came to see me several times a week, every day after he lost his job. Helped me with homework, took me out for pizza, shared his passion for history, and we generally had a good laugh. He wanted to have a presence in my life.
But better times never came for him and he eventually had to leave the country. For the first few years and because of the precariousness of his situation abroad we could not speak often. A short phone call every few weeks had to suffice. Our relationship would never be the same as I finished growing up without him.
I never thought much about it and other than the passing comment of my therapist when I was a teenager, the impact of this was never explored in my 12 years of therapy. Interestingly, I’ve only stopped thinking of our separation as normal after his death, during the process of untangling the complexities of our relationship for my own emotional survival. Beforehand, I had never explored this part of our lives and thought of it as normal. Just another one of those things that happen to us, as to so many other people.
In fact, growing up in Peru gave me a skewed vision of this. Most, if not all families we know have close relatives who have migrated and live all around the world. Our economic reality makes it such a common occurrence that it is barely worth mentioning. Many people are in a similar situation and nobody is particularly suffering from it, or so we believe. It’s just another one of those things.
No attention is paid to the feelings one harbours around this other than the occasional “oh you must miss your dad”. Perhaps it’s too complex to engage with, too painful for others to have to think about their own feelings. Too uncomfortable to think of the inevitable realisation that there’s something deeply wrong if we have to live in a society where so many families are broken apart by economic hardship.
There is also a deep-seated belief that when hardship is a common occurrence, people don’t hurt as much. I recently found the following article as I was looking for information on the impact of parent migration on children. I naturally found it deeply disturbing. Especially the quote:
“We also find that the out-migration of family members appears less traumatic in countries where migration is more common, which also tend to be poorer, indicating that people in such contexts are used to coping with separation.”
I cannot help but feel insulted. Even in countries where migration is common, we feel longing like anybody else would. Perhaps the only difference lies in these feelings of loss and longing not allowed to be felt or expressed. Since it is such a common occurrence, they are normalised. Sometimes we may even feel guilt at wallowing in feelings that others also have to contend with. Everyone seems to be doing OK, so we should too.
The idea that communities where hardship because of violence or oppression is more common suffer less because “they get used to it” is deeply racist and oppressive in its own way. It allows us to pay less attention to the pain and suffering of the most marginalised and it reinforces their dehumanisation. This harmful belief is also deeply ingrained in our unconscious and reinforced daily in our society.
One must only think about the lack of reactions to wars in certain regions of the world where violence has been a repeated occurrence. Think of the apathy at seeing certain people’s poverty and hunger. The idea that “this is how is it” is present everywhere and they contribute to dehumanising even more the most marginalised communities.
Comparing it with the reactions we see to war and hardship in European countries is more than telling. I recently wrote about this dehumanising attitude in relation to recent events.
I urge you to reflect deeply about the events we tend to normalise and the experiences we do not pay attention to. This especially if we work in the mental health field.
I say this because none of what I am talking about here has even been picked up in therapy, nor was there an opening of the space to explore further. It has done me a disservice, and I suspect it is the same for many others, especially clients from the Global South.
Further reading around this (behind paywall I’m afraid):
Shame and economic migration
There’s something else around economic migration that I find is seldom mentioned. It is also often unreachable emotionally. It is shame.
I’ve already talked about the shame surrounding poverty and what is considered a “lack of success” in this capitalistic world, especially for people socialised as men. I will not repeat what I have said at the beginning.
I will instead, share another snippet of my story to illustrate what I am trying to say.
Truth is, my father was not always a documented immigrant, not in the first few years of his journey. Something, as well, seldom mentioned by anyone. I am aware of a sense of being disrespectful to him by writing this, and part of our family would be absolutely horrified to see me publish this online. However, I believe that to be precisely the problem. I am not being disrespectful to him or to his memory. I am actually giving his experience the respect that it deserves and that it did not get, simply by naming it without shame or discomfort.
Shame, as it turns out, thrives in silence and hiding. It does not like openness and honesty.
As I explore my relationship with him, I sometimes think about this. The very few times he mentioned the terrible working and living conditions he endured. His awareness of having been able to escape that, as others could not, helped him be grateful in a less than ideal situation.
