From Cuenca to Queens

[ Latin American Studies ]

From Cuenca to Queens

An Anthropological Story of Transnational Migration

By Ann Miles

This anthropological story of an Ecuadoran man's migration and its effects on his life and the lives of his parents and siblings adds a crucial human dimension to statistics about immigration and the macro impact of transnational migration on the global economy.



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6 x 9 | 247 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70171-7

Transnational migration is a controversial and much-discussed issue in both the popular media and the social sciences, but at its heart migration is about individual people making the difficult choice to leave their families and communities in hopes of achieving greater economic prosperity. Vicente Quitasaca is one of these people. In 1995 he left his home in the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca to live and work in New York City. This anthropological story of Vicente's migration and its effects on his life and the lives of his parents and siblings adds a crucial human dimension to statistics about immigration and the macro impact of transnational migration on the global economy.

Anthropologist Ann Miles has known the Quitasacas since 1989. Her long acquaintance with the family allows her to delve deeply into the factors that eventually impelled the oldest son to make the difficult and dangerous journey to the United States as an undocumented migrant. Focusing on each family member in turn, Miles explores their varying perceptions of social inequality and racism in Ecuador and their reactions to Vicente's migration. As family members speak about Vicente's new, hard-to-imagine life in America, they reveal how transnational migration becomes a symbol of failure, hope, resignation, and promise for poor people in struggling economies. Miles frames this fascinating family biography with an analysis of the historical and structural conditions that encourage transnational migration, so that the Quitasacas' story becomes a vivid firsthand illustration of this growing global phenomenon.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Time Line of Important Events
  • 1. From Cuenca to Queens: Transnational Lives
  • 2. Transnational Migration: Economies and Identities
  • 3. Family Matters
  • 4. Rosa
  • 5. Lucho
  • 6. The Children
  • 7. Vicente
  • 8. Lives and Stories
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

It had been a beautiful summer day in New York, so we decided to take one last picture outside in the sunshine. The photo was surely going to be sent to the family in Ecuador, so Vicente suggested that we pose in front of his new car. In the photograph Vicente is leaning against his car, looking relaxed and casual. He is wearing the Western Michigan University polo shirt that I had just brought him and a pair of baggy blue jeans. His lips show just a glimmer of a smile, but his eyes are completely obscured by his mirrored sunglasses. Nothing is revealed in the reflected glass—nothing at all. He has let the Ecuadorian flag in his hands slip down so that it is there to be noticed but is not central to the photograph. Even though it was Vicente's idea to hold the flag, its presence now looks like an afterthought. On the other side of me, with the irreverence that no Ecuadorian child can show, my daughter, Isabel, squints at the camera, sticking her tongue out.

When I looked at that photograph a month later back in Michigan, I imagined just what the family in Ecuador would notice and say about it: they'll mention, I thought, that Vicente is heavier but looks healthy and well. His siblings will all admire his sunglasses. Everyone will notice how nice his car is, and they'll comment on how big all the cars on that Brooklyn street are. They'll be surprised at the lush greenery of the park across the street—that's not part of their image of New York or of their experiences in Andean Ecuador. They'll probably call my Isabel a majadera—a smart aleck. Her pose in that picture surely confirms their impressions from last summer's visit that she is a little whipper-snapper. Someone—maybe Alexandra, the eldest daughter—will mention that she has never seen me wearing shorts before. No doubt the picture will be examined closely for several days and then finally placed in an important spot somewhere in the family's living room.

This book, much like that photograph, is about the construction of images, impressions, imaginings, and stories of transnational migration as it is experienced and understood by one Ecuadorian family. Vicente, the eldest son in this family, migrated to the United States in 1995 to look for work, leaving behind a country stagnating under the weight of political and economic turmoil and an unsure and saddened family. Among other concerns, they mourn Vicente's absence almost as they would a death, worry about him because he is undocumented in a foreign land, and wonder if he has changed in some deeply undesirable way. Even though his migration is a very singular and noteworthy event in that family's history, however, individual family members do not understand it in exactly the same way. While they all miss Vicente and are affected by his emigration, their personal experiences vary considerably. This book attempts to capture these different points of view.

I have known the Quitasaca family for about twelve years, and I first met Vicente when he was a boy of fourteen. Although I knew back then that he was interested in all things North American, I could not predict where this interest would take him or his family. Over the years immigration to the United States from Ecuador has become increasingly common; but because of the distances that it entails and the expense and danger of the journey, it is never taken lightly. Ecuadorians do not move back and forth across the U.S. border in the same way that Mexicans often do. Once an Ecuadorian arrives in the United States, it frequently takes years to summon the courage and save the money to make a visit back to Ecuador. Many come to the United States andando por la pampa (literally, walking across the plains), which means taking an airplane as far as Panama and seeking overland transportation from there, usually with the help of coyotes (guides). It takes plenty of motivation to take that arduous, months-long journey more than once. Transnational migration to the United States from Ecuador often means, as it has for the Quitasacas, years of separation.

