My blog titled Bridging Time between Home and the Mine: Parenting through Social Media in Northern Chile is now up on the London School of Economics Parenting for a Digital Future site
Many parents all over the world now use digital media to aid in parenting, but this is even more important when they are not physically present. Daniel Miller and Mirca Madianou explore this in their work on transnational families’ use of new media, but physical separation is not always a result of international migration. In northern Chile, for example, many fathers and the occasional mother are physically absent from their children due to work in the mining industry. The mines around 4–5 hours from the nearest cities, so workers stay at the mine for a full week’s shift, and can only interact with their families through social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and video apps such as Skype and Viber.
Please read the full blog on the London School of Economics Parenting for a Digital Future site
In a few weeks I’ll begin teaching a linguistic anthropology course called Borderland Languages, and Norma Mendoza-Denton’s book Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice among Latina Youth Gangs is on the syllabus. And as I read through the book, I keep thinking about my own Spanish-speaking history.
I first took a Spanish class in sixth grade, now 24 years ago, though Sesame Street had taught me basic greetings and to count much earlier. I took three years of Spanish in junior high, and another three in high school in my tiny Midwestern town. These six years of language courses were all with Señorita Wright, a woman of Greek heritage who had spent six months studying abroad in Mexico during her undergraduate days. Those days were long in the past though. We celebrated her 60th birthday my freshman year of high school and snarkily commented on reasons she might still use the address Señorita at such an age. I did not take any Spanish as an undergraduate, but a few years later, after deciding I’d like to do research in South America, I enrolled in one semester of a second year college course at The New School. Then took a month of classes at a language school in Lima, Peru one summer when I needed to escape my mundane job as office manager at a New York architectural firm.
Spanish class, 1998 (with the anthropologist in short hair and stripes and Señorita Wright standing in stripes)
When I began fieldwork in Bolivia I remember conversations being endlessly frustrating. I remember a young man telling me “tengo ganas de ti”—something I would have been quite flattered and pleased to hear, given the source—and didn’t understand what “winning” had to do with anything. That man, now one of my greatest compañeros de la vida, was also the interlocutor in my very first empassioned argument in Spanish. I remember feeling, despite my utter despair at the circumstances of that fight, a sense of accomplishment. Like I had finally proven that I could truly express myself. After finishing my dissertation, I enrolled for a two week private course at a Spanish school in La Paz. I hoped to improve my grammar in subjunctive tenses. I took the written test, then met with my instructor. We chatted about my dissertation, my plans to become a professor. We discussed her pregnancy and the different areas of the city she might move to with her boyfriend. At the end of the 20 minute introductory session she told me “I can’t believe you are the same person who took that test. You speak naturally. Your writing seems like an early student.”
Then I moved to Chile for my postdoctoral fellowship, and when I would occasionally escape from Iquique to La Paz for a holiday, and the language felt like home. I would amuse my Paceño friends by intentionally peppering my speech with Chilean slang or conjugations. “Oye, tanto tiempo, weon. Conchatumadre, como estai?” We’d laugh for hours. But eventually the staccato pace, dropped “S”s, and words like “bacan” infiltrated even my quotidian Spanish. When I’d visit La Paz, rather than laughing, they’d shake their heads as if I’d betrayed them a little with my language shift. I remember getting in a taxi at the El Alto airport, 6 months since my last visit, and being utterly taken aback by how slowly the driver spoke to me. I remember being both frustrated by the pace and utterly enchanted by it. And as my time in Chile ended, I began making a concerted effort to re-Bolivianize my language. I would deliberately speak more slowly. Only occasionally would a Bolivian friend call me out on my Chilean intonation. My moment of glory came when a Mexican man told me I speak like a chola. Yes, Bolivian street castellano—that’s what I had inadvertently cultivated, and it made me proud.
But my point here is not just to wax nostalgic on my formación en castellano. Rather it is to think about the relationship of borders, borderlands, border conflicts, and language.