“It’s not a good situation” he once said about undocumented working conditions and living with a dozen other people in tiny apartments. And that was that. How did he feel? I don’t know, but the silence surrounding those few years of his life gives me a clue. Not just for him, but for all of our family.
There are some things that shape a person’s migration experience and subsequently their image of themselves. Those are the circumstances surrounding their migration story, the reasons behind having to leave, how it happened and new life circumstances in the host country. Adaptations to survive it and to keep a positive self-image are natural. Sometimes as a healthy process of restructuring our sense of self and making meaning, sometimes at the expense of oneself or others, for example by displacement of anger or shame.
My father struggled with being away from home, with employment issues and a life-limiting chronic illness. However, after those first few years of migration, once he moved to a country where he was documented, he never ceased to express gratitude.
There’s something deeply dehumanising about not having a legal existence in the place in which we live. Not existing, not being a person, not being wanted, not having access nor being entitled to the most basic services and care. Such is the plight of undocumented migrants and it may have an impact on a person’s sense of self even after a change in their situation.
There can also be something deeply demoralising about having to justify our presence somewhere, and our right to exist, by applying for visas and other papers with all the hurdles that may bring.
Finally, we might be treated in many dehumanising ways in our host country as an immigrant from the Global South. This might compound with forms of internalised racism, cultural racism and cultural shame.
Coming back to my example, what makes me think about shame is actually the amount of silence that often surrounds these things. Nobody ever told me explicitly “your father was an undocumented immigrant”. Those words were never uttered by anyone, not even him when mentioning in passing comments those years of his life. I had to join the dots.
The same kind of silence surrounded some of our experiences together. The one I remember the most takes place after he moved to France and during one of my visits. We were sitting in the metro having a conversation in Spanish. A French man passed next to us, looked at us and mumbled “fucking foreigners” before leaving the train. Not a word was ever uttered about the experience we had shared. Only a sight from my dad, and a two seconds silence before he continued with our conversation marked it. It made me wonder how many times he experienced something similar but I was afraid to ask him. Since then, I wondered how many experiences and feelings surrounding his migration did he keep inside, well hidden. The discomfort of shame makes us bury our thoughts, our feelings and our questions deeply.
The same goes for me. Believe it or not, I have never shared these realities with anyone in my life. Not one soul. They remained buried and out of reach, even to me. They are now out in the open. And I am choosing to publish this for two reasons.
The first is because these were our truths, his and mine. They deserve recognition and respect. I started realising the amount of shame carried around in relation to this and I’m using this as a way of dispelling it. In other words, this is a way to exorcise the shame that has been injected into me through socialisation. I am done carrying shame in relation to my father’s story, he does not deserve it.
The second is because this reality is not limited to our experience. I am thinking of all the people, especially from the Global South, who may bury grief and shame around their experience of migration or their family members’ migration. The losses that go unrecognised, the normalisation of pain brought about by global injustice and colonial & economic exploitation. Nobody is “used” to this pain, nobody is “more resilient” to it. Some people are just more in need to survive than others, so they have to go on despite the pain.
I am now done with my exorcism. This was unusually personal for me, but I do hope it brings about useful reflections for you too. Next time you are trying to support a person that has had to migrate, or whose family member has had to migrate, consider all the elements we do not talk about. All the things that might be missing.
If we want to make our therapy spaces a safe place for all, we cannot let them be closed to certain experiences either by unconscious barriers, by silence or inattentiveness. Our client’s full experience deserves the same space in the therapy room.
The injustice of certain realities also deserves to be named. I cannot help but feel rage that so many families are being torn apart by a global system of colonialism and exploitation. I envy European families, which I often see living close to each other, all different generations enjoying time and togetherness while being allowed economic safety and prosperity.
Call these ugly feelings, I do not care. They come from pain and grief, things I have only allowed myself to acknowledge and feel recently. I am only human. And I wish for a world in which economic migration will not break families apart anymore.
In loving memory of Juan Carlos Sarmiento Olivari
Clery, E., Lee, L., & Kunz, S. (2013). Public attitudes to poverty and welfare, 1983–2011: Analysis using British attitudes data. London, UK: NatCen Social Research. Available here.
Valentine, G. (2014). Inequality and class prejudice in an age of austerity. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute. Retrieved from here.
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