Karen Richman: ‘We are a nation of immigrants’

Karen Richman, director of undergraduate studies for the Institute for Latino Studies, was one of the first scholars who saw both sides of immigration as it created transnational interdependent communities in the late 20th century.

Her long-view historical perspective sees the current U.S. immigration debate as another in a long series of resistance followed by acceptance as newcomers contribute to an evolving society and economy.

Richman, a cultural anthropologist who is fluent in Creole, wrote her undergraduate honors thesis on the religion and ritual music of Haiti. Her subsequent experience serving as a legal outreach worker to migrant farmworkers who had come to work on the Delmarva Peninsula of Virginia led to her decision to conduct doctoral research that involved living for 18 months in those immigrants’ original village near Léogâne, Haiti, where she learned the complex ties, shaped by religion, among those who remained and those who left.

Her 2005 book, “Migration and Vodou,” details the ingenious way the people sustained connections in the 1980s and early 1990s, before cellphones and social media, with cassette-recorded “letters” including coded religious songs, reflecting the inherited-spirit system that orders social relationships, which were created and heard in public settings.

Richman found that the villagers, while dependent on those who were sending remittances from their U.S. farm work, held complex suspicions about the relatives who had left to earn a living, partly because of the deep importance of family ties and roles opposed to individualism and independence. 

“These negotiations of the relationship play out in letters and songs,” she says. “The religion itself provides a framework for understanding and shaping how they talk about and symbolize these relationships. The religion itself is very much about family and relations.”

Richman, who maintains her Haitian ties and now studies immigrants in Chicago and their home in Guanajuato, Mexico, has found similar patterns in those relationships, with the advance of communication and transportation technology enabling more rapid and frequent contact within the transnational community.

“You see the same issues of the dynamic between the people who leave and the people who stay,” Richman says. “The migrants feeling very put-upon. They’re very collectivist. They believe in community and they believe their responsibility for their family members,” meaning a large group of extended family that provides vital support.

Despite stereotypes, the Mexican immigration shares many traits with historical waves of immigration from other countries. For one thing, the rush has subsided – in recent years, more Mexicans have returned to the country than come to the United States, while the number from Honduras, Guatemala and farther south has increased.

“They are very much like all the previous immigrant groups, and they’re succeeding just like all the previous immigrant groups,” Richman says. “They face a lot of discrimination, and they are succeeding nonetheless.”

The popular, incomplete immigration narrative — people cut ties and never look back so they can escape poverty and gain wealth in the United States, like Richman’s grandparents fleeing Belarus and Ukraine — results partly from the work of early scholars who were the children of refugees.

“We are a nation of immigrants, but we’re ambivalent about being a nation of immigrants,” Richman says. “We like global flows and importing all kinds of things. We want money to flow instantly, 
but somehow we don’t want the people to flow, too. It’s a very contradictory idea.”


This story was originally published in NDWorks.