Mendoza-Denton tells the story of meeting an adult gang member, affiliated with an organization that is considered more Americanized and English speaking than their rival. With a simple introduction of her name, rolling the “r” in Norma, she essentially alienated her interlocutor. I began thinking about the ways I employ Bolivian and Chilean accents, conjugation, and vocabulary. I do so strategically. And this has become an invaluable asset for me, particularly working on both sides of a contested border. Though my work does not specifically concern the border dispute (though of course it is almost always contextually relevant in my work), my status as foreign to both countries is incredibly helpful. I know fantastic Chilean anthropologists doing research in the borderland areas between their own country and Bolivia. But I have to admit that in most cases I’d rather have my own positionality than theirs in these endeavors. In Bolivia my friends unabashedly express distain for Chileans as the most egotistical South Americans, in part because “they think they can just rob us of the sea and that makes them great.” At the same time I’m privy to all manner of Chilean commentary on Bolivian relations, from asking me if it would be safe for them to visit La Paz—“they hate us there, right?”, to northerners' claims on the backwardness and criminality of all Bolivians—“they all just come here to use our resources, and so many steal cars or [engage in] other illegal activities.”
Borderlands are complex geospatial formations, but they can only be understood intersectionally, taking things like race, class, gender, modernity, cosmopolitanism, and the varying centre/periphery dynamics of the two (or more) “sides” of the border involved. And certainly language is central to all of these formations. Having the ability to shift one’s own language—thanks to flexible language accumulation—is a privilege even greater than my whiteness in this particular area.
I am not indigenous. I am a middle class child of parents of English, German, and Polish heritage. I’m third generation US by grandparent with the most recent arrival. I’m also a descendent of Mayflower passengers. For all intents and purposes I am white. I’ve been mistaken for being Brazilian on occasion, but that’s about as non-white as I get. And those mistaken moments were in South American nations in which Brazilian might be imagined as “more white” than the general population, so even considering those moments to indicate a level of non-white-appearing-ness, is doubtful.
I am not indigenous. At times I say I do research with indigenous people, but even that is only partially true. Mostly I study the meanings and significance of the concept of indigeneity. But I do know a fair number of people who consider themselves indigenous Americans, from Cherokee, Ojibwe, and Navajo to Aymara, Quechua, and Mapuche, and I value learning about their experiences. There is no doubt that I come from a world of privilege and they and their ancestors have been subject to extreme forms of structural and physical violence for centuries.
I say all this in order to make very clear that I do not know what it is like to be indigenous. But on this international day of the indigenous woman, I can’t help but think of the experiences I have had that help me access a small level of understanding of what it might be like for some indigenous women in the world today.
I grew up in a small town. It was the kind of place where your parents knew what kind of trouble you got into even before you got home from school in the afternoon. Inevitably, Mom or Dad knew someone who worked in the school, and news would travel fast, even before the days of social media. There are no traffic lights in town. There used to be one red blinking light at the biggest intersection, but when the state told the municipality they’d no longer pay for it’s upkeep we took it down. There’s no question you’ll run into someone you know, even walking to the post office or village hall. People can be insular in my small town. We don’t trust outsiders. We don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have at least 4 cousins (extended cousins count, of course) to vouch for them. It’s a conservative place. And sometimes we feel a little disenfranchised.
We are white and we are middle class. But politicians don’t seem to care whether we vote for them or not. We don’t get many state-sponsored works projects. Businesses don’t seem to think they’ll make much money in our town, though a Subway franchise and Dollar General store took a chance on us a few years ago, and they seem to be doing well.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve lived on the Navajo reservation. I’ve lived in an auto-constructed house in Alto Hospicio. We’ve still got it good. But I remember showing up to my first days of University classes at a prestigious private university, and feeling so embarrassed that I hadn’t taken any AP classes. I didn’t even know what AP stood for. And all this talk of 3s and 4s and 5s meant nothing to me. And GPAs that went beyond 4.0. It was all new. Suddenly, all the hard work I had done in my little public high school of 150 students seemed inadequate. I felt like I was out of my league.