I explore here the global and local issues that provoke emigration from Ecuador and one family's ambivalent feelings toward the circumstances that make emigration appear to be the most sensible option. In the 1980s, the Quitasacas moved from a rural town to Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador, for economic advancement; yet they never seem to get ahead. Sometimes it seems to them that transnational migration is the only choice. Moreover, loss of their favored son and brother under these circumstances has set in motion a series of shifts in family relationships and brought to the fore emotions that have provoked them to think about their lives in new and sometimes troubling ways. The emotional responses to transnational migration move freely and fluidly between feelings of desire, fear, anger, sadness, elation, loss, regret, and resignation. Often what the family members imagine for Vicente is far better or far worse than the reality of his life; yet these visions are often most prominent in their thoughts and therefore become the basis for actions and responses.

Most migrants, like Vicente, leave for reasons that are both individual and familial. Vicente always wanted to live in the United States, in part because it signaled a shift in social identity and status that he so badly sought. U.S. migrants have money and cosmopolitan experiences that make them people of substance—at least among their peers. The United States is associated with modernity and money, powerful currencies in a country like Ecuador, where "tradition" has long been a means for perpetuating largely uncontested social and economic differentiation. When people are relegated to the margins of society, as Vicente and his family are, the seemingly endless opportunities for employment in the United States are very alluring. Vicente left to improve not only his own prospects but also those of his family. As the eldest son, he felt a responsibility to help his siblings finish school, to ease his parents' worries about their old age, and to save enough to start a business so that sometime in the future he could support a wife and children. Yet Vicente's conflicting roles as an individual seeking his fortune and as a responsible member of the family are a source of constant tension for all. His family worries that Vicente has fundamentally changed because of the unbridled consumerism and lax morality of the United States. Perhaps, as in the case of so many others, his character has been temporarily or even permanently "ruined" by so much exposure to North American ways. Perhaps, they think, he has forgotten his family.

Another transnational narrative is embedded in this book, however: the story of an anthropological relationship and the unfolding ethnographic process. The core chapters of this book are named for different individuals in the Quitasaca family, and each chapter highlights one person's story of Vicente's transnational experience. But this is also my story of how I came to know the members of the family and how I interpreted what I heard, saw, and experienced with them over twelve years. It is a narrative of multiple journeys across both physical and conceptual space. As an anthropologist and as a person, I grew during this period, and so did they. Most obviously, Vicente and Alexandra (the eldest daughter in the family) matured from children to young adults during this time. But, more subtly, we all are a little different because of the experience that life has brought us, which includes knowing one another. In the end we are more comfortable and sure of our connection to one another, but we also understand the limitations of that connection more fully.

Anthropological interpretations evolve through time; in an effort to open up this process to the reader, each of the core chapters is organized chronologically. Every chapter begins with a description of the individual and events taken from my field notes and diaries from my first stay in Ecuador in 1988-1989 through my return visits in 1993, 1995, 1997, and 1999. Most of my visits with the family were extremely informal; while I occasionally had some specific questions I wanted to explore with them, more often than not my "fieldwork" with them consisted of hanging out and chatting about whatever came up. Contrary to the Quitasacas' suggestion, I have used pseudonyms for many of the individuals described here.

One of my goals in the fieldwork sections is to highlight the process of ethnographic data collection and to demonstrate how small and seemingly insignificant comments, everyday activities, and casual observations often form the foundation for cultural analysis. I have edited these notes and added to them to make them readable, but I have not altered their substance in any significant way. These notes reveal how time and life experiences affect the individual, the family, and family dynamics; how issues emerge and then sometimes fade in the family's consciousness; and how I, as an occasional participant-observer in their lives, describe what I learn. They tell how the larger conditions of social and economic change affect the family, especially as the children mature and consumer goods become more and more desirable if not accessible. As I read my notes, I found that a certain process was unfolding within the notebooks themselves, as descriptions slowly gave way to analysis. I came to understand the meanings of transnational migration only by thinking through ideas about family and gender roles, child rearing and socialization, and social inequalities.

My relationship with each of the family members has been a bit different, which certainly affects what I learned about them. The chapter on Rosa, Vicente's mother, is by far the longest and most detailed, because she is the family member with whom I have spent the most time and have the closest relationship. Her chapter clearly reveals the challenges, joys, and ambivalence of anthropological relationships. While Rosa and I have been good friends almost from the first, my relationship with her husband, Lucho, has changed considerably over time. When we first met, he joked continually with me—mostly, I imagined, out of sheer discomfort. There is little precedent in his world for male/female friendships; while I was his wife's "friend," I was unlike any of her other female companions. He had little experience in dealing with someone of my ambiguous social status—single, female, and foreign. As time passed and I became godmother first to Alexandra (their eldest daughter) then years later to Billy (their youngest child), Lucho began to treat me with considerably more respect, honesty, and even real affection.

