When Identity Meets Borders

What is home? How is your personal identity connected to where you call home, and how can it change?

Our discussion in class on Tuesday reminded me of “Phone Home”, a story I heard on NPR’s This American Life a few weeks ago (transcript is here: scroll down to “Act Two”). This story focuses on the experiences of young Mexican-Americans that have moved back to Mexico (some were deported, and others moved voluntarily), and now work in English-language call centers.

Most of the call center workers grew up in the United States, and have little connection to Mexican culture or traditions. Many of them long to return to the United States and their old lives. One woman, Maru, describes talking to customers: “One guy who called and he’s like, oh, yeah, we’re going ice skating. And then we’re going to dinner at Olive Garden or something. And I was like, oh, I used to do that with friends. So I would feel this churning.” She finds it very difficult to be reminded of activities she used to do and friends she used to have in the United States.

Another call center worker who was deported to Mexico powerfully describes his yearning to return home: “I don’t know. I’m taking a call, and I’m just thinking, ah, I’m going to go home. And I look out the window, and the Mexican flag’s right in front of me. Pwish. Reality just melts. And I can’t believe I’m in Mexico City. I even say, what the hell am I doing here? I can’t believe I’m in Mexico City.”

Identity isn’t as simple as your ethnicity or country of citizenship. These call center workers are Mexican citizens, but don’t identify with Mexican culture. And yet they don’t feel fully comfortable in the United States, either; as Maru points out, “And it’s also like this thing where it’s like there’s this country that didn’t want me. Why do I want to go back to somebody or to something that didn’t want me and accept me?” She inhabits an in-between space of being Mexican and being American., and must find a middle ground.

This situation reminds me of what happened in 1848 when Mexico ceded land to the United States after the Mexican-American War. 80,000 Mexican citizens were suddenly living in the United States, but felt no cultural affinity with their new country. Their identities were suddenly in question, and they had to find a way to live with their changed circumstances. Although the two events are not identical, they share the same themes of borders, identity, and belonging.

Both stories of Mexican-American call center workers and the Mexican cession of 1848 reminds us race, ethnicity, and country of origin alone do not determine your identity. We must listen to the diverse experiences of people who have lived between cultures and identities.

2 thoughts on “When Identity Meets Borders

  1. Emily, this is such a moving post! How awful and confusing it must be to feel as if one truly doesn’t “belong” anywhere. I wonder if we as museum professionals can make at least a small difference, by creating a welcoming space for everyone. As well as by welcoming conversations and dialogue about immigration and racism in order to encourage better understanding from all of our visitors. I know that it seems like a small step, but at least it would be a step in the right direction.

    1. I hope we can create a welcoming space for everyone in museums. But what are the most effective ways to do that? Representation is a big factor, including visitors, staff, and content. Accessibility is another issue, particularly among those who can’t afford to visit museums or speak a different language. And the other piece is relevance…we must make museums relevant to everyonein order for them to be welcoming.

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