But here is where my experience departs from that of many indigenous women who even make it to university classes. I didn’t look out of place (unlike Lara in Bolivia). My subtle Midwestern rural accent and idiolect were easy enough to shift (no more ‘may-sure’, I now say ‘meh-sure’, no more ‘pop,’ it’s ‘soda’ now). And I may have had a few bizarre customs like cow chip bingo, but these were easy to turn into a funny anecdote. My assimilation was quick and easy.
I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in life, and I’m proud of the town I came from. But I recognize the incongruence of my urban life with my rural upbringing. I never truly feel ‘in my place’. In London, I long to hear a midwestern drawl, all while being secretly happy that I can pull off a ‘sorry’ without alerting anyone to my country of origin. In New York, I feel at once at home and reviled by hipsters in Carhartts. In Santiago, I try to explain why they Chilean campo feels so oppressive but in the US being in the country makes me feel so free. I can only imagine the ways that indigenous women feel between two worlds in their own ways if and when they move to the city or pursue higher education.
So, today, on this international day of the indigenous woman, I salute all indigenous women. Those who work in their natal communities, and those who have left them to make themselves better in the world or make the world a better place. I cannot imagine the challenges they face, but my own experiences make it quite clear that their feats are not easy ones. I so admire the strength I see in native women fighting back against oppression in the forms of colonialism, patriarchy, environmental racism, and other struggles. Viva la mujer indígena!
I don’t recall exactly how it began, but I was “la gringa.” Somewhere during my first year in Iquique, Chile, my two best friends began calling me as such, and soon hearing my given name from them just sounded wrong. They were a gay couple, both trained in derechos (law). Guillermo worked for the national Consulario—the institution that oversees government finances, and Cristian for la Defensoria del Pueblo—something like a public defense organization. Cristian had lived in the United States during a few different stints, and both had plans to pursue graduate education abroad.
When I left Iquique after two years to relocate to Santiago, I was particularly sad about leaving them behind. Not only had they been dear friends, confidants, Chilean history lesson providers, and cooking instructors, but they had also opened their home to me several times when I either physically needed a place to stay, or was so emotionally wraught from fieldwork that I needed an escape. But within a few months, Guillermo, originally from Santiago, had secured a position in the central office of the Consulario, and Cristian was interviewing for jobs in the metropolitan region as well. By summer we were reunited.
And while I had been indeed the gringa in Iquique—even more-so in the marginal satellite city of Alto Hospicio where I had lived and done my research, suddenly in Santiago I easily passed as someone who “belonged.” Perhaps at first glance it was clear I was not Chilean, and certainly confirmed when I began to speak with my muddled accent, and overly forced slang. But there were so many of us foreigners around that I was finally breathing sighs of relief that I was unremarkable. Here, gringa made less sense, but the nickname persisted. While I had always taken it as a term of endearment, it was questioned more in Santiago. “Aren’t you offended?” my Colombian apartment-mate would ask. But slowly he began calling me “gringa” as well. As did my boss, who had also become something of a friend. I heard “oye, Gringa” dozens of times each day, and received social media messages and emails addressed as such in addition.
And then my time in Chile ended. Before taking that long flight back to Chicago, I went to visit Bolivia, the place of my Ph.D. fieldwork, and suddenly I went back to being Nelly, or “la doctora.” My friend Gustavo and I went from La Paz to visit Cochabamba for a weekend, and we met up with a large group of friends, most of whom I had known several years earlier in La Paz. But there were some newcomers, a group of young people from Santiago who were visiting as well. As we all paraded around a Cochabamba supermarket contemplating what to grill that Saturday afternoon, I heard a Chilean accented voice shout, “Oye, Gringa!” I instinctively looked up, only seconds later wondering how this man knew I would respond to that name. Is it just that Chileans all call people gringos? Am I so very obviously Estadounidense that calling me anything else doesn’t seem to be an option, at least to someone who does not remember my name? And as I looked around for the voice’s owner, contemplating these possibilities, I realized he was not speaking to me, but to the Argentine women who was traveling with them.