While the first part of each chapter presents the family member through my eyes as I came to understand him or her over the years, these chapters end with the family members speaking directly about Vicente's migration and their own lives. These sections show how each individual responds to his migration and, more centrally, how it becomes a lens through which larger social processes are brought into focus. Alexandra, for example, is now the eldest child at home; but as a girl she will never have a position in the family equal to Vicente's. Her narrative not only reveals her feelings about her brother's absence but teaches us about the ways in which gender roles and expectations have made her life distinctly different from her brother's. Vicente's migration has made Beto (his sixteen-year-old brother) think about his own sense of identity. Reflecting on his understanding of what it means to be Ecuadorian with me brought forth tears of anger at the racism he faces in school and even at home. When he says, "I am a moreno [dark-skinned person] with an Indian name," it is both an embittered explanation of his life circumstances and a powerful cry of resistance against a social system that generally excludes him.

The Quitasacas live in a country that has faced a series of crises in the past decade, leaving the nation politically unstable and economically crippled. Over the years I have watched the buying power of families diminish to the point where, in 1999, the economy was so depressed that families were making difficult choices over what they could eat and still afford to send their kids to school. Strikes and protests rocked the country that year, as the government suspended or reduced subsidies for rice, gasoline, and even health care. The Quitasacas also live in a city where access to basic opportunities is closely linked to family name and inherited connections. Their rural heritage and "Indian" name place them near the bottom of the social hierarchy, and there is very little there from which to make a living. Yet, while a certain easily understandable hopelessness pervaded many of their conversations with me, the family (especially the younger generation) also expressed a remarkable degree of resiliency. Both Alexandra and Beto offer stinging critiques of the social, political, and economic conditions facing them; but they also discuss the importance of having personal goals and working to achieve something meaningful in their lives. Their parents, calloused by a lifetime of dashed expectations, are somewhat less optimistic.

My Anthropological Story

Most significant journeys—whether physical or intellectual—stretch across space and time and weave them together in unique and interesting ways. While writing a multisited ethnography obviously involves moving through physical space, what may be less obvious are the intellectual influences that subtly affect what an ethnographer "sees" and how it is interpreted. One of the intellectual influences on this work comes from an anthropologist, Oscar Lewis, who wrote primarily in the 1950s and 1960s. His most renowned work is The Children of Sánchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family. This poignant family study was one of the first anthropological works to explore the notion that culture is experienced differently by different individuals in the same family. The Children of Sánchez is rich in ethnographic detail and shows us, with little intrusion by the anthropologist, how different members of a family understand, interpret, and enact their culture. Lewis believed that family studies offer rich terrain for anthropological inquiry, because it is through families living the realities of everyday life that larger cultural forms are revealed (Lewis 1959:3). His studies, especially Children of Sánchez, were very well received at the time of their publication; the book was even made into a major motion picture starring Anthony Quinn (Melhuus 1997).

While Lewis's work on family life history was generally praised in anthropology, he was also subject to much criticism within academia for his ideas concerning "the culture of poverty" (see Leeds 1971; Melhuus 1997). In Children of Sánchez Lewis argued that the poor in fact do have culture (something that was not taken as a given at the time) and that the culture of poverty is rational, persistent, and passed down from generation to generation (Lewis 1961:xxiv). The culture of poverty could be recognized by patterns such as higher death rates, low participation in national institutions (for example, labor unions and political parties), low educational levels, and higher rates of alcoholism and wife beating. Lewis saw all of these traits as "attempts at local solutions for problems not met by existing institutions" or, in other words, a cultural adaptation to poverty that furthers survival (Lewis 1961:xxvvi). He was very careful in defining the culture of poverty as existing within modern states, not "primitive" societies, because it is in states that gross and obvious inequalities of wealth are present (Lewis 1961). These theories were ultimately adopted by policymakers who interpreted the "culture" of the poor as something that was largely deviant and had to be eradicated in order to make economic progress (a position not really taken by Lewis himself).

Those who criticized Lewis, however, rightly noted several problems. First, the "culture of poverty" approach focuses too much attention on the behaviors of the poor, while ignoring the institutions and processes that create and maintain poverty. Second, it removes agency from the poor, painting a picture of people who can only react to social conditions, not create or alter them. Third, it focuses too much on finding broad, generalizable patterns across cultural contexts, thus obscuring the importance of subtle differences. In the last two decades the ideas expressed in these critiques have come to represent the foundations on which many modern ethnographies, including this one, are constructed.

