Part I in ‘A Higher Allegiance: The Rise of a Transnational Identity in Boston’s Immigrant Communities,’ a BINJ series
On a recent cold Sunday evening in mid-November, Oscar Gutierrez landed at Logan Airport and immediately hopped on the Blue Line toward East Boston. In a rush and rocking his signature fedora, the veteran Colombian activist had just left New York City and was on the next leg of his tour of the Northeast to discuss agricultural justice, Colombian politics, and the effects of corporate globalization on his home country. His audience for most of these talks is made up of Colombian immigrants, some of whom are politically active, others just curious about the situation back home.
Gutierrez arrived at the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing office in Eastie a little late for his event, but was warmly welcomed by a circle of 15 people—all Colombians now living and working in Boston. Gutierrez had been invited by local members of the Polo Democrático Alternativo, the only Colombian opposition party. The PDA has a few representatives based in the Colombian consulate in Back Bay, and Gutierrez is a member of the party’s neighborhood outreach wing.
The PDA is a young political party—established in 2005—and while it had an early run of getting senators elected, a corrupt mayor and subsequent rift within the ranks left the PDA in recovery since 2011. However, the outcome of the Oct 25 municipal elections in Colombia gave leftists like Gutierrez reason to stay optimistic.
“The results this year were better for us than the last,” he said to the room. Not everything was ideal, though, as Gutierrez expressed deep frustration about the “dirty” campaign opponents ran against the PDA’s mayoral candidate in Bogota.
In practice, Gutierrez is more than a party man selling political promises. He’s a seasoned Colombian agricultural activist and the executive director of Dignidad Agropecuararia (Agricultural and Fishing Dignity), which defends small farmers and business owners against government and corporate greed. His background and connection with the group spurred lively discussion: There were inside jokes about certain regions, questions about the economy, political debate, and compliments on the pan de bono (Colombian cheese bread) provided for the event. One man, an economist, took issue with Gutierrez’s comments on globalization. Another asked how Colombians could truly trust any political party, including the PDA, which is still reeling from said scandal. Former party bigwig Samuel Moreno was mayor of Bogota from 2007 to 2011, leading a corrupt administration that Colombia Reports describes as a four-year “alleged embezzlement binge.” He was arrested in 2011, leaving the PDA fractured and without some prominent members.
In conversation, Gutierrez didn’t shy away from controversial topics, and acknowledged that the PDA still has a lot of growing to do. There were some skeptics in the room, but even all the way in Boston, it’s worth trying to court them. According to surveys done in the past decade, there are more than 7,000 Colombians living in Boston, with the group making up just under 5 percent of the Hub’s immigrant population. Furthermore, Colombia is one of eleven Latin American countries that allows citizens living abroad to vote at local consulates. Capitalizing on this fact, Colombian pols often visit some of the larger expat communities in US cities like New York and Boston.
“They usually only visit when it comes to the elections,” says Antuán Castro Del Rio, a reporter with East Boston Zoom. “And you usually get the candidates who are wealthy enough to travel.”
Turnout abroad for non-presidential Colombian elections is relatively low, hovering between 10 and 15 percent. But compared with the turnout for local Boston elections, which have recently attracted as few as 13 percent of voters, the number is still significant, and indicates that many Colombians do not entirely leave their country behind after emigrating. Rather, their home countries remain a big part of their lives, even as they become American in many ways, thus challenging the idea of total assimilation being the only option for immigrants.
TURNOUT AND BURNOUT
Before dropping his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal told crowds that “immigration without assimilation is invasion.” Similarly, Donald Trump scolded GOP rival Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail, saying it set a bad example for immigrants who should be assimilating. The idea that immigrants need to assimilate in order to prove their loyalty or just be good citizens are old refrains. Such xenophobic demands fail to acknowledge how arduous the process can be and ignore the various ways immigrants can retain ties to their homeland while living full lives in the US.
Transnational migrants—people who retain close and active ties to both their host country and country of origin—are sometimes seen as resisting assimilation, though a 2010 paper by sociologists at Texas Tech University notes the experience of transnationals involves an active and dynamic involvement with both their new home and their old home. Technology has only helped make this status more widespread and maintainable: “It is easier now than ever before to be filled in on all the political and social happenings in the home country. In the past, this information might have been difficult or time-consuming to obtain, but now the physical distance gap is closing, allowing immigrants to feel connected to their former society when they might not otherwise have had the ability to do so.”
There are many ways to participate in a transnational identity, from interpersonal connections back home to political or corporate activity. As Peggy Levitt, a sociology professor at Wellesley College, once wrote for the Migration Policy Institute, “These allegiances are not antithetical to one another.” Colombians and other Latinos commonly find themselves in such complex scenarios, or “between here and there” situations as Pew Hispanic called them in a 2007 study, which noted that 63 percent of Latino immigrants show “moderate attachment” to their home country.
“Many Colombians come to America not because they want to live here, but because they need to work,” Castro Del Rio says. “They still have friends and family and community back in Colombia. It makes sense they’d still be invested in their well-being.”
Colombia’s poverty rate is 32 percent as of 2012, and the country’s external debt reached record levels in 2014, hitting $100 billion. The agricultural system is also hurting: 52 percent of rural land is owned by 1.15 percent of landowners. Included in that 1.15 percent are international mining businesses, digging up land for minerals used in cellphones.
At the same time, the country imports 10 million tons of food per year. (Gutierrez called it the age of “¡Vivan las importaciones!” [“Long live imports!”].) Colombia’s political history is notoriously turbulent, with political assassinations haunting the country for the last 30 years. It’s a heavy, tragic legacy, and certainly each Colombian carries that weight with them after leaving the country.
“We feel Colombia is heading in a wrong direction,” says Luis Fernandez-Castro, who works for the PDA out of the Colombian consulate in Boston. Fernandez-Castro says over the phone that his home country is heading towards a situation similar to Greece’s, given the weak state of industries like agriculture and the massive amount of debt. Fernandez-Castro’s job in Boston is to educate as many locals as possible on these issues by getting them to participate in speeches, forums, and rallies.
Still, getting folks to the ballot box is difficult both inside and outside Colombia. Fernandez-Castro notes that many Colombians are disillusioned with politics and seem more concerned with providing for their families than with getting politically active. While turnout can be high for presidential elections, only about 13 percent of voters abroad participated in the country’s 2010’s congressional elections.
“Many of them must hold down two or three jobs,” Fernandez-Castro says of Colombian immigrants. “That leaves them no time for political education or activities like political organization.”
Political Colombians like Fernandez-Castro find such trends disappointing, since in many ways voters abroad have more access to information and can visit voting booths where no one tries to bribe or intimidate them. Voting in the Colombian elections is also easy: visit the consulate, present an ID, and register. The practical ease of voting does not necessarily improve participation, though—within Colombia’s borders, voter turnout usually reaches 50 percent. Granted, that’s still better than participation in the US for non-presidential elections: In 2011, average turnout for municipal elections was 21 percent, while the 2014 midterms only attracted 36 percent (the lowest turnout since the Second World War).
In the most recent election, voter turnout in Colombia was 59 percent. Castro Del Rio, the reporter in East Boston, says it was a bad election for the PDA, but Fernandez-Castro is optimistic.
“In Colombia, being a leftist is not easy,” says Fernandez-Castro. “But it was a good election since the Polo didn’t disappear.”
There are tools other than the ballot that can be used to influence global politics and change Colombia’s direction from abroad. As Castro Del Rio notes, “Many see that there’s more influence outside Colombia than inside … We can get more influence from a US senator than from an activist in Colombia.”
This fact “disgusts” Castro Del Rio, since it reflects what he calls “the subjugation of Latin American countries,” but at the same time, he’s “glad it works.” Colombia is actually the third-largest beneficiary of US foreign assistance, so pressuring American politicians makes strategic sense. For example, says Castro Del Rio, Colombian activists pushed to make the safety of oft-targeted Colombian union leaders a priority during the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement discussions.
The Colombian activists show that transnationalism is about more than having two homes, two cultures, two societies—it’s about having multiple fights and causes and negotiating various conflicts and contradictions.
Because of this, even after Colombia’s election season is over, advocates like Fernandez-Castro and Castro Del Rio aren’t done working. They’re both involved with local protests and want to create as much solidarity as possible between activists in the US and activists at home. Fernandez-Castro often encourages Colombian immigrants to join local minimum wage and labor actions, and Castro Del Rio helped organize undocumented immigrants to testify in favor of the Boston Trust Act that the City Council passed in 2014. That ordinance mandates that Boston police will no longer detain undocumented immigrants for possible deportation without a criminal warrant. (As of 2013, Migration Policy Institute estimates there about 5,000 undocumented Colombians in the Greater Boston Area.)
Fernandez-Castro adds that a big responsibility for local Colombian activists is showing what issues affect both Colombians and Americans. He says Colombia and the US suffer from the same dilemma: big corporations running politics and policy. Another similar issue is public education—in both countries, as funding and quality dips, private schools and universities are often perceived as the only viable options in some neighborhoods.
“That creates a gap between rich and those that can’t afford those opportunities,” Fernandez-Castro says. Due to drastic underfunding, Colombian students protested against privatization efforts and even went on strike in 2011. Meanwhile, in the US soaring tuition rates are leaving college students with record levels of debt as corporate-funded charter schools clash with public school advocates. Even in the Commonwealth, the UMass system—which educates more Bay State citizens than private universities—is clamoring for more public funding to stay competitive.
As the Wellesley sociologist Levitt found, such complex and interrelated political scenarios evolve as transnational individuals become more numerous and politically active. “The challenge,” she writes, “is to figure out how individuals who live between two cultures can best be protected and represented and what we should expect from them in return … To meet it, we need to acknowledge the interdependence between the United States and sending countries and begin to solve problems by looking outside the nation-state box.”
“There is not a struggle in the world where the participation of other countries and nations is not needed,” said Gutierrez after the small forum in Eastie concluded. “It’s a worldwide experience.”
‘A Higher Allegiance’ was funded with a $10,000 crowdfunding campaign by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism on Beacon Reader. Each donation was matched dollar-for-dollar from Beacon’s $3 million immigration reporting fund. For more information, go to binjonline.org.