Over the course of the weekend I never learned the Argentine’s given name, because she was exclusively referred to as Gringa. She was tall and had half of her hair died blonde. The other half of her head was shaven to buzz cut. She had a deep laugh and bright colored Adidas high top shoes that complimented her day-glow t shirt. I could easily imagine her as the stereotypical Argentine traveler juggling small balls or doing gymnastics at a traffic light in another South American country. And the name that had for so long felt so singularly mine, suddenly felt cheapened. If any foreigner could be a gringa, just because her skin was light, maybe it wasn’t a term of endearment. I never questioned Guillermo and Cristian’s motives, but somehow that word no longer felt like home.
Mary Weismantel writes, “Foreigners—a category that includes Latin American visitors as well—are gringos, but they are members of the same race as local whites.” Gringa will always be special to me, even as I write about the politics of whiteness in places like Iquique, La Paz, and Santiago. But I also must remember, it is not just a name, but a positionality, and its meaning…like chola, indian, indigenous person, black, person of color, or any other racialized naming form…is always historically, contextually, and politically dependent.
this fieldnote was originally posted on The Geek Anthropologist
Social media is no longer the geek domain it once was, with the Americas and Europe approaching a fifty percent penetration rate, and an overall global penetration rate of over thirty percent. But as these platforms and apps become more widely used, they also become more specialized to certain kinds of use intended for certain kinds of audiences. And as audiences shift, new types of communities emerge through social media.
In field Alto Hospicio, a marginal city in northern Chile, some of the most interesting ethnographic details have to do with the ways young people use collaboratively managed Tumblr accounts to create a sense of a community through language play and humor, extending beyond the local area to a nationally imagined community. This identification with a national community is actually quite an anomaly, because in many senses the people of Alto Hospicio often distinguish themselves from people in other regions of the country, considering themselves to be more marginal and exploited than the average Chilean citizen. The city is located in a booming copper mining area, but most residents are low-level workers in the industry, and watch as the massive profits end up in the national capital of Santiago or abroad in Europe, North America, and Australia. In general, most citizens envision themselves as economically disadvantaged and politically (and geographically) marginalized. While marginality is often used as a category of analysis within the social sciences, generally to describe the conditions of people who struggle to gain societal and spatial access to resources and full participation in political life, in the case of Alto Hospicio, marginality is incorporated into the ways citizens view their own position in contrast to those people the see as more powerful in the center of the country. In actively distancing themselves from cities such as Santiago – both in daily life and through their online activity – residents of Alto Hospicio see their marginalized city as part of the way they perceive them- selves – not as victims, but as an exploited community that continues to fight for its rights. Yet they strongly identify as Chileans, citing their cultural affiliations rather than political power.
Please read the full blog on THE GEEK ANTHROPOLOGIST
this fieldnote has also been posted on the WHY WE POST blog at University College London
In Chile, “manjar” is a kind of sweet sauce, similar to dulce de leche or caramel. It’s often used as filling in layer cakes or atop pancakes. It is almost universally loved for its smooth rich flavour. But ‘manjar’ is also used in slang to mean ‘rich’ or ‘sweet’ in other contexts as well. One may refer to a delicious holiday meal as ‘un manjar’ or equally to their love interest.
I had heard these uses of the word in Chile, and also being a fan of the sweet sauce, it made sense that it stood in for something to be savored. Yet when I attended a concert by American rock band Faith No More in Santiago, I was bewildered by the crowd’s repeated chanting of ‘un manjar! un manjar!’. Sure, the music was good, something to be savoured in the moment, but the food metaphor just didn’t seem apt to me. And the fact that it was being chanted in unison by thousands rather than whispered with a wink as that especially attractive acquaintance passed by, puzzled me even more.
read the rest of this entry on the WHY WE POST blog
this fieldnote has also been posted on the WHY WE POST blog at University College London
Ebay, Etsy, Alibaba, and Taobao have changed the way many people around the world shop. Now, you can get virtually any product from anywhere, delivered right to your door. Tom McDonald has even observed companies that have sprung up to make this possible in rural China where even courier services does not deliver (also see his blog about business Facebook pages). But in northern Chile, people aren’t really all that concerned with getting interesting things from far off places. To them, ropa americana [American clothing, code for used goods] is the cheapest and least impressive form of dressing. If one is looking for style, the department stores in the larger cities will do just fine.
read the rest of this entry on the WHY WE POST blog
This post comes from the Global Social Media Impact Study Blog, originally published here.