Despite these criticisms, Lewis was a "compassionate ethnographer," as a recent reviewer called him, and his book clearly demonstrates a deep respect for those with whom he worked (Melhuus 1997). Because of his technique of juxtaposing narratives from various family members, male and female alike, his manuscript resonates with concerns about multiple voices, gender, class, and identity—issues that have become so important to recent social theory. While there are many differences between what I do here and what Lewis did forty years ago (including my focus on a single issue and concern with making the anthropological process transparent), I do borrow from him the idea that a single family can reveal much about the meanings of culture in individual lives.

While I may acknowledge an intellectual debt to Lewis, who wrote half a century ago, this book is also very much a product of its own intellectual times. Given anthropology's concerns in the past two decades with representation and authority (see Marcus and Cushman 1982; Clifford 1986, among many others), it is not surprising that I place myself much more obviously in this book than Lewis ever did in his. I enter the text not because I think the story is about me (or because I want it to be about me) but in order to highlight the ethnographic process. I do in fact tell the story—there is no way around that. I am the one who watched and listened to the Quitasacas for the last decade or so, who wrote down what I thought mattered, and who translated and edited their words. In the end the Quitasacas come to the reader through me and are reflected in the all too human relationships we formed. The second half of the title, "An Anthropological Story of Transnational Migration," is an acknowledgment of that inescapable anthropological reality (see Bruner 1986; McCarthy Brown 1991; Gelles and Martínez Escobar 1996, among many others).

The word "transnational" has become ubiquitous in the social sciences in the past decade or so, but it is often used without much explanation. One may rightly ask how transnational migration differs from international migration. I use "transnational" throughout this book because I think we need a term that goes beyond simply revealing that migrants are moving across international borders and that captures the dynamic nature of the transformations that occur because of it. Transnationalism, according to Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton, is "the processes by which immigrants build social fields that link together their country of origin and their country of settlement" (Glick Schiller et al. 1992:1). In other words, transnational migration implies that migrants do not just leave one social setting to go to another: the very process of crossing borders creates new social and cultural patterns, ideas, and behaviors. Transnational migrants not only grapple with making sense of a different place but can also transform both the place and themselves through their actions. The term "transnationalism" draws attention to the connections between people and places—connections that extend well beyond obvious national borders (Glick Schiller et al. 1992: 1). Therefore, even though the Quitasacas are physically separated by distance, their lives remain deeply intertwined.

In addition to situating the Quitasacas in historical and structural contexts, I am also concerned with describing the changes that have occurred since I began going to Ecuador. We now live in a world with rapid telecommunications; but when I first went "to the field" in 1988, I found it difficult even to make a phone call to the United States. Few people I knew had telephones; sometimes I would be permitted to make a collect call in the central calling facility in the city and then, inexplicably, sometimes I would not. Fax machines were just coming out (although I didn't know what they did); and email, the Internet, and cybercafés did not exist. Mail took at least three weeks to get to me—and that was when the postal workers were not on strike. But don't get me wrong. I am not complaining about the isolation that Ecuador's poor communication system created, because in the long run I think that it made for much better fieldwork. I went to Rosa's house when I was lonely, not to my email. The Quitasacas had their own phone by 1995; when Alexandra needs to communicate with me quickly now, she goes into a downtown cybercafé, pays about one dollar U.S., and sends me an email. Ecuador just doesn't feel as far away as it did before.

Finally, while this book covers a certain period and attempts to tell a coherent if not entirely complete "story," the real story, of course, never really ends. Indeed, as I was writing this book in the late fall of 2000 I received a call from Vicente asking me to call Ecuador, because Rosa was quite ill. His details, as always, were sketchy. When I called, I found out that she had indeed been seriously ill but was on the mend after emergency surgery on her kidneys. I also learned that—after twelve years of thinking about it—Lucho had finally emigrated to New York. He went independently of Vicente, with the help of a friend. I am sure that his absence has altered yet again the emotional, economic, and personal lives of the family. In an ironic twist, with Rosa so ill, the eldest daughter, Alexandra (who was once thought to be a hopeless outcast), is now the de facto head of the family. So, while the family members' interviews end here while Lucho is still contemplating the decision to emigrate—freezing a moment as that photograph did—in the real world the story continues.


Ann Miles is Professor of Anthropology and Women's Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

"This is a very personal story about one family divided by transnational migration. . . . The best aspects of the book are its very intimate, approachable style, the thoughtful and sensitive depictions of family members and of the relationships between them, and the careful attention to change over time, as the family weathers various problems and the relationships between them develop or deteriorate."

—Mary Weismantel, Northwestern University, author of Food, Gender, and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes