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Volume 52 Number 3 Summer 2019
Edited by Erin Godly-Reynolds, University of North Carolina Charlotte
Written by Ana Genkova, University of Illinois at Chicago
The leading framework for understanding Mexican immigrant health and wellbeing has been the contentious “health paradox,” the idea that culture has protective qualities. Cultural explanations for immigrant health patterns, however, may shift attention away from socio-historical contexts and issues of race and power (Viruell-Fuentes, 2012). Therefore, community psychologists have called for a critical lens through which to interrogate political and social construction of culture (Reyes Cruz & Sonn, 2011). In my dissertation research, I adopted such lends to theorize the relationship between culture, community context, and health in a Mexican immigrant neighborhood in Chicago. Widely known as Little Village, this community’s sociopolitical history presented a unique opportunity to build upon research on community resilience in a Mexican immigrant context.
This study emerged from a collaborative, community-driven health assessment in response to our community partners’ suggestion to include stories that contextualize health-related data (Hernandez, Genkova, Castañeda, Alexander, & Hebert-Beirne, 2017). To record the stories, we enlisted the help of StoryCorps, Inc, a not-for-profit organization that had the technical capacity to support the project. One of our partners recruited activists and leaders working on a range of issues in the neighborhood to tell their stories. I engaged in an interpretative analysis of these records.
Certain images, metaphors, and even omissions in the stories hinted at oppression narratives that paralleled those of cultural groups who define themselves as survivors of colonial violence. Mexican residents in this Chicago neighborhood had to navigate power hierarchies within a broader colonial history. This is often the case for non-white, non-European migrants who undergo racialization as well as acculturation (Bhatia & Ram, 2001; 2009). Therefore, I used a decolonial lens to explore how Little Village residents countered oppressive narratives and realities.
Consistent with interpretative traditions, I reflected on my own positionality throughout the study. I emigrated from Bulgaria in my adolescence. Slowly over time I became aware of the part of this country’s history, which qualifies my own identity and experience as White. The lack of such historical angle in the highest levels of high school courses intrigued me all the more. As an immigrant and a White woman with split cultural sensibilities, I strive towards a mindset of humility in my exploration of race, ethnicity, and culture. I had developed relationships with people and organizations from the community over the two years that I spent as a research partner and volunteer. I share many immigration-related experiences with Little Village community members (i.e. stress, discrimination, acculturative pressures, familial relationship), but I also know that my own racialization has shaped these experiences differently. I also had a personal investment in this research as the mother of White-passing, mixed-race Bulgarian American whose Mexican great-grandparents settled in Chicago in the 1950s. These are some of the layers of complexity from which I have approached the study.
To interpret the stories, I attended to personal and collective frames of meaning (Wexler, DiFluvio, & Burke, 2009). When people narrate their life stories, they construct meanings that inform their ideas of justice, control, and coherence. Stories of personal and collective struggles allow people to situate their adversity in a broader narrative and re-emerge with a newfound sense of purpose (Rappaport, 1995; 2000). Therefore, a meaning-making framework became useful for understanding hardship and resilience in this Mexican immigrant community with a history of struggle for resources and basic rights. The study addressed two questions: 1) How do community residents understand and experience hardship? and 2) How do these understandings and experiences orient their responses to hardship?
With respect to the nature of hardship in the Little Village, conditions and narratives pre and post immigration destabilized the community. The stories corroborated previously documented immigration struggles against financial insecurity, family separation, and trauma while adding specific narratives of hardship in the local context. Residents understood the shock of immigration and the life of insecurity in the United States as sequential and cumulative experiences that destabilized individuals, families, and the community as a whole. Destabilizing conditions and narratives included uprootedness, contested “legality” and discriminatory policies. These conditions and narratives disrupted immigrants’ economic stability by limiting their opportunities for work and education. Instability afflicted children of immigrants in ways that resembled historical trauma (Mohatt, Thompson, Thai, & Tebes, 2014). Historical trauma persists through the generations in the form of narrative representations, or stories and collective memories that give meanings to past events. These stories are not only orally transmitted—they exist in public spaces, symbols, policies, and day-to-day interactions. Little Village was steeped in narratives of struggles, sacrifices and loss as a result of immigration motivated by poverty or violence. In addition, narratives of deportation, exploitation, and political marginalization shaped the individual and collective frames from which children of immigrants drew meanings about their identities.
With respect to responses to hardship, the community acted as a re-stabilizing space. Characteristics of the Little Village neighborhood countered instability and promoted family values and community cohesion. The organizational networks and sense of community in Little Village helped residents rebuild relationships and create a collective narrative to affirm Mexicans’ national and local belonging. The culturally affirming space acted in response to the uprootedness many immigrants felt. Literally and symbolically, the community was a grounding space for immigrant families. Homeownership was a path to economic stability and way to grow roots in this country. In the context of family separation, homeownership and cohabiting helped immigrants cultivate family values despite economic and political conditions that eroded them. Furthermore, the neighborhood represented a generations-long struggle for physical space and sociopolitical identity of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the city of Chicago. In Little Village, Mexican immigrants and their descendants could assert and co-create their identity, express cultural pride and challenge stereotypes.
Community leaders’ transformative vision reflected a collective, intergenerational philosophy of change rooted in the history of Mexicans in Chicago. The stories spoke of the collective goal of raising future generation of Mexican American youth as full rights members of American society. This meant securing economic mobility while maintaining cultural continuity. Storytellers considered quality education as a vehicle for economic mobility. Because of that, they perceived the lack of opportunities for youth as one of the most daunting threats to community wellbeing. Parents also recognized the importance of raising children who were aware and respectful of the significance of their immigrant, Mexican heritage. By identifying with their roots, youth could connect their sense of self with their parents’ immigrant legacies. Mother-activists played an instrumental role in carrying out this transformative vision.
In sum, the study describes the symbolical and pragmatic value of Little Village for Mexican residents in Chicago. In a city where racial and spatial struggles overlap, the Little Village community stands as a symbol for Mexican immigrants’ local identity and plight. The findings reflect the racial and sociopolitical positionality of Mexicans in Chicago. Insights from this study have the potential to contextualize the link between culture and health in the community and perhaps serve as a heuristic for other contexts. This study theorizes culture and health from a decolonial lens, which can guide as future research in community psychology. The insights from this study add complexity to acculturation and health paradox literature.
I am grateful for the support from the SCRA Student Research Grant in carrying this dissertation research. Receiving the National Student Representative (NSR) grant enabled me to bring my results back to the community for member-checking sessions and to obtain other resources along the way. Member-checking provided an opportunity for feedback and helped sustain the spirit of collaboration and mutual learning that guides the larger project from which my study emerged (Hebert-Beirne at al., 2017).
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