At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but over the first several months in my fieldsite in northern Chile I began to realize that one of the reasons I never quite felt totally at home was that the aesthetics of the place never quite fit with my own sense of aesthetics. By aesthetics, I mean the effort and thought that people put into the way things look. In my fieldsite, a city of 100,000 inhabitants, I noticed this in public parks and municipal buildings, in both the inside and outside of homes, and in the way people dressed. It was not only an intellectual exercise, but a visceral feeling. If I wore the clothes that I was used to wearing, perhaps a dress or a fitted button down shirt, I felt as if everyone was staring at me because I was dressed with too much care. Perhaps they were right. There wasn’t really anywhere to go looking smart. The only bar in the city had cement floors, cinderblock walls, and heavy metal bands playing live every weekend.
Over time I thought more about the sense of aesthetics in Alto Hospicio, and realized that while I had considered it entirely utilitarian at first, there was something more particular about it. The aesthetic was very much a part of the accessibility and normativity that prevailed in the city. The predominant aesthetic was not nonexistent, nor did it always privilege form above function or the “choice of the necessary” as Bourdieu calls the working class aesthetic. While many people clearly could afford to redecorate their homes or buy expensive clothing from the department stores in the nearby port city, their aesthetic choices leaned toward an appearance that was not too assuming. They didn’t flaunt or show off in any way. It was an aesthetic that was presented as if it were not one, because aspiring to a particular aesthetic would be performing something; a certain kind of pretension. Yet the aesthetic relies on deliberate choices to not be pretentious or striking; to be modest; to be unassuming. This aesthetic then not only predominated in the material world, but also online. Unlike in Brazil, where young people would never post a selfie in front of an unfinished wall, this was precisely the type of place youth in northern Chile might pose. While in Brazil this would associate the person with backwardness that contradicts the type of upward mobility they hope to present, in northern Chile this type of backdrop would add a sense of authenticity to the person and their unassuming lifestyle.
So, in the end, what began as a visceral feeling of discomfort in the field site, actually led to a very important insight. As I told academic friends many times during my fieldwork, “This place is a great site for research, but not at all a great site for living.” Fortunately, even some of the “not at all great” parts of about living in northern Chile helped my research more than I realized at first.
For More on Aesthetics in Alto Hospicio
Absent Aesthetics in Alto Hospicio
Aesthetics and Digital Media in Alto Hospicio
Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Richard Nice, trans. New York: Routledge (1984), pp 41, 372, 376.
My book review of Aymara Indian Perspectives on Development in the Andes is now published at Anthropology Book Forum. Though to me, the book didn't have much relevance to Anthropology or Indigenous Studies (as I had hoped), and was based on interviews but not immersed ethnography, it was useful and important in a lot of other ways. Check out my review here.
I recently gave a talk in the department of anthropology at my home university Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile about normativity and aesthetics as they appear on social media in Alto Hospicio. The talk was in Spanish, but I of course organized my thoughts in English first, particularly since it was based in party by a chapter of my forthcoming book, Social Media in Northern Chile (with University College London Press). After the presentation I created some pdfs of the talk, complete with all the images that accompany it, which can now be found in English here and in español aquí.
Hace un mes, di una charla en la facultad de antropología en mi universidad Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile en el tema de normatividad y la estetica en las redes sociales de Alto Hospicio. Hice la charla en español, pero por supuesto organicé mis ideas primero en inglés porque la charla era basada en un capítulo de mi libro, se llama Social Media in Northern Chile, que aparecerá en 2016 con University College London Press. Después de la charla, creé pdfs de la información que presenté, con los imagines, ahora en este sitio, en español aquí y en English here.